Category Archives: Triathlon

The Amazing Story of Matt Miller

By Pete Williams

Matt Miller had no business surviving a bicycle accident in November 2008. The 20-year-old University of Virginia student and triathlete collided with an oncoming Porsche along the Blue Ridge Parkway, smashing into the vehicle with his face.

He broke every bone in his face, essentially lost all of his teeth, and experienced severe brain trauma. Remarkably, the first person on the scene was an anesthesiologist, who knew how to position his head. That was the first of a series of fortunate circumstances that got him alive to the University of Virginia hospital, where doctors gave him little chance of surviving 72 hours, at least without permanent brain damage.

Instead, Miller walked out of the hospital in 25 days, scored a 95 on a makeup physics exam with a class average of 65, and two years later completed Ironman Cozumel in a top 10 percent time of 10:30 — during his first semester of medical school, no less.

As an undergraduate, he shadowed a doctor at the University of Virginia hospital. His family’s medical background goes back to his maternal great, great grandfather, a Civil War surgeon and Virginia graduate.

If Matt Miller’s story was a work of fiction, it would seem too farfetched. That might explain why Michael Vitez, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who chronicled Miller’s recovery for The Philadelphia Inquirer, was rejected by fifteen New York book publishers who no doubt are waiting for the next Kardashian book proposal.

Thankfully, Vitez decided to self-publish the book via CreateSpace.com and the result, The Road Back: A Journey of Grace and Grit, is an adrenaline-charged book that I read in one sitting after downloading Monday morning. Vitez won a Pulitzer for a series of stories on five people as they dealt with the end of their lives. He also wrote a book called Rocky stories, spending a year interviewing people who ran the “Rocky steps” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Those themes resonate in The Road Back, where Miller’s family spends three agonizing days wondering if he’s going to make it. Miller even has a shy, pretty girlfriend, Emily, who for weeks spends nights at his hospital bedside even as his face is mangled far beyond anything Rocky endured. (The two are still together, fellow medical students at the University of Pennsylvania, and, well, we won’t spoil the ending.)

Miller, a walk-on swimmer at the University of Virginia who quit the team after one year to focus on triathlon, showed a superhuman tolerance for pain and proving medical experts wrong. He was studying his physics texts in bed within days of emerging from major brain trauma. He found a way to consume nearly 4,000 calories a day with his jaw wired shut and underwent eight root canals in one day with minimal painkillers. While still in the hospital, he got his former swim coach Mark Bernardino’s calves burning as they walked stairwells together.

Vitez, a University of Virginia graduate who in the late 1970s edited a Cavalier Daily student newspaper staff that included classmate Katie Couric, learned of Miller’s story early in 2009 while playing poker with a co-worker of Miller’s father. A gifted storyteller, Vitez soon was in Charlottesville chronicling Miller’s recovery and marveling like everyone else at his upbeat personality.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the book is when someone finally handed Miller a mirror in the hospital. He just shrugged at the sight of his disfigured face that would require many more surgeries.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” says Vitez, who joined us on The Fitness Buff Show. “I sent a draft of the book to my agent and she sent it back. She didn’t believe it and told me to go back and talk to him some more. She thought there must have been a point where he was devastated and I wasn’t going deep enough. And I went back and asked again and again, but I found that Matt felt that as long as his girlfriend was with him and that there was no hesitation on her part, that he was fine. He said, ‘I’m a vain guy. I used to be upset about a pimple on my face. It’s not that I don’t care how I look, but I’m up thinking and walking, living my life, and Emily was still in love with me and the rest didn’t matter.'”

Three months after the accident, Miller jumped into a pool for the first time, swam a 100 free in 59 seconds, and vowed to do an Ironman triathlon. He started with the Charlottesville Half Marathon, posting a 1:27:28 – 10th among the 436 men entered. In the fall of 2009, he finished 28th among the 2,500 competitors in the Nation’s Triathlon in Washington.

Most cyclists and triathletes can recall every detail of bicycle accidents and struggle not to think of them while riding. Miller, who remembers nothing of his crash, scared his family and girlfriend by getting back in the saddle – of his repaired bike no less – agreeing to wear a motorcycle-like helmet and ride on roads without automobile traffic.

Miller completed Ironman Cozumel among the top 10 percent of the field and vowed to do another – after medical school. He still competes in shorter triathlons and other races. Over the weekend he completed the 10-mile Broad Street Run in Philadelphia in 59:26, a pace just under a 6-minute mile.

Not bad for a guy wrapping up his second year of medical school.

Vitez says he still struggles to explain how Miller got through the ordeal with such an upbeat personality.

“I think he put his family through such a horror that he was determined not to complain or let anything slow down his recovery out of respect and love for Emily and his family since he had caused them such pain,” he said. “There are such great qualities in this kid and it was a thrill to share it.”

(To hear an interview with Michael Vitez, author of The Road Back, click HERE)

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Filed under Fitness Buff Show Radio, Triathlon

A Smaller More Enjoyable St. Anthony’s

By Pete Williams

ST. PETERSBURG – The St. Anthony’s Triathlon staged an Olympic-distance event today for the first time since 2008, which means the 3,000 or so athletes on hand got to enjoy the event they paid for without weather disruptions for the first time since before the economy crashed.

When an event is joint promoted by its health care provider owner and the World Triathlon Corp. (aka Ironman), which seems to be going through the motions with its second-annual 5150 series, it’s not surprising that it comes across as tone deaf to the economy. No wonder St. Anthony’s has gone from a race that used to sell out in December at nearly 5,000 athletes to one that attracts about 3,000 and does not sell out.

That’s bad for Baycare and WTC, but awesome for the athletes. The event seems more manageable with fewer participants, though we’re not sure if moving the swim start north from Spa Beach to just beyond North Shore Beach had the desired effect of keeping athletes out of rough waters. In fact, athletes now seem to spend more time navigating the washing machine immediately in front of the Vinoy basin.

No wonder more than 80 percent of athletes wore wetsuits this morning. That’s a strange thing considering many Tampa Bay homeowners haven’t turned on their heat since February – of 2011. Air temperature was 75 when the pros went off shortly before 7 a.m. and well into the 80s by the time the last of the age groupers entered the water. Race officials announced the water temperature at 76.5 degrees, a wink-wink fudging of the numbers to ensure everyone, especially the hundreds of first-timers, could wear their wetsuits.

It’s a sound strategy. I was among the idiots who swam without a wetsuit. Though the water was plenty warm, just as it was two weeks ago during the half-mile swim at the Escape from Fort DeSoto Triathlon 10 miles to the south where hardly anyone wore wetsuits, I paid the price with an extended stay in the Vinoy basin rinse cycle.

The bike course is where St. Anthony’s has really improved because of decreased attendance. Putting nearly 5,000 bikes on a twisting, turning course through St. Pete more suited for the Honda Grand Prix was making things dangerous. But with just 3,000 cyclists, it’s much safer. St. Anthony’s always does a great job with volunteer support and it doesn’t seem they’ve cut there even as registrations have dropped.

Having endured a few Baycare medical bills in the last 15 months, we’re confident St. Anthony’s can get by with “only” 3,000 athletes. Ditto for WTC, which seems unwilling to admit that the 5150 branding of Olympic distance races was just a bad idea. Even many avid triathletes can’t explain the 5150 specifics, especially in a year involving a Van Halen reunion tour. We’ve never understood the odd relationship between WTC and Baycare. The 5150 series, which didn’t gain any fans in these parts by canceling the inaugural year-end race in Clearwater in November, only further blends two polarizing brands.

WTC has gotten into the habit recently of canceling events that don’t meet registration expectations. The M-Dot doesn’t hold that kind of sway over St. Anthony’s and even if it did, we hope that wouldn’t happen, even if registrations drop another 20 percent in 2013.

After all, it seems the smaller St. Anthony’s gets, the more enjoyable it becomes for the athletes.

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Filed under Races, Triathlon

One-on-One with Ironman Chief Andrew Messick

By Pete Williams

WTC CEO Andrew Messick

TAMPA – When Andrew Messick spoke to the Triathlon America trade organization last month, the CEO of the World Triathlon Corp., parent company of Ironman, prefaced his address with “I come in peace.”

It was a reference to Ironman’s historically stormy relationship with the sport’s governing bodies, race directors, sponsors, media, and even the athletes themselves. Under the company’s former leadership of eye surgeon owners James and Pit Gills, and former CEO Ben Fertic, the company developed a reputation of being secretive at best, arrogant and tone-deaf at worst.

Messick, installed as CEO last May by the Providence Equity Partners’ Group that purchased WTC from the Gills family in September of 2008 just days before the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy triggered the recession, has spent his first year mending fences and boosting a brand that for all of its financial success remains under the radar in the sports world.

A two-time Ironman finisher, the 48-year-old Messick came to WTC after four years as president of AEG Sports, where he oversaw such iconic endurance events as the Amgen Tour of California cycling race and the Bay to Breakers running event. That followed a seven-year stint working for the NBA.

We never had any luck getting an audience with the previous WTC regime, even when writing stories on the growth of triathlon and Ironman in 2007 for The New Year Times and SportsBusiness Journal. So we were pleasantly surprised when Messick accepted our offer to have an hour-long conversation about all things Ironman at the WTC offices in Tampa on Tuesday.

EnduranceSportsFlorida: Were you surprised at how disliked WTC was among triathletes?

Andrew Messick:No, because in my former life I was a lousy age grouper (from 2004-2006) when I was racing a lot. I had a clear point of view of how WTC was perceived even then. I did Ironman Canada and Ironman Lake Placid and those were great races, races that had soul and great community and people who were happy you were there. Even then people didn’t like WTC and it wasn’t clear to me exactly why, but that perception existed and there was the usual things you would see on message boards. “WTC didn’t care about athletes,” the usual stuff. It’s been there a long time and I knew it would be one of those things that would require effort, energy, and attention. It’s frustrating to a lot of people in this organization. People don’t acknowledge how much work and effort goes into the athlete experience. It’s easy for people to just assume that all the stuff that happens at a race – registration working, volunteers are there, having swim/bike/run courses that are safe – that all of that miraculously happens. It’s WTC people who do all that. I don’t think WTC as a company ever spent very much time focused on talking to athletes. The folks that used to run the place didn’t feel like they had any obligation to communicate to their customers, which I don’t agree with. I would much rather communicate and have disagreements now and then than never say anything, which is kind of what used to happen. There was a culture around here of you do what you think is right, you announce it, but you don’t explain why and eventually people will get over it. That’s not the way I was taught to do things.

Messick at Ironman Melbourne last month (Photo courtesy http://www.FinisherPix.com).

 

ESF: How much progress have you made on that front?

AM: We’re getting there. Whenever you’re running anything, you’re faced with lots of decisions and you have to choose.  Either we’re going to keep the way we do Kona qualification the same or we’re not and that’s a decision. Keeping it the way it is perpetuates the things that don’t work and it also perpetuates the things that do work. Changing it introduces new ideas and thinking but also upsets the status quo. No matter what you do there’s a choice involved. We’ve got super-smart, super-motivated athletes who do our races and there’s a super high level of engagement. If you explain what you’re trying to do and why you made the choices you did, by and large people understand. Not everyone will agree with you, but at least people understand why you did it and they don’t think you made a decision in a vacuum or made a decision without consulting any of the other shareholders and stakeholders. Understanding why you did something is very important and I don’t think we did a very good job historically of doing that. We’d say, here’s the new procedure and that’s it.

ESF: You’ve talked about expanding the Ironman customer base from 66,000 athletes annually to 150,000, and also bringing more races into the mix. Are you suggesting getting involved in races of shorter distances?

AM: We’re really good as an organization at producing – not necessarily destination races – but sort of the key races on athletes’ calendars. That’s what we’re good at. I was in Galveston (Texas for the Ironman 70.3) this past weekend and Melbourne (Australia) the weekend before. Those are great events, expensive, highly produced events that are the key races for our athletes that year. And we have a cost structure that is really designed to be able to deliver those kinds of events. I don’t think we have a cost structure that’s designed to deliver the Olympic distance. You can charge a premium for fulls, for 70.3s. It’s harder to charge a premium for Olympic distance events. Athletes want an event that’s at a certain price point and the Olympic distance race that’s more than $100 – there’s a lot of resistance to that. One of the things the 5150 experience taught us last year is that if you’re going to charge a lot more than $100, what is the additional value added? And if you can’t provide that, it’s a hard sell. So we’re in the process of trying to figure out if we can deliver the level of service of a 70.3 and an Ironman at an Olympic distance race at a price point that works for our consumers.

ESF: So this is the year to figure that out?

AM: Yeah. We’re a premium brand. BMWs struggle to hit Volkswagen price points. There’s nothing wrong with Volkswagens. I love ‘em; I’ve driven them my whole life. But you have to have a Volkswagen business system to make Volkswagens. We have a BMW business system to make BMWs.

Ironman athletes haven't always been at peace with WTC.

ESF: You have Iron Girl and IronKids. Are they in the same category as 5150 or is that a different conversation?

AM: That’s a different conversation. Iron Girl and IronKids are very different animals. With Iron Kids, we have a good partnership with HyVee, and HyVee supports our Midwestern Iron Kids series. We have a strong skew to the midwest. Most of our non-Hyvee Iron Kids races are attached to existing events. We leverage the fact that we’ve got a 70.3 in Boulder and we have a staff, team and infrastructure so there’s a ton of things we don’t have to replicate. Without a partner like HyVee, it would be pretty hard for us to have separate standalone IronKids events because it’s a low price point. With Iron Girl, we’ve got 16 North American events this year and we have a separate operational marketing and management team and they live the Iron Girl brand and that’s different from beginning to end in terms of what we deliver and how.

ESF: There seemed to be a point last year where Ironman was chasing every popular endurance trend such as half marathons and mud runs with Primal Challenge, which you canceled before it started. Was there a concern that you were getting away from your core business?

AM: I think that we may have lost sight a little bit of what we do and what we’re uniquely good at. We’re uniquely good at long distance triathlon, creating these very hard, very important, life-changing events for our athletes and I worry that by focusing on other stuff, we run the risk of not being as good as we need to at our bread and butter, the core of our business. We don’t have as many 5150s this year. We don’t have Primal Challenge. We don’t have our own timing business anymore. There’s a whole series of things we were getting into that in my mind took our eye off achieving real excellence at the things we need to be excellent at and that’s creating these extraordinary athlete experiences. Ironman Canada and Ironman Lake Placid changed my life. As an age grouper, training for those events, being part of the Ironman community, and crossing that finish line – it indelibly marked me like it does for a lot of our athletes. This organization is fiercely protective of that experience for our athletes and we need to make sure we stay laser focused on creating great races and treating our athletes the way they need to be treated and making sure the journey of our athletes is as good as it can be. To be that focused you have to be pretty systematic about getting rid of distractions. We had a lot of distractions and still have a lot of distractions. But we have fewer than we had nine months ago and we’ll have fewer a year from now.

ESF: What if you purchased a race registration site? Would that be a distraction or would that fit with your business model?

AM: That’s a big question for us. Active has been a great partner of ours for a long time. But at the same time there’s lots of other registration solutions out there and it’s clear we need to have more versatility in terms of what happens when athletes sign up and the ease of athlete sign-up and how we manage these incredible spikes in demand. It’s a complex set of choices we’re trying to figure out right now in terms of the whole race registration process. We need to have a better solution for our athletes and figure out what we’re going to do to handle demand. Melbourne sold out in less than five minutes a week ago. We’ve always had this situation for our races. Ironman Florida sold out in 11 minutes, Arizona in six or seven minutes. Our full Ironman races are selling out really quickly. Somewhere in the next year is a real serious conversation about what’s the fairest thing for our athletes. Is it at noon Eastern Time, Active registration opens and the fastest guys on the mouse get it? That’s fair if you live in the U.S. maybe but if you live in Australia and it’s three in the morning, I’m not sure that’s fair. I’m not sure it’s fair for people who are at work. There’s a whole question of how you handle demand and our registration partner is an important part of that. Is it a sign-up, a lottery, first in, best-dressed, which is how we do it today? Should there be an advantage to those who did it last year, to those who do more races with us? There’s a whole bunch of ways you can go and so we need to be pretty thoughtful in the next year about how that whole thing comes together.

ESF: Could you go the route of buying a system like Competitor did?

AM: The RaceIt system that Competitor has is a really good one. It’s designed for race registration and a lot of the problems we have. The system isn’t fully built out yet and it hasn’t been fully beta tested for all this stuff, for the unique things we have. To the best of my knowledge there aren’t any other systems, with the exception of concert systems, that have the kind of super high immediate demand. Trying to register thousands of athletes in three or four minutes creates a unique set of challenges.

The always dramatic Ironman swim start. Ready for increased television exposure?

ESF: What was your own Ironman experience like?

AM: I did Ironman Canada in 2005 (time of 12:34) and Lake Placid in 2006 (11:07). I did Canada with a broken arm, which is not recommended and completely blew up on the run. I did the Boston Marathon in 3:09 in 2006 and I don’t think I did a single mile at Canada in less than 11 minutes. I started cramping coming off Yellow Lake  (bike course) and my Ironman Canada run was 5:24. I’d walk 100 yards, jog 100 yards, just five and a half hours of severe pain. I had crashed my bike five days before in Central Park on my last tune-up ride. Someone stepped out in front of me, I went over the handlebars and had a radial head fracture in my elbow. The doctor said there was no risk of it getting worse unless I crashed again. So it was just a pain management exercise. I had played rugby and wore a rugby mouthpiece during the swim, which was very painful. What I hadn’t planed for was that I usually reach for bottles with my right arm (on the bike), and couldn’t do so because it was broke. I could only reach with my left, which screwed up my nutrition and I started cramping. That was my first Ironman experience. Lake Placid was the makeup race.

What impact will the biggest name in endurance sports have on triathlon? (Photo courtesy of http://www.FinisherPix.com)

ESF: You spent seven years (2000-2007) working for the NBA, which perhaps more than any other league leveraged its brand around superstars. How important is it to build bigger names in triathlon?

AM: Triathlon is unique in that its beating heart isn’t pro athletes; it’s age groupers. That makes it different than most other sports. When you go to an NBA game, you’re going to see Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or back in the day Michael, Magic, Larry, or Dr. J. People sign up for Ironman Lake Placid to do Ironman Lake Placid; it’s their journey. That said, there’s a huge opportunity for us to use pro athletes to talk more broadly about our sport, to increase awareness of our sport, to talk about the benefits, the things that triathlon uniquely delivers in terms of quality of life, setting goals. All of those are broader messages and benefits that our lifestyle promotes. Our pros are super smart, articulate, and motivated and by and large there hasn’t been the kind of connection between the company and professional athletes that you’d like. One of the big insights for me was seeing how disconnected pro athletes are from the rest of the business compared to cycling, running, or the NBA. It’s a huge untapped opportunity and I think we can do much better with our pros to build better relationships, to have them be stronger, more powerful advocates for our races and the sport and for us in return, to give them a better platform to make a living and attract sponsors. There’s an integration that hasn’t occurred, but we’re making progress and it will take some time. That was one of my bigger surprises, how much professional athletes weren’t integrated into what we do.

ESF: So how do you integrate them more into the company?

AM: When we go and pitch a sponsorship to Company X, we don’t do anything with our professionals. We don’t introduce our pro athletes to companies; we should. When we’re pitching an automotive company, we don’t say we have four pro athletes you should put under contract, and we’ll guarantee that you have six days a year for athletes A, B, or C. They can go to the regional dealer meeting in Tucson and talk to a group of your dealers about setting goals, working toward objectives, and telling their stories. Those types of things are really powerful and yet we’ve never viewed professional athletes as an asset. By doing that, you can introduce your athletes to important companies and they become ambassadors for you. So there’s really low hanging fruit there that we’re only now becoming organized enough to capture.

ESF: Do you need a dominant performer like Mark Allen or Dave Scott to emerge?

AM: Stars help in every sport and having people who have the ability and the charisma to take a sport off the sports page – or in our case to take the sport out of the endemic media – and get broader distribution is helpful. If you look at what Tiger Woods did for golf or what Magic, Michael and those guys did for basketball, those are transformative personalities. Look at Lance Armstrong and cycling in terms of television ratings, interest in the sport, and bikes sold. No question it’s helpful.

Armstrong considers the run his weakest leg of triathlon. (Photo courtesy www.FinisherPix.com)

ESF: Speaking of Lance Armstrong, if he’s only a top 10 finisher and not a contender in Ironman races, does that lessen the impact he has in triathlon?

AM: If you’d told anybody two months ago that Lance Armstrong at the age of 40 will go pro, finish top 10 in his first two (70.3) races and go under 3:55 in both of them, people would have said you’re out of your mind. Or if you flip-flopped Panama and Galveston and he went seventh in his first race and second in his second, we’re talking about an entirely different story. He came off the bike first in Galveston, was fourth until mile 12 (of the run) and like a lot of people who race, he had a bad last mile. It happens. It’s going to be exciting to see what happens, in Haines City (Fla.) and Nice and later in the year. It’s a great opportunity to get people focused on the sport of triathlon, people who wouldn’t ordinary be interested.

ESF: People love the NBC Kona package and watch Ironman races online. Obviously there are logistical challenges to broadcasting triathlon on television. But in 2012 shouldn’t there be live coverage of Ironman events somewhere on TV?

AM: We won’t have live television in 2012. We’re live online everywhere in the world. Our production and product is getting better. We’re seeing increases in traffic and viewership. We had more than 250,000 watching (Galveston 70.3) on Sunday and there are a lot of TV shows that don’t get that many watching. Whether it will be on TV or not, that’s hard. From a production/logistical perspective, it’s super challenging and we need a pretty compelling reason to do it. The races are long. You need big windows and you need to be on a network that has broad distribution and that’s not easy.

ESF: Is there anything in your NBC contract that precludes it?

AM: No. Between Universal Sports and NBC, contractually we’ve got the right to do all kinds of stuff. Whether NBC is going to create a multi-hour television window for us, I know the answer to that.

ESF: What about any of its sister networks?

AM: It’s a conversation but not one for 2012. For 2012, we’ll continue to have a strong relationship. Universal Sports will broadcast recaps of our races. Kona will be on NBC and we will have a live package that will get better over time that will largely be focused on our site (Ironman.com), not UniversalSports.com.

ESF: How important is it for Ironman to get more mainstream media coverage?

AM: I think it’s really important and what we have to do is find stories that mainstream media finds compelling enough to cover and without stars it’s really hard. There’s a lot of competition for writers’ time and column inches and you need to have a compelling story to tell and we’re trying every day to do that.

ESF: Can you answer the off-asked trademark question regarding Ironman and Iron Man? Is it simply that WTC owns the trademark as it applies to triathlon and Marvel owns everything else?

AM: It’s more complex than that. We’ve got areas where we can play and they can play. There are things we can and can’t do and things they can and can’t do. It works and has been heavily negotiated over many years.

Tough Mudder: Competitor or Complementary?

ESF: Obstacle races such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race are drawing huge numbers of people looking for a life-changing accomplishment. Do you view them as competition?

AM: I don’t think so. I haven’t been presented with any evidence that suggests someone wakes up and says, “I’m going to do Tough Mudder or an Ironman 70.3.” If anything I think it’s good for us. Ultimately, the more people who are out racing and competing in events – and I feel the same way about the Rock ‘N Roll marathon series – the more people eventually will move into our wheelhouse. The real base of the pyramid is signing up for events, whether it’s a local 5K or Tough Mudder. Getting people into the process of signing up and preparing for an event, doing a race and finishing, puts people on the way. The broader the base of participants, the broader the base who find their way to our events. We’re at the very top of the pyramid in that, if you’re a marathoner, someone doing Gran Fondos, or a competitive swimmer, at some point, Ironman is in the back of your head. If you’ve had a transformational life experience – you’ve had a heart attack and recovered or lost 50 pounds and you attribute it to achieving your goal – even if it’s only a 5K, you start thinking of your next goal and we’re part of that.

ESF: You’re a Southern California guy. Triathlon has strong ties to that region. There’s no longer anything tying Ironman to the Tampa Bay area. Do you plan to stay here long term?

AM: We’re about to expand to the other side of this floor and will have the whole floor. There’s a lot of other things to be focusing on right now. We’ve been in Tampa a long time; the staff is from Tampa and I have no plans to leave Tampa. I sold the house in Los Angeles. It’s been a really busy eight months and it will be a really busy next year. When I think of all the things we have to do and priorities and all the stuff that needs to happen, there’s a ton of mission critical stuff we have to tackle. That’s not mission critical. We’re fine here and have no plans to move.

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Training for Triathlons via Obstacle Races

By Pete Williams

Triathlon and obstacle race training complement each other well, except when it comes to wardrobe.

Are obstacle races the new triathlons? Judging by the unbridled growth of Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and other events at a time when interest in triathlon seems flat, that might be the case.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether obstacle racing is a more effective way to train than slogging it out via swim-bike-run, which can be repetitive, monotonous, and potentially damaging to the joints.

Last year I did fewer triathlons but completed six obstacle races. This year I’ve done three obstacle races (Warrior Dash, Spartan Race, Savage Race), although tri season has not started.

With the Escape from Fort DeSoto (April 14) and St. Anthony’s (April 29) triathlons rapidly approaching, it dawned on me Friday that I’m way behind on triathlon training. Aside from races, I’ve been on my bike just once since August and have been in a pool just four times since Halloween.

But I’ve done a lot of obstacle race training – integrated strength and interval running sessions that might be the most efficient way to train. I had a hunch that work had put me on track to be ready for next month’s triathlons. This past weekend would be an interesting case study.

On Saturday a dozen friends entrusted me with leading an obstacle race training session at Siesta Key Beach in Sarasota. I brought no equipment other than a few small cones to mark off distance. Anything else we’d have to find on the beach.

Here’s what I came up with, borrowing pieces from books I’ve had the honor of writing with Mark Verstegen and Brody Welte:

Warm-up (knee hugs, lateral lunges, drop lunges, butt kickers, leg throwdowns, donkey pulls)

5-10-5 shuttle run (3 times through)

1/4 mile run

Park bench routine (alternating pushups/dips) 12-10-8-4-2 (concrete slabs used instead of park bench)

1/4 mile run

Burpees (12)

300 yard run to volleyball net, simulating blocking on both sides

100 yard run

Park bench routine – 6-4-2

400 yard sprint to finish

We started around 11 a.m. and the heat added to the degree of difficulty, but since most obstacle races take place mid-day, that was appropriate. It was typical of a lot of workouts I’ve done during the last six months, a few of which I’ve chronicled on ABC Action News here in the Tampa Bay area.

On Sunday, I returned to my triathlon training group for the first time since November and just the second time in the last year. This is a group I struggle to keep up with on a good day and figured I’d get dropped early on the 30-mile ride because of the layoff.

Instead I hung on with no problem, took a stint pulling early in the ride, and managed a five-mile run after.

This doesn’t mean one form of training is necessarily better, though there’s a tendency in triathlon training to drift into long, slow distance training instead of more effective interval sessions. Obstacle race training forces you to stay on target.

Bottom line is variety is the most important element of any workout regimen.

That and having great friends as training partners.

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Ironman CEO’s Candid Keynote

By Pete Williams

When Andrew Messick took over last year as CEO of the Tampa-based World Triathlon Corp., parent company of Ironman, he admits he was stunned by how triathletes loved Ironman races but hated WTC.

Those were among Messick’s candid comments during a keynote address at the recent Triathlon America gathering in California. “Candid comments” and “Ironman” traditionally haven’t been used in the same sentence, but Messick was frank in talking about the company’s notorious “bunker” mentality and, of course, Lance Armstrong.

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Super Bowl Triathlon Training

By Pete Williams

Members of the Timex Multisport Team get the pro treatment.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It’s not the life of a Super Bowl champion, but the life of a sponsored triathlete is pretty good deal.

Actually, here at the Timex Performance Center, home to the New York Giants and to this week’s annual gathering of the Timex Multisport Team, it’s tough to tell the difference.

Eli Manning, Justin Tuck and the gang aren’t around, but 50 top Ironman triathletes have convened for three days of tests, training, meetings, and, most importantly, swag distribution.

It’s nice being mistaken for one of the gang, something that never happened when I covered the NFL. I’m just a sprint triathlete here covering the three-day event, but still get to hang with Team Timex as they eat in the Giants dining room, use their training facilities, meet in their position conference rooms, and even get a taste for having a big-time locker room.

This morning, the Giants locker room staff replaced players’ nameplates with those of the triathletes, who opened Thule backpacks stuffed with race kits, tri shorts, bibs, cycling jerseys, race belts, and assorted swim products. It’s just a fraction of the swag the athletes will get over the course of the year.

Giants staff gave strict instructions not to touch any player stuff, guidance I didn’t need after spending way too much of my life hanging around locker rooms waiting to interview athletes. Many of the triathletes didn’t recognize many names other than Manning. This is a group, after all, that goes to bed early and spends weekends training and competing themselves.

Fourteen researchers from the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute are on hand to measure sweat and salt loss during intense training. I underwent a 45-minute session this afternoon and the preliminary results, much to my surprise, were that I don’t sweat that much.

The researchers will have more definitive data tomorrow morning, but the initial theory is that since I train in a warmer climate (Florida), it takes more heat to get me sweating profusely.

I also sat in on a Timex product development meeting. A dozen triathletes offered suggestions on everything from design to GPS, heart rate monitors and a lot of technical stuff that went over my head.

Simple suggestion someone brought up that I’ve always wondered: Why can’t we measure heart rate from the wrist rather than a cumbersome chest strap that’s forever falling off?

Apparently we can – and Timex is working on it.

The juxtaposition of the Giants and triathlon make for some interesting moments. Giants head coach Tom Coughlin is legendary for setting clocks five minutes ahead. That means clocks at the Timex Performance Center are never correct.

The Timex product development meeting took place in the defensive line conference room and the whiteboard still included photos, notes, and inside jokes representing Tuck, Chris Canty, Jason Pierre-Paul and others. At one point before my sweat session, a member of the Stringer team had me lie down in the linebackers meeting room to get a resting heart rate.

Then I hammered out a 45-minute workout in the Giants weight room, feeling less like a sportswriter and more like a pro athlete.

At least a pro triathlete.

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The Inevitable Ironman/Lance Armstrong Marriage

By Pete Williams

Ironman 70.3 Florida competitors can wave to Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong and the World Triathlon Corporation announced a long-rumored partnership this morning that will include the seven-time Tour de France winner competing as a professional triathlete in several Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races, including Ironman 70.3 in Haines City, Fla., on May 20.

The deal, one of the endurance sports industry’s biggest rumors for years, came six days after federal prosecutors dropped a two-year investigation into whether the world’s most famous cyclist and his teammates engaged in a doping program during his greatest years. Armstrong has denied doping charges raised for years by journalists and prominent cyclists.

That the most polarizing figure in endurance sports would partner with the most polarizing organization in the industry seemed inevitable from the time Armstrong announced his most recent retirement from cycling a year ago. The 40-year-old Armstrong, who began his endurance sports career as a teenage triathlete, was looking for a new high-profile platform to further his Livestrong Foundation.

WTC, for all of its success selling out its high-profile Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events, has struggled to extend its brand and generate mainstream media coverage. Its 5150 series, which debuted last year, met with mixed results. WTC scrapped a proposed obstacle mud runs series last year and was a late entry into the booming world of half marathon races. Its signature event, the Ironman Kona race, remains under the radar as a tape-delay highlight broadcast. None of the current professionals are known outside the triathlon world.

Armstrong will bring a built-in audience to Ironman, which in turn should put him back in the limelight. His foray into marathon running from 2006-2008 drew little attention and he returned to cycling late in 2008. It was during his marathon training that talk of a WTC/Livestrong partnership began.

James Gills, the Tarpon Springs opthamologist who owned WTC for nearly three decades, sold WTC and the Ironman brand to Providence Equity Partners for a reported $75 million in September 2008, a week before the Lehman Brothers collapse triggered a national financial crisis. Providence moved WTC from Tarpon Springs to Tampa and in May hired new CEO Andrew Messick, who during a four-year stint as president of AEG Sports oversaw the Amgen Tour of California.

Though triathlon has boomed in the last five years, WTC and Ironman have not emerged into the sports mainstream. Under Gills, the company was fiercely private, operating out of a small suite of offices at his medical practice. Many triathletes have a love-hate relationship with Ironman. Though completing an Ironman is perhaps the most sought-after accomplishment in endurance sports, athletes must deal with steep entry fees ($625 average for Ironman events) and ever-changing registration rules.

Armstrong will have a huge advantage in the bike portion of triathlons, which accounts for 56 miles in a 70.3 (half-Ironman) triathlon and 112 miles of the full distance event. As age-group triathletes are quick to point out on popular triathlon industry message boards such as SlowTwitch.com, bike drafting is illegal in triathlon – and there is random drug testing of the pros at Ironman events.

Armstrong will bring a much-needed spotlight to triathlon, which receives little media attention outside of trade publications. ESPN and other sports networks, which rarely feature triathlon, likely will show highlights from his races. Rank-and-file age group trithletes will clamor for a chance to race against Armstrong, even if he will race as a pro in the first wave of every event he enters.

Those will include Ironman 70.3 Panama on Feb. 12 and the Memorial Hermann Ironman 70.3 in Texas on April 1. Armstrong also will compete in Ironman 70.3 in Florida, moved from Lake Buena Vista to Haines City for this year’s May 20 event, and a 70.3 event in Hawaii June 2.

Armstrong will return to France to compete in Ironman France on June 24. If he competes in Ironman’s world championship in Kona on Oct. 13, it won’t be via a celebrity exemption.

He plans to qualify like anyone else.

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