Learning the secrets of a proper peak can help you have the race of your life.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
“I had that incredible feeling of being able to push myself as hard as I wanted to without blowing up—like I had no lactic acid.”— Terenzo Bozzone on his Wildflower course record in 2006
An endurance spectacle takes place in California early each May when thousands of triathletes camp out at the Wildflower triathlon festival, nicknamed “the Woodstock of triathlon.” Since the inaugural race in 1983, athletes have gathered for a weekend of barbecues, marshmallows, good-old rock ’n’ roll and some hard-core racing. Throughout the years this unique event has attracted not only age-group athletes in the thousands but a virtual who’s-who of the sport. On the men’s side everyone from Scott Tinley to Peter Reid, Tim DeBoom, Chris McCormack, Normann Stadler, Simon Lessing, Andy Potts, Michael Raelert—the list goes on—has raced this classic. Up until 2005 no male athlete had managed to break four hours on this tough but scenic course that winds through the countryside of Monterey County. Athletes swim in the glassy and often brisk Lake San Antonio before tackling a ruthless, rolling 56-mile ride featuring strength-sapping steep slopes. Right when athletes exit the lake, the mile-long 12 percent grade “Beach Hill” awaits them, and at the 40-mile marker they encounter the 3-mile-long “Nasty Grade.” The run is tougher than that of any other high-level race. Several big rollers set the scene before a 1-mile climb that often reduces even the best professionals to a walk. The march to the sky is followed immediately by a quarter-mile descent that brings you into a free fall while tearing up the fibers in your quads, more rollers, a 1-mile down and up, out and back, plus another leg-crushing 1-mile sprint descent to the finish line. The fact that the course’s average elite time is some 15 minutes slower than your typical half-iron race tells it own story.
In 2005 it took a four-time short-course world champion in the shape of Brit Simon Lessing chasing down a Danish Viking (me) in the latter stages of the run to bring the record to 3:59 and change. At the awards, the often-misunderstood Brit joked with then-young Kiwi upstart Terenzo Bozzone, who finished third. He called Bozzone out for not strictly following the drafting rules. The young Kiwi mistook Lessing’s jesting comment as a slight, and he brought it home to fuel a Wildflower attack like nothing ever seen before the following spring. He obliterated the course record, lowering it to a phenomenal 3:53—six minutes quicker than any of the legendary athletes before him and nearly a full eight minutes faster than accomplished Wildflower veteran and 2000 winner Chris Legh, who finished second that year. With a 23:34 swim, a 2:16:20 bike (just two minutes shy of Steve Larsen’s bike course record) and a legendary 1:11:56 run, some one and a half minutes faster than Lessing, he enjoyed a peak and performance of a lifetime. Considering the rich history of the race, Bozzone’s record was on par with a course record in Kona.
Interested to learn more about how Bozzone tapered for his classic performance, I called him up recently.
After he finished third in 2005, he was determined to come back stronger, and he built his base training in the early months of 2006 to an astonishing 50 hours per week. He then attempted 60 hours the following week, but he realized he had pushed it too far and had to recover for two weeks before he could do any real work again. Upon this huge foundation and the well-earned rest, he did nine weeks of specific preparation at a lower volume, focusing on one key session a week where he simulated the race with a long time trial on the bike followed by a steady transition run. He then allowed himself a one-week taper before the race. Monday and Tuesday were travel days, where he crossed the Pacific from New Zealand, and from Wednesday through the Friday before the race he did three short sessions a day: a 2K swim, 1.5-hour bike and a 30-minute run that mixed in a bit of race pace here and there, depending on how he felt and what his body told him to do.
Bozzone says it best when he talks about the results of this taper and how race day went for him.
“For those six to seven months of preparation, Wildflower was my only focus. It was at a very early stage in my career where I had no distractions or business obligations, so my life was calm and quiet relative to the present, where I have to do more races and have many obligations. … On race morning I ate breakfast and then did a 10-minute spin and a 10-minute jog to loosen the legs before heading to the race site. I did a swim warm-up and got ready mentally for a hard day, letting the results take care of themselves. I grew up swimming 10 races per meet so I am used to getting in the zone. … I actually had no knowledge of the record prior to the race. I had confidence in my ability, knowing what I could do, but it was not before the last turn at around 10 miles on the run where someone shouted, ‘You can crush the record,’ that I thought about it. … [During the race] I thought about lifting my training out, spreading out my energy evenly over the course, pushing all the way and digging deep toward the end. I had that incredible feeling of being able to push myself as hard as I wanted to without blowing up—like I had no lactic acid.”
Building Peak Fitness
As we can tell from Bozzone’s story, his outstanding performance was the product of an immensely focused preparation, where mental and physical limits were pushed to new heights. Building his training to 50 hours a week in the base phase created an enormous underpinning on which to improve, despite the slight overreaching, which I believe was key to his record-smashing performance, as I can share similar stories from my own career. Whenever I had a best-ever race, I could always track this jump in performance back to breakthroughs in training. As a young athlete I was often uncertain of the outcome of my training process, but as I gained experience and saw the pattern, I found confidence knowing that my training was the key determinant of my race performance. Once I hit that feeling of being invincible some four to five weeks out from the race, during my hardest weeks in training, I knew exactly what I would be capable of in the race and my mood, confidence and energy skyrocketed.
Another aspect of Bozzone’s story that I can relate to is the undisturbed, quiet focus in his preparation. If I recall moments where I truly developed in training and literally felt like I improved every single week, the vast majority of them occurred when my life was quiet, without too much stress outside of training. When I got every single cycle of training and recovery right and had the time to mentally prepare for each and every session, I built my fitness to unprecedented levels. I often call this state of mind “living like a Kenyan,” as professional runners living in Kenya typically do nothing but train three times a day, eat frequent meals and get up to 16 hours of sleep. It is a life truly dedicated to athletic excellence.
That you need to push your limits to extend beyond your current level of performance is simple on paper, but when this requires you to block out everything else in your life and spend four to seven months living like a Kenyan, it becomes immensely difficult, especially for those who have real jobs.
Even as a professional triathlete, I often experienced periods of preparation where I was unable to achieve this state of mind due to distractions that made me compromise on the recovery side, often leaving me on a plateau or injured instead of in a state of peak fitness. In the life of an age grouper where work and family are the priorities, the task becomes even more complex, and far too many suffer from an imbalance between training and recovery. Nevertheless, there are cues that we can take from Bozzone’s Wildflower preparation, along with scientific research, that can be applied to achieving the best taper possible.
RELATED: How To Taper For An Ironman