The Always Evolving and Partially Unwritten Five-Year Plan

To Think Like a Kid Again – What a Triathlete Learned from a Toddler

I admire little kids. I admire their fearlessness, and you should, too. Just imagine what could be accomplished with the skills and knowledge of adulthood coupled with the belief systems of a 3-year old. Take Mack, for example, one of my nephews who recently brought his tricycle to the edge of the ravine in front of his house and looking down the steep drop he asked his dad, “How are we going to get down there?” Notice that he didn’t ask “can we go down there?” or “what if we try to go down there and it doesn’t work?”.  The thing I admire is the implied assumption in his question – of course it’s possible…I just gotta figure out how.

I wish I could tell you I held that same belief this time last year when I came across the website for a triathlon in Phuket, Thailand. Proclaimed as “The Race of Legends” (and it IS legendary), the Laguna Phuket Triathlon tests competitors’ mental and physical grit over a 1.8km swim course, followed by a 55km bike route complete with several steep climbs, and capped off by a 12km run beneath the unforgiving equatorial sun so common in SE Asia. Rather than starting with Mack’s question of how I would accomplish this feat, I began doubting whether I could right from the outset.

At this point I was not a triathlete. I completed a very short sprint event a couple years prior to finding this Phuket race, but I was by no stretch of the imagination a triathlete in anyone’s definition of the word. Furthermore, I didn’t own a bike, had become a soft and slow runner and was still petrified of open water swimming. Eventually I talked myself out of the fear, committed to the race and dedicated myself to training. I found a starter bike, practiced running and set out how to learn proper swimming.

My 10-month journey included a mix of setbacks and increasingly substantial wins. One bump in the road showed up in my first sprint distance race early in the year. At around 500m into the 750m swim, fatigue and relentless coughing altered my free-style stroke to a slow breaststroke, quickly followed by a desperate “doggie-paddle”. With my legs sinking behind me, I remember thinking, I’m either going to drown, flag the safety kayak to quit, or find the buoy rope and pull myself along until I catch my breath. Reminding myself I hadn’t trained and traveled all this time to quit after 10min, I chose option “C” and continued on to finish, but coughing blood all the way through the bike and running legs. Later I came across the TI swimming technique while reading “The 4-Hour Body” and it literally transformed me. My swimming improved dramatically, I became faster while being more relaxed (giving me more energy afterwards) and most importantly it was more fun. During the 1.8km swim at Phuket I remember zoning out and just enjoying the moment (despite the jellyfish stings!). After the first buoy turn I was parallel to the shore and found myself glancing back at the beach when taking breaths. I happened to be completely in sync with another competitor next to me and realized the sunrise behind him and the beach, had given the whole picture an incredible background. It was quite spectacular for a guy who only months ago was literally close to drowning. Here I am coming out of the water into the bike transition in Phuket, feeling much better post-swim than any of my other races:

It’s common to ask triathletes what their best and worst legs are in the race. I’m not breaking any records for any of the three disciplines, but I love the bike. I love the speed and feeling of freedom. It reminds me of being a kid when you feel like you can go anywhere and do anything on those two wheels. Ah, the freedom! Punishing myself up the steep climbs in Phuket, my mind drifted back to how I would attack a similarly brutal hill as a kid, atop of which we happened to live for two years of my youth. Some racers have to hop off and walk parts of those climbs. I wasn’t the first one up, but like my childhood hill, I wasn’t about to walk either. I stood up out of the saddle and just kept pushing, remembering my training partner’s mantra – “Kill the hill!” The bike views in Phuket were incredible – from the coastlines, through the city and into the quiet, green countrysides. Two hours of beauty and bliss.

During the months of training, I came across great nutrition tips, competed in shorter practice races and even connected with a group of training buddies who happened to be preparing to face similar giants in their lives as well. My daily training buddy was Geoff dont-hate-me-cuz-Im-Canadian Stecyk, who turned out to be the reason I made it through lots of tough training sessions, as well as the final run in the race itself. During my second lap of the run I realized I was on pace to break my sub 4-hour goal but that it was getting harder and harder to maintain the running pace to do so. Short of fluids and gels, with about 4km to go I came up behind Geoff and Curtis (Geoff’s friend from Calgary who met us in Phuket for the race). They were walking due to a cramp (or two) and I almost jogged by them, content to throw a drive-by shout out and continue running my race. Instead, I double-checked to see how they were doing and realized they were cramping and short of gels and fluids as well. At the risk of slowing my pace and blowing my goal time, I stopped to walk with the boys and decided I’d rather finish the journey with my buddies. I shared some fluids and gels and then we all decided to go for another big push. It turns out that “slowing down” to run with my buddies was actually a catalyst. Those last 4km were just brutal for me mentally. Ironically, if I had pushed through on my own to try to keep my pace up while leaving the guys behind, I think I would have bonked. Instead, despite the initial rest I was actually faster with them. Sticking with Geoff and Curtis kept me going through the toughest parts, thanks to the camaraderie, group pacing and buddy coaching.

So how did I get from there to here? From being out of breath swimming 200-300 meters to comfortably swimming 1800 in open water…from no experience on a road bike, to cycling a hilly 55km in under two hours…and from a slow 5k runner to still slow but able to go 12km on foot after nearly three hours of racing? It started with changing my belief to an empowering one. Like my nephew Mack, I asked myself, HOW am I going to do that (and stopped asking doubtfully, can I?).  Simple, but not easy. I made a decision to do it and committed to it.

Support from my wife and training buddies made the journey a heck of a lot easier (and more fun), but the momentum started when I chose to ask a different question. The whole experience leading up to the race was fantastic including practice races in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. The Phuket location was amazing, the race exceptionally well-organized and hitting my goal to break four hours was immensely gratifying (finished 3:58:58). But the real reward is that I learned something more about myself, and about what’s possible which breeds even greater confidence to take on bigger goals in all areas of my life. It’s amazing to think what might be achievable now that I know what Mack already knew – of course it’s possible…I just gotta figure out how. Try it and see how it works for you. I dare you!

UPDATE – one of my training buddies was featured in a magazine, highlighting the charity for which he raised money while training for this event. Good on ya, Nev! (Nev’s Article Here)


3 responses

  1. Laura Kish

    Awesome post, Coach Dan! I love hearing about how other people tackle their mental barriers when it comes to physical activity. Hopefully you are doing well!

    February 29, 2012 at 8:36 PM

  2. Candace McNair

    Love this post! Glad you could meet your goals and I know Mack would be impressed! There isn’t much of anything that stops him… he doesn’t mind the heat, the cold, the rain, the snow, insects or obstacles. He just wants to to do what he wants to do! Mind over matter..or maybe he just hasn’t learned that those things can be used as excuses, lol….

    March 18, 2012 at 3:30 AM

  3. Thanks, Candace. Mack’s fearlessness must give a parent concern from time to time, but harnessed over time may just serve him very very well. It was inspiring to me ; )

    March 19, 2012 at 10:03 AM

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