This story originally appeared on innervoice.life, the voice of endurance sports.
I race opponents rather than racing myself. I’m a born swimmer, decent cyclist, and quick runner, therefore, I feel like I can be in control from the gun. In general, I aim to come out of the water near the front and in that neighborhood the rest of the day. I’ve always tried to stay with the contenders throughout the entire race. When there's a surge or someone gets dropped, I wonder if I’m going too hard or vice versa. Sometimes you can let guys surge and they'll just naturally slow down and come back to you if your pace is consistent. Other times there are moves where you have to make a judgment call. You think to yourself “I probably should go with these guys because I may not be able to run them down by the end.”
To race against the best, you have to be willing to take risks, but there are times where taking extra risks are unnecessary or harmful to your potential result. Lionel Sanders and Sebastian Kienle zipped by me at St. George a couple of years ago and cycling at their pace turned out to be a mistake. Even though I could keep up with them on the climbs, the constant power that they would push downhill was a little too much for me. By continually trying to stay with them I quickly dug myself a hole and eventually burnt out.
I FELL IN LOVE WITH CYCLING
Growing up, I gravitated to the water, spending most of my teen years in the pool or competing in surf lifesaving competitions along the east and west coasts. I like to think I would’ve been into a team sport like water polo, but it wasn’t available in my area. I was into swimming because I really liked it. You’re constantly improving, and it’s apparent in your times. I swam for George Mason University and since I wasn't on a scholarship I felt the freedom to explore other sports in my free time, like running and cycling. Being a skinny swimmer, these sports came natural to me.
I fell in love with cycling independently of the other two disciplines of triathlon. I was interested in Lance Armstrong’s story and his background had some triathlon. Even though I cycled for my university, I figured I’d never turn professional, so I happily continued to run, and focus on triathlon. In my late teens I found a myriad of ITU World Cup videos, and I concluded that there was no reason why I couldn’t be a contender one day. Eventually I entered the Olympic development pipeline with USA Triathlon and things took off from there. Racing Ironman rarely ever crossed my mind but over a decade later, here I am prepping for my second Ironman World Championships.
I’ve always taken the three individual sports seriously and think that’s an important approach for all triathletes. Outside of my swimming background, I have competed seriously in both cycling and running races. When it comes to Ironman and long distance, it helps to really enjoy cycling. After all, most of the day is spent in the saddle.
When things aren’t going to plan I’ll break the race apart by preparing to reach the next aid station. Staying in the present moment is critical. When you’re training alone and things go wrong in the middle of nowhere, help can be a long, long way away. But in a race, sometimes it's just around the corner. As long as you’re moving, an aid station is somewhere on the horizon. To get there, I try to stay present and focus on the small things. As an example: staying in the aero position on the flats and being efficient with my energy by keeping my upper body still on the climbs.
I tend not to say much to myself while I’m racing. I don’t really have mantras or words. My inner dialogue is just...not really there. There's definitely some regrets that pass through my head, like, “Uh oh, I’m thirsty. I’ll take my time going through the next aid station and make sure to grab extra water and drinks.” The words wouldn’t necessarily be there, but I’ll plan out my next move by visualizing it in my mind - an empty bottle toss or a bottle hand-off from a volunteer. I find visualizing it also helps prevents the mistake of a dropped bottle.
“As much as I would love to be a coach someday, I'd prefer an advisory role where I’m helping to develop young talent or share ideas with athletes that want to race to the very best of their abilities. I don't have a strong desire to micromanage the ins and outs of a 25 week training block. Their wisdom and one liners can be comforting, but I feel like many coaches that are ex-pros simply train their athletes the way they once trained, and that may not always work. The best coaches, like Krista Austin, are brilliantly flexible in their approach.”
ALL IN FOR KONA
I'll be racing in Kona in October. It will be my second appearance, but the first time I'm centering my entire season around the event. Training has exceeded my expectations. There are good days and not so good days. On the best days you think you could either win a world title or make the podium, but on the bad days you're like, “Thank god today isn’t the race!” It’s still early September and that's actually how I feel today. I just put in four or five days where I was knocking it out of the park and everything was going well. But yesterday I got half-way through a hard run and realized I just needed to shut it down for a couple of days. When it comes to the Ironman World Championships, Olympics, Olympic Trials, or any major one-day event, timing is everything with training. Better to be slightly underdone than over-cooked.
In Ironman, the name of the game at the elite level is to race the last 25% of each of the disciplines really well. That’s the last kilometer of the swim, when your low back is tightening up or your hip flexors are sore because you kicked too hard. In order to prepare yourself for that you have to create the right type of fatigue in training, and have enough of the right kind of swimming in the bank. If you’re not spending enough time in the pool it will hit you like a ton of bricks by halfway. The same goes for the bike. There are different faces near the front in the beginning compared to the final miles. Lastly, the run. Athletes come off the bike and they’ll look strong, but it can be hard to tell who’s going to succeed because many are running the same pace. But the beauty of Ironman is that a time deficit the size of the Grand Canyon could vanish in the blink of an eye with just one or two bad patches.
NEVER GIVE UP
A great memory for me was during a very, very hot ITU World Cup race in Huatulco, Mexico in 2011. My frozen polar water bottles never thawed, and I crashed my bike on a small hill. A lapse of judgement in the intense heat meant I clipped someone’s wheel and we both went down at low speed. My iced bottles were rolling down the hill and I felt like I had to chase after them for the little fluid I could get from them. I was able to catch the main bike group by the time I entered T2, but I could barely slide my shoes on. The thought of quitting never crossed my mind. I wasn't even angry, sad, or frustrated. I felt nothing. The only thing I looked forward to was the first aid station at 1km down the road. There, the volunteers gave out an unlimited amount of 250ml bags of water. Since I wasn't able to take the race out at the pace I normally would've with a strong group, I had to race to the best of my ability and negative split the run. I reeled in the entire field in within 9km and even had enough time to enjoy the last kilometer, gliding into the finishing chute.
In my view, plenty of triathletes and successful athletes (or people for that matter) can be incredibly selfish. What I mean by that is they’re self-centered with their time and focus or with what they're willing to contribute to life outside of their career path. This may work at the highest levels, but I've seen relationships fall apart when the athlete doesn't know when to turn it off or dial it back. Creating some sort of balance when not training or preparing for a race is crucial.
I greatly admire those who can get work done efficiently, then seamlessly switch to family time without skipping a beat. My wife is one of them. Constantly using the excuse that the next workout is more important than helping out around the house can take its toll, especially when it’s little things. I've seen great talent go to waste because their timing of when to “turn it off" is off by a mile. At this stage of my athletic life, I think that's vastly important.
In my downtime I play a small role at a Registered Investment Advisor group. I work in portfolio and wealth management, building financial models while learning the ins and outs of the industry. Most of our clients are high net-worth. Some people are generationally wealthy or incredibly successful while others are savvy with money and have invested well into their retirement accounts throughout their adult lives. That’s another thing that hit home with me. Retirement. What’s next in life after racing is over with? No matter what, I’ll constantly strive to grind, read, learn, adapt, pay my dues, and be a better person than yesterday.
Follow Matt on Instagram: @mattchrabot
Words by Matt Chrabot, images and editing courtesy of innervoice.life