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Confessions Of An Age-Grouper: More Ways Than One

  • By Holly Bennett
  • Published Aug 25, 2014
Illustration by Hunter King.

Don’t buy into the multisport mythology of must-do training and racing techniques.

It’s said there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And I’m quite certain there’s more than one way to tackle the sport of triathlon. More and more often I see or hear of people doing stuff—or I try something myself—that flies in the face of conventional multisport wisdom. And most often, the results are A-OK.

The vast majority of triathletes seem to believe that things must be done in a specific manner. Let’s face it—most of us work within a limited range of minor tweaks to basic tried-and-true training plans. We’re not reinventing the wheel, nor are our coaches. There are prescribed methods we follow—programs that dictate the duration and intensity required to train properly for each distance, the time and amount we should taper and the perfect percentage of long rides and runs, tempo training and interval speed sets. There are also generally accepted ideas that drive the design of our gear, items chock-full of technology meant to maximize speed and comfort. And there are basic recipes for nutritional success—formulas for how much and how often to consume calories and electrolytes, based on metabolic burn and sweat rates—with the fear of bonking or vomiting preventing us, for the most part, from daring to diverge from said plans.

The bottom line is that triathletes are a fairly conformist bunch. But then again, maybe we’re not. Along with the thousands of us that swim, bike, run and recover in relative unison, there are also those who go sharply against the grain. I’ve witnessed a fair amount of unusual multisport behavior that, despite what one might predict, has hardly resulted in DNFs or other disasters. And if behaving outside the box works equally well as following the fold, who’s to say that one way is more worthy than another?

When I first got into this sport, I knew a guy whose nutritional strategy was to sit in transition and suck down a slab of chocolate cake. He also carried homemade “gel” packets—Ziploc bags filled with standard cake frosting. Members of our triathlon community (myself included) mocked his sports-nutrition methods, but his sugary-snack strategy was successful enough to help him score several Kona qualifications.

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I raced Challenge Taiwan this year, where I noticed two or three other athletes in the full-distance event running the marathon barefoot. And while I envisioned their feet ending up as bloodied stumps by the end of the day, I received reports that they finished just fine (and for all I know, blister-free). You couldn’t coax me kicking and screaming out of my Asics to run a marathon shoeless—but to each their own.

You could, of course, convince me to race a full iron distance on very little training, which is exactly what I did for Challenge Taiwan. Suffice to say that I proved a belief I held prior to the event: It doesn’t necessarily take several months of devoted training to have a respectable race. Sometimes, just the desire to do so—along with a tough mindset and a decent dose of muscle memory—is enough.

It’s not just the one-off age-groupers who defy what can be considered normal triathlete behavior. Up-and-coming pro Eric Watson, a baker-turned-triathlete from Perth, Australia, with a strong swimming background, swam the final 200 meters of Challenge Taiwan doing the butterfly stroke. He also capped off his race day with an acrobatic handstand at the finish line. Watson is intent on becoming the first pro to cover an entire iron-distance swim course by butterfly, simply because he can.

Another pro whose training techniques might seem strange by accepted standards is Ironman world champion Pete Jacobs. He notoriously eschews set training programs, and he counts any and all physical activity as working out. Did he walk the dog or vacuum the house? Cool—that counts as the equivalent of a run. And while that may sound like a stretch, it’s hard to argue with a guy who ran a 2:41 in Kona.

Heck, look at Hillary Biscay—another athlete who throws conventionally accepted ideas out the window. We all know it takes weeks to fully recover from an Ironman, right? Yet it’s not unheard of for her to race iron-distance events on back-to-back weekends. In fact, her 2008 Ironman Wisconsin win was her second long-course go-around in eight days. This is a highly intelligent woman—Biscay was en route to earning her Ph.D. when she detoured to turn pro. She knows that her practices are outside the norm and would probably cause most people to crash and burn. And she also knows what works—for her.

An argument can be made that these athletes are simply physiologically gifted. But it’s also possible that they simply don’t buy the multisport mythology of must-do training and racing techniques. Even if 99 out of 100 athletes do something one way, the 100th athlete can take a totally different tack and be equally (if not more) successful. Remember, Jacobs and Biscay both own world records—titles won by something beyond wishful thinking.

Ultimately, a finish is a finish and a win is a win. It doesn’t matter how you get to that line or earn that title—whether fueled by scientifically engineered sports nutrition products or sugar frosting, or whether you train or not, and how. All that matters is that you reach your goals. So if chocolate cake is your thing, by all means chow down.

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