Excellence, by Joe Friel

I’m mentally preparing a post on first-ironman success tips, but in the meantime, I read something that resonated so deeply, I just had to repost it. Friel, of course, is the author of the Triathlete’s Training Bible and coauthor of Going Long and Paleo Diet for Athletes, among others. Here’s the original post.


Excellence is not for everyone. It’s far too difficult for the great majority of those who participate in sport. In fact, those who seek excellence are often ridiculed because they are different from their peers. And so it isn’t easy to seek excellence either. Humans are social animals; we don’t like being outcasts. It’s much easier to go along with the crowd than to stand out in a crowd. But there are athletes who pull it off, and with great aplomb. Have you ever noticed how young, pro athletes often try to give the impression that nothing about their training or dedication to the sport is unusual? They’ve learned to give the appearance of being “just like everyone else,” even though their performance in competition tells us otherwise. Going out of their way to be laid-back is how they cope with the dilemma and help prevent others from branding them as strange. And that’s a good strategy which I would recommend to anyone who truly seeks excellence: Try not to give the air of someone who is seeking excellence. Appear ordinary in every way you can.

What brought all of this up was a question someone asked me over dinner tonight. We were at a surprise party for an athlete I coach who had just won his age category at his state’s time trial championship. It was clear to my dinner-table neighbor that this state champ had altered his course in the past year and was becoming excellent at cycling. So my new friend wanted to know what I looked for in a person who wanted to hire me as a coach. How would I know if a person could be successful? I started to tell him all of what follows but we were interrupted by party goings-on. Here’s the long list of what I think are the best predictors of excellence in sport, in their order of importance, in case he gets a chance to read this post.

Motivation. This one is more important than all of the others combined. If the athlete isn’t motivated excellence is highly unlikely. In fact, the other predictors won’t even exist without motivation. This goes well beyond giving lip service to goals. The truly motivated athlete is on a mission and has a hard time keeping himself or herself in check. This person really needs a coach to pull on the reins to prevent overtraining, injury, illness and burnout. If the coach has to use a whip then it’s a losing cause no matter how talented the athlete is. The coach will never give the athlete motivation. It must come from within. When I’m interviewing athletes I ask lots of questions to find out how truly motivated they are. For example, I ask how often they train with other athletes versus alone. The low-motivation athlete will need companionship frequently. If you are motivated then all of the following predictors of excellence will fall into place eventually.

Discipline. This is very simple. The disciplined athlete will make daily sacrifices and make due with hardships in order to excel. This person doesn’t miss workouts short of a disaster. Weather is an insignificant factor. The disciplined athlete knows that the small stuff is important. He or she doesn’t get sloppy with diet, recovery, equipment or anything else that has to do with goals. Discipline is not easy. Others can accept motivation, but they have a hard time dealing with people who are disciplined. You’ve got to make light of or even hide your discipline is you want to be accepted by your peers. Good luck here.

Confidence. Some people seem to live life completely with an unwavering belief in themselves and their actions. These folks are indeed rare. I’ve met very few athletes who didn’t have some concerns about how well suited they were for whatever the task at hand may be. There’s a sliding scale of confidence. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. To move closer to the high-confidence end all we typically need is some success. Success breeds confidence. While it’s hard to come by you can create your own. For the athletes I’ve coached whose confidence was decidedly on the low end I’ve suggested a daily confidence-booster. When they go to bed and after the lights are out, I tell them to go back in their memories and find anything in their day’s workout or related activities that was successful at any level. This could be a very small success such as feeling strong going up a certain hill during the workout today, or eating fruit instead of a cookie for a snack. I tell them to then relive that small success over and over until they fall asleep. Occasionally there are big successes. These become “anchors” which they relive often and store away in a vault to be pulled out whenever they feel low confidence coming on, like at the starting line of a race. Thinking of one’s successes breeds success. Success breeds confidence.

Focus. This could also be called purpose; the athlete knows where he or she wants to go in the sport. Daily training is a purposeful activity that will lead to excellence. Each workout (and accompanying recovery) is a small building block that eventually results in excellence. But you have to take it one step at a time, which brings us to the last predictor, patience.

Patience. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Outliers it takes about 10,000 hours for a person to become a master of anything. I had never tried to quantify it in terms of hours, but experience told me that performing at the highest level in sport takes something on the order of 10 years of serious training regardless of when you started in life. So I think Gladwell is probably right. There are certainly exceptions, or at least it appears that way on the surface. But when an athlete comes along who seems to go to the top right away we often find on closer examination that he or she had been developing outside of the recognized success pathways. Patience also has another level that goes beyond this long-term approach to success. This is a more immediate, daily component associated with the ability to pace appropriately early in workouts and races. Athletes who seem unable to learn this skill are less likely to be successful than those who master it.

Notice that I didn’t say anything about innate talent, physiology, skills, or even experience in the sport. All of these things can be developed and learned if the other predictors are there. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have the capacity to develop each of these mental abilities. As mentioned earlier, the challenge for most of us in seeking excellence is learning how to do it without appearing to be doing so. Watch how most of the pros do it and try to emulate their apparently laissez-faire attitude. Good examples are Chrissie Wellington in triathlon and David Zabriskie in road cycling. In their own unique ways they give the impression of being unconcerned about excellence. But no one achieves their levels of accomplishment without being highly motivated, disciplined, focused and patient.


Vineman 2011 Race Report

This was my first full ironman-distance triathlon, and it was my primary focus in training this year. All-and-all, I’m really happy with how the whole thing went, from the training, to the race itself, to my results, to everything surrounding the race.

Deciding to tackle the ironman beast and choosing a race
I started thinking about an ironman toward the end of last summer, and waffled back and forth on it for several months. I knew it was a huge time and money investment, and it took a lot of consideration and discussion for me to feel comfortable committing to it. I had previously done one olympic tri (2:35) and run one marathon (3:55), so it was a stretch, but not a huge one.

I picked Vineman for a combination of the reputation of the race (well-run, friendly, tough-but-not-impossible course), location (wine country, California… I also considered a race in Ceder Point, Ohio, but it seemed like it would be quite a bit tougher to talk the family into a post-race vacation in Ohio), price ($187 with the 3-for-2 special at the earliest registration price), and timing (late enough in the season to allow me plenty of training and some build-up races, but still in the summer, when it’s easy for me to get away from work for a while). Some folks feel a strong draw to do an Ironman® race, but, for me, the main reason to shell out the extra $400 bucks would be to try to qualify for the world championship race in Hawaii. I suppose there is probably some additional excitement at the branded races, and I hear they’re very well executed, but with 1,000+ participants at Vineman, plus a bunch of Barb’s race people, there was plenty of excitement, and with the exception of an aid station or two on the run course, I thought the execution was flawless. Also, for many of the WTC-branded Ironman races, you have to be ready to sign up 364 days before the race, because they sell out in a few hours, and I just wasn’t ready to commit yet at this time last year.

A few words on my training
Don Fink’s Be Iron Fit has an excellent reputation, and I liked the simplicity of the plan — every Tuesday you have a bike-run brick, every Friday you have a swim and your longest weekday run, etc. There are no coded workouts, no appendix to turn to to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing, just sport, distance, and intensity. I modified the plan a bit to suit my strengths, weaknesses, and time allowances. I cut back the swimming a bit (more about this below), bumped the weekday biking, and bumped the running a bit in the early weeks. The plan is 30 weeks, I did 25 weeks of focused training.

Weekly training volume by sport

Where the plan calls for specific periods of tempo (zone 4) work, I never did those intervals; rather, I let the hills where I train dictate when I went at higher intensity. I’m guessing a lot of folks on the Vineman run course were wishing they had done more training in hills. All said, I think the training suited me well for my first 140.6. If you’re interested in my specific training plan, leave me a note; I’d be happy to send the Excel file to you.

The Scorecard
Total Time = 11h 07m 37s
Overall Men’s Rank = 62/574
Age Group (M30-34) Rank = 17/108

Lead up to the race 
I arrived in Santa Rosa Thursday morning, two days before the race, and was really lucky to be able to stay in friend’s house while she was in Kansas at a medical conference. So I had a nice, quiet place to relax, reassemble my Fedexed bike, layout my clothing and nutrition, do the last pre-race workouts, drive the course, go to pre-race meetings, and meet some online friends from beginnertriathlete.com.

Went to bed around 9:00 the night before the race and set the alarm for 2:30am. Slept well until 1:30, and then there was no going back to sleep. I guess I was just too excited. So I laid in bed for a while, then got up and started in on my usual pot of coffee, along with a bowl of cereal with a little yogurt and banana and two big pieces of toast with almond butter and jelly. Loaded up the car and was on my way to Johnson’s Beach at 5am. By the way, there was no traffic on 116. Parking was pretty tight by 5:30, but it was so exciting to see all the athletes getting ready in the pre-dawn.

T1 doesn’t open until 1 hour before the starting gun, and the lines weren’t trivial, so the whole thing felt a little rushed for my taste. I ended up making my last port-o-potty stop just a few minutes before the start and then ran into the river zipping up my wetsuit with just a couple minutes before the start. I figure for an all-day race I can just warmup for the first 15 minutes of the race, so I was fine with just taking a couple strokes to make sure my wetsuit wasn’t rubbing wrong before lining up on the start line. Situated myself on the inside, a little in front of mid-pack. Wished the other racers good luck, let out a YAHOOO, and we were off!

Swim – 1:10:15 (AG: 38/108)
I was shocked at how crowded the start was. The river is pretty narrow, and it’s split in half (for the out and back), so with a couple hundred of us in the first wave, it was quite the washing machine for the first five minutes or so. My plan was just to swim nice and easy, try to draft as much as possible, and keep in mind that it was going to be a long day and I wanted to preserve as much energy as possible. I had to force myself to back off a little while we were all bumping elbows and kicking each other, because that sort of thing just makes me want to go hard, but I settled into my rhythm pretty quickly and just focused on taking nice long strokes and keeping my breathing deep and regular. Breathed bilaterally through the whole swim. Was on someone’s feet on and off, but never caught and held a real good draft. That’s something I could work on. Navigated reasonably well, though at one point I did come within 6″ of running into one of the boats that was sitting between the outbound and returning swimmers. At the far end of the swim, the river really is shallow — you hit your fingers for the top 50 yards or so. A lot of guys were standing up and walking, and I tried that a couple times, but it just felt like it took a lot more energy and wasn’t any faster than swimming. Besides, there was plenty for the legs to do later in the day. :^> When I was coming in finishing my first lap, I saw 33:xx on the clock, and on the way back out, say 37:xx, so I think I even split the swim perfectly. As I was headed out on the second lap, I felt like a 1:10 swim for that easy level of effort would be a great outcome. And then before I knew it I was coming up on the swim exit. There was a part of me that wanted it not to be over yet — that was weird, but whatever, it’s time to go ride!

I’ve done very little open water training, so my navigation and drafting skills are sub-par. Not terrible, but those would be easy ways to pick up a few minutes on the swim. Six months earlier, I made a very intentional decision to make swimming a distant third priority to running and biking. I always did two swims a week, and worked them up to 4,500 yards, and I was always focused on form, but I didn’t do as much swim work as I could have, and I’m fine with that. If I had worked really hard in the pool, best case is I could have picked up 5 or 10 minutes, but that would have come at the expense of something else, and I’m guessing would have been net-negative. As I get closer to the pointy end of the field, I know I’ll have to improve my swimming, but going into training my first 140.6, it didn’t seem to make sense to do any more swim training than necessary, and I think my results validate that approach.

T1 – 6:05
The beach that is T1 is a gravelly mess. Besides the sections of the bike course where the roads were in bad shape, this was my least favorite aspect of the race. Got my wetsuit off as I was running to my rack, grabbed my bike gear, ran over to the changing tent, dried and changed, then ran back to my bike, put my shoes on, put all my gear in the bag that they’d bring to me after the race, grabbed the bike, ran the ~200′ to T1 exit, hopped on the bike and was off. A lot of people ran the slight hill out of T1, but I had no trouble getting into my pedals and up to speed on the hill. Next time I will train in and wear tri shorts or a tri suit. Running back and forth to the changing tent at each transition was a waste of time, effort, and focus.

Bike – 5:48:00 (AG: 25/108)
Don’t eat the paste! I had read several times that EN article that says everyone goes out too hard and that if you’re getting passed it’s a good thing, but I was totally unprepared for how much of a special ed class race day really is. Guys were blowing by me for the first hour as I just rode along, 20+bpm below zone 2. For the first 20 minutes, just swished out my mouth with water, didn’t consume anything. At 30 minutes, took my first shot blocks and started in on Gatorade. Over the course of the bike, I consumed 12 shot blocks (400 cal), 2 gels (180 cal), 4 Clif Kids bars (520 cal) and 144oz of Gatorade Pro (900 cal), plus a bunch of water. Had to make four pee stops, which was a bummer, but the net benefit of the caffeine probably made it worth while. It sure would be great to be able to pee on the bike though. And I probably could’ve gotten more calories from solids early on while it was cool. My nutrition plan was based on training, which was usually around 80F weather. The mornings at this race are cool, so you don’t lose fluid to sweat at nearly the rate I did in training. Hence 4 times off the bike. 

After the first hour, the getting passing slowed down, and I gradually moved my effort up into zone 1. By a couple hours in, I was starting to pass people, a trend that would continue for the rest of the day. That wasn’t true on Chalk Hill though. You hit Chalk Hill–the only hill of any consequence–at the end of each lap, so around 2:30 and 5:00 into my ride. All of sudden, fools start passing me again! People are up out of the saddle and huffing and puffing up the hill, and I’m just sitting there, plugging away, comfortably in zone 2. You can put whatever compact crank you want on your bike (I’m on a standard), if you’re going to get up and hammer, the hills are still going to kill your marathon.
My dear sweat Anne, chearing me along at mile 64 of the bike, totally oblivious to the car that’s about to hit her:

At the end of the first lap, I had tough moment of checking in with myself. My stomach felt uneasy, but it had been a little funny for about 48 hours leading up to the race. I thought about backing off the calories, but I was hungry and had eaten more in training, in hotter weather at higher intensity, without trouble so I didn’t think that was necessary. I thought seriously about backing off the intensity, but the more I thought about it, the less it felt like I was overdoing it, and the more it seemed like my stomach was just dealing with what it had been leading up to the race. So I kept on my nutrition plan and hung out around the zone 1-zone 2 border as I entered lap 2.

Toward the middle of the second lap, it became clear that I was on pace for a well sub-6 hour bike split, which was exciting and nerve racking. I knew that overdoing it on the bike would get me on the run, and this being my first race, I really didn’t know what I was in for or how to tell if I was at an appropriate intensity. And then it started getting a little warmer and my heart rate started to drift upward. I figured I’d probably get some cardiac drift toward the end of the bike, so I tried to stay at the same RPE I’d been riding for hours, but it gets tough to tell toward the end of the bike. After mile 90, I was ready to get onto the run. My saddle had had enough of being on the saddle, and I was starting to get board. At this point, between the excitement of being done with the bike leg, my calculating what my bike split could be, and not being able to rely totally on HR, I probably let the intensity up a little too high. It’s hard to know for sure, but the last hour on the bike is probably a place where I need to make an effort to stay within the race plan.

The day before the race, they warned us that there were two sharp curves coming into T2, so if we were going to get out of our shoes before dismounting, we’d need to do it before getting to those turns. Unfortunately, in my endurance-haze, I pulled out of my shoes one turn too early. So I rounded a corner and heard a volunteer say “great job — one more mile!” But I doubt it cost me more than a couple seconds.

If I had it to do over again, I’d maybe go just a bit harder in the first hour and a bit easier in the last hour. I’d also take a little more of my calories in the first hours from solid food to avoid having to stop to pee so often.

 T2 – 5:36
Felt great to arrive at T2. There were a few bikes on the racks, but not many, and that felt awesome. Glad that someone had chalked the very memorable phrase “shut up legs!” at my rack so I knew where to turn in my semi-delusional state. Again, had to grab my stuff, run to the changing tent to change and then run back. Next time, no clothes changes. Oh, I also forgot to take my wrappers and extra gels out of my tri top pockets and ended up handing them off to some sweet spectator 1/4 mile into the run.

Run – 3:57:41 (AG: 12/108)
As always, really had to reign in the speed for the first few miles. I was hoping to hold an 8:30 pace through the marathon,

Headed out at the run start

and my plan was to stay between 8:30 and 9:00 for the first half hour. My legs, however, seemed to want to do around 8:00/mile. As it turned out, I did the first mile in 8:23, which would be the fastest mile of the day. From there out, they were all right around 9:00/mile. As with the bike, it takes focus and discipline to stay within your plan in the early part of the run, but it’s critically important.

The course is three out and backs. The first lap was easy enough, but I was still worried about my stomach and my ever rising heart rate. It really wasn’t until around mile 18 that I felt confident that I wasn’t going to have GI issues or totally blow up. On the first loop, I was running paces that would normally be upper zone 1 for me, but my HR was upper zone 2 and by the end of the first lap into zone 3. Everything I had read was that peripheral fatigue would be the limiter, and I wouldn’t be able to keep my HR elevated through the marathon, so this was really concerning. I was imagining walking the last lap with my HR 50bpm lower than it currently was. So I did some checking in with my body, as I had at the mid-point on the bike, and I really felt like my effort was appropriate and well below aerobic threshold,

Heart rate for run portion of ironman

Run splits

and I felt strongly that my training suggested I could run a sub-4 hour marathon if I executed well, which I felt I had to that point. So I stuck with it and stayed comfortably (as much as possible at that point) right around 9:00/mile.

Coming back into town at the end of the first lap, I got a big emotional boost seeing my family and friends twice, once on the way in and again on the way out. Getting that first bracelet felt bittersweet — it was great, but I knew 90% of the struggle still lay ahead.

And it did. In the second lap was when it started to really get tough. I don’t have a lot of specific memories, so suffice to say that it’s hard. You have to dig really deep. You lean on whatever you can — knowing your training was solid, wanting to prove yourself, knowing your friends and family are watching, mantras, videos of Craig Alexander… whatever gets you through, over and over and over.

Nutrition wise, Gatorade was too sloshy, so I decided to go with 1 shot block (33cal) at each aide station, which would be around 250 cal/hour. That worked really well, as one was manageable even as they started to get really gross toward the end. I took water with each one, and whenever I could grab an extra cup, poured some on me to keep a little cooler. On the third lap, I went to Coke for the first time ever… it does what everyone says it does — gets you through.

Headed out for one... more... lap...

On the first lap, the Barbs Race ladies were all over the course, so it was a lot weaving through them, with the occasional glimpse of the super-fast IMers who were ahead of me. But by the third lap, more-or-less all of the Barb’s ladies were done, so I knew that I was ahead of nearly everyone I saw out there. That was a nice boost. As it became more and more likely that neither my legs nor my GI system was going to collapse, the reality of hitting the goal that I’d been working so hard for so long for came into focus, and that was all it took to hold my pace through the final lap. I walked the big uphills, as I I think I had some on the first two laps, always carefully defining a non-negotiable point where I would start running again. That worked well. At the turn around point of my last lap, the volunteers were giving out frozen Icee pops — that was great, as much for the cold as the sugar.

Once I was seeing miles 23, 24, 25 on the pavement, it was close enough that I was pretty much cruising. As I came into town for the final time, I saw a few guys ahead of me that I thought I could pass, so picked it up a little, and fairly quickly the threat of debilitating cramps reared up in my left hamstring. I backed off just a bit, but still did quite a bit of passing (no one in my AG, it seems) in the last couple hundred yards.

As I turned into the finishing shoot, I saw 11:07 up on the clock, and a huge smile shot onto my face. So much training and so much hard work in that run all collapsed into that moment of cognition of what I had accomplished.