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‘Unbelievable’ – Kat Matthews on incredible journey from hospital bed to Kona contender

It could be one of the great sporting comebacks

News Director
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Kat Matthews is fully focused on winning next week’s IRONMAN World Championship – but even putting herself in a position to do just that is a remarkable achievement in itself.

Two weeks out from Kona last year, during her last training block in Texas, a person in a car drove into her while she was cycling, which left her in hospital with fractures to her skull, two vertebrae, and sternum.

Matthews, runner-up in the rescheduled 2021 IMWC in St George five months previously, would have been one of the main contenders. But instead, she somehow travelled out to Hawaii in a neck brace – in what she would later describe as an important step in the recovery process – and watched from the sidelines as Chelsea Sodaro made the headlines with an emphatic victory.

But fast forward to the present and Kat is right back in the mix after a superb set of results, all the more impressive given the challenges she faced just to get back to swimming, biking and running.

She has documented those significant steps over the last year, from swimming in the slow lane in the pool using a snorkel through to an emotional return at 70.3 Oceanside in April where she crossed the line in third, just a place behind Sodaro.

Following that she returned to the Lone Star State to win IRONMAN Texas and last time out she was a fine second to Taylor Knibb at the 70.3 Worlds in Finland.

‘Too many unknowns’

So when we caught up with her to get her thoughts on what will be her overdue Kona debut, the first question was whether this season’s results had exceeded even her own expectations.

She told TRI247: “This year, yes. Normally my performances don’t surprise me or exceed my true expectations but this year there were too many unknowns to even set a firm expectation for most races.

“I knew before Lahti [the 70.3 Worlds] that my training had gone well and a competitive result was possible, but as we all know the difference between winning and a top five is small – but significant at the same time.”

Kat Matthews runs down the red carpet to second place (Photo by Nigel Roddis, Getty Images for IRONMAN)
Kat Matthews takes second in Lahti [Photo credit: Nigel Roddis, Getty Images for IRONMAN]

Her run in Finland, when she out-speeded fellow Brit Emma Pallant-Browne among others, surprised some but probably shouldn’t have done.

Pallant-Browne is regarded as one of the sport’s fastest runners but Kat is actually ranked a spot ahead of her in the PTO standings for triathlon’s third discipline. And Matthews’ time of 1:16:37 was more than a minute quicker than anyone else in the field, bar Canada’s Tamara Jewett.

So when I suggested it can’t have come as a shock to her, Kat agreed: “You are right, it was what I expected.

My run was the part I had the most confidence in in Lahti.

“For some further insight, I was also totally in control for the first lap and therefore able to maintain my speed for the second one where others dropped off.”

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‘A nearly flawless three weeks’

So on to Kona and full of confidence after both her performance in Finland and also a super-smooth training camp since then, as she explains: “Lanzarote in September was the best option for me for Kona prep. I just seem to settle in there so well.

“It was a nearly flawless three weeks. Every session exceeded expectations and all were done with genuine enthusiasm and often fun elements. It sounds so ridiculous to say, but it is so rare this happens and I am just thoroughly enjoying it and embracing it after the challenges this year.

“I am doing PB sets in swimming, hitting higher power in intervals and my running has been uncompromised since June, with my biggest ever – and consecutive as well – months over the summer.

“So… yep, all looking pretty good form-wise! I will heavily caveat this with form and fitness is not always what wins races, there is so much more to it!”

Kat Matthews ticker tape IRONMAN Texas 2023 [Photo credit: Kyle Rivas / Getty Images for IRONMAN]
[Photo credit: Kyle Rivas / Getty Images for IRONMAN]
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Making headway in the swim

In terms of how the race could play out in Kona, Matthews is well aware of what she’s up against, despite it being her first IMWC there.

She said: “Challenges heading into Kona I think are the obvious ones, the climate and of course the competitors. Neither that I have control over but I can be best prepared to deal with them.

“Heat preparation is individual and I have done my best there, so much of performance in the heat is also self-controlled by intensity management during the race so I have faith in myself to have this discipline.

It will actually be more of a challenge for me to push myself to my limit because I am so aware of the negative health issues and risks associated with heatstroke.

“In terms of my competitors; my preparation often does not factor in individuals but more of an awareness of what would be most advantageous to focus on.

“Of course, improving across all of swim, bike, and run always is the goal but my weakness previously has been the swim which means I then have to bike “up” the field and run “through” to the podium.

“I think as the standard and depth continue to improve having such a deficit on the swim puts you out of the game so I have really invested in some better structure to my swimming training, and doing as much as possible with friends. Fellow British Pro Sam Proctor has been vital to this focus all year, on camps and at home in Loughborough.”

Bring on the rematch

And while she didn’t want to focus on individuals, there was one name I had to throw into the mix given that Kat was closer than anyone to Taylor Knibb in Lahti as the American star powered to a second successive IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship title at the end of August.

Though Kat did point out: “I was four minutes behind Taylor in Lahti – four minutes! That is a lot for a four-hour race. Double the distance and in theory, it could be eight.

“However, I think my experience – now tangible but still limited to most – will enable me to not be so far behind over the full distance. I have a lot more confidence in my marathon than Taylor could possibly have in her debut Ironman – although of course she has a lot more swim / bike confidence and shown ability. It will be great to race her, I truly hope to!”

Taylor Knibb and Kat Matthews embrace on the finish line (Photo by Nigel Roddis, Getty Images for IRONMAN)
It will be a first Kona for both Taylor Knibb and Kat Matthews [Photo credit: Nigel Roddis, Getty Images for IRONMAN]

And while Kat was understandably reluctant to put a number on a target marathon time in Kona, she did add: “I will say my “strategy” has not changed, run as best I can and as cost-effectively as I can – so an-evenly paced marathon.

“I don’t slow down so I am hoping that I will be in a real position to fight in the last 15km and I can get absolutely everything out of myself.”

‘Days filled with gratitude’

And one final question for now has to be how emotional she thinks it will be to finally line up 12 months later than planned in Kona.

Her response was heartfelt and thoughtful: “When a human drove their car into me whilst I was cycling, I was in Texas so the association to Kona is less than it could have been. I have already been back to Texas and dealt with a lot of these complex emotions there in April [when winning IRONMAN Texas].

“As I travel now to Kona I am confident that I have had my moments of worry and that there will be a few more to come these next days before the race. I am prepared for this and aware that this would be okay.

“And it’s something that considering the last year can only be turned into a positive – that I am able to be back in Kona ready to race, not only to race but to try and win. Unbelievable. So I embrace these days ahead as ones filled with gratitude.”

Kat Matthews TRI247 interview:

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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