A time-crunched 42-year-old Clydesdale’s (200+ lbs.) attempt to qualify for the Ironman Triathlon Championship on minimal training.
After a decade-long hiatus from serious endurance sport, I missed the benefits of hard work concomitant with big goals. In 2010 and 2011 I entered two mountainous Tour de France stages to see what biking was all about. To build cycling forbearance, I emphasized long distance, low intensity workouts. Bikers call it “saddle time.” The training did not work for me. Working a full-time job while maximizing the time spent with my wife and two boys (8,6) — including coaching two sports each in the Fall and Spring — didn’t leave time for 5+ hour weekend “base” workouts. So this year I decided to go old school as an experiment. I’m reverting to the ethos I learned as a rower in the 1980s at St Paul’s and Harvard, and as a 1990s Marine: Every workout is a race; always finish strong. In short, most workouts will be intense. Now I needed a big goal….
Qualifying for the Ironman World Championship in 2014, when I turn 45.
Ironman qualification standards get tougher every year. To qualify, I’ll have to race under 10 hours. My best time ever, run when I was 25-years-old, was 10:26. So I not only have to drop 20 pounds (the easy part, at 217 lbs) but must also cut 26 grueling minutes–and roll back 20 years and a sedentary job. In the Marines, working out was part of the job description. Now I sit staring at computer screens.
I’ll have my first real test to see what’s left in the tank on August 11, 2012, when I run the Ironman U.S. Championship in New York City. Next year is Susanne’s race year. Then in 2014 I plan to ramp up to 10 hours of training per week. This year it will be tough to get over 6-7.
As a trader, probabilities are a big part of my life. Odds are I will not qualify for Kona in 2014. But that’s secondary.
Committing to a goal is more important than achieving it. It took me 25 years to realize this, but I was always late bloomer. Through my sophomore spring in high school I was a mediocre athlete who could not conceptualize the benefits of hard physical work. Then I had some success in rowing. The sport emphasized determination over skill, and teamwork above all. There were no individual all-Americans. By adhering to the philosophy of relentlessness imbued by coaches Chip Morgan & Rich Davis at St. Paul’s, and Harry Parker at Harvard, my teammates and I won dozens of races. I developed a love for competition.
Oddly, in addition to newfound discipline and camaraderie, I took from rowing the feeling of regret. In 1990, I was part of the fastest collegiate crew in the country, winning the Eastern Sprints and the Henley Regatta, but we finished 2nd in the National Championship. That six-minute block of life haunts every one of us. By 1991 I was a good rower by Harvard standards but unexceptional. Great Harvard rowers went on to row for the national team, and exceptional rowers represented the U.S. at the Olympics. I consider Olympians the highest athletic achievers. What bothers me isn’t the fact I never represented the nation in rowing. My erg scores were at the bottom edge of selection camps. At 6’4”, 196 lbs, I was small for the next level.
What bothers me is that I never gave it a proper shot.
My teammate Norm Bellingham, a kayaking gold medal winner before coming to Harvard, marveled at the fanatical work ethic in the Harvard boathouse but once observed, “You guys are driven more by fear of losing than glory. At this level you must aim higher, or someone who doesn’t know any better will defeat you.” His conclusion puzzled me. It was true that losing was devastating in a sport where you worked all year for a single six-minute race, but I didn’t understand how to harness all that work in a different psychological engine. In a crew race, your body goes anaerobic after about a minute. Over the next five grueling minutes, I didn’t see much room in your oxygen-starved brain for strategizing. Fear seemed to be a pretty effective base emotion.
Four years later I understood what Norm meant. In 1994 was invited to try out for an ultra-endurance racing team captained by Robyn Benincasa, who would eventually become the top female adventure racer in the world. Her team was to race in the 400-mile Eco Challenge, a grueling multisport expedition race over rugged terrain and rivers where the clock never stopped and you slept only when you dared. Her tryout attracted professional triathletes, bikers, and mountain men. They were in another league. But I eagerly signed up for the 36-hour tryout. Rowing had given me a capacity for pain, and the Marine Corps had further taught me how to suffer. I wanted to make a run at my limits–and my competitors. I was well back after the kayak leg, and after the mountain bike leg I felt like I was in another time zone. But overnight on foot wearing a pack I slowly reeled in the triathletes, who had treated their machine bodies well over the years, with nutrition plans, massages and prescribed rest. Not tonight.
By aiming high and then grinding away, I landed on teams that finished the Eco Challenge 2nd and 8th (in a brutal 10-day race in which only 14 of 75 teams finished), and eventually raced with teammates that ranged from Marines, SEALs and Rangers to Playboy Playmates. From there Ironman and ultra marathons followed. I ran an ultra never having run farther than 10 miles in training that year. In 2001, I decided to take a crack at Mount Everest from the North Side because I was told it was a tougher route. I’d never been above 14,000′ and did not summit Everest, turning back at about 28,000′, which was very disappointing.
But in the ten years since graduating Harvard, I’d developed a much different attitude about the crux of achievement. I now believed the benefits of big goals outweighed the inevitable shortfalls. Looking back, it was a gradual realization that took place after thousands of tough hours starting in a high school crew shell. I only wish it had come sooner. In essence, I had come to believe that big goals paid dividends that weren’t visible at the outset of the journey. Achievement had become secondary to discovery. To explore through hard work, you had to lean hard into your limits. To find your limits you needed something out of reach. I’m taking a crack at Ironman qualification not because I think I can get a coveted Kona slot.
I want to see what’s out there…