Wellington crushes the record at Challenge Roth/Photo by Michael Rauschendorfer
I can go faster.
You’ve said it. The guy next to you in T1 has said it. I’m signing up for a third Ironman (almost immediately after completing my second) because of it. I get out of bed every morning thinking it (right after “Why the hell am I up so early?”)
After breaking through a pain barrier at Ironman Coeur d’Alene recently, I knew I was ready to take the next step in improving my performance. My desired PR time is so close now I could taste it as vividly as the chewable nutrition tablets I spit up during the marathon. So when I saw three elite triathletes set new world records in the span of a week last month, I had to know their secrets. I tracked down two of them, three-time Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington and nine-time Ironman winner Marino Vanhoenacker.
Where I wanted secrets, I got something closer to admonishments. I was surprised by both Wellington and Vanhoenacker’s stern stances on the topic, caught flat-footed. I went in expecting keen insights on how a sharply tailored training plan and positive visualization led them to flawless performances. I came out feeling sheepish for being part of the media machine that places results, not experiences, on a pedestal.
Both athletes think too much emphasis is put on the clock, fueled by incessant media hype, with not enough focus on reveling in the accomplishment of completing an Ironman or half-Ironman. “I see people cross the finish line and the first thing they do is look down at their watch. Stop it!” Wellington exhorted. “Get an awesome finish line photo and bank that memory. The timing chip can sort the rest out later.”
In my single-minded pursuit of personal bests, I somehow lost sight of having fun.
Vanhoenacker agreed, saying it seems as if age-groupers especially have stopped enjoying the sport. He believes training can become an obsession, which fuels setting high, risky goals that sap energy to the point where, come race day, the hunger is gone and illness sets in. Despite the crush of media pressure that came with defending his sixth straight Ironman Austria (and the expectations of a record-breaking finish), Vanhoenacker said he thinks he enjoys the sport more than most age groupers. “Some people should look at themselves and find the fun,” he added.
The Belgian athlete’s love of the sport was tested earlier this season, though, when he got injured and was forced into a dark mental period as a result. After finishing a mere two minutes behind Ironman World Champion Chris McCormack in Kona last year, Vanhoenacker planned to make 2011 his best season yet. Instead, he broke a rib one week before Abu Dhabi, which forced him to drop out of Ironman South Africa several weeks later. Not the blistering start he was hoping for.
The dream season was slipping away before it really began, along with Vanhoenacker’s confidence. He started his preparation for Ironman Austria later than he ever had, which forced him to spend more time visualizing the course he said he could complete with his eyes closed. Vanhoenacker credits his visualization skills and fresher legs for being able to break the existing world record by four-plus minutes. “I always think the lower you sink, the higher you can climb after,” Vanhoenacker said.
Wellington also had to overcome injuries that forced her to refrain from her normal training regimen prior to Challenge Roth, where she still managed to cross the finish line in 8:18:13 – fourth overall among women and men. While the unintentional added rest may have propelled Wellington to yet another “how fast can she possibly go???” performance, she cites a healthy dose of perspective instead. “Whether I break the world record isn’t going to make or break me as a person and it isn’t necessarily the only measure of my fitness,” Wellington said matter-of-factly. “I just think it’s important to relax your mind, to breathe, and to surround yourself with people who love you no matter what the result.”
Perhaps the key to going faster is worrying less about time and just enjoying the ride.
Wellington also believes that finding a personal goal beyond a fast finish may lead to a more memorable and potentially satisfying experience. For example, Wellington said the buzz she gets from climbing Alpe d’Huez on the bike is “far and away equal to going faster.” The challenge that comes from racing a variety of courses, not speed alone, is what motivates her.
That, and trying to beat more pro men.
Vanhoenacker, on the other hand, has found true love in Austria on one course that suits him particularly well. Knowing every corner and bump has enabled him to experience racing nirvana: The Perfect Race. “Sometimes people find the right partner and it’s the first girl they met, and some people go through a whole lot before they find the right partner,” Vanhoenacker explained. “It’s the same with racecourses and athletes.”
Speaking with Wellington and Vanhoenacker forced me to reconsider my triathlon racing motives. I’ve been thinking a lot more lately about why I train and race, not how fast can I get. In the process, I’ve discovered that in my single-minded pursuit of personal bests, I somehow lost sight of having fun for its own sake. Every workout has had a goal and purpose. Words like “enjoyment,” “fun” and “serenity” didn’t show up often in my training blog entries.
Then it hit me.
When Chrissie and Marino lamented that maybe age-groupers don’t enjoy the sport as much as they should, they were talking about me.
When I asked myself why I wanted so badly to get faster, nothing immediately came to mind.
Time to reassess. I’ve taken a few weeks off from my regular training schedule. I’m not replacing my lost computer watch for the next several months. I’m swimming, cycling and running when I feel like it, for as long or as little as I want. No bricks, either! I’m even taking some time away from blogging (gasp!).
I’m enjoying every minute.
Is your goal to set a new PR? Maybe it’s time to ask yourself why. You may be surprised at the answer.
Ryan Schneider is an Ironman triathlete and blogger who works in brand development when he’s not swimming, biking or running. You can read his blog at ironmadman.com, follow him on Twitter (@theironmadman), and read his monthly column here at LAVA.