Tuesday, April 9, 2019

My Journey Towards Mental Toughness

Growing up, I was not mentally tough, or, tough by any definition of the word. There were the “tough” kids in middle school who intimidated me. They had swagger and confidence. They were far more physically developed than the rest of us. They had real muscles and armpit hair. Most were either the good athletes or, as we called some of them, “hoods.” You remember, the rough guys who hung out the bathrooms smoking during class breaks? Me? I was not tough. I had no muscles. I was the very skinny preacher’s kid.

I tried wrestling in 8th grade. Had one match. Lost 12-0. Tough guys wrestle. Short-lived career there. I played football in 9th grade. Third string halfback. Got in three games and about five plays the whole season. Tough guys play football. It was one and done. I was massively intimidated trying to play those sports. So, I played a couple of years of JV basketball at Burke High School, but was intimidated by the varsity guys who were so big, strong and fast. Looking back, my greatest liability as an athlete was my mental weakness and lack of confidence.

Fast forward many years. The first time that I lined up at USAT Nationals in Portland, OR, I kind of freaked out! What was I doing here? I recognized some names. A couple of guys were medalists at Worlds! A 5x age-group champ from the Atlanta Marathon was there. A swimming stud who swam at the University of Michigan lined up. I’d taken swim lessons at the YMCA. Sheesh! Mentally, I freaked out.

Fast forward another few years and I found myself in a similar situation only this time it was the ITU World Championships in Hamburg, Germany. 99 of the fastest guys in the world in the 50-54 age group came to Germany to race from over 50 nations. “What the heck am I doing here?”, I asked myself. I just hoped to not embarrass myself and the “USA” on the front of my top. Again, I felt my brain start to melt down.

I could recount many other times when my mental weakness surfaced. Fast forward yet one more time. Last summer I once again was in training for an ITU World Championship tri in Australia. ONLY…THIS TIME…I was training to get on the PODIUM…and maybe, the top spot. Yep, I was training to win the World Championship. What?? What had changed? How could my brain have progressed from a state of intimidation to having the confidence of trying to be the best in the world?

Here are a few things that helped me develop mental toughness and confidence through 25 years of tri training and 300+ triathlons:
  1. Doing the training. Dedicating six to eight months of very specific training towards a goal and then reaching it downloads mass quantities of confidence into the brain. When you put in the hard work ahead of time, you wake up race day morning with the assurance that you’re ready to roll!
  2. Having a strategic race schedule. My biggest race each year is usually towards the end of the season. So, I map out my races and set mini-goals for each one and see progress. I know that the races I do are just that…races. But I also know they’re the best workout I’ll do that week. When I’ve recovered from a race, I’m that much faster due to such an intense effort. In reality, I race myself into top shape.
  3. I mark my successes. “Success breeds success,” someone once said. It’s true. With each mini-goal reached, with each success, confidence grows. Yes, there are some bad races and outcomes each season, but those are great learning experiences. They actually help me towards success.
  4. I beat people I never thought I could beat. Maybe just in the swim, or maybe on the bike or maybe it’s my run split. Maybe it’s in the overall results, but I started believing more and more in my abilities. When I lived in Phoenix, there was a guy in my age group who beat me time after time. Finally, at the Lake Havasu Tri one year, I found myself running him down. I was slowly closing the gap he had on me ‘til, with about 50 yards to go, I passed him and beat him! Could NOT believe it! Confidence! Mental toughness on the rise!
  5. The cumulative triathlon experiences. What do I mean? I mean just living the lifestyle. Gaining experience year by year, season by season and race by race. Doing tough workouts where I thought I’d throw up, if not die. Pushing myself. Getting up early. Logging the miles/yards. Doing the strength/resistant work. Reading the articles and books. Watching instructional videos/YouTubes. Attending tri camps. It all adds up. You do that and you’ll get mentally tougher.
  6. Finally, overcoming tough obstacles that unexpectedly pop up during races has increased my mental toughness. Having my goggle strap break just before the horn went off at my first 70.3. Developing bad blisters during runs. Racing while horribly nauseated. Fighting serious depression during Ironman races. Being hopelessly behind, but trying hard not to give up. Dropping my nutrition on the road during the bike leg of a National Championship. And, many more unplanned issues that popped up to my surprise. Somehow, I learned to fight through them and finish and sometimes finish really well.
That first USAT Nationals race in Portland? The podium went ten deep. After a horrible swim, I fought back and took 9th. The next Nationals I did in Los Angeles, I was first off the bike, but had a calf issue and five guys ran by me during the 5K. But hope had been planted and confidence in what I could do, grew. That first Worlds? The 5th fastest bike split helped me to 20th place out of 99.
Mental toughness was now growing like corn in July in Nebraska! Winning my first Nationals in ’12, where I had to run down the USAT number one ranked guy in the nation in our age group and catching him with 300 yards to the finish line for the win, well…it was surreal. I started believing. No more intimidation. Then, finishing 6th at Worlds in London out of 95 guys put me over the top. I’d arrived at a point of mental confidence and toughness I never thought I’d achieve. That attempt to actually win worlds last year? Yeah, that didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped for. But as they say, “Life happens and you just gotta roll with it.”

It doesn’t take days or months to develop this tough mindset. It takes years. It takes dozens even hundreds of races. It takes failures and things going wrong. But that’s the fun part of this crazy sport – figuring it out. It takes time and patience. My fastest sprint tri ever happened when I was 55 years old, 18 years after I started the sport!

Lastly, the confidence and mental toughness developed in triathlon carries over to all of life. I’m a more confident person in all areas now. Just wish I could race some of those dudes who intimidated me so badly in middle and high school. Every blue moon I run into one of them around town. I walk up to them and shove them in the chest and say, “Sup now dude?” Ha. No, I don’t. I just try to race fast…with confidence and mental toughness. You ever feel intimidated doing this sport? I get it. Just keep after it and believe in yourself! Put in the work. Confidence will grow and you can achieve what you NEVER thought you could!

Saturday, March 2, 2019

What Kind Of Athlete Are You??
How would you answer the question, “What kind of an athlete are you?”  Your answer might be, “Not a very good one.” Or, “Well, I’m learning and getting better.” Or, “I’ve been racing for 10 years and I’ve improved every year. I qualified for Nationals this year!”

A key component in choosing your goals for this upcoming season is that very question, “What kind of athlete are you?” What do I mean? Well, there are different “kinds” of athletes. As mentioned, fast, kind-a fast, middle-of-the-packer or, “I pick up the orange cones coming down the finish line shoot.” So there are many different kinds and levels of endurance athletes…newbies, somewhat advanced, super-experienced…male/female…$10K bike athletes and Walmart bike athletes.

But, we’re not talking about any of those kinds. We’re talking about an athlete’s outlook. Your “why.” What’s your reason for getting up at 4:30am, driving for at least an hour, carrying 1,000 lbs. of gear to a fenced-in corral, waiting in long lines to use a port-a-potty that might smell like a pig farm, have someone write on your body with a thick magic marker and then jump into a dark, cold lake amidst hundreds of others splashing all around you?? The answer depends on the kind of athlete you are. Let’s consider three and their goals. Can you find yourself?

ONE - The “Not-Without-My-Friend” Athlete. This athlete loves to train and race…as long as it’s with his/her friends. Almost every workout is with someone. The joy doesn’t come from time spent pounding the pavement, in the saddle, 100m repeats or the starter’s airhorn, but WHO is going along. Skip a workout? If it’s solo, sure. No problem. If with friends, no way! Same for a race. If certain friends are doing it, then this athlete is IN no matter what the registration fee or travel distance. This athlete’s primary goal is simply - to enjoy others…to enjoy the experience socially. The side benefits are increased fitness and health but those things don’t drive them. Friendships, relationships and the social component is the primary reason they’re an athlete.

If this is you…?  Good! Enjoy! Socialize! Your friends enlarge your heart and fill you up. Awesome. Keep racing for that reason and you’ll stay in the game a long time! (As long as, well, you’re not a jerk and have no friends.)
TWO – The “Fitness Freak” Athlete. This person LOVES working out. They do endurance races, but the reason is because they know they’ll be more fit after they race and recover. They race almost solely for the fitness and respiratory/cardio improvement. BTW, they also do CrossFit, Pilates, hot yoga, spin classes, weight lifting, group exercise classes, have all aerobic torture contraptions known to man and anything else that will get their heartrate up or build muscle. And, of course they have a one-on-one personal trainer.

They monitor everything they do and eat, keeping track of every aspect of life’s activities including total steps, time spent sitting, caloric intake and their heart rate 20x/day. They are often techno-geeks owning everything “smart” that’s been invented. Their goal? Well, they really don’t care who else shows up on race day or how they place in their age group, they just can’t wait to download every ounce of data when they home, analyze it and then decide how to get, yes, more fit.

If this is you…? Lighten up for Pete sake! Ha. Just kidding. Go for it. Enjoy the endless numbers, math and strategy. Get that next FTP test done along with your new BMI test. Be encouraged when your power is up 2 watts or you really nail that WOD! If improved fitness is your main “Why,” then go for it. Just try to look up from your Garmin every now and then so you don’t trip and fall on that next run! 
THREE – The “Get-Outta-My-Way-Or-I’ll-Run-You-Over” Athlete. This person…well, I really don’t need to tell you much about THIS athlete. They arrive race morning and their game-face is ON, with that killer, focused look in their eyes. They arrive at least 30 min. before transition opens in the dark, first in line so they can get the best spot in transition and have at least two hours to warm up.

If you try to engage this athlete in a pre-race conversation, don’t expect much. One-word answers might be what you get. Why? Cause they’re rude? Cause they’re unfriendly? Cause they don’t like you? No, not at all. It’s because of the “kind” of athlete they are. They’re the I-will-kill-myself-to-win kind. They race at 120%, not 100%. They hate, and I mean HATE losing…in anything. Their will to win is immeasurable and unstoppable. IF they don’t win or accomplish their race goal, they’ll pack up and be outta there because their day is ruined. Out of anger, race-day afternoon, they’ll do a full workout (or two) to let out their frustrations.

If this is you, I get it. I’ve always been very competitive, though I do enjoy improved fitness and the endurance sports family. We need to learn to take what our body gives us on race day. We need to smile more during the race. We need to encourage others more before, during and after the race. It IS possible to have a killer instinct and still be a nice guy. I think. Ha.

Enjoy your competitive nature and of course, go for it, but enjoy the journey. I’ve had to learn to be satisfied with race outcomes even when my very competitive goals fall short.

What “kind” of athlete are you? Did you easily find yourself above? Yes, there are combinations of the above and yes, you can evolve from one kind to another over time. Know your “Why.” Know the kind of athlete you are. Know what drives you. Then, enjoy the journey towards reaching your particular goals.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

ITU Age Group World Championships, Gold Coast, Australia - Race Report

Some race seasons go almost perfectly. Last year was one of those for me. Other than a sprained ankle, the season went incredibly well and all my goals were achieved. I won a National Championship on my “home court” right here in Omaha in front of friends, family and particularly, my then, 86 yr. old mom and 90 yr. old dad…in their honor.
This year, every step has been a challenge…well, at least post-April. I ended last season with a that National Championship and started this season in April with my first duathlon National Championship. Since then two major challenges have followed me around for the last five months.
One - The ITU World Championship sprint race which I am doing, is now a “draft-legal” race, meaning that while cycling, you can get right behind other riders, catching their draft and saving up to 30% of your energy. Sometimes, just an inch or two separates front tires from back tires as riders pack up as tightly as possible. Triathlon or time trial bikes are not allowed. Only road bikes are permitted. (Google those if you want to learn about the differences.) After riding a triathlon bike for 23 years, switching to a road bike was a switcheroo that my body struggled adjusting to and, this would be my very first ever draft-legal race. I couldn’t seem to find my running legs off that road bike though it was an incredibly fast bike. “Can’t teach an old dog (body) new tricks?”
Two – In July, I developed a bad case of tendonitis/bursitis in my upper hamstring, lower glutes. It severely hampered my run training and race speed. In fact, I lost almost all of my run training for the month of August. I did water running and the elliptical machine but it’s not the same. I did two races at the beginning of August and both were terrible. The injury would not let me open up my stride and run normally. It wasn’t about just running through some pain. It shut me down.
So, Worlds in Australia was up the air the 5-6 weeks leading to it. I went back and forth 100 times on going or not going. Could I go and just “get through it,” with a below average run? Yes. But, I’d set my goal on getting on the podium. I knew that was a very high goal to set, but based on my past World’s finishes – 20th, 8th and 6th, and looking at the results from the last few years, I thought I could be in the hunt for a podium spot if I had a perfect race, ending it with a very fast run.
I decided that two weeks before the race, I’d go to a track and see if I could crank out one, only one mile at least a 6:30 pace. I’d need to do at least that, and then rip off two more even faster at Worlds. With a couple of buddies to pace me, I did a 6:28. But, was pooped at the end of it and my injury made it a huge struggle. Hmmmm… After lots of prayer and discussion with Jen, family and close friends the verdict was in. GO! I’d forever wonder what the outcome would have been if I didn’t.
One of the worst things one can do with my injury is to sit. How do you get to Australia? You sit on a plane for a total of 18 hours on three flights. Not good, but the decision was made. After I arrived early on the Saturday before the race, I decided I’d try to run an easy 3 miles Sunday evening and again Tuesday. The race was Thursday. Sundays’ three miler felt horrible. Painfully and slowly, I got in the three but was super discouraged at the end. So, I scratched the Tuesday run and decided just to rest. I did swim and bike leading up to the race and with those workouts, I’d have to be content.
The day before the race was very busy with long registration lines, bike check-in, the Team USA photo, the March of the Nations and the opening ceremonies. My race started at 10am the next morning. Due to jet lag, I’d been waking up between 3:30am – 4:30am. Race morning it was about 4am, so I got up and ate breakfast. I read scripture and listened to some of my favorite Christian music. I felt encouraged as I left my AirBNB for the race site.
It was a typical Spring day on the Gold Coast. Sunny with a high that would reach the low 70s and very little humidity. Perfect weather and a beautiful location! I walked my bike into the transition area and hung it on the rack. I was setting up my shoes, helmet, etc. and bang…my front tire blew. Just hanging there. Pssssssss…. Oh boy. Mini-panic attack. I’d left my spare innertubes a 15 minute walk away in my car. Long story short…someone gave me an extra tube and I fixed it. Whew. Glad it blew there and not while racing on it.
I did a quick warm-up swim off to the side of the swim start and before I knew it I was in the coral with about 70 other Worlds qualifiers in the 60-64 age group. I boldly went right to the front of the line. There was a five minute break between the swim heat before us and our group. With one minute to go before our wave started, they released us down to the edge of the water. I again, boldly when straight to the front line, far left.
The gun went off and so did everyone….they all just went off on each other. Total bedlam. A street fight in water. I’ve done mass Ironman starts with 2,000 people thrashing around, but this was as bad or worse than any of those. “Stay calm…nice, easy strokes…breathe…relax.” Bam, got kicked in the googles by someone and fortunately the goggles stayed on. The swimmer behind me kept pushing my legs down as he swam up my back.
I looked for open water but there really wasn’t any. Unlike most races, everyone in this one is really good and the group doesn’t really spread out much until the last third of the half mile distance. I tried to push that last part knowing guys were going to be out of the water well before me. I glanced at my watch as I exited the water and headed to my bike at an all-out sprint. 12:20something. OK, I’ll take that considering the mayhem. Got to my bike and the wetsuit stripped off almost perfectly, until the very end. I looked like a rookie jumping around trying to get it off my heels. I had lubed up a ton but still struggled. Maybe I was trying too hard…moving a bit too fast?
I grabbed the bike and headed out towards the street. Struggled getting on it, again, looking a bit like a rookie. What’s the matter with me? Come on! Once I mounted my steed, I was off and immediately started picking people off. Within two miles I caught a pack of about 8 guys all in my age group. I congratulated myself on quickly catching up with the leaders in my age group. So far, this race is going great.
Wow. Here I am at a World Championship race, in the lead pack, taking turns pulling on the front of the train…actually leading my age group at times! Except, I wasn’t. I found out after the race, the 3-4 guys out of the water first were about a minute up the road, working together to hold off my group, the chase group.
We were flying along in a tight pack, everyone drafting except the leader! It was scary, exciting, fast, dangerous, exhilarating and a bit insane all rolled into one. As mentioned, it was my first draft-legal race and I must admit it was a blast. I still prefer non-drafting races, but it was, well, crazy-fun in a suicidal kind of way. A couple of times I thought about pushing past this group, launching out on my own cause I thought I could ride faster than the group. Perhaps a couple of guys would have gone with me and we could have worked together. But, I thought we WERE the lead group and I’d be just fine saving some leg strength for the run.
We cruised into the transition area and I quickly racked my bike, tossed on my running shoes and took off with three Aussies just in front of me. Again, I thought we were the top four in our age group, so I figured I only had to pick off one of them to get on the podium. I was hoping for the best. I was hoping my injury would loosen up as I ran, not tighten up. Within 400 yards I knew it probably wasn’t going to happen. I was in pain and couldn’t stride out the way I wanted and needed to. I fought. I battled. I wanted it and dug deep but my body wouldn’t respond.
I was actually in 8th place starting the run. I ran a 6:55 for my first mile. OK. Maybe there is still some hope, but, no. A couple of guys in my age group ran by me. It was a two-loop run course and after pushing as hard as I could for the first loop I was spent. I dreaded the second loop but then changed my mindset. How blessed was I to be there? Such a beautiful spot. Racing in a World Championship race in a Team USA uniform. I smiled and decided to thank the Lord and just be grateful. I would run as hard as I could and finish wherever…I knew the podium was not going to happen. I did pray for a top ten finish. The last mile and a half felt like ten. I came into the finish line area and heard some friends call my name, cheering me in. It was a bitter/sweet moment.
I cross the line in 1:10:02. The top three / medal winners all went 1:07:something. I’ve done that before. I DIDN’T do that when I needed to, but it’s certainly not out of reach. That’s the frustrating part. No excuses though. To get on the podium I would have needed to run a sub-19 min. 5K. I did that in London at Worlds. But not this day. Not even close. Interesting enough, the Silver and Bronze medalists both started the run behind me in 9th and 13th. They had fabulous runs up to to 2nd and 3rd. Wow. Impressive. Worlds is no joke. These guys are the fastest in the, well, world!
Family and friends were watching the live feed back home. Pretty cool technology. I knew they could track things but didn’t know they could actually watch the finish. I took extra time to thank the volunteers telling them that without them, the race couldn’t have happened. I came through the recovery area and saw Mark Long, a friend of mine. It was good to debrief with him just a bit. I then discovered that I’d gotten 10th, an answer to prayer. A bit later I learned that an Aussie that finished ahead of me had been disqualified and I’d move up to 9th. I’ll take it. Now, I just need eight more guys to get disqualified. Haha.
I picked up my gear bag and then called home. Then I chatted with some friends, hung out and just savored the day a bit. I felt a strange mix of disappointment and satisfaction. I’d given my all and that’s all you can do. But I knew I could have raced better. Much better…if only….wait. Don’t go there. As i mulled over my race I thought of this - I need to let the sting of disappointment be the fuel of future motivation.
My plan, at least at this point, is not to do Worlds again until I age up, which is not for four years. I can enjoy the next couple of years/seasons doing local and regional races, staying fit and racing hard but without the pressure of a HUGE race. Then, God-willing, I’ll do Nationals when I’m 64 and qualify for Worlds and race it again when I’m the young guy in the 65-69 age group. That race, is in Abu Dhabi. Get ready for a hot one!
If you’ve read this far, you’re a glutton for punishment. You’re almost done. I realize how blessed and fortunate I am. At National Championship competitions I’ve finished 13th, 9th, 6th, 5th and three 1st counting the duathlon title. At Worlds I’ve finished 20th/95 (Olympic distance), 8th/60, 6th/99 and this year, 9th/70 at the Sprint distance. Three Top 10s at Worlds and three national titles are accomplishments I could have never dreamed of when I got into this sport 24 yrs. ago. Never. I'm the guy that didn't make a varsity team in amy sport in high school. Racing in Canada, Hawaii, Germany, England and Australia has been incredible. Racing for Team USA four times has been a huge honor. I’m abundantly blessed.
My support team is amazing. My wife Jen and two kids are incredible. The companies that help me are so encouraging. God has been very gracious and kind to me giving me a bit of talent that I’ve tried to develop and use for His glory and the benefit of others. So this year is a wrap. I’ve already put on a few lbs. I’ve not worked out for almost a week. I’m getting over the 15 hours of jet-lag that go with this kind of trip. I’m enjoying being home.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Peaking At The Right Time To Nail Your "A" Race

Peaking. It's an art-form. It takes a big picture perspective. It demands a training plan that covers months, not weeks. It mandates a race schedule/calendar that is strategic. It may include two or even three phases with "mini-peaks" along the way. Over the years, I've learned to dial this in and it's allowed me to win three USAT Regional Championships, three USAT National Championships and complete three times for Team USA at the ITU World Championships.
Ultimately, the goal of peaking is...what? You want to be the leanest, fastest, sleekest, most confident YOU you can be the morning of the biggest race of your season (and maybe your life.) That race might be a marathon, a triathlon, a duathlon, an ultramarathlon or whatever...but you want to NAIL it!! Might be a shorter distance race or a really long one. The distance doesn't matter, you just want to kill it.
I'm one month into a three month build towards the ITU World Championships in Southport, Australia. I'm racing the sprint triathlon and it's draft-legal, meaning we're all on road bikes not time-trial type bikes with aerobars. I've never done one of these races before. Racing a road bike in a pack and then running off a road bike are two very different types of activities compared to racing on a tri bike. I have 23 years of tri bike racing experience. Zero draft-legal. No problem right?
I'm finding it slow going running off my road bike...way slower. So, we'll make some adjustments to the fit and I'll race it all summer, knowing that I'm giving up time by not racing my tri bike. But remember...this is all about peaking at the right time. All the local and regional races in the world don't really matter to me this season. There is only one race that matters and only one race that I must be at top-form, peak shape and that is Worlds.

I've got my plan and my race schedule. I'm dealing with issues as they come up along the way. When I peak the second week of September, I'll be ready to toe the line with some of the fastest 60-64 yr. young guys on the planet from probably 50+ countries. My peaking strategy is set.
In past World Championships, I've taken 20th, 8th and 6th. None of those will do this time. How about you? What's your "A" race? If you want to be sure you've got the right plan and strategy in place, give me a shout. I'd love to go over your plan or help you set up one. There's still plenty of time if your most importance race is in August, September, October or even November.  Peaking! Get it right and reach your goals!!