Strong Women Series: Rolling with Mrs Rowell

Well, today I have finally got my shit together enough to publish the next in the Strong Women series. No, I am not very good at doing this regularly. Yes there are heaps more to come!

This Strong Woman is one I ride with occasionally, and have massive respect for. On the odd occasion we do manage to get out for a pedal together, the conversation invariably steers towards riding for fitness, mental health, lifestyle balance, accomplishment, and then there are the other conversations: the balance of riding and family, treating yourself with respect and eating well. Pretty wholesome stuff. Always punctuated with myself going "Wowweee! that was a long climb" and Jo going "That climb was much shorter than I remembered it".


Jo Rowell is one hard nut. Years of endurance training in different sports mean that Jo's relatively late start in mountain biking saw her rapidly climb to the top of the podium in the endurance scene. Jo is a super strong woman (hence being on the blog!), and with a supportive husband and two kids she still manages to find time for frequent 'form finders'*.

I met Jo through the XC scene in Brissie, and despite her protests that she was all about longer format events she was—and still is—ripping it up in the elite category. Jo has also raced Ironman in Kona, and raced the MTB Marathon Worlds in Austria for her other home country, Wales. I get to chat to Jo about riding, racing and the potential for anatomical wardrobe malfunction when running in swimmers...

Triathlon? So many of our strong women are from a triathlon background, what's with that?

I think triathlon is as much about mental fortitude as fitness. Most age group athletes are not going to be naturally strong in all three disciplines. For me it was swimming, growing up in the UK, swimming was more about not drowning when you actually went near the water.  In fact it was a pretty humbling experience taking adult swimming lessons at 37 (when I decided I wanted to do a triathlon). So just completing a triathlon for many age group athletes often means at some point you're going to have to tough it up and get through an uncomfortable part of the race. And, of course, the longer the race the more likely you experience those low points. 

Doing the tri-geek thing at Kona.

Transitioning to MTBing and starting to ride off road from scratch was a huge learning curve, but the resilience I built from triathlon certainly  helped me pick myself up and keep going after the numerous crashes I had in that first year! 

Sorry, that first one was a lame question! But with a fabulous answer...this one's better: is there some great appeal in running with your togs on? I have seen pictures of triathletes running in their togs and it's a risky business...such a small strip of fabric, things can (and do, regularly) poke out! What was behind your ditching of the swimmers and the uptake of trail shredding? Was it the potential for a bit too much...err, 'exposure'?

I loved competing in the ironman, there's a strong sense of community that you build up with the people you train with and the shared exhilaration at completing an ironman is unforgettable. Running in togs...well that was pretty hard to begin with. 

I remember my very first triathlon was in Noosa and I needed to get a tri kit to swim, bike and run in. So I head to the Orca stand and select the most covering kit, only to be advised by the sales guy that it was too big and that I needed a smaller size otherwise when it gets wet it would be uncomfortable to run in. He was right, I got the smaller kit and I felt great throughout the race. 

When everyone else is running around as equally unclad you don't feel too self conscious. But the other thing is, I was probably the leanest I have ever been racing triathlons (all that run training!) so most triathletes look pretty good in those swimmers! Unfortunately, for me it was ultimately all the running that was my downfall. I sustained a knee injury that meant I was unable to run more than 20min without pain, so hello mountain biking!

Do you have an ironman tattoo?

No. It did cross my mind after Kona, but I asked myself who was I doing the tattoo for?  I knew I'd raced at Kona and would never forget the experience so what was the point of a tattoo!

What was the hardest thing you experienced in the transition to a trail shredding woman from a tri-geek?

Falling off heaps! December 2007 was the first time I hit the trails on a dual suspension bike. My last MTB was bought in 1994: no suspension, no disk brakes, oh and when did the trails get so narrow with logs and drop offs to negotiate? It was like trying to ride  bike again and I did have some spectacular falls, indeed I spent Christmas 2007 bandaged up watching my family swimming at the beach while I watched on enviously. 

I also found leaving my tri-training buddies behind hard and the camaraderie of training with a big group of like-minded crazy age groupers. Although I joined The Riders Club and they helped me heaps with coaching and riding (thanks Paul and Vaughan!), I've found I now do most of my riding alone. Primarily because I'm fitting a ride in around family, work and study, but also because you have the best rides with those who are of a similar ability...and being a chick I find I'm slower than most of the guys and the other chicks are busy juggling their schedule to fit in a ride too!

However, I think women are particularly good at this mental toughness. You only have to look at the female results in an Ironman, especially during the marathon, to see how many guys are passed by women in the last hour of the race.

This one is simple but always extracts interesting answers....why do you ride?

Riding is my me-time. My mental therapy. My meditation. I love escaping from the day-to-day grind and heading to the bush and challenging myself on the single track or on some bigs climbs. There is nothing better than climbing up a trail, not a soul around and basking in the view of the bush and clear blue Brissie skies. I feel very lucky to not only live so close to some tremendous mountain biking venues but also to have a supportive husband who understands why I need this me time. I simply love mountain biking. 

Shredding trails at the SEQMTB XC series in elite, doing some 'me' time.
What would be your advice for women looking to try out mountain biking as a sport?

Just do it. You can get fit, away from traffic and enjoying the beautiful countryside, why would you not ride? 

I've taken a few girl friends non-riders to explore the Brisbane National Forest and they too fell in love with the sport. A great friend, Em, is now a keen MTBer and competing in her first Flight Centre Cycle Epic 50km this September. She was a smoker and work-aholic and now has more balance, fitness, new friends and experiences all because of mountain biking, which is exactly why I love MTBing.  

I'd also recommend getting some skills coaching. It is a technical sport and having a good teacher to guide you with some basic skills training will help build your confidence and skill level much quicker than if you hit the trails on your own. I was lucky to have two great coaches to set me on the right path. 

You have raced some seriously tough events, what has been the most memorable race? What's been the hardest?

That's a hard one. Racing in Austria was the hardest race; the mountains are huge, the single track is so steep and technical, and the competition is awesome and so talented. I managed to crash badly 3km from the finish resulting in 14 stitches and 5 hours at the local hospital.  So that race is hard to forget.   
The most memorable was the Highland Fling last November.  Everything went right, I felt great, my bike was brilliant and there was a tough field for me to gauge my performance against.  It was a special day.

Jo races at the Highland Fling.
Everytime I hear about your training, you've headed out for a million km's of do you find time to balance the family life and the 'life on bike'?

Well first off it I didn't have a wonderful husband there would be far less 'life on bike'.  Darryl's family are in NZ and mine are in the UK so there's no one else to help out with the kids. It's all down to Darryl. Without his support and encouragement I wouldn't be the rider I am today.  

In terms of finding time, the thing about being busy is that you don't procrastinate. You have small windows of opportunity and you just seize them. I actually don't ride as much as I used to. Managing my own business, running around taking the kids to their various sporting events and studying has squeezed my available riding time. So when I do head out I need to make each workout count, whether that's single track, or getting in as much vertical climbing as I can in the time I have available.  

Your kids are a bit older now, but looking back upon that whole gestation period (aka: pregnancy) were you managing to exercise throughout?

I didn't start the crazy triathlon stuff until Gemma was 1 year old so when I was pregnant I was a gym junkie. I did keep exercising all the way through both pregnancies but it was weight training and riding stationery bikes. In fact, Gemma's birth was 10 days overdue and I remember being at the gym on a stepper machine and some guy came up to me and asked when I was due—he nearly fell over when I told him I was due any minute!  

I have known many women who have trained or exercised right through their pregnancies.  I think so long as your body is already used to the type of exercise you choose to do, and you listen to your body, then not only will the labour be easier on you, but you'll recover quicker after the birth. 

So, what's on the radar for Jo for the next 12 months or so? Any big events, Trans Alps perhaps...?

At the moment my priority is my family, Jack's nearly 14 and Gemma's 11 and I want to make sure they get through these tumultuous years on the right path. To me that means being actively involved in what they are interested in so your relationship remains strong and they want to turn to you when they need you. So my racing becomes what I can schedule in around family commitments. I'd love to do a stage race like Trans Alp, and if I keep fit maybe I'll make it there to celebrate my 50th which isn't that far away!

Family time at the Milford Track, NZ.

Ok, and with this blog having a heavy emphasis on women riding, do you have any women specific products you use and abuse, what are they and why do you love 'em?

I love my Selle Italia Gel Flow mtb saddle, and my favourite knicks are Siren knicks from  Ground Effects.  You can't enjoy long distance riding if you're not comfortable! 

Finally, we have a few quick snippets...

You finish a ride, rock up to the coffee shop and order what? Skinny latte extra hot with two sugars

Favorite bike in the garage? Santa Cruz SC—sweet riding on the single track.
Best motivational quote or motto? Carpe diem sums up my life.  But I love the Ironman motto—nothing is impossible.  From someone who was pretty much a non swimmer to completing a 3.8km open water swim in Kona I certainly proved to myself that 'nothing is impossible'.
Favorite pre-race meal? Porridge with grated apple, ground nuts and yogurt, but at least 2.5hrs before a race!
Riding accessory you couldn't live without? My Garmin. Being a numbers person and a virgo, I like seeing where I've been, how far I've ridden and how I've performing (or not!).
If one company or product could sponsor your riding life, who/what would it be and why? I've been really lucky having Chain Gang sponsor me since my first mtb race back in 2009.  Having a great local bike shop to keep my bike in tip top condition, always free to help me with mechanical problems and providing me with free kit has been brilliant.  With all my crashes mtbking would have been a much more expensive sport if it was for Chris, Nick and Lan helping me out!  Thanks guys :-).