I first met Rachel McBride at the wedding of Heather Jackson and Sean Watkins a few years ago on a mountain bike ride and immediately thought to myself, "Hmm, this seems like a really interesting human." Little did I know the extent to which that assumption was true. With interests and skills about as diverse as a person can have in 2018, Rachel is no doubt "the most interesting woman in triathlon." From advanced academics to the punk scene in Berlin, from classical cello and fine art to now one of the toughest competitors in the toughest single-day sporting event on earth...Rachel is a force to be reckoned with.
There is one thing that connects all these seemingly disorganized dots...skill and passion. Keep reading to find out more about Rachel, who she really is as a person, and how and why she chooses to use Primo Smoothie!
All photos by Hana Asano
You took a pretty circuitous path to becoming a professional athlete, how did you find the sport of triathlon and what about it has kept you training and racing at the highest level?
After being active as a kid and then not doing anything athletic for the majority of my teens and 20s, I decided I wanted to do something that I considered pretty physically epic at the time and set a goal for running a marathon. My training, community and instant success in running (i.e. qualifying for Boston with my first marathon) got me totally hooked on running and pushing my body. Apparently I am quite prone to the power of suggestion - a mentor at the time made a comment that she felt I could race triathlon at an elite level. I’d never done a triathlon before, but I took this and literally ran with it!
Seven months and a few sprint distance races later, I ended up as age group National Champ in my first Olympic distance triathlon. My career and enthusiasm just took off from there! What has kept me training and racing at the highest level is an incredible passion for the sport and the process. I thrive on competition and pushing myself. I think the fact that I’m training in 3 different sports really keeps the day-to-day from feeling like a slog. I also have to give a huge credit to my incredible sponsors who support me in my career. Especially in the beginning of my full-time racing, there is no way I would have been able to achieve the results that I did without these companies believing in my dream.
Can you talk a little bit about your background? What were you like as a kid or teen? How heavy were you involved in the punk rock / music scene, and what was that all about for you?
As a kid I think I was a shy, physically active tomboy. I was never very feminine and was routinely mistaken for a boy (I still am, though now I find it super fun, instead of being mortified and angry as before). I had a huge passion for horses and spent much of my adolescence and teens riding. I did well in school pretty easily and always had a creative streak. Once I hit my teens, I dropped all sports aside from horses and focused more on my artsy side. I was creating music, photos, poetry, paintings. I started becoming more creative with my own self-expression as well. I got more and more into punk, goth and riot grrl music. I used clothing, hairstyles and hair colours creatively.
When I moved to Berlin in Grade 12, I was suddenly thrust into the wide open world of the Berlin ska and punk scene. Most weekends I would head solo or with a friend to Kreuzberg or Prenzlauerberg for amazing shows, including seeing the Misfits in a tiny venue, The Exploited several times, Bikini Kill headline at an all-women’s show and so many amazing ska bands. I was regularly one of the only women in the mosh pit. I made friends with skinheads (not the neo-nazi kind!) who didn’t speak a word of English, and I barely spoke German. It was just 6 years after the wall had come down and Berlin was a very different place than it is today. It was dangerous and exhilarating and a whole lot of fun.
Into university in Canada, I went from all classical music to learning how to play more creatively with my cello - improv, slowcore, and even had a “shock rock” band that played around our small college town. I eventually moved to Toronto and became heavily involved in the music and arts scene. Working at a local juice bar to support myself, I remember being constantly on the go with different projects, bands, and events and never getting more than 4-5 hours of sleep a night. It was exhausting and amazing.
I am really thankful for that opportunity and often wonder what my life would be like if hadn’t made the “adult” decision to focus on my graduate studies in a different city rather than stay and take my cello to the next level. In a lot of ways, I feel like life as a pro athlete is very similar to musician life. It’s very dynamic, always changing, travelling the globe, propelled by self-motivation and hard work.
Did you also grow up playing other sports, or is it something you found completely later in life?
My parents were 10k and half marathon runners when I was growing up. I have distinct memories of them training for and running the Vancouver Marathon. So sport was kind of part of family life. I was a fish and took quickly to competitive swimming, though quit at age 11. I dabbled in soccer, basketball, track and field (I had the Grade 8 record for 100m hurdles!), and cross-country running. Unfortunately on the day of my first cross country meet in a new school, I decided I didn’t want to do it and quit all sport for what would be the next 10 years. I also look back and wonder how my life would differ had I not let my nerves get the best of me in Grade 10. Now I recognize those nerves. I still get those feelings of wanting to turn around and go back to bed at the race start line, but now I understand it’s just my fight-or-flight getting geared up to go!
You are also a highly educated - can you talk about your areas of study and why you decided to focus on those things?
Yes, I do have a couple “expensive pieces of paper” as I call them. When I started university I was really unsure at what I wanted to pursue and nothing seemed particularly interesting to me. I finally found my passion while taking a Human Embryology course in my 3rd year and just devoured everything developmental biology-related for the rest of my undergrad. After working in a research lab in Germany for a summer, I decided to pursue a Masters in developmental genetics. I loved doing experiments in the lab - it was kind of like a fun game or puzzle. What I didn’t realize was I’m not really into the long-play. I loved the immediate gratification of an experiment going to fruition, but I didn’t necessarily have the patience for long-term research projects that I felt had little impact on my community or the true passion and interest in what I was studying.
When I finished I floundered a bit with what to do…and in the process got completely hooked on sport! Once again after working a couple years in various lab settings, I was not happy with my daily grind. At this point triathlon was still just an “expensive hobby” so I went back to the drawing board and discovered genetic counseling. This specialized health care profession is a quickly growing, dynamic field that combined my favourite things about human genetics with more hands-on work connecting directly with patients and families. Through a career counseling process I came to decide that this was my dream career. Little did I know that I had long course triathlon waiting for me on the other side….
Can you connect all these dots, or are you just a multi-interested and multi-talented person that can't sit still?
I think the bottom line in the punk-turned-cellist-turned-geneticist-turned-athlete is the pursuit of passion. It’s safe to say I check those multi-talented, multi-interested boxes in arts, science and sport (though I tend to not be interested in things I don’t have a talent for!). I think my spouse can also attest to the fact that I have a hard time sitting still. I come by that honestly through my busy and active parents. The biggest drivers in my life seem to be doing things that I feel challenge my body, challenge my mind, and somehow contribute to my community in a positive way. Until I found sport, I always felt like something was missing and turns out it’s likely because I didn’t feel all of those boxes were being checked.
Last year you had some breakout performances, can you talk about why and how you feel like things really started coming together for you?
Last year for me felt more like a pretty small step in progress. While I have my first season focusing on the full Ironman distance under my belt now, I still feel like I’m just starting a new sporting career all over again! Coming from 6 years of racing the half iron distance, I was used to having many more racing opportunities in a year where I was able to learn how to race the distance, nutrition do’s and don’ts, how hard I could push each leg of the race etc. Iron distance racing is a whole other kettle of fish!
Training on the Tower 26 programme did take my swimming to a whole new level. That came as a huge surprise to me when I came out of the water with a couple minute lead at Ironman Canada. Then breaking 2 Ironman bike course records showed me that I’m still at the top of my game in the cycling realm. However, I have yet to really nail what I feel like I can run off the bike. Having struggled with running injuries almost every year of my career, I’m definitely at a disadvantage with a significant lack of running consistency and inability to really do massive amounts of volume on my feet. There’s also the significant nutrition side of iron distance racing that is such a huge part of the race. I still feel like that is a big work in progress.
We talked last year and you did quite a bit of experimenting with your pre-race nutrition, but then found Primo Smoothie to be the right solution for you. Can you talk about why you went to a liquid diet pre-race, and specifically what you do?
Pre-race nutrition has been a very important part of my racing for several years now. I struggle significantly with GI issues in races and so all of my nutrition is geared towards avoiding portapotty stops on the run! I have been doing a low fibre, low residue, low FODMAPs diet pre-race that has helped a lot, or at least allowed me to control one variable. Last year I was using Primo Smoothie mix as part of my daily nutrition so my body was really used to it. Before Ironman Cozumel I decided to give a liquid-only pre-race diet a go, starting about 18 hours out. So after lunch time, I was basically just taking in smoothies that included Primo, low FODMAP fruits, non-dairy milk, peanut butter and maple syrup for some extra calories. Since I finish my meals typically 12 hours out from race start (i.e. 6:30pm before a 6:30am start), I often struggle with feeling hungry when I’m heading to bed a few hours later at 9 or 10pm. I was pleasantly surprised that I had no hunger pangs as i headed to bed. In the morning it was easy and tasty to get down after a 3am alarm clock. This liquid-only technique is something I’ll be testing and racing with more!
How do you use Primo Smoothie outside of racing on a more day to day basis?
Primo Smoothie is literally part of my daily nutrition. Typically I’ll use my smoothie as recovery nutrition after a longer, harder session or to get some calories in between back-to-back workouts where I don’t want solid food in my stomach. If a run is the first session of my day, it’s a great way to fuel up and not have any heavy stomach feelings.
What are the big goals and objectives for 2018?
Kona 2018, baby! This year is 100% geared towards qualifying for and racing at the Ironman World Championships. And of course this means being able to become more consistent at the Ironman distance. Of my 3 full distance races, only one I feel has come close to my potential (3rd place at Ironman Canada). So my biggest objective is to figure out what I need to do to translate my training into the racing.
A huge and humble "thank you" to Rachel McBride. We are excited to stand by her side this year and will be rooting for her all the way to the finish line in Kona!