2013 Season in Review

If you plan on reading this, go make yourself a big cup of hot chocolate, because this is gonna be a long one…

Before we can look at 2013, we have to look at where I was coming from in 2012…

Coming off 2012, I had a lot of doubts about my triathlon career.  I had just finished my first full season of pro racing, and my results were pathetic.  Sure, I had a 5th place at Ironman Lake Placid in 2012, but I was still 68 minutes behind the winner (68!!!).  The only reason I was 5th was because the field was relatively weak that year.  I won’t rehash the rest of my results, but they were unimpressive.

Why did this happen in 2012?  Crippling self-doubt, bordering on chronic depression.  I was living in constant fear of skin cancer.  Every time I went outside for anything (training, racing, farmer’s market, concerts, etc…), all I could think about was getting away from the sun.  Every minute spent outside was just one minute closer to giving myself melanoma.  When I raced, I didn’t care about how fast I went: rather, I cared about whether I got sunburned or not.  I went to see dermatologists every 6-8 weeks for skin checks, and had about 15 perfectly healthy moles removed and biopsied, just because I was so paranoid.  Total, 2012 cost me over $3000 in dermatologist bills…

As you can imagine, I grew to resent triathlon.  I hated being outside, and all of my training was just “going through the motions”, because it was impossible to care about something as trivial as triathlon when all I could think about was the terror associated with Stage IV melanoma. (for the record:  I do not have skin cancer, nor have I ever had skin cancer).  But I felt like I was giving myself skin cancer, just so I could be a mediocre pro triathlete.  In no way did it seem worthwhile.

I spent most of the year in a downward spiral.  I was obsessed with skin cancer, so I was distracted during training, and had weak workouts.  Weak workouts led to poor fitness, which lead to slow racing, which made me feel worse about myself.  That fed the depression, which led to even worse skin cancer fears, which lead to even weaker training, which led to even worse race results, which led to…  well, you can see where this is going.

Fast forward to February 2013…

I still had a very negative attitude 8 months ago, when I drove with Matt Curbeau down to the QT2 Systems Pro Camp in Clermont, FL.  I had been able to bottle up my negativity a bit during the winter in Ithaca, because I did all my swimming/biking inside, and so I didn’t have to confront the sun.  But during our first bike ride outside in Florida, all of my old fears/worries came bubbling back to the surface.  We were out on an easy recovery ride, and I couldn’t even keep up with the group, because I was so pre-occupied with resenting triathlon.  As soon as we got back to the house, I immediately started searching for flights back to Ithaca, convinced that I was done with the sport.  In the end, I didn’t get a plane ticket, because I would have felt bad asking someone to drive me to the airport.  On to camp we went…

Being in the group environment at camp helped a lot, as the social aspect of training with 20 other pros was a great distraction.  I started having a little bit of fun.  I was still always a bit on edge, but at least I was able to care about training for the first time in almost a year, and it was great.  Near the end of camp, I had a sit-down chat with Jesse Kropelnicki about my upcoming 2013 racing season.  The only specifics I remember right now are that he told me I needed to lose 7-8 lbs, and I needed to take the steps necessary to get my head back on straight.

Those two things really woke me up for some reason.  I think hearing it from Jesse was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I finally started accepting that my melanoma paranoia was based more in my head than in reality.  Even though melanoma IS a deadly disease, it can be reduced to an acceptable level of risk with clothing, sun block, and vigilance.  And I needed to get on with living an actual life, not the bottomless pit of depression and fear that I was stuck in.

So, with that, I went to race Ironman Los Cabos.  Even though I got my butt kicked there, I finally had fun racing again, and I came back from Mexico with an entirely new outlook.  The “moment” was somewhere in the 2nd half of the bike.  I was very frustrated by being so far behind, but then I just looked around and said, “What the hell are you so upset about??? You’re racing in freaking Cabo San Lucas!!!  This is awesome!!!”  And just like that, I finally had beaten my demons, after they controlled me for a full year.  I had a smile on my face the rest of the day, and it remains the most fun, and least painful, race of my life. My physical fitness was still poor after a year of lackluster training in 2012, but my mental fitness was finally back on track.  And mental fitness is absolutely the most critical part of race performance.

With this new found mental fitness, I went on a tear around the local upstate NY racing scene.  I just jumped into as many local races as I could, and used them as speed workouts in the middle of training blocks.  The highlight was setting a half marathon PR (1:16:52) at the Greater Binghamton Bridge Run, on tired legs.  I also jumped into the Skunk Cabbage Half Marathon, Fly by Night Duathlon, and Keuka Lake Triathlon.  Along the way, I also dropped 9 lbs.  At 6’3″, 162 lbs, I was finally legitimately lean.

My next “big” races were Ironman 70.3 Syracuse, and Musselman (race reports here).  These were significant for many reasons.  The biggest was that, on the advice of Tim Snow, I ditched all data.  No power meter, no heart rate monitor… not even a watch.  I was just out there racing.  It reminded me of my rowing days at Cornell:  we didn’t care at all about our times; all we cared about was beating the other boats.  I hated Yale, Syracuse, Princeton, Wisconsin, Cal, Penn, Boston U, etc…  I’m not motivated by chasing numbers on a screen, or by beating my old PR’s.  I’m motivated by competition with others.  It doesn’t matter what your HR is, or what your power numbers say:  if the race is one mile up the road, you have do whatever it takes to get yourself in the race.  Conversely, if you’re leading a race, your primary job is to take the minimum number of risks necessary to stay in front.  It doesn’t matter if you win by 1 minute, or 40 minutes.

So anyways… I came out of those races as a completely new athlete, feeling good about myself and my fitness.  Ironman Lake Placid was next, and it went very well.  Even though I came in 7th (as opposed to 5th in 2012), I had a MUCH better race in 2013.  I was only 24 minutes behind the winner, and most importantly, I was in the race.  It was the first time I truly felt like a legitimate pro triathlete, not just a “glorified age grouper”.

My last race of the year was Ironman Lake Tahoe (race report here).  It wasn’t a great day, but it wasn’t a horrible day, either.  It was just “a day”.  Of course I wanted to do better, but it was still a decent way to end up my season.

Most of all, 2013 was a year of turning things around, and getting my career back on track.  Here are a few numbers…

Ironman Los Cabos, March 2013:  It was a $75,000 race, with a very strong field.  I went 9:37, and the winner went 8:26.  I.e., I got my ass kicked.

Ironman Lake Tahoe, September 2013: It was a $75,000 race, with a very strong field (possibly stronger than the field at Cabo).  I went 9:37, and the winner went 8:55.  In other words, the course was roughly 30 minutes slower at Tahoe than at Cabo, but I went the same time at Tahoe and Cabo.  That’s 30 minutes improvement in 6 months, which is HUGE.

Ironman Lake Placid, July 2012: Andy Potts, the winner, went 8:24, and I went 9:32.

Ironman Lake Placid, July 2013: Andy Potts, the winner, went 8:43, and I went 9:08.  That means I made up 43 minutes on him in one year.  Again, that’s a HUGE improvement.

What explains these improvements?  Improved mental fitness.  100%.  My new found mental fitness allowed me to focus on things like: improved body composition; improved recovery between workouts;  higher quality workouts; and faster bike set up.  In turn, those physical things got me across the finish line faster.  But mental fitness always forms the foundation for anything physical.

Most importantly, I’m no longer intimidated by these guys I’m racing against.  I finally believe that I belong. I’d always viewed Andy Potts (winner of Lake Placid), as a “machine”.  Just an unstoppable, badass, triathlon machine.  But when I saw him on the 2nd lap of the run at Placid this year, not only was I running faster than him, but he was suffering.  His face was etched with agony and pain.  I had never seen him suffering in a race before. Rocky IV instantly entered my mind, when Rocky cuts Drago, and everyone realizes that Drago is a human, not a machine.  “He’s cut! The Russian is cut!”  (note: don’t draw any stupid conclusions looking for controversy here… I’m not even slightly implying that Potts is a doper or a killer, like Drago.  Potts is well-liked, and a good dude.  A true pro in every sense. I’m just comparing them because in my mind, they both had an aura of invincibility).  But now I know everyone else out there is human, and if they’re human, then I can beat them.  Maybe not tomorrow, but given the massive leaps I made in performance in 2013, it’s clear that I still have a lot of room to grow in this sport, and I’m just scratching the surface of my potential…

Most of my turn-around in 2013 was largely due to overcoming my own demons, but a lot of the credit goes to the people who helped me to believe in myself again, and helped me to find the fun in training/racing/life again: Tim Snow, Jesse Kropelnicki, Heather Bremenstuhl, Angela Naeth, Mary Eggers, Lisa Holt, Sean Walter, Dale Cooper, and Will Jurkowski. And of course, my little buddy, who always reminds me to see the positive side of life… Ducky!

duckyPumpkins

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