Transforming Self Image: Ethan

This post is part of a series of interviews showcasing the real-life experiences of age-group triathletes racing Barrelman triathlon on September 20. Check out my other interviews with Jana, Marc and Harris!

Ethan eloquently captures so many of the things that make triathlon special, from the focused energy of triathletes at a race to the challenges of keeping a fridge stocked while training. I hope you enjoy reading his story as much as I did!

Biggest Loser Half
Biggest Loser Half

Tell me a bit about yourself – where you live, what you do, hobbies, family, etc.

I’m a 39 year old husband and father living in Buffalo, NY.  I work in commercial banking for a large global bank to pay the bills (triathlon isn’t cheap).  In between training sessions, spending time with the family, and working, I like to play with my three dogs, go canoeing, and build small robots and other electronic doo-dads.  A favorite hobby project was an adaptation of a high visibility reflective running vest, adding bright colorful lights to it that flash to match my foot cadence and fade through the colors of the rainbow as I rotate my running direction through the degrees of the compass.  The compass feature is lots of fun at a track or other short loop course, and the high visibility on city roads at night is a life saver.

How did you get started in triathlon?

Two years ago, I went to watch and cheer my brother-in-law on at a local sprint triathlon.  I thought the atmosphere at the event was very tense and competitive.  It rubbed me the wrong way. I thought, “I’ll stay away from that.  Too much machismo. Stick to running.”

One year ago, I was a bit more mature (read on for more about that journey).  Watching my b-i-l at the same event a year later, I still thought it was too tense for me, but it looked like a lot of fun.  In my more composed state of mind as compared to the previous year, I was intrigued by the prospect of learning to control my own mind and thoughts while surrounded by what I interpreted as too much testosterone, aggression, competitiveness.

After pondering it for a few months, I bought the cheapest bike I could find that came close to fitting me.  I won’t say “love at first sight” but the seed was planted.

Three months ago, I did my first sprint triathlon.  Fully prepared to protect myself from that hyper competitive energy, I had one of those rare moments where you are happy to discover that you were wrong!  I had mis-read the vibe, big time.  Triathlon is hard.  Transition is hard.  What I was mistaking as aggressive competition was actually the energy of people focusing on all the details of making their race go smoothly.  People pushing past their own limits of endurance and speed, or facing their demons in the murky seaweed infested open waters, or worried about mechanical issues with their bikes, or any of the million things we overcome on race day.

[bctt tweet=”What I was mistaking as aggressive competition was actually the energy of people focusing on all the details of making their race go smoothly. “]

Setting up transition the morning of my first race, I was surrounded by other people also doing their first.  We were all nervous, we were all focused, we were all pushing our boundaries.

I had the time of my life completing that first tri.  Met up with the Buffalo Triathlon Club, spent the rest of the day sharing stories and listening to veteran experiences.  I’ve been in love with the sport since.

In what ways has triathlon changed how you approach other areas of your life?

Triathlon has helped transform my own vision of myself between my distant past self, my recent self, and my current self.

I spent my first 35 years sedentary, 125 pounds overweight, indulging in alcohol too much. That’s my “distant past self” and he’d be the guy with the TV remote turning off a broadcast of the Kona Ironman championship, thinking “those people are crazy”.

5 years ago, I made small changes to how I eat and began small steps in exercise.  Spent 3 years or so losing 125 pounds, getting to a happy healthy weight, learning what kind of food to eat and how much of it.  Increased my running up to a full marathon in Pittsburgh 2014.  This is my “recent self”, the rational part of his brain knows he is active and fit and eats right, but the emotional side still sees the “distant past” in the mirror and is still apt to reach for a beer when times get tough.

Clifton Park Turkey Trot, 2014
Clifton Park Turkey Trot, 2014

Enter triathlon training and competition.  Over the past year, triathlon training has helped me align the rational and emotional sides.  This is my “current self”.  Endurance athletics is not just a passing phase in my life, it is here to stay.  Unhealthy eating is less and less a part of life. Food is less of a crutch for tough times or reward for good times.  Training for Barrelman helped me reduce and then eliminate alcohol entirely, keeping me focused on finding healthy ways past life’s challenges and keeping my body and mind in top shape.

What aspects of training and racing have you found challenging? How do you approach these challenges?

Logistics is a broad sweeping statement that covers the biggest hurdle I faced in training.

Logistics of keeping the pantry full, specifically fresh fruit and vegetables.  My wife was training for her first half marathon (which she rocked, btw) in parallel with my training.  Keeping us stocked with enough fruit and vegetables led me to spend nearly as much time in the grocery store as I did on my bike.  Our kitchen table looks like a Fruit of the Loom label, spread out with all kinds of produce in various stages of ripeness, just waiting for the perfect moment to eat.

Logistics of keeping the laundry clean.  The clean dry stuff rarely even made it out of the basket before it was back in use, leaving the dresser drawers perpetually empty during the peak season.  Frequently got dressed right next to the drying rack, saving time folding :-)

Logistics of getting to swim.  The Buffalo Triathlon Club hosts open water swim sessions, but they all occur during times I reserve for family time, so those are out.  There’s a pool close to home that is (A) expensive and (B) 82 stinkin’ degrees.  Seriously, its nearly the same temp as the adjacent hot tub.  So the pool I use is about 30 minutes away and during the summer has restrictive hours.  Later on I’ll describe how this factored into my overall training plan.

Logistics of keeping my tires inflated.  I first got a bike during fall 2014, so my experience is minimal.  After my first flat tire I went to get a replacement tube from the local shop where I bought the bike.  They look me up in their computer, hand me a tube they say is right for my rig.  Pretty much every 10 miles or so, another flat.  I’m a slow learner so it took 8 or 9 flats before I decided to do some research, resulting in my discovery that they recommended the wrong size tube and I just kept buying the same replacement.  Got the right size and no flats for the last 600 miles.  On the bright side, I got pretty good at changing tubes in the field.  Also found a new bike shop, slightly further away, but substantially more expert staff.

Crossing the finish line at Biggest Loser Half, 2015
Crossing the finish line at Biggest Loser Half, 2015

Can you tell me a bit about how you’ve approached your training for Barrelman?

For my sprint tri early this year, I knew I had the base fitness from running and HIIT workouts during the winter, so I just added in one bike ride and one swim per week.  After a few weeks I had full confidence in the sprint distance, and nailed it on race day.  When considering how to ramp up to Barrelman distance, my first instinct was to research training plans online.  Instantly overwhelmed!  Even the “beginner” plans I found were intricate, had much more swimming than I’d be able to fit in, and generally made me feel inadequate as an athlete.  This was the first in many lessons that the real thing I need to master is my own mind, and my body only secondary.

[bctt tweet=”This was the first in many lessons that the real thing I need to master is my own mind, and my body only secondary.”]

Not to be discouraged, I applied my experience marathon training to all three disciplines.  Small increases in distance each week, step back for recovery every third or fourth.  One full rest day each week.  Short but frequent and varied core work sprinkled throughout.

First and foremost I decided to make do with one swim per week.  Earlier, I described the difficulty I have getting to the pool.  No matter how it hampers my race day, I accepted that the impact on the rest of my life would be too great to fit in more swimming, so one swim must suffice.  Focus the training on staying calm and in the moment.  Alternate weeks between long/slow and 100 yard intervals.

Next up was bicycle endurance and general competence handling the machine.  Difficult for me to look at the schedule to cut runs (which I love) and replace with rides (which I did not yet love).  Spent lots of time in the saddle.  Short fast days, long days trying to learn pacing, medium days in between.  Tons of time spent along the banks of the Niagara River learning to mentally and physically handle strong winds.  I’ve read the stories of how windy Barrelman was in 2014, so I smiled at headwinds all summer.

2015biggestloserhalf-002aNutrition was another aspect I focused on.  I bonked hard during my first/only marathon, mostly due to stupidity on my part.  I had practiced race week and race day nutrition all through training, but then totally unravelled the few days before the race and during it.  Hit the wall at mile 15 and dragged my butt for the next 11.  Learning from that experience, my Barrelman training focused on fueling well in days leading up to the long brick workouts, developing and testing my system for hydration/electrolytes/calories during the bike and during the run.  Much mental energy went into preparing for race week and maintaining the focus required to get past the marathon nutrition fail that haunts me.  So far so good this week, but the tough days are still ahead.

What are your goals for the race?

This is only my second triathlon (well, third if you count a super sprint practice event I did with the Buffalo Triathlon Club), and will be the longest workout of my life. My goal is to remain strong, focused, calm, in the moment.

My hopes and dreams are tied to that goal, but I also like to set a time target for races, even first time ones. The clock helps keep me motivated.  6:30 is realistically within my grasp, 6:15 is likely too.  5:59:59 is the carrot I’m hanging out in front of me.  The hard part is controlling my pace on the bike and preparing for the WIND.  If I think too much about the aggressive target, I’ll be apt to go too fast too early on the bike.  So I keep that carrot way out in front, choosing instead to stay present in the moment and keep calm.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you for sharing your articles and the interviews with other Barrelman athletes.  Reading your posts helps so much during training, and especially during taper when the activity levels drop off and the insanity fills the void.  The sport would not be as much fun without sites like yours adding to the experience.

Thank YOU Ethan! Good luck at the race!

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