I have a friend by the name of Martin who is an exceptional endurance athlete. I say endurance athlete and not triathlete because he is an exceptional swimmer, cyclist, and long distance runner.
Just to give you an idea of his level talent, I've never seen him place outside of the top ten in any given race he has entered. And that includes triathlons, marathons and long distance swim events. He almost always wins his age group and believe that is saying a lot in a city like Boulder, Colorado that is stuffed to the rafters with highly talented endurance athletes.
So what's his secret? What's the secret sauce that makes him such a winner?
I think I figured it out this weekend on a long easy run with my dog.
For instance, just like my dog he makes running look effortless. I kind of plod along shaking and rattling the ground with my heavy heal strikes while Happy, my dog, just effortlessly trots along next to me looking like she could do this all day and night.
Martin has that same sort of easy and happy-go-lucky running style. He can easily run a sub 2:45 marathon while looking like he's taking a stroll through the park on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
But that's not the secret sauce. I think that has more to do with natural genetic talent and years of hard training. I really believe that if we put in the time, we can all look effortless in any given endurance sport. In the case of running our genetics may not allow us run sub six minute miles, but we can certainly run sub seven or even sub eight minute miles and make it look easy.
So what is the secret sauce that makes Martin such a winner?
I believe it the same stuff that athletes like Lance Armstrong poses in spades. It is the ability to put it all together come race day. This intangible ability is what separates the great ones from the rest of us weekend warriors. It is the ability to harness all of those hours of training and preparation and consistently raise your game to the next level when you need it the most.
I sometimes swim with a guy at masters who always likes to say that racing gets in the way of his training. In other words he loves to train, but hates to race. He says that he swims for the pure love of swimming and that racing would get in the way of his pursuit. I completely understand what he is saying…especially when I'm standing at the edge of the water before a big race. I think to myself "what's the point of all of this pressure," as my stomach does somersaults from all of the tension. "Wouldn't it be enough just to swim for the pure love of swimming or run just for the pure love of running," I wishfully consider just before the guns sounds the start of yet another hard effort.
But once the race starts, and I get past the initial few moments of panic, and I start to feel the strength and power of my muscles and lungs, I understand why never racing would never be an option for me. It is just too much fun, and too much of a reward for all those of training to really ever give up.
But unlike my friend Martin, I cannot consistently put it all together for a winning effort on race day.
I suppose at this point it would be important to define what winning effort means for me because it has changed over the years.
When I first started racing triathlon a winning effort simply meant finishing the race. It seemed like a simple enough goal…just drag my tired and cramping body across the finish line. It really didn't matter if I came in first or last. I just wanted to finish. The problem with this goal was and is (at least for me) is that of you set the goal low the reward tends to be just as low. I would finish a race feeling tired and not all that happy. Sure I had finished, but certainly not in a time or place I could tell my friends about and certainly not with a lot of style. Dragging my sorry butt across the finishing line looking like pale and sick turtle was not something to brag about.
So my goal changed. It evolved from just wanting to finish to wanting to finish strong. To me it meant being able to finish a triathlon running.
Now my old coach Wes Hobson would say that's not really a goal. Since you can't measure it and you certainly can't quantify it. And he's right. A smart goal needs to something that is reachable, attainable and most importantly measurable.
By my second year of racing I was able to finish a triathlon running, but I still wasn't satisfied. So I set a new goal…to just finish my first Ironman. You think I would have learned by now. I was able to finish the Ironman, but it was like my triathlon. Dragging my tired butt across the finish line was great, but something was still missing.
And then it happened for the first time last year at the Chicago Triathlon (Click HERE to read what exactly happened). I got a hold of some of that secret sauce and to my complete amazement I was actually racing for position. And the experience of actually racing was like nothing I had ever dreamt about. It was so much fun that I could not stop smiling for a week. Who would have thought that Lance is had so much fun leading a race. At least I hope he did.
It was fantastic to be fighting it out for the podium…even though I didn't realize it at the time. I only knew I was racing a guy in my age-group to finish.
As usual after the race I went for a nice lunch with some good friends. It wasn't until I got back home to Boulder that another friend told me they had called out my name at the awards ceremony. That must be a mistake I thought, but it wasn't. I had taken second in my race category and it felt terrific.
Who would have known that the secret sauce is not only less filling, but tastes great?
So now I'm completely hooked. I want that feeling of putting it all together on race day for a winning performance again.
I don't just want to finish.
I don't just want to finish strong.
I want to be a winner!
And that really means that the hard work has just begun.