Coach Matt Dixon Talks Kona

Dixon, who coaches some of the sport’s biggest names (and Kona’s brightest prospects), gives us some insight into his athletes’ prep.

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Matt Dixon of Purplepatch Fitness coaches some of the sport’s biggest names (and Kona’s brightest prospects), including Rachel Joyce, Rasmus Henning, Linsey Corbin, Luke Bell and Meredith Kessler. (He also coaches Chris Lieto, who will not be racing the Hawaii Ironman this year.) Dixon gave Triathlete editor-in-chief Julia Polloreno some insight into how his athletes’ prep has been going for the Oct. 13 race, how he advises his athletes to pace the Kona course, and another, shall we say, revealing topic.

Julia Polloreno: With Rasmus announcing his retirement and that this will be his final Kona, do you think it adds to any pressure he feels going into this year’s race?

Matt Dixon: Actually, I think it’s completely the opposite—I think he has absolutely no pressure. The last couple of years Rasmus has had a lot of pressure externally and internally to perform well in Kona, and I think the hardest thing for any athlete is the back side of their career. Many athletes struggle with knowing when to walk away and when to call it a day, and I think Rasmus is an athlete that is really satisfied with his career. He’s had a tremendous career. He’s moved back to Copenhagen, has built a house there with his family and is really content. He can go to Kona this year as more of a celebration and enjoyment of the last chance to see friends, represent his sponsors and race without any shackles on whatsoever—just go and have a tremendous day and have fun. What that means in terms of his performance on race day, well, we will know on Oct. 13.

JP: Does that mean his preparations for Kona have been more lax, or has he still been training pretty hard?

MD: He’s certainly been doing the training on a daily basis, but I don’t think he’s carrying the same obsession or weight of expectations in the preparation that he had in previous campaigns. It is not like he’s been sitting on the couch and doing nothing; he’s prepared and physically fit and he has no pressure on him, but I wouldn’t say his training has included a daily drive and obsession around this event. The positive is that he has a wealth of training experience, and he can treat his approach as one fun experiment. I think it’s a chance to go in and have a race without shackles on and see what happens.

JP: A lot of people remember how in 2010 he rode the entire Kona bike leg with his swim skin on because he forgot to take it off in T2. Does he tend to get flustered in high-pressure races? How has his mental game come around?

MD: I would first note that Rasmus has a big record of major wins in his career, including two Olympic games, World Cup wins, this year’s Abu Dhabi and others. He certainly has the ‘big day mentality.’ With this, Rasmus is an emotional athlete who does require the proper approach and balance to hit his optimal performance.

He’s a consummate professional—Craig Alexander is an example of another athlete who is also a great ‘professional.’ It’s a profession, not just a hobby he likes to do. He’s a very caring guy, so it means a lot to him. The mental preparation and being in the right mind space is really, really important to him. A couple of years ago when he made that mistake—it was before I was coaching him—there is no doubt that the pressure contributed to his mistake. He’d had a lot of hurdles, a lot of obstructions—things hadn’t gone too well for him. On top of that he felt tremendous pressure to do very, very well.

In stark contrast, leading into Abu Dhabi this season he had a great build up and felt very strong, and also he got to the place where he thought, ‘I’ve done races like this before, I’m happy and content, I’m going to go and see what happens’ and his body responded very well and his mind space was in the right place.

JP: Moving on to Rachel Joyce. She’s obviously been climbing the Kona ladder, with a 6th place result in 2009, followed by 5th then 4th last year (9:06:56). Could this be her podium year?

MD: There’s no doubt that there’s that potential. She is one of the smartest athletes I have ever coached, and also has tremendous ability. While she is often overlooked, she has a winning mindset and the tools to take the title. With Kona, the key for success is consistency in the build up—not having too many hurdles, injuries or illness during the build phase. The perfect scenario is building consistent periods of big work, while not showing up for the race overworked. That’s the place she’s at. She’s not fatigued and has more consistency behind her than she’s ever had over the Ironman block of work. This gives her every chance to go and have her best Ironman performance. Of course, to move up toward the podium this is exactly what is required, as no one is going to give away free spots on the podium. To win this race someone is going to have to do something very special, but that is the same for any athlete vying for the title. I think Rachel has the physical ability and emotional maturity to stake her own claim.

JP: For the first time she spent the summer training at altitude in Boulder—what’s your impression of how that’s gone and how it’s affected her build for Kona?

MD: We did a couple of things that were really important. We put her into Boulder—into altitude specifically—early and tested how she responded coming down from altitude by going to Roth [Joyce won in 8:45:04] in July. We’ve also really been monitoring her health status throughout the training process, and we know that she’s responding positively to the training and not getting overly fatigued. We didn’t go up and just hope, we really monitored her all summer to make sure she was staying healthy. Her body has responded very, very well to the altitude as well as the times she’s come down to compete.  It was useful to have her compete at Roth, Kansas 70.3 and Calgary 70.3 (she won all three events) and be able to test her run, and the timing of the departure from altitude.

The other thing we’ve tried to do is keep her out of the hubbub. Boulder has the who’s-who in triathlon, and that can be a distraction for many athletes. Rachel has chosen to train with fewer people, enjoy the town and see people, but not get too hooked up into being completely about triathlon. She’s been doing some of the swim speed sessions with Dave Scott’s group and been swimming and riding a fair amount with Julie Dibens and some of the guys. Her partner Brett is doing Hawaii as an amateur so he’s been her main training partner. Boulder has been an ideal environment.

JP: Can you speak to Linsey Corbin’s Kona prep? We saw her in Bend, Oregon recently and she seemed excited for Kona and the opportunity to release an already building racing energy after having the mechanical in Vegas.

MD: Linsey’s had the best build up to a race that I can remember. We had a lot of discussions on where she should be based for her Kona prep. In previous years she’s gone to Hawaii and done a big block of work, arriving very early before the race. Personally I’m not a massive fan of athletes being out in Hawaii too early, I think it provides a depleting environment, and it’s like a pressure-cooker of athlete tension, where you see your competition all over the place everyday. Linsey naturally performs well in heat and humidity and doesn’t need to be out there early, so we’ve had her based in Bend. It has been a wonderful setting, and we have managed to hit rhythm and consistency. I have to say she’s had the best training partner possible, with Matt Lieto helping her on a daily basis. He’s volunteered to do almost every biking and swimming session with her, allowing her to really improve her open-water skills and being aware of other swimmers.

I actually think Linsey’s mechanical misfortune in Vegas was a little blessing in disguise for her; it really enabled us to not have a hot and humid race to recover from. Looking back at that race day, it was a tremendously hard day in Vegas that really depleted a lot of athletes that went deep. It was certainly way harder than the year before. Not having to recover from that race, instead being able to put together a really solid Ironman block, ended up in her favor.

With her preparation, I couldn’t ask for more and she is set up to have a solid day. She has also matured as an athlete, and understands how to approach the race with her run in, and her mental approach. She now understands how to race well, versus hoping she races well.

So far as strategy, she is in a position that she can keep her plan simple. She should race with blinders on. Swim her best swim possible, hopefully minimizing the gap between front group and her, then simply ride and run her race. She has to be confident that if she races with this simplicity she will find herself at the pointy end of the race near the end of the marathon. The biggest thing for her is to ignore everyone else and do what she needs to do for her.

JP: How has Meredith Kessler’s recovery been since her crash [where she broke her back] right before Vegas, and have you continued to dial in her nutrition in the heat?

MD: Everyone saw what the front half of her year was like—it was a fantastic banner year—and that was one of those crashes that completely derailed us. The week before Vegas we had a decision to make—do we try and respect the world championship race and go, hoping she can step up to a good one, or do we hold off and go do Branson 70.3 a week or two later. We made the decision to go to Vegas and it was the wrong decision; there’s no doubt about that. Luckily, For the past month, she’s been 100 percent healthy.  She is a ‘workhorse’ athlete and responds really well physically and emotionally to load. We sent her to Kona for a training block, so that she could experience the Hawi winds and really learn how to ride on the course.

In the last two years she has done a lot of work in the last year and a half to learn what’s right for her in the heat. We have had plenty of positives in that regard, including her winning performance at a very hot Eagleman 70.3

If you asked me three months ago, I would have said that she was in a golden place. The last few months have been tough, but Meredith is so resilient and has done an amazing job in recuperation. I now sit here a week out and feel that she is back to being in a good place with an opportunity for a strong race.

JP: How do you guide your athletes in terms of dosing out the energy output and pacing during the Hawaii Ironman in particular?

MD: The athlete can only do what they can do, and it is a game of energy expenditure and conservation, depending on the way you want to look at it. You have an eight or nine-hour problem in front of you. You can’t go as hard as you can go the whole time; there is an element of pacing to it. You want a consistent, steady output. For some athletes, that can be relatively specific where analysis of training over time provides a firm understanding of what wattage they can hold for that distance, or what pace they should be able to hold for the run. For other athletes, putting those boundaries down and utilizing power or pace drives them crazy and it becomes a limiter. It really depends on the type of athlete or how they tick.  For the minimal-type athletes, we train and tune the body for the feeling of what it’s like utilizing power and pace, but then on race day put the tools aside. It really is dependent on the athlete and the athlete’s personality and how they’ve trained. Ultimately the Ironman is, for most athletes, a game of ‘you can only do what you can do on that day.’ When people make decisions to try and go out of that box they usually blow up. The one caveat is, in the men’s race, because of the dynamics of the group, you have to be trained specifically to ride much harder at the start of the race so you can maintain your position in the group.

JP: And how about Luke Bell? How’s his form coming into Kona?

MD: Luke is actually in a really good place emotionally and physically. His build this year has not been focused on Hawaii, it was focused on New York [Ironman]. He did everything I asked him to do for New York correct, and it was one of those rare times where the coach got it wrong. I know what the mistake was and I left him cooked. So he didn’t have a good day. It was disappointing we really anchored on New York and didn’t follow through and I take responsibility for his performance there. With that said, we’ve really focused on getting his bike very robust for Hawaii. I think he comes into Hawaii with very little pressure and can ride with the front group, so I’m excited to see how Luke does.

JP: Ok, my last and perhaps most important question: What are you wearing to the Underpants Run?

MD: I might not be at the official event because I have a meeting at that time, but you will see me over the course of the week in a varied collection of underwear, ranging from faux-denim to flash gordon’s.  I feel a real man must take immense pride in his underwear collection. Anything else would diminish the status as a gentleman.

More from the 2012 Ironman World Championship.

Jan Frodeno Reflects on His Final Ironman World Championship

Immediately after finishing 24th place at his final Ironman World Championships, the Olympic medalist (and three-time IMWC winner) explains what his race in Nice meant to him.