When Angela Naeth first moved to California a decade and a half ago, she had $2,000 in her pocket and a dream. She lived in a trailer on a friend’s land in the desert, hoping to become a professional triathlete. As a former college runner, she first encountered the sport when she saw a race on television, and as soon as she tried it she was hooked. She fell in love with triathlon after her first event in Prince George, British Columbia, her hometown. That was the beginning of what would become an exceptional career of swimming, biking and running. She recalls, “I wanted to see how far I could go.”
Story by Jen See / Photos by Meg McMahon
The following story is an excerpt from CADENCE, a collection of road cycling tales from around the world. Each piece is told to inspire, to bring us closer to the characters and communities, near and far, that are all connected by the common bond of a life lived on two wheels.
And my, in the 15 years since she turned pro, she’s gone quite the distance. Now 40, Naeth has become one of the most successful triathletes of her generation. She’s won 19 Ironman 70.3 events, and is a three-time Ironman champion. Though originally a runner, Naeth has garnered a reputation for her power on the bike even as a standalone discipline. In 2010, she won the Mount Evans Hill Climb in Colorado, and recently Naeth began competing in off-road races. In 2022, she finished 12th at Unbound, the 200-mile gravel race in Kansas and 18th at the Leadville 100 mountain bike race.
The foundations of her success began while growing up in Western Canada where she loved swimming, lifeguarding and running. A track scholarship took her to the University of Missouri-Columbia, where she ran the mile and 800-meter races. After two years, she stopped running to focus on academics, and Naeth completed a bachelor’s degree in health science and a master’s in physical therapy. While in college, she started riding road bikes and found the lower-impact sport helped her avoid injury. Even better, it was a chance to play outside with Friends.
But riding took a back seat to her work as a pediatric and orthopedic physical therapist. After earning her degree, she worked hard to establish that career. But once she experienced triathlon, she found a new calling.
Her triathlon career began mostly by chance. Back in Canada after college, Naeth saw television coverage of an Ironman event. She knew she had to try it. Naeth did one hometown race in 2008, and was hooked. Soon she flew to California and lived with her coach Chuckie V in the desert. “I had no money,” she says. “I really sacrificed a lot to see if I could make it as a professional athlete.” Not only had she sacrificed her job as a PT, she also moved to another country to live the life of a transient endurance athlete. She recalls couch surfing and living in friends’ spare rooms and basements. She slept in a tent and in her car.
And at first she didn’t make it. She had to move back home when she was 27, working again as a full-time PT, banking some money for another shot at the pro ranks. “That was some big fire for me because I didn’t want to be a failure, and I wanted to see what I could do in the sport,” she says. “I begged my parents to just give me one more shot, and if I didn’t make it that time around I’d come home and do the white picket fence, physical therapy route.”
Characteristically, Naeth found inspiration in the challenges. The harder it got for her, the more determined she became to succeed. Then, the sacrifices began to pay off. In 2010, Naeth finished seventh at the 70.3 Ironman World Championship and that same year, she reached the podium at six 70.3 Ironman events. Her breakthrough win came at the 70.3 Ironman in Boulder in 2011. “There was so much improvement for me to see,” she says. “I just love the challenge of it all.” In 2015, Naeth became the Ironman North American Champion with a finishing time under nine hours.
Despite her success, Neath found the sport isolating. After all, triathlon is about individual effort. “When I first started my career, I knew nobody,” says Naeth. “I was really kind of a recluse and that’s not my personality.” As her career progressed, Naeth wanted to share her knowledge and experience with others. In 2017, she created I Race Like a Girl (IRLAG), a program meant to build a community for women in triathlon. When asked about the name, she explains, “When I race…whenever I’m on a bike I feel like a kid again…That whole experience of exploration and having fun and being a girl gets so suppressed as we get older. I Race Like a Girl is really encompassing the concept that I’m having fun with this, and that you’re being you, the true you inside, the girl in you.”
Shortly after founding the team, a Lyme disease diagnosis in 2018 temporarily derailed her career. “It was a really rough go because I was misdiagnosed for many, many months,” she recalls. Recovery proved a long process for her, and some days her workout was a walk around the block. “What I really learned is that you can only do your best every day,” she says. “I used to put a lot of pressure on myself and compare myself to others.”
“It relaunched me as an athlete, because I now have no qualms about getting last. I’m still a very competitive person, and I would like to win every event that I go into and that’s the big challenge, ultimately it’s about an internal push. For me to be able to showcase who I am as an athlete and as a person when I’m racing – that’s everything to me.” Finishing eighth at Ironman World Championships in 2018 felt especially satisfying to Naeth after the struggles with Lyme and the comeback journey to get there.
As she managed her Lyme and rebuilt her physical strength and endurance, Naeth also put her energy into helping others to experience the joyful feeling competition has given her. She found the growing community around IRLAG motivating and inspiring in her own journey back to top form. “It’s really changed my career path and concept of racing because it literally saved my career because mentally, I needed more. Ever since I started the team, it’s changed everything for me.” she says.
Putting together the program, Naeth envisioned an online community of women who would meet up at races throughout the year. “I wanted to build connections for people like me who don’t have a close-knit community where they live,” she says. At many races, the team has breakfast or brunch together, and every month there’s a team challenge, like this past May the women aimed to ride 250 miles each.
Amy Woods, a mother of three, values the support she’s found in the IRLAG community. In 2021, Woods qualified for the Boston Marathon and 70.3 Ironman Worlds, and balancing training with raising her kids often has meant early solo mornings of hard training. When she saw her teammates doing the same thing, she found inspiration and confidence. “I’m like, ‘okay, if they can do it, I can too,’” she says. “When you see a mom and teammate finish an Ironman, it’s like, ‘damn woman, I know what you had to sacrifice to get to that finish line.’”
Each year, Naeth hosts a three-day camp in Florida, and between 20 and 50 team members gather to train, exchange knowledge and just plain have a good time. Teammates explore the intricacies of heart rate zones, swim technique and fueling for long rides. During training, the women push each other to improve, but it’s not all hard work. Jensine Fraser, who has attended the camps for the past three years, recalls the benefits of working hard but also enjoying the experience with other women. “We are so committed to this sport that sometimes we forget why we do it in the first place…At this year’s camp we learned all about the fun and the frolic.” says Fraser.
There are now over 500 women who are part of Naeth’s programs. Working together, the IRLAG community hopes to raise the profile of more women in triathlon. When Fraser traveled to Barcelona to race an Ironman 70.3, she was surprised by how few women joined her on the starting line. “At the swim start, you just saw all blue caps and just a few spots of pink caps,” she says. The experience reinforced to her the importance of representation. “It made me want to keep showing up, because I knew that there could be some little girl watching me race, who might want to race someday, too.”
As Naeth has continued to race and build the IRLAG community, she’s also explored new tests and adventures. In 2020, when triathlon events paused due to the pandemic, she began exploring the gravel roads around her current home of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The freedom or riding off the beaten path and exploring beyond the regular training routine really appealed to her. “I started venturing out on different roads, and it made me feel like a kid again,” she says. As cycling events returned to the calendar, Naeth decided to give gravel racing a try. In 2021 she rode the Unbound event for the first time and finished sixth overall.
The experience hooked her, and Naeth has found rekindled motivation in her new career directions. Her deep well of endurance from racing Ironman eased the transition to gravel races, which often cover more than 100 miles. In 2022, Naeth raced the Life Time Grand Prix series, which included a mix of gravel and mountain bike racing. “I absolutely love these events and I see myself doing more and more of it,” she says. “It’s been really exciting. You go and do triathlon for so long, and then here comes this new sport with a new set of skills… It’s a whole new skillset that’s fun learning. It just makes things more enjoyable when you challenge yourself in different ways. And this is a whole new set of ways for me to learn how to ride.”
To share her newfound love for gravel and mountain bike racing, Naeth created Girls Get Gritty, an off-road version of her IRLAG community. “When I did Unbound in 2021, I thought it would be such a cool idea to include a gravel team alongside I Race Like A Girl,” she says. The team reflects Naeth’s ongoing commitment to building connections among female athletes. She’s looking forward to seeing how far she can go in gravel, and she wants to bring as many women along with her as she can. Now 40, Naeth hopes to keep pushing her limits on the bike, on the triathlon course and beyond. “I’m always inspired by women who are older than me and still racing professionally,” she says. Naeth too hopes to serve as a role model for women as they age. “I want to show that women can be active as they grow older, and challenge themselves to do these really epic events.” And, above all, she is determined to keep having fun while she does it.
“I find sport to be a vehicle to find out more about myself,” she says. “No matter what type of race it is or what place I get, I’m out there to see what I’ve got.” Chasing new adventures on gravel and mountain bikes has allowed her to expand her horizons and hold on to the wonder and excitement of a kid out for her very first ride. And that’s a feeling she’s sharing with other women, all along the way, at every point in her illustrious career in and out of competition.