Triathlons & Politics, Part 2

Triathlons & Politics

Part Two: The Race Plan, Awareness, and Pushing Your Limits 

Today we're publishing part two of our interview with Calah Schlabach and Zane Castro. 

Calah is a professional triathlete and competes as one of the first 32 athletes in the newly launched Major League Triathlon in the U.S. She’s also an assistant coach to Zane Castro at Marymount University. Zane coaches Calah in her professional pursuit, and he is the coach of Marymount’s NCAA triathlon program—the first collegiate program in the country.

As our conversation continues, I ask Calah another question about her race plan, how she verbalizes it ahead of time, and how it can carry her through a race. A song on the coffee shop soundtrack interrupts our dialogue, blaring from a speaker just above our heads; we lean in a little closer over our high top table at Arlington’s Northside Social to be sure my recorder will catch every word.

Calah: In a race, anything can happen. There’s so much you can’t control; you don’t know what other people are going to do, or in my style of racing, I don’t know where I’m going to be able to line up on the start line. We have a roll call and even if I know my place in the lineup, it all depends on the choices of the people in front of me. The only person who knows where they’re going to line up is number one. There are so many variables that can change, so I boil it down to a few key actions and commands.

In the example of lining up, if I look at where the line and the buoy are, my first choice would be the most direct line—so I would be in the middle, a little bit to the left. But if the people who I want to try to swim with go far right, do I still want to line up on the line, or do I want to line up closer to them, or kind of in between? There are a few things that will be the same no matter what. For example, if it’s a dive start, I’ll want a clean dive; hold the dive, five really strong strokes, and then sight—look up to see where I’m going. If I don’t tell myself how often to sight, I’ll just stop because you have to get out of your stroke which takes a lot more work.

Zane: Keep your stream of consciousness, but I think it’s important to mention this: sometimes an athlete might make that command to sight, but one of the points that I’ve learned as a coach from taking video of athletes I’ve recruited doing these things, is that when I actually went to talk to them about what they saw, they couldn’t see anything. They didn’t know what they saw.

Caleb: You have footage of them looking up, but they didn’t know—

Zane: They have no recollection of doing it during the race.

Calah: Because that’s often the case, we make the distinction between sighting and seeing. Let’s say there’s a large chop, and if all you see is water, and you didn’t actually see the buoy, you might have to sight again to actually see something.

Zane: Another hindrance is feeling panicked. Trying to get athletes to be aware of that is critical. We go through this very distinct action process–which Calah is very good at—for two reasons. The first is about applying actual action and cognitively responding to it which you can’t just create in the moment if you haven’t put the pieces together in your race plan. The second reason is to create awareness and realize in a particular occasion, that individual—Calah in this case—might not have awareness but she still has to go through her commands in the race plan with the hope and belief that she’s going to create awareness. In her history, we have occasions where we went in with the goal for her to have awareness in specific parts of the course and we let the rest of the race evolve, although we still had a plan, start to finish. Fortunately for us—and it says a lot about Calah as an athlete in her ability to apply these principles—in a lot of occasions she became very aware.

Calah: Open water swimming can be very disorienting; there’s information overload because there’s all these people and it’s a little bit violent—


Caleb: Between competitors?

Calah: Yeah

Zane: And it’s just rough.

Calah: Especially rough if you aren’t as used to the water. Earlier in my career, after a race, Zane would ask me what happened and I’d realize I had no idea. You go into survival mode. So, yes, commands can be as detailed as sight every five strokes. Another command I always follow is to focus on forward motion, which sounds really obvious, (laughter) but you can get in this thrashing mode where you’re moving your arms a lot but not really going anywhere. It’s about figuring out what works for you to create the right response.

Key Insight #13: Write and refine the plan to achieve your directives.

Zane: You could say that implementing your race plan requires a lot of focus. But it’s not just focus; it’s a lot of awareness and there’s a distinction between those two things.

Calah: And being focused on the right things. You could be very focused but not get anything accomplished.

Zane: Awareness is applicable to life outside of sport. Imagine if you’re going into a work meeting in a different setting, and you get an emergency phone call which forces you to miss lunch. Are you aware of how you’d respond in that situation?  As a coach, working with athletes very closely, I observe and ask them key questions to realize why they weren’t performing well.

Calah: We actually practice the bad situations as much as possible. I think the tendency is to always want the ideal situation, but in triathlon you’re in open water, and that’s much harder than swimming in a pool.  For instance, if we don’t have access to open water, then we do open water swimming in the pool: we throw everyone in one lane, so it’s a mess. We’ve even done workouts where everyone’s not swimming the same intervals, so it’s not all perfect the way typical swim practices are.

Zane: Real flowy…. Set intervals….

Calah: It gets you ready for when things happen that you don’t like, things that bug you, and you learn to deal with them anyways.

Key Insight #14: Merge your specific focus with awareness of how you respond to tough or imperfect situations in your work environment.

Zane:  Because work environments are imperfect, an organization’s ability to be successful is almost exclusively dependent upon whether or not they can create directives. How someone goes about their principles and detailing a plan comes down to the individual and their particular attributes, and how good they get at that.  Over time I push my athletes’ ability to articulate this. I have a great story of an athlete I worked with years ago, he’s an elementary school teacher nowadays, but he raced in Europe. When he left to go to Europe, I made him keep a journal of all his tactical experiences, “Okay, what happened in this race?” He had a little bit of a learning disability and at this point in his life believed he couldn’t rely on school as an option, even though he had a college degree. He struggled—again, beliefs—because he thought he wasn’t smart. And he’d been told that by some bad teachers in his life. He thought he was going to have to rely on sport. So, he had this drive that he had to make it, but it also came with a great deal of fear, a lack of sleep, an inability to recover—despite having the ability. So he goes off to Europe, and in a three month period of time, he raced seventy-five races.

Caleb: Seventy-five races in three months. Seventy-five races in ninety days.

Zane: Yep.

Calah: There are a lot of times where you aren’t training anymore, your races are training and you just recover.

Zane: You go in basically baseline fit and then you race yourself into shape. And this guy did very, very, very well there. When he came back, just riding with him and talking with him, everything about him—the way that he held the bike, the way we took corners and how he’d sort of lean on me a little bit—there was a whole posture difference, a whole new level. And when he would talk about his experiences, he spoke out tactics in complete detail: “I knew if I wasn’t in this position, this was going to happen, and I saw this guy coming out here out of the corner of my left eye—”. You know, all these different descriptions. He didn’t have that ability before. So what’s that? That’s being thrown in the deep end. It’s trial by fire, on some level, but you can practice that way. 

Calah: I think it’s important to say that he’s now quite a successful teacher with special needs kids, and is confident in it.

Zane: And talented. Literally as a coach of his, when he got to the point of retiring, I was pushing him, like, “dude, you need to get your teaching certificate.” He kept going in on temporary certificates. When we finally pushed him there, when he got there, when he realized his potential, when he actually sat down and started to cope with how he needed to learn, he started to realize that he’d been lied to his whole life—he wasn’t dumb. He realized nobody had done the work to teach him.

Caleb: That’s incredible.

Zane: It really is incredible. Literally, every institution he’s been a part of, he’s earned awards, because he’s applied the principles of sport to work. The principle of sport is you do the work.

Calah: If you don’t do the work, you don’t eat. And he actually put himself in that situation when he went to Europe; he had to win to pay to eat. 

Zane: He had a plane ticket to come home and he had enough to last there for a month. He was there for three.  He found himself in Belgium, where they basically bet on racing, like horses, and he wound up on the betting boards. People actually knew his name, and they thought, “oh he’s going to be second, he’s going to be first, he’s going to be third, he’s going to create a break, he’s going to split the field up,” and that’s rare for an athlete to experience what he did. I don’t know that he would have found that fortitude if he hadn’t gone there. That was a kicking down the door effect for him and his life.

Key Insight #15: Articulate how effectively you’ve implemented your race plan and directives.

Key Insight #16: And then take on another challenge to push yourself to grow.

Zane (To Calah): Do you want to talk about how you transition from sport to sport?

Calah: There are actions for each leg and the transitions. For example, “As soon as you hit the ground, run—fast—forward—”. Some people don’t and get stuck in the sand and make all these extra movements that aren’t getting you anywhere.

Caleb: And I assume that a few seconds at the end makes or breaks the race?

Calah: In the style of racing that I do, it’s less obvious than that, because in the draft legal type of racing, those seconds after the swim, getting on the bike, can determine whether you make the front bike pack, so it’s actually more important than in non-draft racing where you can probably make up that time someplace else. You can make up two seconds on the run no problem, if you’re a runner. But in this, if you lose those two seconds and don’t make the pack, you can lose more time—that two seconds can turn into a minute or two minute gap. In the draft it’s a thirty percent advantage, give or take depending on how close you are—bike racing like you’ve seen in the Tour de France. If you don’t quite make the front pack, you can’t necessarily go at it on your own and bridge the gap because they’re all getting a thirty percent advantage. It’s almost a team dynamic during the bike portion, even if you’re not on the same team.

Caleb: You’re competing against each other.

Calah:  Yeah, it’s like a team—you just sort of fake it—it’s all tactical.

Caleb: Interesting parallel for politics. That’s one of the things that I think frustrates many people about the House: we don’t even do a good job of debating issues. If you watch C-SPAN, there’s only a few people there and they’re not debating; there’s not a sense of “in order to get x solution across the finish line, we need to actually come to the House floor and respond to each other’s ideas”—that doesn’t happen, at least not often enough.

Calah: And some might win and some might lose, but this is how we have to achieve debate.

Caleb: We have to debate it; we have to draft off of each other.

Key Insight #17: Work with the other side—because in a race or a Republic, you need them to achieve your directives.


Zane Castro is a full-time head coach for a college cross country team and the first-in-the-nation college triathlon program. Growing up, he played a variety of sports, including baseball, tennis, and martial arts. Eventually, he found himself competing as a triathlete alongside professionals for twelve years—just for the love of the sport. Early in his career he applied for med school—and within twenty-four hours walked away from it because the game literally was calling him back: his friends were begging him to take on the job of their coach. Since then he has coached at both the collegiate and professional levels, including coaching his fellow coaching assistant, Calah Schlabach in her professional pursuits.

Calah Schlabach is an assistant coach to Zane and a professional triathlete herself—this year she’s competing as one of the first 32 athletes in Major League Triathlon. Her athletic career started as a basketball player in her yard—and quickly ended when she realized the hoop at home had sunk into the ground a few inches. Even though she loved swimming as a child, her family moved to the middle of nowhere in Arizona where there weren’t any pools—so she followed her dad’s footsteps and took up running through high school and college.

After spending a year overseas after college, she came back to the U.S. and signed up for a triathlon with her mom to “get back in shape.” She quickly realized she had a lot left inside to give and is now competing in her third year as a professional triathlete. 


Where do you need to examine and articulate your effectiveness at work, or take on a bigger challenge to grow? How will taking on that challenge help your team achieve its directives? Make plans to push the limits of what you think you can offer your team based on your directives and your past effectiveness. 

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