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We caught up with Bermuda’s Tyler Butterfield in advance of his Challenge Roth debut to learn why he chose the iconic race and how he feels about facing off against Jan Frodeno.
Triathlete.com: What inspired you to race Roth this year?
Butterfield: It’s been a bucket list race for me. When I was seventh in Kona I was excited to do it. People told me that if you do well in Kona, Roth generally helps you out to get there. I wanted to go, but it was the same weekend as the Commonwealth Games that year and I was already racing for Bermuda. But Roth has always been on my bucket list. I’ve been doing triathlon since I was seven, and at around 14 I started to buy triathlon magazines and I remember seeing Lothar Leder on the cover of one of the magazines when he broke the world record in Roth. It’s an iconic race, and I like that. Those are the sorts of races that motivate me to train.
Triathlete.com: You’ve recently been dealing with an injury, so tell us what’s going on and how you’re feeling heading into the race?
Butterfield: I’ve had a bit of a rough year, but that’s just part and parcel with sport. Some of the years where things are going perfectly, you have terrible races and some of the years where things in training are going horribly, you race well. I want to go to Roth because it’s a bucket list race, but I honestly think I’ll want to go back again in better shape and with better preparation. My lead up hasn’t been ideal. I had a parasite at the beginning of the year and then later, after the medication seemed to clear that up, I had a lower leg injury. Running has been very limited and there’s been some overall fatigue, which might be due to the parasite. I can’t say that my swimming and biking are through the roof. But I’m in good form and the last couple weeks have come around. When I started running I was very hesitant that I’d make it to Roth, but within two weeks I was running better than I expected and back to a decent standard. The fact of doing Roth has motivated me; Roth itself has sort of been a sparkplug or kickstart, and I’m thankful for that. It’s a reason to train long and hard and it’s motivating.
Triathlete.com: The mental component is always important in long course racing, but more so than ever when overcoming injury or other setbacks. How do you tap into mental toughness when you need it most?
Butterfield: The mental one’s an interesting one for me. In training I definitely try not to tap into any mental toughness. I basically bottle it up just for the race. Occasionally I do hard days, but they won’t actually feel that hard. There’s the power and the speed and the numbers, but whenever it feels hard I generally think OK, this is too much. I’m trying to get a step ahead of myself. I’m trying to be at a level that I’m not at yet. And in a race it doesn’t matter; the race is going to go as fast as it goes and you need to go as hard as you can go. In a race I’m never in control. And so I try and trick myself into not thinking too much, or just turning the switch off, so that there’s no mental aspect in it. Generally when that does switch on, it’s because I’m having a bad day and in a bad place. It’s similar to some of these young kids that are going so well in sport. You ask them, “What do you do?” and they’re like, “I swim. What do you mean, what do I do?” I remember flying up from Bermuda to run a U.S. National Championships as a kid, and I won. A young U.S. kid came up to me afterward and asked, “How do you run so fast? Long runs? Track? How many times a week?” and I said, “I put one foot in front of the other as fast as I can.” It was that simple. I do think sometimes you have to overcome mental barriers, but you’ve put the barriers there—and then you have to use a lot of energy to overcome them. I try to just think, the race is going to be what the race is going to be. It’s nothing unexpected; it’s a swim, bike and run and we know the distance. Yes, you can have a flat tire. Yes, your chain can drop. But you know those things. You can put a chain back on. You can crash and the adrenaline can help you, so it doesn’t mean that because you crash you’re going to have a bad day. You just get back on and keep going. If you have a bad swim and you’re behind, then you get to ride your own race. So for me, the keys are to switch off, and to trick the negative things into being positive.
Triathlete.com: You’re going up against the reigning Ironman world champion, Jan Frodeno, as well as the defending Challenge Roth champion, Nils Frommhold. Arguably, you are one of the few guys on the circuit who can keep pace with the German uber-bikers. Do you feel that your prior career as a professional cyclist gives you a strategic advantage in this situation?
Butterfield: Strategically and mentally, yes. In cycle racing you hurt like nothing else. You’re 40k into a race and you’re racing like it’s a sprint finish because you know if the break goes and you’re not in it, then you’ll have to catch up later. It’s a very different mindset. In a triathlon I don’t think about the run until my run shoes are on. The hard thing in Roth is that my swim is not as good as Nils or Jan by any means, and in a wetsuit I’m even worse. I get a small benefit, but where most people get a couple minutes, I’m only a couple seconds or maybe one minute faster. So my gap to the lead is generally a bigger gap with a wetsuit. But I know there are a couple other good bikers that should be swimming with me or behind me. That excites me, the fact that you can miss the swim group with the leaders and there’s still a chance. If you have a chance and there’s some hope, then there’s a spark. There’s motivation. And I like racing Jan and Nils, just for the fact that even if they beat me, I know where I am in terms of my fitness. When I heard Jan was doing it I thought, great! It changes the race and it makes the race more legitimate. It’s similar to Kona; it’s similar to a world championship field. You want to race those guys. Then if you have a good day, you know it was a good day.
Triathlete.com: You do seem to love the big races and going up against the best competitors. You don’t shy away from that at all.
TB: I think that comes from growing up in Bermuda, where there are 65-70k people. At 14 I won the open national title, so I was 14 years old and I had won my country’s national title and it was like, well hold on—this isn’t the end. This isn’t where it stops. I definitely search out the better fields. Sure, you always want to do well and your sponsors are happy when you win, but there’s also a lot of personal satisfaction when you know you’re racing the best. You can say, I got seventh but I raced some of the best guys in the world, compared to, I got third but no one really was there. In the end, when I rank myself and look in the mirror, I like to know I raced the top guys. I’m not on the top step, but I could handle my own.
Triathlete.com: You have steadily moved up the steps in Kona, finishing a personal best fifth last year. Does the opportunity to race against Jan in particular appeal to you in terms of gaining insight into his race tactics in advance of Kona 2016? Or are you more of a “you do you” racer?
TB: I do race him; we’re all in the race together. I’m not someone who’s like, I just do my own thing. So I definitely race him. But Jan is a different kettle of fish. He’s a big fish in a big pond. And I’d say I’m a small to medium fish when I get in a big pond! But in the big races, you’re definitely racing each other. And unless you’re the best biker in the field, you’re not really in control of the pace. In Kona last year, Kienle was the best biker and he set the pace, but ultimately that was his downfall. Kienle’s a better athlete; the only reason I passed him on the run is because of how much work he did on the bike. But he wasn’t there to get fifth. Whereas I was happy with fifth, he wouldn’t have been, so he went all out. And that’s what I learned from cycling—there are tactics that everyone plays, and they play them because of where they’ve been. In Roth, Jan’s going after the win and the world record. I’m not. So I know how he’s going to race, whereas I’m going to race a little more conservatively, given my training. Jan has more pressure than anyone—higher goals and higher objectives—but that’s because he’s a better athlete. He’s not there just to make friends. He’s there to race hard and it’s motivating to see him do well, but it also shows me where I am. The big races are also just more motivating in terms of the crowds, the publicity, the TV coverage and all of that. Hearing a helicopter at a race is motivating. It’s similar to how people say, I love racing with a disc; it may be old and heavy, but I like the noise. When you hear the noise of a helicopter and the noise of the crowds and you know you’re in a big race, you feel part of something that’s worth the sacrifice. Worth leaving the family. Worth the eight-hour training days. Worth going for a marathon in training and being sore for the next two days. That’s why I’m excited to race Roth.