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Back from the brink: Kat Matthews ready to race for the win on emotional Kona return

It's been a remarkable return already - but could it be about to get even better?

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No one has had a build-up to this year’s women’s IRONMAN World Championship like Kat Matthews – and there surely wouldn’t be a more popular winner.

Speaking to Bob Babbitt in a typically insightful interview, embedded below, she’s relishing her first race in Kona which comes 12 months later than planned and along with all the challenges that has brought.

For the Brit was in the final phase of her build-up to the race last year when she was involved in an horrific collision with a car which left her in hospital with multiple injuries to overcome.

But since then she’s made a remarkable recovery, with the latest high point her runner-up spot to Taylor Knibb at the 70.3 Worlds in Finland last weekend.

‘Overwhelming confidence-booster’

She made her return to racing at 70.3 Oceanside in April, when she exceeded many expectations with a third-place finish and admits: “Obviously there was just so much doubt that comes with that sort of recovery. It was a massive, overwhelming confidence-booster.”

Next up was a return to close to the scene of her accident as she won IRONMAN Texas, though she said her performance, bar a 2:49 marathon, “wasn’t actually that great” and “was a reset button that right now I really need to do some training.”

All the while there were – and still are – continued hurdles to overcome in training as she explained: “Cycling is always challenging for everybody. I’m a better cyclist because of this, I’m way more aware. But on a bad day, when something else is stressing me out, I’m overcome.

“Just a couple of weeks ago I was out doing reps when someone drove past a bit too quickly – I can’t handle it and get really upset because suddenly, what’s the point, in one moment someone could just wipe it all away again. That in turn I then process and am grateful for the opportunity to be able to cycle so it’s that constant resetting of emotion.”

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Impressed by Taylor Knibb

This month has seen her take seventh at a stacked PTO US Open, but again she felt there was more to come: “My performance at Milwaukee was not that great and I was really quite gutted by it. I think in hindsight I could perhaps have been a little bit under the weather – not as an excuse, just as an understanding of why I felt like I stepped up a lot in a couple of weeks for the Worlds. And sometimes you need to have those slightly off races to really dig deep for the next big race.”

She certainly dug deep in Lahti last weekend for the 70.3 Worlds, holding off Imogen Simmonds and Emma Pallant-Browne for second place, with only uber-runner Tamara Jewett bettering Kat’s 1:16:37 half marathon, a display which didn’t come as a surprise.

“I’m running in training better than I ever have,” explained Matthews, putting much of that down to her continued rehab work and her two biggest and most successful run volume months in succession. “So that performance in Lahti was as I expected in a way, which is mad. It’s just really exciting and I love running so much.”

The only person she couldn’t better that day was runaway winner Knibb and the two could yet meet again in Kona if the American youngster elects to take that path.

Of Knibb’s performance in Finland, Kat says: “Yeah, I saw Taylor twice in the race – at the start line and at the finish line. I don’t think I even saw her on the run. Every time she performs at the moment, it’s excellent, and that’s really hard.

“I think for her to come back and win that title again is incredible. I was impressed, not too intimidated. I still feel like it’s in reach. I just need to be better. So it’s inspiring.

I always like it when people aren’t afraid of the moment and they just attack and they just go.

“I think her attitude to the sport is the best thing about it. She’s so brave in the way she races, so young, but so mature with her career already, and so kind, so real, so honest. It’s great.

Taylor Knibb and Kat Matthews embrace on the finish line (Photo by Nigel Roddis, Getty Images for IRONMAN)
Taylor Knibb and Kat Matthews embrace on the finish line in Lahti [Photo credit: Nigel Roddis, Getty Images for IRONMAN]
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Exciting times

But Matthews’ own display took her back into the top 10 of the rankings and as she admitted: “A really great season already and we haven’t even had the fun bit yet!”

That ‘fun bit’ of course refers to Kona and while she feels in ideal shape for that, it comes with many additional challenges for her.

She flew to Hawaii last year to watch the race not long after being released from hospital and with a neck brace still on, a trip which she now feels was a hugely important stepping stone: “I honestly think that was one of the best things for my mental health – and therefore my physical recovery. It was the best decision.”

And ahead of this year’s return, she says: “I’ve got such mixed emotions. Naturally, I’m so excited. But even though it’s coming up quite quickly, I’m still really struggling to sort of process it, because last time I looked at the course and really got emotionally involved in it, the day later, all over, all done, bam.

“So I think that there’s this emotional processing that I need to go through over the next few weeks to just settle that right down. So I’m really ready to approach the course properly.”

She’ll head there two weeks before, doing most of her last build in Europe and adds: “I’m not going to lie, I am now confident enough despite everything to go into Kona to try and win the race – and who knows what happens on the day. There are so many factors that mean you just don’t know.

“And I think the mindset of working towards how I strategically can win that race will be really exciting for the next month.”

Jonathan Turner
Written by
Jonathan Turner
Jonathan Turner is News Director for both TRI247 and RUN247, and is accustomed to big-name interviews, breaking news stories and providing unrivalled coverage for endurance sports.  
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