Triathlons & Politics
Part Three: Energy Management, Knowing Yourself, And Restoration
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.
Caleb: Let’s talk about energy and what sustains all of this. I’m currently training for three races in April*. If I PR [set a Personal Record] it won’t be until my last one because I’m not hitting my targets, so all of the things you’re talking about, I haven’t been doing. (Laughter) I know when I’m out on the trail training, I’m not pushing where I need to, I’m not hydrating right, I’m not eating right, and all of those things are adding up to keep me from hitting my 1:20:00 target for a ten mile (more laughter). I was ten minutes off that the last time I ran it. So, I’ll hang my head in shame here. (*I ran the George Washington Parkway Classic 10 Mile Race on April 24 in 1:23:23—not a PR but still a season best, and faster than my time on the course last year.)
Zane: First we have to recognize that in sport, different from professional life, there’s a distinct difference in how you manage energy. There’s a good book written by Jim Loehr called The Power of Full Engagement and it’s a psychology book about performance. The idea is that in sport, we spend all of our time trying to master allocation of resources. In other words, Calah goes and works out, she comes here and we’re like, “Caleb, we’re going to grab something to eat because Calah needs to eat, because recovery is a big part of her process.”
Caleb (To Calah): Did you get enough, by the way?
Zane: Probably more of a snack.
Calah: I’ll eat more, but that’s okay.
Caleb: If you need to step out and grab something…. (Laughter)
Zane: Irrespective of the fact that she’s a coach as well, the big part for her is that as a professional athlete she has to put her legs up at some point. You and I might need to go put our knuckles to the grindstone, whatever that grindstone is, if it’s a pencil, if it’s the media with regards to Liberatus; for me, it might just be making phone calls for recruiting, it might be doing paperwork, writing workouts. And that’s the distinction. It’s about managing your energy. You have a limited amount of resources for energy.
Calah: For me, I have to prepare to go as well as I can, and put everything into that, and that’s where the recovery comes in.
Caleb: So you’re saying in sport, for this period of time, I have to sprint and use all my energy, whereas in other professional work you might pace yourself throughout the day?
Zane: Yeah, it’s more of a strategic pacing. You’ve probably experienced this with working on Liberatus. You may choose not to, but when you have a project like that, you could work on it day and night. That’s basically what sport is like: you can only work so much. I was at a conference in France over Thanksgiving. And it was about peaking for Rio, and they highlighted the top two men and the top two women in the world, and the profile of those athletes illustrated that they were all training at similar workloads—or volumes, a certain number of hours per week. The whole presentation was about understanding load better, because we’re breaching the scope of how much can be done. You might have one or two people in the world who are capable of doing more work—anomalies. So the bottom line here is when you’re comparing these two elements, what we can learn from sport is that it’s about the specificity: when do we get specific, what is our directive process, what are those processes that allow us to stay on track?
Calah: One of the things that is comparable is the concept of sacrifice. But the difference in the two realms is that you make much different sacrifices. It’s still about “what am I willing to sacrifice for this? Which sacrifice helps me?” In the corporate world, you might have to sacrifice sleep sometimes, right, where as I can’t, I need that.
Caleb: Is that just physically, though, or does sleep affect you mentally?
Calah: Oh yeah, it’s both.
Zane: It’s scientific also. We know that if you stop someone from dreaming, you break somebody’s even B-wave cycles, or you wake someone up every time they go into REM sleep, they eventually go crazy.
Calah: I read all these things about how much less people sleep now as compared to fifty years ago. And I think this is applicable outside of sport, that sleep and general rest and nutrition can make us do better, be better.
Zane: Without question.
Calah: But outside of sport, you manage your energy differently because you’re giving to your family, and you want to have a social life; you can take those things out of sleep maybe or food preparation, whereas in this other world of sport, you wouldn’t. You’re getting something out of it. You get to do this thing not many people get to do, but you also don’t get to sacrifice that sleep. It’s cool because you get to sleep a lot, but I have to give up other things in order to do my best at this.
Key Insight #18: Manage your energy to make the right sacrifices, perform at your peak, and achieve your directives.
Calah: One of your questions was about learning yourself, knowing yourself, and I do think sport is a great way to learn—even doing sport at a high level can help you learn energy management because you’re always going to have other obligations even as you have to put more resources into the sport. You have to figure out life stuff, and you’re going to learn how to do that.
Caleb: Authenticity is something that’s missing so much in politics, because people put so many expectations on you as a person, on what you should say, or what the right talking point of the day is, and I think in sport hopefully you just have to know yourself well enough to know what your race is and you go run it, and the spectators don’t have much of a say on what your awareness is going to be and what your prep ahead of time is. You just go and run your race—I hope?
Calah: There are a lot of perceptions that you just have to not think about or care about, because no one knows what your race plan was, or what your ability is, or where you’re at in your race process. It might look like you went out and didn’t have a great race. And people might judge you on that based on your place, but you know what you did and it was good for you, or it was a step in your plan. In my races over spring break, the swim-bike was actually really solid for me. I also knew we hadn’t focused on the run, I hadn’t done anything fast. There are some people who ran a lot closer to me than they normally would have, and they might be thinking, “Oh, I’m getting as fast as Calah running,” but they don’t know what I’ve been doing. So perception matters but you have to let all of that roll off. And you can’t judge too much on your competition. You can’t read too much into times on paper because you don’t know what happened in that race. You don’t know if it was windy or really hilly, or if that person is coming off an injury. We’re in an Olympic year; you hear a lot of people talking about their plan, the bigger plan, which they know they’re going to be in the right place on that one day that matters, even though in the early races of the season maybe they don’t look that great.
Zane: I think there’s a broader sense in how this relates to the political climate. In politics we see people being distracted or constantly reacting or responding. I think media has done that quite a lot. And a lot of athletes do that, especially athletes at Calah’s caliber, even some who seem to be more mature. But sometimes all the action on social media and “somebody’s doing this, and somebody’s doing that” gets to their head and they’re sitting there scrolling through it.
Calah: I’ve gone through periods where I don’t look at social media at all, or race results, because it messes with my head. When I go to look at a result, it’s for a purpose. Seeing where people are and how it relates to me, not just looking to judge where people are with where I think I am from a feeling—emotional standpoint because it can get into that territory.
Key Insight #19: Block out others’ expectations to run your race well.
Zane: As we’re talking about a defined concept of what freedom is, and what that means for how you work, and our experiences trying to coach people at a high performance level, or an athlete at a high performance level routinely performing, something that you can’t go without mentioning is that these are just parts of a very defined pursuit, over and over again. Directives, process—and I continue to think about the current political climate and the trends that we have going into a voting year, not only an Olympic year—but I think it’s an interesting scope because you have governing bodies right now in sport trying to dictate a certain amount of control so that the right people get picked so that we have the biggest opportunity to earn a medal. It’s an outcome-based focus.
Calah: Every country does the selection process differently, but it’s not always fair to the athletes. It’s not always the two or three best athletes. Like last Olympics, Britain, on the men’s side, they ended up having the gold and bronze medal in triathlon.
Caleb: I remember that, they were brothers, right?
Zane: Yeah, the Brownlees.
Calah: They had three slots, so they didn’t pick the first, second, and third best. They picked those top two, then they picked the tenth best person—I don’t know what his place was—so that he could help them in the pack and lighten their load, so they would have a better chance to win a medal. Arguably in their case, they were going to win anyway, but it’s all tactics to that more communal end, which as an athlete, doesn’t seem fair at all.
Zane: I think that the tactics, from my experience as a coach and getting to rub shoulders with some of the people who are involved in that higher end process, and not necessarily IOC [International Olympic Committee] process but those things are probably much better matched to politics—because they change in a way to benefit the outcome. There are applications from the eating, and all the health aspects are one thing, but I think the bigger thing is the political side—the Olympics used to be all about amateur athletes and now it’s all professional athletes, and we’re finding it’s all about money, and you see the scandals and all the doping, and we’re seeing that it’s clearly all about power and money.
Key Insight #20: Have a definition of success, sacrifice, and hard work outside the limits of power, money, and votes.
Calah: It’s sad. I got into triathlon because I wanted to see how good I could be, and it’s not that political. It’s about how hard you work and how talented you are. But even the pure things like that are idealistic. There’s also a lot of politics that go into them, or media, and there are other aspects as to whether you’re successful, both physically and financially, that have nothing to do with your talent or your work ethic. It has to do with your personality, or maybe your looks, or how you sell yourself at the right place and time, and who you meet and what sponsorship you get—just life, you know?
Zane: I think anything worth having is not just about basic ability. Sport is about basic ability at some level, and at the top it’s about above average abilities. But you won’t find many athletes who say, “I didn’t have to work hard, I didn’t have to make sacrifices.” That’s almost never the case.
Caleb: From the outside looking in, at the Olympics or other sports, it’s nice just to watch it for the purity of sport, but as followers of Jesus we know there’s brokenness everywhere. What does restoration look like in the world of sport? Is it just running your race really well?
Calah: As I say this, I’m not defending doping at all. But I do want to say something about it that I think people on the outside don’t really realize. People think that people doping are kind of lazy, or are trying to get a quick fix—which some of them are—but sometimes it comes from a place of desperation, or wanting power, wanting something, and having worked really hard and it not being enough. In cycling for example, they work so hard. And the people who dope? It’s not that they’re not working. They ride just as hard, just as much, but there’s a pressure that no matter how hard they work they won’t be good enough. We were watching a documentary on Lance Armstrong and his team and the wife of one of the other teammates was interviewed, one of the teammates who was actually against doping for a long time, and during one tour, he was the only guy who wasn’t willing to dope, and he worked his butt off, was very talented and everyone else was doping and he just got left. He had to drop out of the tour, so that was the breaking point. It’s good to know where doping is coming from, because it’s so applicable to life, because it’s usually not as clear cut as we think, it’s a bunch of small decisions that often lead to a big wrong doing.
Key Insight #21: Know the human elements of why your workplace is broken—to find compassion and the avenue for healing.
Calah: And really, a lot of this—not regarding doping, but just in my career as an athlete—a lot of it has to do with not tying too much of your value to this pursuit.
Zane: It can’t mean too much. We talk about that a lot.
Calah: Because it does feel like a very pure pursuit, and it can feel okay to get too caught up in it, and it’s just easy to, especially if you’re trying to survive based off of it; it can become a little more desperate, or your identity can become tied to it. Your identity is always going to be tied to what you pursue passionately, but it’s important to stay separate from it. I think one of the frustrating things about being a pro triathlete—it is cool and I like talking about it, but it’s such a unique thing. Sometimes people think it’s all I can talk about, or that’s all they want to talk about, or it becomes all I am, and I want to remind them, “Oh I am so many other things too.” I think it’s that way with any job; we ask people what they do, but in a sense we need to keep our identity somewhere else too.
Key Insight #22: Make certain your identity is rooted securely as a child of God.
Zane: From a coaching standpoint, you asked the question about the restorative process, and it goes back to grounding our beliefs. This sounds absolutely idealistic, but one of the aims I pursue with the athletes that I work with when I see them struggling in the process is asking them, “Well, what do you believe?” Sometimes it’s just believing that they can achieve something. If you’re in the game, you’ve been endowed with an ability. I heard a speech by Denzel Washington and he says, “Let me remind you that in my experience, your desire is that little silver lining, that golden thread—that’s God’s recognition to you that you have all it takes to do what it is that you have the desire to do.” It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy! But there’s that belief component, that sort of sits in a bubble up there—how do we plug into that?
Key Insight #23: Believe you have the ability to achieve what God has called you to achieve.
Zane: As we’re looking at some of the doping aspects in cycling or track and field, and the decay in some specific organizations and countries, as tragic as this is, it’s become a culture. As we think about the restorative component, there’s a lot of opportunity specifically focused at the funding in those sectors, whether it’s governing bodies or external companies and organizations that sponsor. They might not truly understand what it takes to get there, irrespective of being a Fortune 500 company, as an example. It’s not uncommon to see sponsorships rise the closer you get to an Olympics, and then leave shortly after the Olympics.
Caleb: Because they don’t realize they need to be there the entire four years?
Calah: Because it really takes five years, or arguably more—a lifetime—to get to that Olympics, and some of these swimmers might be living in their cars for four years.
Caleb: Yeah, I just read an article about a guy working at McDonald’s who started training, and now he’s probably going to go to Rio for track.
Calah: Or the difference between the guy who made the Olympics, and the guy who didn’t—like third and fourth—the difference is still minute. That guy could have easily made it, if something had been different but there’s a cutoff.
Zane: And it’s really a lack of value in the pursuit of the effort.
Key Insight #24: Investing in your team could be the difference between falling short or achieving your directives.
Calah: Being high achievers, we’re about the result, but it’s about who our athletes are becoming and putting emphasis on that as well, not just fixating on the result
Zane: When athletes come in to our program, we try to establish a component of integrity, which is one of our values. There’s a strong link between integrity and dignity. And people often look at our value system when they come on recruiting trips, and ask, “Why don’t you have mutual respect up there on the list?” And I tell them it’s because we have dignity on that list of values, and if you hold yourself with some dignity, you earn respect. Sport is a great example of life, and the purpose and place of Christ, because there’s going to be someone who wins, someone who loses, and somebody that mistreats the game or themselves or other people—or responsibility to the podium if we’re talking about winning.
Key Insight #25: Value the pursuit—the daily success, not just the rewards of success.
Key Insight #26: No matter what, carry yourself with dignity.
Calah: A big factor that I think translates well to politics is choosing to believe that it is still worthwhile, that not everyone is corrupt. Everyone is flawed, but some politicians have good intentions. With track and field lately, and cycling for sure, you could start to wonder if anyone is clean. And it might be naïve to keep some hope, but I want to believe that not everyone is dirty. I read an article about an 800m runner who knows everyone is doping, and is refusing to do it, and he still sometimes wins! In the U.S. there’s a bunch of people into the anti-doping campaign and I could spend all of my time wondering if they’re even clean. Or if every athlete I compete against is clean, because people who have clean results can just be lucky. Someone asked Alistair Brownlee if he thinks about whether other people are clean, and he says he chooses to believe everyone is clean because he doesn’t want to have an out in his mind. When he’s up against someone at the end of a race, if he has the thought that they might be doping, that will give him an out to lose, that they might be better than him or have a step up. But he chooses to believe everyone’s clean and can defeat them anyways. I was also reading an article that Zane sent me about the coach of Team Sky, a British cycling team, whose purpose is to race clean. Their guy won the tour this year, and what I thought was encouraging in this article—this coach was even believing that through legit means (not doping) cyclists can match and even surpass the times and results of this past generation of dopers. It might take a while, but through doing some things better—maybe people weren’t doing certain things right with the crutch of doping—if we can create better environments for the athletes, he believes we can actually surpass those feats, which is a pretty incredible thing to say.
Zane: That’s the exciting part.
Key Insight #27: Believe goodness is possible; overcome evil with good.
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.
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