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.

Small Fish

In his new book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that sometimes conditions traditionally perceived as disadvantageous can actually be advantageous.  At first glance a fight between David and Goliath is a no-brainer.  Goliath is a giant who can crush the tiny shepherd with nary a thought, right?  Maybe not.   We initially fail to consider David’s speed, agility, and resourcefulness.  The small shepherd used the disparity in size to his advantage – to fight Goliath on his own terms, not the giant’s.  The book goes on to ponder the good that can come out of other less than desirable circumstances like large class size, dyslexia, being the underdog going into a game, and even losing a parent.  All of Gladwell’s chapters present fascinating data in a new light, but one chapter in particular stayed with me.  In this chapter, Gladwell tells the story of a woman, who while growing up, wanted a career in the sciences.  Through grade school, middle school, and high school she excelled in math and science, but when college rolled around something interesting happened.  She floundered.  She registered, attended, and studied for college-level science courses and she could not hold her own.  After a few semesters she completely changed her track, dropped the science classes, and ultimately majored and obtained a degree in a completely different field.  Why the change?  This woman who wanted to be a scientist for as long as she can remember, who admittedly still dreams of what could have been had she stayed the course, succeeded in the field she loves until she got to college and then everything fell apart.  The reason for the change, Gladwell theorizes, is this woman’s choice of college.  Instead of choosing a large state school, she chose to attend an Ivy League university.  And with that choice she went from being a very big (successful) fish in a small pond, to a very small fish in a very big pond.  Was she still smart and driven?  Sure, but no more so than everyone else around her.  She didn’t stand out at Brown or have the feelings of success or accomplishment that she would have enjoyed had she attended a school with a less prestigious student body.  When she looked around her organic chemistry class she felt inferior for the first time in her life.  Would she be a scientist today if she went to the University of Maryland instead of Brown?  Probably.  In her case, attending an Ivy League school, something almost all of us think of as being an advantage, turned out to be a disadvantage.

This season, I, like the woman Gladwell introduced to us, went from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a very very big pond.  This change was not lost on me.  Going into the 2013 season I was quite worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle the stress or the expectations of racing as an elite athlete.  My first race as a professional triathlete, the women’s pro field included Leanda Cave, Mirinda Carfrae, ITU superstars, and past Ironman champions.  Not only was I worried about my race, I was worried about my performance compared to these women’s performances.  I was worried about my swim, my bike, my run, and my ego.  Going into 2013, I thought it would be fun to race as a professional for a year – experience the perks, rub shoulders with the big dogs, check the box, and move on with life.  Not surprisingly I found myself toward the middle or bottom of many race results.  Surprisingly, even though my ego took a hit, my spirit wasn’t dampened.  Unlike the woman in Gladwell’s book, as the season went on, I became more emboldened, more motivated.  I might have been a small fish, but I was a small fish with big dreams.  After competing in nine half ironman distance races and qualifying for Worlds 70.3, I decided to add one more race to the 2013 calendar – Ironman Florida.  The last time I did an Ironman I was burnt literally and figuratively.  Soon after the race I told my coach that the full distance wasn’t for me and I would never toe the line at one of these races again.  But racing my heart out this season as a small fish changed something. I wasn’t going to let anything intimidate me – not a pro start list, not a hurtful comment, not one bad race, and certainly not a race distance.  The result?  A huge PR.  In Florida I covered 140.6 miles in nine hours and thirty-eight minutes.  (I am happy with the time but never ever satisfied.)

Changing ponds can be pretty amazing… And this small fish?  She’s gettin’ bigger.

My good side... Bringing it home.

My good side…
Bringing it home in Panama City.

Panic and Pacing

There is a scene in Blackfish, a documentary about the effects of captivity on killer whales, that will stay with you long after the credits have stopped rolling. In it Kenneth Peters, a trainer at Sea World San Diego jumps into one of the marine park’s huge tanks to perform the finale of one of the day’s Shamu shows with Kasatka, a twenty-something female killer whale. As soon as Peters jumps into the water, the killer whale grabs the trainer by the foot and drags him down to the bottom of the deep tank. Luckily, the narrator of Blackfish notes, not only does Peters have experience with animals, he is also an accomplished diver. When the killer whale brings the trainer back to the surface, Peters doesn’t scream or panic or flail about. He simply pats the killer whale as if to say, “It’s okay” and he starts breathing very methodically in an effort to pack his lungs with more air in the likely event that he would be dragged down again. Sure enough, a few moments later Kasatka takes him back down to the bottom of the tank and holds him there for what seems like an eternity. The whale finally pulls Peters back up and the trainer shows the same forethought that he did before, even though the situation is becoming more dire. Over the course of the next few minutes the killer whale continues her routine of burying and resurfacing. She eventually lets the trainer go only to grab his other foot and continue the dangerous cycle. Toward the end of the clip, the trainer’s expression becomes more and more desperate; the audience can tell simply by looking at his face that Peters knows he is going to die. Thankfully after almost fifteen minutes, Peters was able to escape with the help of a momentary lapse of focus on the whale’s part, a large net, and his incredibly fast swimming (given the little air and two broken feet he was working with). The most incredible part of this story, aside from the fact that Peters survived, is the forethought and sense of calm the trainer had throughout the entire incident. That of course got me thinking about triathlon… (Thankfully training and racing are nowhere near as dangerous as Peters’ ordeal.)

During a race we all have those little moments of panic when we wonder if we paced ourselves correctly. Did I go too hard on the first part of the bike? Did I burn too many matches on that hill? What if I get off the bike and I can’t run? I hope my legs can carry me through the back half of this marathon. In triathlon the opportunities for over-pacing, impatience, and self-doubt are endless. With a background in endurance sports I think I’ve always known this, but my last two triathlons made this fact abundantly clear. This year SavageMan 70.0, undoubtedly one of the most difficult triathlons around, was held on September 15th, one week after the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas. I decided to do both. The uncertainty leading up to my second long distance triathlon in eight days was unlike anything I had experienced before. Several days after Worlds, my body was still feeling the effects of the race. Luckily toward the end of the week my bike and run legs had returned just in time to drive to Deep Creek Lake, Maryland for SavageMan. I knew that if I wanted to do well, I had to follow my pace and nutrition plans to the letter. During a race when things are moving so fast I find it easy to get wrapped up in what’s going on around me. My swim was so slow, maybe I’ll push it a little harder on the bike. I can’t let her pass me… I hate these road conditions. Getting caught in the moment like that could cause me to sacrifice the latter stages of the race because I’ve let panic, lack of focus and self-doubt seduce me away from my plan. “Bike for show; run for dough.” “Bike how you should, not how you could.” These sayings are everywhere but the truth in them is undeniable. Without forethought and proper pacing early on, an entire race could be sacrificed. During SavageMan I had a lot (and I mean a lot) of time to think about this on the bike. Cyclists who were having faster, better, more powerful days than me rode past, one after another (after another). I wanted to follow, but pursuing them at their pace wasn’t an option. I had to hold back, race within myself and trust in my training. Like Peters who relied on his experience with diving and animals to stay composed, endurance athletes must rely on their pace and nutrition plans to execute their races correctly. A little focus and forethought go a long (long) way.

There’s only one finish line and it’s at the finish. Happy training!

Finishing the run at SavageMan.  First pro and fastest run of the day.

Finishing the run at SavageMan 70.0.  First female pro and fastest run split of the day.

People Who Need People

One of my favorite things to do besides training and racing is watching others train and race.  I can spend hours in front of the TV watching Jonathan Brownlee dominate a race.  (Okay less than two hours in that particular case.)  Or spend the better part of a Sunday refreshing Ironmanlive.com for the latest updates and blog posts about that weekend’s races.  Last weekend was no different.  Between my own bike and run workouts of the day I snuck in a fair amount of time on the internet stalking the competitors of Timberman 70.3 and Ironman Mont-Tremblant.  It was on the website featuring the latter, that a little less than ten hours after the start, a picture was posted on the live blog.  The picture was taken in the finishline area and as such there are a lot of people milling around, but the main subjects are clearly Jesse Kropelnicki, the head coach of QT2, and Jennie Hansen, a QT2 athlete who had just come in sixth, with the second fastest marathon split of the day (only three short weeks after her win in Lake Placid).  The picture itself is breathtaking.  Aside from pure joy, you can feel Jennie’s exhaustion and Jesse’s utter elation.  I’ve never seen anything like it and I think it captures something truly amazing about our sport.
.
Every pre-race athlete meeting you go to features a head official reviewing the rules regarding clothing requirements, warning people about the consequences of littering, and going into great detail about what constitutes drafting and the penalties for doing so.  “Triathlon is an individual sport,” they always say.  Only on race day…  Only on race day.  Behind every triathlete is a significant other, a coach, a training partner, family, friends, and teammates who make triathlon possible for that athlete.  Without these people devotion wouldn’t be feasible, excellence wouldn’t be achievable, and training wouldn’t be enjoyable.  The picture of Jesse and Jennie inspired me to think about all of the people without whom I couldn’t do this wonderful thing that I love to do.
.
At the end of last season, when I decided to get my elite card I came up with a crazy goal of making it back to the Ironman 70.3 World Championship as a pro.  Qualifying as an age-grouper is hard.  What I didn’t fully comprehend was how difficult it would be to get back to Vegas as a professional.  But, here I am months and months later and I have qualified for the World Championship as a first year pro.  I am over the moon, but more importantly thankful.  I wouldn’t be going to Vegas without the amazing people in my life.  Thank you for everything…
.
Thanks for supporting me when I took a leave of absence from teaching.
Thanks for flying to my races in San Juan and Vegas even though you HATE to fly.
Thanks for tracking me from afar and analyzing my results.
Thanks for wiping away my tears.
Thanks for always picking the best triathlon houses.
Thanks for coming to the hospital.
Thanks for listening to me complain.
Thanks for making me smile.
Thanks for helping me make tough decisions.
Thanks for letting me stay at your mom’s house for my first homestay.
Thanks for eating what I want to eat the night before the race.
Thanks for driving the course with me.
Thanks for extending your workout even though you didn’t have to.
Thanks for making amazing playlists.
Thanks for getting up really really early.
Thanks for pretending my pre-race OCD is normal.
Thanks for getting really bad bad songs stuck in my head.
Thanks for racing me to see who can get the lowest heart rate.
Thanks for looking over my transition area.
Thanks for taking really bad pictures.  (The subject is flawed not the cameraman.)
Thanks for drafting my nutrition plan.
Thanks for listening to my really bad jokes and super long stories.
Thanks for telling me to go to bed early.
Thanks for reminding me about life outside of triathlon.
Thanks for giving me a FB shout out.
Thanks for writing letters on my behalf.
Thanks for being my sounding board.
.
Thanks for the hugs, the kisses, the well-wishes, the high-fives, the spanks, the advice, the workouts, the sympathy, the empathy, the songs, the texts, the calls, the pancakes, the bike, the company, the drills, the critiques, the encouragement, the time, the prayers, the support, and the love.

image

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.

photo (10)

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.

 photo (7)

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…

photo (8)