“In 1985, did I think I would still be doing this sport?” triathlon legend Scott Molina recently reflected after racing in the 30th anniversary of Ironman New Zealand.
“No,” he answered.
In a recent blog post, Molina, one of the early stars of triathlon who amassed more than 100 victories in his career, offered his perspective of the event he won in its inaugural year in 1985. Molina reported, to his evident surprise, that his race experience in 2014 was relatively free of injury pain.
One has to wonder how Molina, who earned a reputation for training hard and racing often during his professional career, is capable of transcending the injuries that have often haunted him, particularly over the last 13 years. In the case of Ironman New Zealand, to even get to the starting line he apparently put just as much work into the raw training as he did tempering various aches and pains. As he mentioned in his race report, “If I only ever raced at 100-percent healthy, and not injured, I’d never race again.”
In his post, he shared the following excerpt from a letter to a friend:
“Even though this sport is all about managing the pain that the event gradually inflicts on us, the normal type of discomfort that comes through fatigue seems like a reasonable pain to deal with,” Molina wrote. “We all can accept that type of pain as part of the deal we signed up for. Injuries don’t feel reasonable to deal with though! But after having spent so much of my life injured I’m finally starting to accept that pain from injury is part of this Ironman package for me.”
At the race, Molina strung together a 53:35 swim (“My own swimming is at a lifetime worst level, so I put my good swim down to my Blue Seventy Helix wetsuit.”), a 5:27 bike and slugged his way through a 3:39 run for a 10:10:37. Good enough for 3rd in his age-group, but not the sub-10 that had been his original intention.
Despite the fact that Molina’s career as an endurance athlete started up when he was a high school running standout in the 1970s, his determination to compete seems as strong as ever. “I keep waiting to burn out— as people have been telling me my whole life that if I keep training and racing as I do that I’m going to burn out. Not ready for that to happen just yet.”
His immersion in triathlon continues in other ways as well, as Molina coaches athletes around the globe through Scottmolina.com, and also works with Gordo Byrn and John Newsom to stage “Epic Camps”—triathlon-specific camps for the advanced triathlete.
LAVA recently caught up with Scott following his trip to race Ironman New Zealand:
LAVA: Scott, talk about your coaching philosophy. Has it changed over the years? What have you learned from your clients?
My main aim is to help the folks I work with fit triathlon into their life in the best possible way. The difference between elites and age groupers is that normal life doesn’t allow optimal preparation for performance. Although many coaches will tell people that they can do optimal training while continuing to live a normal life—and take their money— it’s not true! There needs to be compromise and it’s trying to teach that process of compromise that is the essence of what I do. Some people are ready for that, some aren’t.
For a person to approach achieving their potential in this sport they are going to need to consistently train for a few years. That means 12-plus hours per week and the extra rest required to recover, the time for stretching, getting to and from sessions, etc. It’s got to fit into their lives.
Over the years as I associate with older age groups, I find that a life with triathlon gets further and further from the norm. Triathletes in their 60s and 70s are living lives very, very different from the average person.
LAVA: I know that you prefer to keep things simple when it comes to technology. In coaching an athlete over long distance, do you count on certain types of data, like power meter numbers or heart-rate info, to assess what’s going on with them and their progress?
Working from a distance can work, but technology makes it all a lot more objective. Olympic medals, world records and personal bests have all been set many times by athletes working with a coach who is very far away. Before the internet, we did have telephones and mail! I do use all the new tools available to me, but what’s important to recognize first is that in a successful coach-athlete relationship the main things to communicate well don’t come from technology. They come from the minds of the athlete and coach.
LAVA: You were one of the pioneers of the sport both in terms of developing training methods and advancing the professional level of the sport. The athletes you squared off on were obviously pretty good: From Scott Tinley to Mark Allen to Dave Scott and Mike Pigg. To what degree did you share your discoveries with each other on how to be prepared for a race?
We did talk a lot about everything. Friends share. When you’re training with someone on a daily basis for years you get to see what others are doing. They don’t even need to say anything. You just observe. Some people are more verbal than others, but actions speak louder than words anyway.
LAVA: When triathlon was just getting established, how did you go about forging a profession out of it? Was there a lot of hard negotiating to get race directors and sponsors to put cash on the table?
Before the sport had any stars it was impossible to use anyone to market anything, so it was unrealistic to expect people to pay us for anything. We needed to win races and prove we were among the best, then seek some compensation for being part of a marketing effort, whether that was an event or a product. What made it easier for us was the fact that only a few of us were winning all the significant races, so there wasn’t a lot of choice if you were looking to get an association with a top athlete for something.
There were a lot of instances when I didn’t get paid, or I formed a relationship with a company that promptly went out of business. The main difficulty I faced was in expressing my desire to build the pro side of the sport through the race directors by refusing to race at their race unless they offered prize money. The only races I did from 1982 onward offered prize money. Except for Ironman races.
LAVA: Considering all you have learned about triathlon, both as a coach and in your experiences at Epic Camps, how might you have trained differently back in the 1980s knowing what you know now?
I get asked this question a lot so I have spent countless hours mulling it over. My training was massively affected by how much I travelled and raced. I was racing 25-plus races per year. Add in appearances, and I was on more than 60 flights per year. So although I tried to get enough rest, like taking a daily nap, and recovery—two or more massages or chiropractic therapy sessions per week—I just didn’t get enough rest. I should have raced less, travelled less, slept more, worked on my injury prevention and flexibility a lot more. I also should have done more run speed work with my buddy Kenny Souza! Training with him always made me faster.
LAVA: In recent years, you’ve battled leg injuries that have swayed you away from the Ironman starting line—save for your return to Ironman New Zealand this year. Have you been able to reverse engineer the problems to any degree? And what sort of racing do you want to be doing over the next five to 10 years?
Thanks for asking this, as injury prevention is a big part of what I deal with on a daily basis as a coach and in my own life. I’ve been so fortunate to be able to get advice from some of the smartest people on the topic of being healthy and it’s a complex, wide-ranging subject. So my knowledge base is very credible now. I just need to be diligent and persistent about putting what I know into practice. It takes me about 20-30 minutes per day almost every day of my life to be able to prevent injury. The main components of that are strength work—my calves and low back in particular—and flexibility work. I go to a physical therapist and to a massage therapist every week that I’m home. When I get lazy with this or when I’m traveling I always end up in trouble. Sitting is also terrible for my body, so travel, restaurants, driving all need to be done cautiously. I stand a lot now including when I’m at my workstation.
In my own physical future I want to be able to do whatever inspires me. The main thing for me now is keeping my options open to anything. I like my life better when I’m living inspired to do all it takes to do well at events. I’d like to be able to do a very wide range of events in the next 20 years. The list includes short track races like the mile, the steeplechase and the 5000-meter, run stage races, ultras, bike races, triathlons, multisport races. I also want to do some trekking. I also love the gym! So plenty of challenges are found in there. I want to always have some great stuff to look forward to.