Meet the Athlete: Steph Graves

My background..

Where it all began for me, growing up in a family of 4 kids and as the youngest, I was always chasing my 3 brothers around, on a daily basis determined to reach as high as they did. My dad, a successful 5x Australian champion marathon runner (and world champion in the Veterans), Australian representative Soccer player and a mind of steel. One person I look up to for inspiration and courage in the times I doubt how far I can go. 

I started running at the fresh age of 4 (literally running 300m till I was puffed out at the weekly cross country club meets because I felt it was unfair that my best buddy (dad) was running without me) and soon enough was tagging along on at the end of training sessions with my dad. We ran daily and together did the sit up, squat, water running in the backyard pool and bodyweight regime daily. At 5 I started ballet and spent 17 years dancing and performing on stage at a high level, alongside athletics training and racing on the track as a national level sprinter/hurdler. I then found a passion for endurance sports at 19 running 10km + and dabbled in some cross training in the pool and bike riding. 

 

How I really got into triathlon…

I was a Gym instructor and Personal Trainer at the local fitness centre and the swim coach noticed me swimming laps (looking like a sinking log – I was not a natural but I used to get the laps done) and invited me along to the tri-squad. We got talking as I had been coaxed into doing the office corporate BRW triathlon and needed to start training. One swim and the regulars convinced me to race a triathlon and join the Hills tri club.

A few weeks later, I turned up to the Penrith Regatta Centre and toed the line to race my first sprint triathlon, riding my trusty alloy Avanti road bike, a big bottle of Gatorade and with no idea what transition meant or just how brutal it would be to race that distance. I had no idea what it would take to get to the finish line and yet I was determined to go all out and see what I had in me. I finished 2nd place overall, absolutely spent, I was in awe of what I had just done and from there I was hooked. 

This was the beginning of my journey to find true belief in my ability as an athlete and person. In previous years of athletics, I trained hard but never really reached the levels I was capable of. From a personal perspective I had always lacked insight into how much ability I really possessed for being successful and doing anything that I set my mind to. I always found things were out of reach, yet I always tried and times succeeded at a cost (injury, illness). 

Triathlon, for nearly 14 years, has been a piece of my life’s puzzle that has shown me how far I can go, and its continued to help me challenge that question, that I have permission to believe in myself and also fail, fall and get up again to keep challenging and answering my question. Not every race has delivered the outcome I expected, and in my early years, I would heavily beat myself up as I had some testing race experiences that led me to keep pushing and pushing. Hard. The obvious observation of that approach in hindsight was I had some amazing racing for the resume, yet my body was slowly giving in and falling apart physically/mentally. 

I went into adrenal deficit and overdrive for a good number of years, visits to hospital, severe allergic reactions, anxiety attacks and slowly spiralling self-belief. I would train and then have to take days off at a time because I was sick, not feeling worthy, exhausted, anxious, depressed (on the inside), my life was falling apart, including my performance at work, I became very inward and self-punishing because I had the belief that nothing in life was going to go right unless I worked harder and harder. Sometimes I just trained through because I had to harden up (old mentality = not productive) I had big expectations to meet and I would not meet them unless I worked hard. My weight fluctuated, I had literally broken myself (albeit external issues out of my control were also erupting, but my state of health was contributing to all of this). 

In 2012, it took a breakdown within myself, a few failures at work, a break up, a very relentless race in Las Vegas and a tough year losing a few close friends and colleagues to suicide to make me realise I needed to do life differently. I was done, I didn’t want to be where I was and I recognised my need to change, for me. From then on I began the journey of healing my headspace, because that’s where I pinpointed it all. I was fighting against myself and leading myself into destruction with extreme expectation, floating around in all the white noise of the world, trying to please everyone around me and not paying attention to what was really important. It’s uncanny that the spiralling process is unrecognisable unless you have self-awareness and that was something I lacked. I read books, spent hours of solo time in self-reflection and essentially navigating my mind to correct what I had destroyed. I began to rebuild and really reflect on what it meant to challenge my question of how far I can go without hurting myself in the process.

In 2013, I raced my first Ironman in Busselton. The process of training for this race was to me, the shedding of an old-self and proving to myself that I could complete something I said I would never even contemplate doing. As my philosophy of training would have it, in hindsight, I overtrained and exhausted myself, I got sick in the process and lost an extreme amount of weight then put weight back on. The day came, I was so happy because I was there at the start line and never dreamt I would ever do an Ironman. Running up that finish Shute, I vividly remember crying, smiling and for the first time realising I believe in myself. 

This was another notch and layer in answering how far can I really go in life. I then signed up to race Cairns IM in 2014 because I had the taste for IM and reaching for that elusive Kona slot. I was hooked, but my approach was still not healthy as I trained harder and went through daily exhaustion, mental fatigue, a visit to hospital and a bike crash because I was totally exhausted.

Cairns IM in 2014 for me was a very unrelenting race, yet satisfying because I raced with a purpose. That purpose was to raise awareness for mental health and raise funds for beyond blue, a charity I have worked with both in my career and sought refuge for guidance in tough times. I had a great swim, it was torrential rain that day, then an extreme mechanical on the bike that left me with only 1 gear. I had 2 choices, to pull out and end the day or keep on going because I was out there fighting for myself and those I lost to suicide. As my ego ruled, I continued, spinning and 3 flat tyres later, 10km of easy riding to get me to transition. 

Onto the run, I was emotionally spent, I contemplated pulling out but the beyond blue logo on my chest kept me going because I knew it wasn’t the end for me and I had the determination to finish. I learnt so much about myself that day, more-so, I did not win, but I added another layer to that question. How far can you go when faced with things that try to convince you to give up. I finished and I raised money and awareness within the community about mental health.

Perhaps deep down I did feel I had failed myself because I had not achieved the Kona spot at that point. I went back the following year to Cairns in 2015, amidst stepping up into a senior management role and relocating to the city. I was burnt out before the start line, from some very tough long days at work and trying to squeeze my training in. It was one of the hardest races I had completed in an IM as I spent 20 minutes in T2 sitting there being told by the medical officers that I should pull out because I was pale as a sheet. I was stubborn and spent the time trying to regather myself. I wanted to pull out that day, but I had my number 1 supporter (Dad) out there, I ran past him and said I can’t go on, he said, you have to live with your decisions. I knew I had put the work in and to pull out I would have regretted it. The truth was, my ego didn’t want to let him down, I didn’t want to let me down, so I put myself through that race, all heart and finished IM number 4.

The hard days count, but I was spiralling again, high workload, high expectations, pushing myself at all angles in life. I have always been one to continue to check in on myself and keep going, not giving in, finding ways to overcome the impossible things. But I have also been one to keep pushing through exhaustion, even when I have nothing to give.

 In 2016 I’d had enough, work was hurting me, I was hurting myself and I needed a break from all the pressures. Things came to a blunt holt one day as I walked to the front door at home, I collapsed, emotional, uncertain and defeated about life. 2016 then became my year of change, I left my job and travelled over to Europe where I raced the season of my life, achieving 2 podium finishes, a world IM 70.3 qualifier and a 4th overall at IM 70.3 Krönbörg in the lead up to racing IM Frankfurt.

Most thought I was mad, dropping everything and taking a chance in Europe, travelling alone, a single 33 year old exploring and experiencing life differently. IM Frankfurt was an incredible experience, though the one thing that stuck with me was I did not have the run I trained for in that race and that let me down, that’s where I lost my Kona slot. Back to Australia, I made the decision to finally take the leap to go back to uni and chase the career I always dreamed of and in the process I prepared to race the IM 70.3 World Championships at the Sunshine Coast.

I turned up to that race so exhausted, sure I had trained but my adrenal fatigue was in overdrive. Following this race, I made the decision to rest from triathlon and focus on studies and re-building my career. In the down time I got out for the casual ride and jog, then sold my bike which was an emotional day. After 2 years out of the sport I started to get the fire back and signed up for IM Cairns 2018. I spent 2 years getting back to good health and continued working on my mindset and internal dialogue. It was in this time that I was finally going to do something different and I looked outside for my options. As fate would have it I saw Ben at the local pool and had a casual chat about the ridiculous move I had made by signing up for IM Cairns. A few days later we were chatting about coaching and I knew then this was my turning point, I had a certainty and could rest my trust in a solid process.

I consider that EC found me, the values and approach mould well with the new me and my desire to keep answering that question of how far can I go as an athlete and person. I know that this has been the best thing for me as I am now a much healthier athlete, I am balanced in life, I have time for me, time for training, time for life. Triathlon forms a small part of my bigger picture and it is one component in my life that continues to challenge me. 

Now with an EnduranceCollab coach, I can fully trust the process and walk into and away from a race backing myself 100% without fighting with or beating myself up. Over time I’ve grown from a burnt out young girl with nothing to give myself or others, to a woman of determination and drive to keep answering my life long question. Because of EC, in such a short time, I have found myself understanding more about the process of training, the metrics, being healthy in my approach and balancing life. I am a much healthier athlete, living life and achieving in all areas.

To arrive here at this point today has required an open mind, willingness to throw old ways of thinking out the door and welcome new ways of thinking, new approaches and trust someone else to plan my approach.

I have always wanted to explore how far I can go, I just never knew how to do that successfully and with a healthy approach. The coming season will be a great insight into that question and where it takes me. I want to achieve a Kona slot, I want to continue to answer my question, though I know that there is so much more to be achieved outside of Kona, much more greatness both in triathlon and in life.

So the tally for me:

Countless sprint and Olympic distance races

2x 70.3 and 1x Olympic distance World Championships

28 x 70.3 distance

6 x IM Finishes

CAVEAT: For Busselton I did 1 ride with coach Ben in my prep – at that point I walked away from that ride with a big ego because the average pace was not what I would have usually hit in the past. I was really unaware of purpose at that point and so trained solo for the 2013 Busselton prep. So the fate of EC was definitely around me, perhaps I had not yet mentally arrived at the point where I was willing to change approach in 2013.

Kudos to Coach Ben!!!