Featured Athlete, May 2020 - Hunter Saunders

Selfie of a triathlete with mountains in the background
May 22, 2020

D3 Staff




When you bring your best attitude toward the process and the circumstances that are presented, you can achieve excellent gains within a short period of time. D3 Coach Jim Hallberg shared a nomination for athlete Hunter Saunders and reflecting on their initial five months working together acknowledges that they've seen tremendous growth during that time, and despite not being able to race, it's Hunter's attitude that is helping the progress.

Hunter is positive and realistic (which is part of the trick too!). He has plans to do an Ironman but recognizes that it may not happen this year. Coach Jim says, "Hunter is truly loving the training. He keeps rising to the occasion, taking on the personal training challenges I am giving him and it is building his confidence in what he can do."

In his Q&A Hunter reveals a remarkably personal story about how he got into triathlon and what it means to him every day.  "I look at every day not as work, but as an opportunity to silence distraction, harden my resolve, and attack my weaknesses."  This attitude toward life, it is an outlook that many of us hope to achieve, and Hunter is living it.  

1. What is your athletic background and what were some of the goals you originally intended to race/do this season?

I was a successful competitive swimmer for almost 20 years before I was sidelined by a shoulder injury. With the newly found free time and a relentless need for challenge and exercise, I picked up running and road cycling, never intentionally working toward triathlon. Fast forward a decade and I was asked to sherpa for a training partner at IM Louisville, and later that night she brought me to see the midnight finishers. It was a night that changed my life. The attitude, camaraderie, and pure emotion (not to mention the noise) fellow competitors and pros poured into bringing all those dreams across the finish line was all it took. I decided right then I needed to be a part of this sport and community for the rest of my life.

Over the past number of years, I have faced extreme hardships in areas of my life: death, divorce, suicide, physical and emotional abuse. All converged to strip me of everything I had spent a lifetime building, forcing me to face myself at the bare core with everything torn away, completely exposed, and answer the question: are you going to capitulate or survive? And while everyone has a different why, I saw myself in those faces in Louisville - behind the tears, the joy, the exhaustion. I recognized the sacrifice, the desire, and the relentless pursuit of something so personal many don’t know how to bring forth the words to describe it - and the pursuit of something so crazy to those outside the sport they just look at you cockeyed and ask “uhh… why?”, to which we all answer: “exactly."

So my goals have been a little broader than distance/time and are deeply personal (as many other’s also are), but 2020 was to be the season I really focus on competing at my best level. The only problem was as a lifelong DIY-er that I had absolutely zero idea what that was or could be. So that’s why Jim and I connected and started working together. The results speak for themselves and the progress we’ve made in 5 short months has been beyond remarkable. The man knows what he’s doing, and I get the relentlessly fun job of executing what he puts in Training Peaks. No joke. It’s awesome.

2. How have you had to modify those goals? What kind of impact has that had on your mindset?

Certainly. We all have. In addition to missing the competitions themselves, I’ve deeply missed the community. That’s starting to get better now that things are loosening up (I’m in Utah), but there’s still going to be a long way to go before things return to normal.

My mindset has always been focused on the process not only the final result. Races get pushed, swim starts get canceled due to weather, your legs just don’t show up off the bike that day for whatever reason, it’s windy, it rains, etc. In my opinion focusing one's personal payoff on that single A-Race event is tantamount to building a nuclear launch protocol with a single point of failure. It’s not if, but when things are going to go sideways. So to me, being in love with the process is the key to my personal growth and discovery. The hours spent on the bike, on the run, and doing endless laps in the pool, are where I have the time and opportunity to dig deep and to sit quietly with that person at the core of who I am. To clarify, simplify, galvanize, and amplify. In this way, I look at every day not as work, but as an opportunity to silence distraction, harden my resolve, and attack my weaknesses. Hate the wind on the bike? Go ride the windiest route you can handle until it doesn’t matter. Hate the rain? Run or ride in it as often as you can. Hate the open water? Keep going over and over until you don’t think about it. Everyday I have the opportunity to work on one or more of these things. To not to would be a waste, because there’s no guarantee in life that we ever make it to race day. If I didn’t love the process and my coach, and got run down by a bus next week, I wouldn’t want my last thought to be “what a colossal waste of time…”. Deeply loving the process, I get to say “I was the best version of myself right up to the end."

3. Is there something that stands out from the D3 training and/or community that has helped you stay focused on your goals?

Jim is an amazing coach. The coach/athlete relationship takes time to resolve, because it’s ultimately built on the foundation of trust. While it’s only been 5 months, Jim has quickly figured out what I need to hear (or not hear), and is dialed into what duration and kinds of physiological stress my body responds to. He’s also been great at hearing and understanding me (even if half my analogies make little-to-no sense). It’s this nucleus of trust and the continued building we do every week that feels super tangible to me, and I’m excited to see where this takes us. I obviously haven’t coached with anyone else in the organization, so I can only hope everyone else is getting the same experience I am.

4. What advice can you share with other athletes who are stuck in a mindset that they cannot race right now and that makes motivation for training tough?

Racing is not, and should not, be everything. In fact racing is sort of like a little graduation day - a celebration of all the early mornings, late nights and other incalculable sacrifices you’ve made and invested in each and every day. That shouldn’t have to change just because we can’t race. (Side note: Jim would call me out in a second if I said I wasn’t disappointed when my races got moved this year! Absolutely was.) But find a way to love the process. Love the incremental improvement for the sake of improvement itself. Reframe your why in these terms. Invest in hardening yourself and transforming weaknesses into strengths by deliberately attacking them. No better time to do this than when we have flexibility in our training and we’ll likely never have as much flexibility as we have right now.

Collaborate with your coach to find creative ways to do this. For example, Jim and I started running and cycling power challenges at different intervals to mix things up, yet the result was a different and better understanding of where I exist as an athlete on the spectrum of scenario-specific endurance. It was unexpected, motivating, and led to small changes that yielded immediate results!

Whatever you do, just… keep... going!

There are endless quotes about attitude and we think Hunter rises above them all.  He lives each day through a lens that is inspiring.  We are proud he is part of D3 and know you'll enjoy meeting him when we are able to return to racing.

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