Angela Naeth has 19 70.3 Ironman victories over her 14-year professional triathlon career, but 2022 brings an exciting twist for the 40-year-old British Columbia native. After entering her first gravel race last year, Angela will compete in the full Life Time Grand Prix, a six-race series that combines prestigious gravel and MTB events across the US. Though she’s new to the off-road scene she’s excited for the new challenges and opportunities beyond her comfort zone of the swim, bike, run routine…
How did you get your start in triathlon and sport in general?
I was a track athlete and got injured a lot, so I started riding a bike two years into college and just loved it. I always saw triathlon as something I could do, but I was really involved in my education more so. When I finished my master’s degree and came back to Canada, I said ‘I’m going to do a triathlon.’ So, I found a triathlon the next year that was a pool swim, just totally local. I ended up winning the event and absolutely fell in love with it. That catapulted me into triathlon and learning as much as I could. I went to a training camp that I just found online. Met a coach that said, ‘you have the potential to go pro,’ and he took me under his wing. I got my pro card that year, so I had a biiiig learning curve. I jumped into pro racing shortly thereafter and progressed from there.
What’s your favorite aspect of triathlon?
It’s fun because there are three sports, and there’s always variety. But the reason I race is because it’s a connection for me, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. It’s the one thing I’ve found in life that combines all those. When I’m in the zone–just when I’m not thinking and I’m in the moment and giving it all I can–those are some of the best feelings in the world. It’s really a raw, genuine feeling that I strive for no matter if I’m last or first or in the middle.
And I love the process and the journey of building the body to a set race or a peak performance and seeing the progress each year. Now as I get older, it’s seeing what I have to do to recover more and change little things. When you swim, bike, run, it’s a way of life. It takes a lot of time, and you have to have the ability and desire to swim a few times a week, bike a few times a week, and run a few times a week and really enjoy that process. I love triathlon. I think I’ll do it until the day I die.
Prior to your pro race career, you studied and worked as a physical therapist?
Yes, I have a bachelor’s in health science and a master’s in physical therapy. I went to school in Columbia, Missouri, and then went back home to Canada. I lived way up north in British Columbia and worked a few years as a pediatric physio and an ortho physio and then ventured into triathlon. I moved to California and said, ‘I’m just gonna give it a shot.’ I had less than two grand in my bank account and was going to make it or not.
And I did not make it. I had to move home when I was 27 and work full time again as a PT and really try to bank some money and try again. That was some big fire for me because I didn’t want to be a failure, and I wanted to see what I could do in the sport. I begged my parents to just give me one more shot, and if I don’t make it this time around, I’ll come home and do the white picket fence, physical therapy route. In the end, it all worked out.
But I don’t think they realized, and to this day don’t understand, what I went through. I lived in tents before, I lived in trailers on people’s land. I did a lot of friends-of-friends housing. I didn’t have a home for a number of years. I followed my coach, who turned into my boyfriend for a few years, and we just kinda lived very very meagerly. My parents would probably just shake their heads at me right now [laughs] if they really knew all the stories.
Do you think your background as a PT puts you more in tune with your body and allows you to perform at a higher level?
Oh yeah definitely. So, any kind of little aches and pains I can pretty much diagnose myself or know when to back off. I feel like over the years, as an athlete, you do get in tune with your body but having that education behind me helps me that much more in knowing what I’m dealing with. I do a lot of my own PT, dry needling, self-massage. And I wouldn’t be able to do that without the education. There is one detriment to it though and it’s that you’re constantly diagnosing yourself sometimes, and that can be seen as a negative. I think sometimes it has been, but it’s definitely also saved my career for sure.
What prompted you to start racing gravel last year? Did you ever have any off-road racing experience before that?
No, I’d had no off-road experience. So COVID hit, and I started riding my gravel bike and fell in love with it. I remember taking my gravel bike the first day and posting a photo on social media, ‘I feel like a kid again.’ It was the best feeling in the world to take a road bike and take it literally anywhere in any terrain. I was so used to just being on the roads and riding a TT bike. So, I was riding that bike a lot during COVID because there was no racing really going on.
My bike sponsor, Quintana Roo had an opportunity for me to race Unbound Gravel and I jumped at the chance. Without any real experience I jumped in that race and fell in love with it. The start line was extremely scary because it’s a mass start, and you don’t get that in triathlon [laughs]. It’s a huge change, and I was so freaked out. I let a bunch of people go and still do to this day because I just need the experience. But I wound up placing pretty well in that race and just fell in love with it and now I just want to do both sports. This year I have the opportunity to do the Life Time Grand Prix events and do Ironman at the same time. So, I’m really managing that process and learning as much as I can. I mean, I do definitely foresee myself doing more and more gravel than triathlon, but I’ll always be a triathlete. Because it is such a fun way to be on a bike. It’s just fantastic.
Has it made you enjoy the bike training for triathlon a lot more?
Yeah, because you can really mix it up. I have a mountain bike, a gravel bike, a road bike, a TT bike, and having the ability to just mix it up, it changes the way I get to train. On recovery rides, I get to go out on the mountain bike and just work on skills. Sometimes, long rides are on the gravel bike. I just did a gravel race, the Mid South, and it was 100 miles. That’s a solid day on a bike that translates over to the long days you have on a bike for triathlon. I put on a set of aero bars on my gravel bike, and that’s a lot of fun for me because it’s very similar to a TT bike that you can take off-road, which is even more fun for me.
It's such a different kind of effort too compared to a huge 100-mile TT in an Ironman…
When you’re on a TT, you have to run after too. With these bike rides, it’s been a big learning curve for me because you can do these intense efforts for say five to ten minutes to stay with the group and then you can settle in. In triathlon, you want a real solid, steady effort so you’ll be able to run off the bike. I’ve put myself in the hurt locker more often than not on a gravel bike, and it is hard.
Have you done any triathlons since your season of gravel last year and have you noticed any difference?
It’s funny because if I do a lot of gravel riding it beats my body up, so I have to be careful managing how much I do on gravel and off road so I can run. All those minute little movements all add up. I’ve noticed that sometimes my training gets muddled a little, so I have to be cautious as I get closer to a certain race to stay on that specific TT bike.
But in terms of the mental side of things, doing Unbound for 206 miles, it was a 13-hour event, it just makes a 5-hour bike ride nothing. The process of transferring the mental side of it has been a huge benefit for sure.
Are you the kind of person who likes a routine? Or are you somebody who thrives and gets energy from new things like gravel racing?
I like routine, but I also like the idea of mixing it up. I have the general routine of a week of training, but I change it up with different rides by how I feel on that day or the weather. In terms of the races and the challenges of each day, I like the variety. It piques my interest because you can get bogged down on the day-to-day grind of watching your wattage or increasing heart rate, whereas at these races you can get anything and everything from terrain to all out efforts to pack riding to climbing, descending.
The one thing I like about mountain biking and gravel riding in general is that your mind can’t really wander. Whereas when you’re on a road bike or TT bike, your mind can go places. When you’re on a mountain bike or you're in a gravel race and you’re in this group dynamic, you have to be on. You have to be on the entire race or you’re gonna crash. That’s just a whole new challenge. I love it.
What are you looking forward to most about the Life Time Grand Prix?
I think the variety of races. I’m really looking forward to going back to Unbound and doing that again. Just getting on a mountain bike and doing this big event. The Leadville 100 mountain bike race has been on my bucket list forever, and so having a chance to do that now within the Grand Prix is absolutely fantastic to me. They’ve really mixed up the types of races that are part of the Life Time Grand Prix, so doing that alongside triathlon and being able to balance both is what excites me most. Being able to do it all!