Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Ironman Canada Experience

I've finally found time to write an Ironman Canada race report. It was a trip I'll never forget. The past 3 weeks since the race have been some of the busiest weeks of my life; 60+ hour work weeks in addition to coaching, but all is good and life is full of blessings.  I am still looking for a bit more balance in my life, but am learning a lot about myself, as well as (trying to, at least) learn to force myself to take a break at times, which is difficult for me.  In my last post, which was more like a full book in length (found HERE), I explained the struggles I've gone through this year - mentally, physically, and emotionally, and my search for a balanced life involving triathlon. I also shared how I contemplated leaving the sport altogether.  I was amazed and encouraged by what came from that blog post- various emails, messages, and calls from runners and triathletes who shared similar experiences and struggles.  I'm glad the blog post sparked beneficial discussions and enabled me to relate to others and talk through our experiences.
 In that post, I also explained how I felt the need to go and race Ironman Canada; it was something I felt I needed to do.  I've come back from Ironman Canada refreshed (as odd as that may sound) and am excited to get back at it with a new perspective.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been injured most of the summer. I entered Ironman Canada with about 8 runs under my belt in the past 2 1/2 months leading up to the race due to a lingering heel spur that I couldn't get to calm down, a calf tear in my right leg, and tendonitis in my left knee which flared up again due to changing running shoes around in efforts to rid the pain of the heel spur.  I ran a 12.5 mile run 6 days prior to the race, in which I made it 7 miles until having to walk off and on the remaining miles due to my knee. I didn't run after that until race day, as I knew I needed to stay off the running legs to get all the inflammation down before the race. After that run, I looked into getting a cortisone shot, and was convinced out of it by a doctor who explained that he has seen the injection actually flare up the pain in the part of the knee in consideration in other runners who have had the injection, rather than help it.  I opted for a prescription anti-inflammatory /pain killer (after making sure it was not on the banned substances list, of course), which I took every 12 hours for 5 days leading up to the race...and thankfully it worked... very, very well. 
Other than the 12.5 mile run, I had run a few 8 mile runs and a few 5 miles runs. Unfortunately, that was all I was able to do in the months leading up to the race. Obviously, I knew 100% that the run leg would be rough, and at some time I would blow up, it was just a matter of when. I had never run over 18.5 miles before, and that run was three years ago, and only a couple of runs longer than 13 miles earlier in the winter, and zero brick workouts since April. Obviously, prep was far from ideal, though I knew I could get through it as long as my heel or knee didn't flare up too badly. After all, Ironman is a battle of keeping nutrition right, and of the mind anyways...who needs training ;).

We had a big crew up in Penticton, BC which included my wife Amy, my sister Kristyn and her two kids, my parents, as well as my mother-in-law and father-in-law, Tom. Tom also raced, which was really the big reason I was there, since I committed to racing it with him months ago. If Tom hadn't raced it, none of this would have happened.  I was less nervous for this race than any other race I'd done in the past few years, which was a nice change.  Most of this was because my goal was simply to finish the race.  I had no pressure, and just wanted to have a good time and enjoy the experience. I had to humble myself a bit, knowing I had to race in the pro division, and knowing I wouldn't be at the front of the race.

The SWIM
The age group swim start of 2500 athletes
 Before the swim start
There were about 18 pro men in the race. We started 15 minutes ahead of the 2500 other athletes, at 6:45am.  My plan for the swim was to simply stay calm, swim easy and steadily, which I did, and save as much in the tank as I could. I knew it was going to be a long day.  It was my longest consecutive swim to date, but it felt good and easy. I swam about 57 minutes, nothing to write home about at all, but came out of the water with the main large pro swim pack and feeling very fresh.  I think the swim leader swam a 53 or 54 minute split, and Matt Russell, the race winner, swam a 1:02.  It shows you that Ironman distance racing surely is a distance where weaker swimmers can still be successful in the sport. Matt is a prime example. Props to Matt as he learned to swim only about 2 years ago. The swim felt slow, very slow, and very easy, which was a bit of a surprise.  I knew it was going to be a long day, so was fine with taking the swim easy and relaxed.  My TYR Freak of Nature from the guys at Kompetitive Edge was amazing. Honestly, that wetsuit is like nothing I've ever worn, mostly because of the amazing shoulder flexibility it offers.
The swim course is outlined in the orange buoys. 2.4 miles.
The city of Penticton & the swim start with Skaha Lake in the background, where the majority of the marathon course was
I had never experienced the "change tent" in transition 1 before, which was kinda fun.  Athletes run out of the water to the wetsuit strippers, where they sit down on the ground while the strippers rip off the suit.  Athletes then grab their bike gear bags and run into the change tent where they can take a seat inside on folding chairs.  While putting on the bike gear, volunteers stuff the wetsuits back into the gear bag for the athletes. The volunteers at this race were amazing, so helpful! I've never experienced volunteers like this before, so thank you to all the volunteers!

The BIKE
The 112 mile bike was my 4th ever ride over 100 miles.  Due to my insufficient training due to my work schedule and injuries, I knew I needed to play it conservative the first 60-70 miles. There are two mountain passes on the challenging bike course, with the first starting at about mile 60.  Due to my new job, I was able to ride on average once (to up to twice) a week during July and August. I rode one 115 mile ride, two 80 mile rides, and a couple 60 milers.  Obviously, training was far from ideal and far from a true proper Ironman plan.  Due to this, my plan was to keep my average wattage below 235 the first half of the bike, and rely solely on my power meter, forgetting about what race position I was in or who was around me.  I had averaged about 270 watts in a half ironman last year (Rev3 South Carolina), when I was more fit, so I calculated that anything much over a 230-235 watt average simply wouldn't be doable without totally blowing up at the end of the bike or on the run. About 15 miles into the race I was caught by a pack of 4 pros riding together, including race champ Matt Russell, who is a stellar bike-runner.  I keyed off the group for about 10 minutes, trying to pace with them slightly ahead of me, though saw my average wattage raise to about 265-270 watts at that time, so knew I needed to be smart, back off, and let them go, which was difficult and humbling.  I rode nearly the entire first 80 miles of the bike course completely solo with not many other riders in site, other than the women's race leader whom I passed about half way through (until she took an accidental wrong turn and short-cutted about 10 minutes off the course and ended up well in front of me again...she never did complete the full 112 miles, but I won't rat her out ;).  I averaged 240 watts for the first half, with a max 5 min average at 306 watts, which was while climbing up the first mountain pass. That said, the last 20 miles of the bike were pretty rough. I was ready to be off the bike.
I nailed my nutrition perfectly on the bike according to my race plan (500-600 calories per hour), which consisted of Powerbar gels, Saltstick tablets, one Powerbar, 2 bottles of coke, 1 bottle of Generation UCAN, and a number of bottles of Powerbar Perform drink and water.

The RUN
I started the run forcing myself to run slower than I felt like I wanted to. My big fear on the run, as always is muscle cramping. My salt tablet plan on the bike had worked perfectly, and I knew I needed to keep taking in salt on the run.   I know the Ironman is all about patience and pacing.  My GPS was reading 7:08 pace the first few miles, though it felt much slower. My plan was to run about 7:20 pace for the first 1/2 marathon, and hang on for dear life the 2nd half.  I've never really run anything slower than 7:15 pace in training, ever, even on my easiest recovery days, but knew it was necessary. I ran about 7:15 per mile pace for the first 9 miles or slow, and slowly saw the pace creep a bit slower into the 8 minute range around mile 11 or 12.  As I new it would be, it was simply a matter of when , not if, the giant gorilla would jump on my back, also known as hitting the wall. At about mile 7, my knee pain flared up a bit, though it went away less than half a mile later. I was shocked, and so thankful. I kept getting in the nutrition all throughout the run, taking advantage of most aid stations. Again, like the bike, I nailed my nutrition almost perfectly on the run. 
Right at the 13 mile mark of the run. Proof that the gorilla jumping on my back wasn't just in my imagination.
Around mile 13, the sufferfest really began. My quads were completely shot at that point, and my achilles tendons were both very flared up. I've never pushed through such shredded legs before as I did that last half marathon. Those were the two things that slowed me down - the quads and the achilles tendons.  It was inevitable due to my lack of run training volume, that the body couldn't handle the stress any better.  I simply kept one foot in front of the other, kept taking in my nutrition, pouring water on my head, and trudged to the line.  I was running 10 minute miles the last 8 miles or so, at least, though it felt like I was running about 6:45 pace. Funny how that is ;)
At the run turnaround after the special needs stop. Luckily I didn't need my pain killers I had stashed in my special needs bag.
The last 4 miles, unfortunately I had to make 4 or 5 stops at the restrooms along the course, as I was dealing with some digestive issues, which cost me about 5 minutes. I was able to run the last mile in 8:05, probably due to small boost of adrenaline. I finished the race in 10 hours and 1 minute, which really was right around what I suspected I would do.  Many people who had finished Ironmans before explained to me what the finish line feeling would be like. They explained the hype that comes with it, the sense of accomplishment, and the flood of emotion. To be honest, I didn't really experience any of that.  I felt somewhat emotionless at that moment. I think I was just trying to process everything.  I think at that point, I still didn't even realize I was actually there or really know how I ended up there.  Perhaps it was because I didn't train right, and really didn't experience the true Ironman journey to get there like most.  The emotions came later on in the evening, after it was dark, when I went back to watch my father in law and watch the other finishers come cross the line.  I'll never forget it; people raising their hands to the sky, crying, screaming for joy. That, was cool! Those were the times where I felt most emotional, watching those finishers.
Ouch. That was fun. Let's do it again!
I crossed the line in a mad search for drinks, and for restrooms!  Once I stopped jogging, my legs completely seized up.  I was eventually helped to the massage tables, though had to make an urgent rush to the restrooms, which was the unfortunate trend for the next 2 hours - not fun when you literally can't walk, nor sit down. Again, thanks to the amazing volunteers and my wife for shuttling me around.  I did end up on a massage table for about 20 minutes next to my good friend Matt Smith, who had an amazing race.  It was nice to talk to Matt and see him excited about his race. Earlier this summer, I had shared a bit of my journey this year with Matt and his wife Molly, who always had great words of wisdom for me throughout the summer.
In deep thought at the finish...

My father in law Tom finished in 13:22, an hour ahead of his goal, and was able to run nearly the entire marathon other than walking some aid stations. He is an incredible man in so many ways.  Tom did Ironman Coeur D'Alene about 5 or 6 years ago, but had several knee surgeries since then, so we didn't really know how his knees would hold up. He said this Ironman likely would be his last run ever.  He had an incredible race and miraculously, like myself, had almost no pain on the run from injuries.
Tom and Laura after Tom's stellar finish.
I'd be lying if I didn't say the race makes me want to do another one.  After the race came the as expected thoughts of, "I wonder how I could do if I actually was fit and able to train right."  Hopefully I will find out next year and race another.

Thank you all for the support! Here are a few more photos as well as a short video which Canada's Shaw TV aired of Tom & I two days prior to the race.

My father in law Tom & I after his finish.

Explaining to my wife Amy at the finish how I felt like I could do another one, right then! jk

Tom and I at the pre-race dinner



The finish line. The most important part of this picture is my Kompetitive Edge teammate Kendra Lee getting interviewed. Yes, she posted the fastest female time of the day! And she whooped me. Congrats to Kendra on a spectacular race!!

Canada's Shaw TV feature. Click HERE for full Video.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Honest Reflections of My Journey as a Triathlete


   Life is good. It’s been a long time since I’ve written, and a lot has happened over the past 4-5 months.  I haven’t always had the energy to write, and certainly not the time to write with a new job as well as my coaching business and training, nor did I always want to share my honest thoughts, as I didn’t always see them as uplifting, encouraging, nor inspiring.  I was struggling.  Here I’ll share a bit about my journey the past 6 months - how my triathlon world got turned upside down, how I almost quit the sport for good, and how I am learning about the importance of a balanced life.
          I want to share a journal entry I wrote early this year back in April. Excuse the rather scattered thoughts and grammatical errors;  I never planned on publishing it online.  It’s an honest reflection of my life as a triathlete, my recent struggles to find joy and balance in life, and more.  Since I wrote this entry, things have come back around. I'm finding more balance and getting back into the swing of normal training (well, will be once I can get a few injuries healed).  I’ll pick up more after the April blog entry; here it is. It’s a long one, so get ready to read a lot!

(Written in early April, 2012)                                                                                                                     " Five days ago I woke up and dressed myself a bit differently than most days. Usually I get out of bed, eat breakfast, and slip on a pair of cycling bibs ready to take on workout #1 of 3.  Last week was different.  I put on my nicest dress pants, buttoned up the dress shirt I had last worn on my wedding day, and put on a tie for the first time since. I had an interview for an accounting job at 10am. Filled with nervousness, excitement, guilt and fear about the possibility of what could lead to a radical lifestyle change, I printed out a few extra copies of my resume and drove to my interview.  I arrived 15 minutes early, sat in my car in the parking lot, and thought to myself, "this could change everything, couldn't it?"  If I was offered the job and I accepted it, I'd quite possibly throw away my triathlon dreams - everything I'd worked towards for the past few years, thousands of hours of training that I really never got to put into complete action with a top performance - though part of me was completely fine with that. It was a job that required about 60 hours a week. At the same time, a decent paycheck for the first time in a few years would be nice. I hadn't really been looking for work, but know I need to consider these opportunities, especially with how the past few months have gone. I've also had more than a few freak-out sessions lately thinking, wow I'm 27 years old and have no idea what I'm doing with my life! I have no career direction. I guess everyone has the mid-life crisis thoughts.
            The past few weeks have been the lowest weeks I've had in my 2 years of pursuing life as a professional triathlete- emotionally, physically, and mentally. I haven't enjoyed what I am doing, and am extremely lonely. In fact, I told my wife I was done with triathlon for good. I've never dreaded training so much as now. Last week was a very emotional week, for various reasons, and a week where I spent hours analyzing my life as a triathlete, how I got here, and fearing for where I am going in my future, as I feel lost with direction. I also spent a few hours on the phone with some close mentor friends of mine (Steve Silverstein, Trevor Stultz,and pastors Jim Domen & John Adams of Multisport Ministries), sharing my thoughts with them.  
                 A few people have asked me why my blog has been so quiet the past few months with no updates. I've said I've been extremely busy, which is true, but it's mostly because I've had so much on my mind I haven't really had the energy to write anything. Today I decided to use the blog to get my thoughts on paper. I may not publish this and may end up deleting it in a week or so, but there's something therapeutic about getting everything out in writing.  
              I will start by saying I am extremely blessed. My life is amazing.  I have been able to choose this triathlon dream lifestyle and pursue it for the past 1.5 years - something not all athletes get the opportunity to do. I pursued the goal of earning my pro license, which I have done. I have raced all over the US, as well as in Canada and Mexico.  It’s been fun. I have been pursuing my dream of becoming a top level professional athlete, but in all honestly it's only fair to myself to acknowledge the struggles that I have faced recently in my journey, and the pressures and burdens I've felt from this lifestyle I've chosen.  Lately I've had fear of exposing these things, since I have a reputation to withhold - as a person, athlete, and coach. I've said to myself, "I can't let anyone know what's really going on inside of me as far as triathlon is concerned. After all, I am a triathlon coach! What will my athletes think? What about my friends, sponsors, family, coach, and everyone else I owe so much to for supporting me in the pursuit?" When your whole identity is in something that seems like it's falling apart, it's not the best feeling. Much of my identity has to do with the sport (which is part of the problem).
  I think these experiences I'm going through will enable me to relate better with the athletes that I coach (and will continue to coach) when they too are going through similar things - when motivation is low, and they may be asking themselves, "why am I doing what I am doing?"  I understand my 'struggles' that I'm expressing here are small in the grand scheme of things in life. Some may view them as irrelevant, because they’re 'not that big of a deal.' I can respect that opinion, since there are many things that are a WAY bigger deal than how I am feeling about triathlon and myself as a person, but that said it's still relevant, because this has been nearly my entire life the past two years – my entire focus and energy.
During this past year I have found myself undergoing enormous motivational swings as far as triathlon training and racing goes.  There have been weeks where I have thrived and enjoyed "chasing my dream,” but there have been just as many if not more, where I have hated it. This wasn't always the case at all, but it has steadily changed to this over the past 6-8 months. I've understood there would be times where I didn't enjoy the training; that is part of any job, but this trend has lingered for many weeks, even months, and I am aware I need it to change. I have forced myself to train 5+ hours a day, mostly alone, day after day, for nearly two years straight, and slowly I am seeing that I am losing the joy and passion for this triathlon lifestyle.  I love the sport of triathlon, and know I always will, but lately I have found some major flaws in the lifestyle. 
 For me to become a top US triathlete, I understand the need to train 30 hours a week.  I have come to realize this is what it takes, week after week, month after month, year after year, to get to the top. There are always outliers, but in general, this is what it takes for most athletes to reach that level of competition. After considering driving to workouts, prepping for upcoming workouts, stretching, strength training, icing, etc, it becomes a 40 hour work week - and that can add up to a lot of hours spent alone on the bike, swimming laps staring at the black line at the bottom of the pool, and running around.  It’s what is required to get to the top. Truth be told, it has become a VERY lonely lifestyle. There are days in which I don't talk to anyone all day long other than a few people at the pool, until I see my wife at night. Whenever people have asked how long I'll continue to pursue triathlon, I've usually responded, "I'm not sure." I know one thing, to succeed in the sport you must enjoy it, and if the lifestyle and pursuit is no longer fun, then something needs to be done.
        I was warned about the risks of a pursuing a lifestyle completely dedicated to triathlon. I was warned by friends and fellow triathletes, that when you put everything into triathlon and things don't go your way, it can hit you hard.  And they're right! But at the same time when I made the decision to train nearly full time (while starting a coaching business and small consignment sales jobs to bring in some income, in addition to a slew of other odd jobs I've done the past 2 years), I knew I'd rather invest a 100% effort and have a chance to succeed, rather than a 50% effort in triathlon while working a full time other job. I had already lived that lifestyle in my days in Santa Barbara when I was pursuing my pro license, and it was not enjoyable when all I did is work and train from 6am til 10pm, every day.  I knew if I gave triathlon a half effort, my chances of succeeding in the sport would be low - and I was willing to take the risk of going all in in order to have the best chance of success.
          The past year I have longed to have a normal life again.  I’ve missed the things I once did - things like going skiing, hiking, playing volleyball, traveling (not for racing), playing basketball, tutoring kids, getting involved in the community more, at church more, or simply taking the dog to the park on a Saturday instead of spending every Saturday training all day by myself, which is my wife’s day off  work.  I miss that lifestyle, but at the same time it's important to remember that I CHOSE what I am doing, and that there are many triathletes who would die to have the schedule and lifestyle I do. The reality is also that to be a successful triathlete, it takes sacrifice, and if you're not willing to sacrifice, you can't expect to have success in the sport.  The past year, and especially the past few months, my mind has been filled with thoughts and questions, and I've begun to wonder at what point is the sacrifice worth it?  I think it's a valid question for all to ask.  What is most important in life? Everyone has to ask that for themselves, because we all value different things. I think there is a ton of value in pursuing your dreams and passions, or I wouldn't have done it.
         When your mind is filled with confusion, doubt, and question, I think it's important to ask yourself where these feelings and thoughts are coming from. For me, I'm trying to figure out why  I'm losing the passion to want to win as a triathlete. Why am I losing interest in pursuing what once were my dreams? Are my dreams still there or are they simply changing? Or, am I simply sick of not earning a paycheck like I once did, and sick of thinking about money all the time?
               For me, I think the answers are relatively simple. I think I have brought many of these feelings upon myself. They're mostly self-inflicted. As I know, and as my coach Melissa has reminded me, I am my worst own enemy. The past year and a half, I have lived my life feeling an enormous burden on my shoulders, which no one other than myself has put there. I felt this same burden to perform athletically in college, when I was running often solely to impress my coach or to keep my scholarship - not because I had a passion for the sport.  I live day to day with an enormous amount of guilt for what I am doing on a daily basis in pursuing triathlon, without a paycheck, making us rely on my wife's income as a PE teacher.  I am constantly thinking of ways I can justify this pursuit in my mind. I am bombarded by thoughts about how I can or cannot justify it, mostly because the lack of income earned by it. Picture working hard for two years straight for no paycheck. In a way, this is what I, along with many other triathletes, are doing - and after a while it can really wear on you. You start to listen to the voices in our society telling you your worth is based on the money you're earning, or the awards you're achieving. After all, you don't earn anything simply by trying. You must try, and then you must succeed and reach a goal with those efforts. There's no payment for simply "giving your best effort." I've added pressure to myself in this area by thinking about my future and knowing I, and especially my wife, want to have kids in the next couple of years. I am hit with the fear that my triathlon lifestyle will get in the way of this desire due to the burden'I am causing financially by choosing sport over the a steady paying job. Eventually, if we want to start a family, this must change.  I feel immense pressure to perform on race day, and pray often for a breakthrough race, because after all, I now have no excuses left in the bag since I have all the time in the world to train, right? Again, these are all self-inflicted thoughts.  Not to say the pressure shouldn't exist at all, but it certainly should be lessened since I have the full support of those around me to do what I am doing. Not my wife, nor my family, nor anyone else is putting these pressures on me; they're coming from within.
          The truth is, there are a lot of young pro triathletes in the same situation as myself, and frankly, I wonder how many have these same thoughts and feelings. Do others feel the guilt of pursuing their dreams –placing a heavier financial burden on their wives/families? I read athlete blogs, see their Facebook posts, and sometimes I feel like everyone out there is trying to appear like they are a true professional triathlete, that they've "made it" in the sport - with sponsors, big results, etc, as part of a justification in their pursuit, and are earning money doing so when in reality many aren’t.  Hopefully that's not the case. I hope they don't, because really it's unwarranted, and I think there's great honor is pursuing a goal when so many people around them would choose the more secure route - something that guarantees financial security and less risk.
 It's tough because you need to train most of the day to succeed in the sport, but you also need to make some money to pay the bills. Most “pro” triathletes are not making any money racing as in the professional division (many are actually spending $15-30k/year on travel, rental cars, hotels, race entries, coaches, equipment, etc) . The ones at the top are making a lot of money, however - hundreds of thousands a year, or more. There’s a huge gap between the top in the world, and the rest. Most of us pay our own way to get to races, and most come home without a paycheck. Most don't have any financial sponsors. I had one last year at $200/month, which was very helpful, but have none this season other than the chance to earn money through Powerbar (which brought me $600 in 2011). I am very grateful for all my sponsors, whose who offer any level of support. Most pro triathletes find ways to make money outside of the sport, or through coaching. Even if you do earn a paycheck, if it's a race that pays the top 10 athletes, you often need to finish in the top 6 just to break even on the trip after travel, lodging, and race fee costs are factored in. The top men in the country make a great living doing it, but those athletes all have been racing for years and years - it's a sport that takes a long time to develop in.   It's a sport far from that of something like golf, where the top one hundred in the country are probably doing just fine financially.  Triathlon is a sport that athletes pursue because they love it, and don't care about having a hefty balance in their bank account, or else they wouldn't do it. They do it because of their passion for it, and they don't care what other people think.  And it's because I know this that I can't help ask myself, "where has my passion gone? Why am I not enjoying this like I used to?"
Identity
          The past two years I have built much of my identity on the sport of triathlon. My thoughts, actions, and conversations are about triathlon more than anything else. Identity as a triathlete has resulted in pressure, a burden to perform, and it has naturally led to poisoning my view of self-worth.  When all you think about, read about, and dream about is winning big races, it's easy to get brainwashed in thinking your value is based on performance. For amateurs pursuing other full time jobs and who view triathlon more as a hobby, it's different. They aren't expected to win races; but when you give up everything and put all the marbles in the triathlon basket, you're expected to win, or to be on the podium - and with that comes pressure. It's not about being soft and the inability to handle the pressure, but rather how the pressure seeps in and after years can affect how much enjoyment there is in it.
         Living in this lifestyle, I've felt the need to justify to everyone why chasing a dream doesn't mean I'm being irresponsible to my family. It's easy to slowly get a bit brainwashed and start letting triathlon results affect our state of happiness, when we value it so much. It's even justified to start feeling like our value as people is connected to our race day results.  The truth is my value as a person is not defined by triathlon, nor performance in any career in which success is measured by awards, money, or recognition. The truth is that my identity needs to be found in various things, first and foremost being in my relationship with God. I am valuable because I am a created by a master designer who has planned out my life. My faith in God needs to be the most important thing in my life, not a sport, and not even others, including my wife. She along with others needs to come second, and then come the other things: my role as a friend, brother, athlete, and coach.  When one's identity is completely wrapped up in the wrong thing, it's easy to lose perspective in life on what is most important.  If I had the perfect perspective, then I am pretty sure I wouldn't let performance or an injury in a sport or job affect me as much as it has.
    I've observed some older pros, some of them live in Boulder still, who aren't racing at as high of level anymore; but for their whole lives their whole identity is in triathlon and they have so much fear of losing that. It's all they know, and they simply can't break free from that identity, even when it’s time to move on.

Selfishness
         I mentioned that the triathlon lifestyle has its flaws. It doesn't always have flaws, but in my case it certainly does, and I know it does in the case of many other pro triathletes. I have been told recently by several top triathlon coaches who coach athletes whose goal is the Olympics, that to be a successful triathlete and to have a shot at the Olympics, you need to be a very, very, very selfish person. You need to structure your life completely around your own needs: your training, your food, your massages, your recovery time, YOUR everything. You need to pay attention to every detail that will make you a better athlete. I couldn't help thinking to myself, 'well that sucks, so you're a great triathlete, but the road to get you there means you're the most self-absorbed person ever'. I don't ever want to be like that. Who does? Again, there are outliers and exceptions here, but many people who achieve great things in sport are some of the most selfish, egocentric people you'll ever meet. Is it worth it?
         Last week I came home from my job interview lower than I had been in a long time. I felt completely lost in life, having no clue the direction I am going, much less the direction I even want to go, and guilty for losing motivation having the thoughts about triathlon that I've been having. I went out to ride my bike to clear my head, and I noticed the mail had just been delivered. I opened the mailbox, pulled out the latest issue of Inside Triathlon magazine (May/June 2012), and happened to open it to the very last page.  There was a short article written by Ironman Kona champion Tim DeBoom titled A New Perspective: A Major Life Change Helped Me See My Triathlon Journey Differently.  I read the article there (which I recommend you read), sitting on my bike on the front porch before the ride, and I thought to myself 'this is EXACTLY how I am feeling right now. He is totally right.' DeBoom describes what happens to many pro triathletes, living in this self-consumed lifestyle:
 "I often wonder how that selfishness transitioned into my adulthood. How did it go from hiding Legos from my big brother, to, "My time is more important than yours!" When did everything I do become a priority over anything or anyone around me? Did it start with triathlon, or even earlier when I would beat myself up over poor swimming results and even practices?  I will readily admit trying to be the best in triathlon, or any sport for that matter, is not an entirely healthy endeavor. Physically, emotionally and socially, it is not altogether beneficial to one's well-being. We punish our bodies, suppress our minds and abuse those around us with our egotism."
He talks about the way he changed over the years, and had turned into a person he didn't like - someone so self-absorbed that he was unpleasant to be around. He adds "I can sincerely say I am not particularly fond of who I was. I would go so far as to say I would not want to hang out with myself 10 years ago." Over time the lifestyle wears on us, and we don't always realize it. It begins to change us, and can transform us into extremely selfish and unattractive people. Everything is about us.  Triathlon has ruined hundreds of marriages - at the pro level but just as much at the amateur level. We often fail to see how our personal athletic pursuits are not priority over our relationships, but we convince ourselves deep down that it's what truly matters most.
          I fully believe that of the reasons why over the past year I have fallen relatively unhappily with myself is because my life is completely selfish, and I have told myself that it's okay because it's my only shot of achieving my goals in sport. In reality, my life is becoming so unbalanced that it is hurting my chances for success.  Sometimes when you take a bit of pressure off of yourself, and realize that other things in life are WAY more important than a race result, you gain perspective, enjoy everything more, regain passion you once had, and become way more appreciative of the opportunity you have to compete as an athlete.  Therefore, you may even end up doing better in all you do.   My daily schedule consists of this: I wake up, eat breakfast, ride my bike, head to the pool to swim, come back home to eat lunch, spend a few hours working on coaching stuff and listing things to sell (I sell bikes and gear for people, a small consignment gig I've started to bring in a bit of extra money), head out on my run, eat dinner, respond to coaching emails, and then go to sleep.  Two years of this on a daily basis, and it gets wearing. Almost the entire day is spent on my own tasks. When you live mostly focused on yourself, life begins to feel a bit empty. I don't think we were created to focus on ourselves, in fact, if you look at the life of Jesus, he came "not to be served, but to serve others."
           This past week it has really become evident that I am not who I once was.  I am not as happy. I don't smile as much. I don't feel as good about myself. My confidence is lower than it once was.  I am not social. I don't see my friends much, nor have the desire to that I used to. I do not help others much. I don't volunteer time serving people, hanging out with the homeless, doing service projects or donating my time to those in need. I have skipped close friend’s weddings to train or race. I don't have the desire to go out of my way to help others on a project they're trying to finish; I find myself choosing training all the time over helping a friend move into a new house, for example. I don't simply enjoy riding my bike, or going on a run, like I used to. My life is out of balance. Like DeBoom says, my time is more important than anyone else - all in hopes (with no guarantees) that one day I'll cross the finish line at the front of a major professional triathlon.
          I recently started to ask myself: what if that did happen? Then what? Is that fulfilling - crossing the finish line in the top 3? Then would I gain instant happiness? In my mind I say yes, but deep down I know that feeling alone is still empty without everything else in my life.  It's a lifestyle in which one can become so self-absorbed that it can drain you dry, change your attitude, and make you lose perspective.
            Three years ago I wanted to earn my pro license and become a professional triathlete. I left my accounting job in Santa Barbara, moved to Denver and lived in my sister's basement. I trained. And I trained hard. And I loved it. There was a goal in sight, a tangible goal - to earn my pro license. Today I find myself asking, what is the goal? What is the next measure of success? If I do reach that goal, was it worth it if this lifestyle has changed who I am, left me with a few less friends and very little balance in my life, and led me to life with a huge burden and pressure to succeed as an athlete - so much pressure that it has caused me to dislike the lifestyle I'm living - a lifestyle I chose?      
              Two weeks ago I raced the Ironman 70.3 Oceanside, CA half ironman distance race. It was the first race of my season, and my second ever at that distance. I spent a few thousand hours training alone the past 6 months for the 2012 season. I was left unhappy with my results from last year, and decided 2012 would be the breakthrough season. (I am still hoping that it will be, somehow). I came home from this past race feeling the same way I did after many races from last year - discouraged. After an improved swim, an average bike, and getting sick on the run from taking in too much salt (needed for muscle cramping issues), I crossed the finish line a good 12 minutes slower than my goal. Vomiting at mile 2 of the run, I almost dropped out; but I forced myself to shuffle just under 7 minute mile pace for the next 11 miles and finish the race that I had started, coming in at 4:24.  I went straight through the finish line to the bike racks, grabbed my bike and headed to my rental car. I took apart and packed up my bike in a Burger King parking lot, drove to the airport and flew home feeling sorry for myself, frustrated, and thinking "how am I going to explain this to everyone?" After all, I have no more excuses, I can train as much as I want now, which means I have no choice but to perform on race day.  The next morning I was unable to walk getting out of bed. For five days following the race, I was unable to walk around. I had bruised my heel somehow in the race, and was forced to take the next 14 days off of running, which didn't help my mindset as I was already discouraged - so much I contemplated throwing in the towel as a pro triathlete. 
                 The week following the race, once again all these thoughts that I've decided to share here in writing have surfaced, as they have many times before.  I am not enjoying this anymore, and the fire I once had for this pursuit is down to a dull flame. I am injured also. Another factor was that I was approached about an accounting job - one that would likely require up to 50-60 hours a week of work.  Six weeks prior when I was first contacted about the job, I told the employer I wasn't interested, as timing wasn't right - I told them I am pursuing triathlon racing and training currently. I don't want regrets, and want to give triathlon an honest effort. The week after the race, I was contacted again by the employer, and encouraged to come in for an interview, which I did.  Options are always good, and the thought of a steady paycheck didn't sound too bad either after several years without, if I was to get offered a job.  I'm writing this on a Monday night. I was supposed to hear back about the job today, and have heard nothing.  If I'm not offered the job, which it sounds like might be the case, it makes the decision very easy.  If I was to be offered and take the job, my entire lifestyle would drastically change, and to be honest, I don't think working 55 hours a week in an office is going to do me any good in my search for balance in life. Part of me would feel relieved, almost an excuse to escape my triathlon lifestyle and an answer to all my thoughts and doubts. But with that, what if I looked back in regret, knowing I never really made it as a triathlete either; and worst of all, knowing that my ups and downs of motivation over the past few years got in the way of me giving 100% effort to the sport.  I tell myself that I'd keep racing, but the reality is that I know if I was working 50+ hours a week in an office, I'd rather come home and be with my wife than train all night after work.  I lived that lifestyle 3 years ago, and after 10 months of it, I completely lost balance in my life and stopped enjoying it as much, and that was when I was single.
               I'm not really sure what the future holds to be honest. A few weeks ago I ended up telling my wife I was done with triathlon. “It’s all over, I said. I’m not happy. I’m done with it for good.” I was lying in bed talking to her about it, totally drained. Honestly, saying that felt really good. It felt right. When the words came out, I felt a burden lifted off my shoulders. I told her I was done with it, and she supported me as always.
Fast forward a few weeks to now…I'm not quitting triathlon racing right now, at least I don’t think so. Really, I’m not ready to decide yet; I will keep putting one step in front of the other until I feel like I'm called in a certain direction. I want to get the fire back and passion to want to win races, though honestly I don't really know where to look or how to make that happen right now.  I've always believed it's important to enjoy something like this or it's not worth pursuing.  Though I also believe in using your abilities to the fullest.  Perhaps some balance in my life is needed. Maybe trying to find a steady 30-40 hour a week job that I can put some focus into might help. It would take off some pressure, give a bit more financial security, and likely help me enjoy racing again simply because I love the sport, and because I want to use the talents I've been given, without the lonely lifestyle that comes with being a full time pro here or the pressure to win.  I've got a lot to figure out, but I've learned a lot the past few weeks. I've been reminded that I chose this lifestyle, and that no one is making me do it, and that triathlon isn't the most important thing in my life - it shouldn't be.  Living for others should be, as well as my wife.

         Whatever happens, I know I’ll look back on this time of my life and smile, remember when I gave up everything to pursue professional sports. I’m sure I’ll move on from this lifestyle, someday soon or in a few years, taking a lot of lessons learned with me. I’m so thankful for the people I’ve met the past few years from my involvement in the triathlon world in both Santa Barbara and Denver. I’ve developed so many relationships because of this sport, and have been lucky to have the support I’ve received."
That was all in April. Today is August 20th. My life has changed a lot since I wrote that draft, and since the day I told my wife I was done with triathlon altogether. I have learned a lot about myself, about the need for balance in life, and the importance of trusting that God will provide direction. I have not quit the sport, and I am finding the joy again and excited to get back racing at the professional level. I’m learning to have fun with it and the importance of balance, and seeking out others to train with. I haven't figured everything out, but I’m learning the importance of living each day with joy. Life is too good to live without joy, and too short to stress about and try to plan the future.  Life is too short to not enjoy what we are choosing to pursue.
I went through various accounting and finance interviews in April & May, and applied for many other jobs, only to eventually realize the cubicle lifestyle wasn’t calling me just yet. Honestly, I knew deep down I still had a burning flame to race competitively still, and there was a lot of fear in the thought of landing an office job with zero flexibility in schedule - it's hard to train while being micromanaged and having to put in 50-60 hours a week in the cubicle . I remember walking out of a 3rd interview for a real estate accounting job thinking to myself, "I'd be miserable in that office, working with those people."
In need of bringing in a bit more income, it was hard to step away from those options, since jobs are hard to get right now. Eventually I withdrew my name after a 3rd accounting interview, and also for another job in finance, and decided to let go of my need to try to "plan" my own life and simply trust my gut feeling that it's important to pursue something you enjoy, and not simply take a job for the paycheck.
There was, and is, still uncertainty in figuring out how to pull off a steady paycheck while having some flexibility in schedule and maintaining life balance, and doing something you enjoy. I know maintaining balance will always be something I’ll have to work hard on, with work, family, training, etc.  I also know I won't be stopping racing any time soon, I feel like it's in my blood, so will have to continue to learn how to combine high level training/racing with everything else going on.
That week of the interviews, I also thought hard about my coaching business. I love helping athletes succeed in sport, and I couldn’t just quit the sport nor throw away my coaching business that I’d built up. It's a job with meaning. Helping others succeed brings meaning. Triathlon is my love and also where my knowledge is.  One day that week I decided to let go of the burden to try to take total control of my future myself, and simply trust that it will work out. I am a believer in God. Many of my friends aren’t, and they don’t always understand my way of thinking, which is fine; but after a prayer for direction I had 8 athletes contact me in the next 2 days inquiring about my coaching services. That was after about 1-2 athlete inquiries total in past 3-4 months. It was then I committed to continuing to grow my coaching business, which still is what I am doing.  
 An unexpected blessing that has come has been a second job working for a roofing company. A good opportunity came along from a friend & one of the founders of the Denver Triathlon, Matt Miller. Matt also started the C Different Foundation for blind triathletes, and I got connected to him and his company Acumen Contracting Group as a guide for Aaron Scheidies at the race. I had sold 2 roofs for another company previously, a very part time gig. There was an opportunity to make it more of a full-time job with this company, at least for a little while, while the coaching business continues to grow. Roofing sales is something I said I’d never do, but funny enough it’s been a huge blessing and a good fit right now. And, I enjoy it. I have enjoyed meeting new people every day. It’s not until you’re out in the world and around all types of people that you realize the potential to impact them – no matter your vocation. In my first week, I spent time with a lady whose son had committed suicide, a man battling cancer, and a former pro runner from Kenyan – who made us smoothies in his kitchen while we chatted about life in Africa. Today, I had a conversation with a 17 year old young man, which started by me telling him he shouldn't smoke cigarettes (yup ;), and led to him talking to me about his struggles as a father of two, trying to provide, and how he needs to smoke to relieve his stress. There are lots of opportunities to reach others, not preach to them, but simply be there to listen to them about what's going on in their lives. Pretty cool stuff.  I also spend a lot of time daily with some of the hardest working people in America. Many are from Mexico, and I've enjoyed using my Spanish again. Spend a week with roofers and you'll see really quickly what true work ethic looks like.  The roofing gig has been an unexpected blessing, and sales are going very well. It’s hard work, but good and has given my life a bit of balance. Though I’ve been working over 50 hour weeks lately (that's what happens when you put a triathlete in a 100% commission sales job...I'm way too competitive to let other people steal business), it’s been good to focus on something other than triathlon while my injuries have been healing. That said, there have been times where work has become out of balance as well. I think maintaining balance will always be something I will need to really focus on.
               Back in March I signed up for Ironman Canada, which is on Aug. 26th, after my father-in-law challenged me to race it with him. Since then, I have only done 1 race other than the Ironman 70.3 California (as a guide for blind triathlete Aaron Scheidies in the Denver Triathlon). I had cancelled all plans to do the Ironman due to the events of the past months, in addition to various injuries I’ve had all summer.  Since my half Ironman in March, I’ve been dealing with a bone spur, a calf tear, and now a knee injury. It has been one thing after the next.  I have only run probably 8-10 times now all summer, and seen 4 different doctors.  I've done dry needling, gotten x-rays, done physical therapy, chiropractic work, kinesio taping, etc.  It's almost as if it's the injuries are God's way of waking me up, and teaching me there are more important things in life, and that I need a break, and a bit of balance.  Then pain is variable – some days not too bad, other days a lot worse and hard to run (the day's I have tried).  It's been a good wake up call, and has given me time to focus on some other things the past few months other than training/racing, like the coaching business, roofing job, and my wife.
               The time away from consistent training and racing also has helped me realize how passionate about the sport that I am. I am excited to get fully healed and get back into training fully, yet with more balance that before.
               During the past few weeks, I've also been tugged in the direction to do everything possible to finish the Ironman that I had committed to do back in March. There is something about finishing what you committed to doing.  There's something about a challenge that you know you're not ready for, but your believe you can get through it, that makes you get to the starting line.  I'm not the fittest, I have not trained properly, and I'm not 100% healthy, but I'm going to Canada this weekend to give me best effort to do what I signed up to do. I know I will be sore, and possibly come back slightly more injured (hopefully only slightly ;)) than I am now. Unless I get to a point on the run where I know I will make my injuries extremely worse, I'm going to do all I can to finish the race and give my best effort.  I've never done an Ironman; I've never run over 19 miles in a single day, much less with a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike prior.  I haven't run more than 13 miles in a long time, and struggled through 13 this morning due to my heel spur and knee pain, and have run less than a dozen times this summer. As a coach, this is where I say "do as I say, not as I do!" As I said, there's something telling me I need to give this a shot and finish what I started.
            As always, thank you to my family, friends, sponsors (especially Jared & crew at Kompetitive Edge), and athletes I coach for the support.
-Ryan

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Denver Triathlon in Photos: Guiding Aaron Scheidies

Today I was fortunate to have the opportunity to guide visually impaired world record holder triathlete Aaron Sheidies, who races in connection to the C Different Foundation, an organization which helps visually impaired athletes compete!  I guided Aaron last year and we have become close friends ever since. It's always a highlight of my year.  Today Aaron finished 2nd overall in the Olympic distance race with one of his fastest runs to date.
Here are a few photos thanks to professional photographer Jody Grigg (www.jodygrigg.com), and also some from Scott Borger. Enjoy.



Swim start. Photo by Scott Borger

Swim exit. Photo by Jody Grigg



On the bike. Photo by Jody Grigg

Finish. Photo by Jody Grigg

Finishline. Photo by Jody Grigg

Run leg with Sports Authority Field in background. Photo by Jody Grigg

Run leg with professional photographyer Jody Grigg in action. Photo by Scott Borger

Monday, June 4, 2012

Swim Tips: Basics for Efficient Swimming

   Lately I've gotten a lot of questions about swimming, so I wanted to write a brief post on some helpful swim tips.  A few months ago I coached a one on one session with an athlete who's goal was to finish a triathlon by the end of this year - a sprint triathlon.  Like many, his main obstacle was the swim. He simply couldn't make it across the pool without exhaustion, or without swallowing too much water and thus causing severe coughing.  Once we incorporated a few simple tips, he made more than drastic improvements.  Some people have it in their mind that they simple CANNOT SWIM, when reality is they've never really tried to learn a few simple tips that can bring them a long ways. The key is to stay relaxed, work on one thing at a time, and slowly incorporate additional changes in your stroke.         
        I recently started coaching another athlete who told me about his first open water swim ever, where he had no idea how to time his breathing.  Swimming is not as easy as cycling or running, it's way more technical and requires way more coordination, and we can't simply breath whenever we feel like it since our head is underwater at times.  No matter the level of swimmer you are or what issues you have with your swim skills, paying attention to and incorporating a few small things can take you a long ways.
        We're well into triathlon season now, and the lakes in Colorado are finally open for open water swimming - which athletes are realizing is a lot different from pool swimming. There's no black line to stare at anymore, and certainly no walls to cheat on....er.. push off of.  Open water swimming does require a few different skills than pool swimming, but in general these pointers apply to both pool and open water swimming. In a follow up article, I'll discuss specifics to open water swimming.
  • Exhaling:  Exhaling when swimming is the key to efficient breathing, staying relaxed, maintaining body balance, and keeping you from choking on water. Generally you should nearly always be slowly exhaling when swimming, except for when the head is out of the water, when obviously you're inhaling. Finish your exhalation right before the head comes out. Many swimmers, including some fast swimmers (though not the most efficient ones), pause for a bit when they've put their face back in the water after inhaling, and then blow out/exhale out the majority of their air in a single sudden burst.  If you hold your breath like this, you're not staying as relaxed as you could, since most people tense up slightly when they're holding their breath. It's the body's natural response.                                                                                      For those of you who have the tendency to wait to exhale most of your CO2 until your head is rising out of the water, you're going to have to rush your inhalation as you need to take in oxygen quick enough before the head re-enters the water. Also, if you wait then you're likely lifting your head too high in a subconscious effort to stall a bit longer in order to take in your breath, and any time the head is higher out of the water than need be, it causes the hips to sink and the lower body to drag, thus slowing you down and also tiring you out easier. 
  • Head Position - A head held too high is a very common issue amongst beginner swimmers. As I previously mentioned, a high head leads to dropping/sagging hips and lower body - thus causing drag which affects speed and tires you out quicker. Swim with your face looking very slightly forward but still in the downward direction toward the bottom of the pool. Don't tuck your chin to your chest, it's not necessary - keep the neck muscles relaxed.   (Note: for triathlon swimming, a position that is slightly more forward facing is acceptable, since sighting is a large part of open water swimming as opposed to pool swimming, and the slight forward looking position can aid in frequent sighting, though isn't necessary in pool racing).        
Photo from swimsmooth.com of proper head position
  • Hand Position - I used to swim with a guy at lunchtime in Santa Barbara at Los Banos del Mar pool, a 50m glorious pool stationed in the parking lot of the harbor.   I vividly remember swimming alongside a particular swimmer who almost always swam in the lane next to me. I'd see across to his lane in my peripheral vision underwater, as I wanted to see where I stood against him - both of us being competitive in nature.  One of the things I always noticed was a big inefficiency in his stroke - specifically his hand entry and position prior to his pull.  He would throw his hand in the water at a decent angle with fingertips slightly pointed forward and downward, though he then performed a swooping motion with his extended arm which would cause his elbow to drop and his fingertips to point upward for the majority of his glide and reach prior to his pull. Essentially, he was almost pushing water with his palm due to the position it was in, instead of slicing through it.With fingers pointed upward his hand was pushing water instead of slicing through it.
photo of Mr. Smooth from swimsmooth.com

               Many swim coaches have their own theories on exact hand entry positions, but I am a believer in entering with the hand slightly in front of the goggle line/head, while keeping the hand flat  (I'm not referring to parallel to the water here, but rather flat as in opposed to with the thumb positioned upward or downward). Some people will hold their arm out of the water longer in their recovery phase and not enter it as quickly , but actually it is efficient to slice the hand through the water while you're rotating, as long as your fingers are pointed forward to slightly downward prior to the pull phase of the stroke.  You will be able to generate the most power with a flatter hand. (Don't mistake the hand entry position with the pull position. When pulling, keep the elbow extended high underwater, and pull keeping your fingertips pointed at the bottom of the pool.)
  • Finger spread - Underwater, keep your fingers relaxed. There's no need to strain finger muscles to keep them completely glued next to each other, though if they're spread too far apart you won't get a lot of power out of your pull as the majority of water will pass through spaces between fingers.  A slight space between fingers is ok, as long as it is minimal.  Fingers tight together can cause tension in your forearm, which won't help you swim your best. 
  • Under water vs. Out of water - You may have noticed various swimmers, all fast, swimming side by side yet their strokes look very different from your viewpoint on the pool deck. It's still possible to swim fast by looking...well.....not as pretty as someone else, let's say. But remember, what your body is doing underwater is way more important than what it's doing out of the water! The primary focus of your technique work should be making sure what is happening underwater is happening correctly. If your recovery phase of the stroke (the hand seen out of the water) may not appear as pretty as someone else, it doesn't necessarily mean your stroke is wrong. Top swimmers may have different styles of recovery phases (bent elbows, slightly bent, or straighter elbows), and they're all able to swim with good form under the water - a good hand and elbow position and proper pull. The most important thing to keep in mind is what's going on underwater, so focus on that first.
  • Kicking - If you ever do kicking drills with kick boards, or kick on your back with your arms streamline above you, what you're likely thinking about is trying to get to the wall the fastest, or how much your legs are burning! Kicking drills are great for developing a steady kick cadence, leg strength, etc, but in reality the best purpose of a steady swim kick is for body position, not propulsion. Kicking only contributes about 10-15% of your propulsion (for top level swimmers, and for some triathletes it's a lot less!).  The kick should be active to keep your hips and legs from sinking, i.e. body position. The kick should be steady and relatively easy.  Don't let your kick tire you out, which it will if you kick extremely hard in distance swimming (in sprint swimming a harder kick becomes more necessary). Kick from the hips, and don't excessively bend the knees. Keep the legs relatively straight.  Also, your kick should minimize drag, and a lot has to do with ankle flexibility or the ability to let your ankles remain loose and keep the toes pointed backwards, not down toward the bottom of the pool. Unfortunately, a lot of runners and triathletes don't have great ankle flexibility, and swimming sets and drills with fins is what way to help improve this over time.      
I think underwater filming is a very beneficial practice if you can get a hold of an underwater camera. I have one that I use with local athletes.  Video analysis is a great tool for swim technique critique. It's easy to see your flaws, and there are many resources in videos of athletes demonstrating proper technique that you can compare to.  A couple great swim resource websites that I often recommend to my athletes are www.goswim.tv as well as www.swimsmooth.com. Both are great sites with various underwater swim videos showing proper technique, as well as drills. Check them out!
-Ryan 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Sponsorship 101: Want to Get Sponsored?

By Ryan Borger 
www.borgerendurance.com

Several people have contacted me lately about sponsorship, asking me questions such as: “How can I get sponsors?” “Am I a good enough athlete to get sponsors?” “What is the best strategy?” “What can I expect to get from sponsors?”.. etc. There are many questions to ask, but one of the best and most relevant questions to add to the list is this: “What skills and connections do I have that I can offer to sponsors?” “What value can I add to their company as a sponsored athlete?” “What ways can I promote them and get their product or company name out to market?” “How can I think outside the box in ways to incorporate being connected with a brand that communicates their mission to their target market?” These are the questions that will get you thinking the right way about sponsorship if you want to succeed, as companies want people who understand that it is a partnership, not a one-sided opportunity to take advantage of someone for personal gains alone.
            All parts of this article may not be relevant for every triathlete, and this article is  written primarily for and directed to top age-group and professional triathletes seeking sponsors, but here I share some valuable information that can relate to many other things outside of triathlon.It's more of a chapter as opposed to a short article, so get ready to read. As you will find out, sponsorship may have a lot less to do with how fast you are than you may think, and more about your community involvement and proving that adding you to the team can add value to the company.

What does it mean to be a sponsored triathlete?
Sponsorship is a broad term. Many athletes, amateur and professional alike, have sponsors. However, this often means totally different things. Some athletes receive 10% off at a local shop or from a gear-related company, which they view as a sponsorship, while others (i.e. Ironman World Champions or Olympic medalists) are earning over $30k a year from a single company sponsor alone. In triathlon, it’s difficult to obtain financial sponsors, unless you’re a professional at the very top of the sport. Triathlon is certainly a fast growing sport, but it’s still a baby in terms of top professionals securing big corporate contracts and even top dollar prize purses. Don’t get me wrong, the best triathletes in the world make a great living in the sport, but that many only be 20-30 athletes in the world, whereas the lowest minor league single A baseball players are earning a larger salary than 80+% of pro triathletes. There is a HUGE gap from the very top professionals to the 2nd tier professionals in terms of income earned from the sport. Most low and mid-level pros have side jobs or other  part time or full-time employment. Speaking of that, when I worked full time at my accounting job in California, I would listen to online interviews and triathlon podcasts almost all day long, as I was new to the sport and loved soaking in any info I could about triathlon. I remember listening to an interview on CompetitorRadio.com with Bob Babbit. He was interviewing 2008 Olympian Julie Swail-Ertel. Swail stated that although she had been an Olympian and one of the top female triathletes in the US, she’d never had a cash sponsor, only sponsors that gave her free product. That puts it in perspective a bit more. Only if our sport was golf (heck, or even crossfit now...crossfit?!) we would all be set.
  Some people love to brag to their friends and coworkers how they are sponsored. It feels good to have sponsors, and feels even better to tell people you’re sponsored. It’s every kids dream growing up. You feel like you’ve made it (at least somewhat) in the sport. When I tell people I’m a professional triathlete, many assume I am making a good living in the sport. The truth is, most of my income comes from coaching and side jobs as opposed to race earnings and sponsor cash, though the goal is for that to change over the next few seasons.
            Some athletes love to list sponsor logos on their blogs and websites simply to appear professional or like they’re the real deal, and many of these athletes are not professionals. They’ll list a company that has given them nothing more than a free T-shirt. I won’t go into whether I think they’re right in doing so or not, because it’s really irrelevant and it’s not my place to say whether they are truly sponsored or not. You can debate that in your free time, but it’s  somewhat an irrelevant conversation. Though their motives may be silly, you have to applaud them for being proactive and taking a great first step in promoting a company and attempting to start a relationship with them. Anything you can do to form relationships with companies and promote them is a way to get them to notice you in a positive way, which can be very valuable down the road.
            Let’s be honest. We all like free stuff; and we all like free money even more, right?! Just because this is true, doesn’t mean we are selfish and are sponsor-hunting simply for free kickbacks. Companies clearly understand money and free product is valuable to athletes, especially those in a with a tight budget. They also often realize that athletes couldn’t often continue what they’re doing without sponsor help, or at least do it on their given budget, especially if they are dedicated to the sport and have made a decision to forgo other full-time employment in order to train full time or near full-time. If most pros would calculate their hourly wage earned through prize money, factoring in training time, race time, and race travel time, among other time spent, they might just get depressed...though triathletes chose this lifestyle, and are hopeful they will keep climbing the ranks and this will change. Like any business starting out, the first few years are a hefty investment. The less outside income athletes have coming in, obviously sponsors become extremely valuable, and athletes are very grateful for them. Sponsors usually understand this. They often know what athletes are seeking and after learning a bit about you, they know what is most valuable to you.

So, what is sponsorship?
It can be a variety of things: cash, free nutrition products, free or discounted services like massage or physical therapy care, a bike, training and race gear, race travel airline fund donations, cash, and a slew of other products or services. Sponsorship can come in many ways. Sometimes it could be exchanging a service for promoting the company as a sponsored athlete, such as massage. It totally ranges. A top professional usually will have cash sponsors, a bike company sponsor, gear & nutrition sponsors, and other sponsors. Their cash sponsors are often triathlon related companies, and are also sometimes companies like banks or investment firms that have nothing to do with the sport. The middle level pro’s usually have very few or no cash sponsors, but often receive free gear & product, and sometimes the chance to earn money in other ways, such as if their photo appears published in a newspaper or an online article and a company logo is visible in the photo. This is the case with one of my sponsors, which provides product as well as this opportunity to earn cash in this way. 

Pro field athlete (shot put) Adam Nelson used to compete in a "Space For Rent" shirt. I noticed this on TV watching him throw while in college. The shirt got some serious TV air time. A few months later he signed a big contract with Nike...now only if triathlon was on ESPN or ABC!
Why do sponsors support athletes? Do sponsors come knocking at your door simply because you’re a top pro?
There are still some top nationally-ranked pro triathletes will little or no sponsors. Why? Mostly because the athletes aren’t really concerned about securing sponsors nor have tried to do so. Unless you’re a top triathlete in the world, especially in the Ironman scene which is more popular than Olympic distance draft-legal ITU racing (in the US), sponsors do not usually approach athletes. The top athletes in the world, yes, sponsors come ready with an offer on the table; but everyone else needs to be very proactive in their approach. Sponsors need a reason to partner with an athlete. They want to see how offering money or product to a single athlete can directly translate to increased sales. Occasionally you do see companies willing to and wanting to sponsor athletes simply because they appreciate athletes’ sacrifices to have a chance to succeed in their sport, or company owners are either a fan or excited participant in the sport, but most often they are looking for a way to add value to their company.
            If you were a company, who would you sponsor? Athlete A is a middle of the pack amateur who races local races as well as travels a few times a year to race. They also are a coach of the local cross-country team, the head Masters swim coach at the local University pool, and write articles for a top endurance sports nutrition blog. This athlete also actively uses social media like Facebook and Twitter, and as extremely connected in many aspects of the community. Athlete B is a very good US pro triathlete, who is solely focused on racing and has no interest in having a personal blog or website. Obviously athlete A, although will never be on the podium on race day, may be able to offer more to a company through their network and connections tied to the sport and how they’re involved in it. I know an amateur triathlete who has a ton of sponsors. How? She adds value to companies through marketing. She has a following, with over 1000 Twitter followers and thousands of hits a month on her top-ranked endurance sports blog. Companies want to see blogs, websites, and their athletes to be connected to as many people as possible through online social media. Social media is powerful. What other way can you instantly communicate ANYTHING you want to 1000 people, and for free?!! Also, some companies choose to sponsor teams or clubs rather than individual athletes, even if the individual is a professional and the club consists of all recreational athletes. Why is this? Well, they often don’t have to offer the amateurs as valuable of a sponsorship, but they also understand that 30 people on a team all wearing their logo may reach more people than a lone individual.
            Companies want people who are involved in the community. They want coaches, teachers, instructors, businessmen who have friends in the sport, and who buy things. They want leaders of clubs and groups. They want people who volunteer at local events and races. They want people with a positive attitude. What is worse than being represented by a pessimistic athlete, who is constantly complaining, swearing, and simply doesn’t act nor dress professionally ever? Be professional in every way! Be a true brand ambassador. Put sponsor logos on your race jersey, and your website. Write blog posts about their products and do product reviews.  Heck, put a logo sticker on your car! Be a total brand ambassador for the company willing to support you. Commit to promoting them and none of their competitors. It’s important to understand you will have a commitment to them, which may mean cutting ties to any possible competitor brands.
Most importantly, they want people who understand what a partnership is, and understand business. Sponsoring athletes in any way is an investment for a company, most often financially, even if they are not offering cash. Companies must buy their product, so if they offer free product, it’s still cutting into their income statement. If they offer cash or product, still remember they can deduct some of this as a marketing/advertising expense on their profit & loss statement (...yes, I'm throwing in accounting terms just to feel like I learned something in my past job!). However, they want to support athletes as they believe in the athlete’s mission, as well as understand the potential in building a referral program through their athletes. Also, it’s a PR opportunity for a company, similar to donating to charity. Their media and marketing team can publish articles explaining how they are involving themselves in the community and investing in people – things like that. Companies’ reputations are extremely valuable, and when they become known as one that supports athletes, donates to charity, and runs their business with values and integrity, naturally their reputation grows strong.

How should you approach sponsorship?
Whatever level you are at, understand that sponsors are making a sacrifice. Also understand you can add value to their company. Both are important. In fact, the latter may be more important, as ultimately it leads to helping out the sponsor once you discover your full potential to be of value to them. If you understand this value and prove it in action, they will see your value and be happy to invest in you, as they have a return on their investment. Seek out ways you can add value to a company. Start your sponsor letters or phone calls by introducing yourself and explaining ways you can do this. Do not start them out by asking for things, and telling them what you need or want from them!  If you introduce yourself as a triathlete seeking sponsors, asking specifically for X amount of free product, you’re not going to stand out. You are not in line at the fast food drive through, and this is not your turn to place your order.  You’ll likely appear ungrateful and like you feel you’re entitled to things simply due to your level of competition in the sport. No one is entitled to anything from sponsors. Earn it! Be valuable!  Start your letters out by introducing yourself, explaining how you align yourself with their company values and why you believe in their products, and tell them what they want to hear. Tell them you contribute monthly newsletter articles for the local triathlon club that reaches 200 people. If you're a coach, tell them you’re a coach and have athletes asking you all the time for product recommendations. Tell them you interact with hundreds of people each month that may be interested in their product.  Tell them ways you can be a vehicle to deliver their message to their market.  If you aren’t a coach or don’t have a lot of these things on your resume, think outside the box of ways you can get their product to market or exposure for their brand. There is always a way you can create value!
            It’s important to believe in the people or companies you’re sponsored by. If you truly believe their products or services are the best, it’s not difficult to refer people to them, as this comes naturally. If you refer people to the best quality products and services, you don’t have to worry about your reputation being damaged, as you know they’ll be please with their experience.

Sponsor types
Sponsorship is like getting a job. It’s often all about who you know. In college business classes I was told, “your network is your net worth.” I always was a bit bothered by the quote, as it makes deep and meaningful relationships seem like they’re always simply established from wrong motivation, through taking advantage of someone where the goal is selfish benefit from them rather than honest relationship. However, it can be partially true. Who you know is valuable. It is the best way to secure a job, though not the only way. Connect yourself with local shops. Get to know the owners of the local running stores. Join the local triathlon club; participate in local events, group runs, and volunteer opportunities. Get connected! Talk to people! Be professional when doing so, and represent yourself well. The only way I was able to secure a sponsorship this past season was simply by knowing someone, who knew a company owner. They were able to put in a good word for me, explain how I was a decent guy and strong athlete, and I was able to get a foot in the door. Once in the door, you need to prove yourself. The owner didn’t previously know me, so we would be taking a risk in sponsoring me. Luckily, he was willing to take a risk with me. It’s often hard to get that foot in the door, but once in, then you have your time to shine over the next year and prove yourself further. Over time, sponsors will get to know you and you will have your chance to prove to them you are truly grateful for their support, and will commit to being a true ambassador for them. If you owned a company and were looking to hire, would you hire without looking at a resume or doing due diligence, or without an interview? Of course not. If a company doesn't know you, they're taking a risk by sponsoring you. If there's no connection with anyone you know and the company, this is how your blog or website can shed a bit of light about who you are.
There are a variety of relationship types in sponsorship, though all are valuable. Many large companies who sponsor many athletes simply give athletes a discount code for discounted or free product. Athletes can log in online to the order page of their website, and place an order. They may go 2 years without talking to anyone or seeing a face of anyone associated with the company. Now, there is nothing wrong with this and companies still see value in this type of relationship (and in fact sometimes it makes it easier for the athlete), but at the same time the most meaningful and long-term successful partnerships are those where a personal relationship is created.  It is spending time in person with company representatives where they will get to know you, and thus (hopefully!) want to support you further, and at the same time you appreciate the growing friendship and in return are more motivated to create additional value for them.  It is through those relationships where you are introduced to new people, a new network, and additional relationships and contacts are made.

What is the process for sponsorship?
As I mentioned, first do some brainstorming and see who exists in your network that may be a good fit for a partnership, or someone to approach. This could be contacting friends who own businesses, in and outside of the triathlon industry. Using your network to get a foot in the door is the first place to start.
Secondly, explore local sponsors, such as teams run out of local triathlon and running stores, and local athletic-related companies. Most teams have a paper or online application you can submit. Always include your race results, highlighting your best (and omitting your worst), but also always emphasize your community involvement.
Additionally, many large triathlon-related companies have online applications. You can often find out this info from their website, and you can almost always find a website of someone in the marketing department to send an email to if no sponsorship info is posted. A follow-up phone call is always a good idea, and when possible stop in in-person, as long as you’re not interrupting them. Asking them for an opportunity to introduce yourself in person ahead of time is always a great idea. 
There are different ways sponsorships are secured. Some have formal contracts signed by the athlete and company representative. If I was the owner or head of marketing for a company, I certainly would have athletes sign contracts. It is best for everyone, so there is no confusion and expectations are communicated. This can protect relationships down the road as everyone is on the same page. Some companies simply hand out free stuff, with no interest in discussing anything with the athlete about placing their logo anywhere or doing anything in return. In my opinion, they've missed a big opportunity here.

When do you need to apply?
Most companies have their next years’ budget set by the middle of the 4th quarter of the current year. Most triathlon-related companies have deadlines for sponsorship requests, and many are as early as the end of October, or mid-November for sponsorship for the upcoming triathlon. So, get them in early! It often takes months to hear back, especially from the large companies that receive hundreds of sponsorship requests.
There is not always one correct way to apply for sponsorships. You can be as creative as you like. Don’t be afraid to try a new approach and think outside the box. I have written many letters to companies who don’t formally have a group of sponsored athletes or a sponsorship request process, and I was surprised by how many were interested in offering me a few products for free, such as a few pairs of sunglasses, clothing, or some nutritional products, even though they typically don’t sponsor many or any athletes.

Is sponsorship worth my time?
Only you can ask yourself this question. Remember the opportunity cost principle from business class in college? Approaching sponsors takes time. If you have the opportunity to make money during the time spent applying for sponsors, you may consider whether it’s worth it or not. Remember, even if you don’t secure large sponsorships this year, a foot in the door starts a relationship, which would prove to be more and more valuable as time goes on, so it may end up more valuable than you first anticipate.

What can I expect to receive from companies?
I don’t know any non-professional triathletes receiving cash sponsorships. I know a few who receive free product, but most sponsorships with athletes at this level of competition involves a large discount off products or services. Now, I did mention it’s not all based on results. This is true, but being a great athlete sure does help, as naturally you have opportunities to be in the spotlight if you’re frequently on the podium. Sponsors want to total package. Unless you are a top professional, do not expect to secure a bike sponsor in the form of a free bike. The markup on bikes in retail shops is not nearly as large as something like running shoes for example, which you can usually figure costs a shop about half of what their retail price is. Bikes are a much larger investment for a shop, and thus shops don’t have the ability to offer free bikes. Large bike companies sponsor many of the top professionals a free bike (and sometimes additional cash), but unless you’re one of them, your best bet on getting a deal on a bike is going through a local dealer shop. You will have a much better chance through a dealer than contacting a bike company directly. Is a bike company more likely to respond to an email or phone call from you, an individual triathlete who’s done nothing for them yet, or a shop manager who just purchased 20 bikes from them?  Applying for a shop sponsorship or a bike company sponsorship with the help of a shop employee you have a relationship with is your best bet.
            If you’re a mid-level professional, a more realistic expectation is to be given the chance to buy a bike at pro pricing, or about 50% off retail. Now, if you get a pro deal on a bike, expect to be able to sell it at the end of the year for around near what you paid for it, or possibly slightly above that. Depreciation on new bikes is huge! That said, you may consider saving some time by buying a 1-3 year old used top of the line bike on Craigslist or ebay. You may save some time, yet again you may miss out on the chance to develop a relationship with a bike shop by skipping out on the attempt.
            Some people have told me, “Ryan, free stuff isn’t money, and therefore it’s not worth much.” Remember, especially if you already own current gear. If you are able to get new gear for free, such as a wetsuit and speedsuit, or a cycling trainer or bike parts, for example, you’re able to sell your old gear for cash. Therefore, I argue, free product is often equal to cash if you’re able to sell and replace your old gear with it.  It’s something to think about than many people fail to realize. Triathlon gear isn’t cheap!
There is no one right answer to approaching sponsorship. Honestly, you have to take each sponsor by a case by case basis – and truthfully, you never really know what will happen until you have tried.  Applying and reaching out can never hurt, if you have the time. You never know what possible relationships may come from the process, just be realistic in your expectations, be patient, and understand the importance that you create value for the company. Most importantly be truly grateful for companies being willing to support you, and communicate that gratitude with them.

I came across an interesting article written by Dan Empfield of Slowtwitch.com titled Earn the Money about sponsorship relations and athletes earning their money in a variety of ways as pro athletes, acting truly as professionals in all sense of the term. You may find it interesting, as did I. The link can be found here (as if this post wasn't long enough for you!):


Now, who wants to sponsor me?
 
Ryan Borger