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Swiss Mrs.
Fiona Martin is ready to test her skills against world’s best triathletes in Switzerland
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SEVEN YEARS AFTER COMPETING in her first triathlon, Fiona Martin will find herself going head-to-head with the best triathletes in the world when she heads to Lausanne, Switzerland for the ITU Sprint and Standard Triathlon World Championships in August. (Photo courtesy of fionagmartin.com)

Fiona Martin never set out to be a triathlete. After all, when children are asked what athletic activity they might like to pursue it usually involves one of the traditional stick and ball sports. Hardly any youngster answers that they would like to ride a bike, jump into a lake or pond for a swim and then, cap things off with a run on the road all in the same competition.

That makes Martin’s choice of a sport --- albeit, at a later stage in her life --- different on more than one level.

Martin, who attended Camden Elementary and Pine Tree Hill schools, played soccer when she was attended Thomas Sumter Academy. Following her graduating from TSA, she went to college at the University of Glasgow in her father’s homeland of Scotland where she gave up soccer and sports, in general. As Martin put it with a laugh, “I didn’t do anything in college … I put on weight in college, that was about it.” 

These days, those unwanted pounds have come off. Sitting around watching television, eating junk food, going through the daily grind of waking up, going to work, coming home at night and plopping oneself on the couch have been replaced by an alarm clock which has Martin up and out of bed and working out by 5 a.m. Switching to a vegan diet has transformed her body and has helped fuel her running, swimming and biking her way to being the top-ranked standard distance female triathlete in her age group in South Carolina.

Martin’s physique hardly transformed overnight. As she approached the age of 30, she decided to become more active. As a young girl in Camden, she saw her father go on runs. She took her cue from dad and went on leisurely runs. Little did she know what was in her future.

While living in Sharon, Mass., after graduating from college, her days of running along trails and roadways left her sustaining minor injuries which interrupted her physical activity. That made her life-altering decision even more remarkable.

“I found myself getting injured all the time and someone, where I was living at the time, said they were going to run a triathlon for charity. I thought it looked interesting and I might try it,” she said. “I trained for three months and did the triathlon … I was pretty horrible at it. I got the bug from that point on, though, and just wanted to keep getting better.”

That run was in August 2012. Turn the clock ahead by some seven years later and Martin finds herself representing Team USA and competing at the ITU Sprint and Standard Triathlon World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland on from Aug. 29 through Sept. 1.

Martin earned a spot on Team USA by finishing 21st in her age group at the 2018 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship in Cleveland. While the first 18 finishers were guaranteed to be on the team for Lausanne, when prior commitments prevented others from being able to make the trip, Martin jumped at the chance when offered by United States Triathlon officials.

In Switzerland, Martin will compete in the sprint distance division which includes a 500-meter swim in a lake, followed by a 12-to 15-mile mile bike ride and finishing off with a 5k run, which is approximately half the Olympic competition distances.

Martin has come a long way since October 2012 when while competing in the Hickory Knoll Triathlon in McCormick, S.C., --- run two week before she turned 30 --- she resorted to walking parts of the road race in order to finish the event. Those days are long behind her.

With a father who enjoyed running, a brother who was a cyclist and now lives in Switzerland, Fiona Martin had several men in her family who could provide her with advice in those portions of events. As for swimming, well, she knew how to swim and worked that part out for herself.

As one would suspect, mixing the three together activities together into one neatly rolled ball demands dedication along with persistence and whole lot of sweat-filled hours of training.

“The training is tough because you are training for three sports,” said Martin who lives in Columbia with her husband Lance and is the owner and director at FGM Internet Marketing, LLC., a digital marketing and consulting firm in Lugoff. “The good thing is that you find, especially in swimming and cycling which I started when I was 29, is that you consistently see a lot of improvement which is encouraging because you are going from doing nothing to doing something. 

“To be honest, there has never been a point where I didn’t want to train. Maybe five hours into a half-Iron Man I’d be thinking twice about it, but once you cross the finish line and the support you get from the community is just fantastic. You get more cheers for the last person finishing than you do for the first because everyone knows how hard it is.”

In her most recent event, Martin was third in the elite female division and fifth overall female finisher at the Lake Murray Triathlon (sprint) competition on May 25. It was her fourth event this calendar year for an athlete who has averaged running in 10 or so triathlons each year since diving head first into the sport in 2014. She has also run in the Olympic distance and ran a handful of half-Iron Man races per year in the past. Along with guidance from her coaches, she has her sights set on competing in the Iron Man event --- which is made up of a 2.4-mile swim, a 114-mile bike ride and a marathon race --- as early as next year.

Having coaches monitoring her daily training schedule and mapping out a plan as to which events to compete in, has helped take Martin’s game to the next level.

 “Last year, I got a coach who writes down all my workouts for me. Before that, I would do my own training,” she said of her regimen. “You rarely do all three in one day; you save that for race day. One thing you practice is going from the bike to the run; if you are doing a long bike ride, go to a mile run. It doesn’t have to be a half-marathon.

“My coaches take care of me. They’ll advise me and we’ll listen to my body and if they are worried about something, they will change things.”

Martin laughed when she recalled the time she hired a coach and what his first impression was as to the training routine which Martin devised for herself looked liked. 

“Getting a coach is a lot better,” she said with a smile. “When he looked at my schedule he said that he was surprised I ever finished a race. I’ll take that as compliment, I guess.”

With a staff who are not high-volume coaches, Martin’s runs are charted not so much by distance as by time spent training. For instance, her longest bike ride will usually last five hours and her longest training run will be in the neighborhood of two hours. That can translate into being a 70-mile bike ride and a 12-mile run. As for the swimming portion, she tends to train in places such as Kendall Lake in Camden which has no boat traffic as compared to Lake Wateree. There are also early morning trips to the YMCA in Columbia to swim in that pool when conditions and time warrant. She also does light weight training, two to three times a week for an average of 20 minutes to a half-hour per session.

“Because I never competed in any of them, I don’t have a best event,” said the classically trained pianist who moved into elite company in triathlon in 2017. “I love it. It’s lower-impact than just straight-up running. It’s less chances of crashing than bike racing. I don’t know what happens with swimming.

“I always say I’ll never win a straight-out swimming race, I’ll never win a cycling race and I’ll never win a running race. I do well enough in all three of them that I can do well in a triathlon; the strongest would be the bike, probably.”

The biggest cost associated with triathlons is the bicycle. When she first got serious about the sport, Martin invested in an aluminum frame bike which did not have toe clips. After two years on that bike, she bought one made of carbon. She then purchased biking shoes with cleats to prevent slipping out of the toe clips. In 2016, she purchased a proper carbon triathlon bike in which the rider is put further forward and the competitors’ arms are bent toward the front wheel in order to cut down on wind resistance.

While her equipment is top of the line, Martin also changed her diet to help her stamina for training and events, not to mention a better quality of nutritional life. Gone are processed foods while Martin’s meat intake itself is null and void. She has turned her eating habits upside down.

“Diet is huge,” she said of the role nutrition plays in her success. “When first started , I didn’t pay attention to my diet. I had what I considered a fairly decent diet. I didn’t eat a lot of fast food, but it certainly wasn’t clean. Since I’ve been doing triathlon, it has definitely changed. 

“I am reading a lot more about sports nutrition as it relates to triathlons. In the summer of 2017, I decided to go vegan. My coach is also a dietician and she is a vegetarian herself, which is one of the reasons I chose her. She understands the eating involved; no meat or dairy. You recover a lot faster. Your diet fuels you and you gain the strength in your recovery period.”

Her husband has also changed his eating habits and no longer eats meat and has become a pescetarian, choosing to pursue a fish-based diet. “I had to learn how to cook all over again. The way I cook now is a million times better than how I used to do it,” Martin said. “My cooking skills have improved greatly.”

Calling her moving to the top spot in her age group in South Carolina “surreal” but being one of her goals, Fiona Martin has found her niche in a fairly recent sport --- which started in 1978 --- in which competitors range in age from pre-teen to men and women in their 80s. 

“Most people who run triathlons stay with it. It’s a struggle out there, but the feeling of accomplishment that you get from it afterwards is so high,” she said. “It’s a tight-knit community and it’s a welcoming community, as well. Every triathlete I know wants to help bring another person into the sport.”

It takes a special person to run a triathlon and an even more dedicated one to continue to train anywhere from 10 to 15 hours a week in conditions which, in the Palmetto State, can be brutally hot and humid in the spring, summer and fall months and unpredictable in the relatively short winters. So far, training in her home state has not been a problem for Martin, who said she will continue to work out and compete in events for as long as she can, providing it stays enjoyable.

 “I’m going to keep going with the sport and, if it ever becomes a chore, then I’ll stop,” she said. “My plan is to be kind to my body and take care of my body. My coaches have the same mentality; they are not just pushing for PRs (personal records) all the time. They’re pushing me for longevity in the sport and pushing for me to have a good foundation and accomplish what you want.

“I’ll continue doing it as long as I’m healthy and still enjoying it. If that ever become a drag, then I need to re-assess and take some time off. 

“You see people of all ages in triathlon. I always liked athletics and now, as an adult, it’s giving me the chance to pursue it.”