Absa's Annah Watkinson: balancing triathlons and banking

The CA says she feels like a superhero, living a dual life at the bank and on the road.

“Despite your circumstances, you always have choices.” That’s Annah Watkinson’s mantra, which has helped carry her to professional and sporting success, even after her tumultuous upbringing. Her mother was a drug addict, and she was raised by her divorced grandmother, who did her best in less-than-ideal circumstances. Annah had friends whose parents were chartered accountants, and their lives seemed steady, which was what Annah wanted. Since she was good at maths, she decided that accountancy was her future.

She graduated from the UJ (then RAU) with a PwC bursary and then did her articles at PwC. She then opted to work for Absa, ultimately ending up as head of Global Finance for the Coastal Regions. During that time, she also completed her CFA, because she wanted to continue learning.

But this story isn’t about her finance work, it’s about something that started when she was on secondment in New York with PwC. “I took the opportunity to travel a lot within the States while I was there exploring the country, partying and seeing concerts, and although I had always been a gym person, I gained a bit of weight having all that fun,” she recalls.

She decided to take up running and loved it – even though she was running mostly on a treadmill in the New York winter. She carried on when she got back to South Africa, and a friend suggested she try a 21km road race that goes up and over Northcliff Hill. 

“I thought to myself no way, but I did it. And when I got to the end, running on to that field, I just had the most incredible sense of achievement. I couldn’t believe my body had carried me for 21km.”

Thus converted, Annah started running every weekend. She met a manin a running group, and they started dating. He was very keen on triathlons, and with his encouragement, she signed up for the Ironman 70.3 South Africa in East London. After she crossed the finish line, her boyfriend told her that she’d beaten him. And that, she says, was the beginning of the end of their relationship. But it was the beginning of a new love affair for Annah.

In 2012, she went back to the race, and won in her group. She found a training partner to support her in her mission to push it to the extreme, resulting in a great race, winning in her age group. She went on to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas, but was “over-confident and under-prepared”. “I had a terrible race. The international level was very tough.”

After breaking her collar bone and shattering eight bones in her wrist at the 94.7 cycle race, she had to miss the 70.3 in 2013, and aimed instead for Ironman, five weeks later.

She took it conservatively, which meant that when she hit the 28km marker, where people usually start to suffer, she was strong for the end of the race. She ended up winning in her age group in Port Elizabeth. So, she signed up with a coach Raynard Tissink, who said to her the night before Ironman SA 2015: “When are you going to turn pro, after tomorrow you are just going to be the age grouper in South Africa to beat. I think you should turn pro.”

She won in her age group and got her slot to go to Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona in Hawaii, the home of Ironman. She told herself that if she won in her age group there, she would go professional, but she came third. Although she was disappointed, she thought very deeply about it and talked to a lot of people, and decided to take the plunge.

She had a “phenomenal” first professional year in 2016, coming second at Ironman Lake Placid and third at Ironman Barcelona. But then 2017 proved to be a tough year. She moved to Cape Town for her current banking role, and found the demands of the move and establishing a new ecosystem, coupled with travelling around the world and racing against the best, to be challenging. Then, at the close of the season in Taiwan, she tore her calf on the bike. But forever aiming to top her personal best, she’s back in the game in 2018.

“I’ve had some OK races and some not great races, but I am feeling more positive,” she says.

She has become adept at balancing all the demands on her. She works seven days a week to juggle both her athletic and corporate career. She’s even been in race briefings and on conference calls simultaneously.

“One hour, I’ll be in the office doing my office thing and then the next hour I’m in lycra flying down the highway on a time-trial bike. I feel like a superhero, living a dual life!”