Thursday, November 19, 2015

Like The Rain

All photos © Eric Wynn 2015

Ironman Arizona
Tempe, AZ ★ 2015.11.15

The highs and lows aren't part of the process; they are the process. - Joe Maloy

Every thunder cloud that came was one more I might not get through
On the darkest day there's always light and now I see it too
But I never liked the rain until I walked through it with you - Clint Black

I don't really have a ton to offer about the race in Tempe. I know I'm faster than 8:08 on that course. But I am not sure I could have been much faster at my third Ironman in 13 weeks. 8:08 and 5th place in the best field that race has ever seen is not something I'm thrilled with, but it is something I'm proud of, and there were some really positive takeaways. It was both a better and worse way to finish the season than the race in Kona. Trying to back up another Ironman was always going to be a bit of a crapshoot with IMMT - 8 weeks - Kona - 5 weeks - IMAZ. That's just a lot of long racing. And it showed up in the back half of each discipline. 

I was in the lead group during the swim for probably 1000-1500m, typically the hardest section of the race when it comes to making the lead group for me. If I'm in the group after 500m, I typically stay in. The hard part is staying in that first 500m. But it seems like things are starting to come together on my swim, and here it was just the accumulated fatigue that saw me get popped out of that group. Swimming solo for 3/5 or so of the swim, and really solo without even a group to chase for half of it, I had some real low thoughts ranging from, "I should have DNF'ed Kona." to "I should never have raced Kona." to "I should never have raced Arizona." The only thing keeping me from expecting to see 1:00:00+ on the clock was that I wasn't getting run over by the lead women who started five minutes behind... 

Getting popped in the swim made me very aware that it probably wasn't going to be a magical day and that I had almost certainly gone harder than I thought I had in Kona. In some ways, this was good as I knew I was going to have to be more conservative on the bike than normal. I had already planned to try to save something more for the last lap than I had in year's past, and while I didn't really achieve my goal of a negative split, I also didn't blow up that way I did last year. The rain that came pouring down with about 10mi/15km remaining did make me extra cautious near the end, but I doubt it affected my time much. Of all the races where I didn't expect to face a downpour, I would have put IMAZ at the top of the list. 

The rain then kept on coming, which was even more unexpected. It rarely rains all day in the desert. My heart really goes out to those late night finishers who had most of their day in the rain as opposed to just part of it. The concrete on the IMAZ run course, which gets a bad rap for being "too hard" (it's been proven that asphalt is not meaningfully softer than concrete for runners), was actually a real issue as it was slick as ice, especially early in the run. Thankfully, the grass and dirt next to the walking path was still pretty dry, and I was able to find some traction there during the first lap. On the second lap, the grass especially was too soaked to be much good, but thankfully the initial slickness of the concrete had also faded a bit as the rain continued to fall.

In training, my running had been going really well, and I felt great for the first 12 or so miles. I've done the "this is way too fast" start at Ironmans, and this didn't feel like that. But I still knew the tank was likely filled only with fumes at this point. And sure enough, my pace fell off pretty quickly in the back half. I went through a very dark patch for about four miles on the second lap before I made it to the RedBull aid station and pounded a whole can in about 15 seconds. I also started taking in some solid calories via some of Gu blocks, which worked well. Most of my nutritional strategy has been geared around my preferred racing conditions - hot and humid - and in my experience solid food is not great there. But in colder weather, solid food is a much better idea. I had shifted my nutritional strategy somewhat, mixing my EFS Pro in a more concentrated mix in order to not take in to much fluid (c.f. cold-weather diuresis), but I think I didn't properly account for the extra caloric needs of keeping warm in cold and wet conditions nor the extra caloric needs of a body that wasn't ideally primed via a solid build and taper. 

I did have both a bottle of EFS Pro with 400cal and a RedBull in my run special needs that I did not take. Looking back - and I had forgotten this until I actually sat down to write this report - that was my biggest mistake. I should have hit both those calories, but as I ran through special needs, I just felt like I had more muscular fatigue than caloric "fatigue." Even after 20 Ironmans, I'm still learning. I made the right decision before the race, but then I failed to follow through on race day. That might have been the difference between 5th and 4th, though of course it also might not have been. In my own defense, I think I didn't realize the impact of the cold on caloric needs, as this was by far the coldest Ironman I've ever done.

Those four miles - from about 16mi (two miles AFTER special needs) to 20mi - were pretty close to the darkest I've had during an Ironman. I wanted to walk. I wanted to stop. I wanted to drop out. But somehow thanks to the magic of caffeine and sugar and some willpower, I was able to come good and finished with a very strong last 5k. It was a day where there were countless times when I wanted to just shut it down, but after struggling for a few years mentally, I did not. Just like in Kona. After losing at the mental game more often than not in 2013 and 2014, I feel like I strung together three races where my mental game was the strongest part of my racing to close out 2015. The timing of the races was certainly not ideal and there were some circumstances out of my control, but I felt like I had more answers than questions, especially in training as I prepared for each race, a big change from the past two years. Mental fortitude always was a strength of mine in the past, and I feel like it is again, both on and off the race course.

Looking ahead to next year, I feel some real confidence. As is typical after an Ironman and especially the last race of the season, I had been feeling a bit lost. But today I listened to the latest episode of Joel Filliol's (my coach) new podcast, "Real Coaching." He interviews Dan Lorang, who has been Jan Frodeno's coach since 2013. It's a phenomenal interview, with a lot of practical takeaways for anyone interested in excellence. The two biggest things for me were the emphasis on goal setting and also on self-confidence. In Tremblant, I showed I could still win - and win fast - as a father of three. In Kona, I showed I could still overcome adversity, once a hallmark of mine, especially in 2011. And at IMAZ, I showed I could still perform with less than ideal preparation. A perfect race in AZ, I think, would have been about 5min faster. That's a lot. But it's also not. If I could have been within 5min of my perfect race in Kona, I would have been very happy.

When I think about what I need to perform well in Kona, I finally feel like the answer is, once again, simple repetition. I just need more of the same. Well, maybe not quite so many Ironmans; I've tried that... But in terms of preparation and approach, I think I have my rhythm again. I have some mojo. For now, it's time for some real downtime. For family time. For long put-off projects around the house. And for some overdue writing assignments. But I'm looking forward to picking up in 2016 how I closed out this year. I believe it's going to be an amazing year.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Engineer's Lament

Cyanide & Happiness © Dave McElfatrick

Ironman World Championships
Kailua-Kona, HI  2015.10.10

Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway. - John Wayne

No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle. - Winston Churchill

Before you read any further on this, there are two separate articles that serve as a sort of adjunct or prelude. The first is Malcolm Gladwell's article in "The New Yorker," from which I borrowed the title. It's a good read without too much of Malcolm's signature "Gotcha!" style, which I love but also hate. The main topic that it delves into is how engineers tend to see things. If you start with the joke about the priest, the doctor, and the engineer playing golf and read through the line about Toyota's engineers saying, "play at night." that's probably enough. But the whole thing is a good read. 

The second read is a bit more philosophical, though I happen to think the engineering mentality is very philosophical. It's Heather Wurtele's post about her race, which unfortunately ended quite prematurely due to an unfixable (on-course anyway) technical issue. I had sort of made my peace with what happened on Saturday, but after reading Heather's report, I felt more than just as sense of closure; I felt a much greater sense of accomplishment.

One of the most common questions for professional triathletes, one that I'm lucky to not be asked much anymore and which I am very lucky that my parents never asked me in the first place, is, "when are you going to get a real job?" A slight variation on this - the one that I often like to ask other pros - is, "what do you think you'd be doing if you weren't doing this?" I've been doing this long enough now that I find it hard to imagine doing anything else. But for a while, my answer was that I'd like to work for the NTSB. The NTSB is responsible for figuring out why things go wrong when big things go wrong in civilian transportation. Plane crashes are the big things it does, but it has other responsibilities. But at its core, the NTSB's job is to figure out why when "shit happens" involving airplanes falling out of the sky. "Shit happens" is not an acceptable reason for an NTSB engineer. I've said before that there are two basic types of engineers. There are the creative types. And there are the debuggers. The creative types make stuff. And the debuggers figure out how that stuff will break. I'm a debugger. I'm a little bit creative, but mostly I'm a pessimist. I manage to travel with fewer spares and fewer tools to races now than I once did, but I still walk a fine line between paranoid and preparedness. I have had engineering-type shit happen at races and, rarely, during races, but I've never had it really affect the outcome of the race. At least not until Saturday.

During the swim, my primary goal was, "do not lose the race." I continue to work on becoming a better swimmer, but once race day comes, my primary goal is simply to get out of the water with a manageable gap to the front of the race and without too much fatigue. I'm a relatively terrestrial triathlete. I win races on the bike and run. But I can definitely lose races on the swim, a la Kona 2012. My goal was to not do that. I wanted to exit the water within four minutes of the lead group, which I did. It wasn't my best swim, the sort of swim that sets you up for a breakthrough performance, but it was good enough. My goal was to finish in the top-10, and I believed it was still possible. Boris Stein of Germany, who finished 10th, was the only person to not swim in the front pack or off-the-front who made the top-10, but so what. He did it. So it was doable.

I paced the early part of the bike fairly well, and I was starting to see the effects of the typically crazy early pacing, which I consciously avoided, when I felt my saddle shift underneath me. This was about 20mi (30km) into the ride, or about 45min. At first I thought my seat post clamp had slipped, which is odd because I epoxy it in place because I know that seat post clamps do slip when people hit bumps or potholes or anything else. But then I reached down under the saddle and felt around and felt a crack. My first thought was that the shell had cracked where the metal rail inserts into the plastic shell. This was odd because I was, quite literally, "just riding along" (known as "JRA;" there's a joke in the bike industry that all catastrophic accidents happen while people are JRA. "I was just riding along when [insert catastrophe here]..."). The saddle was neither new nor what I would consider old. I had about two years and probably 8,000 miles on this saddle, which about eight months and 3,000 of those miles with this saddle clamped in this seat post. I had a new bike for the race, but I just moved my whole seat post assembly over from my old bike to the new one. 

What had actually happened was one of the saddle's rails had snapped. I was able to manage it by sliding back a bit (as opposed to nose riding as I prefer to do) and sort of putting my weight more on the saddle as opposed to torquing it sitting on the front. It wasn't ideal, but it wasn't terrible. But the more I rode, the worse it got, as without the support of a structurally sound rail assembly, the other rails kept snapping until I had broken the rails in four places. Each of the saddles two rails had snapped, both in front of and behind the clamping mechanism. By the time I was climbing to Hawi, my saddle shell was basically floating around on the top of the seat post, held on by a mix of gravity and concavity. I ended up essentially sitting on the side of the seat, which was now the top of the seat, and standing relatively regular to sort of shift the saddle back into place and also to stretch my legs since my saddle was also now quite a bit lower than it was supposed to be by virtue of no longer actually being attached to anything. I tried not to stand too much, worried that was going to recreate the dark humor of my all-time favorite Cy & H strip (see above), which is incredibly crude and irreverent but also very funny. At least if you ride your bike alone a lot and have weird thoughts occupy your brain for countless hours...

At that point, I thought I had three options. The first was the simple one. I stop. I call it a day. I go race Arizona. The second was that I keep riding, try to keep the saddle on as best as I can, and just essentially stand for most of the ride. This seemed like it would be doable, but there was probably no way I could run afterwards. The third was to try to get a new saddle. But how? Would neutral support have a spare saddle? I thought they'd probably at least be able to get one. Maybe.

It could have been worse...

As I neared the top of the Hawi climb, I finally saw the neutral support car (the motos have only wheels), and I flagged them down. I rolled through the turnaround and pulled over next to the car, where the SRAM NRS (Neutral Race Support) guys were waiting with a front wheel and a back wheel, certain that I had flatted. Because that's the normal thing that happens during races. As I stopped and dismounted, I said, "I need a saddle." I think I probably said this at least one more time, because this is not a normal thing to need, but once I did, the guys pulled a bike off the roof (I think it was the personal bike of one of the guys helping), pulled his saddle off, loosened my saddle clamp and pulled out the two rails that were still stuck in there without a shell attached, and got the saddle mounted. Unfortunately, because it's a somewhat normal thing for seat posts and saddle hardware to slip, I have everything glued in place. It's no big deal when traveling, because of how the Dimond breaks down. But what it means is that the saddle height and, critically, saddle pitch are fixed for the saddle that I ride. The height was not a big deal. Saddle height is relatively easy to work around and even a few centimeters of differences is manageable. Pitch, on the other hand is a big deal. I run my saddles at between 0.0 and -0.3 degrees of pitch. Essentially, my saddle is perfectly level. And I'm neurotic about this. The new saddle, measured post race, was pitched at +6.0 degrees. On the bright side, I could actually sit on it because it wasn't broken. On the not so bright side, sitting on it meant either sitting on the very tip pointed up and driving into my prostate or sitting back on it with my pelvis posteriorly (rather than anteriorly) rotated in the way that you might ride a mountain bike to keep traction on the rear wheel and keep the front wheel light for rolling over obstacles. But neither of this is really how you should ride a TT bike. Certainly not a course like the one in Hawaii. 

Cyanide & Happiness © Rob DenBleyker

The worst part of this was the descent from Hawi. That typically requires high cadence riding because of the high speeds, and generally power is low. My forearms and shoulders and upper back were screaming because I basically had to put all my weight on them. When you ride, your weight is distributed between your arms (or hands on a road bike), your saddle, and your feet. The harder you ride, the more weight goes to your feet, because of Newton's Third Law. This is why TT bikes are great when you are racing but are not so great for riding to the coffee shop at a leisurely pace. I was pretty sure I could finish the ride, and given that your arms aren't too necessary for running, I thought I might be okay for the marathon, though the tension in my upper back and neck was a bit of an issue. Once I got down from Hawi and back onto the Queen K, I sort of found a manageable rhythm of sitting on the tip, sitting on the back, and then standing. I continued to focus mostly on nutrition and hydration, at least because it was something else to think about. I was pretty sure my plan for a top-10 was done. But I thought that I could still finish the race, and that was important to me. Really important. The feeling of not finishing in 2013 still haunts me. That emptiness from IMAZ 2011, Kona 2013, and IMTX 2015 - my three Ironman DNFs - was awful. Especially Kona. I knew I wanted to finish. In 2012, when I finished 13th, I so buried myself that I don't really remembering anything from the race. I don't remember Ali'i, or crossing the finish, or much of anything. At the very least, I wanted a happy memory of Ali'i, and simply finishing after all this was going to be something to celebrate.

I managed to keep my power reasonably high - which helped with the discomfort by shifting weight to my feet - but I had to sit up and stand a lot. And on the Queen K that's a killer. I lost virtually all the time I lost from Hawi back to Kona. I basically stayed even, pace-wise, with the leaders to Hawi. On the way back, I lost 12 or so minutes just on the return trip. Most of that was fighting the bike. I was stopped for less than three minutes swapping on the new saddle. The major time losses were when I was riding. I got some relief around the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery, when the headwind picked up. With the wind pushing into me and giving me steady resistance, I was able to actually push decent power which made things much more tolerable as way more weight was on my feet. I passed quite a few people struggling - a reminder as to the penalty of mis-pacing - on the way in, and I started to be a bit optimistic. I thought maybe riding easier than I had expected would mean fresh legs and a ripping fast run. I know I can run sub-2:50, and that would have been a great way to finish. 

Getting off the bike, I came into T2 with Matt Trautman and Lionel Sanders, both of whom are among the best runners in the sport. It was good company to be in if I wanted to run fast. But unfortunately, the reality of riding 150 of 180km with either a broken seat or a wonky seat had pretty well wrecked my legs. I had a lot of pain my left achilles and both of my glutes were seriously angry after doing extra work in the my big-slam-esque position and both of my hamstrings were unhappy about the extra work they had to do when I was sitting in my on-the-point-of-the-needle position. Sub-2:50 quickly changed to 2:55 quickly changed to sub-3 quickly changed to just-keep-running-and-don't-injure-yourself-and-leave-something-in-the-tank-for-IMAZ. And that's pretty much what I did. I never walked. I just ran the pace that was comfortable, whatever that was. I was diligent about fueling and hydrating at the aid stations. And I mostly just treated it like a longest ever training day. I mean, if Jens Voigt could ride a kid's bike to a stage finish in the TdF, I could do this.

If Jens can ride a kid's bike in the TdF, I could ride a broken saddle...

For most of the run, I tried to just focus on other things. I tried to be extra thankful to the volunteers, as opposed to just grunting appreciation. I cheered on other competitors. I high-fived. I enjoyed myself. And when I got to Ali'i Drive, I soaked it all in. I wanted a great memory, and I have one. Looking back on the race, I figure that if I had been able to execute according to how I felt early in the bike, based on what I've done before, based on the speed guys rode at given wattages, I think that I lost between 20 and 25 minutes in total. That's a lot. 25 minutes has me fighting for 6th place with Cyril Viennot. And 20 minutes has me fighting for 10th with Boris Stein. I feel like that was the day I could have had. Of course, I could have blown up and ridden slower. Or run slower. Or both. Or DNFed. Ultimately, I finished 21st, salvaging some pride by not getting chicked the phenomenal Daniela Ryf and also justifying all those hours spent training by also beating all the age-groupers. Barely. And I had an awesome time. And I'm way, way, way, way less sore than if I had to race 140.6 miles. And while I'm obviously disappointed, I'm trying not to dwell on it. I'm trying to use it as motivation for what seems like my inevitable race at IMAZ on November 15th. I hadn't planned on it, but it seemed to have planned on me. This is my 8th time at that race.

The biggest takeaway for me, and I hope for all of you, is that while 25 minutes is a lot, it's also not a lot. I mean, I still would have been in contention for the win and certainly for a paycheck at most other Ironman races. Ironman is a long day, and you have a lot of time to fix problems. I'm proud of the way that I kept my cool and focused on the really important stuff - hydration and fueling and pacing. Not to say that a working bike isn't important. But a mostly working bike is pretty good. It's hard to have a great race in Kona. But if you are reasonably disciplined, I don't think it's hard to have a good race. And I think I had a good race. And I hope I can use that in the future when some other thing doesn't go my way, because it's certainly going to happen again. Hopefully not this, but something will.

And that brings me to the conclusion of this whole thing. The NTSB part of it. How hopeful can I be that this sort of thing won't happen again? What's noteworthy is that I talked on Slowtwitch Forums about this failure, and some other folks chimed in with their own experiences. A friend of mine also wrote to tell me that he had experienced the same failures twice. And John Cobb now makes my preferred saddle, the SHC170, with hollow cro-moly steel rails instead of the solid titanium rails that were present on my saddle. My initial reaction to this was anger. It was the emotional response. The typical public response. 

But then I started thinking like an engineer. On the flipside of this is that I've ridden this saddle for many miles without a problem. And more than that, I've ridden some variation of this saddle for a lot of miles.  I've ridden an HC or SHC 170 saddle from 2009-2015 (except for 2014) without an issue. Probably 50-60,000 miles. And I would typically ride a saddle for two years or more. In that time, I had three different types of clamping hardware: Thomson and Specialized and, for 2015 only, Dimond. This was my first issue. 

The problem clearly happens, but it's not overwhelming. I described it as unlikely, but definitely not impossible or even improbable. And it seems, at first glance anyway, to be a function of more than just the saddle. John has seen it with the Cervelo most often, but I haven't asked what other bikes are on the list. I have now seen it with a Dimond. My friend Jay saw it twice on a SpeedConcept, but using the old-style clamp that was identical to the Specialized clamp that I never had an issue with. So, basically, there is no clear conclusion. It was enough a problem that John switched to cro-mo, but not enough of a problem that I couldn't log countless miles without an issue until Saturday. 

I do note that Kraig Willet's (of BikeTechReview) broken Fizik also had solid Ti rails. And that Fizik no longer uses solid Ti but instead carbon, cro-mo, or a their own proprietary k:ium alloy. Hollow metal rails seems like a better idea to me than solid, as they should be more likely to buckle than fracture. And steel is usually tougher than titanium. But was solid titanium a bad choice? Or just not the best choice? It's lighter, but not by much. Of course, "not by much" can add up if everyone takes that approach to every part. It's all about balance. And for the better part of my career, that balance seemed just fine. Was ignorance bliss? Or am I just responding emotionally because it was my race and not someone else's?

Would Denny Gioia have issued a recall on saddles with these rails? Would I? I doubt it. In fact, I know I wouldn't have. Apple changed the design of the new iPhone 6S to make it more structurally rigid. Is that an acknowledgement that the iPhone 6 has a problem with bending? Or is it just an improvement? It seems clear that there is a better way to do things - make the saddle with hollow steel rails as opposed to solid titanium rails - but does that mean that the old way was bad? I don't think so. I had no reason to be anything but confident in my equipment. And I still don't. 

Racing is about tradeoffs in all aspects. This is true of bicycle frames, clothing, tires, running shoes, etc. As Gladwell says, there are specifications and there are tolerances. It's the engineers job to manage those balances. And for two years, the engineer that decided on solid titanium alloy rails was right. If I had ridden four less hours in the past year, would the seat have broken on my next ride instead of race day? Or I had ridden one more hour in the past year, would I have broken it the day before the race instead of the day of? These are the sorts of questions that can haunt you. And this is where Heather's post gave me so much. By default, I tend to care about numbers. And the numbers justified my riding this saddle without worry. And not only riding it on race day, but continuing to ride it. But emotion, because I had invested so much in the race, made me angry. At first, I was frustrated. By "bad luck" or "fate" or, since it's Hawaii, "Madame Pele." Then when I found out that Cobb had changed the rail material, I was angry. Why wasn't there a recall? But then I started thinking like an engineer again. 60,000 miles without a problem. Thousands of saddles sold and ridden without problems. The problem was unlikely, but not impossible and not improbable. So what do you do? What if I had switched saddles right before the race because of finding out the day before that the saddles now had steel rails instead of titanium? Would that have been smart? I had 8,000 miles telling me not to worry. And, imagine I got some saddle sore, or the saddle slipped, or some other possible though unlikely problem had happened. I'd be sitting here kicking myself for making a change so close to race day.

Heather summarized the value in the process extraordinarily well. And I think I got the process right, finally. I did too much in 2012 and not enough in 2013 and this time I feel like I split the difference. This time I got it right. At least, I think so. And while it's frustrating, especially at 35 where I don't have unlimited chances left, the journey was still worth it. Even without the chance for IMAZ in five weeks. And even more so with it. Teddy Roosevelt's " the arena" quote is so overused and cliched that I'm a bit loathe to include it. But it really is such a great quote. And since Heather didn't include it, I feel okay ending on that note. On knowing that I not only was in the arena, I was in the arena and having prepared to be there. And that's worth a whole lot. Even for an engineer...

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. - Theodore Roosevelt

Monday, August 24, 2015


Eight hours of racing, but it's mostly a blur... © Julien Heon 2015

Ironman Mont-Tremblant
Mont-Tremblant, QC, Canada ★ 2015.08.16

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.
John Lennon

For five seasons, the TV show "Justified" follow US Marshal Raylan Givens, masterfully played by actor Timothy Olyphant, as he waged a shoot-first-ask-questions-later battle to enforce the law in Kentucky's rural Harlan County. The genesis of the show's title is revealed early in the pilot episode when Raylan defends shooting a drug dealer in Miami (which is what ultimately lands him back in his home state of Kentucky) by saying something along the lines of, "He pulled first. The shooting was justified." A good many of Raylan's shootings are clearly justified. A good many are not quite so clear, except in Raylan's own mind. But even in those latter cases, you want to side with Raylan. The show kept my wife and I hooked for five seasons because the writing - and characters - are just that good. Raylan lives in a black and white world. This is complicated somewhat by the birth of his daughter after a brief period of "on again" in his on-again-off-again relationship with his ex-wife. But through it all, Raylan is consistently forward looking. He doesn't dwell on the past. And he is generally unencumbered by doubt. When he makes a decision, he lives with it. Regret is not only not in his vocabulary, it doesn't seem to exist anywhere in his brain. All that matters is, "was the decision justified?" Everything else is a distraction.

When I was at my best, I approached training and racing in much the same way. A wise friend of mine once observed that it was probably my confidence in my training - rather than any particulars of the training itself - that was instrumental in my success. I tend to think this is probably more true for more folks than it is not. You have to believe that what you are doing is right. You have to believe your decisions are... justified.

I made two decisions that I feel are representative of the larger way that I approached the race in Mont-Tremblant. They aren't really related in any direct way, but in other ways, they are very much related. The first was my new helmet, and the reason may surprise you. The priority was NOT aerodynamics. I won one race in the Specialized McLaren helmet - my first race in it. I stopped winning races the same time I started wearing it. Coincidence? To a certain extent. But it was also the first time in my career that I decided to use something ONLY because of aerodynamics. I'd always had more balance than that before. And, eventually, I just lost confidence in the helmet. I felt - sort of - like it was cursed. And when I put it on, I no longer "felt" fast. I used to feel race ready when I strapped on my aero helmet, like Adam doing his "by the power of greyskull..." bit to turn into He-Man. But I didn't feel good wearing that helmet anymore. The POC helmet seemed well designed based on what I saw and what I read, and I asked if the folks who handle media relations might give me one to try. Originally, I just wanted it to write an update to my LAVA article on short-tailed aero helmets. That was it. They were nice enough to send me a helmet, and when I took it out for a ride and knew right away, "yes." It just felt right. After that ride and some brief - REALLY brief - quantitative analysis made me confident it was fast, I decided to race in it. It was aero "enough." I liked the visor (which surprised me). I liked the feel. I liked that it seemed to be a bit more forgiving of head position. And I just felt good - I felt FAST - wearing it. And so I raced in it. As I said to my coach, I just felt like the POC had better mojo. Joel's reply was, simply, "mojo's important." And it seems like he was right, and that it did have better mojo. It was a decision made for a multitude of reasons, and it was a decision I felt could be justified. So I made it.

The second one was a decision on how to approach training. I was asked during a pre-race interview about something I wrote on here earlier this year, after Texas, where I said my greatest strength was also my greatest weakness. My discipline and drive and obsession has been why I've had success. And also why I've had failure. In preparing for yet another Ironman, I knew I was going to have to ask a lot of my family. In many ways, I felt like my family had become my biggest weakness. I had never won a race as a father of three. Could I manage being a parent and being a world class athlete? The answer seemed to be, "No." But then I thought if my strength could also be a weakness, could I make a weakness a strength? 

One particular area where I had struggled was in balancing family and training. I felt at times like I was half-committed to both. So I decided to work to change that. I decided I'd only train six days a week. I'd commit one day fully to family each week. I didn't really change the amount I trained, so I don't feel like this was one of those examples of mistaking less for more. Joel and I just crammed what had been seven days of training into six. Thankfully, I've always been a bit on the lighter side with a "typical" week being about 25 hours of training and just under 30 being a really big week. Many other athletes do more like 35 hours and up to just under (or even just over) 40 hours. I felt that really making a commitment to family on that one day would make it easier to commit to bigger days of training on the long days. I'd had success with this more "polarized" approach - harder hard days and easier easy days - in the past, but never quite to this extent. Nevertheless, I felt the decision was justified and committed to it. And I think it was a positive for me, for Jill, and for the kids. Ultimately, I do think that this approach improved my recovery, but I think it was entirely mental. I was able to get more out of my time off because I was actually off as opposed to half-off.

Overall, I believe I did a better job of trusting my intuition, though at times my intuition was very often, "don't overthink it and just go with the plan." I tried not only to learn to better trust my instincts, but also to accept that sometimes my instincts didn't really offer any great insight and to just sort of keep on rolling. I tried not to force things, which more often than not meant not trying to force myself to listen for something that wasn't there. Most days I just woke up, did my best to execute what was planned to the best of my ability without thinking too much about it, and then went to bed. Wake up and repeat. Of course, as I said to Joel, when things are going smoothly you wonder what the fuss was all about. It's easy to lose perspective, even when I looked back at how far I came, but perhaps that's a good thing too. It doesn't always work out that way. Some risks do not pay off. And you have to be willing to risk it all over again. Perspective is valuable, but a lack of perspective can be equally valuable. Aeschylus said, "there is an advantage in wisdom won from pain," but the cliche, "ignorance is bliss" is equally true.

Tapering into the race, traveling to the race, and executing on race day just sort of followed that same pattern. Be smart, be intuitive, but don't go "looking for clues." In some ways, I wish I had more to say about the race itself. But like all good - and bad - races, the race was really just the expression of the previous seven weeks. By the time I showed up on race day, I just had to let that hard work show itself. And so, with just under seven weeks until the Ironman World Championships in Kona, my goal is simply to keep the train rolling. I have good momentum. I have good mojo. Best not to think too much beyond that. The only decision I know I need to make (or not make, as the case may be) is, unlike in 2012, do not go do another eight hour race three weeks before Kona. That can't be that hard. Though I've managed to make colossally bad decisions before. Paging Coach Joel...

I was very much on the fence about racing in Kona. But when I thought about my other options, it was hard to justify any of those decisions. How could I not race in Kona? I couldn't answer that. But when I asked the next question, can I justify racing Kona? Did I perform at a level that makes me confident that I can be top-10? My answer was, initially, much less sure. I believe that it will take a better performance than I gave in Tremblant to be top-10. How much better? That likely depends on a bunch of things beyond my control, mostly weather and luck. But I believe I can be better. I believe I did not reach the limit of what I am capable of. I set out to hit Tremblant as a mid-point in a 15-week build to Kona, and there are just under seven weeks left. My intuition is to put my head back down, get back to work, and see where I end up. I won't know until I do that whether or not I can be better in Kona. That's the only way. But committing to that process is the only decision that I see that can be... justified. 

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Being A Dad (Not A Fad)

My motley crew...

The incredible Dave Mirra and his wife Lauren have started a combination social media movement and webshop called #BeADadNotAFad. It's an amazing project that injects a little positivity daily into my life. My friend Nate is about to become a father for the first time, and he sent me a list of questions that he sent to other friends of his who are dads asking them for their insights. The questions are likely better than my answers, but I thought this was something worth sharing. And at the very least, it's my contribution to #BeADadNotAFad for today...

What is the best thing about being a father?

For me, I think it is the sense of being a real "provider." I have a very non-traditional job, but we have a relatively traditional family structure in that Jill does not work. That gives me a lot of pride, the ability to fill that sort of traditional male role in spite of having chosen this wacky career. I'm all in favor of the "new" normal with two working parents, or a working mother and stay-at-home dad, etc. But I also think there's something nice about a traditional family and being able to make that work and to support that is something that really resonates with me. It makes me feel good about being a "man." I feel like I'm doing what I am meant to do. In that way, I feel like my sense of self is really fulfilled because there's a harmony between what I do and what I think I should do.

What is the most difficult thing about being a father?

It's related to the above. It's that sense of responsibility. That this family is relying on you to provide for them. That's an awesome burden, in the literal sense of both words. And, at times, it can be overwhelming. Like most things, the best and worst things are the same, just a matter of perspective.

What is something you never expected?

The sense of "protectorship." I didn't really know what sort of feelings I'd have towards my kids. But the most overwhelming feeling I have is a drive to "protect" them. To keep them safe. To insulate them from anything bad. That's hard to prepare for, because I don't think you can feel it for anyone other than your own child(ren).

What is one piece of advice or something you wish you would have known when you first became a father?

In my experience, fatherhood is really learned behavior. Specifically in contrast to motherhood. Especially in our house, as soon as Quentin was born, Jill immediately was a different person. Like, the moment she sees the baby, she is now a mother. But being a father is a learned process. Especially for the first six months, when you are largely useless (assuming she is breastfeeding), you can easily get left by the wayside as mother-child bond. So your immediate reaction is probably not going to be like, "oh wow, this is so awesome." I mean, there are moments of that, but there are also moments where you wonder if you will ever get your wife back. And if this baby will ever care about you. So that's a learning process. In my experience, fathers "learn" to love their children much more than mothers, who just do. I'd say it took me about 6-9 months with Quentin to really get to the point where I was like, "I would do anything for this little person." 

What is your best "fatherhood" moment (so far)?

The unexpected moments when your child just says something so heartfelt. Like, out of the blue, they will say, "I love you so much." Or something like that. That is the best. No matter what has been going on in your life, everything is made better at a moment like that.

What is the single most important aspect to being a great father?

Patience. It's probably cliched, but I think it ties into the whole aspect of protectorship. Kids can be super frustrating at times. Maybe most of the time, since they basically have no sense of a lot of what is normal - self-preservation, cooperation, and all sorts of things that we require to interact in a functional way with other people. Kids have none of these things. They need to develop them. And that's a process. And supporting them in that process is the hardest part and also the most important.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Maybe. Might. Perhaps.

My new 2015 kit from Louis Garneau

Ironman 70.3 Buffalo Springs Lake
Lubbock, TX ★ 2015.06.28

"There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self." - Ernest Hemingway

There's a common disclaimer in the financial industry, "Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results." This appends basically any advertisement for any sort of financial product - mutual funds, etc. This same thing applies equally well - if not better - to sports. The major league drafts are perhaps the greatest evidence of this - LeBron James was 1st OA pick in 2003; Greg Oden was 1st OA pick in 2007. Countless other examples abound. Even within my own career - especially lately - I feel like I ought to put this rider somewhere on my kit. It's also true in training. Like any athlete, training and preparation always involves some risk, often with the potential for no reward. One of the most frustrating parts of this year is that I've done probably the best training I've ever done, and I've not really seen anything come of it. But that happens. That's the risk. It was this particular risk - inherent in high performance sport - that was Joel's biggest concern about winding things back up after Texas to make a push for Kona. What if this failed too? Could I handle that? Once you can't deal with that risk anymore, it's time to find a new goal.  

Long term, I made a concerted effort to really become a better swimmer, and I'd say it was largely a failed experiment. But, it might have worked. There are several examples of guys who have improved a lot more as a swimmer than I have managed to. I do feel like I lost a step at the start of the race that I've never really regained since my accident. All of my best swims came before my wreck, in spite of the fact that I'm clearly a better swimmer - overall - than I was then. I think I just had better start speed. I have some ideas about why this is, but the practical takeaway is largely irrelevant since immersing myself full-time in a competitive tri-focused group that does bi-weekly open water swims is neither practical nor feasible for me at this point in my life and career. I need to figure out a new way to get faster at the start of races, though I will admit that I've pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I will likely win any future races on the bike and/or run, just like I did in the past. Though, of course, "past performance is not necessarily..." and all that.

Going into the race in Buffalo Springs, it was hard to be as relaxed as before Eagleman, since I had "precedence" in Lubbock which I did not have in Cambridge. I had what I think was likely my best overall race of the year in 2014 in Lubbock last year. I had an average swim, crushed the bike, and ran pretty well on a brutal course. It was as good a half-Ironman performance as I've ever had. Despite the fact that I had done well last year under quite different circumstances, I still put some level of burden of expectation on myself going into the race. But I think I did a good job of managing those expectations. Unfortunately, that didn't mean that everything went smoothly. In fact, quite the opposite. Travel to Lubbock is never simple because it's a small airport. Due to the whole "shit happens" aspect of travel, I arrived at my awesome homestay at 2:00AM instead of 6:00PM. Given that lack of sleep has been my achilles heel this year, this was not ideal. But here's the thing, life is rarely ideal.

Waiting in the airport for my bags, which were supposed to arrive two hours before me  so I could just grab them and go but instead arrived an hour after I did, I started having a rather surprising talk with my host for the weekend, Andy Wilson. Andy and Heidi Wilson are pretty incredible folks, and not just because they gave me a bed. Andy commented that one of the things that he loves about endurance athletes is that they tend to make the best of what life serves up, because that's the attitude you need to be successful as an endurance athlete. Andy and Heidi have a challenge that is staggering, and yet they have found a way to turn it into something incredibly rewarding. The details are not important. If you know them, you know what I am talking about. If you don't, I hope you get to meet them at a race some time. Andy's insight made me realize that I could either dwell on the fact that I had pretty much the exact opposite of the sort of day I'd hope for a couple days out from a race, or I could just make the best of it. I chose the latter. I slept in a bit later than I would have and went to sleep earlier than normal the next night. Was it ideal? No. Did it affect my placing in the race? Maybe. But I'd bet that every other athlete ahead of me - and behind me - probably had something they had to overcome at some point before or during the race. Perhaps it was worse. Perhaps not. Doesn't matter. And if they didn't this time, they will. I've had those races where everything went right. And I've had races where it didn't. I've won or lost those races more based on how I dealt with stuff rather than what did or didn't go wrong. 

Generally speaking, I had the same race in Buffalo Springs this year that I did at Eagleman two weeks ago (not really surprising). I swam a bit better, rode a bit better, and ran a bit worse. My margin to the winner was roughly equivalent. But in Buffalo Springs, a bunch of guys had better races (relatively) than at Eagleman and so that performance netted me a fifth instead of a second. But it was basically an honest effort and a representative reflection of where I was at. This was a good thing as it gave some clarity about what to do going forward. I had been on the fence about betting my fitness would come around in time to have a good race at Ironman Whistler or taking a longer build to Ironman Mont Tremblant with the goal of making the August KPR cut and carrying that momentum into Kona. After the race in Lubbock, it became clear that the Tremblant option was the better choice. When I've had my best races, it's always been the result of a focused build (one exception - Leadman 2011). It's been clear before the race that things are on track. I've had hiccups in the final period before, notably Ironman Canada 2009 where I got sick two weeks out from the race (though that might have been a blessing in disguise). But I've always raced best off a solid foundation in training, something that I do think is as much mental as it is physical. I derive my confidence from what I've done. I wish I just "had" confidence, but that is not me. Best just to make the best of it.

I still feel like there was a chance that I could have had a great race in Whistler, but really I was tired of racing as I did at Wildflower, IMTX, Eagleman, and Lubbock - "Maybe I'll have a good race. My fitness might come around. Perhaps everything will just click." Ironically, once I gave up that, things started to come together quite nicely in training. Typical... To me, this really emphasizes the importance of having a good support structure. I had a lot of talks with Joel. Really, I talked a lot at Joel for a while before he basically said, "yeah, I don't think that's a good idea." Which was what I needed to hear. A lot of times the best advice you need is what not to do. And this idea is really what inspired me to write about these topics in this post.

My race in Lubbock was my first in my new monochromatic kit from Louis Garneau (yes, the whole black/white theme was intentional, and yes I'm sure it says something about me). Valerie at Louis Garneau did an incredible job with the design, and it's easily my most favorite racing outfit of my career. It also has a new logo that you can see in the pic above, that of Raymond James. If you follow that link, you will see all sort of phrases that I love - "don't just expect the unexpected, PLAN FOR IT." And that sort of thing. What's noteworthy is that in my experience, this is a firm that actually abides by these phrases. I feel lucky and fortunate that Jill and I have some savings. And we have a great friend - who was our friend before he was our FA - at Raymond James who manages it for us. Why? Because sometimes you need someone to tell you what not to do. 

Raymond James really impressed me when they stepped up to support my World Bicycle Relief fundraiser in 2014 by offering a free financial analysis by a CFP to anyone who donated. It was a great perk that a few people took advantage of - all really thought it was valuable, and it's one we are offering again this year. I expect many more people to take advantage of it now that people actually (sort of) know what it is. And we also plan to do a better job explaining it. It really was an incredible gesture. And I feel really proud to represent this firm through my racing. Just as with racing, there's never a guarantee when you make plans for the future financially. But having someone you can lean on and trust is huge. Just like in sport. I rely on my coach Joel to help me make good decisions about racing and training. Sometimes those decisions don't work out. I rely on my friend Mark to make sure I can provide for my wife and my kids. Again, sometimes those decisions don't work out. This is the nature of anything that's important.

As Andy said, the skills required to be good at endurance sport are the same as those required to handle life. Take some risks. Know what you do well. Know what you don't. Listen to someone you trust. Simple. Now time to go do it. 

In spite of the fact that you don't have a guarantee that what was successful in the past will work again or that your plan will survive at all intact, you need to start with something. In my last post, I quoted the famous Eisenhower maxim, "Rely on planning but never on plans." Having kids is a daily lesson in applying this practically. And I suppose that being a good athlete is a lot like being a good parent. It requires daily commitment. There are a lot of unknowns. There's not a manual though there are a lot of good books and good advice. There's also a lot of bad books and bad advice. Don't ever give up. Do the best you can. Good luck is important. 

I'm fond of another maxim - "Hope is not a strategy." And I do still believe that to be true. Hope, in and of itself, is not a strategy. But there's a ton of hope involved in even the best laid plans. And while I may race in a black and white kit, that's only because the journey to - and on - the race course never is. Even if I wish it was.

Monday, June 22, 2015


What I'm normally like...

How I aspired to be in Maryland...

Eagleman 70.3
Cambridge, MD ★ 2015.06.14

This post started out as a lie. It started out where I basically talked about how things came together for me through getting back to work, nose to the grindstone, and things like that. That's not really true. However, I also was putting in some stuff about being rather laissez faire about the whole thing, which isn't really true either. I aspired to simply not care. But I did care, though I think I cared a lot - too much - about the wrong things. And what did work out was when I only cared about the right stuff. For a profanity-laden version of what I'm driving at, Mark Manson's piece is awesome. It does, however, use the word "fuck" 127 times. I will endeavor to have that be the lone usage in this piece. Simply because I think Mark used it enough for both of us. 

The genesis of this amended post came from two really awesome conversations I had with Simon Whitfield today. Simon called me - our kids share a birthday - which is a rare thing. Simon is basically impossible to get on the phone. He will text me. I will text him back. He'll text me back. And then I'll need to tell him something that's too long to type, so I'll call him. And he will not answer the phone 9 times out of 10. But he will text me back. He just doesn't care. And I mean that in the best possible way. He is a massively frustrating friend at times, but I don't care. I decided a long time ago that I like him for who he is, and I don't waste time worrying about who he isn't. So Simon called me. And he asked me how I was doing. And, because I've known him long enough that I don't bother with the pleasantries that we all bandy about with people we don't know all that well, I simply told him, "I don't know. I'm struggling a bit. I had a rough go of it around Texas, and since then, the more I train, the slower I seem to get." The rest of the conversation is something that I need more time to process before I can put it down into something that might make sense to anyone else, but the gist of the suggestion ties back to the post I wrote about "crooked timber" and sort of trying to define what exactly it meant to "recommit to triathlon." 

One way in which I'd committed in a new way was that Quentin came with me to Eagleman. We went and stayed with my parents for the week leading up to the race, then drove down to Baltimore to visit my sister, and then I went down on Saturday to Cambridge for the race. My parents brought Quentin on race morning. I got to hug him before I crossed the finish. It was awesome. Last time I did that, I won Ironman Texas in dominant fashion. This race was not quite so good, but seeing him was even more awesome because he is more awesome. Jill and I talked after Texas this year about needing to find a way to race for something bigger than just myself. Having Quentin with me played a huge role in that. I didn't want to "win" for him. But I wanted him to see me give my best effort. I wanted him to see something that I'd want him to emulate as a person.

On the swim, I had a good swim, and I swam on Cody Beals' feet for most of the race. But overwhelmingly my goal was to stay on his feet mostly because it is easier to swim on someone's feet than it is to swim alone. Swimming alone is awful. Once on the bike, I simply tried to hold a reasonable pace (though I actually wagered high and couldn't keep it together) for the ride, without really caring much about how I was doing. On the run, Barrett Brandon passed pretty early into the run, and I decided to just follow close to him mostly because it's easier to let someone else set the pace. Then, in the last mile or so, I decided that I actually cared about something subjective, and I managed to pass Barrett back to take second because second is better than third.

It was not a great performance. I finished 10 minutes behind Cody. In a half-Ironman. I've won full Ironman's by that margin and considered them to be an ass-kicking by me of the rest of the field. In a half? We weren't even really in the same race. But honestly, I was happy. I didn't really care, because I thought, well, I still came second, which is good. And I finished the race, which is good. And there were some bright moments, which is good. And a lot of the race was pretty fun, which was good. And it was really hot out but I didn't think it was that hot out, which is especially good. And Quentin was there, which was awesome. And after the race we went swimming in the Choptank and then I washed him off with a hose that was set up to spray athletes coming out of transition. (We made sure to only use it when there were no athletes in need of it.)

In the lead up to the race, most of the training I did, I just did by feel. My parents live on this great network of trails, but the trails are very rolling, and there are a LOT of trees, all of which conspire to make GPS unreliable. So I just ran pretty much how I felt. I didn't actually care how fast I ran. And that was good. The best training I had was training where I just did as much as I wanted to do. I think that perhaps the worst mistake(s) I made was that I probably didn't let go enough about what I had planned. I did some sessions that I didn't really want to do. I went a bit longer in some than I wanted to. But the best stuff - what I think got me second in Eagleman - was the stuff where I went more by feel. I did what felt "right." I cared about how I felt. And that was pretty much it. The run was the best part of Eagleman, and that was the training where I was the most subjective. 

There were some obstacles. Parts of my training were better than the week before. But a lot of it - from a strict quality standpoint - was not. Overall, I'd say that three weeks ago was better than the week before the race. And the week before the race was better than this week. I'd also say that each week I cared - objectively - more which resulted in subjectively caring less. Three weeks ago, I was more hesitant. I was just getting back into it. And I didn't know how I'd respond. And, in a number of cases, I really surprised myself in a positive way. This week, I had more expectations, and I was let down more times as a result.

I think that's part of why I hesitated to write about Eagleman. The same feelings I had about training were also true about the race. I wanted to write a post about getting back in the game. But that wasn't really true. And I also wanted to write a post about being totally laid back. But that wasn't really true either. So I didn't write anything.

But the conversations with Simon made me want to write something. And then as I was writing this, my friend Mark sent me this - "Swimming for Your Own Reasons." While I don't believe that "everything happens for a reason" - in many ways, I don't really believe that ANYTHING happens for a "reason," unless of course you want to say that certain things happen because of of decisions you did or did not make - I do feel like there's a reason. I know I basically just contradicted myself, but whatever. I have to deal with that so so do you.

I remember after Paula Findlay returned to sport after the London Olympics, one of the things that she talked about was - in some fashion - comparing herself to what she had been. And I told her that she should forget about that, and just focus on being the best she could be now. I should have - could have - been talking to myself. One of the reasons that I think I had success coming back from my wreck is that I had no expectations, and I also didn't really hold myself to what I had been able to do, because for a long time, it was so far away it wasn't relevant. I found myself exceeding it. This year, when my training was going well, I found myself exceeding my expectations. But then, of course, as we are all wont to do, that created expectations. Early in the year, I found myself being surprised by my body. "Whoa, where did that come from?" Lately, there's been less and less of that. Though it still sneaks up often enough that I know it's there. I just can't seem to grab it. So I try harder, which doesn't seem to be working all that well.

It is my goal this week to care not at all. I love the race in Buffalo Springs. I fell in love with it last year the first time I did it. The race is brutal. It is hot. It is dry. It is windy. It is awful. And it is awesome. I had a great race there last year - honestly, I think it was my best of the entire year - because I tweaked my groin the week before in Syracuse. I had no expectations leading into the race. And it was awesome. I just enjoyed being out there in conditions that were truly terrible. Because I actually think that's fun.

And I suppose that's what matters to me right now. I want to enjoy what I do. That's a lot harder to do now. There's way more pressure on me now. I have a family. I have a "career." I have responsibilities. It is a job. That's amazing. But it's also a challenge. And it's one that I have yet to master. In many ways, the best parts of my race Eagleman came from doing lots of things that you don't do when it's your job. But I think there's a lesson here.

This post feels very incomplete, but I think that's okay, because I don't really have a plan for what I'm going to do. I talked a bit about needing to have concrete goals so that you don't define success simply as what ended up happening. At the same time, sometimes goals are abstract enough that it is hard to really define them until you look back and can see where you started and whether or not you're where you want to be.

I believe I have the drive and the discipline to make hard choices. I am going to try to trust that through Buffalo Springs and see what it gets me. Realizing that sometimes that harder (or hardest) choice may not be what it seems. I don't think that doing that would have gotten me any better a finish at Eagleman. But I do think that the extent that I was able to do that at Eagleman is why I had as good a race as I did.

Shout out for the title of this blog goes to my good friend Brandon Marsh. Brandon introduced me to the acronym form of the phrase. And talking about Brandon is a good way to conclude this. Brandon and his wife Amy were both fantastic pros. Amy, especially, was really one of the very best female professional triathletes in the world. She was diagnosed late last year with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. She just received a stem cell transplant that, ideally, is the start of her "new" (cancer-free) life. For the past two weeks, her WBC (White Blood Cell) count has been 0.0. Yes, ZERO-POINT-ZERO. On June 17th, 13 days after her stem cell transplant, her WBC was 0.1. Last year, I raced with Brandon and Amy a bunch of times, including at Buffalo Springs. This year, I won't get to see them, because they are hunkered down at MD Anderson in the oncology ward.

The thing about coming back from being "mostly dead" is that you take whatever positive life gives you. 1/10th of a point? You bet. I cheered hard for Amy when I read that. Because she deserves to have that come to her. I don't know that I deserve anything more than what I've already gotten from this sport. But I think I've got more left to give back. But you can't force it. I tried. Many times. But my best days were those days when I started to run again and stopped feeling like I could do more. It is my goal to find that feeling again. At Eagleman, I felt I could have done more. And I think, in many ways, that is what made me happiest.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Why I "Pro"

My wife sent me a link to a blog post written by Kendra Goffredo. It's the follow-up to a discussion that she had with Andrew Messick, CEO of WTC (Ironman). At the end of their conversation, Andrew asked Kendra why she raced as a pro, and - as she was pondering her answer - suggested, "it's for the 'free' entry, right?" In my opinion, that was a joke. Humor is often lost in translation into writing, and I wasn't there, so it's entirely possible I'm wrong here. I don't really think it matters. What does matter is that I know that Andrew is genuinely interested in the answer to this question. Kendra goes on to say that the answer to the question was too long and too hard to describe simply, so she just gave a simple answer (paraphrasing), "it allows me greater impact in raising awareness for the charity I support, the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation."

There's a history to Kendra's answer that she felt was hard to explain simply, which is why she wrote the post she did. What I think is interesting is that there is a history to Andrew's question, which is why I decided to write this post. Andrew was roundly lambasted - unfairly, in my opinion - for a topic he broached in an interview on changes to the pro qualifying structure and prize money. The interview is on Slowtwitch and can be found here

The particular question/answer was:
ST: If you cut down the number of your races offering a pro purse, fewer people can contend for that pot. Do you anticipate that this will shrink the number of pros because they will have a harder time making a living?
Andrew: You would think so but I don’t know. We don’t know why people choose to be professional triathletes. To be a professional triathlete within our system you have to be designated by a national governing body. You need to be a professional licensed by us. Those are the two process steps that place you as a pro athlete. According to sources, there are 1,100 pro triathletes. And every one of them is doing it for their own reasons. I don’t know why Rachel Joyce is a professional triathlete as opposed to practicing law. She is lawyer. I am not sure why Amanda Stevens is a professional triathlete as opposed to practicing medicine because she is a doctor. I am not sure why Meredith Kessler left working in finance. But I trust that all of them had a good reason for it. And that they chose being a professional triathlete because that is how they wanted to live their life. Hopefully, that choice provides them a combination of benefits and money, [and advantages based] around flexibility and chasing a dream that made it worth it. 
Many people interpreted Andrew as saying, roughly, "I have no idea why anyone would want to be a pro." But that's not at all what he was saying. He elaborated on this recently at an AWA meeting in The Woodlands prior to IMTX where Heather Wurtele and I spoke. What he said elaborated on what he said earlier, and that was to say that almost every pro, especially in long course triathlon, has his  or her own very different reason for wanting to be a pro. Contrast this with football or baseball or basketball or golf or most any other "mainstream" sport, where the answer is some combination of "I love the sport" and (overwhelmingly) "I get paid a lot." For most professional athletes in mainstream sports, being a professional athlete is probably the highest paying job they can get. For some athletes in triathlon, that is also true. But for a large group (maybe even a majority), being a pro is perhaps the lowest - or at least a lower - paying job they could get. This isn't to say being a pro cannot allow for a good living. I feel incredibly fortunate to support my wife and three kids doing something I love. But I do recognize that in that regard, I am probably more the exception than the rule. But still, I am biased to believe that I could likely earn as much or more doing something else. So why am I am pro? 

The title of this blog post is a play on the Ironman social media hashtag "#whyitri" which asked people why they do triathlon. The reasons are legion. But the reasons as to why the roughly 1000 pros who are ranked on the KPR race as a pro are also legion. And, certainly, there are a fair number for whom it purely is, as Andrew suggested, an economic calculus: it's cheaper to pay $800ish dollars for unlimited race entries and the ability to enter sold-out (to age-group athletes) races than it would be to race as an age-grouper. That's reality. It may not be Kendra's reality, but it is a reality nonetheless. 

And this legion of answers to the question #whyipro is a topic of real concern to Andrew and to WTC. Because this variety makes it really challenging to develop any sort of comprehensive approach to how pro athletes should be treated. It's a classic tenet of economics that, "People respond to incentives." Looking at the negotiations, for example, between the MLBPA and the league, there's a relatively narrow set of interests. Same with other major league sports. This makes negotiations "easier." There's obviously still a lot of head-butting within the players' association. But there's enough common ground that the association can still function. History has, so far, argued that there is not enough common ground for an association (a union) to function within triathlon. Kendra Goffredo, based on her own accounting of why she races as a pro, has very little in common, at least by traditional professional athlete standards, with Sebastian Kienle. Now, certainly, I think they do have common ground - it offers both of them a richer life experience, but I also think that has very disparate meanings to each of them.

This profound difference in what  has a very real impact on the direction of the sport. Kendra wondered whether or not Andrew would read her blog post. I would say he likely did (or will), based on what I know about him. But the bigger question is, really, "what does he do with that information?" Imagine if every pro wrote such a post. Would there be any logical takeaway from that collective? Or would it simply reveal just how fractured the pro side of the sport is? 

In my own reading on Kendra's post, I saw very clearly why she chose to become a pro. What I didn't see is how that decision offers any insight into the question about the future of professional triathlon as a whole. How can we take what Kendra wrote and say, "okay, based on why you are a pro, how do we make professional triathlon better for pros as a group?" And "How do we make it better for you?" And, then, "Are those things compatible?"

These are questions Andrew is trying to answer. These are questions I am trying to answer. This is a big part of the role I play as an Ironman Pro Ambassador. At times, it seems like what's best for the future is incompatible with what's best for the present. There also, at times, an incompatibility between what is best "for the sport" and what I think is best for me. These are challenges that need to be reconciled, both weighing where professional triathlon should go and how to balance that with where we are right now. And then, of course, there is the tough balance of pros accepting things that are not in their own best interests but are in the best interest of the sport going forward. These are not easy balances to find. And there seems to be very little agreement currently, just as there has been very little agreement throughout the history of the sport. Dan Empfield wrote about the failed history of professional unions on Slowtwitch more than 15 years. And it's just as accurate today.

This is backdrop against which Andrew's question needs to be set. Perhaps he should taken the time to explain all of this to Kendra. But maybe he asked the question briefly for the same reason that Kendra replied only briefly - the backstory is a long one. But professional athletes need to understand that getting WTC to understand their own motivations is important. Likewise, they need to understand that understanding Andrew and WTC's motivations is essential to moving triathlon forward for professionals. 

Kendra wrote:
I am not sure why he asked or what he’ll do with the information or if he’ll remember our conversation at all, but I stopped there. There were so many more reasons, but this wasn’t the venue for a conversation of such magnitude. 
Mr. Messick would have had to come with me the following week on my bike trip through rural Vietnam to understand why I race as a pro.
I disagree. It's part of our job as pros to be able to convey why we do what we do in casual conversation. It's a story we need to be prepared to tell. And if a face-to-face conversation with the man who has the most power to change the direction of our sport isn't the right place to share that story, I don't know what is. I will say that this was exactly the right venue for a conversation of such magnitude. Because the flipside of this story is, That time I couldn't explain to the IRONMAN CEO why I race pro.

As triathlon continues to evolve as a sport, having a compelling argument for the pro side of the sport is essential. As pros, we need to be able to explain not only why we race as a pro, but also why that is important to the present and future of the sport. Kendra said, "I am not sure ... what he'll do with the information." And I think this mirrors Andrews own statement, "We don't know why people chose to be professional athletes." It's the same dilemma, posed from the other side of the table. But I think there's a logical question that emerges from that, and it's one that we all need to answer individually and, hopefully, collectively - "What do we want to achieve by explaining why we want to be pros? What do we want IRONMAN to do with this information?" I know #whyipro. But what's really important is whether or not that actually matters and, critically, why it does (or doesn't).

Post script: some people have pointed out that I didn't answer the specific question of why I, personally, "pro." In fairness, my goal here was more to talk about the importance of the why of the why. In other words, why it matters why you pro. But, since I was asked, here is my why.

Fundamentally, it is because I am terrified of a desk job. The other reasons have changed over time. I wanted to win an Ironman. And then I did. I wanted to win a world championship. Then I did. Now I feel like it's largely about self mastery, which I touched on in my prior post "Crooked Timber." This last concept is the one I feel is the most relevant and valuable, because I think it echoes the reasons that a lot of age group athletes race, which means (ideally) that I can share a larger part of their experience with them. And for a participatory sport like triathlon, that is - in my opinion - the way that pros deliver value: by enhancing the experience of the age group athlete.

Post post script: Kendra chimed in on Facebook with a good comment in reply to what I wrote. She said,
Hi Jordan, Thank you for sharing! You make some interesting points. Now, i'm just having trouble moving those points forward into action. Can you provide some examples of changes WTC could (or should?) make if they knew what motivated their body of pros? For example, what suggestions would you make to WTC if it was discovered the majority of pros race pro for the reason you cited, fear of a desk job? I'm having trouble envisioning what actionable step WTC could make with that information. Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts! 
I tried to give a thoughtful reply that gives some concrete examples of the relevance of what I wrote, and I thought that was a worthwhile addition to the piece as whole.
Let me start with a concrete example of a change that was made. At most races (at least in North America), there are now two dedicated toilets in transition for pros. This wasn't a significant cost, but it still represents a cost. But this was a huge positive for *all* pros. I think virtually every pro would have voted "yes, I would rather have two extra toilets than an extra $200 in the prize purse." So that was a no brainer. That was an easy decision for WTC to make.  
At the other end of the spectrum are questions like, "how deep should prize money go? And how should it be distributed?" That's a hugely divisive issue. One particularly divisive topic is travel support. Now we are starting to talk about bigger dollar figures. There's a huge discrepancy in what pros want when the discussion becomes, "would you rather see another $10,000 in the prize purse or would you rather see $500 in travel support for 20 athletes?" The typical answer is "we want BOTH!" And that is typical of how many - most - of these conversations go. There's very little sense of trade offs, compromise, etc. 
So to circle back to your question, one of the biggest opportunities for moving the sport forward comes with things that WTC can do that do NOT cost them money. In your case, let's take the MMRF. In my case, it's World Bicycle Relief. The work I do with WBR is hugely important to me. Through the Ironman Foundation, I'm able to dramatically increase the reach I have in my fundraising efforts. That's great for WBR. But, selfishly, it's also good for me and "my brand." It doesn't really cost WTC anything - or, rather, the incremental cost is pretty minimal - if they can support you and your charity efforts as opposed to any other charity. So, there's a real example of how your motivations could make a real difference in how WTC works with pros. Because if a lot of pros have charity work that is important to them, that means that the IMF suddenly has a whole new group of potential ambassadors to work with. Everybody should win. 
In another example, one of the things we've (meaning folks at WTC and I) talked about is trying to leverage what WTC has a lot of - and that is business expertise. Everyone rails on the fact that WTC is owned by a private equity group. But that's an opportunity as well. A lot of - basically all - pros could use mentorship on the business side. And providing that has a cost to WTC, but it also has a very real ROI - more professional pros. But how to tailor that mentorship? That's where the motivation of pros becomes relevant.
Hope that helps give some insight.