A Coffee Table Book Changed My Life

 It's not often I get to raise the "we're number one!" finger.

It's not often I get to raise the "we're number one!" finger.

First, a disclaimer: The Kick Off the New Year 5k/10k/15k/Half Marathon seems to be a small race geared towards encouraging newer athletes to complete a new challenge to start the year. It's a mom-and-pop-run race, similar to the Uncle Tren's TT at Lake Piru. There were probably around 100 runners total. Further, this particular race fell the morning after the Rock n' Roll Half Marathon in downtown LA, and the same morning as the Camarillo Half Marathon. In other words, I'm very aware that the top-flight competition was likely elsewhere...or sleeping in to avoid a 47-degree start.

But I showed up. Barely, as the alarm clock was clicked shut before 5 and the bed almost won the argument for doing a solo 10k at Griffith Park when it warmed up outside later in the morning.

I've offered all this context up front because I don't want what follows to feel like an "Oh my G-d I'm so awesome for winning this race let me tell you why I'm so awesome!" race report. Rather, this is a report about what it felt like to be in synch with my mind, body and emotions...and more important, why and how that occurred. It seemed like a mental breakthrough for me, so I wanted to share in case it's helpful for others.

Disclaimers complete. On to the real stuff.

Since Ironman Arizona this past November, I've been rethinking how I train and race. Physically, I didn't leave much on the course that day. But I didn't set a belief pattern in motion prior to the race to be brilliant. I vowed to be smart, which is very important. But it's not everything. My friend Sebastian proved that by smashing 30 minutes off his 2014 IMAZ time from the year before despite the much more windy conditions. How? He endeavored to race great. No matter what dark fortunes the weather report foretold.

That concept has captivated me. And finally, after years of reading books and blogs that helped me incrementally improve, I read something that gave me the mental "Aha!" moment I've been long seeking. 

And it's from a coffee table book.

 The art in the art of competition is inspiring enough. the words take it to an entirely new level.

The art in the art of competition is inspiring enough. the words take it to an entirely new level.

Granted, it's a coffee table book by legendary triathlete Mark Allen, with a forward from equally legendary business author Jim Collins (Good to Great). The book is called the Art of Competition, and I'm still making my way through it. But even reading and internalizing the first 50 pages last Saturday opened me to a new way of framing my race on Sunday.

The Art of Competition, so far, is about harnessing the connection between nature, your mind, and body. The link between them, when truly felt, can overrule any negative voices in your head, reducing everything else to "background noise", as Allen put it. Allen's words enabled me to meditate the night prior to the race on what I wanted to get out of my race experience.  Since the race was on the Santa Monica Pier beach path, this seemed as good a time as any to apply Allen's wisdom.  My original goal was to set a pace benchmark and see if my speed work on the track is having the desired effect heading into the Surf City Half Marathon next month.

After reading the Art of Competition, my goal felt small. Inconsequential. Instead, I made three new goals:

1) Be open to possibility. That could mean the possibility of a transcendent performance, the possibility of embracing a new tactic, channeling nature as an energy source, or many other options. 

2) Become the ocean, whether in the form of pounding waves or tranquil waters. However the ocean acted that morning, I would personify that emotion.

3) Approach "Fallure," a concept Collins popularized that I interpret to mean perform beyond your estimated best so as to disprove your preconceived limits. 

The race unfolded in such a way that I was naturally able to reach for each of these goals. And I'm convinced had I not meditated the night before I would have lost the top spot. As soon as the race began, I wound up in unfamiliar territory -- lead runner. I've been in that position once before, when I thought I was running a 10k and had started early with the 5k race. There's nothing like having a police escort for a race you're not really leading! Instead of being elated at leading this particular run, I was deeply concerned about missing a turn on the course and leading everyone else astray. I was worried about leading in general. Then, I simply accepted the possibility of winning and keeping the lead. That calmed me down, along with actively consuming the beautiful morning and pristinely calm, waveless Pacific Ocean. I was also able to call upon being a lane leader at Gerry Rodrigues' Tower 26 swims, which can be a stressful event as all the other swimmers in your lane are depending on you for pace, proper rest intervals and lap counting. Drawing on that experience of focusing under pressure was critical.

My plans for leading the race evaporated after the first turnaround near the two-mile mark. A lanky fellow had been gaining ground on me steadily after the first mile and swiftly made the pass.  I had felt him stalking me for half a mile at least, and congratulated him as he ran past (confirming he was a 10k participant first). This is where Fallure came in handy. I decided to cede the lead for now but keep this guy in my sights. Instead of getting frustrated or upset, I calculated where my kick would need to begin in the final part of the race to win.

We rounded the first lap turnaround almost shoulder-to-shoulder. His breathing was loud and distracting. Instead of focusing on the negative, I gazed forward to the ocean. It gave me all the inspiration I needed. My coach, Gerardo Barrios, has taught me to close my eyes while running for brief moments to focus on the pure beauty of the motion. The wind on my face. The slight chill tingling my cheeks and nose. The rhythmic footsteps. Breathing. I had never tried that tactic in a race until that instance. Everything inside of me eased up and soon I was smiling. 

 I got ya where I want ya... (And yes, i can see the heel strike and that i'm bending at the waist a bit too much here.)

I got ya where I want ya... (And yes, i can see the heel strike and that i'm bending at the waist a bit too much here.)

The rest of the race seemed to take care of itself. I gained ground on my competitor, passing him before the final out-and-back around mile 4.5. Then my competitive fire kicked in. As the second-place runner approached the turnaround I had just passed, I pretended like he wasn't even there, gazing straight to the ocean while ensuring my form looked impeccable. I wanted him to know I could do this shit all day long. (Later, as he and I jogged in a warm down together, he admitted that was the moment he cracked mentally.) His footsteps quickly grew much fainter, and the race was mine to win.

The day wasn't over for me. Not yet. Being open to possibility meant the possibility of Fallure. How hard and fast could I finish? I surged forward, and I'm proud to say my last mile was only two seconds slower than my first, with the final stretch of the race being the fastest portion. 

This small 10k proved to be extremely valuable in my training, racing, and life in general. Being open to possibility is a universally applicable concept. When it comes to triathlon, honors like rankings or podiums seem almost trivial. What matters more is the relentless pursuit of excellence. My new goal for the rest of the season is simply to be open to the possibility of greatness. Every workout. Every race. Every day.

 This photo was taken towards the finish. i feel that it perfectly depicts the sense of calm and focus i was experiencing in the moment.

This photo was taken towards the finish. i feel that it perfectly depicts the sense of calm and focus i was experiencing in the moment.

 My nemesis turned out to be a really nice guy from sweden who greatly prefers ultra-marathons. We jogged together post-race and chatted.

My nemesis turned out to be a really nice guy from sweden who greatly prefers ultra-marathons. We jogged together post-race and chatted.