Friday, July 20, 2012

Interview with a Champion


Last Monday, I had the opportunity to interview Craig Alexander, world champion triathlete.

We met at the Core Power headquarters in Chicago.  Core Power is a post-workout recovery drink.  It’s made from fresh, low-fat, lactose-free milk and real honey.  With an optimum protein to carbohydrate ratio along with a nutrient-rich profile, Core Power is a great way to replenish and recover after your workouts.  After drinking the Chocolate flavor, I have to admit it’s a tasty, light and convenient way to kick start recovery.  As a busy mom and business owner, anything quick to grab and effective is what I need!  I’m planning on popping a few of these in my car or gym bag to use in the recovery window.

The rules of engagement were simple: you can ask Craig anything.  While I didn’t get time to ask Craig his favorite IPA, if he liked vegetables or if he lurked on Slowtwitch, I did ask him a range of questions that I hoped would help me to better understand what it takes to be a world class athlete.  Mistakenly, I think a lot of people believe it has everything to do with what he does rather than who he is and how he does things.  While I agree that genetics, body and training are strong components for success, they can’t be everything.  There have to be other layers – layers we cannot readily see, that matter greatly – if not more.

A few years ago, I heard Craig speak at the 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater.  He covered his background in the sport and also a lot of questions about his family.  From that, I learned a lot about his start in triathlon and his rise from short to long course over the years.  I knew it took him 14 years to get “good” at the sport.  I also heard about his family, specifically the sacrifices his wife and family made trying to support his racing endeavors.  Since most competitive races are in the Northern hemisphere, his family needed to uproot from home Australia and live in the United States.  This meant for 6 months out of the year, his children were unable to see their cousins or grandparents.  Not only that but his wife had given up a career (I believe nursing) which she truly enjoyed.  Knowing all of this, I didn’t want to probe too much into topics like “balancing it all” or “how he got started” as I felt I already knew a good deal about it.

I met Craig on a Monday afternoon, he politely shook my hand with a “lovely to meet you.”  Just as in pictures, he is chiseled lean with sharp eyes, richly tanned skin and a poppy Australian accent.  Watching him talk was almost as interesting as listening to him talk.  Fiercely focused, he talked of his experience with such length and passion that you could tell his success in sport was not accidental – it was carefully crafted through intense focus, formulaic preparations and critical attention to detail.  He had clearly thought many, many times about why he was successful.  Or how to get more successful.  None of his success, the world championships, the year-long winning streaks, the course records – none of that whimsically happened.  In his words, he left no stone unturned, the proof was in his preparations.

My first question covered his performance at Racine 70.3.  Being up there as a spectator both in 2011 and in 2012, I watched Craig uncharacteristically struggle on course.  I asked him about the performance and, more importantly, how he moved past it.  Very honestly, he admitted that he felt flat and performed that way.  He shared that the week before the race was busy with a lot of obligations and at times what I think is more stressful than training stress – life stressors.  His family had moved to a new home in Boulder.  He had a series of speaking engagements around Chicago.  There was travel, sponsor obligations and photo shoots.  Training does not just happen in an isolated box, it happens in coordination with a series of life events and stressors.  The week caught up to him.  Yet he admitted that this was part of being a sponsored athlete.  You have to make time for these things but the lesson was that the time should never be before a key race (like a world championship). 

As for moving past a disappointing race, he very simply pointed out that it’s his job.  He has to race and getting over it is something he has to do.  He added that his last race, Eagleman, was an excellent race.  And, prior to Racine, he had won every race he entered for a year straight.  It’s hard to feel shaken by a bad race or need to get over it when you have such a history of success behind you.

He also talked about how every race is different.  Each time he won Kona it was a completely different experience.  The first time he said it was unbelievable.  The next time he felt awful.  This last time he said it was a mix of good and bad.  Even if you’ve won races before, he noted that it doesn’t mean the next race will feel easy.  Each time will be a challenge, something you have to work for and you have to be prepared for low moments and obstacles no matter what you’ve done before in the sport.  There are no guarantees that just because your last race felt easy that the next one will be the same way.

We briefly talked about heat management – and while he agrees that physiologically you must be acclimated to the heat, it’s just as important to mentally be prepared for it.  Go train in it and get used to the discomfort.

Next, I asked what he does after a race to evaluate his performance.  His answer was immediate: I go right back to my training log.  In fact, he said that morning he looked at his training log to see what might have gone wrong leading up to Racine.  The answer?  Nothing.  He had a solid block of training between Eagleman and Racine.  As for the bad race?  Life stress got in the way.  Time to move past it.

Craig talked about this training log which led to his thoughts on preparation.  It became clear that one of his largest sources of confidence is his preparation.  He trusts it and uses it to tell himself – whether before a race, during a rough moment during the race, that his preparation has prepared him for what he wants to accomplish out there.  In his words, you know what you’re going to do in racing because you’ve done it in training.

Talking more about confidence, I asked Craig to imagine himself at mile 8 of the run, and all of a sudden self-doubt creeps in.  What then?  Honestly, he admitted this happens often.  Even at Eagleman, a great race for him, self-doubt arrived half way through the run.  It’s a normal part of the athlete experience.  How does he overcome it?  Again, he goes back to his training.  I go back to my preparations for confidence.

Next I asked Craig to name one thing that he fears.  At first he said not performing up to his best.  I’m not afraid of winning or losing – that doesn’t matter.  He’s afraid of letting himself down.  Then, almost under his breath, he said, getting old.  Craig just turned 39.  In most sports, getting old is what happens when an athlete enters their twenties.  Last year, at 38, he became the oldest competitor to ever win the Ironman World Championship.  He’s redefining what athletes can expect from themselves as they age.    

I asked him how his training has changed between now and 10 years ago.  His answer?  Recovery.  Recovery is one of the most important keys to gaining fitness, yet most age groupers are too busy for it or don’t take it seriously enough – thinking more work will lead to more fitness.  Often that is not the case.  You’ve got to integrate that work to actually gain anything!  I posed this scenario: it’s after a workout, what does Craig Alexander do?

First, he hops into an ice bath.  The purpose?  To bring down his core temperature.  He said his wife gets him a few bags of ice each morning for the bath.  Then, he makes a recovery drink: 1 to 2 Core Power drinks along with a banana, blend it up and drink.  He talked about replenishing glycogen, getting in enough protein, massage, naps, Norma-Tec boots, proper nutrition – these are all ways he enhances his recovery.

When he skips or shorts the recovery, he says it shows up the next day.  In his words, the purpose of a training block is to have successful training day after a day.  A few bad workouts are ok but you want to build upon one success to another.  If you can recover better, you show up the next day better ready to perform in that workout and benefit from it.  What if every day you did one more thing to aid in your recovery?  What if you tossed that bottle of recovery drink in your bag before you left for the workout?  What if you spent 15 minutes every night rolling out your legs or stretching?  Can you get an extra 15 minutes of sleep?  Can you eat better? 

He also mentioned how as you get older your lungs and heart get stronger – the engine is strong but the chassis starts to break down.  He believes that you lose strength and speed as you get older – which means you have to work harder on them.  We didn’t cover the details of his strength training – but recently I listened to a Training Peaks podcast with Dave Scott where he talked about the importance of Craig’s strength training.

I asked Craig if I were to go to his house on any given night after the work is done, after the kids are in bed, where would I find him?  Sitting on his couch with his Norma-Tec boots on watching ESPN Sports Center.  Again, recovering!  In the off season, he might be out with friends, spending time with his wife and doing anything but triathlon.  But in season, it’s all about his triathlon success.  He is sharp, calculated, every move with a purpose and everything tied into his bigger purpose – achieving his goals.  For a 39-year old athlete who’s been in the sport for 20 years, recovery is the key to his consistency and performance.

I asked Craig the one piece of advice he would give himself as an athlete 10 years ago.  Be patient.  Be consistent.  Believe in yourself.  And accept help from others.  Training well is all about consistency, believing in your abilities and, as he added, understanding that while you may know your body (he talked about his ‘gut’, knowing himself), there are others out there who know more than you and it’s wise to listen to them.  Especially in triathlon with 3 sports to master!

Where does Craig see himself in 10 years?  With 1 or 2 more kids (he has 2) and still involved in the sport, though maybe not competing.  He feels he has a lot he could share with the sport – his knowledge of how to travel effectively as a pro, how to promote yourself, how to work with sponsors.  He’s definitely learned the business of being an athlete.  He mentioned that he’d do some biking, mountain biking or swimming yet would probably limit the running.  Why?  The joints take a pounding in all of this and they need a rest, especially as you get older

Then, I asked Craig the biggest sacrifice he’s made for his career.  He said he didn’t really have to make any sacrifices.  Every day he gets to go out and do what he loves to do.  Every day!  It’s his family, wife and children who make the sacrifices.  He has to take his family away from their cousins, grandparents and other family for 6 months out of the year.  His daughter is homeschooled, a tutor comes in and his wife ensures that the work gets done.  His wife also put her career on hold, a career she really enjoyed, so he could thrive at his career. 

I asked Craig if he has a pre-race ritual, something he has to do in the days leading up to the race or morning before.  He didn’t have a favorite workout or special breakfast, all of the years of traveling as athlete taught him to be very flexible with his foods before a race.  Instead he said the one thing he always does:  read through my training log.  For the past 10 years, he’s handwritten out notes for his training log every day.  I asked if I were to look through it, would the notes be more objective or subjective?  His answer: objective – numbers, paces, watts.  Though he admitted that recently someone advised him to add more subjective data to make it more memorable.  He said that his wife sees his log and asks how he can understand it.  To him, he can look at any page, any set of numbers and go immediately back to that training session.  His language, the numbers trigger the memory of the workout.  Before every race, he reads through his log for confidence – again, go back to your preparations

Is there a key session that Craig does that tells him he is ready for a big race?  He said yes.  He likes to do a 4 to 6 hour bike with some race pace efforts followed by mile repeats on an out and back dirt road where it’s hard and hot out there.  If he nails this session, he knows he is ready.  I asked if he ever pushed too hard before a race, it’s easy in our preparations to think more is better, cramming in last minute training.  He said a few years ago, 3 weeks before Kona, he came down from altitude, went to Kona and did a hard bike session.  When he got back, he fainted.  When he woke up, he drank some electrolytes then went for a run later that evening.  The next morning, he went for his long run.  Looking back, he says, it was stupid.  It was 3 weeks out from the world championship and he probably should have called it a day.  But it became clear to me that Craig Alexander rarely calls it a day.  He gets confidence from pushing through situations like that, doing as he says sometimes in endurance sport you have to do things that are a little crazy.  As long as you don’t crazy workouts too often, they are valuable in your preparation.

In my last question, I asked Craig what he feels is his weakness.  He got quiet then said chocolate, ice cream, which he felt were important indulgences.  Then, he more seriously said, being obsessive compulsive.  Not just about sport but spilling over into other areas of life.  Sometimes people around him don’t think this is a good thing.  But he admitted that to be a successful athlete you have to be a little obsessive compulsive about the details.  It’s all of those little things that add up to the big successes out there. 

He repeated the question again and I added – what would your competition say is your biggest weakness?  My competition knows nothing about me.  We both laughed.  I said that his competition would probably say his weakness was the bike, right?  He leaned forward.  You could tell this was a topic he had thought extensively about.  He suggested the idea that he was weak on the bike was a PR campaign from “another competitor” who seemed to use the media to recruit other athletes to help him on the course.  Craig explained if he was so weak on the bike why was he winning?  He also said, simply, to run well off the bike you have to bike well.  I run well off the bike, in other words, he’s a good cyclistCraig knew that in Kona last year he would have to change his strategy.  He didn’t necessarily improve his bike, he just rode more aggressively.  He also doesn’t feel he has a weakness in sport: I’ve always thought of myself as strong in all three areas.  If you’re going to be a world champion, you simply cannot have any chinks in your mental armor.  You’ve got to think you’re the best out there. 

(if you’re wondering what other changes he made to his bike or training prior to Kona 2011, the IMTalk podcast recently interviewed Craig’s advisor, Mat Steinmetz, where he reveals a lot of that information)

I sensed we had been talking for nearly 30 minutes.  When I asked Craig how much time we had left, he said take as much time as you’d like.  There was so much more I wanted to know.  Who he admires most in sport.  How he wants to be remembered.  His most proud accomplishment.  We were just at the point of conversation where it was starting to feel comfortable.  Then, the moderator came in to end our conversation.  He had to prepare for another interview with a local newspaper.  While there were a lot of things I didn’t get to learn about Craig, I’m hoping his book, As The Crow Flies, will provide more insight (available for pre-order today). 

Reading back through this, I feel I’ve disappointed the reader.  You see, Craig Alexander doesn’t have any secrets.  No top secret workouts, no magic recipes.  In many ways, his “secret” is rather boring: 20 years of consistency.  And while I won’t argue that his genetics play a role in his success at the same time, if you did something consistency, obsessively, to be the best you could be for 20 years straight – how good would you get at it?  His secret, is day after day consistency layered with serious recovery and a lifestyle that is designed around being a world champion triathlete.  Being the best is his job.  The job description?  Obsessive attention to detail, extreme passion for the sport, an unwavering belief in yourself. 

As I walked back to my car, I thought about what I never got to tell Craig: what I admired most about him - his longevity and quiet confidence.  Longevity is something few athletes can master – the art of lasting a really long time.  And not just lasting but getting better.  How he can keep coming back year after year to top himself, which any successful athlete knows, is really what athletic excellence is all about – being better than yourself, raising your own bar year after year  He exemplifies what each of us, in our late thirties, early forties, wants to know – how soon until age catches us.  He proves to us that you can use wisdom, experience, patience and tact to indeed get faster.  And to me, Craig embodies what few athletes have but what almost will always make a successful athlete – quiet confidence.  Quiet confidence is not brash, boastful or extrinsically motivated.  It is not doubtful or insecure.  Underneath that quiet confidence is layers of work, pages in a training log, days to weeks to years of preparations.  There is nothing magical about his confidence.  It’s simply confidence in his preparation and when the opportunity arrives he lets that confidence carry him through, year after year.

Thank you so much to Core Power for inviting me to speak with Craig! 

8 comments:

Damie said...

Nice work Ms. ELF :)

Carrie said...

What a great read! Thanks

Carrie said...

Great read! Thanks

Wes said...

Well done, coach! This will fit nicely into my 30 year plan to get to Kona!!

Sarah K said...

Great read! Love him - such a great athlete, role model, etc. I distinctly remember him passing me on a hill last year at IMCdA on the run course...while I was still on my bike.

Joy said...

I kept thinking I'm so glad you're the one who got to interview him! Loved it! And thanks for sharing.

ONEHOURIRONMAN said...

He did get a complete new set up on bike, aero bottle up front, and aero helmet for Kona last year. That was huge with the biker attitude to go with it. Great guy and great interview

Elsbeth said...

Such a great interview- you asked some really insighful questions, I especially love his advice to to himself as an athlete 10 years ago.