Adjusting to a New Life and Putting Things in Perspective
The header photo seems to say it all about our situation right now in regards to training and racing. Lay back and enjoy it, go with the flow. I also love these animals - otters.
How we are managing in a very different world of a pandemic and economic depressions has been covered by many a better writer than I. But, I thought sharing about how I am dealing with things both as an athlete and as a coach might give you some ideas to help yourself during this challenging time. In the absence of thinking and strategizing about an upcoming race, something I am doing a lot these days when out for a bike or run is letting my mind drift to the past. This reflection has helped me deal with the circumstances of today.
In a triathlon nutshell, I have over 150 triathlon starts with 1 DNF and that breaks down as 20 years as a USAT All-American, 27 Ironman finishes, and 15 in Kona (6x on the podium!). I am a credentialed triathlon coach with multiple governing bodies. But it takes a journey to build a resume - so join me on this reflection and hopefully, you will rediscover your own self by reading my story, and learn what motivates you. I challenged myself to figure out what motivates me to do what I do, and mission accomplished. Read on, it will surprise you! Plus, at the end, I share some ideas about things you can do to stay connected to this sport and inspired to train.
Staying active has been part of my life since early childhood. I was a Track and Field champion in what most of you call Jr. HS and HS, Secondary School to us in Ireland. Rugby, field hockey, cricket, and yes baseball were my team sports. I added in Fencing my last two years in Secondary School and got good at it getting on the Irish Jr. Fencing team and competing in the Jr. World Championship. That was my first exposure to international competitions. It was a wonderful way for a young person to see the world through the eyes of so many athletes.
About 20 years of inconsistent bouts of exercising, running, and swimming (when near water) followed. I came here (USA) to follow a passion, aviation, attending a technical Jr. College at La Guardia Airport (NY) in ’67 just before hitting 21. My earliest and fondest memories of running in the USA were when I took my first landladies’ dog, a very poorly cared for (they never took him walking) German Shepard named Rex running along the edge of the airport. The apartment I lived in (top floor) is still there complete with the same dog warning and statue. The area we ran on is now occupied by terminal buildings and parking lots. It was a noisy route perhaps the reason for the hearing aid now stuck in my ear.
One other sport I learned in Ireland was sailing. In 85/86 Ingrid (my wife) and I cruised in our sailboat down the east coast to the Bahamas. I started running regularly and swimming, to catch dinner or take a bath. I have been running year-round ever since. Just under 30 years ago I did my first triathlon, Oyster Bay in NY, and 10 years later my first IM in Lake Placid. The break from swimming this year is the longest for me in 30 years and this is the first year in over 30 that I will probably not do a race (I have not completely given up the hope that I might do one or two this Fall).
When it first became apparent that I would not be racing this year I started to think about what really motivates me to do what I do. Was it the racing and winning, I have been good at that, or something less ego soothing? My worry was that my long-held notion, I did it because it was fun, good for my health and the endorphins of knowing I was fit, might prove wrong. I have always admired those that never finish on the podium and sometime near the back end keep racing and training. Clearly their motivation is very much the joy of being able to just do it. I am going to try and convince you, that while racing and winning have provided a lot of motivation for me it is far from the total picture.
Special Days (Training)
A yellow Labrador Retriever my parents got when I was about 17 in Ireland started a lifelong affair running with dogs. It did not take long after our first outing together to find that she was a big part of my motivation. Rain or shine she wanted to run every afternoon when I got home from school. Rex took over that role when I got to NY and then I was dog-less for 20 years. The same 20 years when I was very inconsistent with my running.
The motivation to run regularly got a big boost when we took off on one of our sailboat adventures for a year of cruising. Our route took us east to Martha’s Vineyard the summer of '85 and I realized quickly that running would let me see much more of the places we visited and as it turned out, meet more people. Up to this point in my life I had not run much more than 5k, and that changed almost immediately, as the prospect of something new to see kept luring me around the next corner or over the next rise in the road. Martha’s Vineyard served that up in spades and I got out to the far eastern end of the island on sandy roads.
The Chesapeake Bay proved to be a great place to run. The best memory there was an early morning run when we anchored at La Trappe on the Choptank River. Little did I know that I would race there 15 years later (Eagleman). The memory is really not about the run, that eventually was fun, but almost getting arrested. I was stopped by local police as I was rowing to a landing. They wanted to know if I had a PFD (personal floatation device), I did not. I was rowing an inflatable dingy designed to work at a life raft should our boat sink. La Trappe Creek was not more than 4 ft. deep at low water in the middle of the creek. I was threatened with arrest when I got a bit “upset” that they had pulled me over. Shades of Alice’s Restaurant. I pleaded guilty and paid the fine, by mail.
Georgetown, SC provided some fun. On the advice of an Irish friend who had moved there, I took off looking for a plantation site with slave quarters. It was a rather typical southern morning; humidity was high, and it was hazy. Finding the slave quarters still fully intact was a bit of a shock, clearly this place had been used long after the Civil War. High hedges blocked the view around the next corner, it lured me on again. Someone else was out for a morning walk, a large alligator. I turned around.
Many more runs were logged on that trip, many times I got lost and had Ingrid wondering where the hell I was and what would she do without me, not a good prospect as she could not sail the boat on her own. We flew back to Georgetown on Great Exuma in 2013 where we had spent almost a month in '86 and where my Mum and sister visited us. I got lost again searching for the now abandoned airport near George Town. Georgetown looked sad, once the center of tourism on the island it was suffering badly. A large resort on the north end of the island had sucked the life out of Georgetown. But I got in some memorable runs and lots of swimming.
My first race, a 10k, since HS was back home in Ireland. My Mum was still alive and came up to watch. It was a two-loop course through the town (Ballytore) where my sister lives. Her husband, who had become a strong runner, joined the fun. I was doing well the first time through the village and then the wheels fell off. My Mum, who had not seen me race since my winning days in HS expressed dismay when I was not in the lead pack crossing the line. Worse, my brother in law crossed ahead of me and had time to get us both a pint before I finished. Sill I was hooked on a steady diet of running as long as I could round some new corners or climb a watch tower.
This one I found near the old airport in Great Exuma.
Dogs were back in my life as I started preparing for my first tri. We had been lucky, two of the guide dogs that we had cared for as puppies came back to us on early retirement (which is another story). We had a wonderful park, West Hills in Huntington NY, just about all to ourselves in the early mornings. I only saw one regular in the park, a lady about my age with purple hair and a Husky mix dog. Both Jamie and Hanna (the Husky) became good friends.
The West Hills community was home to Walt Whitman and his extended family. There were several homes we ran past that his uncles and aunts lived in as well as his own. It was a magic place; it was not a big park but with some short road sections you could run trails from the Long Island Sound to the Atlantic. In the winter, at the top of Jane’s Hill, the highest point on Long Island at 410ft, you could see both waters if you climbed a tree, in the summer not so. Here is what is on a plaque at the top.
Sea-beauty! Stretch'd and basking!
One side thy inland ocean laving, broad, with copious commerce,
And one the Atlantic's wind caressing, fierce or gentle—mighty
hulls dark-gliding in the distance.
Isle of sweet brooks of drinking-water—healthy air and soil!
Isle of the salty shore and breeze and brine!
To make runs more interesting I named trees or parts of the park after my friends and family members.
September 13th, 2001 we were still in shock and Ingrid exhausted; she had not got home much before 10 pm two nights before. Ingrid worked for a publisher in Greenwich Village (Workman Publishing, most mothers know their most famous book, What to Expect When……). She had watched the towers collapse from a balcony at her office on Broadway. Then walked her longest walk ever, with thousands of others, to the Queen's side of the 59th St Bridge where the son of one of her work collogues met them with a car (everything had been shut down in Manhattan except shoes). Despite the emotions (we had lost a neighbor), I could not stop training, my first trip to Kona was a month away. And, I needed something to get my mind off what had happened.
Hanna, Jamie and I headed into the Park at daybreak on the 3rd, something felt very different. The birds seemed especially chatty, otherwise, it was eerie and quiet. As I ran down a trail I had named after my best Irish friend who had recently died, at 50, it dawned on me. West Hills had taken a journey back in time to Walt Whitman’s days. No corporate jets coming and going from Farmingdale Airport 4 miles away, no 747’s coming into Kennedy, no road noise from the Northern State Parkway and sideroads that bordered the park. It became a very emotional run.
Unlike this year, we did have a race in Kona that year (2001) and it was like no other. We felt together in a way that I had never felt before. It was very obvious that the world felt our pain, US flags where everywhere, we were facing a new challenge to the world together. Sadly, this did not last, and we now face the exact opposite.
Sometime in the next two years Hanna helped me set my lifetime 5k PR, and that included time for her to have a dump.
Moving to Colorado in 2005 put a new spring in my step, new corners to go around and new mountains to peak. It helped make up for a loss of dog companionship, Hanna had reached the end of her running days the year before we moved. Also new were new human friends thanks to the Boulder Tri Club, Fast Forward Sports and then D3. It also helped to discover someone who’s bike pacing matched mine, loved dogs and ran great races, Barry Siff. To fill the gap between Hanna and our current dog Rita we started dog boarding. That, at times, was a hazard to my running but it never resulted in a serious fall.
Rita recharged my running just when I needed it as I hit 65 along with coaching help from Bobby McGee and Gordo Bryn. There is nothing like a happy dog face to keep you going. There have been very few times that I have run without her over the past 10 years. She never quite got the idea of doing hill repeats but long and steady or up mountains just dandy. Of course, doing this off-leash was the best and when I could she would cover twice my distance.
This was a planned year off from IM racing. There was a notion that I might try to qualify for Kona this year for 2021 when I age up. I had the same plan in 2015 the year before I hit 70 but it really was not a year off, I trained hard for Oly Nationals and Cabo IM. 2020 is really a year off. It will be interesting to see if this pays any dividends next year.
What have I concluded as the 2020 end of season racing approaches with no races insight is that writing this piece has helped me realize I can and do enjoy the training. But no question I do like to race, and I miss it. My training volume is back where it was when I was only training for Olympic events and less. I have not done a lot of speed work and obviously there was a big absence of swimming for about 3 months. I am enjoying the pool more now than in recent years. I think because there is a 50 min time limit, swimming in a pool for much more than an hour becomes rather boring. There is no question that year in - year out training for an IM with 15-20 hr/week for several months is mentally very hard, I am enjoying this reduced volume.
I have always done some of my riding alone, but I do enjoy one or two companions especially on the longer rides. I have been lucky since coming to Colorado in finding others who ride at my pace. After a month of solo work, the motivation became increasingly challenging. The solution was a surprise, more indoor rides. I had discovered the Rouvy App allowing me to ride all over the world (so far just Europe). In May I started thinking about a gravel bike, thanks to a review of the Open U.P. in Bicycle Mag. I took my time researching bikes, fun in itself and got in some demo rides on the Open U.P., Specialize Diverge and Cervelo Caledonia. I now own a Cervelo Aspero. New roads to discover lay ahead and it does feel a bit safer on the backroads of Boulder, CO.
Rita just celebrated her 11th birthday (Ingrid her 80th). She, Rita, is still keeping me company when the sun is not too high and hot, we ran 17k early before 8am last week.
I am not worrying any more that the lack of racing will end my love to be outside and exercising. If, and I fear it might, we do not get back to something approaching normal racing for over a year I think I have found the way to keep things going.
Satchel Page, one of baseball’s great pitchers and a good source of quotes said “Don’t look behind you, something may be catching up". He also did not think that running was good for a pitcher, “just jangle around loosely to keep the juices flowing”. The ideas have some merit but looking back is fine as long as what you are looking back at is a positive, or you learn something positive from the negative. Running is great in the right doses. We, Triathletes, are a lucky bunch, lucky in that we can indulge in a very time-consuming sport. We may not have races to look forward to at the moment, but we can step back and think about how we have progressed, take a look at why we really enjoy doing this sport and find ways to make it more fun. The best time to do that is when you are out doing it.
We can also experiment much more. I have written about this in another article earlier this year as have some of the other D3 coaches. These were all about trying new things in the offseason but that is really only a limited time. Now we have the opportunity to really test out a new way of training more scientifically. Change one thing, keeping the rest of your training constant, and see what happens after 8-10 weeks when it should be measurable. Adding or changing strength training, diet, and sleep are some options. Sleep would be a great one since many of you are working at home now. My guess is that if you tend not to get quite enough sleep and add 45-60 min to real sleep, not just lying in bed, you would see results in 2 weeks or less.
Two years ago, I was very lucky to meet and get to know IM legend Bill Bell. Bill, when he retired, was the oldest athlete to finish an IM at 78. He was still racing short events into his upper 80’s and was in Kona in 2017 at 95! Sadly, for us, he passed away this winter. He sure lived a good one and could not have any regrets. He and others like Lou Hollander and Jim Ward have long been my heroes in the sport. They went through a lot more challenges in their lifetime than anyone still racing today. The 1930 depression (the numbers today are worse, but the impact on everyone’s lives was, I think, far more disruptive) and WWII.
I don’t know when my racing days will end but I think this pandemic does have a silver lining for me. I am no longer dreading the day when my racing days will end. After that there will be more time to see what’s around the next bend and over the hill.
IDEAS FOR YOU
Here are some ideas for the next few months (some already discussed above).
While I may have struck a pessimistic note up to this point, I am starting to think about racing next year. It’s presenting a dilemma and not just because things are still so uncertain. I already have 4 races in mind that should rate an A priority, too many. It’s going to take some careful planning and it is something that can’t wait until the last minute. Pent up demand is going to make for races filling up quickly once it is clear we are on the right track to putting this pandemic in history books.
Coach Simon Butterworth admires the baseball player Satchel Page and believes that the key ingredients in a good coach/athlete relationship are regular and open communication, mutual respect, and keeping it fun for the athlete and their family. My training programs are developed with those ideas in the forefront.
Simon is a: