Spend two minutes talking to Kate Strong and you will realize you are in the presence of an incredibly, well, strong, upbeat, free-spirited, mold-breaker. These qualities have allowed the triathlete, adventurer, entrepreneur, and climate activist to thrive despite experiencing trials and tribulations that would have broken most others.
Born in Wales 43 years ago, the eldest of two, Strong seemingly had her life mapped out for her by her parents.
“I came from a very traditional family,” Strong acknowledged. “My parents let me know from a very early age that I was expected to marry and have kids. The message was ‘it’s great to do well on your own, but you will need to be looked after’. This was NOT what I wanted to do — I was a free spirit, but I did what I was told at my posh, all-girls day school and did not really stand out.”
That last bit is not exactly true as Strong stood out in sports.
“I played so many sports: swimming, running, discus, shotput and javelin,” recalled Strong. “In fact, I was junior national champion at 17 in javelin. I was invited to join the national lacrosse team but turned them down because it was too serious. You see, I loved the sport and competing against myself, but I didn’t have that competitive edge in the sense of wanting to beat my opponent or the other team.”
Strong didn’t want to go on to university but her parents said that public higher education in the UK was changing to a paid system and that hers was the last class that could attend for free. So, she headed to the University of Portsmouth where she studied environmental engineering.
“I also studied abroad in both France and Italy, focusing on a double masters in engineering management and mechanical engineering,” Strong noted. “I pushed myself, getting top honors. But as with getting married and having babies, I also realized that these subjects were not my passions. I wanted to travel, study anthropology, and also was fascinated by entrepreneurship.”
This time, in the spring of 2002, Strong followed her heart, exploring Mexico (“I became a divemaster scuba diver; then worked at a youth hostel on the Yucatan Peninsula for $10 a day”), Guatemala (“an American girl introduced me to the crazy sport of triathlon; we also got lost hiking, slept under a tree before reaching the summit of Tajmulco, highest peak in Central America), and South America.
Then, in the volley between heart and head, the head fought back, big time.
“The pull of practicality got the better of me, so I went back home in November 2003,” sighed Strong. “Got a job as an aerospace engineer, bought a home, got a boyfriend, who sadly turned out to be very controlling.”
More on him later. Strong’s parents were happy, but she really wasn’t. In fact, just about the only thing that jazzed her during this period was entering her first half Ironman triathlon. The aforementioned controlling beau said it would be too hard for her.
Strong proved him wrong, finishing the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1 mile run in seven hours and change.
She then pivoted to a completely new adventure, moving with her boyfriend to Blackheath, New South Wales, Australia in 2006. They ended up buying and managing an inn, the Glenella Guesthouse. Strong, hoping the move and new life would strengthen her relationship, agreed to marry her long-time boyfriend.
It didn’t work out that way.
“He left me six days before our scheduled December 8, 2012, wedding,” Strong related. “He emptied our bank account, sued me, left me running the business alone and made death threats against me and my family for two years after. And my dad insisted we were going to have the wedding party anyway, just without a groom! It was so hollow. I had to be the princess, with an ‘everything’s great’ smile. I felt the opposite.”
But in classic, what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-Strong-er fashion, Strong was able to find her ‘true north’ Down Under through selfish compassion.
“After processing my grief and anger, I started to get out of my own head,” she observed. “I worked to express a selfish compassion. What does that mean? I looked to be compassionate through sustainability. How could I be more sustainable with my transportation, my food, my purchases? Could I do better? YES! As for selfishness, I felt that if I became the best triathlete I could, that would help me help others.”
So, in 2013 Strong committed to becoming a triathlon world champion, holding herself accountable to greatness. She got laughed at, especially because she suffered from asthma (“I couldn’t run a mile”).
Friends suggested she give up milk and cheese. After only a week, Strong’s lungs cleared up. Not only was she able to run, but she also ran faster. That led to her giving up red and white meat, eggs, and fish, which had a myriad of positive results.
“My vegan lifestyle helped my sleep and strengthen my mindset,” recalled Strong. “This showed up in my athletic performance. In October 2013, at 33 years old, I completed a half-Ironman in 5 hours 3 minutes, shaving more than 2 hours off my time from 10 years earlier. A month later, I became Australian national champion for my age group.”
This was just the beginning for Strong as she:
- Completed her first full Ironman in May 2014, finishing 10th in her age group nationally.
- Won her age group in world championships long-distance triathlon in China.
- Qualified in five Ironman world championships in Europe and North America after selling her business and leaving Australia in 2015.
Yet, at the end of this period, Strong found herself back in Wales, with an injured hip, trying to figure out what to do with her life and in a deep funk. She began to do yoga, volunteered at a local Buddhist center, and started talk therapy.
Kate Strong finishing the swim portion of a triathlon in Australia (Photo credit: Kate Strong)
“It was a tough time,” she acknowledged. “Having battled for so long and unable to run, I had lost my identity. I also didn’t know what to do next. I felt alone, without a support network — for me, Wales was so isolated. And I was sexually abused by a new boyfriend, which triggered a suppressed memory of having been date-raped while in university.”
She began to find her way back through work.
Not as an engineer. Not as a nutritionist. Not as an entrepreneur.
She began to find her way back in 2016 by cleaning toilets at a coffee shop.
“I just enjoyed working,” asserted Strong. “I started with two shifts a week cleaning toilets. It gave me confidence — I was going to be the best toilet cleaner I could be! It was healing. The manager started to notice me, and I earned more shifts, greater responsibility, and more money.”
Eventually, Strong started a coaching business, focused on ‘being your best’ mindset and performance improvement, along with Reiki energy training. And she started to think about competing again.”
Problem was that her painful hip wouldn’t let her run. So, she set her sights on finding a Guinness world record to break, deciding to go for the ‘Longest Distance on a Stationary Bike title.
“A male record existed, but not one for a woman. This was an inequality I wanted to right,” offered Strong. “I rode for 24 hours straight but didn’t do the required 400 miles for an official record — I only did 290. Truth is, I didn’t train hard enough. I resolved that would never happen again.”
COVID-19 put things on hold for a while but Strong used the time to put in the work.
“I had moved in with my wonderful new boyfriend, Kieren, during the early days of the pandemic,” she said. “So, I was training on a stationary bike in the corner of our bedroom. I first went for the ‘most miles in one hour’ in January 2021 — I rode 23.9 miles for the record. Then in May, I cycled for 433 miles over 24 hours to get that record, as well as breaking my original 1-hour and 12-hour world records. One big goal for me was to inspire women. Apparently, it worked because two months later, another woman broke it.”
Video evidence of Kate Strong setting her Guinness world record for most miles cycled in a 1-hour period in May, 2021 (Photo credit: Kate Strong)
The COVID lockdowns inspired Strong’s new purpose — and her next challenge: Making a difference on climate change.
“I’ve been aware of the climate crisis for years,” acknowledged Stong. “But I naively — and conveniently — believed that our government had a plan to protect us and the environment. It was clear that this was and is not the case. The more I learned about our interconnectedness between our communities, different species and our environment, the more I became compelled to do all I can to fight for much-needed change to protect what we call home, our planet. I felt like I had to do something.”
That something will be CHALLENGE 3000, a three-month solo bike ride around the perimeter of England, Wales, and Scotland, scheduled to kick off on June 5, 2023 — World Environment Day. Strong will ride on a bamboo bike she’s building herself. And she will have climate conversations with communities along the way.
“We’ve already made great connections,” enthused Strong. “I’ll be diving with Project Sea Grass, which works to regenerate lost sea grass in North Wales. I’ll also be planting native wildflower seeds with the help of Blue Foundation Hub’s Blue Heart Campaign and talk to communities about ways we can increase our climate actions.”
Strong is also looking to make connections as EcoAthletes’ first bamboo cyclist Champion: “As soon as I heard about EcoAthletes, I knew I wanted to be an EcoAthletes Champion. Being part of a group that brings together like-minded athletes with a disruptive, strategic, business-like approach to building climate action is a perfect fit. I can’t wait to get started!”