Usat Interview

September 2006

Tell us a little bit about your athletic background growing up.

I grew up in the country, without a television, so what we did for fun – besides read a lot – was ride our bikes, swim in the lake, ride horses and play organized sports like softball and soccer. I was never a particularly talented athlete – except as a swimmer – but I enjoyed participating very much. My twin sister, however, was an excellent athlete, so I never thought of not being active and not outside. I followed her into sports, aspiring to be like her; plus I didn’t want to her call me a priss if I stopped. I was horrible at anything with hand/eye coordination, so when we played softball I always chose the “rover” position in the outfield – mostly so I could “rove” away from the ball! But I did learn that I was very disciplined, and that when I put my mind to something I would stick to it and finish, even if it wasn’t in the numero uno spot.

What prompted you to take up the sport of triathlon?

I did a few short adventure races with my friend, Jim Garfield, and I was on his team for the swim portion of the Malibu Triathlon in 1995 and 1996. The Ironman Corporation contacted me after that September, 1996 race and asked if I wanted an entry into the Hawaiian Ironman. I guess they figured since I could swim, I at least wouldn’t drown! I just about fell over, though, because I had read about the first Hawaiian Ironman in Sports Illustrated when I was in high school and had thought, “ That is the kind of race I could do, because even though I am slow I have the stamina and discipline to train for that”. When I was 15 I was swimming butterfly with my sister across the local lake several times without stopping – at least 2 miles – so I was already in the “long course” frame of mind.

What effect has the sport had on you?

Triathlon took me out of my comfort zone. Before that, I was pretty much a runner and a gym rat, very ensconced in my routine. When you get out of your comfort zone, you lose fear. So triathlon has made me braver and more confident – which is what happens when you set goals, work hard to reach them, and accomplish what you set out to do.

What have you learned about yourself and human nature through training and competition?

I have learned that I prefer training to competing. Before I had knee surgery and had to stop running completely, I was training for a 26.2 mile off road marathon in the Santa Monica Mountains. It wasn’t a formal race, I was the only participant and my husband, Ian Murray, mapped out a course for me. 2 weeks before my marathon day, my knee said, "No more, Alexandra".

In terms of human nature, I have learned that there is beauty in every triathlete, whether they come in first or last. That fire to challenge oneself and be willing to do what it takes to get there is inspiring to me. To me, being out on an Ironman course for 16 hours is as amazing as blazing through it in 8 hours, but amazing in a different way.

Did you compete in a sprint or Olympic distance event before you tackled Ironman?

I hadn’t done more than the swim leg of a sprint triathlon before I decided to take the slot offered for Hawaii. I had never run more than 13 miles or cycled more than 20. That sounds like hubris, perhaps, but I quit acting for 9 months, hired a coach, Scott Tinley, followed his extremely rigorous training program to the T, and competed in a dozen triathlons before the big race, including 2 halfs.

What was that first Ironman experience like?

Magical. Exhausting and emotional, but magical. My biggest fear was a mechanical on the bike that might prevent me from finishing. My swim was comfortable – 1:05. The bike was hard,, as it usually is, because of the winds (I had to pedal on the downhills). I was pretty tuckered out at the end of that leg, and pretty slow too! I always feel like I am going fast, but a ton of folks always pass me on the bike… The marathon started out fine, but since I have a problem ingesting enough fluids in a race – air gets caught in my chest and makes it difficult to breathe (something I remedied the following year by taking a straw with me during races) – I wasn’t taking in enough calories. I entered a deep, dark place at the turnaround, where I hit the wall. Luckily, I started running with another triathlete, Andy Paszcowski, who was dealing with leg cramps, so we encouraged each other during the hardest moments. I am still in touch with him today, 9 years later. Training for and finishing that race was without question one of the highlights of me life. I am more proud of that than all my movies put together.

How many races do you typically tackle in a year?

Unfortunately, because of knee problems, I no longer run and therefore no longer do triathlons, except the swim leg of my favorite race, The Challenged Athletes Foundation ½ Ironman Triathlon, in which I participate every autumn when I am not filming. That race is wonderful – so inspiring and such a great atmosphere!

What race distance do you prefer?

Longer races. I am the turtle, not the hare. I like the pain of sustained effort, not of sprint effort.

What is your favorite part of a triathlon? (swim, bike, run, finish).

I love the swim because I love being in the water, but I get super nervous when we are all lined up to run into the water. I hate that part! I prefer a water start – much less nervewracking, in my opinion. I like the run too, because I loved running so much, even though I had a funny gait and a slow pace! I was always worried something would happen to my bike, probably because in my first half, at Wildflower, I had a flat and it took ages and ages for me to get the tire off, so I would say the bike is my least favorite of the 3 sports. My husband, Ian Murray, is a tri coach, however, and he says it is important to focus more on your limiter, because that sport is the one that will get less time and attention if we are left to our own druthers. I would definitely say the bike was my limiter!

How have you managed to fit triathlon training into a lifestyle that is already filled with a busy career, family, and your volunteer pursuits?

Getting up early and learning to say no. I remember once turning down an opportunity to be interviewed on a big national radio show because it was at 10pm and I had a big training day the next morning. The host was so pissed off he railed and mocked me on the show about how I refused to come on because I had to get up early to run.

You are married to USAT certified coach Ian Murray. How did you meet and what role has that relationship played in your athletic pursuits?

Ian was training for the first Eco- Challenge with my close friend Jim, whom I mentioned earlier. I drove to pick them up one morning after they had done a 24 hour training walk. Ian was just so polite and kind, you cannot help but like him. I cannot help but adore him.

Sharing a love of sports definitely is great for our relationship as we are on the same page about health and fitness and the priority it has in our lives. It is also fun to work out together – quality time with each other, I call it.

Do you and Ian train together? Is he your triathlon coach?

When we were training for Hawaii that first year – he competed also – at first Ian would wait for me on the bike because I was a lot slower than he. He is so sweet and very much a team player, so leaving me in the dust wasn’t his style at all. That, of course, didn’t help either of us: it hurt his training and my ego -I would get pissy (at him!) because I was so slow. Scott Tinley advised Ian and I to train separately most of the time, which actually worked out very well, as we have different training styles. Ian is more social and joined masters swimming and group bike rides. I trained alone, which I loved.

Ian became a triathlon coach after Hawaii, and he is so wonderful at his job. He is intensely passionate about the sport, and he really loves to help people achieve their goals. I only compete as a swimmer these days, and he has helped me so much with my stroke. I’ve always been extremely comfortable in the water, but I learned how to swim in 1967, when you were supposed to lie flat on your tummy, windmill your arms, and kick like crazy. In the ensuing 25+ years, swimming technique has greatly improved, and Ian is at the cutting edge of all that, while I just continued to swim the way I was taught as a kid. He learned to swim as an adult, so he thinks more logically. I couldn’t explain how to swim to anyone because it is so innate, but he knows how to teach the strokes with clarity and precision. And because of all his swimming experience and knowledge, he is much faster than I, which wasn’t the case 8 years ago. So yes, I am a dutiful student of his.

Have you competed against other celebrities in triathlons? If yes, who is the best you’ve competed against (either gender)?

Because the Malibu Triathlon was the first triathlon in which I ever participated, I have a special place for it in my heart. It also raises money for an important cause, pediatric AIDS. Because it is in Malibu, it is only natural to have a celebrity division, which helps bring more attention to the race. I think I still hold the course record for female celebrity, something I probably set at least 6 years ago, when I last did the race, but believe me, that ain’t saying much! The female celeb division has always been very small – maybe 3 participants each race? There are several actors who are very fast: Ingo Rademacher from “General Hospital” held the course record for a few years, with Michael Newman from Baywatch hot on his heels. Then Tate Donovan from “The OC” came along. Tate’s times are very fast – I saw him at ½ Vine a couple years ago and he had a very strong finish. I hope that one day he will do an Ironman – I keep meaning to encourage him to, but I know he is working a lot these days.

What has been your most memorable experience in triathlon?

I would say the Hawaii Ironman, for sure. The hardest parts are memorable – the 13 mile mark of the run – because that is when you are tested as a person and you feel so proud that you got through it with some kind of class. And the good parts: all of a sudden coming to the feed station at mile 4 of the run and seeing my mom handing out water behind the table. She had flown in that day and I hadn’t seen her yet and there she was! She started running alongside me in her skirt and sandals, so excited and proud of me, chattering about how great it all was. What’s better than your mom being proud of you, you know? Then meeting up with Andy and going through that pain with a stranger, who suddenly is no longer a stranger. My brother also jumped out and ran with me at the end and I have a funny photo of my mom, my brother and Andy and me crossing the finish line. I am smiling so broadly. Andy was in terrible pain because of his leg cramps, and my mom is in this peasant skirt yelling encouragement. My brother is trying to stop his huge camera from bouncing as he runs. Very funny. I also remember my first century training ride – Ian came running out of the house with a camera and we still have that photo of me, tired but happy. I had some beautiful training rides because I rode in the hills of Malibu since I didn’t like to ride on the Pacific Coast Highway – hours and hours when I was just by myself and it is so beautiful out there.

What are some of your future triathlon goals?

Because of my knee surgery, I can no longer run. But I am still a swimmer! I will continue to participate in the Challenged Athletes Foundation ½ Marathon Tri every autumn, as a swimmer. I’ll cheer at the Malibu Triathlon, because I know a lot of participants there, both actors and athletes from the LA Tri Club.
This September, Ian and I will be solo swimmers in the Maui Channel Swim – a 9 mile race. A couple years ago, we did the 6 mile race in Bonaire, which was a ton of fun. This one will be much more challenging, but I am looking forward to it.

Why is an active lifestyle important to you?

Oh gosh, being healthy is so important! And being active is such a large part of being healthy. Plus it is so fun: you meet wonderful people, you get to be outside a lot in all sorts of conditions, you have goals and the joy of attaining them, you feel good because you are fit! Sex is better too when you feel positive about your strong body – and if you have a partner with whom you work out, you get to spend quality time together because you aren’t distracted by email or phones or laundry or kids or whatever !

With a career in show business, has it been difficult to establish credibility as a competitive athlete? What do those in TV say about your triathlon pursuits or successes in the sport?

Other athletes were suspicious of me at first, and I don’t blame them. I got a slot into Hawaii without having to work for it. But I did work hard training after that, and I did a lot of publicity in return for that slot (there really is no free lunch). NBC’s Ironman coverage did very, very well that year. I hope that I have proven to be respectful of this wonderful sport, and that other athletes see that now. There was one benefit that I didn’t anticipate of finishing an Ironman: I had thought I would damage my career by taking so much time off, but that didn’t happen at all. I think it was because when are on a show like Baywatch you are treated as a lightweight, but participating in the Hawaii Ironman got that respect back. I was amazed, but it taught me an important lesson: follow your bliss, be who you really are, and things will work out for the best.

Have you taken inspiration from other successful triathletes?

I get inspired by the folks to whom triathlon doesn’t come easy – the Clydesdales, the challenged athletes, the seniors. To those people, I take my hat off. Or my swim cap, as it were.

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