For our first interview with a pro-triathlete, we wanted to talk to someone who is relatively new to the game but coming super strong out of the gates. Mariella Sawyer (@mariella_sawyer) is a 28 year-old pro-triathlete who has been racing in triathlons for only four years but is quickly making big headway, winning her age group at the January Ironman 70.3 East London- and finishing third in the women’s overall, coming 2nd female at her pro debut at Ironman 70.3 Japan in June, and qualifying for the half-Ironman World Championship in September. Her energy, commitment, enthusiasm and drive are palpable and will no doubt lead Mariella to achieve many more top rankings. We spoke with this very talented athlete to find out what drives her, fuels her and how she’s training for this September’s gruelling half-Ironman World Championship
Tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up, what your family life was like and where you lived.
I was born in Cape Town and when I was 1 we moved to Austria for 5 years where both my siblings were born. We speak German at home and I also went to the German school throughout my whole schooling career. We then came back to Cape Town and have been here ever since. I loved horse riding, surfing and only got into some running towards the end of high school but I was always very competitive!
How did your triathlon journey begin? At what age did you do your first triathlon and what/where was it?
I did my first triathlon when I was 23 in 2014. It was a local sprint tri in Port Elizabeth where I was on holiday at the time. I entered my first half Ironman because I wanted to do something crazy – I didn’t even own a bike when I entered.
Do you consider yourself to be physically predisposed to be an endurance athlete?
Endurance sport only came into my life towards the end of high school. Before that I did horseriding and loved my surfing. I did well at my school’s annual sports day in the 800m and being tall and skinny seemed like an advantage but I’m definitely not one of those talented athletes that can run a sub90 21.1k from stand still. I think what sets me apart is that I am very determined and willing to work hard consistently and that pays off!
Once you decided that you wanted to become a half Ironman, how long did it take you to actualize it, and what was your first step?
I entered the race about 7 months before race day and from there I started swimming (my first swim was 1.2km at gym!), going to spinning classes and carried on running as I was doing before. So the first step was the race entry and gym membership!
Congratulations on winning your age group at the recent Ironman 70.3 East London and finishing third in the women’s overall. Can you fill us in on what was the toughest part, what part of the racing was strongest and what was your strategy to manage pain during difficult parts of the race?
Thanks so much! The toughest part was probably the run because I could feel my legs had worked hard on the bike and started to seize up a little… The bike was probably the best for me- even though the run usually is. But my time was a massive improvement and coming off the bike ad first female age grouper was a great feeling! When it comes to managing pain, I genereally try to talk myself out of it and not fight it. Rather trying to relax into it and accepting it is part of the race. I also mentally prepare myself to hurt during races, which makes it easier because it just is an inevitable part of racing and pushing boundaries.
What sets you apart from other triathletes?
I’m very determined and willing to do what it takes and put in the hard work day in and day out, without cutting corners. It’s the little things that count!
I really enjoy hard interval sessions. It’s so rewarding to look at a session, not knowing if you’ll hit the numbers and paces but then coming out on the other end, having exceeded your expectations! So that’s anything from 2min intervals to 20min race pace stuff etc. It varies from week to week but at the moment it’s something like this:
Monday: +-4k swim, strength, (1hour recovery bike)
Tuesday: 2h30 endurance ride, 2-3k swim, 1hour easy run
Wednesday: +-4k swim, 1h30 easy ride, 1h run with strides
Thursday: 2h bike with intervals, 1h interval run
Friday: +-4k swim, 30min easy run
Saturday: longer ride with intervals (3.5-4h) and 30min run off the bike, 2k recovery swim
Sunday: 1h45 long run, +-4k swim, sometimes another easy recovery ride
What was the greatest challenge faced training for the Ironman?
The long sessions are hard to get done especially when you are tired and just want to stay in bed.
What dietary changes did you have to make to perform at this higher level?
I definitely eat a lot more. Meeting caloric requirements is hard with the amount of calories we burn so just making sure I meet those is a big adjustment I made. And also focusing on eating high quality foods.
Was there one moment in your triathlete career you consider to be a defining moment?
Ironman 70.3 world champs 2018 was definitely a moment where I realized that I can do this and that I can compete with the best in the world and that I want to carry on pushing my limits to see what is possible!
How did you juggle your work, your social life and your training when you prepared for the Ironman?
I’m very privileged to be able to work from home and dictate my own hours which makes juggling training and work a lot easier. I also only work part time, which leaves me with substantially more time available to dedicate towards my training and racing.I have a small circle of friends, whom I see regularly as well as my family. I believe in having real and fewer relationships rather than many and shallow.
What have been your biggest achievements so far?
Coming 2nd pro female at my pro debut at Ironman 70.3 Japan.
What are your fitness goals for the rest of the year?
I’ve got Ironman 70.3 world champs coming up on 7 September where I would like to have a great race. I’m also racing 2 more local races before end of 2019, where I want to go for the podium.
What advise(s) would you have for someone wanting to follow in your footsteps
Stay consistent, work hard and never doubt yourself! You are on your own path and things will fall into place in their time!
What are some of your daily inspirations, challenges and rewards?
Setting race goals motivates me as well as the fact that I love the training and pushing my body. I’m inspired by everything around me but the source of my drive is god for sure. Challenges are getting up early to go swim when you’re exhausted and the body is tired or rather wanting to go lie on the couch and watch tv than go and hit out an interval set. But funnily enough once you get going it always feels great and you never regret it!
What is your self-care philosophy?
I’m a big advocate for listening to the body and setting boundaries. Whether it means cancelling an appointment when it is needed, taking me time or taking a nap. I also make sure I get a weekly massage for body maintenance. Mental self care is also so important- listening to podcasts, reading my bible, spending time with loved ones etc and feeding my soul with the things that nourish it.
Take us through an average day in the life, the first thing you do in the morning through to the last thing you do at night.
Wake up, eat breakfast, listen to a short podcast or do devotion (either now or after training), training, second breakfast, admin and seeing clients, second training session if I have three to do, lunch, chill (nap or watch some tv) and end off the day with my last training session of the day. My evenings I spend with my husband and Furr child Mowgli if we’re at home.
What does your perfect day look like?
Training, good food, nap, family time and mowgli cuddles (my cat).
What is your day on a plate?
Breakfast: oats with banana and milk Breakfast 2: cooked peanut butter oats with walnuts Lunch: Chicken wrap with lots of veg Snack: home made granola with fruit and full cream yoghurt Dinner: Anything from spaghetti bolognaise with salad to stuffed chicken breasts with sweet potato fries.Variety is key and I often have some chocolate or whatever my body is craving. I really believe that we should be mindful when we eat and learn to listen to our bodies.
Tv, chocolate mousse cupcakes.
Something you can’t live without?
What are your utterly obsessed with?
I have a weirdly massive love for cats.
What is something people don’t know about you?
I’m fluent in German and speak German to my family at home – and I’m terrified of snails!
Sweet or Savoury? Savoury
Hot or cold? Hot
Lips or Eyes? Eyes
Smoothie or Juice? Smoothie
Yoga or Pilates? Yoga
Coffee or Tea? Tea
Favorite movie ever? Lion King – or the classic disney movies
Favorite restaurant in your hometown? Massimos
Describe yourself as a person in 3 words Introverted, determined, sensitive
What’s on your cell phone playlist at the moment (3-5 favourites)?
Sun in your eyes- MO Diplo
Never our fault- Lucas Estrada
Till you drop- Italobrothers
One book you read that positively shaped you? Switch on your Brain-Caroline Leaf
Favorite Tv show? Modern Family
One superpower you would like to have? Breathe underwater
Best gift you have ever received? Salvation