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

Why?

© 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."

Namaste.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Why Triathletes Need A Road Bike

(Reposted this after getting so many requests for it. Specialized moved to a new platform and it was lost.)

As much as you might read the title and expect that this is going to be a compelling (or fluff) piece on why you must buy a Specialized Tarmac SL3, that is not actually the case. Though, in the words of Ferris Bueller, "It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up." No, this is simply about why you - the regular triathlete - needs *a* road bike. Before we get into why you need a road bike, there are some of you who do not need one. If you are this person, you can stop reading right now. If you never ride more than an hour and if you never ride less than 25mph (40kph for you sensible metric folks) and if you view your bike simply as a necessary evil to get from swim to run, then you are 1) very atypical in the triathlon world, 2) probably an ex-swimmer or ex-XC runner, and 3) not the kind of person that needs a road bike. There are a few of these folks in the world. They are not the norm.

Assuming you are still reading along, I will assume that you are not one of those types of people. There are two primary reasons to own a road bike. The first is simple - if you ride with other people, it is not optimal to have your brakes and your shifters in separate places. It's also very much not optimal, unless you are participating in a Team Time Trial, to ride in your aerobars in close proximity to other people. Now, you may have an easy answer (in your own mind) to this "problem." You will just ride in the "pursuit position," which means with your hands on the brake hoods. And this is what brings us to the really real reason that you need a road bike.

Whenever you are NOT in your aerobars, you would better off on a road bike.

The reason for this has to do entirely with biomechanics. People who primarily ride their tribikes use the following argument, "I race on my tribike, so I should train on my tribike." While this is true, most people do (or at least should, assuming they have been properly fitted to their bike and their saddle) race in their aerobars. If you do not race primarily - 90%+ of the bike portion of your race - in the aerobars, then you need a fitting on your tribike, in addition to needing a road bike. But let's assume that you do have a good position on your tri bike and you do race in your aerobars. That's a big assumption, but we will make it, especially since I spent the last two posts encouraging you to get the right saddle. The position that you are fitted to when you go in for a tribike fit is your aerobar fit. It doesn't matter, really, how comfortable your pursuit position is. It just has to be "good enough." There is only ONE position on a tribike, and that is the one in the aerobars. Everything is a compromise position. The reason is that the body angles (specifically the angle of your hips relative to your torso) change a LOT when you are not in the aerobars. 

The position of your hips - your hip angle - in this position:



Is very, very different than in this position:


And that is why you need a road bike. Because the latter position - the correct position -  is much more similar to this position:


It's quite easy to see when you look at the pictures. 

Road bikes have three positions. Hands on the hoods (Fabian in yellow), hands in the drops, and hands on the tops. In all cases, your hip angle remains largely constant, because you will slide back in the saddle when your hands are on the tops and forward when your hands are in the drops. Furthermore, you can also bend your elbows to create the appropriate hip angle. Technically, you can also bend your elbows on a tribike, but this puts a LOT of weight on your hands, which ends up being a very uncomfortable (untenably so) position, and you still aren't likely to get nearly as low as you would if you were on your aerobars. 

So what this means is that every time you come up out of your aerobars, you are training in a position that is VERY different from the one you want to race in. And, ironically, in these moments, were you riding a road bike, it would be your position on that bike that would be most similar to the position you aim to race your tribike in. This is the position that will allow you to generate the most power, recruit the most musculature, and be the most comfortable. But you need to train in this position. Especially on a steep seat angle position, riding a tribike in the pursuits/hoods is really much more like this:


than like this:


It's this versatility of positions - all of which allow you to preserve a common hip angle - whether you are climbing, descending, sprinting, pack riding, or just out training that make a road bike so useful. You can train in the same position you will race in, only without needing to put your weight up on the nose of the saddle, crane your neck to see the cars and traffic lights up the road, or do any of the other things that make a tribike less than ideal for doing anything other than riding hard against the clock. And any road bike will do this for you. You can spend less than 1000. You can get entry level parts. You can even have (gasp) a triple! It doesn't matter. The most budget, non-carbon, simple roadbike is going to be the best training tool that you can buy. And it'll make you feel that much faster (because you'll actually be faster) when you do take your tribike out for the kind of ride it was designed for - a hard and fast one. Of course, a really, really, really nice road bike also works well too! But it's the positions that it offers you which make it so useful. So if you want to end up like this, well then you need to train that way, which means you need a road bike...



Wednesday, April 09, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE TO WORLDWIDE MEDIA! Re: Ironman 70.3 California 2014

Dominating some pretty rocks. © J. Prasuhn 2014

(Based on actual events. So names have been changed due to poor memory...)

Team Rappstar Elite Team Member Jordan "Rappstar" Rapp kicked off his 2014 season with a dominant 15th place finish that saw him besting the entire age group field and crossing the line a commanding *FOUR* minutes ahead of (women's) winner and (women's) course record holder Heather Wurtele. He finished a mere two minutes back of Matt Lieto who finished barely nine minutes back of Trevor Wurtele who finished only five minutes back of Sebastian Kienle who was a miniscule four minutes back of (men's) race winner and (men's) course record holder Jan Frodeno.

The day started off quite strong for Jordan, who saw it as a good omen when he noticed SuperCrapper-brand Port-A-Johns in transition. An ecstatic Rapp said after the race, "whenever I've done my pre-race business in a SuperCrapper, that always sets me up for a great day. There's nothing quite like using single-ply t.p. by the light of your headlamp to set a tone of excellence."

After entering Oceanside Harbor via a E-Z-Crete concrete boat ramp covered with the finest SuperStainFighter carpet, Rapp quickly established a position right in the heart of a group that was chasing a group that was chasing a group that was chasing the leaders.

Out onto the MegAsphalt roads around Camp Pendleton, though, things just didn't click as well as they could have. A confused Rapp said, "normally, on this particular mix of tar and gravel, I really just hum along. Especially when the lines are painted with SuperBrite paint, as these were, that's normally a recipe for course record bike splits. I'm really baffled. It was probably because I haven't adjusted the preload on my front hub bearings in a while. Not that I'm saying it's my fault. I'm just saying I could have broken the course record if I'd had the right size allen key with me."

Never one to say die, at least not without a lot of Twitter-posting preceding it, Rapp headed out with great vim and vigor onto some more E-Z-Crete on the Oceanside boardwalk. But when the race turned to MegAsphalt roads winding past the Stoner Brothers Oceanfront Homes, things started to come undone. After the race, Rapp told the gathered throngs of reporters, "I saw some more SuperCrappers out there on the run course and thought about stopping in one to try and regain my mojo, but I just didn't have to go. C'est la vie! (That's French for, "I didn't have to go #2.") The slow pavement seemed to continue to drain me and shunt my energy to the rest of the field. I've always felt like this is a somewhat lecherous form of asphalt, and today proved it. I don't like to make excuses or blame others, but I think it's pretty clear that I would have won this race if the pavement had been a different brand. Take note Oceanside Municipal Workers."

Up next for "The Rappstar" is a chance to avenge last year's loss to (women's) winner and (women's) course record holder Meredith Kessler in St. George! Looking ahead, the fearless father of three said, "Now is the time to move in a generally onwards and generally upwards direction!" If you don't think that is a powerful statement designed to intimidate the field in St. George, you probably aren't very much good at the English.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Color Commentary


“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.” - Oscar Wilde

Dan Empfield penned a thoughtful piece on the stakeholders in the sport of triathlon recently. Reading that article helped crystallize my thoughts on a new partnership that I've entered into. It's not a relationship with an industry stakeholder; it's a relationship because I believe that I am an industry stakeholder. And it's for that reason that I'm proud to announce that I will be working with the Color Me Rad 5k run series. It's probably the most unique relationship I've had in my career as an athlete, and I think it will remain so.

The not-so-unique problem facing triathlon as a sport today is not that the sport is not growing. It's just not growing fast enough - in terms of participants - to keep up with the growing number of people who wish to make demands of those participants. Triathlon is a lifestyle sport. People don't just do triathlons. They become triathletes. And then they tell you all about it. (Thanks Michael!) But that's not always an easy process. Triathlon can be intimidating. Very intimidating. If someone says, "I don't think I can do that," the right answer is not always, "Yes, you can!" Sometimes, I think, it's something more like, "Yes, you can! Eventually." Or, even, "Maybe you can't, but if it inspires you do something more than you are doing right now, that's awesome!"

I did my first triathlon - a sprint - over 10 years ago because I just wanted something to do to stay active while I took a break, thanks to an injury, from rowing. Being active was  (is) just a way of life for me. But for a lot of people, it's not. I think it's telling when you look at the largest health problems in the US, most of them could be remedied simply by getting out and doing more. And I think Ironman does an amazing job of inspiring people to do just that. But for many folks, especially those for whom being active is a huge change in and of itself, it can be scary to make that sort of change.


Lao-Tzu, writing in the Tao Te Ching, tells us, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." No matter who you are, something has to be that first step. And for those of us who have already taken those first steps, something can also always be a waypoint on the journey. And it's okay to have a little fun along the way. That's why I'm excited about Color Me Rad.

Thanks to Color Me Rad, last year over one million people found themselves celebrating fun by running 3.1miles... and then throwing colored corn starch on one another. It's basically the antithesis of triathlon. There's a minimum of equipment required. And it definitely does not take itself too seriously. It's the sort of thing that we - as triathletes - could maybe use a little bit more of. And it's the sort of thing that an increasingly sedentary world could definitely use a lot more of. There are not too many GPS watches or heart rate monitors at a CMR 5k. But it's still a run. You're still covering that distance through your willpower and your own human-power. And that's really what I think makes it most special. While it's a great opportunity for people who are active to do something that's active while also being relaxed, I think the biggest opportunity is that it's a totally non-intimidating way to get out there and move. It's about getting out, getting active, and getting dirty.


My goal in working with Color Me Rad is to get people to choose to do something instead of doing nothing. If what I've been able to achieve in my own life inspires someone to do a Color Me Rad 5k or an Ironman or both, that's something I can be proud of. No matter what starting line you find yourself on, if you're out there, you are RAD!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

First Endurance. Fueling a Career.


In talking about the future of my relationship with First Endurance, I thought it appropriate to start with the past and how it all started. This is, at least in part, because I want to talk about things that have nothing to do with the products that First Endurance makes, and everything to do with something that rarely gets talked about – the business side of being a professional triathlete. First Endurance makes great products. But I am excited about another three years together because they are a great company.

For better and for worse, for many – likely the vast majority of – professional triathletes, triathlon is not their profession. Some would like it to be, but struggle for any number of reasons to realize those dreams. For others, triathlon was always going to be a side gig. Thankfully, due to a lot of luck, even more incredible support from too many people to mention, and (I hope) some hard work, I'm privileged enough to make a living and support a wife and (now) three(!) kids doing this. I mention this because it is, perhaps surprisingly and perhaps unsurprisingly, rare. And because it's not something I could do without the support of companies like First Endurance.

I first came to use First Endurance products – EFS, Ultragen, Multi-V, and Optygen was the bundle I started with – thanks to my good friend and advisor, Brian Shea of PersonalBestNutrition.com, who recommended I use them in the build up to my second go at Ironman Arizona in November of 2008. After very positive results during the training leading up to the race as well as during the race itself, I signed a contract in February of 2009, after six months of using the products full time. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Brian Shea for making this recommendation. There's so much bad science out there regarding nutrition, I never would have thought to pick up the First Endurance products without Brian's recommendation. Now, I try to fill the same role of educating people about these products that, yes, actually have real science behind them.

For that first year together, the crew from First Endurance gave me as much product as I needed – which is a lot, as any Ironman athlete will tell you. But 2009 turned out to be a breakthrough year for me, with my first (and second) Ironman wins. Sometime in December, a check showed up in an envelope on First Endurance stationary with a note that said something like, "We know there wasn't anything formal in place, but we feel like you earned this with your performances." I wish I'd saved it, but I was living out of my car at that time, and all non-essential items were quickly discarded. I'm sure there are folks out there laughing that I didn't even think to negotiate some bonuses, but at that time, that sort of thing just wasn't on my radar. But that didn't keep Robert and Mike (the founders and owners) from giving me bonuses for Ironman Canada and Ironman Arizona anyway. This same company then stuck by me during 2010, my "lost" season (that also almost was the year I lost my life) and signed me up for a three year deal after having raced only one time post-crash.

When it came time to talk about the future this latest time, my world had once again changed in a dramatic way. With the arrival of twins, my reality is now very different than it was before. I have three kids under three. I truly do not believe that will affect my ability to perform at the highest level of sport. But I do believe it will affect how often I can do it. Travel for races is now a much bigger ask of my wife, Jill. I have to be more judicious in planning out big blocks of training, when I'm inevitably less available than I am during the offseason or during times of recovery or "maintenance." It would be easy to pretend that's not the case, but that is not who I am. I don't want to promise something I cannot deliver. My goal is to be at my very best for two Ironman races in a calendar year and probably one (maybe two) 70.3 a year. I believe I can do that and still be a good parent and husband. But that means I also need to deliver value to my sponsors in other ways. And I need to find companies that perceive a value in things other than race performances to work with. I could not imagine a more supportive company in this regard than First Endurance. Robert said to me, "we're with you for the journey. We want to be a part of your trying to win Kona. We feel there is a value in that." And that was incredible.

I feel like I'm at the point in my career now where I've won the races I want to win besides Kona. Does it really matter if I am a five time Ironman winner or a six time Ironman winner (or seven or eight or…)? Not really. I mean, it certainly matters when I step on the start line of a race. But once you set a goal of achieving success at the pinnacle of your sport, no amount of success elsewhere can replace success at the highest level. Three Olympic bronzes do not equal a gold… But success at the highest level is never guaranteed. I sometimes think, when I talk with Chris McCormack or Simon Whitfield, that one of my biggest limiters is that I recognize the real potential for failure. But I don't know how to change that about myself. I know I might not win; I don't know that Chris, especially, ever really considers that. But knowing that and fearing that are two different things. I don't believe that I fear that (though I did). And so I've set out on this journey of working to win Kona. Of chasing that goal. Of pursuing that level of excellence. It's that pursuit that First Endurance has decided to support, both in spite of and because of all the very obvious obstacles that stand in the way of it. 

(As a brief aside, describing this sort of thing inevitably, and unfortunately, always seems to carry with it an implied criticism, especially when there are partnerships that didn't get renewed. It's hard to express that the opposite point of view is one of neutrality, not one of negativity. I love that this is what First Endurance believes in. But that doesn't mean that I dislike that it isn't how every company operates. As a related example, ZIPP makes all of their wheels in the USA. But their parent company, SRAM, makes basically all of their components in Asia because that's where most bikes are made, and if you want to be an OEM supplier, that's the way you need to do it. I love that ZIPP makes their wheels in the USA. But that doesn't mean that I dislike that SRAM does not make components here. I'm neutral on that. It's just something that "is.")

Now all of this is, perhaps, pretty tangential to what sort of nutrition products you choose to buy. I could – and sometimes do – argue that the sort of people that believe in both process and outcome are the sorts of folks that tend to be really good at making things, and also at making things better. That's actually been a hallmark of First Endurance. Not just how good their products are, but how their products have improved. And how willing they are to change. 

When I was first introduced to First Endurance products, two of their four versions of EFS were artificially sweetened with sucralose (Splenda), which was – and still is, for many other companies – the preferred artificial sweetener, because it doesn't actually affect the body's insulin response. That is no longer the case. Now, two flavors of four still have enhanced sweetness – fruit punch and lemon-lime, but both use the plant extract stevia (also shown to have no effect on insulin response) to boost sweetness beyond what comes from the sugars in the carbohydrate blend. What's most important, to me, was the decision to remove all artificial sweeteners across the board. No single product in the First Endurance line uses an artificial sweetener. None. Based on not only customer feedback but also some concern that, more generally, artificial sweeteners just don't seem to be that good for you (as another aside, this is obviously too long/complex a topic to get into in depth here, since stevia is technically an "artificial" sweetener in that it's not really a sugar; but it's not artificial in the sense that it's an unmodified extract of a plant, unlike sucralose, which is a modified sucrose molecule; I really don't intend this to be any sort of fear-mongering, especially since I am not a physician, so I really tried to phrase this as neutrally as possible, while also supporting a belief that I share.), this decision reflects First Endurance's belief in adapting as they learn. "This is the decision we made then because of what we knew then. This is the decision we are making now because of what we know now." That attitude is rare. And it is exceptional. And it comes, I believe, from a focus on improvement that meshes with a focus on a goal. You can't just focus on improving. Sometimes, you need to step up and deliver. Whether it's stepping up and onto the racecourse. Or whether it's bringing a product to market. You can always say, "just a little bit more time…"

And I could list all of the reasons that First Endurance products are great because of the foundations in research and science which are then supported by the legions of professional and age-group athletes that they rely on for testing. But those reasons might become outdated. They might become wrong. They are only based on what we know now. 

What makes me feel great about signing on for another three years with First Endurance is their process. Their journey. I'm thrilled they've let me join them on that road, and I'm thrilled they are joining me on mine. First Endurance doesn't just fuel my performances. They also help fuel my career.