Saturday, September 17, 2011

Athlete Interview: Brooks Cowan - Rookie Pro Triathlete, Bar Tender, Couch Surfer, & (Nearly) Sub 9 Hour Ironman

Athlete Interview #1 : Brooks Cowan
This is the first of (hopefully) a handful of Borger Endurance athlete interviews. People often wonder what the life of pro triathlete is like, and hopefully this interview sheds a bit of light on the topic.  As you will read, the life of many top pros who make a fine living in the sport is very different from the life of many rookie pros trying to make a name for themselves in the sport - sometimes struggling to get by financially while they pursue their dreams in sport. A highlight of being relatively new to the sport, such as in the case of 1st year pro Brooks Cowan, is the excitement that lies in the unknown.  Athletes relatively new to the sport may have no clue what their potential is, since they haven't tested themselves across all distances yet. Cowan  had never raced an Ironman, much less even a half iron distance triathlon. He had never trained for one either, but that didn't stop him for his random decision to see how far his body could take him, after a friendly discussion among friends turned into a bet. Brooks shared some thoughts on his 9:00:06 finish at the Rev3 Cedar Point iron distance triathlon, which landed him a 6th place finish and a (much needed) $2750 paycheck.

Borger Endurance: Can you give me a quick bio & tell me a bit about your athletic background
Brooks Cowan: I’m 24 years old and grew up swimming for Anderson Barracudas in Ohio and Mach 3 Flyers in Minnesota.  Becky Lavelle and I were on the same team at one point, small world right?  I Played soccer as well and quit swimming in 7th grade to focus on that.  I walked on to Miami (Ohio) University Track & Cross Country team, mainly as an 800 runner, but I had a bunch of injuries and started swimming again to cross train when I was 19.  I hopped into a club meet and went 55.5 in the 100 fly and 51.0 in the 100 free so I thought once my legs get healthy, I should get into triathlon.  Unfortunately, by the end of junior year I had had 4 stress fractures and Achilles tendonitis.  I decided to walk on to Miami’s swim team as a 100-200 butterflyer my senior year, enjoy being on a team and competing for my school, and give my legs a break.  I’ve had a few blips here and there but since summer 2009, I’ve been fairly consistent and healthy and have seen a steady progression in my triathlon performances.

BE: You previously were training in Boulder, Colorado then recently moved away from the mecca of triathlon. Why did you decide to leave, and where are your living now?
Cowan: What brought me out to Colorado was a forestry crew job doing beetle kill removal, trail maintenance, and other odd jobs for Colorado State Parks.  Once that ended in December I started working in bars during the night while spending my days training.  I spent so much time driving from Denver to Boulder that I decided to move there and really make an effort to become a great triathlete. I spent a year training with the best in the world by day and working in bars and t-shirt stores by night, in order to be able to afford it.  My [usual] work schedule changed while I was away at a race, and I got fired for missing a shift.  They often give employees a strike and second chances, but I was told I was showing up too tired from training to do a good job as a busser/barback .  My lease was up in a month and the idea of finding a new job, new apartment, security deposit, and trying to make it to races was too daunting. So, I packed up and left.
I learned that living in Boulder doesn’t make people fast, but rather out-hustling the competition does.  Most top triathletes were fast before they moved to Boulder, and I can train hard anywhere.  Traveling to races from Colorado was very expensive as well.  Leaving Colorado allowed me to race the Evergreen Triathlon on my way home to Troy, Michigan as well as placed me within a 4 hour drive of the Columbus Triathlon, the Chicago Tri, and Rev 3 Cedar Point.  I was able to carpool to Chicago with friends and thankfully didn’t have to pay for gas or housing, which was a help.
BE: Explain how your life has been as a first-year/rookie pro this year?
Cowan: Tiring but fun.  I really enjoy spending my weekends racing and trying to go as fast as possible.  I often catch myself complaining about the cost of the sport and have to remind myself what a privilege it is to race in the elite wave and the chance to try and chase down the best in the world.  It’s a great way to see new places, meet new people, and challenge myself to do the best I can.  I love racing and am trying to learn as much as possible.  I feel like I have a better understanding about what I’m up against and what I need to do this fall and winter going into my second year as an elite.  Only a handful of American triathletes are truly competitive at age 24, especially at non-drafting. So, although Matt Reed, Andy Potts, and Greg Bennett have been kicking my butt by 10 minutes, it’s a great life experience.  Trying to become a pro triathlete will give you a lot of life-reps which builds strong character.

BE: A few weeks ago after the Chicago Triathlon you told me you were headed home, going to look for a "real" business job, as opposed to working in restaurants and bars as you have the past few years. Is this still the plan? If so, how will this fit with your triathlon training? After hearing that, I got the feeling you were sick of living the poor man's life, working late hours at restaurants while trying to train a lot during the day, and thinking of moving on from the sport. Is this true, or was I wrong? After going 9 flat in the Ironman at your first run at it, seems like it would be hard to stop now, right?
Cowan: Working in bars meant that I made most of my money on weekends, so leaving town for a race was a big opportunity cost.  I was 12th at Escape from Alcatraz, 1:30 behind the final money spot, and I got home Monday night with 67 cents to my name.  My next shift wasn’t until 5pm Tuesday so all I had to eat was 10 eggs and a jar of salsa between the time. 
I would like to prevent situations like that, which is why I have been applying for business jobs.  I’ve worked 30-50 hours a week in restaurants getting home between 2-4 am so a 9am-5pm job seems pretty nice to me.  That way I could afford triathlon equipment, not have to borrow everything, and have weekends off to go to races.  I’m not moving on from triathlon, I would just like to make the bulk of my income on weekdays so I can travel on weekends. 
That 9 flat Ironman and the paycheck with it has been quite a teaser.  9:00 doesn’t pay the bills but based on my preparation and knowledge of the event, it makes me wonder how much faster I can be.  Racing fast takes patience and hard work and this sport isn’t cheap so I need to find a way to pay for it.  The idea of being a couch surfing triathlete is always lingering in the back of my head though.
BE: You recently decided to hop in the Rev3 Cedar Point Iron distance race two weeks ago, and surprised a few people with a 9:00 & 6th place finish. What made you sign up for that race after racing strictly Olympic distance races this season, and much less only training for the Olympic distance? Did you do any half iron distance races, or skip that distance and go right into the full?
Cowan: Since I returned to Michigan, my high school 4x800m teammates and I have gotten together every Tuesday night for beers.  We all competed in college and still do races so it’s been fun to catch up.  The Tuesday before the Chicago Triathlon we were speculating how fast I could do an Ironman.  I said that if I had a great day, I could go 50-5:00-3:00 [sub 9 hours] but they didn’t believe me.  The more I talked about it the more I believed I could.  I also had two broken bikes of my own, one borrowed bike that was broken, and was currently borrowing Mike Luginbill’s bike, one of the friends I was debating this with.  Looking at the Rev 3 prize purse I thought I might as well go for it, I’ve got nothing to lose and any cash prize would help me get my bikes fixed.  So I signed up without having done a 70.3 or even a marathon before.  $2750 is a nice reward and I am in the process of getting my own bikes fixed up.

BE: What was your training like leading into the race? Did you get in any longer workouts? You can't really just 'wing-it' going out fast in an Ironman and not blow up completely, or can you?
Cowan: I signed up a couple days after the Chicago Triathlon.  I went out to Stoney Creek MetroPark three times and did acceleration rides around the 10k loop with each lap getting faster.  48 miles on Aug 31st, 60 miles on Sept 4, and 48 miles again on Sept 7.  I did a good job of locking into my goal Ironman pace because I basically hit the same pace during the race.
BE: Describe how the race went, and what you were thinking throughout it?
Cowan: I read somewhere that Paula Newby Fraser described the Ironman as “crisis management” which could also be an accurate description of my day-to-day life.  What was interesting about the Ironman race was the internal debate going on in my mind.  For 7 of the 9 hours, I had the option of speeding up, slowing down, or maintaining, and kept having to decide…over and over.  My mentality going in was “get after it.”  140 miles is going to hurt no matter what so I figured going harder than what felt comfortable, chasing the guys ahead of me, and trying to hold off the guys behind me would get my adrenaline going and make the race go by faster. 
I crashed so hard the last 13 miles though, it was brutal.  It was a 2 lap run and my 1st lap was a 1:30 [1/2 marathon].  After that I had to stop a bunch because my legs were locking up from cramps.  I kept repeating to myself, “Cramp & Rally Baby!”  I brought it home in a 1:44 2nd lap, good enough for a 3:14 marathon.  This was also the first time I had ever run more than 16 miles so I think with better pacing, nutrition, and focused training I can do much better.
BE: Pretty impressive on Olympic distance training, I must say. What was your race day nutrition plan?

Cowan: I wanted to grab a Gatorade and a GU at every aid station, but I knew I might be in trouble when I wasn’t seeing any GU at the aid stations.  I only taped 4 GUs to my bike and was able to grab 2 more on the bike course but I will definitely have more than 6 next time.  I had 7 Gatorades and 2x Red Bulls on the bike as well, which I think was a mistake.  Next time I will have a lot more Gatorade and Gels on the bike and then save the red bull for my special needs bag on the run so the Sugar crash/caffeine crash doesn’t hit me in the middle of the run, that was really rough.

BE: Had you been working with a coach at all this year? If so, were they supportive of this jump into the Ironman distance race without perhaps, ideal Ironman training?
Cowan: I worked with Grant Holicky and Neal Henderson at Apex Coaching from April to mid July.  I’ve just been coaching myself since leaving Colorado.  They are awesome coaches who really helped me out and I enjoyed training with that group.  I used to work 5pm to 2am, get up at 7:30am and then do a swim-bike- run workout with them from 8am to almost 1pm so I figured if I could get through that, I could get through an Ironman, especially after those computrainer days ;)  Since then I’ve been on the wake-up and make something up plan.

BE: Is it true you raced on a borrowed bike, and stayed up til past midnight the night before watching TV with your homestay? 
Cowan: That was actually my 3rd borrowed bike of the year.  The only semi-functional bike of mine is a beaten up 9 speed 2005 trek 1500 (Discovery edition!).  I would borrow Doug Maclean’s backup 2006 Felt B2 for races, and then I borrowed his road bike for an ITU race.  The steer tube on his Felt B2 cracked and is past the 5 year warranty so I was able to get a Felt B16 loaner 4 weeks ago from Mike Luginbill.  Huge thanks to these guys, without them I’d just be doing aquathlons…which wouldn’t be too bad.  Getting a position locked in while having to borrow bikes gets frustrating though, I was making adjustments all the way up to Wednesday before the Ironman.  I can never fall asleep before midnight anyways and did you see that Michigan vs. Notre Dame game?  No way I was going to bed.

BE: What's next for you?
Cowan: Not sure, I really just need to make up my mind.  Putting in a solid 8 week block dedicated to going fast at Ironman Arizona would be interesting.  It would probably be a bad decision but trying to make good decisions never really works out for me.

BE: How can people's keep tabs on your in the future? Do you have a website, blog, or Twitter account?
Cowan: Yes, my blog is and Twitter name is @TBrooksCowan

BE: Thanks for your time Brooks. I'm tempted to place some bets and get you hyped up to prove some more folks wrong in your next one, perhaps Ironman Arizona?? Thanks for sharing your thoughts, funny stories, and your 'don't try this at home' approach to Ironman racing.  Good luck with everything.

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