Lessons from Sochi*

I spent the first eighteen years of my life in Miami, Florida.  The result? I was pretty adept at running in scorching temperatures with 100% humidity.  That and… Winter sports were lost on me.  I did learn to be a fairly proficient downhill skier thanks to a very well off best friend whose father owned the biggest travel agency in South Florida, but I had no access to most winter sports.  The funny thing? For a person with a very limited history with cold weather, I have a huge affinity for the Winter Olympics.  This year I found myself watching a lot of the coverage just to see the competition play out.  Our DVR had very little available space thanks to this obsession, but I gained a few insights from all of that avid TV viewing.  Athletes regardless of their native land and regardless of their preferred sport display some amazing similarities.  The cold weather athletes in Sochi taught this fair weather triathlete a few things…

Sochi

The Importance of Control:
Marathoners, cyclists, curlers (Curlers?!), and alpine skiers all exhibit amazing amounts of control.  One of my favorite examples of control and self-awareness in sport is biathlon, an event that combines cross-country skiing and shooting.  I can’t imagine racing toward a shooting range, red-lining it on cross country skis, then stopping briefly and controlling my breathing and heart rate enough to hit a target the size of a golf ball.  The ability to race at just the right speed to quickly cover the course and still be able to shoot accurately is incredible.  Like biathletes, in triathlon we’re lucky enough to call on different skills during the same race, but a biathlete’s breathtaking sense of control inspires me to think about pacing and transitions in a whole new way.  In a race it is so easy to forget restraint, let loose, and let go, all the while risking the latter portion of the competition.  The mental focus and forethought biathletes exhibit would serve us all well.

The Importance of Resolve:
In triathlon we’re fortunate to have wave or mass starts; you and 500 of your closest friends all toe the line together.  While this might make for some scary swim conditions, it makes for great racing.  You know exactly where you stack up and where your competition is.  Many athletes at the Winter Olympics don’t have it so easy.  Long distance speed skaters race head-to-head two at a time but the real competition is most likely not the one other athlete he or she is on the track with.  The real competition could be in a heat far removed from their own.  Bobsledders have to compete ONE team at a time. They are constantly striving to have their best run because even a head-to-head match up isn’t a luxury their sport affords.  The resolve these winter athletes exhibit, always racing against the clock, is admirable and could teach us a thing or two about pushing ourselves to the limit without an audience, without competition, when no one is looking, and when no one is beside us.

The Importance of Support:
One of the best moments this year was American Noelle Pikus-Pace’s medal winning skeleton run.  When she crossed the finish and saw her blazing-fast time she literally jumped off the track and into the stands, all the while letting out yelps of joy and “We did it!  We did it!  We did it!”  Her elation was palpable.  It’s impossible to refrain from smiling when you see her reaction.  As you watch Noelle kiss her family members and soak up their love you get a sense of how important support is for every athlete.  Four years ago, Noelle placed a heart-breaking fourth place at the Olympic Games in Vancouver.  With the support of her family and friends she persevered and trained and worked tirelessly to return to this world stage.  As a triathlete it’s so hard for our family members to continuously and consistently support our hobby.  Our sacrifice usually means their sacrifice.  Having the support of those around you can change EVERYTHING.  (Just ask the three Russian men who rallied in the final meters of the men’s 50k cross country race with the help of the home crowd to sweep the podium in Sochi.) It’s important to nurture the relationships we have with our loved ones to keep that support structure strong and resilient.

The twenty-second Winter Olympiad was full of harrowing stories and important lessons.  I suspect wherever two or more athletes are gathered comradereie, competition, and learning experiences are created.  If you’re in the market for more life lessons and a healthy dose of inspiration, the Paralympics start March 7th.

Abracadabra

I recently discovered a show on the National Geographic Channel called “Brain Games”.  In one particular episode the producers challenge the audience to be a good witness to a crime.  That is – witness a crime in progress and then try to recall as many pertinent details as you can accurately.  The TV audience gets to play along with individuals who were present for the staged crime, a pickpocket incident.  It was disturbing to see how easily details were forgotten and supplanted with new ones, how conflicting the eyewitness accounts were, and how many people grossly misremembered what actually happened.  The narrator explains this phenomenon by discussing our active memory and its limitations.  Our active memory is designed to hold a few pieces of information (like what you wanted from the refrigerator when you got off the couch or where you put your car keys) for a very short time.   Problems arise when you try to recall many minute details, like what a suspect was wearing or the names of each person in a new group, long after seeing the person or meeting those individuals.

As it happens those tasks are not difficult at all for Ron White, a two time USA Memory Champion.  During the course of the show we see White memorize the serial numbers of four one dollar bills in one pass, remember the names of twenty strangers walking into a theater, and accurately recall the order of an entire deck of cards after scanning the deck only once.  To outsiders these tasks seem incredible, née almost impossible.  So how does he do it?  With strategy and lots and lots of practice.  Remembering the serial numbers on a bill?  Ron will chunk that string of numbers into smaller two digit numbers that each correspond to a predetermined picture in Ron’s head.  “94” would have its own distinct image, just like “12”, “78” and “49”.  He then “places” those pictures in a memory map of his house.  As he “walks though” his house in his minds eye he sees the figures sitting on pieces of furniture and he can recall the corresponding numbers in order.  Remembering the names of twenty strangers?  Easy… (with practice).  He assigns common names a picture.  “Gary” might be a garage; “Chris” might be Santa Claus.  Once he sees the person he takes that picture and combines it with some feature on the person that stands out.  If Gary has a big nose, White might picture a garage falling on Gary’s nose.   When the veil is pulled back and we get a glimpse into Ron White’s process, the incredible things he does seem a little more achievable.  Not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly not magic and something we mere mortals could replicate on some small scale with some time and focus.

During this episode of “Brain Games” Ron White likened himself to a mental athlete.  He practices every day just like Lebron James or Missy Franklin.  The only difference?  His is a sport of the mind.  As cool as it was to see him pull off theses amazing feats, my favorite thing that he said?  “With a little practice, anyone can do it.”

When I tell people outside of the running and triathlon worlds what I do with regards to training and racing I usually get two responses in the following order… One: A look of wonder and awe sweeps over the individual’s face.  This look is quickly followed up with response number two: a phrase that sounds something like “Wow!  I could never EVER do that.”  I’m not quite sure what to say when I hear this, but over the past year or two my retort has been very similar to White’s: “Sure you can.  It just takes some training.”  There is no magic involved in endurance sports.  If you want to succeed, you have to endure.  If you want to endure, you have to practice enduring.  A lot.  And consistency is everything.  Swimming, cycling, running, recovering, stretching, and eating right are not optional.  You have to practice every day – no skipped workouts or excuses allowed.  If you can do that… Voila!  Sweet sweet success.

Auditions

I recently saw a show on PBS that drew me in for multiple episodes called “Broadway or Bust”.  (I couldn’t resist.  Once upon a time I fancied myself an actress and I have a degree in theatre from Barnard.  “What does one do with a degree in theatre?” you ask.  Well… That individual becomes a professional triathlete, of course.) Back to the show…  “Broadway or Bust” follows sixty teenagers who have all won their respective regional musical theater competitions and consequently have received an invite to New York City for a week of dorm-style living and musical theatre boot camp.  During this grueling week the kids practice their solos, learn group numbers, get critiqued by producers and directors, and are coached by actors and choreographers all in service to one huge show on the last day of “camp”.  On that final day, the teens take over the Minskoff Theater (usually home to the “Lion King”), put on their production, and effectively audition one last time to win the Jimmy Award for best actor or actress.

What’s great about “Broadway or Bust” is that you get to go behind the scenes.  Not only do you see what life is like backstage, you get to see the most confident kids struggle with their nerves and even more intriguingly, you get a rare glimpse into the audition process.  The show lets you in on the closed door sessions where theatre bigwigs come together to whittle down this enormous pool of talent to a very few and then again to just two.  Your heart almost breaks when you see the director of the program cavalierly remove headshot after headshot from the row of kids still in the running to win the big prize.  Not so much because you liked this kid or that kid, but because you know that these teens will see this episode and will relive that terrible moment when they got cast aside.  It was at this point in the show that a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, who was on the judging panel, spoke to the TV audience about rejection.  In summary he said rejection is a way of life for people in this industry.  It happens every day to thousands of wonderful, very talented people.  Not getting selected just means you weren’t the most perfect fit for that role on that day.  Should you stop auditioning?  No way.  Should you give up acting?  Hell no.  You go out tomorrow and you try again.  For if you dwell on the rejection, he contends, you will never succeed.

After hearing some harrowing stories from St. Croix 70.3 and Ironman Texas, I could not help but draw a parallel between racing and theatre.  Race day is like one big audition.  You rehearse and practice and rehearse and practice (and rehearse and practice some more).  Then you and a hundred of your closest friends all vie for the same spot and only one of you will get it. Only one of you will have everything come together just right, on that day, on that course.  And what if you don’t get the part?  Will you hang your head and retire your running shoes?  Avoid certain races?  Avoid certain distances?  I don’t think so.  The best athletes will learn from the experience and use what they now know to become better athletes.  There is no use dwelling on the negative for that is only a reflection of one teeny tiny day.  Keep fighting.

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Talented? Ummm… Not so much.

Below is an excerpt from one of my favorite recurring conversations between myself and some of the athletes I work with…

ME:  How is the training going?

ATHLETE: It’s going “okay”.

ME:  What do you mean “okay”?

ATHLETE:  Well I am following the plan and I feel really good.  I just want to know…

ME: Yes?

ATHLETE: When am I going to get faster?

I recently read a book called Bounce by Matthew Syed.  If you like Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point or What the Dog SawBounce is right up your alley.  In fact the author quotes Gladwell several times when making the argument for the book’s main thesis, which is essentially that there is no such thing as talent.  The theory goes something like this: people are not born phenomenal runners, incredible swimmers, amazing cyclists or even exceptional pianists, computer programmers or chess masters.  People win the Masters, become Olympians, and develop into world-famous cellists not because of talent but because they have put in a lot of work doing what they do best.  Gladwell and Syed quote scientists who have actually quantified the mind boggling amount of work these so-called talented people have put in.  The number of hours?  Ten thousand.  Think about that.  You want to be good at something?  Really really good at something?  You have to put in… Ten. Thousand. Hours.

As athletes we are always comparing ourselves to one another, standouts in our sport, or older versions of ourselves.  We want to get faster, stronger, and smarter now.  The rub?  We will never be Michael Phelps unless we put in the time that he has put in.  This thought can be extremely daunting.  He’s been working so hard for so long to be a phenomenal swimmer.  We could never do that, why even try?  But if you think about it, the idea that talent is not born but instead created can be incredibly empowering.  If you commit yourself to the process and commit yourself to purposeful practice, with time you will improve.  Curious about when you are going to get faster? How about chipping away at those 10,000 hours.

When talking about this blog post idea with a few friends, I couldn’t help but notice that this theory didn’t sit well with a lot of people.  Some people are just talented they contend.  According to them, no matter how hard we try or how much time we put in we could never, ever be like these superstars of sport.  As a professional triathlete muscling her way through her rookie year, I am not afraid to admit that I don’t want to believe that.  I am where I am, not because talent was bestowed upon me, but instead because I have been running since I was eight years old and training is one of my favorite things to do.  I am going to get better through work, not some gift from the heavens.  So how do I argue with someone who says, “Some people have talent and some people just don’t”?  Take a look at the circles below.

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My coach and I mulled this over and came up with an idea: Environment, purposeful practice, and genetics can all contribute to our success or lack thereof.  When these three things come together, you get amazing ability.  Michael Phelps was born with an incredible “wingspan”, was lucky enough to train at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club under Bob Bowman from a very young age (so he could start logging those hours) and he has put in lots and lots of hard work.  Unfortunately, we don’t always have control over our environment and genetics.  The good news?  When we are old enough we can often choose an environment that nurtures our abilities and body type isn’t always a limiting factor.  The great news?  The amount of purposeful practice you put in is completely under your control.  So we’re back to those 10,000 hours.

Too many people give too much credit to the genetic and environmental advantages they think talented people benefit from and I suspect the reason is simple.  The idea that we can create talent is scary.  It means a lot of hard work.  And it means a lot of time.  Remember that feeling you would get when your college professor gave you the course syllabus at the beginning of the semester and you thought, “How the heck am I going to do all this?  I don’t even want to start.”  The feeling you get from the idea that talent is created is like that… times 10,000.  But if you don’t think you have the time to create your “talent”, remember this…

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Two flats, two feet, and a little heart…

“Not again.”  That was my first thought. “This cannot be happening to me again.”  I had ridden to mile 40 in Ironman Texas 70.3 and I had flatted in a race. Again.

The race up until that point had been blissfully uneventful.  I managed to stay with the back pack during the 1.2 mile swim, rip off my wetsuit, and grab my new Cervelo P5 for what I hoped would be a powerful, yet vanilla, ride.  On the way out I managed to reel in two pros and after the turnaround I had a renewed sense of purpose when I saw how within reach some of the other girls were.  My nutrition was dialed in and everything was going according to plan.  That is, of course, until my front wheel met that rock around mile 40.  As soon as I hit it I knew.  I knew I had a flat.  I knew I had to stop.  I knew I was going to lose time. And I knew I could only rely on myself to fix it. (In the athlete briefings leading up to race day the officials always talk about support on the course.  From what I have experienced there is never tech support when you need it.  Never. Ever.) So I pulled out my can of Pit Stop, a sort of on-the-go sealant that oftentimes relieves a very anxious and harried cyclist from having to change a flat.  But when I started to use the Pit Stop by pressing the rubber end onto the valve of my flat tire, I quickly realized this job was a little too big for such an easy remedy.  For when I pressed that rubber end onto the valve, the white foamy sealant went into the tube and then immediately back out of the hole created by the blowout and then, quite hazardously into my face.  Luckily for me, when getting my bike race ready in addition to the Pit Stop I opted to also carry a spare tube.  So what’s a girl to do when plan A doesn’t work?  She has to put on her big girl panties and change the damn tire.  So that’s what I did.  About ten minutes after my date with the rock, I was off and rolling again. Of course while I was doing all of this, the pros that I had managed to reel in had cut the line and raced ahead.

16 miles.  16 short miles. That’s all that stood between me and T2 – where I would find my socks, my shoes, a visor, and the final leg of the race where mechanical issues couldn’t bring me down.  Anyone can ride 16 miles right?

About a mile and a half out from T2 I rode down what can only be described as the ugliest patchwork of asphalt ever called a street.  My heart skipped a beat with every jolt, every bump, and every dip.  The sidewall of my tire was compromised from hitting the rock earlier and if a pothole so much as looked at my front wheel cross eyed I was doomed.  Somehow I managed to make it down said street.  But just as I approached the airport tarmac that made up the last mile of the course, a strip of dirt and rocks appeared where the asphalt had been completely torn away.  I rode over it and… Sssssssss.  Flat. Number. Two.  Only this time?  Not only did I not have race “support”, I didn’t have Pit Stop, and I didn’t have another spare tube.

One mile.  One long mile.  That’s all that stood between me and T2 – where I could finally rack this hobbled machine and get on with the race.  Anyone can run a mile right?

I took off my bike shoes and put them in my left hand (because no one wants to start a half marathon with bloody heels) and I grabbed the saddle of my bike with my right hand and I ran… barefoot, across the tarmac.  Oh and that one pro I had managed to reel in again after flat number one?  She passed me.  Again.  When I finally made it back into transition I was so happy to be there all thoughts of DNFing disappeared.  I had made it this far, what was 13.1 more miles?  All things considered, I managed to turn in a pretty good run split as I tracked down and stalked the girl that passed me during my two flat debacles.  In the end, the final pass of the day would be mine.

While this certainly wasn’t the race I had hoped for, I certainly hope to have this much heart in every race.  Next up?  St.Croix 70.3.  I can’t wait!

Two bare feet… And sweet sweet shoes!

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Second Verse Better Than the First

DNF.  Those three little letters strike fear in the hearts of endurance athletes everywhere.  Months and months of training, planning, and organizing culminate in one race and the letters DNF will ruin the whole thing.  On Sunday, I DNFed my first pro race.  Just before the halfway point, after going through a particularly bumpy patchwork of asphalt, my back wheel felt “off.”  I was hoping it was just the gnarly road conditions throwing me for a loop. But, alas, when I pulled over, the disc wheel I was riding was completely flat.  As I started the process of changing it, I hoped that a sag vehicle with a savvy bike tech guy would pull up and fix the flat in no time.  No such luck.  I didn’t break any speed records while changing the flat, but I was able to replace the tube without incident and get back on a working bike.  Unfortunately soon after I pulled over, the four or five pro females that I had been leading zoomed past and more and more age groupers emptied onto what was now a very crowded loop course.  After passing the halfway point, I knew I had a tough decision to make.  Should I continue the race and try to claw my way back into a very deep field of professional athletes for only a few points or should I consider pulling out of the race, avoiding the very challenging run course in order to save my legs to race again another day soon?

As I weighed my options I kept coming back to something my coach told me on a ride soon after we started working together.  We were talking about her experience as a runner and her strategy going into a marathon.  She said that before she starts a marathon she studies the course and plans an escape route.  That is, if things are not going well, she has a place on the course where she can pull out and easily get back to her support crew.  Her logic?  Why compromise your whole season for one race?  When she told me this I honestly thought, “This lady is a crazy person.”  Pull out of a race?!  Pull out of a race voluntarily?!?!?!? No. Way.  Fast forward a couple of years and that is exactly what I did.  I finished the bike leg of the race (because why shouldn’t I get in some sort of workout) and after I got out of T2 I handed my chip over to an official. D. N. F.  My first 70.3 as a professional athlete turned out to be a very real dress rehearsal. And though I am disappointed with the way it played out I learned a lot and I know I made the right decision when I look at the bigger picture.  DNF…  “Did not finish”?  Or “Definitely not finished”?  I choose than latter.  Bring it on.