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Triathlife: Risky Business

If you want to take two steps forward in triathlon, you might want to consider that one step back.

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If you want to take two steps forward in triathlon, you might want to consider that one step back.

My only “first out of the water” was when cake was served at my cousin’s 7th birthday pool party. So when I came out of Oceanside Harbor at Ironman 70.3 California alone, I knew it wasn’t a good sign. It meant I was behind. Probably way behind.

As I ran to my bike, my mind raced as much as my body. I’d feared, almost dreaded, this moment for three months. A high-profile race against a world-class field … and my first on a new bike, in a new position, on a new saddle, ridden only a handful of times.

My race plan was to ride hard for the first 30 minutes, and with a crappier-than-expected swim, all the more reason to follow the plan! As expected, the bike felt foreign. Not uncomfortable, just foreign, like I could follow the map, but not read the words. I tried to keep the doubt at bay and focused on pounding on the pedals, riding alone, wavering between fear and hope.

At my first checkin, my power was surprisingly high. I wondered if I was riding too hard, almost purposely sabotaging my race. This is definitely unsustainable. Oh well. Keep riding.

And then, something happened. I passed people. And not just passed them—passed them like they were standing still. I might actually be going pretty fast. I caught the second pack at the mid-course turnaround and flew by some spectators who yelled enthusiastically, “You’re reeling in the leaders!” Oh my, I think I am going pretty fast!

My “30 minutes hard” was now long gone, but to my amazement, delight and simultaneous terror, I saw the leaders another 45 seconds up the road. My legs screaming, I kept the pressure on the pedals. At the end of the last major climb and an all-out effort, my race literally could have ended at that climb where I caught the lead group. Remembering that, technically, I still had to run, I tried to rest and use the minimum amount of energy needed to stay with them for the last 40 minutes.

I got off the bike, and as expected, my legs were pretty upset and told me to go fudge myself as they lumbered through 13.1 miles. But I had ridden maybe the best ride of my career, back into a stacked race after a terrible swim, and finished a very respectable fifth. Most importantly, the weight of all the pre-race doubt and fear about my cycling lifted as I crossed the finish line.

My dozens of readers know that this past winter I joined fellow pro triathlete and entrepreneur T.J. Tollakson at his startup bike company Dimond (pronounced “diamond”). I loved the bike, the innovation, and it was an opportunity to get involved in the ground floor of a promising startup, matching my passion and style. But like all entrepreneurial ventures, it was also a big risk. And while the science and data behind the bike proved it was fast, and I loved the ride and feel when I’d tested it, I’d never raced it, and I didn’t know what to expect.

To make matters more complicated, risky and nerve-wracking, my coach, Matt Dixon, and I, along with Paul Buick, our bike guru, decided to use the opportunity to overhaul my bike position.

While I’ve been one of the strongerish riders in the sport for a couple of years, I’d had back, hamstring and glute problems off and on, which we knew were limiting my training and performance. And for the first time in my career, I had the opportunity to try any saddle, and with it, a seemingly endless number of new positions on the bike.

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As it turns out, changing saddles and position is a pretty big pain in the ass—literally and figuratively. Over the course of two months, I rode 15 different saddles and tried more than a dozen adapted positions. Try, ride, video, tweak, try, ride, video, tweak. Over and over and over again. Each time I got on my bike it felt foreign, partly because it was a new bike, but mostly because my legs were farther up or forward or my arms were down or back or my butt was like, “What the hell is this thing I’m sitting on?”

And because we didn’t start this process until January, I tried all this new stuff while simultaneously training for the season. While my old position and saddle clearly had issues, my body was used to it, and trying something new was harder both physically and mentally than I anticipated. My workouts were frustratingly sporadic, unpredictable and, to be honest, I lost a lot of confidence.

For most of that lead-up to the Ironman 70.3 in Oceanside, it felt like I was taking a step back, like I couldn’t perform at the same level. I wasn’t as comfortable. My power numbers were off. Every workout was a struggle. I was afraid. I worried about how I could possibly race well given all the ups and mostly downs. Many times I wanted to return to my old stuff, slick my hair back, say a “Forget about it!” Donnie Brasco-style.

But Matt and Paul assured me that in the long term it would be worth it. The gains would be realized; I just had to commit to the process and not get caught up in the short-term results. I had to allow myself to take one step back so I could eventually take two steps forward.

One race certainly doesn’t make a data set or a conclusion, but I do feel like Oceanside was at least one and one half steps forward. I rode more than 6 minutes faster than my previous Oceanside bike PR, making 3.5 minutes back on the leaders by mile 40. My power was higher, and my bike was, well, way faster. I’m not completely out of the woods on my back and hamstring problems, but I made progress, which is something that seemed impossible just weeks before. If I had known how difficult it was going to be before starting this process, I probably wouldn’t have done it. It’s hard for any athlete, myself included, to take even a temporary step back, even if the long-term gain is two steps forward. You have to remove your pride from immediate results, focus on the big picture, and do your best to maintain confidence in yourself and the process. And that stuff is, like, super hard to do.

There are lots of opportunities in triathlon where two steps forward might require an initial step back: changing your swimming technique or your running stride, strength training (which might make you feel flat or sore for a few weeks), adjusting your diet or nutrition, changing your schedule or your coaching situation. Any of these processes may feel at the time that they take more energy and commitment than they’re worth. Your short-term results may suffer, and your natural tendency will be to “Forget about it!” and go back to your normal. But if you stick with it, each of them is likely to ultimately make you better.

Take an honest look at your racing, training and triathlife in general and think about where the fear of one step back might be keeping you from taking two steps forward. I bet you probably have a couple of areas already in the back of your mind. Allow yourself to take the risk and go for it—you never know what might happen!

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a five-time Wildflower Long Course champion and the CEO of Picky Bars (Pickybars.com).

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