Bob Babbitt: What I’ve Learned

Ironman and USA Triathlon hall of fame member Bob Babbitt shares some of his favorite lessons from his 35 years in the sport.

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You’d think that after spending the better part of the past 35 years in this sport I would have learned it all by now. Not even close. Every single day I’m lucky to learn even more about the best sport on the planet. Herein, some favorite lessons to live by:

Keep the change. When you complete an Ironman event and your time is somewhere between 11:30 and 11:59, never tell people your actual time. Nope. If someone asks your time, say, “I went 11 and change.” Definitely more impressive than 11:59:59. In the end, does it really matter how much change we’re talking about? I didn’t think so.

Experts are great, but becoming an expert on you is even better. Chris McCormack always had problems in the Kona heat during his early days of racing Hawaii. He worked with physiologists and nutritionists to figure out the best ways for a “bigger” guy like him to deal with the heat and to fuel up during the race. In 2005, as he was falling further off the pace on the way out to the bike turnaround in Hawi, 1996 Ironman world champion Thomas Hellriegel passed him, could tell he was struggling, and suggested that Macca drink some Coke. “I was told to never drink Coke in a race by the nutritionists,” Macca said. “I was pretty frustrated and desperate at that point of the race, so I drank a Coke and it was like jet fuel.” McCormack had his best Kona that day up until that point, ran 2:49 off the bike and finished sixth, his first time in the top 10. He learned the hard way that, no matter what the experts say, for him a little carbonated syrup plus caffeine can actually be a good thing.

$300 is $300. I was racing the Chicago Triathlon one year, and as I passed a guy on the bike—which, by the way, is about as rare as a solar eclipse—I noticed he had the sleeves of his wetsuit tied around his neck and the rest of the suit was flapping behind him like a huge rubber-coated kite. “Why do you have your wetsuit with you?” I asked. He looked at me like I was nuts. “I just paid $300 for this thing, and I’m supposed to take it off and leave it in a parking lot?!”

Never run by an aid station. Take this to the bank. As soon as you feel like you’re in control during a race, you’re not. Grab something, anything, at every aid station or you’re guaranteed to regret it. You might not suffer the consequences right away, but you will definitely pay the price for not taking a gel, water, salt, electrolyte drink, pretzels or gummy bears.

Remember your priorities. When we are living our daily lives, things can be complicated. We have to deal with money issues, employees, employers, dressing nice, family, friends, what’s happening on Twitter and Facebook plus so much more. But on race day, life is so much simpler. All that matters to us in those few hours is how fast we are going, how our bikes are working and how the legs feel when we start to run. Does anything else really matter?

Prison weapons are good. “Hey Babbitt,” a fellow 60-to-death age-grouper yelled at me as he passed me during a race this past summer, “that bike is from the last CENTURY!” I was about to say something back to him when I realized how right he was—I bought my bike back in 1998. The good news? Not long after that I upgraded to a Specialized Shiv, which I love. The message? If a bike is named after a prison instrument like a Shiv or a Shank, it’s probably pretty damn fast.

Bob Babbitt is the co-founder of Competitor magazine, the co-founder of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the host of Competitor Radio and an inductee into the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame and USA Triathlon Hall of Fame.

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