Thursday, November 27, 2014

Last Dance

Ironman Arizona 2010. Eight months after. © Eric Wynn 2010.

Thanksgiving seemed an appropriate time to share this, because I am incredibly thankful to have been a part of Specialized for the past six years. Ironman Arizona 2009 was my first race on a Specialized. And Ironman Arizona 2014 will be my last. I don't typically think that the changing of sponsors is noteworthy. Typically, an athlete simply announces a new sponsorship, and everyone is left just assuming whatever they want about what might have happened with the previous folks. Some relationships are, however, more meaningful than that, and I think that it is appropriate to acknowledge the parting of ways. I also hope - perhaps fancifully - that talking about this now will also give me the chance to focus on the future when that time comes, rather than on, "what happened with Specialized?", at least to the extent that anyone actually cares what happened. 

I've known for a while now that this was the case. I had a sense that it was likely - my last two years of results have not been up to the standard that I know Specialized holds their athletes too; they haven't been up to my standards either. But I had a tough - but understandable and polite - conversation before Arizona where I got the definitive word. In a testament to Specialized's business acumen but also their caring, the reason they told me when they did was that once a decision had been made, they wanted to give me as much time as possible to craft a deal with someone else. Especially with what I - and they as well - had planned and hoped would be a big win in Arizona, they wanted to give the chance to strike while the iron was hot and to capitalize on that success. I appreciated that then and still do. The race wasn't the sort of breakthrough I'd hoped for, but in that sense, knowing before also kept me from thinking that, "Oh, if I'd just had a better race in Arizona..." While I'm obviously disappointed - primarily in myself - to not be back with Specialized in 2015, it is hard to be disappointed with what I achieved during my time wearing that big, red "S."

After my breakthrough win in Ironman Canada in 2009, Specialized was the first company to step up and say, "we want you to ride for us. And we will pay you to do so." No one had ever done that before. And that was really the beginning of my career, since you need to earn a living to have a career. Otherwise, it's just a hobby. At the end of 2010, after only one race back since my accident, Specialized renewed my contract for three more years, and what an incredible three year stretch that was. 

More recently, I know, we've both faced challenges. I put myself in a big hole in 2013 and then kept digging. And I've spent most of this year climbing out of it and now - finally - feeling like I'm back to climbing up the mountain as opposed to climbing out of the ditch. Specialized has struggled, I think, to see the return on a massive investment in the sport and a huge commitment to athletes that has resulted in a lot of success, but also a fair bit of disappointment as well. I made a lot of changes - mostly good, some less so - in a struggle to find my own footing as an athlete. And I can completely understand Specialized's decision to do the same in their business, at least their business within the context of triathlon. When things are not working the way they should, you need to make a change.

But sometimes decisions are made that go beyond business, and there is one story from my time with Specialized that will forever define my image of the company. When I got out of the hospital in 2010, a big box showed up at my door not long after. Inside was a huge poster, that I still have, with an image of an open road and the caption, "Best wishes on the road to recovery from your family at Specialized." It was signed by more people than I could count. Not long after that box showed up, an even more powerful gesture came in a much smaller package. An envelope from Morgan Hill arrived in the mail, and inside it was a check for $4,000. I didn't know why. So I called one of my friends who worked in sports marketing, and said, "why did I get a check for $4,000?" He said, "that was what was left over on your bonus cap for the year. We were sure you would have earned it if it hadn't been for the accident, so we just decided to pay you on it." I was floored. I couldn't swim. I couldn't bike. I couldn't run. Mostly I just sat around the house being pretty depressed and wondering if I'd ever be any good again. I certainly didn't have that faith in myself. But that gesture helped to return it.

After getting that check and being pushed (gently) by Bobby Behan, who built the Specialized triathlon program in 2009/2010, to go, I went up to Wildflower and stayed with Mark Cote (the "Aero Pharaoh") and Bobby and the Specialized gang to watch the race, my first trip away from the house since getting out of the hospital. And from there I went up to Morgan Hill where I was a part of the introduction within the company of the global tri team, still unable to swim, bike, or run. It was there, in a hotel in Morgan Hill, that I said for the first time - "I'm gonna race again. I will race Ironman Arizona this fall and defend my title." And I did come back. And I did race again. And I came back even stronger. When I was at my lowest, I was still important to Specialized. And I will never, ever forget that. Thank you. I'll see you up the road.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Back On Solid Ground

© 2014 Eric Wynn

Ironman Arizona
Tempe, AZ  2014.11.16

Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we put it), through qualities the lack of which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole." - Friedrich Nietzsche

My biggest challenge in talking about the race in Arizona will be in focusing on the race itself rather than on the conclusion of this season. I'm simultaneously writing a post about 2014, and I'll probably do a bunch of cut-and-paste back and forth between the two. While a lot - almost all - of how I feel about the race is within the context of this year, I also have thoughts that basically start August 1st, when I decided I was not going to try to get to Kona and was going to instead going to focus on delivering a world class performance at Ironman Arizona. I set a goal of breaking eight hours, something that was clearly doable on the day as Brent McMahon decimated both the course record and the eight hour barrier to claim the win. And the way he ran (and swam and biked), that win was inevitable. I don't think there's anything I could have done differently with the fitness I had to change that. 

I think a perfectly executed race for me would have been four - maybe five - minutes faster. I think had I known just how strong the wind was going to be as it built up, I might have tried to conserve a bit more on the first lap in the hopes of delivering a stronger last lap. That strategy is a bit of a crapshoot in Arizona, because the second and third laps have increasingly heavy traffic, and so even if you have good legs, you may not be in a position to use them. There were plenty of times in both this race and in past trips (this is my seventh time doing this race) where I slowed way down because of congestion, not because of my legs. I think a 4:12 was doable, but could I have actually realized that time with a different strategy? Maybe not. I do think a bit more even pacing might have left me less punished by the wind and able to run a bit stronger, especially since the brutal wind was a factor on the run as well. My goal was to run a 2:51 - 1:24/1:27 splits, the first of which I did achieve, and I think I had the fitness for that. Could I have ridden 4:12 and run 2:51? The obvious answer is, "No." Because if I could have, I would have. But there were some tactical decisions - risks - that I took that didn't pay off. For example, when Brent passed me, I did my best to stay in contact. It was Brent's first Ironman, and as someone with only a couple years of 70.3 experience, I thought that perhaps he had started the run a bit fast and would crack if I was able to keep some pressure on him. 

Did that decision ultimately cost me second place? Perhaps. I feel like I cost myself second with a lot of small decisions just like that one, though I'm sure that Clemente Alonso-McKernan feels similarly about his own race with regards to the win. Where could he have found some more time on the bike to hold Brent off for longer? Where could he have found some of the speed he showed on the second lap earlier in the day to hang with Brent and stay in the race? As a two-time Ironman winner, I don't think that he finished second because that's what he was targeting while letting Brent and I duke it out for the win. Everyone in the top-6 (I don't know the guys who finished 7th or 8th well enough to comment there) is a veteran racer who I am sure showed up gunning to take the win. I suppose all I really mean by "how could I have held on to second?" is to simply ask, "how could I have had a better race?" given that nothing I could have done would have made a better race a winning performance on that day.

I thought I had a solid start to the day. I started near Paul Matthews and Maik Twielsek, with the intention of getting on Maik's feet as he got on Paul's feet, and that was pretty much exactly how it happened, right until I'd guess about 700 or 800m in when that small group at the front gapped Maik. I was pretty much on the rivet just holding Maik's feet, so there was nothing I was going to do to be able to help there. A sign of good progress, but also of work to be done. At 51:13, it was my fastest swim since 2009, and I think we certainly could have swam faster on the way back in. The course is also not necessarily exactly the same year to year, but overall, to come out three-ish minutes down on those guys in the front was a good swim. I lost four minutes to super-swimmer David Kahn, to whom I lost 1:45 at the Princeton 70.3 (though I did lead the group there), so I feel like it was a strong swim over double the distance (where often you see much bigger gaps in the second half), and I exited the water ready to start the day, which is the best thing besides making that front group. Training the swim serves two purposes. One is obviously to get faster, but the second - perhaps more important one for age-group athletes - is to make the swim less tiring. The less the swim takes out of you, the better. Preparation for the race was remarkably consistent, pretty much since the beginning of August. Two easy swims - Monday & Saturday - of 3km, two technical-pulling sets (lots of band-only) on Tuesday & Thursday of 4km with 3km mains sets, and two hard sets -  one with a mix of pull and swim and one just swim - on Wednesday & Friday of 5-6km with main sets of 4-4.5km. Overall, the quality was very high throughout the build, and even the "not good" workouts were still "not bad" workouts, something which has been a consistent struggle for me in the swim. Having established this routine with Joel over the summer/fall, I'm excited to see what a full year of continued work along these lines will lead to. At the very least, as I've written before, I now know what I need to do to not have a bad swim, even as I continue to work towards the goal of putting myself in the front pack. Doing these races, you realize just how much work it takes to undo losses in the water by cycling; you spend half the bike ride just getting back to zero. And then you can start to really do some damage. Assuming you paced that "getting back to zero" part correctly.

The bike was the bike. The first lap was clear roads and low wind, and I felt awesome. The second lap was not such clear roads, some strong winds that really drained you and made you feel like for every bottle you drank you wished you'd drank two, but still with really good legs. Coming through the second turnaround on pace to ride sub-4:10, I felt like I was right where I had hoped to be. But the wind and - perhaps - the pace given the strong winds, which means your body has to work not only to drive the bike forwards but also to keep it steady, had taken their toll. For laps, I averaged 300/280/250 for normalized watts, and I think I could have done something closer to 290/280/270. In my experience, on this course, it's impossible not to positive split the power, but I think that something like what I laid out would have gotten me those extra two minutes and probably been less costly to the body as well. In theory anyway... Based on the way I performed in training, I don't think I was unreasonable in thinking that 300/290/280 was doable. And I still think that is, just need more quality miles in the legs. 

I knew that the conditions had punished me more than I had anticipated when I never found quite the same rhythm starting the run as I did in training. I fell into a much faster - and easier - rhythm off similarly powered rides (I did 4:30 on my TT bike at almost identical watts in training - albeit in easier conditions and with the typical stop and go of training and also 4:45 at bigger watts on my road bike at altitude with very little stoppage) and ran off much more crisply than I did in the race. Should I have drank more? I drank six bottles in just over four hours, which I think is pretty good. So could I have drank more? Maybe. Probably. I tend to think the biggest limiter was that I just need months of the sort of really good training that I had before this race, rather than just weeks. I found a good - really good - groove, and I think I've laid a solid foundation that Joel can put both more volume and more intensity on top of for 2015, and that I'll be able to back up the sort of power I showed in training even in tough race conditions like we had on Sunday.

As far as the run, my running in training was really in a good place. Much like the swimming, I feel like my running was making a lot of forward progress. I think that I didn't get to show it because of a lack of bike/overall depth of fitness. For both swimming and running, I really was able to prepare the way I wanted to prepare for this race. On the bike, it's tougher because bike training really serves - at least for me - more of double duty. I use - and I think most triathletes do as well - my biking not only to develop bike-specific fitness, but also the deep general fitness I need for racing. Biking is really the only way for me to get in workouts that - by duration/load - mimic a race. Some longer rides and some higher intensity rides will, I think, round out what I need for racing, and I don't expect to ride too much faster - just hopefully more evenly, but I expect to run a lot faster. 

Nothing really too surprising. I knew the weaknesses I had coming into the race, and the wind on the bike exposed them a bit more than I expected given what the weather is typically like at this race. Not that I would have necessarily prepared any differently this year; I'm still at a point where Joel is taking the long view, and putting a solid foundation in place for 2015 trumped doing specific work that might have paid off short term but also might not have had the same long term benefits. It's somewhat strange to think that I'd have done better in milder conditions given that - in the past - I've tended to thrive in tough conditions. But much of that comes from how I trained, and I'm not quite yet fully back there - at least with regards to bike training and "overall" training. But I feel like I'm in a good place. After taking second place last year, I felt like I needed a huge break, and I took almost two months off. After this race, I feel a lot like I did in 2008 and 2010, when I came 3rd and 4th respectively - satisfied with what I got out of myself, but eager to get back into training and to build on what was clearly a robust foundation. When I think of how 2009 and 2011 turned out, I feel like that's a good place to be. The bar has certainly been raised, but I feel like even if I am not yet at the level I need to be at, I'm at least not falling behind. 2008, I was third in 8:19. 2010, I was 4th in 8:16. This year, 3rd in 8:03. After a lot of slipping and sliding, it feels good to be back on solid ground.

Sorry for the rather boring, "so this is how I swam, biked, and ran..." race report. I've got some more thoughts coming, on 2014 as a whole and one other big change, that will hopefully be more interesting reads.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Natural Experiment

© 2014 Euan Henry

Ironman 70.3 Princeton
Princeton, NJ ✮ 2014.09.21

Economics is the science of explaining tomorrow why the predictions you made yesterday didn't come true today. - Demotivators

My father is an economist. I'm not sure why exactly I mention this except perhaps to postulate that some of my wondering "what if?" is inherited. My father is somewhat of an exception in that he does not think of economics as a hard science, but more of a way of thinking about certain types of monetary issues. He's a macro-economist (so different than the now super popular Freakonomics guy Steven Levitt), and he tends to be more a big picture guy. But he's a good critical thinker, and I like to think I've followed in his footsteps in that regard. One of the core tools of economics is the "natural experiment." This is when you get a chance to look at a data set that you couldn't - or wouldn't - be able to create for moral, ethical, logistical, or various other reasons. The various Freakonomics books are basically elegantly told stories of creative natural experiments. 

After Mont Tremblant, I had a theory that I had a better race in me but that I'd made some decisions during the week leading into the race that left me feeling flat instead of sharp. I felt like I needed either more rest or less rest. And, given that my focus is really on Ironman racing - for the remainder of this year, Ironman Arizona - and that I hadn't done a big block of training after all the races I'd done over the summer, my best approach would have to take less rest. I should have treated the race more like a "normal" hard workout, much like any other weekend, when - just like a lot of age-group athletes - I often do a long, hard ride and/or a long, hard run.

This would have probably been nothing more than a theory, just another slightly more plausible excuse to toss on the pile, except I had another race two weeks after Tremblant. I had a chance to do something different. I had an opportunity to do exactly what I'd theorized I should have done and to see what resulted. It wasn't a perfect experiment, since I was certain to benefit from the rest I had before Tremblant, but after two easy days (one day of travel and one day of mostly emotional and mental recharging), I got right back into good, solid training. And I kept that training going until the Friday before the race. I figured that a good taper would either be about two weeks - what I always do before Ironman - or about two days, and I wanted to see if the two day taper - just a bit of rest - would work out. The week leading into the race was by far the fullest week I've ever had before a race. If you were to just treat the race itself as a series of hard workouts on the same day, it would look very similar to a typical, moderate week of training. Slightly on the lighter side, but really very normal. Some hard work, then a bit of rest, then some more hard work. And Joel and I theorized that I would be able to perform in the race the same way that I perform regularly in the key workout sessions during training. 

And I did. Ironman 70.3 Princeton was a very satisfactory race. I "guessed" wrong and started on the wrong side of the line and got gapped basically from the gun; I'm just not yet a good enough swimmer to make the front group if I don't get in a draft early. But I swam hard and had another fair swim, leading the second pack (again), which was nice considering that I felt that I swam about as well in Tremblant but without swimming nearly as well during training in the week leading into the race. It's also nice to have some confidence that I can at least now control my own destiny in terms of not having a bad swim, even if I cannot yet control it in terms of having a good-to-great swim. Once on the bike, it was clear my legs were there, unlike in Tremblant. I rode strong at the start, and got stronger as the ride went on, and - most importantly - was consistent throughout. I was able to make some good long surges and to ride both hard and tactically. But on a flat-ish, fast-ish (the course was just shy of 58miles - 93km, so it was more like 2:05 for the ride for 56) in good conditions (humidity was high, but with temps in the 60s, it didn't matter much and there wasn't much wind to speak of), it would have taken more than I had to break away from athletes of Jesse's and Viktor's calibre. I thought I might have been able to take the sting out of their legs more than I did out of my own, but I still don't have that depth of fitness yet. I was pleased with my run, running fast and consistently and - again, most importantly - getting faster as the run went on (fastest mile was from mile 10-11). 

Ultimately, it ended up as what I call a representative race - it was representative of my fitness and training. This was a race that I think probably would have netted me that top-20 in Tremblant, except - of course - it wasn't in Tremblant. I didn't break through what I thought was capable of (best example of that was at Wildflower in 2009), but I had a race that met my expectations, both in terms of overall performance and also results. I consider myself a podium finisher, and I found myself on the podium, and on the "right" side of any gaps (closer to the winner's time than to 4th). After a pretty erratic season, it seems like things are coming together at the right time. I feel like my instincts are good. And that I can trust my sense of what's right and push a bit harder without feeling like I'm going to dig myself back into a hole. I'm not afraid, and I need not be afraid, because I did more, and I had a better race, not a worse race. My body responded in a race the way I thought it would. And should. Finally.

The phrases, "it's a rebuilding year," or "I learned a lot," are pretty cliched in sports; they tend to be overused as ways to put a positive spin on something where there's not a lot of real positivity. Certainly nothing that has come out of this year has been as satisfying as actually winning a race, but I do feel like I've rebuilt a lot of what I lost. And I do feel like I've learned a lot that will pay off in the future, both at Ironman Arizona this year and also over the next few years. The timeframe of validity for those refrains is pretty limited - I figure this race was about it, but I genuinely feel like there have been more positives than the box score might indicate.

As I sat enjoying an enormous whole bacon cheesesteak from Hoagie Haven and drinking a $5 Shake from Thomas Sweets at the Carnegie Lake finish line, the spot of so many of my formative experiences as a rower at Princeton University, it seemed very appropriate. I first found myself as an athlete rowing on that lake. And sitting on the bleachers after Sunday's race, I felt like I had found myself again.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rhythm & Stealth

© Erica Baylor 2014

Ironman 70.3 World Championships
Mont-Tremblant, QC, Canada  2014.09.07

Down like dirt man we dusted 
Get up 
Down like dirt man we dusted 
Get up
Dusted by Leftfield from the album, Rhythm & Stealth

Disappointment. Frustration. Confusion - How can my body - and/or brain - be doing this to me? I wouldn't typically write about a race where those were the prevailing sentiments immediately after. To be sure, there were some bright spots - I led that second group on the swim at 24 minutes, less than two minutes behind some of the best swimmers in the sport and am steadily getting closer to being able to hang into that main group at the front that came out in 23 minutes. Okay, so maybe that was the only real bright spot... 

On Twitter, I was able to sum up my race easily in 140 characters without even having to leave out basic punctuation and articles - "For my part, a hard effort. An honest effort. Couple good takeaways. Some weaknesses exposed. Rebuilding takes time. Another step forward." That's rare. I tend to write a lot, and Twitter constantly confounds me with its character limit. I had a lot more conversations with my coach, Joel Filliol, after the race that took a lot more than 140 characters (sorry JF), and in having those, I was compelled to share some of my assessments of my race. I think that those sentiments of disappointment, frustration, and confusion are sadly more - rather than less - common in triathlon. And the thing that makes triathlon so special as a sport is the shared experience of pros and age-groupers being. So, accordingly, I wanted to share my dissection of a less-than-optimal experience. My "AMA" (Ask Me Anything) posts on Slowtwitch after big wins always got a lot of feedback, and while I don't really want to do an AMA on this race, I actually think that you (I... we...) can learn a lot from a bad race as well.

In almost every case, the factors that led to a bad race were the result of conscious, intended decisions. Most of them were just decisions about what - long-term - was most important to work on, especially with a near-term focus on a great performance at Ironman Arizona in November and a longer-term focus on a return to world class Ironman racing and having a long view on building the foundation for that. None of them were really the sort of strategic-type training decisions where you think that some aspect of the race is going to be critical but then it turns out not to be. A common example of this would be preparing for a race that is traditionally very hot with heat-specific training and then having it be unseasonably cool (or vice-versa, not preparing for a race that typically has mild weather and then being confronted with record breaking temperatures). I did very little training designed to do well on the specific Tremblant course or to prepare for the specific demands on this race, mostly because I think covering that final 1% is good only when you have taken care of the 99%. Simon Whitfield did work on his finishing kick for Beijing because he'd also done everything that he needed to do in order to know that he could be in a position to use it - and he did. I'm not there yet. I'm still focused on that 99%. 

I knew going in that I wasn't going to be in contention to win it. Looking at how the race played out and how competitive it was, my primary goal of top-10 was not even realistic and my back-up goal of top-15 was likely a stretch. It would have been a fantastic race for me to finish near Jesse Thomas, who came 12th after a stellar bike and strong run, two minutes faster than his course record performance in June. Could I have changed how I trained to maybe have been in a bit of a better position to execute that sort of race? Maybe. A bit more of a focus on short, very intense efforts on the bike. A bit more of a focus on short hills - up and down - on the run. But I don't actually think I'd change anything about how I prepared, except maybe - as I've said before about this season - getting started on it a few months earlier. I needed to do the work I did - the big long rides in the mountains, the work on getting foot speed going again - to rebuild the foundation that it's best to lay those specific skills on top of.

Looking at the podium for this race, those guys have no weaknesses. I have quite a few. I have less now than I had six weeks ago, but training takes time, and it's generally best done in a particular order - general leading to specific. And I needed general work. And success at a world championship requires specific work, and I'm definitely further behind on the specific part than I needed to be to do really well. The race in Tremblant definitely confirmed my decision to not pursue Kona. I have a natural bias towards Ironman racing versus 70.3 racing, which has become more like "long Olympic distance" racing, but still, Kona requires specific training, and I'm not in a position to do that yet. A race like Arizona is more like most Ironmans. It requires what I like to call "barn door" fitness (meaning it's about as easy to get it right as it is to hit a barn door) - swim a lot, bike a lot, run a lot; do some hard stuff in all three sports; rest leading into the race. 70.3s are a bit tougher in general - and are more dependent on both the course and the field; a course like Buffalo Springs is more like an Ironman, it's hot and windy and hard and just requires you to be fit. A course like Vineman that also tends to be competitive skews a bit more towards specific skills. And then a World Championship, on a "punchy" course like Tremblant in a venue with mild temperatures, with the best ever field assembled at the distance requires even more specific skills. But specific skills need to lay on a strong foundation, and Joel and I decided to work on the foundation.

If anything, seeing the sort of performance it took to win justified the decisions that we made in training, because to think I could shortchange any part of my fitness and expect to do well is ludicrous. I wasn't happy to come 32nd, but it was also an honest reminder about where I'm at. 

With that said, had I been able to execute a race that simply reflected my fitness at the time, I don't think that I would have been frustrated or confused. I probably still would have been disappointed, but not to the same degree. I think I had the fitness to come top-20, and I didn't show that, and that left me feeling confused and frustrated and disappointed, much as I felt in Oceanside. The difference is that after Oceanside, I ended up concluding that I just hadn't prepared appropriately. After this race, I think I made some mistakes that kept me from at least being able to have my own best performance, even if that performance was never going to be quite as good as I thought leading into the race.

One of the decisions was a decision made, to a certain extent, out of "fear." I flew to the East Coast on Sunday, wrapping up my fourth week of build with speedwork on Saturday. I was reeling a bit from the three big weeks prior to that, and so I also took some extra rest on the Friday before I flew. Compared to the three previous weeks, I rode my bike about seven hours less that week. When I booked my travel, I knew I was going to do a big build, and I was nervous about my ability to bounce back from that, and so I decided to fly on a day when I would otherwise have done a long ride. It was somewhat complicated by the fact that I find the West Coast -> East Coast time change to be particularly challenging, but I've dealt well with that before with much less time to do so. Ultimately, I think I was scared of "overcooking" myself leading into the race, and I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been a positive to have done another long ride - maybe not another kill-myself-in-the-mountains ride - but I think if I'd spent Sunday on my bike instead of on a plane, I would have been better off. 

I also think I did too little during the week leading into the race. Tuesday before the race - after travel on Sunday and an easy day on Monday - I felt great. Really great. I felt like I was going to have a great race. And that was the best I felt all week. That short rest recharged me, and I think I could have re-caught my rhythm again there, but I think again, fear of doing too much - especially after IMTX where I actually do think I did too much leading into the race - made me more cautious. On Thursday, I traveled up to Tremblant, an easy trip from New York (I flew) and did some light training, but I think that I'd have been better off doing less that day, especially if I'd done more the two days prior. Friday, I felt quite good again, a good swim, a good ride, and my initial instincts were that I should - as Joel said - "ride it out." I think my mistake was in thinking that feeling pretty good was a reason to be more cautious. I wished I'd done more Friday. I had three weeks of great workouts where I'd had a hard Friday and had come back even stronger on Saturday and then strongest on Sunday. 

So, do I think I did too much or too little? The answer is, "Yes." I did both too much and too little. A lot of times, the best approach to a race - especially a race that you haven't done a really long build (to me, that's six or more weeks of preparation) for is to just treat it like another workout. A lot of us know how much training and how much recovery we need to have a good, predictable workout. And a lot of times, that's a much more surefire way to have a good race than to try a big taper where you MIGHT have a great race, but you also might have a shitty one. I've made that mistake before - too much rest leading into a race - most notably at Wildflower in 2011. I've also done too much - most notably before Ironman Arizona 2011 and IMTX this year. 2011, I did it in reverse order - too much rest so that later in the year I took too little. This year, I did the opposite, too little rest so that this time I took too much.

The too much rest is most common when you are nervous and afraid and still finding your fitness, as I was in 2011 after my crash and this year after a disastrous year in 2013. I had a good rhythm. I think if I'd just trusted in that and kept it going, I think I would have had a better race in Tremblant. My power numbers on the bike were roughly the same as the best 2:00 chunk of a five hour ride in the mountains... at altitude... in weather that was about 30°F warmer. So I know have better fitness than I showed. But I think while I have always known that consistency in the larger macro-sense is important, I think I more easily lose sight of the fact that consistency on the smaller micro-sense is also equally important.

I don't intend this as an excuse. I made these decisions. Nor do I really intend it as a, "well, I won't do THAT again!" story, except in the more general sense, mostly because I have no intent of ending up in a situation where I'm "rebuilding." Really, it's just another chapter in the book on, "More is more. Less is less." Sometimes you need more. Sometimes you need less. Sometimes you need both. People do all kinds of really crazy stuff leading into races - drinking gallons of water, getting bodywork from someone who they've never had a bodywork from before (NOTE: this is NOT directed at Melissa Hauschildt; it's directed at all those people at the expo who decide to get ART or massage the day or two before the race.), trying all manner of "new" stuff. Most often - especially with long course racing - the safest, most predictable, most reliable way to have a good race is to just treat the race the way you'd treat a big training day. If you want to have a great race, then, yes, you more often need to take some risks, though the vast majority of those risks will be in training, not in the taper/recovery, though I suppose there's some crossover in terms of "risking" that you'll be able to recover and bounce back during taper. But for where I'm at, all I really wanted was to have a good race in Tremblant, and I deprived myself of that.

Failure is when expectations does not meet reality. I was never going to win this race. But that needn't have been a failure. The failure was in not racing to the level of my preparation. But I feel encouraged that Joel and I have some ideas about why. 

One last note, after struggling a bit more than I expected to bounce back from last year, I'm also pursuing getting some help and guidance on some basic blood work from people who have experience with that specifically with elite athletes. Joel doesn't plan on doing any so-called "longitudinal" observation (where you try to match blood markers to performance and use it to tune performance). But I do figure I should at least check to make sure I don't have any glaringly obvious "issues." I am fairly certain that I don't, because my performances in training don't indicate that, but I thought it best to check that off the list. I mention this both as a somewhat preemptive answer to the question, "have you checked your X levels?" and also as a guide along the lines of the rest of this post to folks who may also be struggling with the, "why am I not racing as well as I'm training?" dilemma. 

Next up is the race in Princeton, where my goal is to at least show the fitness I have. After that I'm passing on Silverman so as to focus on a longer, more predictable, less interrupted build for Arizona. Thanks to all who have supported me during the ups and down of the past two years. I'm looking forward to writing something a bit simpler after one of these races. Something more like, Veni. Vidi. Vici. That's Latin for, "I just kicked some ass."

Saturday, August 09, 2014

The Road To Kona Stops Here. For Now.

© Ali Engin 2014

I wanted to give an update on the rest of 2014. In spite of all my racing, I came up one spot short of a guaranteed slot to Kona this year (though, as I said, that became less about points that about racing), and - for the first time in the history of the KPR - no slots rolled down. It's still possible that someone might pull out, in which case the slot would go to me, but as I was admittedly on the fence about racing this year anyway, if that happens, I will pass on it. It was actually probably easier to have the decision made for me than to make what I think would have been the right decision, since there's a lot of emotion attached to Kona; though I think it's noteworthy that I did my best racing when I avoided the emotional attachment to Kona, and that a return to a focus on preparation and execution - rather than a focus on Kona itself - will get me where I want to be, both in Kona and elsewhere. Focus on the journey and the process, not the destination, even when that destination can be as all consuming as Kona is. 

I feel like it took a year (maybe more) to fully recover from that massive block of ultras in 2012 - four 8 hour races in six months (IMTX, IMNYC, Leadman Bend, Kona), five in 10 months (add in IMMEL '13), but that I have in fact put that behind me. The preparation I did for IMTX 2014 was as good as any I've done, though I think I paid a price for that based on how I felt (and performed) on race day; I wasn't yet back in terms of my ability to really absorb the training as I had in the past. But after living on planes and out of a suitcase for a month and half, I finally got to at least realize the benefits of that training. That was the last block of real training I did, and yet I managed to progress from a 4:03 in Syracuse to a 3:48 in Calgary. 

I'm looking to continue on that with a return to the 70.3 WC in early September. Last time I raced them - at the very first in Clearwater '06 - I came off the bike in 6th. I'd be pretty happy if I could do that again, and I think if I do, I'll finish better than 22nd... Following that, I'm currently planning on the 70.3 races in Princeton, NJ (going back "home") on Sep 21 and Silverman in Las Vegas (a course that suits me) on Oct 5. I may drop one of these depending on how recovery goes and how the next five weeks of training go. But I'm hoping to do both. And then I will finish off the year, as I always seem to do, in the Tempe desert at Ironman Arizona, where I have my sights set on cracking the eight hour barrier (and taking back the course record).

The decision to focus on this path and on becoming a better athlete and returning to being a healthy one was certainly made easier in part by the caliber of the people and companies I work with. When I thought about what sort of result it would take to be impactful and meaningful in Kona, I realized that the bar is quite high. Those folks who support me support a lot of other world class athletes. Unless I was prepared to deliver at least a top-5 or - in some cases - a top-3, which I honestly do not believe I am capable of right now (or, to be more specific, in 10 weeks). And certainly anything less than that is less meaningful, I think, than getting back in the winner's circle and chasing - and delivering - a world class performance at a non-Kona Ironman thanks to appropriate preparation. 

A lot of the decisions I made this year were decisions I should have made last year. The decision to take a big break (at the very end of last year), the decision to change coaches. Both of these were decisions I should have made three to six months earlier than I did. But I didn't, and as a result, I'm about three to six months behind where I want to be now. I should have passed on Kona last year so as to appropriately prepare for this year. I'm trying not to repeat those mistakes of being short term greedy. I figure I have - without a bunch of future bad decisions and with lessons learned - four and maybe five years of world class racing. I'd rather maximize those than just go to Kona to be there this year.

My confidence on the race course certainly took a beating last year. And I imagine that the confidence of the folks who support me - financially and otherwise - may also have taken a beating. And it took a beating for much of this year as well, especially in Texas. But after all this racing, I feel like I have it back. And I'm excited for the end of the year. And I plan to deliver some results to be excited about as well.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


© 2014 Stirland Rae Photo

People ask me why I do this over and over. The best thing I've come up with is, "Because I have to. I don't know how to live my life any other way." 
- Rebecca Rusch, WHY?

(Someone on the Slowtwitch forum asked why I was doing all these races - five 70.3s in six weeks. This was the best thing I could come up with...)

It started out as a twofold goal: 
- qualify for Kona 
- become a better athlete 

The qualify for Kona part, had it been the only priority, would have been relatively easy to do at any Ironman, IMLP being the most obvious choice if all I wanted to do was qualify. 

Mathematically, when I designed the new KPR points system - and this was confirmed by basically everyone else who ran similar scenarios, it seemed like it would take about 3500 points to qualify. Ironically, it ended up taking EXACTLY 3500. 

So between IMTX and IMAZ, I had just over 2500. I had some "filler" - like 100 points or so from IMSG and Oceanside, but basically, all I *needed* to qualify was a 4th place at an Ironman. Outside of Kona, I have never placed lower than 4th in ANY Ironman except my very first one, where I was 5th. So, I was 99% sure that I could do one more Ironman and get enough points to make it into Kona. 

However, I didn't actually think that was a good plan, because I didn't see it benefitting me in any way long term as an athlete. 

As [random anonymous Slowtwitch asshole] rightly points out, "it's not like he has a chance at top-5." I'd say that is an accurate current assessment. I think in 2012, when I was racing REALLY well, I had a legitimate chance at 6/7/8 in Kona if I had not raced Leadman 250 in Bend three weeks before. But I think I haven't raced to that level (the level I showed at IMTX & IMNYC 2012) since then. And 6/7/8 is not "top-5." Even at my best, I don't think I have yet shown top-5 form. Top-5 potential? Sure. But so what. What exactly is "potential"? Potential definitely won't feed my (now larger) family. And I beat the shit out of a lot of that potential anyway. 

Mostly, I chalk this up to bad self-management. I raced five 8hr races in 10 months - IMTX '12, IMNYC '12, Leadman 250 Bend '12, Kona '12, & IM Melbourne '13. I was sick in Melbourne, and that combined with not totally shutting it down to recover post-Melbourne set me up for a pretty shitty season last year with the low point being a Kona DNF. 

This year started out also pretty shitty at Oceanside, and that's when I decided to make a coaching change. The prep I did for Ironman Texas was good. Really good. Probably the best prep for an Ironman I've had since 2012. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case, when you make a change, there's an adjustment period. I felt REALLY good leading into Texas, until about three days before the race, when I started to fade. Ultimately, it wasn't a total negative - the reason I was able to do the training I did for Texas was that I was finally healthy and in a good headspace. So I did too much because it felt easy. And, as with all things physical, there's a lag with fatigue. But I came out on the short end of the stick - a wetsuit swim in warm water didn't help, but that was probably more the difference between hanging onto 2nd vs fading to 4th than it was winning vs. not. I was tired during the race, and ended up fading. That 4:19 was an underperformance on the bike given the conditions. And a 3:02? Well, yeah... I was so tired that I didn't even register on the crowded Texas run that Justin Daerr passed me with about 1/2 a mile to go (ironically, that 300 point differential between 3rd and 4th would be the difference between an easy road to 3500 and what ended up being a much more challenging route). C'est la vie. 

A win at Texas would have gotten me in. But when that didn't happen, I needed a plan B. I knew from the Texas build that my health was back after 2013 and that my ability to do the training needed to win a race was also back. 

So what was missing? I figured it was racing skills. I raced very little in 2013. My swim made very little progress, despite strong improvements in the pool. I was pretty much the same athlete that I had been in terms of how I was able to do well and what I could do well at. 

Those limiters are all a huge problem when it comes to being a guy who CAN go top-5 in Kona. 

So I figured I'd try to get the points and ALSO improve as a "racer." I'd try to improve my swim. I'd be able to test in real scenarios things that offered a supposed advantage (like the Pearl sleeved trisuit, which tested really fast in the windtunnel, but which I cannot swim with pulled up in), to further refine nutrition (I had to pitstop again in Texas and I felt like I'd lost my handle a bit on really being dialed on IM nutrition), and to just get better at racing - transitions, tactics, etc, etc, etc. 

Syracuse was not a great race; for reasons that I still don't understand, my hip locked up after my run Saturday morning and just would not cooperate on the run on race day. Been fine before and since. 

Lubbock was a great race, though in fairness, if I was to design the PERFECT half-Ironman course for me, that's it. If I had realized then that the Pearl suit slowed me down in the water, I think I win that race. But that was my first sense of, "oh yeah, this is RACING. I can be good at it. And I like it. A lot." 

Vineman was another subpar swim thanks to Pearl suit, but it was a great race from a pacing standpoint, so another improvement. Getting back to being really steady. That was my most evenly paced race. And I think a good reminder of both the positives and negatives of that. 

In Racine, i didn't have a great day (bad pacing on the bike), but finally - for the first time in close to two years - I actually raced from start to finish. A good swim, a dumb bike but then followed by a tough (though not super fast) run. But it was a race. A real race. I crossed the finishline with nothing left. I just bent over and wanted to die. For the first time in a LONG time. 10th place was shitty, but whatever. I remembered how to race. I didn't have the fitness to back it up since I hadn't done a "real" week of training since some time in April, but that's easy to correct. THAT is easy to fix. The racing brain? Much harder. 

So I decided to race again. I wanted to race again. So I headed to Calgary. 

I had a best ever swim, coming out in the front pack, swimming on the feet of an Olympian and U-23 ITU World Champ (Will Clarke). I rode a tactical bike, not just a sit on the front and ride steady (though I did sit at the front for about the last 80km of the 90km); I raced the bike. And I managed to break everyone except Potts, again, without actually preparing on the bike the way I would for a big race. And then I ran really well - holding Brandon at the same margin - for 1/2 the run. In the second half? Well, I just ran out of steam. Five 70.3s in six weeks will do that to you, especially when the last block of real training you did was about five-six weeks before you even started knocking down these races. I thought I might have been able to outkick Brandon if we'd been about 1km closer to the line when he passed me, but the last surge I had - what I would have needed to kick off of - made me know there was no way I could hold it for 2km. But again, I raced it. Start to finish. I finally felt like a racer again. 

The first couple of these races, it was like no big deal to recover, because in some ways, I was just going through the motions. Like doing "half-of-an-Ironman." Calgary and Racine? Those hurt. Those were tiring. Because those were full on races. 

Does this mean I'm a top-5 guy? I wouldn't say that. What I will say is that IF I do ever cross the line in Kona in 5th or better, it will be precisely because of this and because i didn't choose just to go "do" an Ironman so I could get into Kona. 

Right now, I'm not sure what the rest of the year will hold. Surprisingly (because I never intended to race this many 70.3s), I actually qualified for 70.3 WC, and I think I'll probably go, because it's a great chance to simulate a WC swim outside of Kona and to keep racing sharp. 

I might do another 70.3 before the end of August - maybe Brazil, just because Brazil seems hella cool, but I'm not going to chase a Q slot. I think I've got a pretty good chance that SOMEONE will turn it down from this first cut, but I'm okay either way. If not, I can just keep racing - and keep improving - and that may even be the better plan long term anyway.

When I had my best season ever - 2012 - I went 4:00 to start the year at Wildflower. That's the 6th fastest time EVER on that course - a course that has seen basically every great 70.3 racer in the world race it at some point (Macca, M. Raelert, Potts, Llanos, Terenzo, etc). I don't think that's coincidence. Wildflower is - like Lubbock - the perfect course for me, but I still needed to have the tools to go fast on it. I think at some point, I lost those. I would say now, I feel like I have them back. Now just need to put some fitness behind them... 

The TL;DR version is this: Paulo wrote a tweet a few weeks ago that said, roughly, "I love it when guys who are killing it at 70.3 decide to 'step up' to Ironman. Because I know they're gonna get slower." So this was basically the inverse of that. 

Why am I doing a bunch of 70.3s? Because I wanna get faster. THAT is the reason. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Temporarily Closed For Racing. Please Call Again Soon...

Looking forward, not back...

I should probably write something about all these races I'm doing. But instead, I just keep doing more races. See you after Calgary. Unless I race again...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Tank Is Empty. But I Have More In The Tank.

© 2014 Nils Nielsen

Ironman Texas
The Woodlands, TX ✮ 2014.05.17

I thought this was going to be the race where I finally got to write something other than some variant of, "Well, I thought I had a better race in me." In this case, the only real variant I can offer is that this time I know I had a better race in me. Over the past seven weeks, I've done some of the best training that I can remember. Certainly the best period of work in over a year. But I also had some upheaval. Part of the reason that I had such a good block of training was that I made a hard decision to make a pretty significant change and to decide to work with a new (old) coach. In many ways, that was a hugely liberating and positive experience. But it was not without challenges. But, in many ways, it seemed as if it was. Following the race in Oceanside, I knew I need a change, and after some very good conversations with Joel, we got up to speed very quickly. Training was going well. For the first time in a long time, I really felt great, both mentally and physically. Instead of feeling like I was behind the eight ball, I felt like I was out front again. 

But one of the hardest parts about making change is also knowing what not to change. I had a lot of success over the past five years, and even if some of it was by luck or by accident, I'm sure I did some things right on purpose. But it's unproductive to try and guess what particular things were the "keys" to success. Because it's very hard to spin things out of the whole program and even more so out of your life as a whole. Two years ago, I had one kid, I was coming off an incredibly successful year in 2011, and I felt like I was on a roll. To try to figure out what particular elements of training led to success in The Woodlands then - without considering the larger details of my life - would be folly. That would not be making a change. That would just be fence-sitting. I need to figure out anew with Joel what translates into success for me now. And, clearly, we haven't figured it out yet. It's been seven weeks and two races. So that's understandable. Still disappointing. But understandable.

Seven weeks after starting with a new coach - albeit one who I had a prior relationship with - is not a long time. There were bound to be both successes and failures. Ultimately, I think the final preparation after St. George and taper for this race was a failure. But I think that, in many ways, it was borne out of the much greater successes. For much of 2013, I was unhappy and unmotivated. I was also very tired. And the two became largely synonymous. When I finally took a big long break after Ironman Arizona - I went six weeks without running or biking - I finally felt rested. But I also felt out of shape, and my return to training was erratic, as evidenced by my lackluster performance in Oceanside. And so I made a change. And since then, I have been motivated, I have been happy, and I have had some of the best training that I've ever done. But the training did not become any less taxing. But I don't think - until I actually asked my body to perform in an Ironman - that I grasped the fatigue I was carrying. But I think I didn't grasp it because I wanted to be out there training. I felt good getting out there and working. I was happy. And healthy for the first time in a long time. I enjoyed what I was doing. And things were going very well.

Things were going well, at least, until I uncharacteristically faded during the last third of the swim in Texas, struggled to stay consistent through the middle of the bike (though I found a second wind for the last 25 miles or so), and really just hit the wall very early in the run. But I still feel motivated. I still feel good. And while I'm disappointed about the result itself and my performance, I still feel happy about where I'm at. And, if I had to make a tradeoff between knowing that things went right in training and wrong on race day, I'll take this over a race where things went pretty right on race day despite going wrong in training. In an ideal world, there's none of those tradeoffs. You have a good race and you feel like you have more to give. The training and the racing are both good. I know what it's like to feel that way, and I'm working towards getting back there. I'm definitely much closer than I was. But it's a process. And I feel - on balance - like this was a step in the right direction. 

It was not my best performance. But it was an honest performance. I left all that I had - and more - out there on the course. I just didn't set myself up for that effort to translate into something that was also a best performance. 

Now, before any of you folks jump on this as some sort of "less is more" or "rest is best" type of affirmation, it's not. Should I have done less during the week of the race? I think so. But I think the larger picture is that a big - huge - part of why I ended up in the scenario is that I had been very inconsistent and erratic in my training up until this point. So once I finally "found my rhythm," I was loathe - mostly unconsciously - to give it up. I didn't actively think, "I need to train more." I just enjoyed the process again. And so I did. But had I been more consistent since the start of the year, or, ideally, through last year (or years) - as I was from 2007-2008-2009 and then again in 2011-2012, I would have been better prepared to make the best decisions leading into the race. Six weeks of great training is wonderful. But it's nothing compared to six, twelve, 18, etc months of consistent training. With depth of fitness comes not only resilience - where doing a bit too much (or too little) is less impactful - but also a better sense of where your body is at. The more often you've been more consistent, the more predictable your body becomes. And Ironman - and endurance sport in general - is really about predictability. It's about expectations and reality coming together. Knowing what to expect of yourself and then executing that.

So did I need to less the week of the race? Yes. But not because "less is more" or any of that nonsense. But because in making changes and finally finding my stride again, I tired myself out more than I realized, both because I had found enjoyment in training again and because it had been quite a while since I'd had that sort of groove, and I didn't realize just how taxing it can be when things are going well. Ironically, in the flipside of that equation, I feel quite good today. Because I wasn't able to push my body as hard as I wanted to, I'm not as tired as I'd like to be. It was the opposite of St. George but with the same basic outcome. In St. George, I had better fitness than I showed because mentally I didn't dig deep enough. In Texas, I had better fitness than I showed because - thanks to a positive mental outlook - I dug too deep, but I did it before the race. But that's an easy fix. Much easier than "how do I get motivated?" The best sign that I'm on the right track as I sit here today, writing this, I'd rather be out there, getting ready to go win an Ironman.

Change is hard. But when you commit to the entire process, it works. I committed to the entire process, and it's resulted in both some success and some failure. I remain committed to the process and will hang on to the successes and try to learn from the failures. As I saw it put best on a brilliant sign out on the IMTX run course, "if it was easy, it'd be called your mom."

Monday, May 05, 2014

The Road Ahead

© 2014 Nils Nielsen

Following the recent race in Oceanside, though not primarily because of it, I decided to make a change that had been on my mind since going through what was my most disappointing year as a professional in 2013. In spite of two "acceptable" results - 4th at Ironman Melbourne and 2nd at Ironman Arizona, 2013 was a lost year. It was lost to overtraining, undertraining, injury, and just "general malaise," though not the sort that the genius possess and insane lament. Rather, it was a malaise of the kind of consistently subpar performances that drive you insane as an athlete. I was vaguely sick and/or injured for pretty much the whole year, which I mention not as an excuse for my subpar performances, but as a reckoning of just how poorly I managed myself. These things did not happen to me. I did these things to myself thanks to a variety of bad decisions and nondecisions that I made and didn't make.

Any discussion of a coaching change inevitably invites potential criticisms of the prior coach. Let me state explicitly that Michael Krueger is one of the very best coaches in the sport and that I have nothing but the utmost respect for him as both a coach and a person. He remains a friend, and I certainly intend that stays the case. In no way, shape, or form should the fact that I am changing coaches be interpreted as a reflection on Michael. We had enormous success together. As my life changed and career goals shifted, I was unable to make the sort of changes necessary in our relationship to enjoy continued success. It's on me. Really, all that needs to be said is that in five years together (our first race together as coach/athlete was Oceanside 2009, fittingly enough), I had five Ironman wins, an ITU Long Distance World Championship title, two Leadman Epic 250 wins, and - most amazingly - a comeback from a near fatal car-vs-bike accident. That last element is especially important, because I think it is part of why it was so hard to transform our relationship in 2013. 

In 2009, no one expected much of me, and I surprised a lot of folks, including myself, with  two Ironman wins, posting the 2nd fastest time in course history at Ironman Canada and a new course record at Ironman Arizona. But then that was all "reset" by my crash in 2010, and I was back to having no one - including me for a while - expect anything of me in 2011, which I think was a big part of why I was able to break through again, winning the Leadman Epic 250 in Vegas, Ironman Canada, and then the ITU Long Distance World Champs in Vegas. 2012 was a bit of a transitional year, where I was not originally going to go to Kona, but then thanks to some logistical breaks, I ended up racing Ironman Texas and the one-and-done Ironman US Championships in New York en route to a debut in Kona with a quick - and, in retrospect, somewhat foolish - stop at the Leadman 250 in Bend. And that's really when things started to come apart. I was tired in Kona. I had a terrible swim - not really surprising since my swimming after racing Leadman never was as good as it was before I tacked on all that fatigue. I faded on the bike. I faded on the run. Both totally atypical of the way I normally race. 13th was a disappointment. But I set myself up for it.

Racing Melbourne in 2013, where I was sick because I was an idiot in training was my fifth 8+ hour race in 10 months. I had expectations of myself - and I felt the weight, real or perceived, of others expectations on me - and lost the very things that had enabled me to be successful in the first place. I think, in general terms, I focused more on being a professional athlete than on a professional athlete. A good - but not great - performance in Arizona seemed like I had maybe grasped that and corrected it, but I think it was more an exception than the rule. A subpar performance in Oceanside to start 2014 basically confirmed (with some prodding from a wise friend) that something needed to change.

It was very hard to tell Michael that I felt that I needed to change coaches. But after almost five weeks of change since doing so, I know it was right. In closing out the retrospective part of this post, I'd like to tell a quick story that captures the essence of the successes I had with Michael and also the essence of what I need to get back to. Going into the last uphill section of the ITU Long Distance World Championships course, where - thanks to the TT style start, I needed to drop defending champion world champion Sylvain Sudrie of France, Michael said to me, simply, "you do it now for a world championship." And I did.

With Coach Michael after winning 2011 ITU Long Distance World Championships

In thinking about what I was missing and how to get it back, I immediately thought of the coach that really started me on this crazy journey, when really nobody expected absolutely anything at all of me - Joel Filliol. Joel and I stopped working together in early 2009 when he took what seemed like a dream job as head coach of the Great British federation, where a very formal business environment meant there would be none of the casual acceptance of a crazy American long distance triathlete that the more casual Canadian federation had tolerated (mostly thanks to Simon Whitfield). Joel left had since left that job and returned to a less formal business environment, once again run by a casual Canadian - Joel himself. Joel now coaches a globe-trotting squad of ITU and short course athletes (and now, once again, a long course athlete) that I plan to join at key points throughout the year. But mostly what I am aiming to recapture is the high performance attitude that I grew up (as a triathlete) in under Joel (and also Simon).

The last blog post I wrote, about the race in St. George, was really a self-deprecating take on the relative absence of this attitude in my own racing, especially in the swim, though really applicable to the larger race against a world class field. I said before the race that I felt like - and said before that race - I had half of a fast Ironman in me, and that is - not surprisingly - what I executed. To some extent, that was the reality of training and physiology. I was not in a great place five weeks ago, and I am clearly in a much better place now. But looking at the swim, in spite of a full year of hard work, I exited the water in essentially the exact same place - relatively - as I did last year. The irony, of course, is that I actually did "feel" much better. I was much more comfortable. I was, in fact, too comfortable. I had the race that I believed I could have, which wasn't that much worse than the race I think I could have had. But worse is worse. And better is better. Always.

Change takes time, but that's just as easily an excuse as it is a truth. I could have been better on the day in St. George. And therefore I should have been better. It's easy - and true - to say that, in practical terms, there's no real difference between 9th and 19th (or 17th) because the pay goes 8 deep. And, given the conditions and the depth of field, I just don't honestly believe I had prepared myself to perform that well. No amount of self belief was going to put me in the front of that race. But some self belief could have put me further up the results. I am better than 17th place. Except I wasn't.

And that's the ironic and self-mocking point I was making - mostly for myself - in that blog post. The great thing about sport - especially elite sport - is that it is incredibly objective. There is huge value in results and the very traditional meaning of space and time and things like, "how fast did you go?" and "where did you finish?" It really doesn't matter how you felt. I look at the photo of Tim Don, Brent McMahon, and Jan Frodeno doubled over at the finish line and think, "I did not feel like that." And, unsurprisingly, that was the podium, and I was 17th. I should have felt worse, because then I would have felt better.

It's very, very easy to just tweak the criteria you are using to evaluate your performance to turn it into something satisfactory. To take a me-centric approach to analysis. To let the earth move around you. But that's not real. Or, at least, it's not real if you are trying to be a world class athlete. The clock is real. Results are real. 

An attitude of self-awareness is only valuable if it also makes you self aware to your own BS. As the cliche goes, "whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right." Can't do well on fast courses? Can't start fast in the swim? Can't do well except at Ironman? Then you can't. Now, as I said before, there's no switch here that just makes up for inappropriate preparation. You actually need to prepare to do well on fast courses, and at the swim start, and at races other than Ironman. But mentality informs racing which informs training which informs racing. If you believe you can do something, you will prepare more appropriately to do it. The fact that I was not prepared to win the race does not mean that I should have raced that way. There is a big difference between "can't" and "shouldn't." "Can't" is a mentality. "Shouldn't" is not. Shouldn't is the decision the mature athlete makes. Can't is the attitude of the fearful athlete. Though it's very easy to mix up the two. I know I have. Especially lately.

My friend and swim coach Lauren Hancock said to me before I left for St. George, "I had a breakthrough at the end of my career when I stopped racing to be disappointed." I thought I knew what she meant, where I thought she meant she stopped caring about how she did. But I think I understand it now in a different way. She didn't stop caring. She started caring more about the right things and about being honest about her expectations and her reality coming together in her performances. And I think that's truly what I've been missing.

I've been afraid, both of my own expectations and those of others. I let go of many of the right things - like a commitment to excellence - and held on to many of the wrong things, but wrong things that were easy to spin as something else. Spinning being afraid as being conservative. Racing scared as racing smart. Paula Newby-Fraser said to me before Kona last year, "what's - really - the worst that could happen?" And again, I thought I understood what that meant - the worst that could happen was to DNF, and that is what happened, and my world did not end. But really, to borrow the most elegant summary I know, the worst that could happen is, as Pre said, "to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift." And I think I did that. Not so much in the race. That was just the inevitable conclusion of not giving my best in preparing. As I said, racing informs training which informs racing.

What I said to Joel when we first talked about working together again is that I did not want to be afraid. At the time, I didn't really know what I really meant by that, though I think it was the truest thing I could say. The Jean-Paul Sartre quote that I put at the end of the St. George blog probably seemed, like most of that post, like a comedic non sequitur, which it pretty much was in that context. But there's a reason I chose it. It's easy to mistake not caring for letting go. For being disenchanted - and being ironic - as truth. David Foster Wallace wrote about this in an heavy read on irony. But the truth is that not caring is easy. That's not at all letting go. Letting go really means caring a lot.

The quote on my top tube is a quote I attribute to Joel partly because he was the first to express the idea to all of us in the original BAMF crew, but mostly because he really instilled the idea in all of us. It reads, "Hope is not a strategy." You want a strategy? You better create one. I like how Drew Brees put it, "If you don't have a chip on your shoulder already, you better put one up there." And if you can't, make a change. Find a way to do it. Find someone who will challenge you to do it. I believe I've made that change now. And now the hard part really comes - putting it into practice.

With Coach Joel at a Flagstaff, AZ altitude camp 2007

I'm not the same person or athlete I was when this picture was taken. And my goal is not to recapture the past. That never works. My goal is to be great. To pursue excellence, even if it means riding up to 9,000ft in a blizzard. Again. To the extent that I can be better by learning from both my past successes and my past failures, I intend to do so. That is my strategy.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Observations on the True Self

not my actual self but merely a facsimile... © Larry Rosa

Ironman 70.3 St. George
St. George, UT ✮ 2014.05.03

In reviewing my recent race in St. George, I'd like to start out with two points that I think need to be factored into any discussion about the so-called "results." The first is that had I crossed the finish line ahead of all of the athletes who finished before me, I would have won the race. Likewise, had all of the athletes who finished ahead of me instead finished behind me, I also would have won the race. I think the importance of these two points cannot be overstated. Lest anyone out there come to the faulty conclusion that I am making so-called "excuses," let's be clear that these are relevant hypotheticals and/or counterfactuals. And I think that this sets up a useful paradigm for examining the various aspects of the race.

Before the race, I focused entirely on my own self. I mention this because in addition to consideration of relevant and appropriate counterfactuals, I think not enough time is spent focusing on our own perception of both ourselves and events during important periods in our lives. I felt a great sense of peace, which was enhanced by the convenient provision of dedicated "thinking chambers" within the transition corral. After spending time discovering inner peace, I decided to embrace a metaphor for my larger life, which was to use a mechanical device to control nature and to inject the very air we breathe into a confined man-made chamber for my own purposes. In doing so, I also felt a great sense of empowerment. With combined feelings of peace and power, I was certain that nothing could stop me, existentially speaking anyway. Having now established a proper framework for consideration of the day's happenings, let us now begin.

When thinking about my swim, I don't want to get bogged down with trivial items like, "how fast did I go?" or, "how much time did I lose to the lead group(s)?" This does not take into consideration important details like the fact that I did not grow up as a competitive swimmer. Had I done so, I clearly would have exited the water in the lead group, if not in the lead of the actual race overall. And the only reason that I did not grow up as a competitive swimmer is because my parents did not force me into it and also because I did not like the idea of swimming competitively very much. But can you imagine if this was not the case. Well, imagine it. And now that you have me coming out of the water first in your mind, we can move forward. And now I'd like to focus on the fact that I very much enjoyed myself during the swim. The water was an appropriate temperature for swimming in a wetsuit. There also was essentially no chop or wake, which was helpful because I also did not grow up swimming in rough water (though imagine if I had done that as well!). And the sun did not shine into my eyes in such a way as to prevent sighting. All of these things combined for a swim where my overall self-image during this portion of the so-called race made me see myself as if I was swimming with perfect form and at high speed. And as a result, I came out of the water exactly where I should have. The fact that some other people chose to come out of the water not where they should have (meaning ahead of me, at least within the narrow confines of traditional definitions of space-time) is not my problem. Next time, they should not do that.

Once onto the bike, I'd to like reframe this whole experience as the earth rotating under my wheels rather than me riding over the earth. I think it gives a truer understanding of events to think about things unfolding around me as I remained perfectly still (in the Zen sense of the word). In this me-centered version of events, there is no time as we know it, meaning that I could not actually have ridden any faster or slower. The earth simply could have moved faster or slower beneath me. Though of course the earth does not move faster or slower. So again, I was transported from the start of the bike to the finish exactly as fast as possible. The movements of other souls (I hate to call them "competitors" because of how limiting that is) is not of concern to me, since how could I know how they would interact with their own versions of the earth-self model. To those who attempted to be untrue to the genuine earth-self by redefining space-time for their own convenience, I have to ask, "how does that really make you feel about yourself inside?" There are numerous self-empowerment books that could be of great value in terms of answering these questions. I hope they read them before we next come together.

Beginning the run, I could not help but feel a sense of destiny, knowing that I would leave from where I started only to return back to almost exactly the same spot, but at a future time. In the common parlance of our times, this is referred to as an "out-and-back" course, though I think this is a foolish idea, since obviously you can never go back in time. Time moves inexorably forward. I felt a very strong sense of oneness on during the run, which was inconveniently interrupted by the presence of other people whose oneness inconvenienced my own. But can you imagine if I was the only person racing? Imagine it. If no one else had been there, then no one could have disturbed the version of events where I cross the so-called finish line having done what some people would describe as winning. And so, really, I think you truthfully can say that even if I did not win the so-called race, I did win the actual race, which was my own internal struggle with my self-image about my place in both space and time.

Before we conclude our analysis of this one particular version of events that occurred in this one particular version of reality, I'd like to discuss one last salient point. One dominating thought that I could not help but dwell on was the idea that I felt very ready to swim, bike, and run for exactly twice as far as I had on this particular day. I can conceive of a world in which we do not compete at a "70.3" race, but rather at a race that is twice as long. I will call this hypothetical race a "140.6" race. This thought was present in my mind at numerous times during the day, and I regularly felt that I would have been in a more favorable position had the previous portion been twice as long. I could not help but feel like had we chosen to swim, bike, and run two times - instead of one - over the same course that I would have fared much better. Perhaps someday soon such an event will come to pass. I dare to dream such a dream, because as Jean-Paul Sartre said, "Like all dreamers, I mistook disenchantment for truth."