Like office colleagues catching up at the water cooler, Lindley (coach to top Kona contenders Mirinda “Rinny” Carfrae and Leanda Cave) and Steinmetz (coach to Julie Dibens, training advisor to Craig “Crowie” Alexander and well-known Retul bike fitter) share experiences and insights from their spot on the sideline.
MS: Which athletes do you work with who are racing Kona this year?
SL: Mirinda is returning and also Leanda Cave. It’s going to be a really exciting year for both of them. I know coming back to Kona, Leanda has a lot of unfinished business. She had a really tough year last year, just in the last 10 miles of the run with her digestion. We’re working a lot on figuring out a way to avoid that happening again. And Mirinda of course, she’s very excited to get back.
MS: Yeah, she had a good year.
SL: Yeah, she had a pretty good race last year! It was exciting, and we hope to build upon that. I think this year is going to be so exciting, because the level out there is incredible and I think there are so many people who will be in Kona that will prove to be great threats. It should be an amazing race.
MS: How long have you been working with those two?
SL: Mirinda for about five and a half years now, so its been an incredible journey. She had been in the sport for a while already, but we started together right when she started doing 70.3’s. She always had this incredible desire to do Kona; it had always been a dream of hers. She was ready to just get into it right away, but I said, “No, we’ve got to build up to it, build up that foundation of strength.” It’s been an awesome journey with her. And Leanda I’ve been working with for two years now. That also has been incredible. The last race that I raced, she won the world championship in Cancun. That was the last I’d seen her, and now suddenly we’re working together and it’s an awesome relationship. She’s feisty and hungry and just a great athlete. So I’m really lucky. And how about you, who do you have going to Kona?
MS: My situation’s kind of unique. I work with Julie Dibens and I do a lot of consulting for Craig Alexander. I work for Retul, so I see all these athletes all the time, and I’ve even helped Rinny out with her bike fit. I consult and have a lot of athletes bounce ideas off of me, even though I don’t have any sort of official relationship with those athletes. But with Craig and Julie both, this is the second year we’ve been working together. Like you mentioned, Kona is the big daddy for them. Julie and Rinny kind of have the same background where they both did short course and then started doing half ironman’s and that just wasn’t enough. They want Kona. It’s the big daddy for all the athletes, for sure.
SL: You even say it and I get goose bumps! I’ve heard great things about the work you’ve done with those athletes, and I’m thankful to you for the work you’ve done with Rinny, with her bike set up. It’s been awesome. I think the funny thing is, the athletes you’re consulting and Rinny, they’re all such great friends.
MS: That’s what’s great. Julie has no issue if I do something to try to make Rinny faster on the bike. It obviously doesn’t involve the coaching aspect, but it involves improving her position on the bike and making her go faster. Julie has no issue with that. They’re both such good friends that they want the best for each other. If Julie doesn’t win, she wants Rinny to win, and I assume it’s the same way for Rinny as well. It makes it kind of cool.
SL: Absolutely. I think the unique thing between Julie and Rinny is that they so appreciate having another athlete that is pushing them to be better every single day. Because when you’re looking to get out there and beat a Chrissie Wellington, you know you’ve got to find every way you can to become that much better in all three disciplines. And they want that from each other, so the better they get the more they can push each other and inspire each other. I think the dynamic is incredibly powerful. It’s really awesome that they have that friendship.
MS: To have longevity in this sport, it has to be fun. And if you don’t want to train with anyone, you just want to be by yourself – I don’t think that can last. I don’t think the longevity can be there. I mean obviously they want to kill each other on the racecourse, but they train together, they do a lot of stuff together. And it’s exciting for them. It’s not another long boring day out by themselves. They have someone they can talk to and kind of enjoy it.
SL: Totally. I love that they’re out there to help each other in any way they can, because that will only help themselves as well. And Craig of course – from early on, Rinny and Craig have shared a great friendship. And I think with any great coach/athlete relationship there’s a lot of collaboration that goes on. These athletes are getting advice, whether from their friends or from people like you and me, and being able to bring that to the table with your coach and say, “Hey, these are things on my mind that I think maybe could work.” Collaborating with the athlete – I do a lot of that with Rinny. Especially because both of us – going into our first ironman, she’d never done one before and I’d never done one before. I’d done all my own research and she’d done all her own research, and obviously we both had this great passion to take on this challenge. But there’s a lot of collaboration that goes into a relationship where both people are taking something on for the first time.
MS: Definitely. As a coach, I feel like my role is more of a filter than anything else. If they’re getting these ideas, I definitely want them to come through me. As a coach you have to be very open-minded. You can’t dismiss everything that is presented. But I know during Kona race week I want my athletes to stay away from everyone else. I mean they may have had three days of rest, and then they do one workout, and some other athlete sees them and says, “You’re doing that this close to Kona?” I think they’re kind of just expressing their insecurities onto your athlete. I think as a coach you’re definitely a filter and it’s also a lot of psychology. It’s a lot of making sure that they’re making good decisions, not emotional decisions. And even though you’re emotionally involved with their success, you’re always trying to make good decisions that are unbiased and where you’re not emotionally attached to the decision.
SL: Absolutely. My biggest thing is, there are probably a hundred different ways to achieve the same success. But the best possible way is to choose one path and follow that path, to be committed to that path. That’s something that both Rinny and Leanda have been great about, following the plan to a “T”. Taking in the information from other people, but like you said, bringing it to the coach. And I’ll either say, “Ok, that’s great, we can work it in but it’s going to have to fit in with the way that we do things,” or I’ll just straight out say, “No, that’s not going to work. It totally goes against our philosophy and is going to throw us off our rhythm.” So it’s important for them to have that voice, and they may bring in something that can help you change things for the better. But a lot of athletes get caught up in listening to ten different people and all these different ideas and they try to put it all together with the plan that they’re already doing. That’s where they fall apart.
MS: Exactly. And then you don’t know if your plan worked. They might be doing secret workouts and they say, “Hey this didn’t go right.” As a coach you think: What went wrong? Maybe they had an easy run, but instead they ran hard, and then they’re tired for the next session. That communication has to be there. I agree with what you said – you want to give the athlete a voice. You don’t want to push them to forget everything they know and do things your way. Because they know how their body feels more so than we do. But they do get so much information coming in. And obviously these athletes have been successful in the past by doing certain things, so you want to listen to them. But you want to incorporate some of those ideas into the plan, versus changing the approach week to week. You want to pick a direction and then be somewhat adaptable.
SL: Absolutely. And if a coach doesn’t give their athlete a voice, that’s when mistakes happen. That open communication is the key to any great successful coaching relationship. If an athlete is doing secret training and not telling me about it, the first thing I do is think: How did I get this wrong? I really felt confident about this plan, it totally should have worked, it should have never resulted in this result, so what did I do wrong? And that could be so potentially dangerous, because I may go back and change something that would have worked great, because I didn’t know they were doing the easy things flat out hard, or doing extra workouts. But if the communication is there – I mean with Rinny, we just had a really big weekend of training, and she told me the one thing she did differently was an hour run off this huge long ride. I’m like: Rinny, you can’t do that. Because that totally throws off the balance for the next day. And she gets that, she knows – but that’s always going to happen at times. But when the athlete at least communicates that, then I can go back to the table and look at what we have for the coming week and make adjustments now that will support what happened on Saturday. As long as the communication’s there, you won’t get into any trouble. It may not be ideal, but you can work it out without having it create problems.
MS: That’s what’s great about working with a professional athlete who doesn’t necessarily have to go to work Monday through Friday. You can be very adaptable. It’s funny, too, because Julie and Craig do a lot of riding together, so I get both of them kind of telling on the other one. For example, this weekend for Julie was supposed to be a long ride up in the mountains, nothing crazy. And I get reports from Craig that she’s crushing everyone. She’s dropping people on climbs. So it’s good to have that information. But also, someone like Julie, unless she’s feeling all fresh like on a race morning, nothing ever feels good to her. I’m going to hear, “Oh man, I’m smashed, I’m tired.” So it’s also good to get a report from someone else saying she’s killing it.
SL: I don’t know about you, but with the majority of my athletes, when you’re in a hard training block and you’re working towards a massive goal, it is rare that you feel good. But the performance is there, and they’re getting out of the session what they need to be getting out if it. But when you’re in a big block it is hard to feel fresh and amazing – it doesn’t really happen.
MS: Especially in a group training environment, because somebody is always going to be more rested or feel better than your athlete. A lot of times it gets in their heads – like maybe things aren’t going so good. That’s why I said it seems that coaching is a lot of psychology.
SL: So much! I was actually a psychology major in college. I made the big choice of whether to go after a PhD in psychology, or whether to go into what I really wanted, which was sports. But I’m amazed at how much I use that psychology. I feel like it is all day every day such a massive part of what we do. Because every athlete is so different. You couldn’t possibly give the same exact training plan to two athletes. People ask, “What’s the secret to doing well in Kona?” Everybody has his or her own secret. What works well for Rinny could destroy Julie. Or what works for Julie could be totally the wrong thing for Rinny. You could throw out some things that would work for everyone – but depending on their body, their psychology, everything about them being so unique, the plan for doing well in Kona has to be the perfect recipe for that individual.
MS: I think so too. And really, there are not that many tricks. Especially as the event gets longer, I think everyone’s training kind of mimics each other. Then it’s about finding out whether the athlete can have a good run after a hard bike day. Tailoring the plan to that sort of thing. How can I get my athlete to have a successful block, and what impacts the next day’s training? A lot of people do the Saturday long ride, Sunday long run routine. What happens if you do your long ride on Sunday and your long run on Friday? You don’t know until you’ve tried. There’s definitely a standard way to do things, but I think being flexible enough to think outside the box and try something different helps.
SL: Thinking outside the box – that is the crucial factor. It would be so easy to just gather a bunch of information from all the best that have done the sport, all the top coaches, and simply put it all together into a plan. But you have to use your imagination and think outside the box. It could be something totally mental that is affecting their training.
MS: Oh, placebo works!
SL: It does.
MS: That’s the thing – I think part of my success is that I’m not necessarily tied to any one approach. I’m not tied to 50 hours a week of training. It’s about what will work for each athlete. I don’t have some sort of bias. I’m not giving an athlete a program I did 20 years ago that happened to work for me. That’s what’s kind of cool – you were a very successful elite athlete, but a lot of the stuff you do now is outside of the realm of how you raced. I don’t know if you’ve ever raced a half ironman, but I know you’ve never done an ironman. So you’re not biased towards your experience as an athlete. I do think it’s important that you raced triathlon – you understand what’s going on race morning, what’s going on during a race, what it feels like to have a horrible day out there. You can relate to that, but you’re not giving them your ironman training plan and relying on that.
SL: Thank you for that. And I get the same sense from you, that you’re very creative. It’s like composing a song for each athlete. It has to fit that person. There are going to be changes and nothing’s ever going to look the same. What worked for me might destroy someone else. I look at my career as a triathlete and I almost think I had that experience to prepare me for what I do today. I’m so grateful for the career I had, but I feel such great satisfaction in working with an athlete. They come to you with their dream, they say, “Ok, I’m putting my dream in your hands.” And I think: Wow. I’m happy to fail on my own, but if I’m failing and someone else is involved there’s nothing worse. So it’s that incentive to handle this person with care and do everything I can to help them achieve their every dream. I know I failed so many times in my career. I’ve done everything in the book that’s embarrassing and I made the stupidest mistakes, and I think that kind of stuff is so important to bring to the table. “Ok, wait a second, I’ve done this in the past and it totally messed me up. Please just listen to what I’m going to say and open your mind to having a different perspective because I don’t want that to happen to you.” With Kona, a lot of it for me was going there a few years before we even started racing that distance and just talking to people. I have the utmost respect for the great athletes in our sport, and the great coaches that have been there and done that. Getting their perspectives, taking all of that info and then deciding what feels good and right. I don’t know if you’d agree with this, but I almost get a gut feeling on what I feel would work for someone.
MS: It’s funny because yesterday my wife asked, “Is it stressful to know that this athlete is listening to everything you say? You’re basically giving them a plan and they’re going to go do it – how do you know its right?” It is kind of just a gut feel. You do use all the information that you’ve received. But I think for me being younger, I don’t have a lot of tradition banged into my head. Some of the stuff that’s just the way it’s always been done – I can’t really relate to that. Why? Why do we do this? You do have a direct impact on this person so you have to handle it with compassion and make sure you are making good decisions. I research everything. But usually athletes are a lot more advanced than what can be proven. Sports science is such a hard thing to study since there are so many variables involved. You have to try to gather as much information as you can, but if you’re not sure, ask someone. You can’t be a know-it-all coach. Use your resources. You’re just as valuable a resource if you can find the information somewhere else.
SL: That’s a great point. There are certain things that I don’t feel 100% confident about, but I’ll find someone who is an expert in that particular area and who somewhat shares the same philosophy with me, and bring them in. I’m not going to pretend to be a top nutritionist. I was a little bit heavy when I started my racing career and I learned how to eat healthy and it worked great for me – but I don’t know about gluten intolerance. And I’m not going to pretend I do, because then I’m just setting us both up for failure. When you’re doing everything you can to help an athlete be as successful as possible, you don’t want to take any chances. I love how you say you’re not attached to any traditions because you weren’t really exposed to them. That’s such an advantage, because everything is always moving forward. We always have to be a step ahead if we want to achieve great things.
MS: Well thanks for that. I work with a lot of cyclists as well on the pro tour – you want to talk about tradition! At least triathletes are more willing to try new stuff. Even with Craig. We just got back from the wind tunnel. It’s always hard to get an athlete to change something until they have proof it might not work again. For Craig it’s always been: I won two world championships doing this, setting my bike up this way, wearing this and that. So it was really hard to try to change any of that last year – even his race tactics. But we know that the sport’s evolving. Everyone’s getting better and you have to change with the other competitors. They’re not happy staying the same, they’re always looking to get better and better. So you have to look at all the little things – tires, helmets. I mean if I had a hat and I said, “This is going to give you 10 seconds per mile on the run,” you’d definitely wear that hat. But it seems like some athletes are a little resistant to try something maybe on the bike or swimming. You have to get them to keep evolving – so long as you’re not doing something that’s going to hinder their performance. Like in the wind tunnel, you can tuck an athlete into a ball, but they can’t pedal that bike. So it’s working on things that can help them move forward and be open to something different.
SL: Absolutely. I always say that to my athletes. You can recognize when an athlete is creating an attachment to something that could end up being a limiting attachment. For instance: I’ve only swum well when I’ve trained in a 50-meter pool, so now I can’t train anywhere but a place that has a 50-meter pool. Right away I’m like: OK, we’re going somewhere where there’s not a 50-meter pool and we’re going to be swimming. My pool – the Fishbowl – is wavy and above ground, really just kind of a cheap above ground pool. Because any attachments like that can just be so negative. Say they end up somewhere before a massive race and there’s no 50-meter pool. They start thinking: Oh my god, now I’m not going to swim well because I’ve been swimming in that pool. So it’s recognizing those little things. But like you say, you’re not going to take away something that you know works and that’s not detrimental – I’m not going to take away that teddy bear they’ve slept with for the last 40 years!
MS: Yeah, you’re not trying to play mind games with them. You just want to take away barriers. I think that’s awesome, the pool thing. That’s cool.
SL: Oh yeah, you’ll see it happening. Right away I’m just like: Stop. Or, to take it to another level that is actually worse, an athlete might say, “Last year we did this, this and this in the last three weeks going into the race and I had an amazing race.” Well OK, this year you got sick for a week, and then you traveled here and there, and then you went through this thing, so we can’t do those same three weeks because it would be totally detrimental. But they’re like: I want to do it exactly the way I did it before that led me to that amazing race. That’s a negative attachment that has to be cut off. As coaches it’s so easy to keep perspective. I’ll hear things like: I can’t believe you told me that was a great session, I went five seconds slower than I did last time! And I’ll say, “Well, last time you had a day off the day before, we did an easy swim so you felt nice and loose, we did the session and yeah, you flew. This time, you did a hard TT yesterday, you did a session in the gym, we did a hard run on that evening and then you did the session and you were only five seconds slower, so I think that’s pretty incredible.” We can keep that perspective. And I was totally like that as an athlete so I get it and have compassion for it. But they have to at least allow me to explain why that was a good session today. Because it’s just so easy for them to be thrown off by the five seconds. There are going to be different results and what’s great one day might still be great even though it’s a lot slower another day because of what led up to that session.
MS: Even food. It’s like: This is what I always eat before this. It could be something that makes no sense, but they’re so emotionally attached to it. You take that away from them and it affects them in a way. It’s a lot about preparing the athlete to just be mentally strong and adaptable in those situations. I’m kind of dealing with that now – look at Craig this year. He got himself in great shape early on, and then he got a virus and a rib injury. Then he went and did Coeur D’Alene off of not a whole lot of training. It showed him that he doesn’t need to be wrecking himself all the time. Maybe he can change his preparation for Kona this year and not throw down these 40-hour weeks. It showed him that he can race really well being fresh. But athletes can be so tied to what’s happened in the past. I’ve won X amount of world championships doing this, so that’s what I’m still going to do. Even though their early season has been completely different than all the other years. It’s a tough battle to convince them, because they have won doing what they’ve always done.
SL: I think this year will be really interesting because a lot of people have done early ironman races or they’re doing a mid-season ironman just because they have to qualify for Kona. That was something really different for Rinny and me because we were starting our season with an ironman in early March. We went into it underdone. The whole thing took us totally out of our comfort zone. She was like: Oh my god, I feel underdone. I’m going into this and it’s only my third ironman. I had to say, “The season started in a totally different way. We have to make adjustments according to what the start of the season looked like.” That inevitably leads to a lot of changes along the way. That creates a difficulty, but I see it more as a great opportunity to do things differently and to realize that everything’s going to be totally fine. Because that’s probably the most common thing you hear, people just say, “OK, this is what I did before that time when I was racing great.” But you’ve got to have experiences where, while you’re still following the same philosophies and principles, you’re doing things differently. And you have to believe it’s going to work that way, too.
MS: Yeah, most of the Kona contenders are not the kind of athletes that are going to race three ironman’s a year. I mean they’re very well rounded athletes that might do some Olympic distance and half ironman’s. But the new Kona qualification system kind of takes that away from some of them now. I mean I don’t want to get into the whole politics of the qualifying thing, but, for example, Julie did Rev3 and then Coeur D’Alene. We were almost like: Let’s get in decent enough shape to do Coeur D’Alene, but Rev3 is the goal. So we were doing some things leading into Rev3 we probably wouldn’t normally do. And she raced awesome at Rev3, but you know in an athlete’s mind, once that goal is checked off, they’re onto the next one. All of a sudden that next race is very important to them. Then maybe they don’t have such a good race, and you have to bring it into perspective that Coeur D’Alene wasn’t really the goal – she just had to get it out of the way. And I think it was kind of the same thing with Rinny at New Zealand this year. I spent some time with her and Julie riding before that race and she was stressed. She had to do so much travel after winning Kona. It seemed to me in that race, she could have just cruised it. But these girls are very competitive, so they don’t care what kind of shape they’re in, they’re going to lay it all on the line. I think she took off running and was just like: I am eating time up! And she just went for it. And I think it probably impacted her somewhat in the early season. Julie was the same way. She did Coeur D’Alene and she went for it and made a few errors on the bike with nutrition. Then she had a good first part of the run and then bonked and had to walk. But because she’s so competitive, she just gobbled up a bunch of food at an aid station and got her energy back and then ran the last seven miles really well. And then afterwards, she was sore and couldn’t get back into the training like she wanted to. So throwing another ironman in there, it just seems for some of these athletes it takes them out of their comfort zone. But then it also gives them another chance to practice. Julie and Rinny haven’t raced very many ironman’s. Even Craig – Coeur D’Alene this year was only his sixth ironman. And here he’s got a second and two firsts in Kona. But it gave him a chance to try a different thing. In Kona, in a way it’s like you have to be safe. You’ve got to go for it, but you can’t be too risky. In Coeur D’Alene or New Zealand you can try out different things. So it gives the athlete more practice to work on nutrition and that sort of thing. So you can look at it as a bad thing, but you can also look at it as a new way to practice.
SL: For sure. And of course, if that’s what we’re given, we’re going to look at it as a great opportunity and always try to get the positive spin.
MS: It is what it is. You can get upset and complain, but you still have to do an ironman, so you have to try and make the best of it. What would you do next year – where would you put that ironman in the season? Would you do New Zealand again?
SL: As much as I love that race, I far prefer, for instance, how Leanda has gone about it. Everyone thought we were crazy, but she did Kona and then she did the 70.3 world champs and then she did Ironman Arizona. My biggest thing was wanting to make sure she was still motivated and mentally fired up to do that, because in my opinion if you’re not mentally fired up to do an ironman, you don’t do it. There are too many ups and downs and it’s too hard to put yourself in a position where you’re not 100% ready to face what you’re going to face. But she felt incredibly motivated and went out and did it and came in third. She put together an awesome race. She didn’t feel awesome because it was the end of a long season, but she put together an awesome race. And then she secured herself for Kona this year, as long as she had continued solid results. For me, that’s the ideal – if your body is ready to take that on – and then you get your big break after that. I think that’s perfect. I think it also allows those athletes that love racing 70.3’s to come into the season and feel fast and take that racing to the next level. That’s always been our goal is to take those 70.3 races to the next level, which will only help you at ironman. But I really wanted to respect Rinny’s recovery over the winter. And not just the physical recovery, it’s also the mental recovery and having flexibility in your life. If you want to go out and have fun one night you can and you don’t have to be at the pool at 6:00am. So we decided to do New Zealand. We decided we were going to do the best that we could to prepare. This was another thing she had to get comfortable with. I said, “Our preparation for New Zealand is gong to look really different to what we did going into Kona. You just have to look at this race as we’re going to go and we’re going to get it done.” Obviously we wanted to have the best possible result, but we just had to get it done. But like you’re saying, these athletes are so competitive. And the conditions were terrible, she had a flat tire, she was 20 minutes down coming off the bike. At that point she was fine to just finish and do the best she could. But someone like that, she starts running and feeling OK and putting quick time into it, and then she absolutely just hammered the run – way beyond what she was capable of at that point. That’s what’s so exceptional about these athletes – they’re able to find that utmost potential within themselves and access it and deal with the agony that goes along with doing that when they’re not really ready for it. It took so much out of her. It took months before she was feeling good again. But again it depends on the athlete. If you have an athlete that can go do an early season race and hold back a bit, take it in a way where there’s less pressure, then I think it’s fine. But if you have someone like Rinny, I know that no matter what she’ll go to her death going as hard as she can to try and win the race.
MS: And her racing style doesn’t always give her the luxury of being able to shut it down. Crowie’s the same way. Usually there’s some uber-biker that is off the front by 10 or 15 minutes. Crowie and Rinny are very similar – they really unleash the run to win races. But that doesn’t give you the luxury to kind of cruise it, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. The last part of the marathon people fade so much and that’s where all the time is taken out. Then you have somebody like Julie who can get off the bike with a 20-minute lead and she has more luxury to kind of keep tabs on what’s going on behind her and only run hard enough to win the race. So I’m sure that sort of plays into that, versus letting it go. I think that’s what Rinny saw and it motivated her. She was just eating that time. It’s hard for them to shut it down because they’re in the moment. They want to win that race.
SL: And as a coach you don’t want them to shut it down. I mean when somebody has their strength – and it is authentic and natural for them to always be ready to push it to the max, to use that strength that they have to the fullest – it’s not something that you want to say, “Hey, I want you to shut that down.” Because I feel like any time you ask someone to minimize their strength, that’s kind of dangerous. You always want to encourage the fire they have in that area.
MS: You want them to have that confidence.
SL: For Rinny, I’d much prefer her to get that ironman done early, whether it’s Arizona or any of those December races. For another athlete, I’d probably feel totally fine about them doing Coeur D’Alene or Lake Placid even or any race. It just depends on the athlete, really.
MS: For Julie and Crowie at first it was going to be St. George. And then we did a little more research on the course. We looked at St. George and thought: You can’t shut down that run course. It’s straight up and straight down and it’s going to beat you up regardless.
So obviously my two athletes don’t race against each other. I’m still out there on the course trying to support both of them, but you have two girls that are racing each other – you have Leanda and Rinny. How do you deal with that? Obviously they both want to beat each other, and you want them both to succeed. What’s that like for you?
SL: I keep it so separate. Even the lead up, the week gong into Kona, the things I’m doing with Leanda are totally different to the things I’m doing with Rinny. How I communicate with them is a lot different, because they’re such different people. Both amazing, wonderful people and athletes, but totally different. The important thing for me is being there 100% for both of them, in the ways they need me to be there. Making sure Leanda’s getting everything she needs, Rinny’s getting everything she needs and we’re doing everything exactly the way each of them needs to be doing things – which is very different. The day of the race though, that’s when it gets hard. Last year, I was trying to kind of be everywhere, leap frogging around to catch everyone. Leanda was having a really solid race and then had some intestinal issues in the last 10 miles. She’d be jumping into the bushes, and then catching back up to the people she was running with. So she was doing these amazing things. She ended up in 10th place, which was amazing considering what she was going through in those last 10 miles. But then here’s Rinny, winning. And thank god I was at the place where she passed Julie. That was awesome because they’re friends and that was incredible to see how they treated each other during that pass.
MS: Julie didn’t trip her?
SL: No! It was so awesome, you know? Rinny was like: Great job Julie! And I love Julie, too. It was just awesome. Anyway, at that point it was getting down to the wire. Rinny will laugh about this, but she’s having this amazing race and she takes the lead, and I start thinking: OK, we want to go for the course record. Getting her to run what we hoped she could run. And that’s always the hard part, because here they are killing themselves, but you can kind of tell when your athlete still has a little bit more. At that point I had to make that choice. This athlete is going to have her first ironman world championship win, and she needs to know not only that, but also she can make it even that much better with a course run record. At that point I had to make the decision that was where I needed to be. So I remember I drove way down the road and when Rinny got to where I was l said, “OK, you’re doing awesome. But you know what? Let’s friggin’ go for the course record!” She looked at me like: God! What?? And that always happens to us, where it’s like: What more do you want from me? But she knew. That lit her fire, and she started picking up the pace. There was no way in the world I was going to miss her crossing the finish line. And I remember I was jumping fences, because I wasn’t allowed into where I wanted to be. I broke every rule. I always seem to almost get arrested everywhere, jumping fences trying to get to the finish. But I wanted to be there for her, and that was incredible. She broke the course run record and that was awesome. And then I was able to still be there when Leanda came in and then Kate [Major] came in and that was awesome too. So I guess you just have to see what’s happening and make the best decision that you can. Do everything that you can for each athlete. Because the thing is, you know as a coach that you’re preparing each athlete to the best of your ability, and you never know what’s going to happen on race day.
MS: It’s out of your hands in a way. I don’t do a lot of: Hey, good job! Because they’re hearing that from everyone. But you’re out there, giving them accurate time splits of you’re able to, and almost technique advice and mental cues that work for them. I’m less of a cheerleader out there. Everyone out there says they’re looking great, but I’m not going to blow that to them. Julie and Craig are much more separated out there, but I just try to get out and give them information as best I can. I kind of did the opposite in Coeur D’Alene. It’s not as big of a race – it’s not Hawaii – so while Craig was having a great race, I didn’t feel so much of a need to see him cross the finish line. I felt more that I needed to stay out there and support Julie, who was having kind of a rough time, which would encourage her and help her. In Kona last year, both my athletes had good days, but they didn’t win. And when you’re that competitive, you don’t want anything other than a victory. So Julie was having a really tough time. Both Julie and Craig respond a little bit to – I don’t want to say anger, but you’re able to fire them up kind of like a football coach would yell at his team during half time. Not yell at them to downgrade them, but like: We’re going to battle! Just to inspire them a little bit more. With Julie [in Kona 2010], Rinny had passed her and I was getting reports she was walking. When she came out of the Energy Lab I said, “ Get your shit together at this next aid station and run. You’re a tough bitch.” I just kept on her, saying, “You’re a tough bitch!” And she can take herself to that level where she thinks: Yeah, I am! And she keeps moving. I myself would have just given up and walked it in, but if you can just get into these athletes, they can take their bodies to places we can’t. Well, you used to be able to, but I never could! And I think that’s our job in part. They’re looking for a face out there they can trust. People out there might be giving them bad splits, but they know that they can get something from us. I’ll even lie to them. Someone like Craig – and Rinny’s probably the same way – you want to give them accurate splits early on so they can calculate what they’re doing. But then toward the end of the race I’ll lie to them. Say they didn’t take another 15 seconds out of the person in front of them – I’ll tell them they did. It keeps them motivated, thinking they’re taking time out of the person. It keeps them motivated, because that back half of the marathon, that last 10k, if you’re still having to dig you need that motivation.
SL: I think you’re so right. Fortunately in Kona there are tons of people out there cheering them on, but in a race like that, they are looking for that face that they trust and that they know. Technical stuff comes into play in a huge way at the end. Reminding them of those little things they need to do to maintain their pace and to keep feeling as good as possible. But also – and I love the way you just said all that stuff, because that’s how I roll – I’m really intense and passionate. When I use bad words it’s all in a positive way. I’ll never use them in a bad way. So I love that you do that, because that’s my approach as well. We know them so well and we know the things that fire them up and the things that can bring them back in the game again. And it’s so important to not just be out there saying, “Great job!” I’m saying, “Hey! You know you can do this! What are you thinking about? Get yourself back to what you know. You know you can do this!” Kind of bringing them back to who they are and how we know them. That’s so important. So the technical stuff, the splits, the reminders, that stuff that fires them up in training – it’s so important. So that’s where, having to leave one to go to the other – like in Kona, Leanda was in 6th place, but she‘d fall to 10th every time unfortunately she had to use the bathroom, then she’d get back and catch back up again – you want to be everywhere and doing everything you can. At that point it was like: OK, what can I say if this is going to be the last time I’m going to see her? What is going to last and stick and help her get through these last six miles? So I said, “Great, you’re lighter now! Get back up there again. You know you can do this!” But it’s hard – you want to be everywhere. I wish there were three of me. But it is so incredible to be out there. I mean how do you feel? I know we kind of have to be the strong ones when an athlete is struggling and suffering and having a bad day. First of all, how does that make you feel inside, but also how much do you have to ignore your own feelings about it and just deal with it?
MS: We’re human, so we definitely have feelings about it. I went through an emotional roller coaster in Coeur D’Alene. Craig was doing well, so I was on a high. Julie had like a half hour lead heading into the run. But on the second lap she came by and she hadn’t taken enough calories on the bike and she was kind of done. She had cut her foot so you saw blood coming through her shoe. She came by and said, “I’m dizzy. I think I’m just going to have to walk it in.” Part of me was like: Just keep running! Just keep moving forward! Then the other part of me said, “Take care of you, though!” My first instinct was to tell her to keep running, and my second instinct was to think of her safety. I told her to take care of herself, stop at the aid stations and get what she needed. Then she was gone and out of my sight. I had stayed out on the course, knowing she needed support. I was just sitting on the grass, and I was with a few other people – they even got a few photos of me – and I looked down in the dumps. I mean you just feel for them. They work so hard and then when things don’t go how they want them to, you feel it. But then I was on my phone and I saw a twitter update that said Julie still had a 15-minute lead and she was running in the closing miles. I had this big mood swing. I was ecstatic! I was pumped. Her manager Franko Vatterott and I were walking back into town – we were about 2 miles out – we were just walking in the sun and we were so excited. We went and grabbed some beers. You’re kind of going through it with the athlete. If they’re having a good day, you’re having a good day. If they’re having a bad day, you feel for them. You don’t think about yourself. You think about all they put in and how it just didn’t go their way. And once that’s worn off, you start to think: What did I do wrong? Did they just have a bad day? What can we change? I mean as a guy, I’m always one to want to fix the problem.
SL: It’s the exact same for me – even though I am a woman. But it’s the same emotional roller coaster. And the first thing you want to do is figure out what you can do so this won’t happen again. Because you do see the work they’re doing every day, you know how badly they want it. All you want is for everything to be awesome for them. Immediately after Kona I’m on my computer, writing down all my thoughts. What can we do differently? What can we change? How is this going to happen again (for Rinny)? How is this not going to happen again (for Leanda and Kate)? What am I not getting here? Did I prepare them properly? It’s always been known you learn so much more from the real tough challenges. I really like to delve deep into everything that happened, start to finish, how we prepared, and figure out what we can learn.
MS: It just stinks you have to wait another year!
SL: Yeah, exactly. You learn from the good ones too. I like to ask, “OK, so what was your mindset going in? How did you handle this situation? Do you remember how you pulled yourself out of that bad half hour you were in?”
MS: Even if they win, I know my athletes will never be like: Oh, that was a perfect race! Immediately after they’ll say, “Oh, we’ve got to work on this.”
SL: That’s just the nature of the type of athletes they are. And I love that. You know I constantly feel like I’m on my toes. I so do not look upon myself like I’m this great coach. I look at myself like: Oh my god, I’ve got to keep learning, I’ve got to do this better. I know I’ve got so much work to do.
MS: That’s a great mindset to have and I’m glad to hear you say that. The moment you think you have it all figured out is the moment you stop learning.
SL: You’re done.
MS: You hope that you know now maybe 10% of what you’ll know in the years to come.
SL: Totally. Absolutely. I feel like there’s just so much more to learn and I’m so excited to learn it.
MS: How do you see this years men’s and women’s race play out in Kona?
SL: I think it’s going to be an incredible race all around. I think there are the obvious main contenders, but I also think people are coming into it a lot differently than they’re used to, having had to qualify and do different things throughout their season. And I feel that the level is getting so much higher and the dynamics of the race could look so different for a number of reasons. I don’t think that anyone can go in with an expectation that it’s going to look this way on the men’s side and it’s gong to look this way on the women’s side. I think we’ve got to be ready for anything.
MS: I think what’s interesting is how different the men’s and women’s races are. The guys are racing like typical dudes. It’s pure testosterone, going to the front. The men’s race is probably the worst possible way that you could race an ironman. They’re riding the first 40k as hard as they can. It’s sporadic, they’re attacking each other the entire time on the bike, it’s not really even steady state anymore. It’s very tactical and all positive split bikes. It’s very different. You see the men’s runs suffer. I mean you look at the tenth male coming through and he looks like he’s marching it in for 30th place. It’s just the way the race is – you can’t let the race go. The women’s race just seems so much different. I don’t have Julie think of tactics. That’s one of the big things we changed this year. I tell her: You’re racing your race, because the moment you start changing what will get you to the finish line the fastest is the moment you derail, the moment you get away from your strength and your plan. Because if she’s riding along thinking she has to put X amount of time on Rinny, she can take herself over her limit. Where if she swims the way she knows she can and bikes the way she knows she can and then runs, you add it all up and she gets to the line as fast as she can. The moment she tries to do something different is the moment she doesn’t have the best race she can. A lot of the women, they have the luxury to do that. The guys can’t just say, “I’m going to ride to my level and not go with this attack and let the group go.” Because the rest of those guys will work together. In the women’s race they’re more spread out. There’s not a lot of group dynamic.
SL: I totally agree with you. I remember at Kona last year when they announced that Chrissie wasn’t going to race. Rinny was like: What do we do now? I said, “Nothing. We just stick to our plan. Nothing changes. Because it’s all about you racing your race.” Ultimately, if you’ve prepared properly, that’s going to get you to the finish as fast as you possibly can, which will lead to the best possible result for you.
MS: You just add up swim plus bike plus run, and there’s your finish time. Those are the kind of conversations that Julie and I have. Can you ride 10 minutes faster and only affect your run by five minutes? You’re five minutes quicker doing it that way. So you have your own strategy, but it’s about what you’re doing, not what you’re doing against the other women racing. It’s really about doing what you can do to get to the finish quickest.
SL: The key is keeping that focus on yourself and what you’re doing. If an athlete is thinking tactically how do they race this person or that person, that takes them out of their comfort zone of doing what they need to do the way they know they need to do it. And that automatically will take away from their performance on that day. So I agree with you totally – you race your own race. You have your own strategy and you stick to it and let the cards fall where they may at the end of the day.
MS: It’s been really great to sit down and talk about this stuff. I don’t get to talk to too many coaches like this. We kind of go through the same thing out there. You’ll say hi to each other on the course, but you don’t really get to share this kind of information.
SL: I so enjoyed having this conversation with you. And I’m so excited to be out there with you going through the same experiences, and watching our athletes – who are friends – out there going after their best day. Congratulations on the success you’ve had so far, and let’s hope we can both walk away and share a beer at the end of the day in Kona and be feeling happy. Good luck and thanks so much!
MS: Good luck to you, too!