Iron School

Had an interview request asking about my big training days — rather than trust my memory, I went into the archives.

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Iron School by Gordo Byrn

August 2004
By Gordo Byrn
8/13/2004

Preparing for IM Canada a couple of years ago, my coach (Scott Molina) had me go ‘old school’. Following my Spring 2004 Adventure (swim-bike-run America), Scott thought that it would be a good thing for me to enroll in Iron School. Having written a book on Ironman training, and managed a few solid race finishes – I was starting to feel that I had a solid grasp of what it takes to be a quality coach-athlete-IMer. I was about to be humbled, yet again!

What’s Iron School? It’s my name for Dave Scott’s elite training group based here in Boulder. Dave likes to call it Team World – I suppose that’s because we come from all over the place. I’d heard of Dave’s group last year and had visions of ripped athletes shredding sets like 60×100 on 1:05. I was highly concerned about my ability to survive. However, with over 500 hours of training in my body for the first five months of the year, I figured that now was a good time to give it a go. At 35, I’m not getting any younger.

Scott had warned me, “Dave will challenge you to go pretty hard. But it’s the best coaching education that you’ll ever get and, besides, the chicks are hot.” He was right on all counts.

Day One
As it turned out, I recognized Dave from his calves. He had his back to me when I first saw him and I noticed two tanned ripped calves extending down from his shorts. I wandered up and he welcomed me to the crew.

Coming off nine weeks of living in a trainer with the Baron, it was a shock to my system to be doing core work with five hard body babes (HBBs) wearing not much more than sports bras and tri-shorts. That first day the “men” consisted of Dave and me. We did about 45 minutes of core and balance work in a squash court. I’d been careful to arrive in decent shape, but it sure seemed that I had the highest body fat in the room.

Scott gave me clear instructions to take it easy but how can you do that when you are training with five ladies and a 50-year-old six-time world champion? They were crushing me and my ego wouldn’t let me crack. It took me three massages and a week to recover from that first session.

Scott also told me to wait a week before speaking to Dave. You see, I have a tendency to be pretty intense when asking experts about all-things IM. I made it through the first hour keeping to myself. However, after the session Dave asked me a quick question about my results and…. I was off! He got a continuous stream of my triathlon history for the next 15 minutes – complete with splits, paces, heart rates, wattages and anything else I could think of. The main thing I remember from that exchange was his observation, “Gordo, we aren’t training for the race across America.” He’d be repeating that to me a lot over the next little while. It’s become a favorite phrase of mine.

How Fast?
Three weeks after I arrived, I’d managed to convince Dave that I was serious by getting drilled by him and the ladies on a daily basis and coming back for more. Scott told me that most folks only last a couple of weeks with Dave before they find out that it’s all a bit too much for them. Dave sets the highest standards.

Dave and I had a little planning session for Phase One of my IMC specific preparations. Dave offered me some ideas on my key workouts and I diligently took notes. I had an outline of my week, went home and built it. When I did that I saw that it “only” added up to about 30 hours. That’s pretty light for me, so I figured that it would be manageable. Thing is, I had about ten key sessions and Dave gave me a little mission for each session. There was very little truly hard stuff but far, far more moderately-hard (5-12 bpm under LT) work than I’d been used to.

My ‘favourite’ was this run session that Dave recommended – 34K run build to steady over the first 8K then 3×25 min open marathon effort, with steady recoveries. To make it interesting, I’d do this in the middle of the day. Just as I finished my first time through this session, Chris Legh jogged by (he was peaking for IMCDA at the time).

Chris: “Mate, you look shattered”
Gordo: “Dave Scott session. Didn’t want to leave any money on the table…”

I understood the physiology behind the training that Dave was recommending, but the training itself was leaving me feeling pretty nauseous after most of my key sessions. Driving home, I would often ask myself “should you _really_ be driving in this condition?” My fatigue got to the point where I would lie in bed having a conversation with myself. “They won’t break me”. I suppose “they” were Dave and Scott. However, “they” weren’t trying to break me. They were simply giving me the training to meet my goals as I laid out. I’d alternate between “death before surrender” and laughing at the insanity of my life spinning arms, legs and wheels.

I have to hand it to him, though. Dave really challenged me and I just managed to get through each week (daily stretching, three massages per week, zero social life besides a cable modem). In my eyes, Dave is truly “the man”. As tough as he is on us, he’s miles tougher on himself.

After a few weeks of drilling it, I wondered what Dave’s views were on recovery weeks.

Gordo: “Dave, I’ve been going pretty solid for two weeks on the new program.”
Dave: “Gordo, you’re doing great. Keep it rolling, son.”
Gordo: Well, you know, I did two weeks of decent training before we changed my program.
Dave: “And?”
Gordo: “And I rode across the States before that. I was wondering when you thought I should back off.”
Dave: “Keep it rolling until you can’t elevate your HR, then take a few easy days.”
Gordo: “Got it.”
So, I developed a running joke that, eventually, I’d have a true “breakthrough session” where I’d explode and get to take a few easy days. Thing is, I never blew. I don’t have a lot of spare brainpower these days but I seem to keep rolling along. It’s been an eye-opening experience. Dave’s taught me a lot. I’m grateful for being taken into the crew.

In addition to Dave, I’ve learned quite a bit about what it takes to succeed from my fellow members of Team World. Each of the crew embodies an essential trait of championship performance.

The Home Grrrlz
When I started to “speed up” in 2000, one of the best things about racing was running alongside the elite ladies. Running with the top women has always been a pleasure with me. I’ve always felt a deep calm in that situation (except that time Lori dropped me…). Now I get to train with the ladies every day, not bad at all! I find something really entertaining about their attitudes and the little games that we play with each other. Besides, if you’re going to drill yourself, you might as well do it while being surrounded with a selection of the finest bodies on the planet.

Amanda Gillam is one of the crew. Her partner is Michael Lovato – Mike’s bigger than me and wears a skull & crossbones swim cap. So I’ll be real polite here and simply note that Amanda owns the finest selection of mini-sports wear that I’ve come across outside of a Victoria Secret catalogue. She’s not the only reason my new goggles are mirrored, but she might be one of them.

Bella Comerford is another one of my favorite training partners. Bella never, ever, ever misses a session. And the only way that she’ll back off is if she gets a direct instruction from The Man himself. Towards the end of June, the rest of Team World were away doing IM races. It was just Bella and me in the squash court. We came up with a game of “Core War”. Forty Five minutes of alternating core exercises – I choose, she chooses, I choose, she chooses… Is that how compulsive obsessive ultra-endurance-types flirt? It seemed like such a good idea at the time… I didn’t walk straight for two days.

One of the best things about swimming in Kailua Bay is the dolphins. I’ve been lucky enough to swim with them several times when training for Ironman and Ultraman. Dolphins are beautiful, yet crafty, in the water. Moving with effortless ease, they stay just out of reach, tempting you to try to swim with them, to touch them, but you can never quite catch them. Monica Caplan is my daily dolphin, her quiet power reminding me of the special feeling I get when I visit the Big Island.

Joanna Zeiger trains with us. I get a big kick out of her – she’s the only one of the girls that hasn’t teased me about my ‘considerable idiosyncrasies’. Possibly because she understands best what it’s like, what it takes. Some of my favorite Jay-Z memories:

·> Melting the entire top lane at the pool the day we did 4×1000 meters. Jay-Z finished up by holding 1:12s for the final K (at altitude). Everyone, but Lessing, got out of the lane and he was left whimpering at the end. I was two lanes down, with my tongue hanging out, holding 1:25s

·> Two days later, she nearly gave herself an asthma attack swimming “fast 50s”. I asked her what happened and she observed that “Dave said swim fast”.

·> Gym work, every day. I’ve never arrived at the club and not seen Jay Z lifting. I’m sure she takes days off but I haven’t seen them.

·> Track sessions – today Jay-Z asked to run with us. It was a big moment for me. Why? Back in May 1999, I was a newbie staying in San Francisco for the Escape from Alcatraz. Joanna was one of the favorites for the race and was so far beyond my personal definition of “fast” that I couldn’t wrap my head around a person being that quick. At the race, I summoned my courage to walk up and say hi to her. She was really nice and wished me good luck. Five years later, she’s asking me to pace her for a Dave Scott track session. Pretty Neat!

So that’s a brief run-down of Iron School – it’s been a great summer of training with Dave and the gang. Only a few more sessions until Jay-Z and Big G toe the line at Ironman Canada. I’ll try to report back before the race. Dave’s promised that we will be backing off shortly…

See you at the races,
– gordo

Beyond Positive Addiction

rainbowPopular culture is filled with inspirational stories about people leaving the darkness of negative habits by shifting towards a positive addiction.

If you make the change, and awaken the giant within, then you may find a huge source of energy.

With this burst of energy, you will start to attract people as well as “what you think you need.”

This isn’t wishy-washy philosophy. It’s how the world works – positive results flow from positive actions.

Consider a charismatic leader, especially those with a dark backstory, and note their ability to attract what they want.

Students, wealthy clients, groupies, money, notoriety… all of these flowed (on a small scale, thankfully) as I tapped into my positive addictions.

At this point, there is a trap waiting for us.

The trap is thinking that embracing a positive addiction is The Way.

A more accurate description is embracing a positive addiction can be an effective way to shift self-destructive habits.

But what next?

If we’re not careful then we might become a guru of positive addiction!

Which might work, until it doesn’t work.

When life starts to fray, our addiction will remind us that we run the risk of returning to our old life. It might say… you must continue along the path of positive addiction or you’ll slide back towards obesity, sloth and alcoholism!

After 20 years of better choices, I’m starting to realize that my fears don’t fit the facts.

What to do?

Continue the path of self-improvement by releasing the grip of my positive addictions:

  • Competition
  • Vanity
  • Greed
  • External Validation
  • Emotional Pain

Allow myself to consider the alternative of gently letting go of habits that don’t seem to be working any more.

When more ceases to work, consider trying less.

Managing My Endurance Passion

G-BoraRecent media reports have linked “extreme” exercise to shortened lifespan (versus moderate exercisers). There is not an agreed definition of what constitutes extreme but, even at my current noncompetitive level of activity, I qualify.

My endurance pals have responded like Charlton Heston at an NRA rally.

If you want me to change then you can pry my fitbit from my cold, dead hands…

Ultradistance athletes are the true believers of endurance sport (links to classic book).

Many of us have replaced a previous passion, sometimes a negative addiction, with endurance sport.

Some of us are managing our “bad habits” via exercise.

All of us are terrified about the implications of change. Listen to our thoughts about anyone with a normal BMI.

Having watched friends revert to previous lifestyles, and having no desire to make a return myself (!), I thought I’d offer some practical ideas for managing our passion.

As always, I start by asking myself questions:

  • Where can things go wrong?
  • Is a multi-decade strategy to continually rip the legs of my aging competition wise?
  • What’s the minimum change required for maximum harm reduction?

Hands down, the worst thing that can happen to any aging athlete is losing the ability to train. Physically, strength losses are slow to return. Mentally, we are prone to depression via inactivity.

I’d be willing to compromise quite a bit to protect my ability to keep on trucking!

You are not going to get a lot of lifestyle modification by telling me that “strenuous” exercise isn’t good for me.

Not going to happen!

You see, I know how I was living without exercise in my life.

You might get me to change a little by pointing out the risk of:

  1. Dying via bike crash
  2. Orthopedic damage
  3. Concussion risk
  4. General malaise from soreness and fatigue

In fact, you didn’t have to bring it up. I see it all around me and have modified my lifestyle to take the above into account.

  • Highway riding avoidance
  • Adding front/rear lights for improved visibility
  • Rarely train in a group
  • No more bike racing
  • Main bike is full-suspension mountain bike

These small changes have improved my risk profile but I have ignored them when training for an event that required them, and when spending time with friends that could care less.

So, like any behavioral modification, my changes are only as sticky as my ability to choose wisely with peers and events.

I’ve written about low standard deviation training HERE and HERE.

Here’s what I’ve been doing:

  • Aim to train every AM and PM
  • Workout defined as leaving my house
  • Focus on frequency (AM/PM), not duration, not load
  • Wide variation in effort, from walking to max
  • Lots of hills
  • Don’t measure (other than a weekly weight check)

I end up with 11-14 doses per week and remain inside the “extreme” segment of recent physiological studies.

I’d estimate my current plan at 30% less hours, 60% less load and 90% less fatigue/soreness.

I exercise a lot, but less than I used to. I suspect the taper will continue as I age.

The small changes have improved my risk profile and increased the non-competitive benefits I receive from exercise (mood, motivation, creativity, sex drive).

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I don’t expect you to change…

…but this is an alternative that reduces the chance you might have to shut down your endurance passion

…or end up replacing it with a prior negative addiction!

In times of injury, stress, divorce, despair… I hope you will remember this article.

Exercise has been a very good friend to my family.

Better Than Expected

tea_partyLast week, a speedy age-group athlete asked me why I hadn’t been racing much.

I’ve been thinking about my answer. What was said, and what was unsaid.

Here’s what I said,

“You have to remember that I was far better than I expected to be.”

The peace I feel with regard to sport is something that I didn’t expect.

Part of the serenity comes from the experience of giving my absolute best for many years.

Another part is understanding what was required to exceed my expectations, and realizing that’s not advisable.

I have been thinking about my attitude of “better than expected” for YEARS.

I’ve noticed it is spreading into other areas of my life.

  • My marriage… better than expected
  • My kids… better than expected
  • My day… better than expected
  • My life situation… better than expected
  • My health… better than expected

Some of my serenity can be traced to a long-term campaign to jettison anything that stresses me. However, living with preschoolers is stressful and they don’t seem to be spilling into the rest of my experience anymore.

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What was unsaid was the insanity of spending time, and a lot of money, reinforcing the worst aspects of my personality.

What do I mean?

At the edge, I discovered narcissism, sociopathy, isolation and a disregard for long-term health.

In addition to endurance competition, I have the potential to be very good at all of the above!

These attributes are everywhere in society. However, they are easily seen in people at the pinnacle of their fields (even narrow niches). Indeed, many champion athletes would see these traits as necessary, and desirable.

As a true believer, it was extremely valuable to lock onto athletics. It strengthened much of what’s good in me. It’s one of many paradoxes in my life.

I’ll end by paraphrasing a coach of mine…

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for someone is to give them the confidence to leave.

…and life has been far better than expected!

🙂

When 99 is more than 100

bellasweetAs a young man, I spent my 20s focused on taking myself to the limit. In my 30s, I discovered triathlon and shifted my life towards a devotion to personal excellence. In both periods, I was unable to understand why anyone would bother “being average” at anything.

Whether your focus is academics, finance, wealth or sport — if you spend your time in a group that consists of the top 1% then you’ll be at risk for certain errors.

The first error is a skewed definition of “average.”

Athletics is a great field to see this in action as we’re much less likely offend anyone by telling the truth! Here’s a quote from a former coach…

He’s constantly disappointed in himself because he thinks that he should be able to roll out of bed and drop an 8:35 Ironman.

In other words, our friend has a baseline that requires him to outperform 99.99999715% of the planet.

That’s an extreme case but, if you listen to the dialogue surrounding your favorite sports team then, you can see this pattern repeating itself throughout our elite classes.

As an amateur triathlete, I could beat 98.5% of the field at any Ironman race in the world, yet my performance wouldn’t even register for the top 1% of performers, who benchmark themselves on their peers.

My point, isn’t to correct the attitudes of the elites – an extreme way of thinking is useful to drive extreme action.

My point, is to encourage you to stop and ask, “Is It True?”

When your peers lack diversity, your views are at risk from becoming detached from reality. You will see it most easily in your definition of average and decent.

  • What’s a decent athlete?
  • What’s a wealthy family?
  • What’s a successful child?

Outliers living in the 1% are unable to see the extreme nature of their lives and that can lead to ruin.

It’s not just about aging athletes ruining their joints.

I had a very close friend that ended up financially ruined because he was unable to be satisfied with being more wealthy than 98% of his peers.

Others ruin relationships with children, who are unable to measure up to an unreasonable standard.

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Another risk – the best are lazy.

Lazy?

  • …but I train 25 hours a week
  • …but I work 65 hours a week
  • …but I read 100 books a year
  • …but I add more value than anyone at this firm

My capacity for extreme workload requires me to drop everything in my life.

In fact, dropping everything is a “secret” of success.

However, it makes me very lazy outside my domain.

As the youngest partner in my private equity firm, I had staff to shop, to sort my CDs, to open my mail, to cook my meals, to take out my trash… the list went on and on. My approach was to throw other people’s time at any issue that prevented me from spending time on my goals.

Ultimately, behaving like a plutocrat wasn’t the main drawback.

By not placing “love” as a primary goal, I created a pattern of behavior that would have driven every relationship from my life.

It wasn’t until 15 years after my divorce that my family received the dividend of a man becoming a little less successful and far less lazy.

True Strength

g_aqua

One of my coaches, Mark Allen, made the observation that to get our race in order, we need to get our lives in order. Racing, like any other form of stress, can strip away our filters.

Mark’s advice is an example of an athletic lesson with a wide application into everyday living.

We share a desire to be strong. This desire is expressed by building up and adding to one’s self.

  • Adding size through muscles, bulk, heels, boots
  • Adding tension from taking on obligations
  • Adding palmares from victories
  • Adding possessions and external signs of power

I’ve done it all: cowboy boots; academic honors; powerlifting; fancy cars; big houses; jewelry for my wife…

Adding, adding, adding.

The list above is about our external life. Building up is a projection of strength, but it isn’t true strength. I think Mark is pointing us towards something that might become resiliency. An integrated life where we are in harmony with our external projection and OK with all aspects of our experience (strong/weak, happy/sad). This harmony lets us cope with the tests of our races (and lives).

Perhaps you’ve had a situation where you tell yourself to be “strong” but a more accurate description is a fear that our inner storm might show through. Having completely fallen apart a few times, isn’t that big of a deal. I don’t want to make a habit of it but I also don’t want to spend my life holding tight and letting the pressure build within me.

When tired, when grieving, when sick, when stressed… life has a way of stripping our filters away.

But how can we process our inner life?

  • Exercise works well for me – moderate effort, repeated movements
  • Others prefer meditation – cultivating stillness and observing one’s mind
  • Many find the combination of breathing and movement in yoga to be effective
  • Thrill seekers tend towards extreme risk and peak experience – works for them but doesn’t work for the larger goals of my family

If we keep peeling away our layers then we might find that the joke is on us.

Why?

Ultimately, every individual unravels.

It can be terrifying when we bump into this reality. You may have experienced this fear through the death of friends, parents and grandparents.

Ultimately, we might find comfort in defining resiliency in terms of something larger than ourselves – family, legacy, lineage, tradition.

Cultivate courage by staying open towards little fears.

It Wasn’t Good For Me

gnomeA number of my pals triathlon’ed from Vancouver to Calgary over the last two weeks. They did the journey as part of something called Epic Camp and I highly recommend Scott Molina’s blog about the trip. I’ve been chuckling along as the crew drill themselves daily across the Canadian Rockies.

In reading Molina’s diary of their adventure, I’ve been feeling three emotions…

Joy that Scott is able to keep on trucking. The guy’s 54 years old and he’s still able to love training at the edge of human endurance. Epic Camp is about the mental component of performance and Scott personifies joy from suffering.

Continuing amazement at what people can accomplish. It’s tempting to put ultra-athletes into a separate category as genetic freaks. The reality is most ultra-athletes are fairly normal physically. The differences arise in their capacity to embrace obsession and the way they experience fatigue & suffering.

Finally, I experience a deep sense of gratitude for my life in Boulder. When I was living my life of extreme athletic performance, I couldn’t see the cost of my status quo.

By the way, lots of people talk about the health risks of extreme exercise. I think that you are right but you’re missing the point. See the camp for what it is… a binge. I’ve always enjoyed a good binge. It’s something I need to watch. Also, so long as you don’t go banana’s with the running, the main short-term risk (to your kidneys) is limited.

Scott knows, and shares, the requirements for athletic success. He’s far more open than any other triathlon writer, myself included.

What’s yet to be published is the total reality of seeking our ultimate triathlon potential. Outside of triathlon, Sam Fussell gave it a shot with bodybuilding. His book, Muscle, is an entertaining account of the life of a full-time amateur (AKA a life similar to most tri-pros). Leaving the extreme drug use to one side, the parallels with my life are many.

I’ve often wanted to write the “whole truth” about my life. I’m most open with the non-racing spouses of my training pals. They know enough about my world to be entertained but aren’t so invested that I challenge their identities with my observations.

I looked deeper into my motivation and saw a desire to protect my children from my near misses. However, my children’s obsession is certainly going to be different than my own and they will resent being told what to do by their, ultimately, sixty-something father.

Here’s where Sam’s book comes into it’s own. The hero in Sam’s book is his mom. She keeps the lines of communication open, accepts Sam for who he his and frees him to change his mind on his own timetable.

As we ascend to the top, we can lose the goodness of our youth. It’s no accident that the highest-achievers had very difficult childhoods. It’s a rare person that becomes more kind under extreme stress – at Epic Camp, Bevan James Eyles is the best example that comes to mind. He was always part of the solution. The rest of us acted like wolves, or hyenas.

What helps everyone is encouragement to hold onto a piece of goodness and stay open when the little voice says, “this isn’t good for you.”

…and while I have no idea who is doing the talking… I know that following that voice has led me to a wonderful life.

Lex