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.

2 comments:

Karen said...

I'm so glad to hear people who I respect and who have a bigger voice than I saying these things! I am a medical student and a triathlete, and switched to First Endurance products last year while training for my first full distance race. EFS was the first product I tried; as a self-confessed "puker" I needed ways to take in enough calories without taking in too much volume. Like you, I respect and appreciate the research and science that grounds the products and frankly, I just feel better and work better when using them. Making the switch has been hard on my tiny little med student budget, but very worth the sacrifice!

Loukia Lili said...

I am thrilled to know such an incredible inside story. First Endurance seems to combine the reputability of a well established company and the warmth of a family. Good luck with your races and we will all be cheering you on during this journey, regardless of the result. You and your family deserve it.