Building An Inspirational Triathlon Community with Joy Miles

Building An Inspirational Triathlon Community with Joy Miles

Coach Joy Miles has a passion for helping athletes from all skill levels feel comfortable and confident in the world of triathlon.

If you want to feel inspired, look no further than Coach Joy Miles. She is a fitness instructor and triathlon coach based in Chicago and has a palpable passion for helping members of her community be the very best version of themselves. She guides athletes through every step of their training journeys, from getting comfortable in the deep end of a pool to finishing their very first triathlon.

Her success as an athlete and a coach didn’t come easy though. As a black woman training in the city, she has faced adversity that most endurance athletes never have to grapple with. She has a story that calls for acknowledgment and leads us to notice what we can do to make the triathlon community a safer and more welcoming place.

Stand-Out Quotes

  • “They were like, ‘Hey, we’re doing an all women’s triathlon. You should come with us.’ [I] sent in my money and then I realized, I don’t know how to swim.”
  • “My whole philosophy is you try to tell me I can’t do something, watch me! I’m a little stubborn.”
  • “I meet everyone where they’re at because everyone is in a different place, a different experience, a different skill level. I try to reassure anyone I meet that, ‘I’m here with you. I’m going to help you. You are not going to fail.’ And it’s about helping people get comfortable, which will help build that confidence over time.”
  • “I wear my hair natural only because I work in fitness. I work out a lot. You learn what hairstyles will work for you. You learn what conditioners will work… I mean, I do wear lip gloss in the pool or lipstick in the pool or when I’m racing, you can still be glamorous.”
  • “But my whole mindset is, training is not canceled. Races may be canceled. Races will return, but training continues.”
  • “I live two blocks from Loyola University, Chicago. I was running and I actually was followed by the cops. I don’t look intimidating. I run in a running skirt. I have my hydration…And it was very disconcerting.”

Resources

Joy’s Instagram

Joy’s Blog

Joy’s Youtube Channel (In Progress): @jreneemiles

Transcript

Dirk Friel: 

My guest today is Joy Miles. She’s both a triathlon coach and certified Pilates instructor based in Chicago. Joy has been coaching for over 20 years after first learning to swim and discovering both her passion and talent for racing triathlons. She’s also a proud TrainingPeaks Ambassador. Among other clients, Joy works with the LGBTQ+ community and women of color to eliminate barriers to participation in triathlon and other endurance pursuits. 

Joy, thank you so much for joining me today. 

Joy Miles:

You’re welcome. 

Dirk Friel:

Yeah, I think we can all learn a whole lot from you. You really have this mission to bring triathlon to a whole new [diverse] set of triathletes, bringing in new athletes is certainly, I guess, probably a couple of decades old for you. Why don’t you tell us more about, first of all, your own experience of being a triathlete and how did you get into triathlon?

Joy Miles:

Well, I actually got into triathlon… a couple of women I used to train with at my old gym. We would do 5ks, 10ks, half marathons and marathons together. They were like, “Hey, we’re doing an all women’s triathlon. You should come with us.” “Okay.” Filled out the application, sent in my money and then I realized, I don’t know how to swim. 

Dirk Friel:

Oh! So you signed up before even trying?

Joy Miles: 

Yes, literally. So I actually went and purchased swim lessons and was in the pool every day for three months before my first triathlon.

Dirk Friel:

Wow. That was dedication.

Joy Miles:

Dedication, maybe a little craziness.

Dirk Friel:

And how many, how many years ago was this?

Joy Miles:

Almost 20 years ago.

Dirk Friel:

The end, that first experience of doing your first, toeing the line for the first time, how did it go?

Joy Miles:

It actually was a very hot day because it was summer in the suburb of Naperville in Chicago, This was the women’s, the old Danskin Women’s Race. I got into water and like, “Okay, I can do this.” This woman decided behind me to grab my ankle and pull me, freaked me out. I kicked her in the face. I just kept going, I’m like, “I can do this.” got to the bike. I had just picked up my bike a week ago, the week before, didn’t know how to work my gears, but figured it out. And then once I got to the run, I was happy. I’m like, “Oh, my happy place. I can do this 5k with my eyes closed.”

Dirk Friel:

And so that, that was a good enough experience to continue on with the sport. It sounds like…

Joy Miles:

To continue on, I did have some people saying I had no business being there. Some women who literally approached me, telling me I had no business being there because I was literally almost the second to the last person coming in on the bike, but I made it up on the run. I’m like, “Who are you? I’m supposed to have fun here!” 

Dirk Friel:

Wow. Hopefully the majority of people are welcoming, but you had those few encounters, which did you just brush it off or did that stick with you for a long time?

Joy Miles:

It stuck with me just a little bit. My whole philosophy is you try to tell me I can’t do something, watch me! I’m a little stubborn.

Dirk Friel:

Good. That probably comes through with your athletes you work with.

Joy Miles:

It does. When they say, “Oh, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” Can’t is a cuss word to me. You can say anything else, but that word. A year later I did my first indoor triathlon, and that’s where I met my coach for Team Dream, which is all women of color, triathlon team. And I think he felt sorry for me or took pity on me because of the way I swam because it looked like I was fighting the water every time I swam. And the sprints and indoor tries went into more sprint distance. 

A couple of years later, I decided to tackle my first half ironman. In hindsight, I should not have done that race. It was in St. Croix and training in the Midwest in the winter, and then going to a tropical island, where it’s hot, poses its own challenges. But the bike was the challenge because it was such a hilly race. I missed the bike cutoff by about two minutes. Our version of a hill is a speed bump.

Dirk Friel:

Right? Well, again, you kind of took the hard way. You don’t take anything easily. You take a licking and keep on ticking. So I mean, again, this is like building up your resilience, your firsthand knowledge which is going to come out later in your coaching, obviously. So how, how do you transition from early triathlon race experiences into becoming a mentor and eventually a coach.

Joy Miles:

When I started with Team Dream, I had to relearn how to swim using the total immersion method, but luckily I didn’t have any really bad habits cause I had just started swimming, but I caught on really quickly. And I was asked, do you want to be an assistant coach? And that’s how it came about.

Dirk Friel:

So then you said, “Sure. I’d love to take that on?” Or was that daunting to you?

Joy Miles:

No, actually it wasn’t because I was already working in fitness as a group exercise instructor and a personal trainer. So it just made sense as a seamless transition, even though I was still working in corporate America at the time as well.

Dirk Friel:

And so this was for Team Dream?

Joy Miles:

Yeah. 

Dirk Friel: 

So tell me more about the history of that. You joined it as an athlete and then eventually become a coach. When did it get started?

Joy Miles:

I want to say Team Dream was founded in 1997 or 1998 to get more women of color involved in the sport of triathlon, but also to learn how to swim. There’s a lot of barriers about swimming. “Oh I don’t want to get my hair wet or I don’t want to put my face in the water,” or it could be as simple as someone’s had a trauma from swimming as a kid.

Dirk Friel: 

And that program has obviously succeeded and grown through the years.

Joy Miles:

Yes. And it’s not only learning about multi-sport, but it’s also taking those skills that you learn in multi-sport and applying them to everyday life, applying them to work.

Dirk Friel: 

You know, I saw a quote from you, which I love, it says, “Our program is 100% intimidation free.”

Joy Miles:

Yes. 

Dirk Friel:

So that initial, even that first five minutes interaction with the new athlete is so important cause of that intimidation factor. Can you relate any of that from your experiences or how do you approach new athletes coming into the program? So it is starting from where they are at, right?

Joy Miles:

Yes. I meet everyone where they’re at because everyone is in a different place, a different experience, a different skill level. I try to reassure anyone I meet, “I’m here with you. I’m going to help you. You are not going to fail.” And it’s about helping people comfortable, which will help build that confidence over time.

Dirk Friel:

And the motivation factor. They probably all come from different places. The reason for even joining the program. Do you dig into that backstory of what their motivation is?

Joy Miles:

Sometimes I do. Some are women who have children and their children are learning how to swim, but they don’t know how to swim. What happens if their child is in a pool and they can’t get to their child or the lifeguard can’t get to their child.

Dirk Friel:

Is there a cost for this program? Is it, you know, what is it? Is it run through a particular YMCA or a health club?

Joy Miles:

We’ll rent out a pool and there is a fee. I don’t have that information off the top of my head. We’ve been on hiatus because of COVID and trying to get a pool or anything. But in the past, we’ll find a pool to train in, have a workout on a Saturday afternoon, two hours of working out in the pool, working on drills. Even just getting these women comfortable being in the deep end of the pool.

Dirk Friel:

Well, I saw it in my mother’s eyes. She tried her first triathlon.

Joy Miles:

It’s like, “Oh, you can’t touch the bottom. Oh, wait a minute.” And then you transition to open water. There’s no nice lane line. There isn’t a wall that you can hang on. Right. You can’t see anything. There might be, I don’t know, fish, seaweed…

Dirk Friel:

Other people hitting you, big fish.

Joy Miles:

We might see some fish. You might get some seagrass trying to figure out, “What is this on my ankle? Oh my God, something touched me.”

Dirk Friel:

Right. Well, as we talk about women of color, color and diversity, I mean, you’ve talked about in the past, around even the simple things around hair and makeup and getting over those kind of inhibitions, if you will, in that community. Again, you can work with them on that and tell us more about that.

Joy Miles:

Well for me, I wear my hair natural only because I work in fitness. I work out a lot. You learn what hairstyles will work for you. You learn what conditioners will work. You learn that fake eyelashes might not work in the pool. You can still wear lip gloss. I mean, I do wear lip gloss in the pool or lipstick in the pool or when I’m racing, you can still be glamorous.

Dirk Friel:

And what about the commitment to the program? It’s an endurance event, but it’s also the endurance aspect of training for this event is not an overnight thing. Are people, are they automatically engaged? And it’s easy to have them show up or are you having like work with them to get them to show up?

Joy Miles:

Sometimes, it’s work gets in the way, life gets in the way. We have some members who choose not to race, but they want to do the training and they will volunteer for the race to see what a triathlon looks like. So they can see everything before they actually participate in one, or they might do a relay. If they don’t feel comfortable doing the swim, they might do the bike or they might do the run and someone else will do the swim. Motivation is different for everybody. We have some who in the past travel a lot for work. So just trying to find access to a pool, a hotel treadmill, if there is a treadmill, a bike, or if there is a running path or a running group that they can run with.

Dirk Friel:

So in this crisis we’re faced with, with COVID, and you mentioned not being able to gain access to swimming pools, is there a focus around running events or obviously the running and cycling that can occur indoors, outdoors? Or do you still have the programming going on minus the swim?

Joy Miles:

We’re not really doing a lot with that, but there have been folks who’ve joined various running groups or virtual races that have popped up within the past three to four months with the Ironman Virtual Race Series, the Rock and Roll Virtual Race Series, the Zwift Challenges, the Rouvy Challenges. In this weird world that we are in now with races left and right being canceled, we’re able to make adaptations. And then a lot of Instagram workouts, YouTube workouts.

Dirk Friel:

What about your own personal goals as a triathlete?

Joy Miles:

Well, I did until my two events were deferred to 2021.I was supposed to do Rev3 Williamsburg in June, which got moved to August, but I didn’t feel that I would be comfortable racing in August in Virginia heat. So I decided to defer to 2021 and also my big race was going to be ITU Worlds for the Aquathlon in Amsterdam. And it was postponed to 2021.

Dirk Friel:

Yeah. Well we just got recent news that Ironman Hawaii, 70.3 Worlds won’t happen in February. 

Joy Miles:

Right. 

Dirk Friel:

You know, that was plan B. Yup. Now, now we’re onto plan C, which is hopefully…

Joy Miles:

October 2021.

Dirk Friel:

Right. So where’s your state of mind right now in your own personal training, having these races be canceled?

Joy Miles:

My hashtag has been, “Training is not canceled.”

Dirk Friel:

Nice. 

Joy Miles:

I’ve been working out since, I just returned to work July 1st. I returned to the pool last week and I didn’t drown. I remembered how to swim, but my whole mindset is, training is not canceled. Races may be canceled. Races will return, but training continues. So I’m still training as if I have some races happening.

Dirk Friel:

Yeah. And I mean, in the swim, obviously it’s almost starting from ground zero again, being out of the pool for so many months.

Joy Miles:

Yes. And bringing back my yardage. We’re limited to one hour a day of swimming because you have to reserve a pool lane, which I’m loving the reserving of a pool lane. So I don’t have to circle swim or fight someone for a pool lane. I’m just getting my yardage back up to where I was comfortably anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 yards a week. 

Dirk Friel:

And so where are you at now?

Joy Miles:

Last week I ended at roughly 6,600 yards.

Dirk Friel:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, you can’t go by the same pace either

Joy Miles:

No, I mean, my pace is slower. I’m like, okay, this is a time for me to work on a lot of technique, a lot of form, strokes that I do not like to do, which is the, I hate the breaststroke, but I’m doing breaststroke drills. I’m forcing myself to do them.

Dirk Friel:

I think we can certainly learn a lot from you, as a woman of color in triathlon. These initial, I guess, things that we should bring to our own communities to spread awareness around some obstacles that you’ve personally felt and seen. I mean, I’ve spoken to you in the past and you’ve even talked about having to think about the location and what you wear and where you run. And can you bring some of that to light to help spread that awareness?

Joy Miles:

Right when the shutdown started happening, this was before Chicago went into curfew. I was running in my neighborhood. I live approximately two miles from the Evanston border. I live two blocks from Loyola University, Chicago. I was running and I actually was followed by the cops. I don’t look intimidating. I run in a running skirt. I have my hydration. I have my ID at all times. And it was very disconcerting. And one of the Ironman Virtual Races, one of the run distances was a half marathon. So trying to map out a half marathon, I went a little bit too far West and people were looking at me like I did not belong in their neighborhood. You see a couple of men walk out and it was very, very jarring to me. And I literally had to turn around and just go back a little bit more East to my neighborhood where I was comfortable.

Dirk Friel:

Yeah. That’s absolutely horrible. I mean, you are wearing bright colors and a running skirt, out training and you have to think about these things. And they…

Joy Miles:

That someone might hit me. Someone might throw something at me. I’ve had stuff thrown at me in the past. I have had someone spit on me and it gives you pause. It’s like, “I’m not going to let you stop me from getting my workouts in.”

Dirk Friel:

Right. 

Joy Miles:

It’s gotten to the point where I will send a text message to my boyfriend. Like, “Hey, this is where I’m going. I should be back at this time. If you don’t hear from me within 20 minutes of that time, call me.”

Dirk Friel:

Yeah. And it’s just sad to hear, a sad state of affairs that’s still obviously going on after how many decades, hundreds of years. And it’s just appalling that we have to still deal with that. Things need to change in our local communities. You even mentioned certain stores or bike shops that you are treated differently.

Joy Miles:

I’m very particular about where I go and where I shop because attitude, how you interact with me versus others will determine where I spend my money. I always believe everyone should be treated equal.

Dirk Friel:

Hopefully we are. I’m sure we can make them obvious improvements, but within the sport of triathlon, what is the statistic? Is it less than half of…

Joy Miles:

It’s less than half of 1% are African American.

Dirk Friel:

Right. Are you seeing other endurance sports maybe doing things differently or, or, or are they all equal in your eyes?

Joy Miles:

It seems like it’s a little equal on a level playing field, but like USA Cycling and USA Swimming are trying as well. Right. But we just need more, it’s more about getting into the communities. Getting in, I would even say, get into the schools, but the schools are actually closed.

Dirk Friel:

Well, yeah, hopefully that changes, but live and learn, you know? Well, I think of splash and dashes, this is where we get young kids seeing that this is actually a sport. And, “I like riding my bike. I like running. I like swimming. Water…”

Joy Miles:

Sport is fun. Something that you can do is, “Get in the water, okay. Get on your bike, okay. You’re done. Or get into water and throwing your running shoes and run, and you’re done.” It needs to be more of seeing that it’s fun. And it’s not just, “Oh, you should be relegated to football, basketball, baseball.” There is more out there.

Dirk Friel:

Right? Yeah. Again, I think about those splash and dashes getting them more into other diverse communities. It’s that exposure to the sport that you can’t overcome, that if you don’t even see the sport, how can you even have the ambition to do it, right?

Joy Miles:

Correct.

Dirk Friel:

And then secondarily, along with that is seeing role models, people that look like yourself, getting more of those role models within the sport. And when I say that, that’s not that obviously we need more professionals. If you know, there’s only a couple, right…

Joy Miles:

There’s one professional, African American male triathlete, and that’s Max Fennell. The next one coming up should be Sika Henry. We need to see more. I think with also the Olympic Games, not happening this year, or even the Olympic trials, seeing the swimming trials in particular, seeing the next, the future Cullen Jones, it has a big effect. We’re slowly seeing professional cyclists. And the Tour de France, I think it was last year. I’m like, “Oh my God, is that a black guy?!”

Dirk Friel:

Right there? There’s a South African team. 

Joy Miles:

There’s the South African team. And just seeing what’s happening on grassroot levels in different countries could potentially happen here.

Dirk Friel:

Right. Well, we should aim to make that happen to here. And if any of us have any of us has the ability to do that, certainly that should be an impetus here to try and expand.

Joy Miles:

I think one of the biggest things, if in an ideal world, if we could revamp the physical education system in the United States. Yes, there are some schools that don’t have pools, but is there a way to partner with a local bike shop? Most high schools have a track and field team, but why not think about looking at starting a cycling team.

Dirk Friel:

Yep. I mean, NICA, do you know the NICA program in the United States has really developed mountain biking within high schools? That’s had great success. I think there can be a lot of movement done within the club, within local clubs as well. Whereby as a club member, you can donate old gear back into the club, which then gets passed out into the community.

Joy Miles:

There is a group here in Chicago, Tri Masters, and there is Grit Soars that were donating, trying to get bikes and gear donated for kids to participate in the Kid’s Tri last year or the Chicago Triathlon. 

And I’ve seen the kids race at the Chicago tri, which I think is number one, an amazing thing. Number two is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen because you see kids who might have their training wheels on their bike, or you might see a kid who has this fierce look, they have this intense look on their face and they’re peddling as hard as they can, or they’re running as hard as they can, or they’re just jumping into water. No fear.

Dirk Friel:

I had a flashback to my daughter. I’m a bike racer at heart. And I had her do her first bike race. And she never did another one because she was the only girl. 

Joy Miles:

Oh! That’s another thing.

Dirk Friel:

You’re right. And that was like heartbreaking to me. But, hey, she discovered volleyball and other passions other than my passions. But that was just like, so heartbreaking to me that, I was so happy that day, but then kind of let down. And I was like, “Oh wow. In Boulder, Colorado, she was the only girl in this kid’s bike race.”

Joy Miles:

Now that’s very shocking for being in Boulder, out of all places. I consider Boulder the mountain biking capital of the world.

Yeah. Well, it wasn’t mountain. It was actually a kid’s criterium, so I’m saying road. So it should have been even easier for more girls to get there. But I mean, that experience right there just kind of showed me, not that other six year olds are role models, but seeing other people like yourself can go a long way.

Joy Miles:

Yes.

Dirk Friel:

Absolutely. Hey, I’d love to hear about some success stories. Do you have any favorites or you don’t have to name names or anything, but… how has triathlon changed people’s lives?

Joy Miles:

I had one woman who actually worked with me privately [who] didn’t want to put her face in the water. I mean, was freaking out, literally worked with her twice a week for almost a year. She was able to go on vacation with her husband for the first time, go into the ocean and swim and not freak out. Because her husband came from the Caribbean and swimming is what he knows. And that fear of being in the water. But she literally got over her fear. It took a while. It took a lot of convincing, you know, strategic negotiation skills, but she was able to do that. And now she actually scuba dives

Dirk Friel:

Wow.

Joy Miles:

From going from not wanting to put her face in the water whatsoever, and three feet of water freaking out, to now scuba diving.

Dirk Friel:

I think for better or for worse, she faced her fears. And then somehow that fear became, you know, a fun passion and hopefully made her marriage even better.

Joy Miles:

Oh yes. And I mean, I would love my mother to swim. I would never teach my mother how to swim. I have a rule: I do not teach relatives.

Dirk Friel:

Yeah, I understand.

Joy Miles:

But she’s tried a couple of times and it’s that fear.

Dirk Friel:

I also want to end with another quote of yours I’ve found from an interview. And you said, “My goal is to make everyone the best athlete they can be. Not necessarily what the media calls an athlete.” And I just think there’s so much in that quote that you’re meeting them where they’re at from day one, no matter where it’s at and inch-by-inch, you can get them to a better place. And so [I] really love that. 

Joy Miles:

Thank you.

Dirk Friel:

I really love that quote. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it means a lot. Well, thank you so much, can people learn more about you or Team Dream? Anything else? How can they follow you on social media?

Joy Miles:

They can follow me on social media on Instagram, I’m @fitness724. On Facebook, I’m just Joy Miles. And on Twitter, I’m not as active on Twitter as much. I’m @JReneMiles on Twitter.

Dirk Friel:

Awesome. Well, some people might reach out to you and see, maybe learn another thing or two from you to help bring awareness and try and bring more programming down to their local communities. I hope this can help a little bit. So thank you for your time, Joy. Thank you so much.

Joy Miles:

Thank you.

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