Please meet Steve Bratton, our D3 Athlete of the Month ‚Äì wait until you read this story ‚Äì it‚Äôs not one you‚Äôll want to miss. It‚Äôs inspirational and it‚Äôs a great example of hard work paying off.
Who is your coach and how long have you been with him?
Mark Dillard has been my coach since March of 2009. When I signed up with D3 I put Mark on a fairly tight schedule from day one. I let him know in that first email that I had my first race, a 10 mile run in one week. I also informed him that with no run, swim or bike history prior to coming off the couch in September of 2007 I wanted to improve my HIM time at my 2nd HIM ever, Boise 70.3 only 3 months away in June, that I wanted to complete an ironman distance triathlon 2 months after that in August and then run a late season marathon, hopefully with a PR there as well. I am sure he got a chuckle from my goals, until it occurred to him that he needed to come up with a plan for how to get me in shape enough to meet those goals. Well the first thing he did was come up with a race strategy for my 10 mile run. It was to start off slower and then build for a strong finish. I knew that strategy, but he explained it in terms or heart rate zones that enabled me to actually accomplish it. I ended up with a 6+ minute PR on that race and finished very strong. The whole race felt great. So as to not waste time, Mark also used the heart rate data from that race to set up my run training zones.
What was your motivation to get started in triathlon?
I found myself with no dragons left to slay and started eyeing windmills. I had obtained the majority of the life goals that I had set for myself back in high school. I was happily married for 18 + years, had 5 children, owned my home, had completed my BA in Psychology, MA in Clinical Psychology, Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, Certificate of Advanced Studies in School Psychology, had obtained the licenses and certifications and was secure in a job that allowed me to use all of these skills on a daily bases. I had essentially run out of goals to strive towards completing. Granted, furthering my spiritual life will be an ongoing challenge until the day that I die, but I also needed a tangible goal that I could pursue on a daily basis. One problem with getting a lot of education is that you tend to put on 5-10 pounds per degree, all that studying. So I found myself at 180 pounds on a 5‚Äô9‚Äù frame, the heaviest I had ever been, with some spare time and no real focus for my every day routine outside of work and family commitments. I live way out in the middle of nowhere with no athletic facilities, so I could not just go down and join the YMCA and get into a sport of any kind that way. After considering my options and what was practical given where I live and what would be a serious challenge that I could embrace that might also help me drop a few pounds, I settled on Triathlon and have never looked back. I have lost about 35-40 pounds and am now in the best shape of my life. I continue to work on improving the weave between faith, triathlon, work and family. I can tell you that at mile 18 on the IM run when my strength was fading and I was tempted to walk, it was God‚Äôs grace and the encouragement of my family with my wife saying ‚ÄúGO STEVE‚Äù and my daughter yelling ‚ÄúGO DADDY‚Äù that helped me move through that moment and keep running to finish strong.
How has your D3 coach helped you with your goals?
When I got started with my triathlon training, knowing absolutely nothing about any of the three sports, being able to jog 1 mile, ride my $45 K-Mart mountain bike about 5 miles and with only being able to swim breaststroke I started a couch to sprint plan in September of 2007 and completed my first sprint in December. I purchased a road bike and went on to train for a half marathon, an Oly and a HIM in 2008. In the back of my mind, even when I started training for that first sprint I was wondering if it would be possible to complete an Ironman. You know, not the kind of thing you want to say out loud to anyone because even admitting to thinking that way makes people look at you funny. After all, it is the Ph.D. of triathlon right? So after recovering from my first HIM I decided to take on the IM and signed up for Vineman in August of 2009 and well a HIM to hit as a good measure of fitness, pacing and nutrition 7 weeks prior to the IM. I had completed a marathon in January of 2009, but was starting to get a little nervous about completing the IM based on a generic training plan and not knowing how to make sense of all of the LT testing, time trials, HR training and nutrition information I was reading.
So a short story made long, I signed up with Mark at D3 and he figured it all out for me and got me going. It was a good thing he did, or I might not have been on such an emotional high right now. I had developed some thoughts about what training should be like, how many calories per hour I needed and such from what I had read. It turns out my training philosophy was not very efficient and may have been pretty bad for the IM. The three main things Mark changed was decreasing the duration and increasing the intensity of many of my workouts, doing workouts for a specific purpose rather than just to put in the time and I he doubled my calorie intake for the longer races. It turns out that my first effort at a HIM on 650 calories for a 6:48:29 effort was a bit low and contributed towards me having to walk the last 1 mile of it. Granted it was 105 F that day, the bike course was hillier than I had anticipated (front half of the Silverman course) and the water stations on the run were 2.5 miles apart, but I think the low calories was the final straw that got me walking.
So under Mark‚Äôs guidance and with only 3 months to the HIM and then 2 months to the IM we got to work. Mark helped me set up heart rate training zones on the bike and run, designed a plan to help me reach all my goals and let me know what pace or effort he expected me to do each part of each workout. He also helped me design a race pace strategy and made sure the race nutrition was where it should be. He evaluated my training and set up race time goals that I should be capable of if everything went well on race day. However, Mark‚Äôs frequent communication, sense of humor and actual caring about not just how my training was going, but how I was doing as a person was very centering and invaluable. After all, people who have never trained for any endurance sport really do not understand what it takes to train for an IM, so we do not tend to get much informed support from friends and family. Mark as an athlete who has been there and done that knows first hand what goes into that first IM attempt. He also sets pace goals for me that make me balk, until he gets me to surpass them.
His goal for me for the Boise 70.3 was in the 5:55:00 to 6:05:00 range based on my training. I wrote back, really, you think I can drop 45-50 minutes off my HIM time from only 6 months ago? He said that he believed my training was there to hold the pace on the bike and still have enough left to nail the run. He was right, even through whitecaps on the swim and 4+ hours of rain on the bike and run I ended up with a PR of over 1 hour (5:43:46). His goal for me for the Vineman was 15:00:00. He let me know what swim, bike and run paces he knew I could keep given my training. Once again I was taken aback a bit by the paces. I asked if I could really hit the bike that hard and have enough left for the run at that pace and he said that he was confident that I could. I ended up completing the IM in 12:16:29! I think he put in some slush time in the calculation thinking that I might have to walk some of the marathon, but thinking I could probably pull it off if I was able to stay mentally tough for the entire race. I finished the whole run with no walking, not that I wasn‚Äôt tempted to walk at around mile 18, and I had a kick for the last 3 miles of the race, finishing strong. I could not have written the book any better if I had tried. So amazing! Definitely in the top 5 as far as life experiences go for sure.
So now that I have the marathon coming up in January, Mark thinks I can Boston qualify. Once again my initial response is really, you think I can drop roughly 30 minutes off my first marathon time from last year? I trust Mark in setting tough but obtainable goals, but I still reserve the right to be amazed if he can get me there this year.
Favorite distance to race and what is your best race to date?
I enjoy the longer races, so full marathon, HIM and IM with IM being my favorite distance. The IM is just such an epic event that to accomplish it is just amazing. I could never say the same thing about a 5k race, although I am just as amazed when someone runs a 16 minute 5k as they might be of someone completing an IM. I am so new to the sport that I only have 1 race in each of the longer events except for the 2nd HIM. I equally value my 3:48:45 marathon, 5:43:46 HIM and 12:16:29 IM, although I am most proud of the IM. For me they were the very best I was capable of at that point in my training and I consider them major life accomplishments.
What does a typical training week look like for you?
My typical week of training depends a lot on what race is coming up. I am typically doing running and biking 3-4 times a week and swimming 2-3 times a week when IM training. Swims range from 2500 to 4200, bike ranges from 25 to 116 miles and runs range from 6 to 17 miles typically toward the end of the plan. That looks like a short, medium with intensity and long workout in each sport with a brick most weeks. The best/worst part of the IM training was the long bike ride on Saturday followed by the long run on Sunday. ‚ÄúGetting used to running on tired legs‚Äù helped a bunch when it came to running the entire marathon of the IM. My legs got tired, but I was able to just keep going, it was familiar territory. That was a gift that Mark gave me, the training with a fatigue load to help me be ready to not walk during the IM run. I never would have come up with that training strategy on my own or from reading books.
What is your favorite race experience?
That first IM was definitely my favorite race. It was completely everything I had hoped for and more. Everything just went right, my swim was faster than expected, but I did not over do it, the bike was solid and again faster than expected and I ran the entire run with a very strong finish. Crossing that finish line was definitely one of the best experiences of my life and well worth the hard work to get there. I highly recommend Vineman to anyone wanting a ‚Äúmoderately challenging‚Äù well supported IM race.
What‚Äôs in your race future?
After 2 years of training I feel like I am just at the beginning of the journey. I have established a base and gained confidence that I can complete the longer events, now the challenge is in getting faster at racing. My plans for the next year are a 30k trail run in October 2009, a full marathon in December 2009 or January 2010, CDA 2010 and then something in the fall, either a HIM or a marathon. Pie in the sky goals would be to qualify for and compete in each of the big races for marathon (Boston), HIM (Clearwater) and IM (Kona). I do not know if I can get there, but one has to have goals and those three will keep me busy for some time to come.
Tell us about home life and how you balance work, and training?
My key to balancing training with my home life is my wife. She is so supportive and is the glue that holds everything else together. I may be up at 5am to get in a run or bike ride before work, get in a 6 mile run or 18 mile bike during lunch and then get in an evening workout. Instead of driving to church on Sunday‚Äôs I will get up early, run the 10-17 miles to church (depending on what route I take) and then meet up with my family there and then I have the rest of the day with the family. However, it is my wife getting the kids up and making sure they have breakfast and their assignments for school with them while I am finishing up on the treadmill and practicing my T3 run to work clothes transition. She tries to have dinner ready for when I get back from my 90 minute bike ride after work so we can all sit down to dinner together. My 4 year old will do a warmup walk/jog with me for a half mile or will do a cool down 5 mile loop on the mountain bike in the back seat after a long ride on Saturday. My 12 year old son may ride his bike alongside of me when I go for a shorter run. The dog, well he hides under my wife‚Äôs chair and shakes when I put on my running shoes, he is only good for about 2 miles, but he greats me enthusiastically and with relief when I am finished with my run. Somehow it all works out, but most of it is my wife taking care of all of the little things that need to be done to keep the household moving along.
Where do you train for each event and where is the closest pool?
Living 100+ miles form the nearest stoplight, Wallmart, McDonalds, bike store or just about any other named store you would recognize has its challenges when it comes to training. Granted I can ride 110 miles without ever unclipping, but if I am going north, the first store, house, anything I can get water at is 56 miles out. Going northeast there is a rock with a pipe out of it that has a spring about 25 miles out and I have made friends with folks at the bug inspection station by the state border that will let me fill up a water bottle. I live at around 4500 feet above sea level and the summer temperatures get up around 100 F with some snow in the winter. My bike is set up to carry 145 ounces of water on the frame for those 6 hour bike rides in 100 F heat in the summer. My typical long bike rout is 60 to 120 miles with 4000 to 5000 feet of climbing, but I have a lot of options to mix it up. The meanest ride I have includes a 10 mile continuous uphill of 4-6 percent grade over the mountain and then coming back up again from the far side.
Access to a pool has been a real challenge since I started training as the town pool is outdoors and is only open during June and July each year. The two closest lakes are within 35 miles of my house, but they get pretty skuzzy by the end of July. There is just something about swimming into randomly floating algae bogs in water that has 3 inch visibility that makes it hard to get into a rhythm. The next lake is about 45 miles out and I can swim in that one until early November before the water temp drops into the 40s. My last swim in that lake last fall was during a snowstorm. I got some really interesting looks from the fishermen in their down jackets and gloves when I went into the water for a swim, walking through the snow. The next closest actual pool is 100 miles away in the next state. So all of last winter I drove 100 miles each way two times a week to get my swim time in. That makes 4 hours of driving for a 60 to 90 minute swim. It was very limiting.
In that crazy way that only a triathlete can think, I researched the swim options for my home and settled on the Swimex swimspa as a viable option. This is the top end of the swimspas, designed at MIT and has a top speed for the resistance current you swim against in the 3.5 mph or so range. However, living in the middle of nowhere makes finding contractors difficult. I am now on my second contractor and nearing the completion of my housing project so I can swim at home. I literally had to add on to the house so I could put the swimspa in to be able to get my workouts in more than twice a week and reduce the drive time. Once the tile in the new room is sealed I will finally be able to swim at my own home. The project has taken more than a year to complete and has cost a pretty penny, but it is something the entire family can enjoy. I think being a triathlete by definition means overcoming obstacles that most people never face and certainly do not understand. For me this is just one of those problems to be overcome.
In closing I wanted to say that I was quite surprised and honored to be selected as the D3 athlete of the month. There are so many truly amazing athletes and coaches on the D3 team and I am just getting started. I apologize for the long read, but I wanted to take the questions seriously and give you a good understand of who I am in my journey to becoming the best triathlete and member of the D3 team I can be.