Two friends of mine recently became triathlon pros. All the more impressive considering one has completed five Ironman 70.3-distance events and a full-distance Ironman while the other has completed a handful of Olympic-distance races and a full-distance Ironman.
Did they win them all? Are they naturally gifted, anointed by the endurance sports gods as “the next big things” to hit triathlon?
Athletically, not quite. Though they’re talented age-groupers, it’s in the world of triathlon business where Robyn LaLonde and Yanfeng Zhang aim to earn their fortune and glory.
Both LaLonde, 34, and Zhang, 43, have forgone stable careers in different fields to follow their passion for triathlon. LaLonde left the corporate world after eight years to first become a coach and then saw an opportunity to fill a niche – providing Chicagoans a cutting-edge dojo for endurance sports training and recovery. Zhang bounced around and filled a variety of corporate jobs in software, IT, retail, healthcare and entertainment. Last year, he began training for Ironman Texas and found inspiration in a cult-hit documentary called Spirit of the Marathon. Zhang wondered if there were any Ironman documentaries, and as he dug further found his life’s calling. Except for one small detail – he had no film production experience.
No problem. Zhang quickly enrolled in a UCLA film producing program and literally ran into fate at a 10k, where he met Spirit of the Marathon producer and fellow race participant, Gwendolen Twist. Zhang pitched his concept a few months later, and by October 2013 they became producing partners.
“I read Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech at Stanford in 2005…’the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle,’ Zhang said. “After lots of soul searching for a long time, I finally decided to change my career to become a film producer as I want to spend the rest of my life on a career that I’m really passionate about.”
The subject of Zhang’s documentary is Challenge Roth, the world’s largest triathlon. He and his crew are headed to Germany this week to cover the race, which has entailed following six triathletes including World Champion Mirinda Carfrae, six-time Ironman champion Luke McKenzie and Paralympics gold medalist Rudy Garcia-Tolson. In addition to Twist and Zhang, Academy Award-winning documentarian Mark Jonathan Harris and Emmy Award-winning composer Jeff Beal are attached to the project. Only a fraction of the $500,000 sought to finance the film has been generated, though Zhang remains relentlessly upbeat. I’ve shared pool lanes with Zhang over the last couple years and if there’s one word to describe him, it’s tenacious. He said he’s prepared to help pay for the production through dipping into his personal savings and using credit cards. “Endurance sports taught me to be patient, persistent and goal-oriented,” Zhang said. “I’ve learned to find out how to focus on solving a problem instead of getting frustrated in the face of difficulties.”
For LaLonde and her 37-year-old husband Brian, they focused on solving a problem all of us routinely face: how to properly refuel and recover from training and racing. The couple interviewed physicians, athletes and physical therapists to decode the mystery and applied the findings into their own training. “The difference was astounding,” Robyn said. “Instead of days to recover after a long run, it was an hour. Instead of feeling fatigued, we were energized, healthier and faster than ever.”
The LaLondes decided to combine everything they learned and house it under one Polar Vortex-insulated roof, calling their new venture the Edge Athlete Lounge. When the lounge opens as early as this month, athletes will find state of the art Woodway treadmills, Wahoo Kickr trainers in a bike studio, RecoveryPump boots, electrostim machines, and both cold and hot tubs. Of course, what’s a recovery lounge without a fully stocked smoothie and nutrition bar, and space for specially chosen physical therapy providers, chiropractors, and massage therapists. As LaLonde excitedly shared all the details, I fantasized about skipping the workouts and zooming straight to the recovery phase. Heck, it almost motivated me to leave California for Illinois!
Recovery is the last thing on Robyn and Brian’s minds when it comes to their personal lives lately. Robyn continues coaching athletes and crams her exercise in while running to and from client appointments. Her record is 27 “errand” miles in one day. Brian has kept his job in corporate finance. And the two are backing Edge completely on their own. “Is it riskier? Yes. Is it simpler and faster? Heck yes!” said Robyn, a Boston Marathon qualifier. “For us, the reward, to create something in an industry you’re passionate about, is worth it.”
I’ve been wondering whether endurance sports athletes make for better entrepreneurs, or if it’s the other way around. The LaLondes and Zhang both demonstrated a high tolerance of risk by first deciding to push their bodies to the limit in racing. But maybe pushing their minds farther than they thought was possible ultimately trained them to shove aside their “safe” lifestyles in pursuit of bigger, riskier horizons. That tiny opening was more than enough to let inspiration take over.
“When I completed my first Ironman, I said I’d always listen to that voice in my head, no matter how scary or crazy it may seem,” Robyn explained. “It didn’t take me long to realize that working with athletes inside of the fitness industry was where I wanted to be…all of a sudden I felt silly putting on my business casual clothes every day.
“And so I jumped.”