Our triathlon life has mirrored our life before triathlon to an amazing degree. The defining word to describe us is persistence. We just keep at it until we get there.
Our upbringing, sporting history, sibling rivalry and below middle-class upbringing laid the groundwork for success as triathletes purely by chance. If you tried to find one of us when we were kids if we weren’t in school, then you’d have to go to the pool, hockey field, track, trails or basketball court. Or you would find us on our bikes getting to one of those places. In the evening it was just a quick stop at the dinner table and then a bit of homework before we fell asleep. This is how it was for both of us just about every day of our lives from the age of six. We did sport and little else during the school year.
We felt as though we had soul mates from our first date. Although we grew up on opposite sides of the planet, our life stories are so similar it’s hard to believe. Both of us were raised in big, catholic, sporting families. Erin had five sisters and two brothers, I had four brothers and two sisters. We were both the middle “well-adjusted” child. We like to tell our brothers and sisters that anyway. We both swam competitively for over 10 years, and ran track and x-country all through high school. We competed a ton all through our youth and were both very good from about the age of 12 onwards. When we first heard of a triathlon around the age of 21 we jumped in with both feet and never looked back. I grew up in the northern California town of Pittsburg and Erin grew up in the New Zealand town of Christchurch in the South Island, where we’ve made our home since 1994.
Triathlon for us seemed to be this new and exciting challenge that was tailor made for us. It required stamina and lots of training above all else and we knew we were well equipped for it. We won races right away. But remember that there weren’t many people racing them back in the early 80’s, so we had a bit of a jump on the rest of the world. Erin ended up winning 107 professional triathlons and duathlons, I won 104. Erin also ran a few very solid marathons with times between 2:34 and 2:37 along with some excellent road running races.
It didn’t take long for us to decide to spend our lives together. We had already realized that triathlon would only afford us this fairy tale existence for a short while and we quickly made plans to start a family and get “real” jobs soon. We worked well as a team from the beginning although our day-to-day method of getting the job done was quite different. Erin liked to be organized and needed to have plenty of structure. I liked to leave more scope to improvise and let my whims dictate my day a bit more. She always wanted to get things done as early and as quickly as possible. I often let things linger. I’ve always been a bit of a procrastinator and she hates that!
But each week we would both make sure to get done all of the training and other jobs one must do to get through a life and have a career. There was travel arrangements and sponsor liaising. There were bikes to take care of and meals to be prepared. Laundry and bills. Interviews and taxes. All of the normal stuff that people do. But mostly we trained a lot.
A typical week for us, if we didn’t have to travel or race, included six runs of about an hour on average, five-six bike rides of an average of three hours each, six swims of just over an hour, three weights sessions, two massages, 20 minutes/day of stretching, two hours eating and nine of sleeping. I slept a lot! Many days would include a nap during the day of about an hour.
In triathlon at that time, most people who were trying to make a living from racing did all distances. The difference between that approach and what many professional triathletes now do is Ironmans. Even if we only did one Ironman a year, we had to spend several months doing longer runs and bike rides to get ready for it. We usually did two or more of them each year, so really we were always training for one or another. We often did many of our longer, aerobic sessions together. Much of the time Erin would be pulling me along! She wasn’t nicknamed ‘The Animal” for nothing. She would go so hard sometimes some of the top men would fall off the back and slink off home with their tales between their legs. She was particularly good at going uphill.
So much of what we did in this sport was a process of trial and error. Much of it was just a “shotgun” approach. We tried to squeeze in as much for the training programs of the three sports as we had time and energy for. When we look back now, its amazing that we didn’t burnout or get overtrained early on. I think the only thing that saved us was our early start in endurance training in our youth gave us tremendously resilient bodies. Especially in light of today’s sophisticated monitoring techniques and scientific advancements in training and nutrition, its a wonder we ever made it through the first year! We both were voracious readers of anything having to do with training. Erin had the additional aid of Dr. John Hellemans who became her advisor. He was also fascinated with all things relating to human performance and endurance.
To us pain, fatigue, over-use injuries, bad weather, etc. were just things you dealt with when they came. We expected the challenge to be very tough. We relished it. It was an opportunity of a lifetime! The chance to put together every skill we had acquired with every training session we had ever done to race a triathlon. One of the wonderful aspects of this sport for us was the renewed sensation of taking on that challenge every time we lined up for an event we hadn’t done before. Some had heat or mountains or cold water or currents. Some had trails or big waves. The opportunity to travel was a huge thing for us. We are both small town people. Seeing the world on foot or from the seat of a bike afforded us a rare opportunity to see places and meet people we never could have imagined. Even now we find it hard to pass up invitations to locals we’ve never visited. In the year 2000, we took an invitation to do our first adventure race mainly because it was in a remote, mountainous part of China. We were able to race through villages many kilometers from paved roads or electricity. Some of the villages didn’t have a single motor of any type! We paddled down the great Yangtze river. We abseiled and climbed remote mountains. We mountain biked over cobbles laid over 2,000 years ago. It was an opportunity too good to pass up and sharing it as a team made it all the more special.
One thing that is an important part of the equation that makes us who we are, and perhaps why we were good at this sport, is because we did it for the challenge. There wasn’t a dime to be made when we began. It actually cost us a ton if you added up the time spent training instead of working, the bike, the travel, the entry fees, etc. In that respect we have a lot in common with every one else who does it. Even though that aspect of our motivation changed over the years as money became available, the underlying reason to pursue excellence in the sport was that it was a terrific challenge and it brought out the best aspects of our character.
Many of our discussions during training in the early days centered around the issue of equality for women. Erin has been a staunch feminist from her teenage years and followed in her mother’s footsteps in standing up tall and proud to support equality for women. Equality in pay and attitude. Equality in opportunity of advancement and political clout. Much of her energy in those days was spent behind the scenes trying to make some progress in this area. If she’s proud of any aspect of her time in the sport more than another, then it’s in how she applied her persistence and position as the best female in the sport to make some progress for women in triathlon. Triathlon very quickly became one of the few sports to offer equal prize money and remains one of the few to this day.
While training we would often plan where we would live, how many children we would have and how we would raise them. After having traveled so extensively we decided that we would give our kids the opportunity to see different cultures. There’s lots of ways to live a life. We also know that its important to us to be close to our families – to have a sense of belonging. To have roots. We feel like we’ve done that now. We’ve also spent many years going back and forth from New Zealand to Colorado and now feel pretty comfortable just about anywhere and hope our kids grow up to feel the same.
Our life as triathletes has been so incredible its hard for us not to encourage people to give it a try. Its great to be triathlete! and its added so much to our lives.