Hopefully this will be the first of many more regular Blogs, but trying to work out exactly what I should focus my writing on has been a bit more difficult than expected. Now i have a a bit more clarity on where I am and what I’m doing, I believe the experiences I’ve had and will continue to have provide an interesting look at what it’s like to be living, training, Coaching and racing at a high level in the Centre of Europe. Im from the UK, I live in Germany, my work is based in Switzerland and I also train and race in France. I believe I live in The Triathlon Base outside of the US. Brett Sutton and Lubos Bilek (the best Coach of male Pro athletes at this time and cosch to Sebastian Kienle) are based here, and as a result many of the best male and female Long Distance Pro’s are also based here. This means the quality of athletes who have been produced by or passed through this region is totally disproportionate to anywhere else. I will leave you to count the number of Ironman World Championships this region has produced or helped produced, but Daniela Ryf, Jan Frodeno, Sebastian Kienle, Patrick Lange, Norman Stadler, Thomas Helriegel as well as many, many Ironman Champions have all conditioned themselves in the environment here at some point. On top of the vast amount of talent based here, there is also a vast number of races. IM Frankfurt, Zurich, Challenge Roth, 70.3 Switzerland, 70.3 Kraichgau, 70.3 Luxemburg, Challenge Heilbronn and Challenge Davos are all within driving distance, and if don’t mind sitting in the car for 6hrs there’s plenty more Ironman or Challenge branded races on offer. To put in perspective I live on a large hill on the edge of the Black Forest. It’s green and remote, but a chap who lives on my hill is a Kona Age Group World Champion and that tells you all you need to know about the depth of talent here. There is something about this region and fortunately for me I’ve landed in the centre of it.
The last two years have been a mix of real life experiences coping with a move abroad and the birth of a second Child, but this has also been mixed with a deeper immersion in to the world of Triathlon yet strangely with almost no racing. When we first decided to leave a very established and comfortable life to move to Central Europe, it was on the back of a lot of hope. There was the obvious, real life hope of being able to build a safe and comfortable set up again, but with almost no guaranteed income to look forward to and a finite amount of savings that were quickly running out. For me a big part of the hope that enabled me to take such a large risk was that I would be able to chase deeper in to the Triathlon dream in this region. This came way down the list of priorities in comparison to establishing an income through Coaching and Personal Training, building a life, having a second Child and all the necessities that come with that. But it’s true to say that I would never have moved here without the possibility of being able to chase deeper in to the dream. Triathlon is something that will always remain with me and something my life is focused on.
I’m fortunate in that I Coach a good number of athletes, and I’m able to consistently learn and develop from the experiences I have Coaching them. Regardless of the level Im coaching at I get equally as much satisfaction from an athletes success, but Elite racing can be an easier story to tell. The journey that myself and Lina Kristin-Schink went on to get to the podium in Challenge Almere was extremely challenging. Without all the years of bad luck and bad decisions I had myself as an athlete, I’m not sure I would have had the minerals to hold it all together. 2017 finished with a 4th place at Challenge Almere after about 4 months of working together, and this was a significant improvement on previous performances so 2018 looked sweet going in to the Winter. Then the first and only Coaching mistake was made watching Kona and getting a semi at the thought of being part of the race next year. We both felt the same pull to the race, but it went against the racing strategy I had planned for next year, and it was my responsibility that we ended up chasing and risking. I believe this has been the graveyard of many Elite and Age Group athletes. It’s a fast track to spending money, rushing your preparation and picking up early season fatigue. But still we got sucked in and before I knew it instead of building on last season safely, we were planning a racing and travel strategy that looked like a Tube map super imposed on a map of the earth. Africa, Europe, Africa, Europe Australia, Europe, maybe Asia, Europe, Kona!! All starting in Jan and running until Oct. Fortunately the new Elite qualification system doesn’t allow for this kind of slow burn suicide anymore.
The first race in Africa resulted in a finish but with a costly mechanical, the second in South Africa ended with physical issues and a DNF, back to Europe for a good performance, but this was quickly followed by another Physical issue and DNF, and before you know it you are out of peaks and not only are you definitely not going to Kona but you’re so deep in expenses, disappointment and fatigue that you’re wondering if you should continue in the sport at all. This left us with Challenge Almere as the last option to not only save the season but possibly the Career of a very talented athlete, with a passion for the sport who had made real progress in training. In 12 month things had from positive to almost hopeless. From a Coaching perspective I was accepting responsibility for where we were and that put even more pressure on me personally as we worked out how to turn it around.
So how do you handle this kind of pressure in unfamiliar circumstances? As well as the financial commitment I have to my athletes, that is no comparison to the pressure I have in wanting them to succeed personally, and also as a justification of my Coaching Philosophy. A philosophy I have manufactured from research and experiences, but one that in the details i believe is unique to me. At Elite level your Philosophy is tested to the limit, you really cannot miss anything. Most Elite athletes are Coached and some by more established Coaches than me, and if your shit doesn’t work you will find out very quickly. So regardless of the progress being made in training, if you can’t transfer it to a race and in the process your athlete gets burnt out and then you lose them, you have failed. The reality of this as a Coach is that you may not get another opportunity with an Elite athlete to test your Philosophy and knowledge at the highest level. Before Lina my Path had crossed with only one other athlete with Elite potential, and we had success but that doesn’t mean your paths will cross with the Elite side of sport again. You need some luck in finding the right people at the right time.
On top of this pressure the practical reality was that we had peaked for an important, local Ironman that finished in a DNF. It was the second peak of the year and there was a lot of fatigue and motivation issues to negotiate if we were to get ready for another race 6 weeks away. Holding a peak and losing fatigue at the end of the season is a very difficult balance and it required daily adaptations to the program, as well as a training structure that was at times very conservative, and at times overly challenging. It was an experiment for me and it was an experiment under pressure. In situations like this I believe one of the biggest mistakes you can make is not to doubt yourself. The main point is that you have to trust in the progress you’ve made and established, so if you’re trying to coach or train within unfamiliar circumstances you need to detach whether or not you’re fit, from whether or not you are ready to race. For a period of time fitness is actually quite easy to sustain without the same training load you used to build it, but keeping yourself psychologically fit is a lot harder. Take it for granted that you’re fit and then focus your energy on nursing yourself towards the start line, with a goal of being mentally ready to deliver that one big effort. Recover too much and you lose the fight, overdo it and you lose the edge. This is obvious, but to a backdrop of two main peaks, lots of disappointment, quite a bit of fatigue and career defining pressure it is far from easy to keep that perspective. The right decisions can only be made by having a daily dialogue with yourself and your athlete, using as much information as possible and again never questioning your fitness only your ability to use it.
So this daily dialogue revolved around questions of fatigue and motivation without much training volume, but with just enough intensity to keep the body and mind ready to attempt a session that would maintain the fitness level, but also challenging enough to wire up the Brain for a race. And when it was clear that there was an opportunity to train hard the session had to be very challenging and very specific. One session we did at the Track was over 21k in total, with a build in pace over 5 sets of 3 intervals (15 intervals) as 2k/1600m/1200m. The intervals built from a hard Ironman effort (30 sec rest) to just over 70.3 effort (45 sec rest), then the final interval just over 10k effort (1 min rest), then repeating and having to recover during that first interval at Ironman effort before building up again. Each interval was completed on avg within an accuracy of 3 seconds. It required lots of focus, pacing control and fight. This was a session we had never done before, it was hot and for Lina it was very difficult to count laps and intervals so being able to switch off and fight was the only option outside of quitting the session. We argued a bit, she shouted at me, I made her do more the whole time feeling guilty and genuinely unsure if she was able to do it and as a result the race itself in Almere. Im sure a failure in this session would have been a scar that would have carried over to the race. In my mind this one session revealed the state of her fitness, but also the state of her mind. She wasn’t completely fresh, but she was fit and she was still fighting. It was such a hard session and there was so much anger coming out, that I believe in a way this cleared the air emotionally and physically, and because of the outcome it proved to us both that all we had to do was not overtrain and use the occasional key session to stay sharp. Although a certain amount of fatigue remained we knew the mental and physical fitness was there. I felt as much pressure watching that training session as I have watching races. For me it felt like that was the race and a failure there would have been impossible to come back from. Even after this session it was still a daily mix of questions and answers to find a route to the start line, but by communicating as often as possible and being flexible with the program we got to the start line confident.
What is a key session in this situation when you’re trying to minimise the amount of hard training you do? I would say around 85-90% of Threshold, in intervals of 15-20 mins for around 120-140% of the total time you use when measuring your Threshold. So on the Bike it was roughly 80 mins of effort with a 3/1 or 2/1 work/rest ration. You get that mix of speed (relative to Ironman) and endurance. For holding fitness I believe this is a very useful session. Adding in a smaller number of race effort intervals at the end is also useful, because you carry over fatigue from the main set and it’s less time consuming and draining than doing them as part of a long endurance ride. It also removes the need (in the short term) to do a top end session to maintain your top end, which I believe is important on the Bike all the way through an Ironman build up, especially on hilly or windy courses.
Even though getting to the start line ready to get on the podium was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever been involved in, watching the race itself was almost too much to control. When you’re aiming for a very specific target within a race there is only success and a lesson for next time if it doesn’t work out, and I really couldn’t be bothered with another lesson. As the race came together and the outcome started to take shape, it boiled down to one very specific race dynamic. Debbie Greig was having a very strong race in 3rd place and was just over 9 mins ahead as the race settled in to the run. Lina was 5th or 6th. It was a 6 lap run course so Lina would need to take back 1.35 each lap to get on the podium. For the first 3 laps she took 1.30 which would have meant that at the same rate it would have come down to a sprint finish. I was confident that Debbie would slow down on lap 4 but she didn’t, and lap 4 was also a reduction of 1.30. By now staying calm was only achieved by playing Bob Marley on my I Phone, and trying not to focus on the reality that this could end up in a sprint finish, or worse another lesson that I wouldn’t have an opportunity to learn from and respond to. Your athlete comes past and you try to connect emotionally and say the right thing, but other than that all you can do is time the splits and wait, and wait, and wait and hope. For all athletes who’ve never supported another athlete you’re invested in during a race, it is fucking hard. Moments of boredom and moments of anxiety mixed in with an irrational amount of Tracker refreshing.
Lap 5 was make or break, and on Lap 5 Debbie finally cracked after a seriously good fight, Lina moved in to 3rd and as I had hoped in calmer moments she had a genuine shot at 2nd place. As the race continued with the podium in the bank it was obvious that she was closing quickly on Els Visser in 2nd, but at the finish line Els was a minute up the road. On another day it would have been another step up on the podium, but the feeling as she crossed the line with exactly what she came for was very sweet. I feel the same way about everybody I coach, but after such a hard season and with so much at stake this was a real Buzz. Other than the Podium, the overall time improvements and the PB for Bike and Run, what really mattered here was how motivating it becomes when you take a step forward and set your sights on a new target that was previously out of reach. So close to second and with a performance much closer to Yvonne Van Vlerken in 1st, the next logical progression is upwards to the last two steps. Moving forward thats what we aim for now and that’s as exciting as anything I’ve done as an athlete. This one race really was make or Break, I believe that Track session really did make the difference at a key part of the race, it came down to the run and a 3.08 marathon to crack Debbie. Regardless of the positive outcome what really matters in this experience are the confirmations, of the Coaching relationship, the Talent within the athlete and that for me my Coaching philosophy holds up at the highest level. The main truth in Coaching is that you’re only as good as the people you work with, and that if you apply yourself you can try to maximize that, but so much of it based on communication and not magic training sessions. I am fortunate to work with some very committed Athletes that make things much easier for me, and on top of that I’m lucky to work with a Talented and extremely hard working Elite athlete who allows me to develop as a Coach. I’m sure next year Lina can take a step or two up the podium.
Outside of this race the mistakes made and as a result the lessons learned are:
•That every race has value, should be appreciated and should not be a box to tick.
•Kona can make and ruin your love for the Sport. Kona is great to Watch but it highlights the Sport as a whole and not only what happens on the Island.
•A decision you make in the off season, especially if its aligned with unrealistic goals can drain you financially and physically, this sport should give more than it takes.
•Being flexible with your training and comfortable with that is extremely important, your body is not a spreadsheet and you can trust that if you don’t fill in a box the outcome can still be optimal.
•When you have built a certain level of physical and mental fitness, what really matters is your ability to use it so if you’re in unfamiliar circumstances and doubting yourself, except that you are fit, don’t question it, and focus on the easiest way of maintaining it whilst getting ready to use it.
As I wrote in my last Blog over a year ago, I managed to squeeze in (barely) enough training and energy for one race since moving here. Fortunately this went well and it enabled me to race again in the Pro field for 2019, however approaching Elite racing will be very different this time compared to my previous hit and miss attempts in 2014/15/16. I’m lucky that I’ve signed to race for a team next year, and the support they give me means I will have every opportunity to produce my best as I experience Elite racing again. I will write a Blog about my own racing next, and I will go in to detail about the racing scene here in Switzerland, as well as the races I will be aiming for and how I will prepare for them. Being based in Central Europe around so many races and talented Athletes, but also living and training in 3 countries and Triathlon cultures, I hope provides me with an interesting insight in to Triathlon. As a working father of two young kids trying to hang in the Elite field using lots of corner cutting, creative training and flexibility hopefully should make for some interesting