Thursday, October 7, 2010

Nice girls finish first

It’s easy to forget that Kelly Fillnow is the best female triathlete in Charlotte.

If you’ve run with her, you forget because you’re usually too busy answering a question she’s asked you about your job or your family or your own personal running goals to remember the fact that she’s done a half Ironman in 4:25:39 and a full 140.6 in 10:16:12. (To put this in perspective for non-triathletes, these times are somewhat akin to coming in under your Boston qualifying mark –- by half an hour.) She genuinely seems more interested in YOU, refreshing considering so many elite athletes often seem so wrapped up in their own accomplishments.

And if she’s not showing interest in what you’re up to, the 27-year-old is smiling sheepishly about the fact that she is no good at changing a flat tire (true, best I can tell) or about how weak a swimmer she is (not true at all, at least from my perspective).

But Kelly Fillnow is indeed our city’s best, and she is on the brink of becoming even better: On Sunday, she’ll compete as an amateur at the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. And if everything falls into place, the next time she goes to Kona, she’ll go as a pro.

Kelly, a Pittsburgh native, arrived in North Carolina in 2001 when she took a scholarship to play tennis at Davidson College. She discovered she could run “after seeing the sport as torture during my high school years,” and wound up running for the Wildcats as a junior and senior while continuing to play tennis. She took a fifth year of eligibility at Duke University and ran both cross-country and track on scholarship for 2005-06.

Today, the 1:19 half-marathoner and 2:57 marathoner works as a nutritionist, trainer and life coach for Upgrade Lifestyle in Huntersville. Tomorrow ... who knows?

(Note: Kelly is featured on the cover of the current issue of Endurance Magazine, as you can see above. Photo by Kim Hummel.)

Q. What's your goal for Hawaii?

My main goal is to soak up the experience, as I never know if I will have this opportunity once again. My second goal is to race to the best of my ability. I know that there will be many black holes that I will have to overcome, but I am hoping to stay mentally strong throughout the very long day and cross the finish line knowing that I gave it everything that I have. I think those two goals are more important than any specific tangible goal. I don't think I will remember years from now what place I came in at the Hawaii Ironman, but I will remember the feeling of laying it all on the line when moments got tough. That will be the experience that I can share with my clients and my kids some day. (Follow Kelly's blog here.)

Q. You recently became eligible for pro status, right?

Yes. At my first 70.3 in Florida last year, I missed qualifying by about 30 seconds, and then qualifed this year at Lake Stevens (second amateur) and Augusta (first amateur, fifth overall).

Q. As a triathlete, what does "going pro" mean exactly?

It’s simply a classification that enables qualified athletes to race for prize money.

Q. So what’s the next step?

Once an athlete "qualifies" for the pro card, he or she has to apply for the card with the USAT. It is definitely a big decision to make.

Q. What goes into that decision?

The advantages of going pro include sponsorship opportunities, better starting times, better transition locations, the ability to sign up for a closed race a few days in advance, being able to race against the best of the sport, and of course prize money. ... The main disadvantage is getting your butt kicked. A way to qualify for professional status is by finishing third amateur in designated races with a certain prize purse. ... I initially thought that I would not apply for the card just so I could gain another year of experience as an age-grouper. I talked to a few of my friends who are professionals, and they also recommended waiting another year. However, after finishing in the Top 5 amongst the pros at my last half, I feel a bit more confident about taking the big leap to the professional world.

Q. Do you dream of making a living as a triathlete?

I already have a dream job (at Upgrade Lifestyle). There is nothing more satisfying then helping others achieve something they never thought was possible. I work with some clients to improve their nutrition, others training for triathlons, others trying to start an exercise program. Besides being so fulfilling, my job also offers me a lot of flexibility that enables me to get my training in daily. It still can be very challenging trying to balance my clients, my training, my social life, and proper sleep at times. I try to take life just a day at a time and to feel content in my present circumstances. I don't want to look too far into the future, or look back on my life with any regrets. I think that it is just important to enjoy the present moment and know that each day is such a gift.
Q. What prompted you to take up triathlons?

After running for Duke, I started working for Davidson College in sports marketing and did nothing competitive for a while. Then two of my friends asked me to try a tri in (2006). We all borrowed bikes, and got in my apartment pool a couple of times before the big day. I ended up having an absolute blast and got third female overall.

Q. Which is your favorite leg?

My favorite leg is the run because at that point everything is in your control. I feel a sigh of relief once I get off the bike because there are so many circumstances that are beyond my control during that portion, like mechanical difficulties.

Q. And you still struggle the most with the swim?

Yes, my weakest leg is the swim. The bike was easier to just pick up, but the swim is so technically based, that it will take patience to see extensive progress. I just started swimming and biking a couple of years ago, so I have a lot of room to improve in both disciplines. Malcolm Gladwell in (the book) "Outliers" describes how researchers have found that it takes over 10,000 hours to gain expertise in a certain field, so I still have hours upon hours of training to go before I get to that point.

Q. Do you think at some point you'll switch your focus back to running exclusively?

I had initially planned on switching back to a run focus during 2011, but recently decided to change directions and focus on 70.3s and Ironman races for 2011. I have found that you have to pick a focus; it is nearly impossible to simultaneously try to be the best that you can be in both sports. Because of the time that the sport of triathlon demands, when I have a family I will just be a tennis player who occassionally goes on pedestrian style trots.

Q. Your sister Meghan is also an extremely gifted athlete. How competitive are the two of you with each other?

We used to be extremely competitive when we were on the same soccer, basketball, gymnastics and softball teams growing up. I would not be the athlete I am today if it was not for Meghan. She has pushed me ever since I was a young girl, and we instilled in each other the value of hard work. If she had the same amount of time to train as I did, she would be competing at a higher level than where I am. Her schedule is not conducive to training. I am so proud of her; she just did her second half Ironman in 4:46 on limited training and finished fourth in our age group.

Q. You're one of the most humble "elite" athletes I've had the pleasure of getting to know in Charlotte. Have you always been so modest?

In high school and college I was definitely too modest in that I would intentionally put myself down in front of people. Since then, I have learned the proper balance of modesty, humility and quiet confidence. I think it is very important to choose humility in the face of success. What keeps me humble is realizing that the talents I have are all gifts from God. He is the one doing all the work, and I am nothing without Him.

Q. I know that Christianity also plays an important role in your life. Can you talk about how your faith guides you, both in life and on the race course?

My faith enables me to keep life in perspective and be content with where God has me in the present moment. God has given me a gift, and my number one goal is to praise Him. Christianity helps me to understand that I am not competing for other people, or to impress others, but I am competing to glorify God. Having this attitude gives me such a sense of peace when I am competing. I know that everything will work out the way He intends, so I can train and compete at a state of freedom and honor Him on both good and bad days.

Q. It seems like you’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have lots of good days. Can you talk about a time when the going has been tough for you?

One of the biggest adversities that I have dealt with was the frightening experience of learning that my dad has chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Watching him positively deal with his leukemia has really strengthened me as an individual. Oftentimes when I am competing and experiencing pain, I think about him and how he has dealt so positively with his setback, and the pain becomes infinitesimal. Pain is a temporary state and your mind can have so much power over the way your body feels. My dad is living proof of one of my favorite quotes, "What your mind can believe, your body can achieve."

Joining Kelly in Kona on Sunday are four other Charlotte-area athletes: Jenny Leiser (who works in the crime lab at CMPD) and Matthews resident Tanya Houghton, both of whom qualified in their first Ironman last year; attorney Mike Selle, who qualified for his second Kona six weeks ago in Louisville; and Ken Partel, 61, who is returning to Kona for the second straight year.


willrun4food said...

Forwarding this to everyone I know. Loved this post so much - thanks for sharing it Theoden! And thanks for being so wonderful Kelly!