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The Common Threads
64 minutes | Jan 17, 2021
Pioneering Running Coach Greg McMillan: Extraordinary is in All of Us
Greg McMillan didn’t set out to become one of the greatest running coaches in America. He started diving into the research in high school with a simple goal: to run faster. Fast forward three decades and McMillan has coached over 10,000 Boston Marathon qualifiers, 12 National Champions, and countless elite athletes competing at the Olympics and World Championships. There’s something fundamentally different about talking to McMillan about his journey into running, coaching and exercise science. He doesn’t differentiate between his athletes running their first 5k and those competing at the Olympic Trials. To him, “extraordinary is in all of us. It just has to be pulled out.” Maybe that’s why McMillan Running has changed the game. Because McMillan — and the coaches he’s assembled — believe in all of us, not just the few winning the medals. Listen to our podcast with Greg McMillan on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. The Starting Line David Swain, @Prokit: What did you have for breakfast? Greg McMillan: I had a bagel because my wife bought fresh bagels. So I had a bagel with cream cheese, some sliced apples, water and a cup of tea. Is that your typical go-to? Not necessarily. I usually try not to have so much bread in the morning, but if she gets the fresh bagels, I’m gonna have one. Let’s start with your journey to running and sport. As a kid, where were you and what were you doing? I grew up in rural Tennessee on a farm, so we played outside all the time. Obviously, we didn’t have neighbors right next door, and I had to get to friends on foot or on a bike. So I grew up very active. I played baseball and basketball, which I really loved. In our elementary school, we also did a field day. We would compete in different events like the long jump, the softball throw, and the mile run. I would always win the mile run and then got to represent my school at the county championship, which is a big deal. Greg in high school Of course, the high school coach watched field day and picked his future team. I got invited to participate on the track team quite early because I was successful when I was young. The switch flipped for me in about 11th grade. I really fell in love with running. I was playing basketball and running, but running just became my passion. It’s been over 35 years now and I still love talking about it, love helping people with their running, and love exploring how we get the most from ourselves. What kind of farm did you grow up on? We raised beef cattle, mostly for our own consumption and to raise some money. We would have one cow that we would slaughter each year and that would be our meat for the year. The rest would be sold off to pay the bills. My parents did have regular jobs, so it was more of a weekend farm. We didn’t subsist just by farming. We also had horses, chickens, pigs, a garden and all the things that you might visualize when you think about a farm. It was great for me because we were outside all the time. Insights from Decades Coaching Talk about the progression that you went through as an athlete and what that turned into your journey into coaching. At that time, books and magazines were all we had, and it was rural Tennessee. There was no Amazon, no Barnes and Noble. It wasn’t easy to get my hands on these things, but I just devoured everything. I even had my own Dewey Decimal system where I had a notebook that tracked each article by topic. I had it all arranged so I could go back to that magazine. I really just wanted to learn everything. It was very selfish at that point. I was trying to find out how I could be a better athlete. I loved hearing stories of successful athletes. I love reading about the science of it. I loved learning about the non-running things that would help, like nutrition, mental training and cross training. I loved all of that. It was all that I thought about and wanted to do. Everything since then has been an evolution of that curiosity, that exploration of myself, trying to be a better runner. I studied exercise science in school, and if you’re studying exercise science, people start asking you questions. You start providing them with a workout and maybe a training plan, and then suddenly they call you coach. I didn’t really go into it with the idea that I was going to become a running coach. It was more that I was really passionate about trying to help myself and I was happy to share with others what I was learning through my own experience and through school. One of the things that’s so great in our sport is that everybody experiences it the same way. The speed can be very different, but everybody runs the same course and has the same struggles. They have the highs, the lows, that hill at mile five that really kicks your butt. That’s what I really enjoy about the sport. I like working with other people because it doesn’t matter if you’re faster or slower than I am. We can understand each other because we know what it’s like to try to go up against that voice in your head that’s telling you to slow down when you want to run faster because you’re going for this particular goal. How has information on running progressed over the years? Where has it improved, and where do you think it still has a way to go? The concepts are still there. Obviously, the experimenting of coaches and athletes over the past 100 years has taught us what works. But what we’ve learned more and more is how to tweak things for the individual. That’s what I was not good at, originally. Every coach goes through it. When you first become a coach, you’re a robot. You’re just taking something from somebody else and applying it to another person. Slowly over time, you start to feel more confident of how you can massage the training to better fit that person. You listen better, and you watch better. That begins to help you become more of an artist in your work. Then no matter who shows up and wants your help, you’re able to figure out how to manipulate the general training principles to fit that person in their particular environment. That was my coaching evolution. At first, I was just applying other people’s training to my athletes. Then, I began to evolve their training into a modified version that had my input or what I was learning from the athletes. Slowly, you just get more and more confident. The first book I ever read on running was by Arthur Lydiard, a very famous running coach. Runner’s World called him “Coach of the 20th Century.” I read his book when I was in high school, and then I got to tour with him on his last US tour. We spent so much time together, and I got to ask him all the questions that I wanted to ask. We would give these talks and then people would come up and ask questions. I would listen to him give answers. Later, I would quiz him, asking why he said something to a certain person. I realized he was just better than I was at listening and at picking up the individual nature from the athlete. I learned from that to be open to evolving the set of training principles to really match the person. That’s what exercise science has given us, not necessarily how to train, but how to modify the training for each individual person. That’s what I’ve built my philosophy around. I take a scientifically-based training and make it fit to an individual so they get the most from the training, avoid the injuries, and have fewer bad workouts. The technique really builds a nice motivation snowball because training is going better and better. Then that person can reach new levels of fitness. Do you picture yourself as a life coach as much as a running coach? The mind is such a big part of getting a person across the finish line at their potential. It really is. Running is a 24/7, 365 sport so you can’t compartmentalize it. When you’re running, you’re training. When you’re sleeping, eating or thinking, you’re training. It’s this all-encompassing, lifestyle-type sport. As a result, you do have to take into consideration everything in a person’s life. As a coach, you get really familiar with the highs and the lows and the challenges that a person may face outside of just going for that run. That helps you as a coach because the better you can understand the athlete and the environment in which they’re training, it allows you to modify the training so that they get the most from it. It helps them move toward their goal. I have a minor in psychology, and that helps me a lot in getting people past the idea that what they want to do is scary or unrealistic. I think you see that in business, in life and with raising kids. It’s the same sort of process. People want to reach a goal but there are obstacles along the way. What’s the best strategy to achieve that goal? Finding Your Extraordinary At the start of a new year, many people have big goals. What are the ways that you help people find their why and help them reach their goals? There are two parts to it. There’s the macro goal – the larger goal– that’s the easy part. It’s easy for a runner to say, “I want to qualify for Boston. I want to break two hours in the half marathon.” It’s easy to set those goals. The next layer, the micro goals, is where the coaching comes in. We have to maybe get rid of some habits that you have and reestablish some new habits that will put you more in accord with what you need to do to achieve your goals. A lot of the work that I do is less about those macros. I mostly think about what we need to change on a daily and weekly basis to give the athlete a better chance of succeeding. Almost every runner can name two to four things that they can improve on or a limitation that they’ve had in the past that we need to address. Maybe it’s a hamstring issue that keeps popping up. Then our micro goal has to be managing the hamstring. Maybe we have to have mobility and strength sessions that are built into the plan. Maybe they have to pre-schedule therapy, as opposed to reacting to once the hamstring gets grumpy. A lot of what I’m doing with those athletes is trying to figure out the goal for the day. What’s a win for today and for the week? I know if we stack successful days and successful weeks together, we only need to do that for 8-12 weeks. In that time, that person can become a completely different runner. They can have a totally different fitness level and a totally different mindset. They can have a totally different body as they go into what will lead toward their goal attempt. I think for a lot of us who work with people who are goal driven, we’re trying to get them to think about achieving these really small goals every day. That goal could be eating a little bit better, doing your rehab stuff, or controlling yourself on a run. If we achieve those, that’s our win. The bigger goals will take care of themselves. Do you have an exercise that you go through with new members to help figure that out? It’s different for everybody. A lot of it is built within the training system. We’re essentially teaching people how to coach themselves. We’re teaching them how to recognize these faults, limitations, and tripping points. We’re always asking about the micro goals for the day. What was a success for today and what went wrong? We’re trying to empower them to do what I would do if I were sitting there with them in person. The first thing I’m going to say is, “How are you feeling today?” Based on the answer, I’m going to decide if we do the training as is or modify it. I have a YouTube video called “Which Runner Showed Up Today?” It’s about making those gameday decisions because you’re a living organism. You’re not the same everyday. You’re not a robot. The more that I talk about these micro goals and habits, I find that over time it becomes second nature to people. Then they really start to see their training take off. So it’s not a specific exercise as it is more just repetition of exposure. For people who are struggling and don’t feel like they have any motivation, where do you have them focus? We usually default to discipline. One of the things that’s really helpful about running is you have to be disciplined. You have to get out the door. If I have somebody who’s lost a lot of motivation, they don’t have any races come up, and they’re in that down period, I remind them that they don’t want to stop running completely. Most of us have had to start over and we know it really stinks to have to come back from zero. So even a minimal amount of running will help maintain a base level of fitness. Then we’re not starting from scratch once the motivation does come back. The way to do that is to just be disciplined. It helps to set up something that’s accomplishable, like running one day per week or two days per week. If you’re normally running five days a week and you’re really not feeling it, try to get in three days a week. People are happier and more successful when they’re getting their running in, so let’s not abandon all hope. Let’s just make sure to get in a minimum amount. Usually, that goal takes away some pressure because a lot of people, particularly goal driven people, are all or nothing. So we try to work to find that happy middle ground that can work for that person, and then come up with creative outlets, like signing up for a virtual race or going for a run while your child bikes. We’re always looking for opportunities. Coaches are looking for opportunities for positive movement and to see the silver linings. It’s important for people who are low on motivation to realize that it’s normal. We all go through it. Motivation has a wavy line to it. We just try to always find something that can help you stay on that line. For runners, I think discipline is an easy way to do it. Even if it’s just going out for five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, you’ll still feel better. Sometimes that kick starts a routine. There are many remarkable stories of people who didn’t see potential in themselves who made it to the Boston Marathon or something even much bigger. What does that journey look like when you have somebody come in who doesn’t think they can reach their potential? I really fell in love with the idea that, with running, if I worked hard at it, I could achieve these really high goals. It’s a pretty direct line in running: if you do work, you will get better. You don’t have to be six foot nine to be a good runner. Everybody has the potential. We’re different shapes and sizes, but we can all improve if we put work into it. If you go to the finish line of a marathon, you’ll see people coming down the finishing straight with tears streaming down their faces. Those people are doing something that they didn’t think they could do just a few weeks or months before. That’s why it’s such an emotional finish line. We have so many examples of apparently ordinary people doing extraordinary things. It just shows us that extraordinary is in all of us. It just has to be pulled out. In my world, running is the avenue by which people are pulling out their best self, this higher ability. They love that challenge. They love the scariness of it, but they enjoy the thrill of working toward it. When they actually achieve these things, it’s really emotional. Like all of us, when you achieve something that was really difficult, there’s a lot of satisfaction and internal reward. I think that is one of the reasons why running is so popular. Once people get past the first month of being out of breath and tired, once they fall in love with it, that’s what they get. That’s the real gold in the system. It’s this opportunity to be extraordinary, to be something beyond yourself. I’ve coached people in the Olympics. Getting to the Olympics is a really hard thing to do. That person has to work to be better than they are today and to continue to get better to achieve that goal. It’s the same process for all of us. It’s the same if you’re taking your first steps, or trying to finish your first race, or qualify for Boston. It’s all the same. For me, as a coach, the speeds may be really different, but it’s still the same process. How can you be a better you? How can you overcome the limitations that you’ve had in the past that may be holding you back and be open to these things that may really provide an avenue for success? Reaching our potential in anything is hard work and there’s pain and suffering along the way. How has your thinking on the importance of mindset changed over the years, with both your athletes and yourself as a coach? Now we talk about it. Before, it was just that this athlete has it and this one doesn’t. We talked about the hard work of training, but we didn’t talk about the mental state that allows that. We didn’t talk about the fact that some people have a certain personality that allows them to be hyper disciplined. And some people are not that way. So how do you work with each of those types of athletes so that they can still achieve their goals? The mind is the real frontier for success because it drives everything. If you’re not motivated, you’re not going to do the work. If you can find out what motivates you, you can stoke that fire. If you can identify your mental limitations, because we all have our set issues, and then try to figure out the workaround for that, then you can avoid the pitfalls. Every mental state has a pitfall. You can be hyper disciplined, but that can be a negative, too. Say you have an injury that’s coming on and you need to take a day off. A hyper disciplined person might go out and run. So that’s a negative. The reverse is true as well. If you have a big goal and you’re not going out the door because you just don’t feel like it, you’re not going to reach your goal. The mental side is super important. I built my training system so that the training plans fit within a life schedule. They have a little bit of wiggle room because life always happens. You don’t want to feel like a failure when life starts to happen.The system is designed for success. I want you to feel like in the first week or two of the plan that you’re getting that coaching feedback, that pat on the back that you can do it. That sets you up for this momentum of motivation. I think training should always be set up for success. Not that it’s easy, but just that it’s an identifiable success. If you can build that motivation through the training cycle, that’s where that person starts to overcome some of their negative mental states. They start to live more and more in an optimal mental state for them and their goals. More and more, we’re comfortable talking about that. We’re comfortable saying, “My limitation is I don’t take the time to do that,” or “I need to be more disciplined with my eating,” or “I’m too hard on myself.” Now, we’re more open to saying that’s a thing. We figure out workarounds. You just have to set people up so they start having success. You build that external motivation and then, of course, it moves to internal motivation, which is the end goal. The Business and Tech of Running Talk about building your online running coach business. When you look at the tech landscape around you now, where’s it going? It’s going to be interesting as we try to automate the human body. That’s always been the challenge because computers like things that are consistent. As we get more computing power, it seems that we’re going to get better and better at helping people make better decisions. The trouble is it’s very difficult for computers to absorb and connect human data. I could meet with a group of runners and pretty quickly tell the mood of the group and how people were feeling. I can see someone and know they’re feeling down or that they’ve got something else on their mind. How’s the computer going to know that? I think we are going to get really good at using certain feedback, whether it be heart rate, pace, or power. That will help make sure we’re not doing the wrong training. It’ll be interesting to see if a computer can take over for a human. I hope not because obviously, I’m a coach. I like working with people and it would stink not to be able to do that. My process has always been external, using tools to educate the runner about themselves. You’re the only one who feels the training. You’re the only one who knows everything going on in your life and how you’re feeling. So if I can teach you how to better listen and feel, whether it’s from external feedback or more internal how you’re feeling, then you should better be able to train yourself. Ultimately, runners need to be able to make those game day decisions that the coach would make for them. I don’t know how much computing power we’re going to need on a wristwatch to be able to give them that information. Do you think tech is adding value right now to the running community and the health of the athlete? Yes and no. I think tech can add value because it’s able to record things that we may not know, like quality of sleep or heart rate variability. That’s really important for knowing if you’re recovered or not. There’s several of those devices that are really helping us better understand an athlete. The no of it is that a person has to learn about themselves. It has to come from within. If they get too dependent on the external with its limitations, they will not be able to know themselves. It’s only by knowing yourself that you’ll be able to get the most from yourself because ultimately, the battle is inside your own head. If you’re running a race, you’re battling against that voice in your head asking you to slow down. One of the things I see in this transition period of technology is that some people can get lured into following the device, even when it contradicts what they feel. We need to make sure we do a better job with that. For example, you can have a person who’s not feeling good but they are following the pace their device has set. As a coach, I would say, “Slow down, your body’s clearly saying you need more recovery. Let’s take it easy today.” So like everything, there are pros and cons to the development of tech. It’ll continue to get better and better over time. We can collect so much data now. We need to figure out how we use it, what’s important and what’s not. Some people need to monitor certain things more closely and others don’t. It will be interesting to see if we can have a system to tease that out. For people who haven’t heard, tell us the story of the development of your running calculator. When I was in graduate school, I was coaching a very wide range of runners. Some people were much slower than I was, some people ran my same speed, and some people were much faster. If you’re coaching somebody that’s your same speed, all the paces make sense. But once you start working with somebody who’s much faster, or much slower, you’re unsure if that pace makes sense. A good example is Eliud Kipchoge. His marathon pace is four minutes and 35 seconds per mile. For the vast majority of us, that’s an all-out sprint, but he can do that for two hours. As a coach, you have to figure out what pace is appropriate based on that athlete’s capability. At the time I was in grad school, there were several rules of thumb. There were some charts, there were some other processes that coaches were using to come up with the ideal training paces for different types of runs and how to predict performance. I was using a collection of these different tools, but none of them were sort of exactly what I wanted. My graduate work was on predicting endurance performance. Through all my studying, I started to figure out a way to optimally prescribe training paces for any level of runner. These paces would be in the correct physiological and psychological zone, no matter if the runner was faster or slower than me, or the same speed. I also could predict their finish times in races. I started creating this system, which was an Excel document at first. I printed out hundreds and hundreds of worksheets, and I would use this binder. If you came to me and said, “I run a 5K in 24 minutes” then I could find your level and your pace for all races. Eventually I put it on the web when that became an opportunity. It’s just taken off as a tool that a lot of runners and coaches use to help get their athletes in the ballpark of the pacing they should use for running. Your calculator solved a problem for people. How many years ago did you introduce it? I created it in graduate school in the mid-1990s, and I put it on the web in the late 1990s. That was a very crude first version. It’s gotten nicer and nicer as the web has evolved, and we’re currently working on a new iteration which is going to be even better. You’re not just a coach, you’re also an entrepreneur. You’re running a business and have built a large community over a couple of decades. How have you been able to manage it in a way that allows you to still focus on coaching? Well, I don’t know that I’ve done a great job at that. Obviously, I’m not a trained business person. My background is in exercise physiology and kinesiology. My passion is why I started the business, and the calculator will always be free on the web. I think I just got a little bit lucky with the timing. Other people had the same need that I did, and it became popular. People came to the website and then a certain percentage of them wanted to work with me. I’ve been able to evolve the training and coaching product portfolio to better meet the needs of different people. I don’t know that I’ve fully optimized the opportunity. But then again, I was really doing it out of my own passion for helping people. As long as I can live a comfortable life and help a lot of people, that’s good for me. That said, I do wake up in the middle of night, thinking about things I can add or do differently. The world is evolving very quickly on the web. When I first started the website, there were only about two or three of us that did remote coaching. These days, everybody’s a coach, and there’s lots of different avenues for coaches to build a site or have a social media presence. It’s really evolved a lot since I started. As long as I can continue to provide some value to coaches and runners, then I’m pretty happy. Do you have peers or people you look to across industries or sports that you really respect? Yeah, I’m always finding people who share my same passion or my same viewpoint and have been successful. I’m pretty open to looking at what people are doing and recognizing that some things are not a good fit for me. Just like as an athlete, there are things that wouldn’t really work for me. This is an era of being overwhelmed with so many things you can do as a business owner. What I’ve tried to do is stick to a core set of things that I feel like I can execute with my personality, my background, and the things I want to do. But I stay open to seeing what other people are doing and learning from them. If you’re a coach, you should be as much about learning as you are about teaching. There’s so much information out there. I think one of the nicest things that’s happened on the internet in the last few years is the reestablishment of good newsletters. Podcasts are even a better version of radio. You’ve read the books, you’ve listened to podcasts, you’ve done all of it. How do you get your information now? Today, you have to parse out who the experts are. You need to figure out who has done it in a way that you feel is grounded and has fundamentals behind it versus experts that maybe don’t have that foundation, but they are well-read or have had success themselves. Where are you getting your information? You can get the same information in many places. I start with thinking about who has the information that’s being delivered in a way that I feel is grounded in the things that are important to me. We have this huge global expansion of experts. I think the biggest challenge is figuring out where the experts learned their stuff and what is their background. Maybe that’s why people are going back to being a little bit more in control, choosing to read newsletters, etc. There are people who have a lot of followers but no real credibility, and then there are a lot of true experts waiting in the wings who haven’t been given a platform yet. We can all learn the same information. People write about this information because it’s a breakthrough for them. Well, I learned that same thing and it was a breakthrough for me. So I look for the people who don’t just do that. I look for the people who want to go one step deeper. Like in music, where you have a blues guitarist and he wants to know the influences for his idols. Then he wants to know who the influences were for those people. The real experts are the people who dig deeper and deeper. They almost become historians. They know where we were, where we are now and the potential for the future. That gives them a grounding. Having outlets where you can learn more about experts, where they learned their stuff and what their education exploration was is really valuable. Staying on the Path to Bliss Nutrition, sleep, recovery, and longevity are top of mind for many people. Give us your guide on how you think about some of those topics, starting with nutrition. We’re in a tough time because we live in a way that is not in accord with how we should live. Not getting very much sleep, being overstressed, not exercising enough and having poor quality food is not ideal. Simplicity in nutrition is really helpful. If you start to eat like your great grandparents did, you’re probably on the right track. Go back to more whole, more natural, more basic foods. In those world zones where people are living longer, healthier and happier lives, they all seem to have this basic nutrition outlook. That is certainly very possible for us, but it gets more difficult when life gets busy. We often don’t have the time to invest in our nutrition. That’s why you’ve seen this movement back toward eating more natural and moving away from processed foods. It’s a little bit more in accord with how our body evolved. The same thing can be said for a lot of those things. We need to make sure that the way we’re living doesn’t get out of control. A lot of people say they feel out of control. One of the things that has been interesting for me as a running coach during COVID is that while a lot of the races have gone away, we’ve seen some athletes that have blossomed during this time. On the team I coach online through MacmillanRunning.com, we’ve had hundreds of personal bests set during this COVID period. I think it’s because while there are added stresses that came along with COVID, we removed some time stresses on some people. They didn’t have to commute. They didn’t have to spend that extra time that they normally did in preparing for their job, being at a job and coming home. They were able to do better prep because there wasn’t a race right around the corner so they actually trained better. They couldn’t get together with their training groups and their friends so they had to rely on themselves and they got more mentally tough at pushing themselves alone. All of those things kind of came together. With some people getting more sleep, they’re able to take better care of their body. Their training is better, and they’re running better than ever. So for a lot of these things, I think it’s about just trying to find that balance of what you can control, to keep your life as simple, happy and rewarding, as possible. Those things seem to all go together with the people that have a long lasting life. If you can find that calm middle ground, that’s a really great spot to live in. Are there people who can find that flow state in their life more often than not? It’s different for everybody. If you’re a high achieving person in a high stress job, then your simple life is going to look different than somebody who has a more low key life to start with. But you don’t have to be a monk to make this work. You need to look at your situation and evaluate where you feel like you get a little bit out of control. Where are you not in accord with the ideal life that you want to lead? Then work on how to control that and try to maintain the life you want. Also, understand that there will be periods where it won’t work, where you will be overstressed and you have to accept that’s just part of being a human. Nothing is exactly the same all the time, but if you can have an eye toward working toward it. It comes down to your idea of success. If your idea of success is being happy, satisfied and fulfilled, then you begin to say no to things that normally would pull you off that line. That way, you can maintain that zone that you want to be in. Again, everybody’s different. You can’t necessarily compare yourself to other people. Some people are just super driven. That’s their zone and they’re happy there. For some of us, it’s not. You’ve got to figure out what works for you. I think we need to be constantly evaluating what our bliss is. It’s that Joseph Campbell Follow your Bliss idea. What is your most fulfilled thing? What gives you that joy in life? How can you live in that zone as much as possible? You’ve got to try to make those micro goals, those daily goals, to try to make it happen. I do it all the time where I can feel myself getting pulled offline. I recognize that I need to make some changes to try to get back in that zone. Do you have things that help you catch when you’re getting off track? It helps to identify what your personality traits are and what you want to be wary of. Then you can see the red flags. You can feel yourself getting pulled away. Maybe you think about it when you’re out for a run or you’re exercising. Or maybe you sit down with your child and you’re having a conversation and that pulls you back to what’s important to you. A lot of being a runner is being observant about your body and how you’re responding to training and adapting and recovering from it. The same could be said for life. You need to be attentive to yourself, because it’s easy to lose yourself in the noise. If you can have a system, whatever it is for you, that will allow you to have that evaluation on an ongoing basis. It’s really different for every person. You just have to figure out what it is for you and then commit to staying on that path as much as you can. Certain segments of the endurance world, like gravel cycling, are moving away from competition and more towards community. Where do you see running going? Running did that as well with the charity marathon group movement, like Team in Training. It had nothing to do with time. It was just about getting across the finish line. But there are always competitive people who want to time themselves. The one thing about the sport is there’s room for everybody. I think everybody can find the zone that will work for them. Because of COVID, we have a lot more runners. People couldn’t go to the gym and they want to get out of the house. They’re walking, running and run-walking, and a lot of them have fallen in love with it. I think they’re going to be amazed at how the running world accepts everyone. If you want to get out there and enjoy it and not worry about time, that’s perfect. If you want to see how fast you can go, we got opportunities for you there as well. You can really find what you want. Running always seems to match what the need is. I think there will always be competitive races and less competitive races. There always has been a strong community. That’ll be the future, for sure. What are you reading, watching or listening to right now? I’m reading a lot of my next book. I’m trying to get that done in the first part of this year for it to be out in the spring. That’s what my focus has been. I always like to look at what sprint coaches are doing. I also like to look at what professional football, basketball and other team sport coaches are doing. I like to look at what therapy things people are doing in other sports like golf. There’s a lot of real innovation that’s going on in golf right now. There are different types of non golf training that’s helping their golf. There’s all these ideas that I feel like will bleed into running. I’m always so curious about what’s working for other people and how that may be applicable to runners. If you like this, listen to our podcast and interview with fellow running coach @mariofraioli, or strength coach Dr. Matt Smith at @everathlete. The post Pioneering Running Coach Greg McMillan: Extraordinary is in All of Us appeared first on Prokit.
63 minutes | Nov 17, 2020
Tech Veteran Ime Archibong on Leading with Purpose
“Genius is everywhere.” An unsurprising phrase from someone like Ime Archibong who has had a front row seat to some of the greatest movements in tech over the past two decades. But for Ime, the son of proud Nigerian immigrants, the phrase has a much deeper meaning. If genius is everywhere, how do we find it, empower it and spotlight it? What does it look like? Who represents it? These are the type of personal and societal questions at the core of Ime’s role at Facebook where he has worked for over ten years with community builders, entrepreneurs and nonprofits. An eternal optimist with a fierce work-ethic I’ve seen up close, Ime is the person people want in their corner. Knowing how to hustle — something he displayed as the captain of the Yale basketball team — is not what sets him apart. It’s compassion and purpose, two things that vividly come to life within minutes of meeting him. We sat down to dig into what he learned from his parents growing up in the South, how to lead through a pandemic where the tides have turned for tech, what he’s up to with his new team at Facebook, and of course, who would win in a running race between him and Mark Zuckerberg. Listen to our podcast with Ime Archibong on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Listen to the Podcast Cookies for Breakfast David Swain: What did you have for breakfast? Ime Archibong: It’s election week here in the United States, so my diet has not been one I’ve been proud of. This morning, like the last two mornings, I started my day with a cookie. Whole Foods is right down the street in San Francisco — they have a brown butter cookie that is to die for, and it’s also dangerously addictive. What time of day was this wonderful cookie? I’m an early bird, so I’m typically up working in the six o’clock hour. That is my first memory of you in our early years at Facebook. I’d get into the office early thinking I was way ahead of everyone, and you had already worked out and been sitting in your computer for two hours. Have you been able to continue that work ethic? Yeah, it’s still there. As you get older, you realize at what time you do your best work, and where you have energy. In my case, the most strategic and the most active time for me tends to be in the mornings. That hasn’t changed at all. Unpinning that is this drive to do more. For better or worse, I have a little bit of a feeling of never being satisfied. I feel really fortunate to be in this industry and at Facebook at this moment in history. We have such an opportunity ahead of us as humanity and society are trying to figure out the internet. Knowing that I have the time to try to shape that and make sure that we get it right over the longer history is something that fuels me. So my work ethic hasn’t gone anywhere. If anything, the urgency feels like it’s only increased. From Nigeria to Kansas Let’s go back to your childhood influences and what growing in Kansas was like for you. When it comes to influences, I think everyone has to acknowledge their first teachers. My first teachers were my parents — two Nigerian immigrants who left Nigeria separately, both with a goal of further educating themselves in the United States. They met in Lawrence, Kansas, of all places. Shout out to the “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!” My parents were the reason I grew up with what I call the “immigrant mentality.” Scarcity is a thing, and you have to grind and be scrappy. I have memories of me, my parents, my older sister, and younger brother all living in one-room housing on Kansas’ campus. I would see my parents wake up every single day and not just care for us, but know that they had to go to work. The origin of my name alone will tell you enough of what you need to know about my parents. My older sister is named Emma, and my younger brother is named Tony. People often ask, “Why did you get the Nigerian name?” My mom was pregnant with me in Kansas in the late 70s, early 80s. The professor who was administering her PhD qualifier exam had a track record of not being super keen on women in higher education, better yet a black African woman immigrant in higher education who was also nine months pregnant. My mom was due on the same day of her PhD qualifier exam, so she asked if she could take it early or a bit later. The professor said no. She could take it on that day or wait another year. Well, my mom did not have the resources to wait for another year to complete her education. Instead, she had me at 7:17am in the morning, and despite the doctor’s orders, she checked herself out of the hospital and went to her exam. According to her, she aced it. Then she checked herself back into the hospital. Ime means patience in my dad’s native tongue. My mom would always say that that was the biggest test of patience in her life. What did the next five to 10 years of your parents’ path in academics and your childhood look like? The seed of hard work was planted in me during those early days. My parents were going to school, and they had multiple jobs. My dad will often joke that he was working at a nursing home and an underwear factory and going to school. The other big lesson that I learned from that time was just how important it was to give back, to serve, and to stay connected to a community that you care about and a community that took care of you. For two Nigerian immigrants in Kansas in the mid 70s, the Black community in the United States was an important part of their foundation. When it came time for them to graduate, we ended up moving to Greensboro, North Carolina. My mom was looking at different places where she could teach, and despite offers from other places around the country, she really wanted to spend time at an HBCU, a historically black college and university. North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University made her an offer, and she was really excited about getting there. She was excited about getting back to the community where she found a home when she arrived in the States. As a kid, did you feel connected to the community you were in? Yes, and no. My parents made it a point to ensure that my brother, sister and I knew that we were Nigerian. Whether we were in Kansas or North Carolina, we found the Nigerian community. Within the Black community of the United States, there are folks who consider themselves pure Africans, and there are people who are multiple generations of growing up in the States. As we were trying to integrate into North Carolina, the Nigerian community felt like home, and that was great. As for the Black community in North Carolina, and where my mom taught at an HBCU, I would say that it took me a little bit of time to really get settled there and understand my place. I went to a Catholic school, so a large part of my educational community, which ends up being your good friends, were white, Catholic, and middle class. The only thing we had in common was Catholicism. Those early days were definitely identity formation; it was a lot of finding my place and getting comfortable. The “immigrant mentality” has clearly impacted who you’ve become. Were you aware of it as a child? Was there pressure to embody it or was it more a part of your identity? Looking back, I am forever grateful that my parents demonstrated what hard work looks like. I don’t know if I would have been able to articulate that as a child. But seeing both parents working late, volunteering, and having that hustle mentality was something that even if you don’t realize it at the time, it’s setting the bar for you. They’re showing what the expectation is, and I’m appreciative of that. There were definitely more explicit moments I remember. How Nigerian immigrants raised their children in the community is pretty funny. “Oh, you got an A- on a paper? Why didn’t you get that A+? Where were those other two points?” The bar that was held for my brother, sister and I, especially when it came to academics, was incredibly high and incredibly rigorous. My parents weren’t going to take excuses. They believed deeply that everyone had agency and that hard work could compensate for anything that didn’t come naturally. The rigor and the expectations of preparation that my parents put into academics around the dinner table and demonstrated for us was ingrained in our DNA. Were you naturally talented academically? Science and math came easier to me. No surprise, that’s the track that I ended up on. My close friends know I have a lot of insecurities around spelling, despite the fact that I am a decent speller. I can remember in first or second grade, I had to learn 10 words in a week, and I was continually bringing back 30s and 40s on the tests. I remember my mom saying, “It’s just unacceptable. You have five days to learn these things.” So my brother, sister, and my parents sat down at dinner, and everyone grilled me on the 10 words that I was supposed to learn. Again, this is the hard work, no excuses, and if you put in the work, you’ll see the results. I definitely saw the results. Since then I’ve used that as a good North Star every time something hard is put front of my face. Yale Basketball and Life as an Athlete Where did basketball come into play? My dad played soccer in Kansas. That was his sport. I was active as a kid, and my first sport was soccer. But it’s hard to be in North Carolina, with the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils, and not fall in love with basketball, right? In third grade, I was introduced to basketball and played with all of my friends up the street and at school. I joined the YMCA and the AAU. By the time I was in the eighth grade, I had decided that basketball was the sport that I enjoyed the most and the sport that I wanted to continue to pursue as I got into high school, potentially college. Probably much to my dad’s chagrin, I put soccer aside and focused on basketball. You ended up at Yale with a serious run on the basketball team. I think context probably matters. If anyone pays attention to Ivy League basketball these days, it’s pretty impressive. They’re meeting some big name teams, and the League has gotten incredibly good over the last couple of decades. If you rewind back to the late 90s, when I joined Yale, I think we were second to last on the AP poll for Division I basketball programs. Ime might have broken a backboard or two in his day My college choice was primarily dominated by academics, the opportunity to study computer science, and the opportunity to go to an institution like Yale. But it was grounded with the opportunity also to pursue basketball. That was a big piece of my life and a big part of my identity, so the offer of a great education and the chance to play basketball was almost a no-brainer. I joined a team that wasn’t great, and the journey over those four years is one I’m incredibly proud of. We went on to grow the program and really set the stage for, in my opinion, what the program looks like today. There were two places where I would see you early in the morning at Facebook. One was at your desk and the other was in the little gym we had back in the day. Talk about your life as an athlete and what role that’s played in how you think about work, health, and your approach to life. To go deeper into my Yale experience, most of my leadership, team, and work ethic skills come from that four year experience, on top of what my parents taught me. You bumping into me at the gym early in the morning is an extension of that. I always start my day off with some type of workout. These days, with COVID, it’s a little bit trickier, because running outside isn’t ideal in the dark. Gyms haven’t been open. I don’t have that much space at my house. But, ultimately figuring out a way to get my body moving and get my mind moving, really helps me get sharp in the morning. That has been an important piece of how I have operated and navigated life since being a “full time athlete.” That won’t change. Out for a run in DubaiIn Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile A morning run with FB product chief, Chris Cox In 2003, you received the Roosevelt L. Thompson Prize from Yale, which is given to a graduate who exhibits, among other things, compassion for all people, and the promise of moral leadership. Was that recognition for how you led the basketball team or your activities on campus? Where did people see that compassion and leadership? Everything from showing up myself to how I led the team and how the team showed up for the University at the time. Rewind back my freshman year, I’m sure many athletes have this experience where you were the best in your high school or your community, and you go to the next stage, and all of a sudden, it’s a big punch in the face. Everyone’s bigger, faster, stronger, and plays the game a bit smarter. My transition was rough. I often joke that the coach didn’t even know my first name. He just used curse words to ask me why I wasn’t running hard. In retrospect, he saw a lot of potential in me, but he didn’t see someone who understood what it looked like to sell out on the court. I think a lot about how I’m assured as an individual, and what hard work looked like on the basketball court. I credit James Jones, who’s still the basketball coach at Yale, for drawing that out of me and teaching me a lot about myself. I didn’t play much my freshman year. Coach Jones and I had a conversation at the end of that year. He told me he had recruited seven guys for the freshman class next year, guys who jump higher, run faster, and play defense harder than me. He wasn’t sure what my role on the team the next year would be. It was a punch in the gut, but I was stubborn. It goes back to how my parents raised me. I have agency, I worked harder, and I played more basketball that summer at a higher level, with the toughest opponents that I could find. That next year the team voted me the Most Improved Player, and by the end of my sophomore year, I had been voted to captain. Focus, hard work, no excuses, and knowing that even if you aren’t the most talented, your mindset and your point of view can compensate for a lot and actually make you an incredibly effective part of a team. Also, just to connect the dots to what happened, we had a tragedy in 2003 in our baseball and football community. Four students passed away in a tragic car accident on the way back from New York City. It hit the Yale community hard. That year Yale went on to win the first Ivy League Basketball Championship. It was 40 years since the first postseason victory. I remember the president of the University reached out and said, “I don’t think you understand what you and the team did. The way that you guys played energized and brought this community back to life during a time that was incredibly tough for us.” Whether we knew it or not, we were showing up for the Yale community at large in a way that helped heal some of that tragic loss that we had earlier in the year. Leading with Purpose 2020 has been a dramatic year on all accounts, from the pandemic to racial justice, and for Facebook, the scrutiny has never been higher. More broadly, people are struggling with finding purpose when they’re home alone. How are you finding your purpose in this environment? How do you help keep your teams motivated with so much happening? 2020 has been the confluence of a bunch of different crises, like you named. We have the health crisis with the pandemic, and I have many friends who were affected by the economic crisis that then came as a result of that. You talk about racial justice, or the inequities surfaced this year in a very in-your-face and ubiquitous way. Clearly, that’s a reality that I deal with on a day-to-day basis as a black person growing up in and navigating America. And here in California, we all remember when we couldn’t walk outside this summer. That’s a good reminder of the climate crisis. All of that happening in one year was a lot, and it was heavy. The thing I will say is my purpose was never in question. To be honest, I feel like I’ve been anchored on what my purpose has been for probably my entire life. My parents had a plaque in the house I grew up in that said “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” That’s a quote by Albert Einstein. The picture that hung on the wall at Ime’s childhood home The thing I like most about that quote, and it’s been my North Star, is that here is a man of science, technology and math reminding everybody that the reason to operate and to navigate life is in service of others. That’s the reason why I was drawn to Facebook, and the reason why I continue to be fueled and excited about what we are doing and what we have the opportunity to do even 10 years into my particular journey here. As a leader, of course 2020 is a curveball. A lot of how I lead, connect with my team, build trust, and motivate is physical. I love to be there and be in the mix. That may be the athlete in me. I don’t want to be on the sidelines watching, I want to be on the court. Having to operate and lead in a virtual world required new skills, skills that I hadn’t leaned on in a long time. I had to make a lot of mistakes and be egoless enough to understand when I was messing up. At the Facebook level, you’re right. We’re touching over 3 billion people across our properties every single month. All the crises of 2020 show up in the work that we do, how we are contributing or not contributing, helpful or not helpful, on a daily basis. Moving forward, leadership is not going to get less complex. It does require a new level of bravery and boldness. A lot of adjustments are being made right now, but purpose has always been clear. We are a tech platform. We believe in technology’s ability to tackle people problems and the societal problems that got accelerated over the course of 2020. Figuring that out and contributing continues to fuel me and gets me excited every day. The tide has shifted in the media and in the public over whether or not tech is for good. How do you lead people in this environment? The tides have definitely shifted. Back in 2008 or 2009, we could have sneezed and people thought we were changing the world, which was way too generous. These days, we can help 4 million people registered to vote, something that is demonstrably, in my opinion, good for society, but now there will be more cynicism and questions about what our intentions are. It’s a tough environment to operate in. As you know, I’m an optimist. I remind our teams that our goal is to build products that conveniently improve people’s lives and give people power. Focus on that, be anchored on that, and ultimately, that will be the story that will be told over time. If you can build something that resonates with people in an environment where there is nothing but questions and cynicism, then you know it will stand the test of time. I’m okay with the criticism and cynicism. Given the size, the scale, and the reach of what we are accountable for, there is a very high level of responsibility and accountability that we internalize here at the company. I don’t fault people externally for expecting the same level of accountability and thoughtfulness that we need to put into our products given the kind of the reach that we’ve achieved at this point. When you’re on the inside, you have the data. I can spend a day or two addressing some of the questions or the cynical points of view that people have about how our products are showing up for the world, but what people externally can’t see is the amount of stories I have that are positive. I know of someone’s grandparent who lost their life during COVID and the only way they were able to connect at the end was through two Facebook Portals, one in the hospital and one in their kitchen. The family truly appreciated the way our technology showed up for them in that meaningful part of life. Over the course of the last decade, part of my job was to work with people who were using Facebook’s tools and technologies to strengthen their communities. From people who were using Facebook Groups to organize support during hurricane relief to farmers like Noah in Kenya who used Facebook to build a community of small farmers that is now thriving. I have stories like those for days. That is empirical evidence of how our tools and technology are demonstrably good for the world and for society. I have way more of those stories than I do with the opposite, and that’s a grounding foundation for people who are working internally. Representation in Tech Let’s talk about being Black in technology. For you, there’s the personal level, the societal level, and then, at a company level, Facebook’s ability to spotlight voices. Where are you optimistic about this year? Where are you troubled? First, I’ll give the optimist point of view. I can speak for Facebook, but I assume that this exists for the industry as a whole. We care about this issue of racial equity and justice. We care about the treatment of Blacks in America. We care about this issue enough to figure out our contribution to actually solving it. This is a societal issue that’s way bigger than any industry or any company. The question is, if a society has to do this work, what is the contribution we as an industry can do? Ime and Rep. John Lewis in Selma, AL in 2019 I’ve been inspired, impressed, and excited about the contributions and the intentionality that has come from not only the internal Facebook leadership, but all the way down to the person who was hired yesterday. We did the typical, Facebook-style hackathons where we get good ideas and surface them. Not all of them are gonna be great, but if you can find that 1%, it’s going to be decent. A lot of the conversation around race in America wasn’t giving space or platform to actual Black voices. That was one of the things that we’re able to do as a company. We launched a Black voices hub that was an aggregation of video, posts, and news stories from Black voices on this particular topic, so that we can continue to elevate the discussion and hopefully move things forward over time. We continue to invest in that which is great. In this new role as head of New Product Experimentation, we believe that we can enable a bunch of underserved needs, and inside of those underserved needs is universal products that are going to lift the entire world. As a company, when we asked, what can we do to contribute, it was easy for me as a leader to say, this is important to me, and I’m going to dedicate a portion of my resources across my organization to focus on this. I want to see what we can do from the tech seat to actually tackle the societal issue. I now have a handful of entrepreneurs who are thinking about equity and thinking about what they can build in order to advance equity on a number of different dimensions right now. It’s no surprise that we would raise our hand to do that. So I am optimistic, but I do have concerns. Representation matters. The fact that my New Product Experimentation team was able to tackle this so quickly and figure out the right approach is not a surprise or mystery. My leadership team is about 50% women, 50% people of color. For the industry to get this right over time, you got to have the butts in the seats. You’ve got to be representative of the community you’re trying to serve. The industry’s numbers are public, and Facebook’s numbers are public. We’ve got work to do. There’s a lot of work to do. I’m sitting in a technical seat now. I look around at the technical representation of Blacks in our industry, and I know that we’re not where we need to be, or we deserve to be. There’s a lot of work to do on that front, but I’m hoping that over the next decade, it looks very different. A lot of people aren’t going to Yale or Stanford, but they could have a huge impact in tech. What have you learned through your years of opening doors for people who don’t have the perfect resume, but could have the perfect contribution? Genius is everywhere. If I went back through pivotal moments of my life, the most important would probably be me bumping into somebody and learning how to speak the particular language, or vernacular, to navigate a new industry or space. That has been more critical towards me being at a place like Facebook and having the opportunities I’ve had to do the things I’ve done, more so than the Yale degree, more so than the Stanford degree. I don’t want to trivialize those things, but they’re not silver bullets, nor are they even required or needed. I just spoke with a woman who’s been at Facebook for about two years now. She grew up in East Palo Alto, and didn’t have an opportunity to go to the best of the private schools on the Peninsula. Her community was the Boys and Girls Club, East Palo Alto. At 12-years-old, she met a mentor who stayed in touch with her and encouraged her to continue to learn, to pursue a high school education, and then think about college. The mentor and I happen to know each other because we sat on a board together. The mentor had told me that she’s a really talented person, but doesn’t have all of the fancy credentials. She asked me to talk to her, and I could tell she is smart, passionate, and excited. I knew she had all the right, raw ingredients and just needed an opportunity to see them shine. I put her in front of the right recruiter, and the right team picked her up two years ago. She’s been at Facebook thriving and dominating ever since. I believe when you actually open up those doors and make those opportunities happen, it’s a catalyst for the rest of the community. This person is at the top of my mind because we caught up last week. We had the typical conversation, “How’s COVID treating you?” She described her current shelter in place situation, and said, because she’s had so much time to think this year, she’s working on a side project of building up a mentorship. She wants to demystify Facebook and demystify the tech industry for more people in the East Palo Alto community and the Boys and Girls Club. That way, people won’t look at Facebook and think it’s something they could never be a part of. She sees herself as a standing testimony, here for two years. I agreed that people need to know her story. The fact that she is now using her time and energy to open up more doors is exactly the reason why opening up doors is worthwhile. It makes sense for us to spend energy on this stuff. Those are the kind of stories I hear time and time again. We’ve got to get people the right opportunities. One of the things that I’m really excited about is Facebook opening up an office in Lagos, Nigeria, next year. Mark and I, and Chris Cox, our Chief Product Officer, and a couple other folks have traveled to Nigeria over the last five years, and we are blown away every single time. The entrepreneurial spirit, the talent, the tech hustle, the excitement, and the energy is nontrivial. We wanted to figure out how to give all this talent a chance. Part of our office opening will have the typical functions that exist outside of the United States for Facebook. But I also have a product team that’s going there that will hire entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, and researchers to explore and build new standalone experiences and apps with a lens on Nigeria and a lens on the African continent. Hopefully, everything we do and build there will have the potential capacity to be universal. What Makes Entrepreneurs and Community Builders Great You’ve seen that entrepreneurial spirit up close through your different roles. You worked with Daniel Ek when he was launching Spotify. You’ve become friends and close partners with Mark Zuckerberg. What are some of the common threads you see in these people who have taken an idea and made it really meaningful? I’ve spent time with a ton of entrepreneurs and founders over the course of the last decade. There is probably a laundry list of common themes, but the first that pops to mind is they have a vision for the future. More often than not, their vision is positive, optimistic, and about helping people. That is their fuel. When I met Daniel Ek and some of the early Spotify team, they wanted a better way to discover and share music. There was this innovation trend called streaming music that was going to make it possible to build some really interesting experiences. Ime in the early years managing partnerships with music startups like Spotify If you were to rewind back to when I first met the Spotify team, a lot of the ideas that we had back then are getting fully realized now. We tried to do things back in a desktop world, in the desktop experience, like listening with people on Facebook chat. Technologies needed to catch up. Now we have mobile phones. Now a lot of that social integration and experience is happening inside the Spotify app. I can fire up the Spotify app, and we can listen together at the same time. Ten years have passed, and technology has changed. The kind of the solution that they were trying to put towards that problem has changed, but the problem is still there. It’s a big testament to any entrepreneur who’s focused and continues to stay at it. I often tell people that in the 16 years Facebook has been around, we’ve changed our mission statement, but there are five words in it that have never changed: “Give people the power to.” There is always a North Star that a founder is maniacally focused on. It is the story they want to tell to the world, and they’re going to jump through hoops and break bricks in order to see that vision realized. That is always an inspiring thing to be a part of and to participate in. Then there is a commitment to the vision. There’s a commitment to solving the problem, but a flexibility on the actual solution. That’s a large part of what I’m trying to do here in New Product Experimentation. There’s an appetite for new experiences and products. One third of the top 100 most downloaded apps every year are brand new. There’s a demand for new experiences that entrepreneurs have the opportunity to solve. Pick your area, pick your space, but the appetite is there. The question is, can the entrepreneur get the focus, the space, the time and the resources to realize that? They chip away at the problem and go down one particular path, but it may not work. They’re resolute on the fact that they’re going to try to solve that problem and not shy about pivoting when things aren’t working. You’ve been very involved on the community building side of Facebook. What are the traits you’ve seen from community builders that have become common threads for doing it successfully? We discovered one thing after studying the communities that were emerging across Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, over the last five years. One of the grounding forces at the center of every single community is a leader. I talk about the leaders that I have met, who have been building communities across Facebook and Instagram, as heroes because often they’re unassuming. They didn’t start off on this path of leadership. They started by solving a problem. I met two sisters who started a Facebook Group during Hurricane Harvey to coordinate their friends and family. They wanted to make sure everyone was ok, that power was on, etc. They started with 12 of their family members, and over a couple of weeks, it turned into a group of over 100,000 people in the Texas community, coordinating relief efforts and support. These sisters were in their 20s, and now all of a sudden, they’re moderating and supporting this 100,000 person group. Their community was really dependent on the group as a communication channel in the wake of this crisis. We want to make sure those folks are supported. What can we do as a platform to ensure that they have the tools, and the resources, often that resource is capital, in order to ensure that they can continue to build a healthy, thriving, meaningful community? As the platform, we need to figure out who is the leader amongst these groups, and take care of them. The best community building tools are also bringing together people in real life and strengthening real life connections. How is Facebook figuring out how to help strengthen communities in real life? Where does that stand today? I still think it’s pretty important. I’d argue that there are actually more localized conversations or communities that people have access to today then there were 10 years ago, and technology enabled a lot of that. We’ve seen that trend continue to evolve. The question is, how can you make these communities a meaningful part of people’s lives and identity? This is something I’ve been interested in, how the tech space can help people connect offline. In a world where physical proximity is being prohibited because of COVID, technology really shows up in a pretty powerful way. But I think we all believe that there’s nothing that will replace in-person relationships. So how can technology be a bridge for that? I’ve seen the rise of more people-building tech, for when it’s safe again. There are things to do together around the dinner table, to clean up local parks, or to volunteer at food banks or shelters. That’s not just Facebook. I see other tools emerging out there to try to tackle and make that digital-to-analog bridge happen quite seamlessly. I’m pretty excited about that. Ime’s Kit Let’s close it out on habits, tools, and resources that you use to get through your day productively. Any morning routines? Use a dedicated alarm clock at a certain time that works for you, and as much as possible, avoiding hitting the snooze button. I use my Apple Watch to wake myself up and get started. I see you on the Nike running app. What are your go-to apps? Outside the Facebook family of apps, of course, I use Spotify for music, whether I’m working out or running. I’ve used the Nike app since their early integration with Facebook. It got me into running, and a decade later, I’m still using it to track my runs and make sure that I have a repository of the progress that I’m making. Sadly, I’m slowing down, but I’m still running. Who wins in a race, you or Mark? (laughing) He’s very competitive and a really strong runner. I actually think it depends on length these days. I probably have a good 100 pounds on him. We’re built as differently as two runners could be. What’s on your bookshelf these days? I’m reading a book by Bob Putnam. A lot of folks will know Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, which talks about the demise of offline communities since 1960 in the United States. He just released another book called The Upswing. In it, he admits that in Bowling Alone he had only looked at data from 1960 to today, which shows the downfall of communities. But if you zoom back out to the early 1900s, the same issues we see today around inequality, political polarization, and other issues that make us an “I” individualistic society versus a “we” society also existed in the early 1900s. There was actually an upswing that led to 1960 where we saw collectively across America that we were more of a “we” society. The Upswing is an examination of what changed that got us to a point in 1960 where we were way more communal as a society than we are today. Are there lessons, and tactics? Are there ideas we can start to deploy now and see if we can have another upswing? Where can people find out about the new products coming out of your NPE group? There’s a website (npe.fb.com) with some of the latest and greatest things that we’re building, in addition to a couple different think pieces, too. I encourage everyone to go check that out, download the apps, and play around with them. They’re experimental. We know that everything we launch isn’t going to resonate with everyone, but we are hoping to solve real people problems. We hope to build stuff that’s compelling and that matters to the world over time. Follow Ime on Facebook and Instagram, and listen to past episodes of The Common Threads with tech leaders like Strava’s Mark Gainey; Zwift’s Eric Min; and journalists Kara Swisher and Nicholas Thompson. The post Tech Veteran Ime Archibong on Leading with Purpose appeared first on Prokit.
77 minutes | Sep 22, 2020
Bailey Richardson: Building Communities that Get Together and Stay Together
Bailey Richardson grew up with a foundational belief “that you can make any future you want.” This “naive optimism,” as she calls it, led her to the startup world, where, in her early 20s, she became one of the first dozen employees at Instagram and worked closely with Prokit co-founder, David Swain. After leaving Instagram, Bailey started People & Company with Kai Elmer Sotto and Kevin Huynh to “help people bring their people together.” It would be challenging to find someone who thinks more about the meaning of community and the magic that goes into building it than Bailey and her co-founders. They’ve interviewed thousands of community organizers, advised startups and leading brands, and written the community-building playbook, Get Together. We’re all pros at something. Bailey is a pro at community. Her insights won’t disappoint. Here’s the community kit. Listen to our podcast with Bailey Richardson on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Listen to the Podcast David Swain, Prokit: What did you have for breakfast? Bailey Richardson: I was away surfing in North Carolina and South Carolina for the last few weeks, and when I came home, I found out that my refrigerator had broken, which is a disgusting experience. Because I can’t keep anything in the house, I need to go out more than I normally would. This morning, I got coffee and a power berry smoothie from Food U Desire, a great bodega on Smith Street in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. What was your childhood like and were there indications you would become the community builder you are today? Two words stick out when I remember who I was at 11 or 12: competitive and optimistic. Both traits were passed down to me from my mom and dad. I’ve always been competitive with myself. I played every sport growing up. Sports make me happy. I played basketball, volleyball, and softball. My dad was a semi-professional barefoot waterskier growing up, so I water skied. My uncle surfed Mavericks, so I surfed. My mom was a competitive swimmer, so I swam. One of my uncles was a collegiate football player, and my dad’s identical twin was an Olympic bobsledder, so sports are big in my family. Sports was an outlet for my ambition and a way to push myself. I was also really driven in school. I’ve had to dial it back as I age and want to be a more chill, happy person. Then there’s the optimistic side. I grew up in the Bay Area, near San Jose and Santa Cruz. My dad is an optimistic engineer. He believes we’re going to solve all the problems the world has and that you can figure out anything you want to do. I think some of that comes from his ability to build anything he wants. He can completely rebuild cars, set up solar panels, build me anything I want. He has this optimism about realizing things that are unrealized. My mom was one of the first female pilots for United Airlines. She started by loading luggage at San Jose airport, and she worked her way up to be a pilot and a captain. There’s something I’ve absorbed from my parents’ belief that you can make any future you want, despite adversity. I think some of that naive optimism led me to want to work in startups. I wanted my hands close to the biggest challenges and the biggest problems, and didn’t want to work my way up gradually at a company. The Bay Area itself has this optimism around creating a new website, a new project, or a new tool and being able to quickly affect the world with it. So I think those two childhood characteristics really led me down the path I went down. How to Build a Community At 25-years-old, you were explaining the power of the Instagram community to the biggest newsrooms and organizations in the world. Talk about what the word community means to you. Since I left Instagram, I’ve interviewed hundreds of communities, from run clubs in New York City to a cloud appreciation society to Twitch streamers followed by big communities. During all those conversations, I noticed that for people over the age of, say 50, or people who don’t work in technology, the word “community” means their town or their neighborhood. It’s very physically correlated. Part of the reason why we need a definition of community today is that the internet has changed who we can meet and connect with on such a foundational, powerful level. The word “community” is changing. I like to break down the components of a true community. A community is a group of people who keep coming together over something that they care about. There are three components to that, the first one being the group of people. There was a trend that may still exist where businesses in particular use the word community for an audience or an entire user base. It’s sort of an euphemism, a language bend trick. When we work with companies or with individuals, we try to get them to be much more specific on their who. Who is in their community? Community is not a generic euphemism. It’s a label for a specific group of people who are passionate and active in a cause and a purpose. The second component is that people need to keep coming together. In tech language, that means they’re retained. I would see people throw a one-off marketing event and call it a community event, but they weren’t seeing the same folks continually show up for each other. It’s okay if you have an audience, and it’s okay if you have a marketing event, but a community is a different thing. It’s a group of people who show up for each other over and over again. The final component is the thing that the people care about. There needs to be a passion point, some connective tissue that activates all of these people to want to connect with each other. It could be skill development, emotional support, accountability, or fun. That’s where some of the magic shows up. Every community has a slightly different expression of exactly what brings them together, and depending on what that thread is, the shape of the community will be different. Those are the three key components of what we define as a community versus another kind of group. The biggest thing we have learned, and I do feel like this was at the center of the way we worked at Instagram with our early users, is that you build a community with people, not for them. It’s a progressive act of collaboration. As an original host, or as a founder, you host the first party, make the website, or do the first posts on a slack group. Then your job is to bring as many people as possible into co-ownership of that space, to give away roles and responsibilities, and to do more together than you could alone by building with others. I find that that orientation, at least in businesses, is a bit foreign to people. There’s a lot of history of businesses seeking control of the quality of their product, control of their brand. I was so young at Instagram, and didn’t know any different. We saw these passionate users who were raising their hand to help us translate the app, to host Insta meets, and who were doing an incredibly thoughtful job with their content. I felt like we could just break our company and our brand into little pieces, pass it around, and let users speak for us. We let the passionate people in the community organize for us, instead of us talking at people as a monolithic brand. I loved working that way. The reason that I, along with Kevin and Kai, run People & Company is because I prefer to work more collaboratively. Maybe it comes from my experience on teams, but I prefer empowering people over trying to control, or funnel, them. I love collaborating with passionate people. It makes me feel alive and that that was something I wanted to learn more about and do more of after I left Instagram. Traditionally, a company wants to control the message. Instagram basically flipped that upside down. Their mindset was data-informed, not data driven. Talk about how that worked for the company. First, I want to say that Josh Riedel, the first employee hired at Instagram, led the community team, and much of what happened at Instagram started with his and Kevin’s vision. We hired Pamela Chen, an amazing National Geographic journalist, to take over editorial as we were leaving, and she shared this quote that really stuck with me: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.” There are things that are valuable to invest in that you cannot measure effectively, and not all of your data is actually insightful. I think it’s a balancing act. Bailey and Josh Riedel with a special friend For core vision and innovation, data isn’t the right information for all companies. For iteration, and improvements, data is extremely valuable. Data tells you the what; it doesn’t tell you the why. Instagram was good at having principled points of view about things that were outside of the purview of data and more about human psychology. People called Instagram’s launch the most successful launch of any product in the history of Silicon Valley. I haven’t lived long enough or paid close enough attention to say if that’s true or false, but immediately people were using the product when it went public. Some of that has to do with the way that Kevin and Mike did early outreach, and some of it has to do with their thoughtfulness of creating a foundation of users on the platform. The early Instagram team at their first garage-door “office” at Facebook Our job as a community team was to educate new users. The product grew before it was fully-baked. It was extremely simple in the beginning, and we had all sorts of people joining. When you’re a new user, you don’t know what to do. You have to be taught what to do. We didn’t have an unlimited staff of engineers to make the perfect onboarding flow, or perfect recommendations for who to follow. Instagram was so new, if you signed up somewhere like Korea, maybe none of your friends would be on it. Our job as a team was to educate new users and existing users about what was possible on Instagram and what you could do to contribute in a meaningful, well-received way. In 2010 in the U.S., what existed online socially for people was Twitter and Facebook. There was no sense of artistry or creativity on those platforms. Flickr had existed before, but it had already slowed down. In terms of the quality and perspective of the photos, the content on Instagram was better. On Facebook, people were posting pictures of their friends before they went out to a college party. On Instagram, you could see someone’s favorite place to eat or an incredible place they’d taken a hike. There was fresh, different content. Our job was to show new users the other people on the platform that they could learn from, people who could inspire them to understand how to get value out of this platform and how to participate in it. With any creative endeavor, humans look at something someone has done, and they remix it and make it their own. That’s how we grow, learn, and expand ourselves creatively. If I may share one thing from what we knew at Instagram in the early days, it’s this: If you’re starting a digital space, role model the behavior that you want to see there. Role model with good content from existing users, so that when people show up, they can learn from that and replicate it. That isn’t necessarily something that data is going to tell you to do, but it’s a key insight. It’s one that was absolutely a differentiating factor for Instagram. It’s easy to look at any company today and forget the steps that it took to get there. What are the mistakes people make when starting to focus on building a community? I think about it like this: what it takes to build a boat is different than what it takes to sail the ship. Knowing what phase of a business you’re in and what your most important investments are at that moment is, in many ways, the great skills of a leader. I have my own critiques of Facebook, but I do think that Mark Zuckerberg is one of the best leaders I’ve seen in terms of getting a company to adjust to the phase of the world that it’s in and to shift to the current demands. Two types of people come to People & Company. We see big companies making a new innovative investment, either to supercharge a group of extremely passionate customers or to open a new investment, like a new program or a new digital space. We also get a lot of founders. I find almost universally that people want to talk about the version of their business that is five years down the line. They want to think on a strategic level of a mature business. They almost disbelieve that you have to do step one to get the momentum going for a community, which can be on a really small scale. For example, Weight Watchers is one of my favorite stories of a company. They’re huge. Before COVID, they were having 30,000 in-person meetings a week around the world. It all started with one meeting led by Jean Nidetch, a housewife from Queens who had figured out a diet that worked for her from the New York State diet department. She had a secret meeting with six other people in her apartment. That first step of coalition building eventually led to the company going public and global within a few years. So sometimes it starts with literally six people in a room, a Medium post, or a bunch of emails. I interviewed a seasoned founder, Courtland Allen, for our podcast, Get Together. What struck me about him was his capacity to understand what needs to happen at what phase of a business. He knows when to do high-touch things and when it makes sense to stop doing them. He went through Y Combinator and realized after founding a venture-backed company that he didn’t want to do that again –he wanted to be independent. Courtland started to look for inspiration from other independent founders, people who hadn’t taken on VC money, and he couldn’t find any stories about them. He decided to build a company for people who are independent entrepreneurs in the process of trying to figure out how to be an independent entrepreneur. There was a gap that people need more guidance and more support. To get this product started, Courtland explained to me that he researched 150 different independent entrepreneurs. He spent three days without sleeping, finding this list of names, and writing them extremely personal, thoughtful emails. His emails recognized them personally and asked them to contribute to the community by being interviewed. Now there are 60,000 different independent entrepreneurs in this forum. Once he got the machine going, Courtland automated a lot of it and built systems and processes that allowed many of the high-touch elements to be low-touch. But he says in those early days, there’s no cheat code for personal outreach. There’s no cheat code for building momentum. Spending three days of our lives writing 150 emails, or hosting a meetup for 25 people, doesn’t seem worth the investment compared to where we’re trying to be in five years, but if you skip step one, you can’t get to step five. You have to do it. It’s hard when you’re a founder who has worked at a big multinational company because the numbers look so different when you’re starting from scratch. Laura Nestler, of Duolingo and Yelp, says that community building is like the inversion of the marketing funnel. I believe that. Instead of starting with a ton of people and moving them through a funnel, you start with a small number of passionate people and you build out from there. Whether you’re an early-stage founder or an established company, giving ownership to the people in the community is hard. What’s the best approach to recognizing who the right people are? There are three steps: pinpointing, vetting and supercharging. First, you pinpoint your hand raisers, the most passionate people. You want people who are genuine and qualified. Depending on what you want their help with, whether it’s opening a chapter community or being someone you feature on your blog, you want to make sure that they are passionate about the purpose that your community is pushing forward. That is how we chose who to feature on the Instagram blog. We would see if people were just trying to get more followers or if they were truly passionate about meeting new people and connecting with other human beings. I would crawl through Instagram and look for interesting photographers. I would check if they had replied to people who left comments on their photos before I would feature them. The next step is vetting. You want to make sure the people are qualified. We spoke to a woman who started Queer Soup Night, for example. It’s a very simple format. A queer cook creates a soup and throws a party with suggested donations. All the money gets funneled to a local activism group. They were only in New York for a long time. When they started opening up new chapters, they realized that they needed chapter leads with experience in cooking, as well as chapter leads who had experience with putting on parties. Those were the two qualifications. You need people with the combination of passion and qualifications. From there, you try to supercharge the efforts that they’re working towards. Let’s go back to Queer Soup Night. The people who are opening up chapters might need help marketing their events or hosting the events. The job of the original leader in New York has now transformed into figuring out different assets and tools that she can offer to her chapter leads. Another example of supercharging your leaders is creating an ambassador role. This works for an organization, not a chapter. We had “suggested users” at Instagram. eBay also created an ambassador role in the early days. They took community members who were successful at selling, and they would supercharge those people by giving them the opportunity to share their knowledge. Some sellers would have podcasts or be featured at meetups. You need to think about how you can amplify the work that these passionate people do and make it easier for them to do the challenging parts. Then their core work can be even more impactful. If you can do that in a structure that’s scalable, you can reach many more people than you could as a small startup team. Instagram in the early days was 12, mostly all white, under the age of 30, people in San Francisco. We knew we needed leaders in other countries where people were using Instagram and where people had interests that we didn’t have. For example, there’s a level of authenticity that someone in Japan who’s really into coffee could have when speaking to other people in Japan who are into coffee than we could never have. It can be a really powerful strategy to scale energy and scale momentum. If instead of doing it all yourself, you say, “How can I work with people to do this for even more people?” Choosing the Right Community-Building Tools There are so many avenues to start creating a community – email, Facebook groups, in-person gatherings, when possible. If you don’t have your own platform, where do you put your focus? What tools work best? Identifying passionate people is definitely a big challenge of community building. I realized it was easier for me at Instagram because we owned the platform. It can be hard to do this work if you don’t have data signals built into your software that allow you to identify who is engaged and coming back again and again. We had to get scrappy at Instagram in the early days. I would use API partners at the time, like gramfeed, to crawl through Instagram users. When we were going to launch in Korea, I knew that there would be growth in Korea. I spent hours trying to find people who were already on Instagram in Korea who we could feature as suggested users for new Korean language users to see when they sign up. It was pretty scrappy — I went to other platforms and places where our community spent their time and looked for passionate people. The reality is that often there’s not just one platform for any community. Notion, for example, has a bunch of people who are super passionate about their product. They run a very small Slack group for a vetted set of ambassadors. The community also started their own Facebook pages and their own Reddit pages and all of these different platforms. I think it takes some amount of creativity and scrappiness to just dig in and find passionate people. Have you found that people generally have more success by making a single bet at the beginning, like starting one Facebook group or focusing on a Slack channel. Or is it better to try a bunch of things and see what works? I think people get really overwhelmed by the number of places that you communicate with them. If you’re a small company who’s firing signals off in ten different spaces, you’re probably stretched too thin to do anything really well. I think having a focused place to speak to a small community is an act of generosity and a guarantee that there will be some level of quality there. I encourage people to cut away the places that they don’t need, depending on what your community cares about. For example, the Prokit community is mostly outdoors, running through beautiful spaces. Twitter might not be that important, but the community is sharing Strava and Instagram, so focus on those two. If you try to do everything, none of it will be that good, and you may not be able to build bonds between the members of the community because they’ll be scattered all over. There might be people out there who think this is baloney. They tried 10 different places and one of them caught steam. With everything, you need to navigate a combination of your best strategic approach and how many resources you have. If you’re trying to build a watering hole for community members to talk to each other, focus on a smaller number of people, make sure they know each other and that they can get the party started. It’s like having a party in one room versus having 10 rooms for the same party with three people in each room. It’s important to have a focused space where you can communicate with your community members. I prefer this strategy because I saw it work really well. It takes a lot of courage to do fewer things better. I’ve heard about strategies used to find what you say no to. Kevin Systrom, who started Instagram, would always say this quote that I think is attributed to Mark Twain: “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” It all points in the same direction. The things you choose to cut may be some of the most powerful decisions you make, especially when you’re a small company with limited resources. You can only do so many things well. Are you making the right bets around where you put your time and focus? In general, people who were attracted to Instagram in the early days appreciated the thoughtfulness of the design. It was really simple, and it worked really well. It was in our brand to not spam people or over-communicate with them. I think what unlocked some of the passion for the product was the thoughtfulness with which we treated our users in communication and in the product design. Keeping things simple was in line with who we were and who the early users were that we wanted to bring in. When it comes to ambassadors helping to build a company or companies looking to build an ambassador program, where can it go wrong? Where can it go right? I’ve done some work with Nike and Hurley around this, and I’ve also researched Lululemon’s approach. I’ve never been a sponsored athlete or an ambassador myself, so I want to acknowledge that there’s a lot of complexity that each athlete has with a brand. That said, I often see missed opportunities in terms of recognizing and supercharging athletes’ passion points. Here’s an example of doing it well. At Hurley, I worked with the head of influencer marketing on their surf clubs. They invest in people learning how to surf in local communities. Hurley has a big roster of different athletes at different levels, but there was this one guy who clearly stood out. His name is Brett Simpson, and he used to be on the WSL. He’s really engaged in his community of Huntington Beach and is passionate about other people surfing. In response to this, Hurley rolled out a core program. Every Friday morning, Brett Simpson and some of the Hurley guys would throw a morning dawn patrol surf for the local Huntington Beach surf kids. I thought that was one of the coolest community building investments that they did in my time with them. It was born out of the fact that they knew that Brett was truly passionate about his community and wanted to teach kids. They created this shared activity for people that was pretty simple in format. Bailey in the barrel. There’s a lot of value in an athlete creating a shared activity. Is there something that you and the people who care about your sport can come together to do, in-person or virtually? Instead of just posting on Instagram and having these asynchronous relationships with people, a shared activity allows you to bring your whole community together around a focus moment. I think that is really powerful. There’s a lot of people with big audiences out there today, but not a lot of people who are really connected to their audience or have a super-engaged audience. If an athlete can figure out a way to bring a community together, connect them to each other, and have a more engaged following than other people, that can be a real competitive advantage. Brett Simpson is not a super well-known person in the surf world, but because he was passionate, wanted to give back, and showed up for the shared activity, he got an outsized investment and an outsize platform with Hurley. Making sure that your sponsors know what your passion points are is key. For example, Questlove is a musician, but he loves food and has all these food partnerships. Is there some dimension of your personality or your passion points that you’re willing to get people together over? Brands really do like that specificity, and it’s a way for you to go a little deeper with your audience. The Courage to Start and the Work to Keep it Going This all points back to the people in the community putting themselves out there. On Prokit, Laura King (@laura) wrote an article about pregnancy and the athlete. Now there is a community of pregnant athletes who know and help each other. Someone can post something they care about that might help others, and the community starts from that act. The thing that everybody says scares them the most when they’re starting a community from scratch is the idea that people aren’t going to show up. I remember we did some research on run clubs, and I asked this guy from Chicago what would keep him from starting a club. He said he would be worried that he would plan a run and no one would show up. But then he said that he likes running anyway, so if no one showed up, he’d still do the run and be happy. I think it’s good to start from a personal place, where you have enthusiasm and energy. You want to start a community around something that you want to keep doing or keep posting about, like Brett Simpson hosting his Friday morning surf club. Host the first couple of gatherings and then think about empowering other people to do it. That’s the switch that I think people should take. Go somewhere personal, do something you actually care about, and then think about how you can enable other passionate people to take the reins from you. For people who already have a community and are struggling to keep it going, especially now when everyone has Zoom fatigue and there’s limited real-life interaction, what are creative ways to keep it going? The number one thing I want to acknowledge is that this sucks. I love playing basketball, but I can’t play basketball with my communities anymore. There are some people that just prefer to do things in life in real life with other people. A lot of athletes are probably in that category. There’s no hack that can make the world what it was in January, and it sucks. What can we do now? When we do a workshop with clients who are starting a community, we have them answer three questions: Who are you bringing together? Why will they come together? What will they do together? These are deceptively simple questions, but getting answers that resonate and having cognitive clarity about those three questions is how to get a community going. Right now, I think a lot of people need to revisit the question of why. Why does their community come together? I play soccer here in New York with a team called Dike Soccer. I’m a queer woman, so I feel like I get to say that word. The group is gay women and non-identifying people who come together and play soccer. The why for the group was accountability for working out, or playing soccer, to do a hobby. They took the essence of coming together for fun and also for emotional support in the queer community, and they said, “How can we do that?” In today’s world, they’ve gotten creative with their activities. They’ve established a mutual aid network within the soccer team, so that sense of queer support continues. They brought on a player who was a licensed therapist to offer free therapy to people in the community. My favorite thing that they did was pet parades on zoom — it really tapped into the emotional support and joy that the team offers people. I think for some communities, the why has shifted. People who used to come together to skill develop around cooking, or around their ability to give public speeches, or around their timed miles, can’t get together anymore. Maybe some of that has shifted, given the state of the world and people’s emotional state. It’s your job to know why your people are coming together and to know if there’s anything you can do to serve that. One of my favorite shifts comes from an organization called GirlTrek. GirlTrek was started by two young Black women, both public school teachers. They knew that the public health numbers for Black women, children and adults, are some of the worst of any demographic in the country. They decided to do something about it at a local level, and took the girls in their classes for a walk three times a week for 30 minutes, per the CDC recommendation. Then they asked the girls’ moms to join them. People were so inspired by this giant group of Black women walking through the streets of Baltimore that they raised their hands to open up other chapters. Now there are thousands of GirlTrek chapter leads. They would walk all in different cities and towns every Saturday morning and then come together once a year to walk historical parts of civil rights history, like the walk from Montgomery to Selma and the Underground Railroad. Obviously, it’s not a great idea to have groups of people walking together now. So the founders created a podcast where they interview historic Black women, like Angela Davis, or tell stories of women like Harriet Tubman. People who are part of GirlTrek listen to the podcast. I’ve listened to it, and it’s pretty fun because the women are walking as they’re recording the podcast. So it kind of recreates, through digital tools, the same experience of unity, a sense of collectiveness with other Black women and exercise. I really appreciate that. They took their fundamental why and shifted to make it work during the pandemic. Much of the outdoor industry is lacking diversity. Many companies are taking a deep look at their communities and seeing that they are missing people who should be represented. How do you take steps to bring new people in? In researching communities, one thing that really stood out to me is that people join a community both for the thing that community does and the people they see doing that thing. For example, I joined a specific basketball team in New York because I wanted to play basketball with other women, and also because based on their photos on Instagram, they looked like people I might want to be friends with, a lot of artsy people playing basketball. I interviewed a group called The Dinner Party, which started as one dinner party between a group of friends who all realized they had lost a parent or a sibling way too young in life. They started out doing a single table and now there are 2,000 tables around the country. These tables meet every couple of months, and people talk about their current experience of grief. The headquarters team sifts through applications of people who want one of those tables in their lives and hand curates the tables. They choose 10 people and put them together. They told me that one thing they realized was if they put only one person of color at a table of all white people, the likelihood of that person coming back was extremely low. It was similar for people in non-traditional gender identities, and I’m sure other more marginalized groups. If you’re just starting a community and you want it to be diverse, as soon as possible think about how you can choose leaders who don’t look like you, and also, make that very clear. I have seen community leaders say very explicitly, we are a Black Lives Matter community and if you are not on board with that, it’s cool, but you don’t need to be here. I think it is important to clearly communicate who is welcome and what the rules are through a demonstration of who is in your community. If you’re realizing that your community is very white, or very homogenous in some way, you could start by figuring out if there is a way that you could support other racial groups. Could you offer some kind of resource, audience, or support to a group that’s already in that space? For example, there’s a lot of different groups, like Black Girls RUN! or Black Girls Surf, that are popping up in traditionally white sports. I would see if there is a way your community could support them, spotlight them, or possibly collaborate with them. Supercharge them, build relationships, and demonstrate what you care about. Where can people find you? Weirdly, I deleted my Instagram account in this moment of “I’m ready to graduate, I spent enough time on this platform.” I didn’t stop spending time online though, I just put more time into Twitter. You can find me @baileyelaine on Twitter. Also, I have a public website, Bailey E Richardson, and my work website, People & Company. And on Prokit @bailey. Bailey’s book Get Together and her podcast, also called Get Together. The post Bailey Richardson: Building Communities that Get Together and Stay Together appeared first on Prokit.
74 minutes | Sep 16, 2020
EverAthlete founder Dr. Matt Smith: Mastering Movement, Strength, Breath and Why the Pros are Pros
Dr. Matt Smith helps the pros reach the highest levels, whether they’re competing at Ironman, chasing gold at the Mountain Bike World Championships, running Western States, or playing in the NBA or NFL. But at his training center and clinic, EverAthlete, he’s just as dedicated to training someone for an epic bucket list hike or helping another build the solid foundation they need to prevent injury and keep doing a sport they love. Before COVID, Matt had just opened the training facility of his dreams, the next phase of EverAthlete. That all quickly changed in March, and Matt pivoted immediately. He closed the training center doors and moved to a combination of in-person therapy, online training and instructional videos. He sat down with us to talk about it all — the impact strength training and form have on performance and longevity, the power of breathwork, and what he’s learned about mindset from pros like Kate Courtney. Listen to our podcast with Matt Smith on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Follow Matt on Prokit @everathlete. Listen to the Podcast The Start of EverAthlete David Swain, Prokit: What did you have for breakfast? Dr. Matt Smith: Every morning, I have a breakfast shake. We do a veggie box so the veggies vary, but usually what I put in my shake is either spinach, kale, or chard, and some broccoli. I try to get as many vegetables in, as possible. Today, I blended kale and broccoli, an apple, a handful of blueberries, and a scoop of the Primal Kitchen collagen protein. I’m allergic to dairy so I always go with either almond or coconut milk. There’s always discussion around making sure athletes get enough protein. What’s your go-to? I usually eat meat, nuts and seeds. Occasionally, I will have a clean whey isolate protein because I’m not as sensitive to that as I am to milk or cheese. Tell us about your journey as an athlete moving into health and starting EverAthlete. Where did it all begin? I grew up in the Bay Area and played baseball and football through high school. I decided to go to University of Redlands to play football, but tore my hamstring and had different injuries prior to my freshman season that caused me to fall out of organized sports. There was always interest in becoming a chiropractor, mainly because of a mentor in high school. He was my anatomy and physiology teacher, and he was a bodybuilder and former chiropractor. He had a substantial impact on me, and I always wanted to follow in his footsteps. After two years, I left Redlands and immediately started working towards getting into Palmer West, which is a local chiropractic college with a really good sports program. While I was finishing prerequisites, I got exposed to CrossFit and started competing and coaching at 19. When I started coaching, it became clear that a community that revolves around health and fitness was an essential part of the story of healthcare in my mind. It went beyond one-on-one, hands-on care. There was an importance to having that community that revolved around health principles. As I was going through the doctorate program at Palmer West, I continued coaching and I got exposed to a lot of different kinds of strength and conditioning. I started to really dive deep into coaches like Mike Boyle, Greg Cook, Gary Gray, and Mark Verstegen. Also got exposed to the corporate world and started doing some work on-site at a few different companies while I figuring out what my identity would be after my work at Palmer West. What became clear was that I wanted to develop a community that was based around health and fitness and combined with conservative healthcare, a blend of hands-on care and corrective exercise and rehab. Conservative health care, in my mind, encompasses non-surgical methods for maintaining the health of the body and overall movement system. After Palmer West, I moved to Austin, Texas, and worked in a sports therapy clinic at a gym owned by Todd Wright. Todd is the strength and conditioning coach for the Los Angeles Clippers, but at the time he was with the University of Texas. I was there for a year and a half and got a lot of exposure to a high-level performance environment. I came back to the Bay Area to start EverAthlete. It began as a sports therapy clinic. I focused on conservative care for athletes and active people, and I got the chance to work inside of a CrossFit gym. Then I ventured out and started a clinic in downtown Palo Alto. A couple years later, we started our performance training center, which we had to close down due to COVID. That was the beginning of combining consistent strength and conditioning for active people with holistic and conservative healthcare through passive modalities like soft tissue therapy, corrective exercises, and stretching. The combining of those two worlds was the eventual goal of EverAthlete. How many years has the EverAthlete journey taken? This is year six. For the first two years, it was pretty much just me doing hands-on therapy and corrective strategies for athletes. The last three and a half years have been getting more into the strength conditioning side of things from a structure perspective. The Power of Strength and Form Most people typically prioritize their sport, like running or cycling, over the strength, mobility and stretching work that goes into longevity. Tell us why strength training is important. If you’re a recreational athlete or a high-performance recreational athlete, especially from the endurance community, there’s a lot to be said for the longevity that strength training can give you. It’s one of the easiest ways to bring your body back to balance and build some resilience. There’s a lot of repetitive stress that goes into being a cyclist, an open water swimmer, or a long distance runner. You’re doing the same thing over and over. If you’re executing a good strength program, a lot of your mobility work is built into the strength training. The idea behind building your body through strength training is to build balance back into the body, and take out some of the asymmetries that result in doing repetitive exercise. Bringing symmetry to the body and building resilience in the connective tissue, as well as building overall strength to take pressure off of your joints, is essential to longevity as an athlete. You certainly don’t have to become a powerlifter or put on a ton of size. I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions, that you have to start doing power lifts as strength training for your sport. That is certainly not what I would recommend, and not what I think endurance athletes of any level should be doing. In strength training, you have an opportunity. Yes, we have limited time during the week and some people have limited resources, but if you’re executing a strength training program properly, you should be learning how to move well. Once you have this kinesthetic awareness, you can start loading those patterns and building some of the strength within the body to grow as an athlete. For people who don’t have direct access to someone like you, how do they get started with designing the right strength and mobility plan? I think the most important thing for people to grasp is that your plan is going to be different based on what your goal is. If you’re looking to do a 100-mile endurance race, the way you build strength into your routine is going to be different than if you’re doing a 5K, or if you’re a cyclist. To start, I like to do a very detailed assessment on how people move and what their movement capabilities are. That’ll be our foundation for addressing weaknesses in that chain or building on their strengths. I like to formulate a plan that does both those things at the same time. The initial phase for any training program is a stability phase. That means working through core strength, stability work and getting connected to shapes. The foundation of that is categorizing movement. There are hinge patterns which are power cleans and deadlifts. There are squat and lunge patterns, pushing and pulling patterns, and rotational patterns. This phase of training is about understanding how to stabilize and create those movements. Can you connect your brain to your body to create those movements? Can you control them? Our second phase of training is strength. We start to load those movement patterns. The last phase is power. We’ll start building in more powerful movements and rep schemes. Especially for endurance athletes, the foundation of your strength training program should be learning how to create shapes. If you can’t do the movement, you shouldn’t be adding weight. Many people make this mistake. If you can’t do a hinge pattern, meaning you can’t flex through your hips and flex your knees while keeping a neutral spine, you shouldn’t be doing heavy deadlifts. For masters athletes, I would say the most important thing you can do is spend time reconnecting to those patterns, executing them well, and then focusing on load. In crowded group fitness classes, there’s not a lot of teaching form. Are you worried about this? Many boutique gyms are focused on disconnecting you from your body. They’re capitalizing on the community factor and having a lot of people in a room, training really hard. The whole intent is to create this emotional experience, but not necessarily connect you to your body and the way that you move. In terms of longevity, this is not sustainable, and it can take away from what the purpose of training should be in your life. I’m a very firm believer in purpose-driven training. I think people should set goals and train for those goals. A lot of people who are training at these HIIT places are not having an offseason and are not periodized. They’re working towards this linear progression of performance, which doesn’t necessarily correlate with long term health or long term joint health. I wonder if these gyms are expediting chronic injuries by not properly setting people up with training programs that will periodize and back them off of redlining all the time. Now, there are different companies, like WHOOP, that are designed to give you more perspective and data on your stress levels. We should extrapolate that information into the way that we train. I think what’s most important for people to understand is that you should train for a specific thing, but after the event you take a rest period or offseason where you let your body down regulate from high stress. If you’re not doing that, you’re going to run into chronic injury, chronic fatigue, and inability to control stress. One of the questions that’s come about from work I’ve done is, how do we create longevity, not only to life, but to high performance? I think the answer is having a structured approach to the training that you do and the fun that you have. That starts with intention. Once you define your intent, then you can start to structure your approach, whether you’re hiring a coach or looking for an online program. There’s an explosion of information on training online now. It’s important for people to find what fits their goals. Don’t choose whatever workout you saw on Instagram today as your training plan. That’s not sustainable. When Goals Change What about when your goal is cancelled by a pandemic? From a professional athlete perspective, if your season has been canceled, you still have the opportunity to go through full cycles of periodized training. You have an opportunity to really dive into performance in a way that you haven’t before. Take cycling, for example. The Mountain Biking World Cup schedule has been totally thrown off, but that’s allowed certain athletes to get extra cycles of training in and see how they peak through those cycles. This opportunity has never been provided before because usually they’re in mid-season and doing strength maintenance and just trying to get ready for each competition. For recreational athletes, it’s so different for every person. There’s a ton of diversity in race choices. If you had a race planned and it was canceled, my recommendation has been to choose a follow-up date and structure your plan towards that, or just keep doing what you like doing. For the people I’m working with, we are going through 12 weeks cycles the same way that we would be for an offseason training program. Have you found that 12 weeks is the right period of time to commit to a goal and a training structure? Not necessarily. It’s very dependent on the sport and the goal. Some of the more strength-based athletes that I’m working with have found that getting eight to 12 solid weeks of mini-strength cycles has been really helpful because it allows for recovery time between separate bouts of building. How has COVID changed what you’re doing with Everathlete? It’s changed quite a bit. Last year, we had just moved into a brand new facility in Mountain View. It was the dream facility I had been envisioning for 10 years. It was an awesome training space with a large strength and conditioning area, and a recovery, yoga mobility area. We had a clinic inside and also had an outdoor training space with a sauna and ice baths. The facility was the next phase of EverAthlete. When COVID hit in March, that all changed. When we first signed our lease in Mountain View, one of the contingencies of the lease that I had my landlord put in was if the city of Mountain View or the county of Santa Clara ever interfered with our business for any reason, we could buy out of our lease for a certain amount of money. If you’re out there and you own a gym, or if you’re signing a lease for anything, this is a life saving clause. So when COVID hit in March, I immediately contacted my landlord and got out of the lease. My goal became shifting as many of the things that we’ve done in-person to a virtual format through EverAthletePerformance.com. We’re also starting to launch different programs and video series for athletes, different sports, and for our GPP, general fitness program. We’re now doing in-person therapy at our clinic in Palo Alto, but pretty much everything about my day-to-day has changed. It’s been an interesting shift. It has been super challenging, but for the first time in six years, I’ve had some time to think creatively. COVID provided me with this opportunity to rethink the way things are delivered and executed. In many ways, it’s been reinvigorating for me. Now that people have moved online, are you able to maintain a community that’s connected to health goals? The community side of things has certainly been the trickiest component of everything. The rules about getting together have changed constantly. It’s been my obsession, trying to figure out how the community part is going to work. We’re going to start doing some virtual events. In October, we’re going to shift our format to an online training platform where people can communicate with each other and log their results. I think that that will be helpful, but what will be most helpful is when we can get together again and do a race. Until then, I think the most effective thing is just personally connecting with people that you have in your circle. Yoga, Breathwork, and Trusting Research What’s your opinion on yoga and where it fits into strength and mobility? I think yoga helps a lot of people. It’s a generalized form of movement though, so it’s not universally good for everyone. If you have a labrum tear in your left hip or lower back issues, for example, there will be things in a yoga class that you won’t be able to do. It’s good for general movement and mobility. Kate Courtney loves it and I certainly have no issue with that. I think yoga is actually a pretty good structured program, but it certainly depends on the person. Do you think it’s important to warm up before and cool down after a big workout? With the mounting degree of conflicting evidence on strength and conditioning, the best thing to do is to explore and experiment with yourself. Generally speaking, from my perspective, a warm-up is optimal. I usually take people through some dynamic stretching, some core activation, and neurological prepping. I think it’s important to prime the body, get blood flow in your tissue, and get your neuromuscular system turned on to the movement that you’re executing that day. Your warm-up informs you about the state of your body, as well. It’s an opportunity for you to get information about what could potentially go wrong in your training that day. I also think that cool-downs are extremely important, not only for tissue health, but more so for stress control. We live stressful lives, and training is a stressor. Training ramps up the sympathetic nervous system. If you’re not able to get back into a parasympathetic state, through things like stretching or breathwork, you’re missing a big piece of being able to control your nervous system and furthermore, being able to recover fast. Are there breathwork techniques you recommend for both during and after performance? There is a ton of interesting research on breath and performance, CO2 tolerance, and oxygen delivery to tissues. Again, the research can be conflicting, so self exploration is far and away the best thing that you can do. I’ve learned from a lot of different people and different resources. I started with Wim Hof, which is awesome exposure to the power that breath can have over you, physiologically. It’s been repeatedly shown that breathwork can have a substantial impact on the regulation of your nervous system. If you’re an endurance athlete, being able to control your physiological state and your nervous system is very valuable. It can also help you optimize your usage of oxygen for your tissues. There are specific forms of breathwork where you can actually start to build your efficiency of the air that you bring in, which equates to good oxygenation of your tissues. There’s a huge focus on downregulation breathwork, which is basically using breathwork to get yourself into a more mellow and parasympathetic state for recovery. I think that that is probably the best place to start for anyone because of how stressed we are all the time. Do something as simple as six seconds of breath in, six seconds of breath out, five minutes before you go to bed. Throughout the day, try to breathe through your nose as much as possible. This has been well-researched to be a huge parasympathetic stimulus. The third thing anyone can do is breathe out a little bit longer than breathing in. ShiftAdapt is a company that has done a lot of interesting stuff on breathwork. The Buteyko clinic, out of the UK, has also done great research. There’s a book called The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown, and another called Breath by James Nestor. He wrote a book called Deep which is an awesome book on free diving and the physiological effects of being in water. Here’s Matt pushing himself out of his comfort zone and overcoming a fear of the water. It’s now the place that gives him peace. View this post on Instagram Stress. It can break you or completely re-shape your vision of what you’re capable of. I started surfing because I was terrified of the ocean for years following a near-drowning incident. When I started, I would rent a surfboard, paddle out, have a panic attack for a couple of hours and come back in when I felt in control. Now, there are few places that give me peace like the ocean and at the bottom of the pool. If you can stay locked in, you can learn a lot from stress and adapt and evolve. I can honestly say, the victories I’ve had in my life over stress and fear have completely changed who i am in a very positive way. The process could not have been less comfortable. Thank you to @deependfitness for your help along this journey! A post shared by EVERATHLETE (@everathlete) on Jul 19, 2020 at 11:05am PDT The longer you are in this industry, how much do you trust the research? Have your assumptions changed? I certainly don’t think that my methods are the end-all be-all for performance. I’ve tried to adapt the way that I do things based on successes and failures. My answers to your questions could certainly change in the next year, or the next two hours. There is a vast amount of things you can do to improve performance, whether it’s breathwork, nutrition, training or recovery. These are worlds of infinite options. I think it’s so important to always be trying and failing, and continually evolving what works.There are no finite answers in the world of performance, or really, human health. Continually being open to learning more is by far the best approach to health and wellness, and performance overall. How much do you focus on an athlete’s nutrition and how much of an effect do you see it having? Historically, I haven’t done a ton of nutrition consulting and mainly focus on movement. If I’m working with a more elite person, my first recommendation is for them to work with a professional in the nutrition world. If I’m working with a recreational athlete who wants simple nutrition pointers to improve their performance, I think it’s really simple to clean up your diet. Eliminate processed foods for the most part, eliminate sugar, minimize alcohol, eat a variety of organic fruits and vegetables. Getting enough protein is huge as well. I come at it from a very basic standpoint and leave the rest to the professionals. Check your Mindset What’s the big difference between how the pros approach their goals and training compared to the recreational athletes? How much of pros’ successes are genetic versus the way they approach the entire mind/body practice of their sport? I think there’s a genetic component that separates elite level athletes from recreational athletes, but you have to put in the work. The work is defining goals, sticking to the plan, continually refining that process, and always looking for ways to improve that process. That’s what happens on the professional side of things. You’ve coached Division I athletes. How many were specialized at 13-years-old versus playing multiple sports? Where do you see youth sports right now? Are we focused on the right things? A lot of the Division I athletes that I’ve worked with did specialize pretty early on. I’ve worked with a lot of swimmers, and swimmers tend to specialize early. Personally, I’ve read a lot of research that connects specialization with early onset repetitive stress injuries. I’m going to try to get my kids playing as many sports as possible and keep that going for as long as possible. It’s not just about performance. When I fell out of football, I went through a tremendous identity crisis. When I stopped doing traditional American sports, I really didn’t know about other sports. I didn’t have the confidence or the mental ability to try those things because I chose my sports early in life and didn’t dive into other things. Over the past 10 years, I’ve had huge personal growth from playing different sports, learning new skills, and just being a novice in different areas of sport. It’s been so beneficial for me, and that’s exactly what I want for my kids. If there’s a sport that loves them and they love it back then moving to a higher performance in that sport is a path that we could take. Exposure to different athletic endeavors is really important for kids. The motor control and general athleticism that’s developed by doing a variation of activities is very important not only physically, but also cognitively. Also, it’s good to give kids options so that when they stop playing “x” sport at 21 years old or 14 years old, they can still be a lifelong athlete. There’s a really small percentage of athletes who make it to the next level, whether it’s collegiate or professional. For those who don’t make it, you’ve got to have other options. What do you think are the best ways to manage stress or avoid burnout? Constantly check in with yourself to make sure that you really enjoy what you’re doing, whether you’re an elite level athlete or a recreational athlete. Having a connection to what brings you joy and what fuels your passion is a pivotal piece to avoiding burnout. There are going to be challenges and failures, that’s all part of the deal. But within those, you have to continually check in to make sure that that you are doing what you want to do. Beyond that, I think being able to downregulate is key. You need to control and downregulate your nervous system and build in frequent times when you check your overall state of stress. There are so many different ways to do that now. Aside from technology and data points, checking in through breathwork and taking time to only focus on your body is extremely powerful. What are your stress levels? What brings you joy? Whether you’re in business or you’re an athlete, I think that’s a really important piece to the burnout story. Having a team around you that keeps you accountable and looks out for a downward trajectory of your mental, emotional, or physical state is very important, as well. On the data-driven side of things, there’s WHOOP, the Garmin recovery state, and all these different tools we can use to know what our heart rate is and what our SpO2 is, etc. Being aware of these things is a part of checking in with yourself and avoiding burnout in the long term. Do you use WHOOP? I’m waiting to get my WHOOP, and I’m actually pretty excited to use it. Right now, I have a Garmin. I don’t take the data that it gives me as an exact standpoint of where I am, but I’ll use it for heart rate variability. I also will use a test on my own called the CO2 tolerance test, which is basically a breath test that tests how well you handle an environment of high CO2. That is indicative of your state of stress and your ability to train really hard. That’s something that I’ll do often. Generally speaking, I have a pretty structured approach to sleep and breathwork, and those two things inform me a lot about my stress level and overall biostatistics. Frankly, throughout COVID, I have not been on point, but I think there’s a whole other element of not getting too lost in the data. So what do we need to know to be as fast as Kate Courtney? I’ll give you a window into why @katecourtney is so elite and such a champion. I’ve worked with her since she was an amateur, and my role with her has evolved quite a bit. Currently, she has a full team around her, including a strength coach, a physical therapist, and a massage therapist. There is someone for every bucket. As she’s progressed as an athlete, she’s continually looked to refine the people on her team. The role that I’ve kind of taken on with her in the last year is making sure that she is honed in on all of her strength exercises. Not all strength movements are created equal. If I had 47 people in here doing a squat pattern, we probably have 47 different examples of what a squat would be. Some would be good, some would be bad. View this post on Instagram A post shared by Kate Courtney (@kateplusfate) on Sep 7, 2020 at 11:38am PDT Kate has taken the standpoint that her strength and conditioning program is truly an injury prevention program, as well as a performance enhancement program. We’ve made sure that her movement patterns are really good. She’s continually refining those movement patterns and she’s constantly learning. I think it’s challenging for endurance athletes because they are not part of a system. For example, basketball or football athletes are part of programs where they have an entire athletic training staff around them. They have PTs, chiropractors, massage therapists, and coaches. The system is already built, with no effort from the athletes. The big thing about Kate is that she continually strives to get help. She has built a team that she trusts and continues to refine the process. While Matt is quick to point out that these workouts are just a sample of what he’d incorporate into a training plan, here are a few examples of strength and mobility techniques he and Kate Courtney use. Where can people find you? You can find me at Everathleteperformance.com and @ everathlete on Instagram and @everathlete on Prokit. And we’re going to be launching some strength content on Prokit soon. The full podcast with Dr. Matt Smith The post EverAthlete founder Dr. Matt Smith: Mastering Movement, Strength, Breath and Why the Pros are Pros appeared first on Prokit.
73 minutes | Aug 19, 2020
Rebecca Rusch: Be Good, Be Vulnerable and Don’t Stop Learning
Rebecca Rusch’s nickname is the Queen of Pain — for good reason. She has pushed herself to excel at every outdoor adventure imaginable, continuously reimagining what’s possible and leaving her mark on everything from mountain biking and adventure racing to solo pursuits in the Alaskan wilderness. But it’s not just her world championships, Emmy Award winning movie, or records that inspire so many. Rebecca has found strength in honesty, vulnerability and in listening to an inner voice telling her “to see what’s over the next hill.” As you’ll find in this feature and podcast, Rebecca is as articulate about building a framework for a personal mission statement as she is talking about training and nutrition for her next adventure. We get into the business and community she’s building, filming Blood Road, and the impact of the pandemic. She captures the moment perfectly: “Everyone in every country, in every corner of the world, is feeling some kind of stress, and how we manage that is more important now than ever.. I think it’s important that we call our mothers, call friends, and stick together.” Listen to our podcast with Rebecca Rusch on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Follow Rebecca on Prokit @rebeccarusch! Listen to the Podcast Getting Started Prokit co-founder, David Swain: What did you have for breakfast? Rebecca Rusch: That’s an easy one. I had rice and eggs with some basil from my garden, coffee, and some beet juice. Is beet juice part of every breakfast or just during training season? I like to drink a few greens, drink some beet juice, and take a probiotic. I try to start the morning with not just 12 cups of coffee, but a glass of water and some good stuff, too. I take a few supplements to start the day off right. How is your breakfast evolved over the years? Eggs, rice and avocado with some amino acids are pretty much my go-to. That’s often my pre-race breakfast. I always have eggs and rice in the fridge, so it’s a really easy, low maintenance breakfast to make. I’ve never been one who can skip breakfast. I always wake up hungry, so that’s a pretty basic go-to that I always have around. Talk a little bit about the progression of growing up to finding the love of the outdoors. I found the love of the outdoors as a kid. I grew up in suburban Chicago in a little sleepy town called Downers Grove. It was pretty awesome. I was that kid digging in the dirt and camping out in the backyard. I think I was just born with that spirit of exploring. As a kid, I always wanted to be looking around. I have to give credit to my mom because every summer she took us camping and to a lot of the national parks. We’d just pile in the car and head to places like Zion. I credit her with my appreciation of the outdoors and feeding that wanderlust that I was born with. I found sport in high school with the cross country running team. It might not seem like running cross country in Chicago was super adventurous, but it was to me. I didn’t really have any athletes in my family and running around in the woods made me feel like a little kid. I still feel that way, decades later. I’ve been a paddler, rock climber, mountain biker, and I still feel like I’m that little girl who wants to see what’s over the next hill. Right now, the bike is the vehicle that I use for that, but the motivation really hasn’t changed. I want to see how far I can go and see what’s out there. Future World Champion breaking those training wheels in 1974 Many elite athletes stick with one sport their whole life. How have you progressed through your sports? Are you constantly looking for the next new thing? I would say it’s from listening to myself. You can liken it to somebody who has an entrepreneurial spirit. A lot of people choose a career, go to school for it, and stay in that path for the rest of their lives. Entrepreneurs are not that way. I’m not that way. With my sport, it has been an evolution, not because I said, “I’m going to master all these different sports.” It was more because I was listening to my heart and soul and what was popping up at the time. There is a common theme of wanting to adventure and explore, whether I’m rock climbing or on a bike. The tool for achieving that goal might be different over the course of my athletic career, but the motivation is still the same. I have always wanted to go places and push myself, and the sports are my teacher. I feel like life is a constant education and when you stop learning and growing, then you’re not really going anywhere anymore. I always get asked, “Why did you do so many different sports, and why did you transition so much?” The answer is because I wanted to. I got introduced to climbing when I was working at a health club in Chicago and met a bunch of climbers. I thought it was really interesting. I fell in love with that for a while and lived out of my car as a dirtbag climber. That, in turn, introduced me to paddling, and paddling introduced me to adventure racing. Adventure racing introduced me to mountain biking. It may seem like a really circuitous and unplanned path, but really, each sport was a foundation for the next one. I started as a runner, and I still run, but the bike has become the main tool for exploring. I ski, swim, and do a lot of other things because variety is the spice of life. But I always have that main focus of exploring, feeding my soul, and seeing the outdoors. That’s transitioned into being able to share what I’ve learned through sport with other people, and through my foundation, being able to do good things through my sport. It’s been a cool evolution of getting to explore and do all these things myself, but then also to pass them on and share them with people around me. Honesty in a Pandemic The whole country has been on some form of lockdown since March. What has been your experience during the pandemic? We came off the Iditarod Trail Invitational on March 8. We had been quite isolated, no news or anything while on the trail for eight days. We came out to COVID really blowing up and flew home through Seattle. It was a culture shock to come out of the chosen isolation of the Alaskan wilderness and return to the forced isolation of COVID and lock down. My husband is a full-time firefighter, and I’m a volunteer, so we quickly became immersed in the emergency that was happening locally in our community. We didn’t really get to process what happened on the Iditarod trail because we came right back to this global pandemic and had to get right to work on the frontlines. Rebecca and her fat bike at the 2020 Iditarod Trail Invitational I think we’ve all gone through these different layers during this pandemic. There’s the initial shock, and then denial and anger, and months into it we’re settling into what life is now. There’s obviously a lot of fear about our own personal health, our economic status, the world’s economic status. This has been a really hard time. I’ve reflected a lot on the races that I do. I thought I had been training for races all my life, but now I realize these races have been training me to deal with challenging situations in everyday life. I’m drawing on what I know as an athlete to try to get through the challenge of a global pandemic and health crisis. Things seemed easier on the Iditarod trail at -40 degree temperatures and pushing my bike through the snow than this unknown path now. I feel like this is navigating without a map. None of us have ever been here before, and we’re having to draw on whatever life experience we have to help guide us. We’ve had to be creative, business-wise, and pick ourselves up. Not to be super cliche, but we’re all a little bit lost here and trying to get found is challenging. Some of the tools I’m using are asking questions of myself and asking questions of friends, mentors, and people in business who I respect. Ultimately, I’m making sure I can control my health and fitness. While it may seem unimportant in this time to go out and ride my bicycle, it has been more important than ever for me and my emotional health. I think you’re seeing that globally. People are finding the outdoors and nature therapy because we need it. The one thing we can take control of is our own personal wellness. That’s more important than it’s ever been in my entire life. Michelle Obama explained it as our entire society has a low grade depression right now. We really are in a global depression. Everyone in every country, in every corner of the world, is feeling some kind of stress, and how we manage that is more important now than it’s ever been. One of the blessings is that we are all in this together. I think it’s important that we call our mothers, call friends, and stick together. What have you’ve learned about being able to talk about your emotional health? Professional athletes are expected to have it all figured out. We’re expected to always be strong and go full steam ahead, but humans just don’t operate that way. The first exposure I got to the power of being honest and vulnerable was when I wrote my book, Rusch to Glory, which came out six years ago. I was really honest about being afraid of rock climbing, being a lousy mountain biker, and struggling with an eating disorder. I was honest about everything, and it was cathartic for me to put those words down. What I was surprised by when the book came out was that people really resonated with the vulnerability and with me admitting that I wasn’t perfect. They could see some of that in themselves and that you could be scared or unsure of yourself and still succeed. That was my first realization that being honest with myself and with the world was actually a more powerful position to be in. All of a sudden, your superheroes, the people you look up to, are human, and they’re like you. You can take advice from somebody because they have gone down that road. It’s pretty powerful when your heroes become human. It doesn’t make them seem weak or bring them down a level. It actually brings you up. You can say, “I can see myself in there.” Everybody becomes a superhero. I think it’s important to be honest, and we’re seeing that more in writing and in social media. People admitting that they’re not perfect is pretty powerful. Instead of me having to keep this strong exterior, I can say, “That was really hard for me.” Then I can ask for advice or ask someone to help me. It’s important that we stick up for each other in that way, whether you’re a pro athlete or whether you’re a mom or a CEO. Being able to lend a hand to somebody and also to be able to raise a hand and ask for help is so important. That’s when our world is going to progress, when we can all play the role of the mentor and the mentee. Building a Business, Lifting a Community In the endurance and outdoor sports world, there is no playbook. It’s as much a lesson in entrepreneurship as in being an athlete. You’ve built a foundation, ran your own events, wrote a book, and produced a movie. How have you approached all these things? Have you asked for help from mentors? At first, I thought I was supposed to have it all figured out. I wasn’t very good at asking for help. I co-wrote my book with Selene Yeager, an amazing writer. Some people told me I should have done it by myself, but she elevated me. I learned writing skills from her, and she kept me on task. We made a great team. It’s the same reason I have an accountant. I’m not good at accounting, so someone helps me with that. Look at any of the most successful people in the world, and they’re not doing it alone. As my business has grown, the sheer workload has increased. It’s forced me to ask for help from people and hire people to help me achieve my goals. I’ve got all this stuff I want to do, but I can’t do it alone. For the 24-hour solo mountain bike race, which I did for years and have a few World Championships in, I’m physically riding my bike in a circle for 24 hours, but there’s a whole team helping me. There’s a mechanic, an aid station person, a crew chief, and my coach. Any Olympian will say they didn’t get there alone. I think it’s the same in our world right now. If we don’t ask for help, we’re not necessarily destined to fail, but nobody is perfect at everything. The role of an athlete has changed quite a lot. We are expected not only to win races and be at peak physical performance, but we’re also expected to be videographers, photographers, writers, content creators and mentors. It’s so much more than just going out and riding a bicycle. You definitely have to be an entrepreneur if you want to have a long career. You have to be creative and evolve and morph as the world morphs. When I started as an athlete, there wasn’t even social media. Now everyone has to keep up with all of the ways of communication. It’s become an exciting way of keeping us connected, but it’s also a lot of work and it’s hard to do it well. There’s definitely a lot of weight on the shoulders of not just the athletes, but the nutritionists, coaches, and experts. There are so many different platforms, and there’s pressure to share every day. There’s so much information in the world. Something like Prokit that’s curating the information and finding the best of the best is going to save everybody time and energy. We couldn’t possibly consume everything that’s out there right now. You’ve started Rebecca’s Private Idaho, a Facebook group and a new website. There are very personal, meaningful conversations happening in those places, but that puts pressure on you to always be present. How do you structure your day so that it doesn’t become all-consuming? @rebeccarusch and the RPI community in 2019 As the business grows, I get help. Anything I’ve launched has been motivated by me thinking about what I need and what I enjoy. That goes for the past Rebecca’s Private Idaho in-person format, as well as Rebecca’s Private Idaho 2020, which is not an in-person format, but a very intimate and very personal training program to execute a challenge. When I first launched Private Idaho eight years ago, I was beginning to explore my own hometown on my bike. I was getting out on gravel roads and finding areas I’d never been in. I wanted to bring the community together to show them these rad dirt roads around where I live. I wanted to explore and get off the beaten track, but I found that was something that other people wanted, too. Every offering that I’ve served up came first for me listening to my heart and my soul. I found that lot of other people have that same desire to explore, to connect, to have a training goal, and to have a community to reach out to. I wouldn’t say that all the things I’ve done are selfishly motivated, but they generate from a personal need or a personal desire, and then figuring that if I feel this way, other people must too. I want to create an experience where I can meet that need for myself and for other people at the same time. That’s exactly what Private Idaho is about. That’s exactly how the Gold Rush tour I used to do was launched. I had questions about mountain biking. I needed people to teach me and I needed to teach some people. All the things I’ve done have been fueled by a personal need that becomes a community need, and I try to fulfill that together as a group. The hard part about being an athlete right now is piecing together information in isolation. There’s so much content out there and so many people. It’s hard to find the community and the content you can trust. It’s really cool to see what you’ve done with your Facebook group. As a pro athlete, I have access to all these great people. It’s been so fun to bring a coach, a nutritionist, a mobility expert, a PT, and a brain neurologist to the regular cyclists. I feel really special that I get access to those people and that I can ask all kinds of questions. It’s so awesome to be able to let anyone ask those questions. I love when people share their highs and lows with the group. Then I share my highs and lows, and all of a sudden we’re a team. We’re not physically together, and we don’t even really know each other, but you don’t feel so alone. You know someone else is going through this, too. Adventure racing is about leadership and the team and managing people through their highs and lows. What have you learned about leadership and having empathy for your teammates? For those who aren’t familiar, adventure racing involves multi-day, multi-sport, 1000-mile expeditions with teams of four. Each team typically has just one female because the teams have to be co-ed. You’re going nonstop with very little sleep for a week to 10 days. There’s swimming, riding horses, you’re on foot, navigating. For me, those 10 years of adventure racing were like my master’s degree in human dynamics and how a team functions. You can imagine when you’re lost, you’re tired, you’re cold, you’re pissed off, you’re hungry, your true self really emerges. You’ve got to stick together as a team, so you’ve got to help each other. Most of us are pretty good at giving help and lending a hand if somebody’s struggling. Many of us are not good about asking for help. On these teams, I was the only woman. The big, strapping 200-pound guy who’s tired on day seven would have a very hard time with me saying, “I’m feeling good. Can I take your pack for a while?” That’s a hard position to be in when you’re supposed to be the strong one. I learned a lot about what motivates people when they’re down. Some people are motivated by tough love. Some people are motivated by a hug. Some people want to be left alone. Some people want a diversion, jokes, stories or talking. I learned a lot about myself and what motivates me, but also about what motivates other people and how different we are. Some of my male teammates thought that yelling would motivate me, and I’m absolutely not that kind of person. That wasn’t working for me. I had one really powerful experience during a race we did in Tibet. We were up around 18,000 feet, and I was struggling with pulmonary edema. I was basically on hands and knees, trying to crawl down to get some air into my lungs. Three out of my four teammates were way ahead saying, “You can do it. Come on, suck it up.” One of my teammates, Patrick, we’re still friends for life. He came back, and all he said to me was, “If you need to stop, I’ll stop with you.” That was all I needed, for somebody to say it’s okay to quit. I didn’t quit, and that actually got me up off my knees and pushed me forward. He let me know he was with me, no matter what I decided to do. That was such a powerful experience. I’ll never forget it. I have had such great lessons in teamwork. People will ask all the time, “Why do you keep doing these super long things?” Honestly, it’s because the trail is my teacher. I learn and evolve on these really long expeditions where I’m physically depleted. I find that that’s where my heart and soul comes to the surface. I learn who I am, and I’m continually learning. So when people ask when I’ll stop doing all this stuff, the answer is never. Maybe I’m a slow learner, but I’m still learning about myself on the trail. A Personal Mission Statement I think a lot of people right now could benefit from going through a listening exercise or a journaling exercise to find their “why.” Maybe it’s changed with the world changing around us, but what are some things you’ve learned about how to find your why? It does change. That’s the first thing I say to people. I’m a good example of having motivation and how it changes. It’s important to sit, reflect, and go through a process. The first time I really did that was after riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That was the biggest expedition of my life to find the place where my father died during the Vietnam War. I came home and wondered, “What now? What does this all mean? Is my competitive spirit gone?” I spent a couple years really processing what that ride was all about because it was quite heavy. I came home finding out a bunch of things, but also feeling a little bit lost because for years, I was a racer. It was the first time in my life that I explored my why. As for the process, I thought about all of the pivotal moments in my life, good and bad. I wrote them down and thought about the similarities and patterns between each of them. This was a two year process, but I was able to piece together and articulate rules that I live by and create a mission statement. That has become my guiding principle and my why. Any business you work for will have a mission statement, what they stand for, but very few people have that for themselves. That was the exercise I did for myself. My business is tied to who I am, so it has helped serve me in my work as well. But personally, I can just go back to my mission statement and ask, “Why am I doing this? Why am I working so hard?” It’s helpful on days that are really challenging. I would encourage people to go through the practice and build their own personal mission statement. History is our greatest teacher, so look back and find the things you’ve done that have been awesome. What were the patterns? Or look at the things that you’ve done that weren’t so awesome, and find those patterns. Then build a mission statement and your why. I talked to a friend of mine, after I did an interview with @katecourtney and Amber Neben on defining your why. My friend didn’t think her why for riding was a good one. I asked her what it was, and she said, “I just feel better as a person when I ride. I feel like I’m a better mom, and I’m better at my job.” That’s the best why ever. It’s plenty big enough. She was focusing on all the things she wasn’t doing, but being a good person, feeling good and being a good mom is a really important why. Your why doesn’t have to be some global, “save the world” statement. If each individual person was the best version of themselves, then we wouldn’t need to save the world. We’d be doing it ourselves, one by one. That is a big part of why I work as hard as I do with my business and with RPI challenge. I believe when people take control of their physical and emotional health, they are the best version of themselves, and that has a snowball effect on all the people around them. Tell us more about your mission statement. It’s laid out in a series of equations and then the mission statement. My rules of engagement, of sorts, are: risk equals reward; passion equals payoff; give equals get; less equals more. My actual mission statement is: To continually inspire and challenge myself and others to be good. “Be good” are the words that my dad wrote in all of his letters home from the Vietnam War. Those two simple words have become the name of my foundation and the short version of my mission statement: be good. It took years of really thinking about it, writing it down, and distilling it. A big concept is hard to put down in five words. It’s a process. Now I can go back to it, and when I’m lost, because we’re always lost, that is basically my trail map. Talk about “less is more” and what that means to you. That was the fourth rule I added in after the Blood Road film tour. I was touring around, sharing a super powerful film, and total strangers in tears were coming up to hug me. Families were healing from seeing the film, but I was sacrificing my own personal health and wellness by giving so much to everybody. You see it a lot in nonprofit executive directors. There’s burnout if you give too much of yourself. I came up with “less is more” because I want to do all these great things. I have all these ideas that I want to share with everybody, but not at the expense of my own personal health and wellbeing, or at the expense of my family and time with my husband and my dogs. I had a realization after the film tour that I was giving too much away and that I had to spend some time rejuvenating and rebuilding myself, so that I could give back. It’s just like a training program where you take rest days. If you work hard every day, you burn out. So “less is more” is really about the rest and rejuvenation that I need personally. I can’t do it all, and I have to choose the things I’m going to do. I have to say no to some things. Saying no is really hard for me, but I found I was eroding other parts of my world that I know my dad wouldn’t have wanted me to do. I didn’t want to sacrifice myself to give back to other people. I had to find a different kind of balance there. Looking to the Future When you apply your mission to your personal goals across sport and the community that you’re building, what’s on the horizon? I know that what’s on the horizon is being active, being outdoors, sharing what I know with other people and continuing to build the foundation. Ultimately, that’s my mission statement, to continually challenge and inspire myself and other people to be good. There has to be those two parts of the equation, me and other people. If it’s just me, and I’m doing all this cool stuff, it’s just not that great. We all know it’s a lot more fun to share something with other people and to celebrate something with other people. On the flip side, if I’m only giving to other people and not feeding myself, the equation doesn’t work either. I’m really excited about the prospect of this new format for RPI. It’s an online community where people can come together and build a ride wherever they are that mimics Private Idaho. I’m excited about what’s happening and how it’s bringing people together. When we can finally get back together for large group events, I’m really excited at the prospect of RPI being an in-person event and a global event. We can have this online program running at the same time and reach even more people and have an even bigger community. I was pushed during COVID to design this new way of having an event, but I feel like it will mesh really nicely with in-person events when we can have those in the future. There’s probably another book in my head. I need to read my first book and get it on audio version. I also have some fun bikepacking goals, and I have signed back up for the Iditarod thousand mile. I’ve only done the 350 mile in Alaska. So if that can happen in 2021, I will attempt to complete that. I have some big expedition goals. You’ve talked about how you’re not a big fan of the cold. Signing up for 1000 miles in -20 degrees is bold. It is bold. For me, being in a cold environment really scares me. I realized I hadn’t been committed and scared in a number of years, and I needed to do that “risk equals reward.” I hadn’t done anything since Blood Road that felt risky and committing. Like I said, with adventure racing, when you’re committed to something, you rise to the occasion. That’s where we are with COVID, as well. People are rising to the occasion and redesigning their businesses to find a way to make it work. When is Rebecca’s Private Idaho challenge? Depending on what ride distance you do, the global ride challenges will be on September 4, 5 and 6. Registration is open, and we have about a month left of training and preparing. You can sign up at Rebeccas Private Idaho. There are tools on there to design your route, and you can connect to the community. RPI has always been a fundraiser through the Be Good Foundation, but the super exciting thing this year is that all of the RPI fundraising efforts will go towards programs that are increasing diversity, inclusion and equity in the cycling industry. We partnered with some really cool organizations that are getting more people on bikes who didn’t have access to them before. Thoughts on a Changing Sport Many outdoor events and adventures become popular and evolve, but people try to hold on to what they were in the beginning. What are the common threads of these new kinds of outdoor adventures? Are you more on the side of holding on to what keeps them pure or letting them evolve? Gravel, in particular, started as more exploring, getting off the beaten path, and a little less structured than typical road racing. Most of the events still feed that exploratory feeling, but there’s an explosion where thousands of people are coming to gravel races. Pro roadies are coming over, and now UCI is sniffing around. People wonder what’s going to happen to gravel. Rebecca Rusch riding her hometown Idaho gravel I have a couple thoughts on this. When new people get involved, it’s up to those of us who are here to educate them. There’s a ton of new trail users, new cyclists, and hikers, and a lot of people don’t really know the etiquette or what they’re doing. I came across somebody the other day and had a trail altercation. I got yelled at and told that hikers have the right-of-way. We stood there, six feet apart, and had a conversation. I educated this person on typical trail etiquette, that if somebody’s riding uphill, they have the right-of-way. I could have just ridden by and gotten all pissed at that person, but I think we do have a responsibility as new users arrive. They have a responsibility to learn the party that they’re coming into, to join a local trail organization, or the local IMBA group. There are going to be more people out camping and doing everything, so we might as well give them the tools to do it properly. Gravel is the same way. When Ted King started coming into gravel, he called me up, and we had conversations about how it should work. Should he wear a hydration pack? What is the scene? I really appreciated that he asked, instead of just coming into the party as a roadie, and assuming it was going to be roadracing. He asked questions. He’s an example of somebody who has come into a new genre of cycling that he was excited about, and he didn’t try to change it. He now has his own event and he’s designed what he calls “mullet protocol” which is amazing. You can race it in the front, and there’s a party in the back. As long as people know that’s what they’re coming into, then there’s no confusion. I’m excited about the growth of cycling. I’m also excited that, with gravel, I have the right, the authority, and the power to make my event however I want my event to be. There’s a different landscape at each race. Each one has a different personality. If somebody wants a more racy aspect of a race, they can go to one that suits those needs. If somebody wants a little more exploration, maybe a little bit rougher trail or some mountain bike signal track, you can come to Private Idaho. People can choose. It’s just like choosing what restaurant you want to go to. It’s all food and you’re all eating it, but it’s a very different experience if you go to McDonald’s versus going to eat at a French bistro. That’s the best way that I can describe it. Each event has a personality, and I think that’s great. As long as the rules of engagement are clearly defined, and as long as the people coming in adhere to the rules. Bikepacking is the same way. There’s a lot of people exploring on their bikes and adventuring. They’re asking questions, and there’s some great resources like bikepacking routes and other things. The common theme with all these types of cycling is that people want to go exploring and they want to get off the beaten path. I think that that’s amazing. If they need a little education on what to carry, how to use a Garmin, or how to navigate, I’m happy to help share what I know to get people out there. That’s part of what RPI is about. It’s part of what Rusch Academy is about. Give people the tools to go out and safely and happily have their own adventures. Rebecca’s Kit to Be Good Let’s talk about the things in your mental, emotional, and physical kit that keep you striving to reach your potential. Specifically with training, if people are trying to go up a level or get into a new sport, what are some of the things that are foundational to you? On the training side, it’s consistency, one hundred percent. If you get your butt out the door five days a week, and just be consistent, that’s going to go a long way. It’s better than cramming it all in on the weekend, or having one huge 10-hour ride and then not doing anything for the rest of the week. Even if you go 45 minutes a day, or a half-hour a day, be consistent and do something. That’s going to go a long way towards not only increasing fitness, but also lifelong health, wellness and longevity. The second thing I’d say is important is forgiveness. If you miss a day, it’s all right. Even as a pro athlete with a coach and a training schedule, I probably hit about 80% of what my coach asks me to do, sometimes less. I rarely hit 100%. We’re just not perfect. People are not perfect. Forgive yourself if you missed a day. Tomorrow’s a new day, and you can start fresh every day. On the longevity side, are there things you’ve learned or incorporated that have allowed you to keep going? People underestimate rest and sleep. That’s your magic pill – sleeping better. That might mean getting an eye mask, a great mattress, or turning off screens after dinner. People are always looking for what supplements they can take that will make them faster or help them feel better. Sleep is that supplement you can add to your life. It really is the magic pill. I’m 51, and I just had a PR Trail Creek hill climb and bested my time from 2013. I’m living proof that you should rest better, be consistent, and not let stretching and mobility slide. Do you incorporate strength training throughout the year? My strength training regime is moving things that need to be moved. Instead of moving a lot of weights around the gym, I’m at the fire department, I chop wood, and I garden a bunch. I have some equipment at home, but I believe in pull-ups and push-ups, chopping some wood every once in a while, and moving some furniture. Those things go a long way. It’s functional mobility and strength. Instead of doing 100 bicep curls, could you pull somebody out of a burning building, or could you do something that needed doing? That’s kind of the best way I can explain it. Get some logs, get an axe, and get a fire pit. Chopping wood is actually really good exercise. I also do a lot of different sports. I cross country ski in the winter, so I’m getting a lot of upper body strength from polling. @rebeccarusch getting strong with her axe On the mind side, are there things you do as part of a daily practice? I’m a big fan of Headspace. I discovered it after Blood Road. I’d never really tried meditation. I basically would just fall asleep. What I really like about the Headspace app is that it makes it really easy. I can select five minutes a day and just spend time sitting. It’s guided, and it does calm my mind. What I find now is that I can access the breathing or techniques if I’m stressed in the line at the grocery store, or when I’m out on a bike ride. It’s not just those 10 minutes of sitting still and being quiet, it actually does carry over into my everyday life. I feel like there’s been a real calming effect for me with getting to know my body through meditation. Again, I’m not perfect, I don’t do it every day, but it has been a really cool tool that I enjoy. Have your views changed on nutrition over the years? Nutrition has morphed. When I was adventure racing, I used to believe that I could eat whatever I wanted because I was doing so many miles a day. I was a big fan of Cheetos and Swedish Fish. I’ve definitely evolved my nutrition program. I believe if you put garbage in, you’re going to get garbage energy out. We eat a lot less processed food or packaged food. My husband is a hunter, so all of our meat is organic. I’m growing a garden, and I make bread. A lot of people are getting into that stuff. It’s so easy to make good choices even if you don’t have your own garden. I make a lot more smoothies for breakfast. That’s an easy way to mix in greens, beets, and all those kinds of foods. I try to drink more water. I’m not very good at drinking enough water. That would probably be the second magic pill after sleep that I would recommend. It’s your filtration system and does a lot of good things. For gear, what’s the thing that you would focus on when it comes to the bike? A lot of times new athletes don’t think they deserve a really nice carbon bike, for example, or high-end drivetrain. I would recommend purchasing the best equipment you can afford because the equipment really does make a difference. I’d love to say it’s not all about the machine, but you’re going to have a much better experience if you’re on a well-built, lighter bicycle that fits you. Fit is super important. I made this mistake early on, and bought a bike from somebody that seemed like a good bike, but it didn’t fit me. I didn’t have a good experience learning to mountain bike. When I got on a bike that fit me, it was a lot easier. I would encourage people to invest in the best equipment possible. If you’re going out adventuring, think about getting a Garmin, a navigational device, and learning how to use it. It’s such a powerful tool to know where you’re going. Imagine if you’re riding in a car with somebody, and you’re the passenger. You’re just looking out the window, and that’s fine. But if you’re in the driver’s seat, you can say, “I’m going to show you where we’re going.” That knowledge is so much power. I would encourage people to educate themselves about their bikes, about where they’re going, and about trail maintenance. There’s so much power in knowing how your equipment works and feeling like you’ve got a handle on it. @rebeccarusch putting her gear to the limits at the Iditarod in 2019 Tire pressure: Have you found the secret? Tire pressure is probably the number one thing that can affect ride quality, And it’s probably the biggest thing that people make a mistake on. Most people run too high of a tire pressure and it makes for a really rough ride. ENVE composites has a great graph of tire pressure. It takes into account the width of the rim, the width of the tire and the body weight of the rider. You can just go through that graph and start with the pressure it suggests. If you’re not checking your tire pressure, or if you couldn’t say what your psi is, that would be the first place to start with whatever equipment you have. You don’t have to have ENVE wheels to use their chart. What are you reading, watching, listening to? I’ve been watching Queer Eye lately. It makes me laugh and cry. It’s actually an interesting social experiment, so that’s been fun to watch. I’ve been listening to a lot of Tool. There’s a really good song, “Invincible,” on their Fear Inoculum album. If any athlete out there hasn’t heard that song, it’s worth a listen. As for reading, I don’t have a book on my bed stand right now, but I need one. I made a commitment to stop looking at screens after dinner to help with my sleep. Where can people find you? At my website, my social handles @ rebeccarusch, and I’m on Prokit @rebeccarusch. courtesy of Rebecca Rusch The post Rebecca Rusch: Be Good, Be Vulnerable and Don’t Stop Learning appeared first on Prokit.
56 minutes | Jun 24, 2020
WIRED Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Thompson on Running and the Future of Media
Wired’s chief editor, Nicholas Thompson, has thought a lot about the intersection of technology, media and society. As a long-time journalist and editor at the The New Yorker and Wired, Nick can talk about media and tech the same way many pro athletes can recount in vivid detail a moment from an event that happened decades ago. Nick has almost always been a runner, finding ways to log eight miles a day on his daily commute. Just enough that with some training he could get to consistent 2:40 marathons. But he never took the time to think about why he runs and how it intersects with his past, his relationship with his father, and a cancer diagnosis when Nick was 30. After an incredible 2:29:13 at the 2019 Chicago Marathon, Nick decided to try to figure out why he ran just under 2:44 at age 30, and just under 2:30 at age 44. He joined us to talk about it all — running, media, and overcoming mental barriers you might not know exist. Listen to our podcast with Nicholas Thompson on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Listen to the Podcast David Swain, @prokit: What did you have for breakfast this morning? Nick Thompson: I had the same thing I have for breakfast pretty much every morning which is oatmeal with walnuts, almonds, raisins, and a cup of coffee. What’s your morning routine? I get up at six, go for a run, and come back around seven. We make breakfast and around 8, we wake everybody else up in the house by screaming, “Breakfast!” Everybody comes down and has breakfast. I start my workday around 8:30. I’ve been up in the Catskills since quarantine started. Up here, we have another routine. Almost every morning, we catch a chipmunk on the porch in a little trap we’ve made because there can be lots of chipmunks on our porch. One of the kids and I will carry that chipmunk to the top of the road and let it loose away from the house. So that is the other part of the morning routine: chipmunk release. Navigating Two Major Moments in History How long have you been in the Catskills? What was that adjustment like? We came up around March 11. It’s all been very interesting. The work adjustment has been less hard than I anticipated. It’s a little bit easier to run Wired remotely than I thought, but, it’s a little harder for my kids to be without their friends than I expected. They’re certainly incredibly blessed. We have a house with a lawn, and we put up two soccer goals and basketball hoop. They have a way to be outside. If they had been in New York, we would have been stuck in a small apartment, looking out the window, and never going outside for weeks or months. They have a huge advantage, but it was really hard on them to not get to see their friends and to interact socially. It’s such an important part of childhood. They’re six, nine and eleven, and as brothers, they play with each other, thank goodness. But that’s been one of the difficult things to manage. “It is important to have your work station set up properly. Here I am talking about coronavirus misinformation on CBS This Morning.” Are you at the point now where you’ve been able to do things outside with friends? We’ve played soccer in the yard with some friends. We had one playdate for my nine year old. Tonight’s big night. I live in this place called Bovina, a small former cow town, as you can probably guess from the name. There are a bunch of kids who play soccer and adults who play, too. Tonight we’re doing the first town soccer game, so that’s exciting. This is the first interview I’ve done since the death of George Floyd. I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues. As a platform, Prokit gives athletes a voice, and I want to make sure we’re giving all athletes a voice and doing extra work there. To be honest, it’s very much a work in progress. What have been some of the conversations within Wired, and from a technology publications perspective, how do you think you can cover the issue of race in a way that moves the wheel? These issues that have been brought to the forefront and the reaction to George Floyd’s murder are all-encompassing. In a way, they touch everything. At Wired, we have to be a little careful. People don’t come to Wired for analysis of issues outside our area of expertise. The way we’ve tried to cover the protests is by looking at the tech angle and looking at the way they intersect with our stories. The first piece we ran when the protests got really heated was on digital surveillance, how it works and how to keep yourself safe. If you’re protesting and you don’t want to have your identity learned, or if somebody arrests you, here’s how you use signal. That is very much a Wired story. We have the world’s best experts on how signal works, how end-to-end encryption works, why it matters and what it means. We feel good writing about that. We feel good writing about technologies of police surveillance. We feel good writing about the way information spreads online and about memes and disinformation. What we don’t want to do is write a speculative piece on how Donald Trump will respond to the protests, which gets into politics. That’s just not our area of expertise. We want to be part of the conversation. We feel strongly about racial injustice. Anti-racism is something everybody at Wired believes in deeply, but we want to cover it from our perspective where we have things to add. What has it been like to manage a team through two major moments in history? It’s very hard. Coronavirus hit and it changed the way the team runs, in a bunch of ways. First of all, everybody’s remote. That’s complicated. Secondly, we’re reporters, and we can’t report. We can’t go out and talk to people. Our photographers have to shoot people behind windows. We have to figure out a whole new way of reporting and presenting the story. The way families work has changed. My family went from a family of five to a family of seven because my in-laws moved in with us. They wanted to be in a safer environment than they could have been without us. For a lot of people, the way their personal lives work has changed. A lot of parents are homeschooling their children which makes it harder to work from nine to five. You have to figure out different pockets of the day when you work. All those things happen with the coronavirus, so that’s level one. Level two is the changing story. From the beginning, Wired approached the coronavirus story like it was the story of our lifetimes, and that for many of our reporters, it will be the most important story they ever work on. I said in a staff meeting in early March that the Pulitzer Prizes of 2020 will be awarded to people covering coronavirus. I wanted to make the point that this is the story of the year. We jumped whole hog into it, but there were a couple problems. One, everybody’s work-life balance changed. People are working themselves to the bone, fighting for every story. Covering the virus is an emotionally intense thing because you’re covering death. You’re covering sickness, and you’re afraid. Then the murder of George Floyd happened, and suddenly there is another layer of intensity and fear. It’s emotionally wrenching watching that video, particularly if you’re not white. It is incredibly hard and an emotional strain. Seeing people’s reactions can be an incredible emotional strain for everybody. Suddenly, the staff has all these different pressures. There’s the pressure of the way life works now, the pressure of reporting the story of 100,000 people who have died, and the pressure of reporting and living through this moment of racial crisis. It’s complicated, and the question is, how do you manage it? You try to understand, and you try to think about every individual. You try to think about one’s own blind spots, and try to think about how the organization is working. There’s also a fourth level of pressure in media, which is that our business model has collapsed. Most media is supported by advertising. Wired, fortunately, has other revenue streams, including subscriptions and reviews. We review, say, the best headphones and if you buy one, we get a small amount of money. But the central revenue source for the media has collapsed because nobody is advertising. Nobody’s advertising because they’ve cut their marketing budgets and also because they don’t want their stories to appear next to news about coronavirus or protests. Now everybody’s stressed. Everybody’s working in new environments. Everybody’s worried, and we’re running out of money. What I do about that is try to evolve the business plan and make it as financially viable as possible. Is your team finding more motivation by focusing on the day at hand or is there a vision that’s mobilizing people towards something bigger? It’s probably 60% what’s happening today, 40% identifying the big trends and trying to get to them early. We’re working on identifying what industries are being remade, identifying how the world will work differently when we’re out of this, but also, we need to correct that misinformation that’s spreading because of the unclear statement by the World Health Organization. A magazine goes to the printer weeks ahead, but current events have been changing so quickly. How do you deal with that? It is very hard for us. Our April issue came out in the middle of March, and it was about climate change. There was no way to go back and put anything about coronavirus in it. We closed it before any of that hit. Our May issue closed ar
61 minutes | Jun 15, 2020
Pro Cyclist Sarah Sturm Does it Her Way
Sarah Sturm, aka Sturmy, is an all-in, full of emotion, badass. She packs a big smile with an unconventional approach that has led her to the podium of cycling’s biggest adventures on anything with two wheels. But unlike so many data-obsessed pro athletes, Sarah does things mostly by feel. So much so that when her new bike came with a power meter, she told her coach to not show her the results. Sarah crashes hard and races harder. While 2019 podiums at Downieville, the 153 mile Belgian Waffle Ride, @sbtgrvl, Lost and Found, and Sea Otter’s pro Criterium would tell a different story, she has healthy dose of fear. Channeling that fear, emotion and competitive drive into something that works for her is what makes Sarah uniquely ‘Sturmy.’ What’s next for Sarah? You’ll have to read and listen to find out. It likely won’t follow a playbook. But it most certainly will be an adventure. And when not adventuring, you’ll find her coaching the next generation of rippers or designing the next idea with her firm Oso Creative. We caught up before the important developments to address the problems with race in America. While we couldn’t address these topics in this conversation, Sarah is taking a passionate stand with the platform she has to elevate and share the voices “of those who have been muted.” Listen to our podcast with Sarah Sturm on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Listen The Start of a Cyclist David Swain (@swain), Prokit: What did you have for breakfast? Sarah Sturm: I had toast, made from bread from a local bakery. This company called Trail Butter makes amazing peanut butter with all this good stuff mixed in, so I put that on top with jelly. Then I had a smoothie and a doughnut. Is that your typical breakfast? Always the PBJ. It’s going to become “my thing” because I made the mistake of talking about how my ride food at the Belgian Waffle Ride was a bunch of peanut butter jelly sandwiches. That said, I truly do like it. You can’t go wrong with it. If there was no pandemic, what would you be doing right now? The Lost and Found Gravel Grinder would be coming up. That race was my first ever gravel race years ago. I had just signed with Specialized for cyclocross, and they handed me a gravel bike. I remember I kind of made fun of the Future Shock. As a newly-signed athlete, I didn’t know you’re not supposed to make fun of the equipment in front of the people who gave it to you. I was just joking, but 100 miles into this race, I was like, “Thank God for the thing that I made fun of.” It’s the coolest part of the Diverge bike. Talk about your athletic background. What were you like as a kid? I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Funny enough, my dad was into road biking, which meant I was very much not into it. I got really into skateboarding, but I was terrible at it. I joined the New Mexico extreme sports club. I think I was destined to live in the mountains. I remember being obsessed with climbing and ice climbing, but never mountain biking or cycling. I just really loved the lure of mountain sports, but growing up in Albuquerque, I didn’t do any of those things. I was on a swim team and I ran track. Soccer was my main sport, but I got really burned out my senior year of high school after I broke my ankle. I wanted to go to Fort Lewis College here in Durango, and I thought I’d play soccer for them. During the summer between high school and college, I did a sprint triathlon. I realized I still hated running and swimming, but I decided to call the cycling team at Fort Lewis to see if I could race for them. What I didn’t know was, at the time, Fort Lewis had the best collegiate cycling team in the country. So that was just super good luck. It’s still an amazing program, and It’s the reason why I got into cycling and stayed with it. I met all my friends, and it was so much fun and so scary and so hard, but mostly really fun. That was all road? I started with road. Anyone who rode bikes with me when I was 18 knows that I was the kid that took longer to descend down the road climb than I took to climb up it. I walked over speed bumps. It took me a little time to get into the dirt. Actually, I did sign up for cyclocross stuff that year. That would have been in 2009. That was my first year doing cyclocross. So for all the people out there who get intimidated on their first downhill mountain bike or road bike, it even happens to the best. Oh, yeah. A lot of people that I ride and race with now in Durango went through that when they were super young. Durango attracts mountain bikers, especially to the collegiate program, and most of those kids have gone through NICA or some sort of junior development program. Because of that, they experienced that fear piece when they were little, probably on Striders. I experienced it when as a late teenager, which is still early. I think Georgia Gould didn’t start riding until she was 28. It can be done, especially for women. For people who aren’t familiar, NICA is the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, a high school mountain biking program that hosts mountain bike races. Yes, it’s crazy. Durango has hosted the state champs for NICA. Compared to most of the professional races I’ve gone to, the NICA state champs had so many more people. Maybe not the number of participants, but the number of people at the event. It was so cool to see all these kids racing around. Now I coach Durango Devo, which is a local junior mountain bike program that has produced Olympians, state champions and almost-world champions. The program here is crazy. It’s awesome, and I get to coach for the college that I once attended. What was it about the team or the coaches at Fort Lewis that influenced your decision to go all in on cycling? I was 18 and leaving home at the time when my parents were fresh into their new divorce. The economy was tanking, and it was just stressful. I remember being so incredibly homesick. I was crying all the time. The first semester was so hard. Even into the second semester, I had my little 87 Volvo packed up with all my stuff, and I told my mom I was coming home. It was so conflicting because I wanted to get out of Albuquerque. I wanted nothing more than to leave, but then I was thinking of going back. I was desperate for a sense of community, and the cycling team became that for me. Cycling was this new exciting thing, but it also was really hard and scary. I was really, really bad at it. I am a competitive person, with myself mainly, and I was entering into this new sport that I was so bad at. What really kept me in it was this instant group of friends. I was learning a ton about the bikes and about the culture. Every single weekend we went to races together, so I never was lonely. That’s why I stayed with it. My first race weekend in college, we drove eight hours to Colorado Springs to ride on the Velodrome. My coach said, “This is called a track bike. Don’t coast.” Then I went to Nationals because they needed girls. So I learned how to ride a track bike. I’m not a sprinter, so my coach had me do a points race, which is still so scary. Girls were crashing and snapping their arms in half. I think back and feel bad for my parents. That was my introduction to the sport. I was like, “Sign me up. I’m in. Cyclocross? Cool, I’m doing it. Road? I’m in.” I definitely tried everything, and I found a fun group of people. I’m 30 now and they’re all still my close friends. What did those next few years look like? There was a lot of improvement, I would say. I always felt like I was naturally good at road, but I fit in better with the mountain bikers, in terms of personality. I like camping. Plus, in Durango we have amazing local trails, even right on campus at Fort Lewis. So I started mountain biking when I was a sophomore and went to my first mountain bike nationals as a junior. I did really well because it was not a super technical climb, and I could just power up. I didn’t even have a mountain bike. I borrowed one from the wife of Ned Overend, the mountain bike legend. It was my first mountain bike nationals for college and I got third. I thought, “Alright, this is something I’m going to work on.” Years later, I’m still working on it. It’s such a hard sport, mountain biking. Share some of the basics of mountain biking that you’ve learned. Well, for one, the equipment now is so much better. I got into mountain biking when “twenty-niners” were kind of coming onto the scene. They’re a bigger bike wheel, and at the time, they did not fit small people like me at 5’3” to 5’4”. It was not very confidence-inspiring. There were only cross country bikes and downhill bikes, but now there’s this bike called the trail bike. It has this geometry that makes you feel like you’re not going to die on the descent, but you can actually have fun pedaling up. I actually quit racing mountain bikes because it just wasn’t fun for me. I was strong on the climbs, but my technical skills were so far behind everyone. Plus, I have fear built in. I don’t have that daredevil gene that people like my boyfriend have. I thought, “I don’t have to do this anymore.” My boyfriend said, “Try this,” and he got me a trail bike. He was riding the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango, and I joined him in Salida. That opened my world to this new type of challenge. I was pushing myself on a bike, but no one cared if I made it to the finish. I had a goal in my head that I was pushing towards. It’s challenging riding on high country trails like that, and the days are long, like
64 minutes | Jun 8, 2020
Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar on Kindness and Finding your Path
Sarah Friar joined us for this podcast a few weeks before the current events related to George Floyd and race in America. While our minds and hearts are elsewhere, the common threads in Sarah’s journey on charting your path and kindness are important to spotlight. Sarah’s story is anything but normal. A driven and inquisitive kid growing up in a war zone in Northern Ireland ends up at Oxford, and two decades later is one of the top leaders in business and technology. Still in her thirties, Sarah became the CFO of Square and led its IPO in 2015. It is one of the most successful companies in tech over the past decade with a market cap of more than $35 billion. Today, she’s the CEO of neighborhood hub Nextdoor, sits on the boards of Slack and Walmart, and is the co-founder of Ladies Who Launch, a network to inspire and empower women entrepreneurs. All of it feels unreachable, almost impossible. But Sarah’s story paints a different picture, one of paying attention to your strengths, not getting complacent, and building the routines, support systems and habits to keep moving forward. She reads daily, hits the trails for long walks when big decisions need to get made, and isn’t afraid to ask for help when she doesn’t know an answer. Many people land a great job, get comfortable and watch as their passion fizzles. Or they never chase a dream because they’re simply never given their shot. Whether you’re an athlete, entrepreneur or seasoned leader, Sarah covers all angles on building a career, and the importance of kindness and community.Listen to our podcast with Sarah on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Listen Childhood: From a war zone to Oxford David Swain (@swain), Prokit: What did you have for breakfast? Sarah Friar: This morning, I’m back on granola. I’ve been trying to be keto, so I’ve been the queen of eggs for over a year, but with COVID-19, I seem to have less time to go from breakfast to my office. I don’t understand why that is since it’s a three-minute walk. So I’m back to granola and blueberries. I read that blueberries give you a feeling of happiness. How did you end up on the keto kick? I went to a fundraiser for UCSF, and they were giving out these little things that you blow into that tell you where you are in ketosis. Well, I have never met a number or a goal that I didn’t like. I have to be very careful with myself to not always find myself in a mode of setting goals, but I loved it. It’s like a game. That kicked off the last year-plus of keto. Have you seen your results change? For me, it’s more about energy. Probably because of my Northern Irish genes, I love carbs, but when I don’t eat a ton of carbs, I feel way more energetic throughout the day. Keto is a good thing from that perspective. What was your childhood like in Ireland? I grew up in a little village called Sion Mills on the northwest border of Northern Ireland. Derry is our closest big city and Strabane is the closest town. I grew up there during pretty tough times, during The Troubles. Strabane was the most bombed town of its size for about three decades, including through the whole Bosnian Serbian crisis. So that was the bad part of it. The good part was that I grew up realizing that kids are incredibly resilient. I think about some of the stuff my friends and I went through. It’s kind of crazy growing up in a warzone. On the other hand, I grew up in a place that had a tremendous sense of community. My mom was the local nurse, the midwife. At that time, not a lot of women went to the hospital to have their babies, so my mom was birthing the babies at home. The whole village was built around a mill, hence the name Sion Mills, and my dad was the personnel manager. Both my parents were deeply involved in the community, and it was an incredibly neighborly community. My childhood was almost bipolar, in a way. It had this incredible security and neighborliness, but the other side was a war zone. Farm where Sarah’s mum grew upViews of Sion Mills What were you like as a 10-year-old? What type of student were you? I was a good student for sure. I was always really inquisitive about things – I ultimately studied engineering in college. I loved to take things apart. My brother and I would play LEGO all the time. One of my defining Sunday afternoon memories was the LEGO pile. You had to get all the best pieces to build the best possible thing. Of course, I was also kind of competitive. I feel like I had a lot of drive even from early days and particularly as I got into my teens. I knew that I wanted to see the world and the way to do that was with education. I often felt that my mom and dad would try to persuade me not to work so much. My dad loves to golf, and he’d always ask me to join him golfing on Sundays, but I’d stay home to revise my schoolwork. I think they worried about the intensity that I had for things even at that age. Where do you think that intensity came from? My mom’s parents had a really hard life. They were farmers and lived on a farm where there wasn’t even an inside toilet. My mom was one of seven kids. Her mom was the kind of woman who would give birth and be out on the farm the next day. There’s a lot of grit and persistence on that side of the family. What I get from my dad’s side is curiosity and inquisitiveness about the world, and people in particular. My dad is an amazing people person. He can talk to anyone. The danger of taking my dad anywhere in the world is that he will stop and have an hour conversation with someone random. It’s a beautiful thing, but it can be frustrating when you’re trying to get something done. I think I’m a combination of that curiosity and inquisitiveness and the grit and persistence. You went from a warzone to Oxford. How did that happen? In Northern Ireland, people mostly stayed for college or went to Scotland. Going to England was not the done thing. My Nana Finley, who looked after me because my mom worked, used to always say, “Sarah is going to go to Oxford.” Well, it’s amazing what you can put inside a kid’s psyche at a very early age. By the time I was 17, it was something that I really wanted to do. But going to England was expensive, and my parents were very worried about the cost. In the UK, a university education is free, but you have to pay to be there. For the first time in my life, I had to be a little bit entrepreneurial. My mom and dad told me that if I could figure out how to pay for it, I could go, otherwise Edinburgh or Belfast would be fantastic. That was the first time I felt like I had to solve a big thing. I found this crazy advert from an American accounting firm, Arthur Andersen. I had never heard of them. They were offering a one-year scholarship where you took a gap year before college and worked for them. They then gave you a stipend and you could travel for 5 months. That was the hook for me, the idea that I could travel. I worked for them for a year, and then in May, I packed a backpack and went to Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia. You learn how to be incredibly entrepreneurial while traveling. You’re constantly problem solving and trying to make your budget last. You also learn how much good there is in the world. Arthur Andersen paid for four years of a stipend for university. It was awesome. Thank you, Arthur Andersen. They also taught me about business. I knew nothing about it because I grew up in farming country. I knew nothing about a P&L statement or a balance sheet or any of these things. Suddenly, I was this little mini-accountant learning about debits and credits and walking into people’s businesses. It was so good for me. I was working on an engineering degree, but every summer I worked at Arthur Andersen and learned about business. That turned out to be a fantastic combination. You were also a rower in University, right? I took up rowing at Oxford when I got there. University-level sports are so different in the US. You have to be doing the sport for years before college. In the UK, you can just show up and make it onto the varsity team. Rowing was quintessential Oxford, but it also fit who I am as a person. What student agrees to get up at 5am, cycle to the river in the freezing cold, get in a boat, do ridiculous amounts of exercise, get back on a bike, go to labs, and then hit the gym all afternoon? It teaches you a lot about how much you can physically and mentally push yourself. Those are some of my best memories of my life, actually. Oxford Crew team Career: The Path to CEO After university, did you have a goal in mind to get your career started? I don’t know how much I knew it then. I think of the things I’ve learned along the way, and back then, I was doing them probably more implicitly, rather than explicitly. I really buy into the framework of Vicki Guy, which is figuring out the things you’re good at, but more than that, what are you really passionate about? Where can you get paid to do those things and is it good for the world? In my third year of university, I did an internship with Ashanti Goldfields, a mining company in Ghana. I worked in a gold mine outside of Accra. I really was passionate, but the attitude there was that it wasn’t a place for a young woman to be an engineer. It was not a very warm, welcoming place. There was not one woman there, and it was a very sexist, male culture. I would be asked to make the tea all the time. People said, “Oh, you shouldn’t go down the mine.” But how else would I do the job? That experience is the reason why today I focus on being mor
66 minutes | May 19, 2020
Sarah Piampiano-Lord, from 100-hour weeks to the top of Triathlon
Sarah Piampiano-Lord (@spiampiano) is one of the top triathletes in the world, finishing first or second in 7 of the eleven 70.3 and Ironman races she entered in 2019. Ten years ago, she was a 30-year-old, cigarette-smoking investment banker who worked 100+ hour weeks and barely exercised. A gifted, multi-sport athlete as a kid, Sarah found her love for competition as an eight year-old at Cross Country Nationals and was a Division 1 ski racer and runner in college in Maine. But Sarah does not credit her rise in triathlon to her athletic gifts. The common thread is hard work, grit and mental strength. She believes in the “curse of the super talented athlete” – the idea that the people who find greatness are the ones who never give up, who feel like they’re at a deficit coming in. 2020 was on-tap to have some fun twists for Sarah. She was scheduled to run the Boston Marathon in April and ride an epic 144-mile gravel bike race, the Belgian Waffle Ride, a few weeks later in May. With all races postponed, she finds joy and motivation in the little things and is taking it one day at a time, chasing Strava QOM’s and suffering through Zwift races in her living room.Listen to our podcast with Sarah on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. You can read the full interview below for a deep-dive on her learnings and insights on everything from fueling and recovery to sleep and mindset. Listen From chasing her older brothers to banking and the bet that led to triathlon David Swain, Prokit (@swain): What did you have for breakfast this morning? Sarah Piampiano-Lord: I had a smoothie with Greek yogurt, banana, flaxseed, hemp seed, orange juice, and two hard boiled eggs. I try to mix it up. I don’t like to have the same thing every day. How does your breakfast change based on your training or recovery plan for the day? Usually, if I have a pretty long day on tap, I will go with a more carb-focused breakfast. I’ll have a big bowl of oatmeal with yogurt, nuts, seeds, and berries, and usually some eggs. I might have a bowl of Cheerios, as well. If I have a day like today, a lighter recovery day, I try to focus less on the carbohydrates and more on protein and fats. One of Sarah Piampiano’s go-to breakfasts Talk about your journey from a kid in Maine chasing cross country titles to a collegiate athlete to banking and then back to sports. I grew up in Maine and was quite an athletic little kid. I was skiing by the age of two, water skiing and riding my bike by three. I just loved being outside, running free, and doing everything that I could that was athletic. My parents signed me up for every sport that was available, so I did soccer, swimming, basketball and softball. I ran competitively from a pretty early age, and when I was eight, I qualified for the national cross country championships. What was that like? It was in Reno, Nevada. I got to get on a plane, miss school, and fly across the United States. As an eight-year-old kid, I was more into the trip with my parents than the running. I just thought that was really neat. From there, I got quite into running. I was still ski racing, too, so fall was about running and winter was about skiing. When I got to high school, I had to make a decision. If I wanted to be a serious ski racer, I had to focus 100% on skiing, and if I wanted to be a serious runner, I had to start transitioning my focus more towards running. Cross country running and alpine ski racing don’t really go hand in hand. I love running now, but as a kid, I found it to be a lonely sport. One of the things I loved about skiing was that I was with all my skiing buddies every weekend. So I ended up choosing ski racing. Initially, I went to Carrabassett Valley Academy (@gocva), which is a ski academy in Maine, but in my junior year, I was caught drinking. It was a big deal because as a sophomore, I went to CVA as a winter term student. I had finally convinced my parents to let me go full-time. It was the first time I ever drank in my life and I got caught. I was kicked out about a month into school. As you can imagine, my parents were not happy with me, and I was so devastated because I had been so excited to go to CVA full-time. I was home for about a month, and my parents started to take pity on me because they saw how upset I was about the whole experience. They ended up letting me go to Stratton Mountain School in Vermont that November. Where did you go to college? I went to Colby College in Maine. It’s a Division 3 school except for skiing, which is Division 1. I actually got recruited for running by a lot of schools, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to go back to running at such a serious level. It was interesting to me that I was getting recruited for running when I hadn’t been running for so long. I decided to go to Colby and when I got there, I decided to start running again. I didn’t run my freshman year, but I ran my sophomore, junior, and senior years. What did you study? I was a biology major with an environmental science concentration. Colby is a liberal arts school, and students are required to take a range of different classes. I ended up taking an economics class, and I completely fell in love with it. Biology is very enigmatic. On a day-to-day basis, there’s not a real world application. I was taking my economics courses and reading the paper and watching the news. I was able to relate what I was learning in my econ course to what I was seeing everywhere around me, and I was very inspired by that. I ended up picking up a economics major, as well. I decided at that point that I didn’t really want to become a doctor. I wanted to go down the finance route. What did the next few years look like? I spent the summer after my junior year in San Francisco. I had just wanted to do something different. I was not somebody that pursued internships in college. I just wanted to enjoy myself. I worked at Kenneth Cole, babysat and did a whole range of things, but pretty much decided that I wanted to come back after school. There were not any firms from San Francisco that were recruiting at Colby College in Maine. So after I graduated, I packed up my car and drove across the country. My parents said, “We’ll give you two months of rent. After two months, you’re on your own.” I just started pounding the pavement. I ended up getting a job at Thomas Weisel Partners, a small boutique investment bank based in San Francisco. It has since been acquired by Stifel Financial. What were your banker years like? I started out initially on the trading floor and then eventually moved to investment banking doing mergers and acquisitions. It was a lot of long hours. People think I’m lying when I say I worked 120-hour weeks, but I really did work that much, here and there. I was definitely working over 100 hours a week on a regular basis. I didn’t take very good care of my body. I never worked out. All of my athletic capabilities just went out the door. I was part of a ski house in Tahoe, so at least I was still skiing on the weekends. After three years in San Francisco, I moved to New York City in 2005. I lived on the Upper West Side and bought an apartment. Triathlon was not in my job plan. Then one night, I was out at a bar with some Colby friends. A guy friend and I ended up making a bet to see who could beat the other person at a triathlon. I smoked a cigarette on my way to the race, but I beat him. It was a life changing moment for me. I just loved the experience. I think I had forgotten what that feeling of competing was like and as soon as I did that triathlon, even though I was in terrible shape, it brought back all of the memories. I just fell in love with it. I bought a bike and started training. How much longer were you working before you fully went all in on triathlon? That first triathlon was in June of 2009. I started taking it pretty seriously in 2010. That was my first year racing. At that point, I thought that I might have the potential to maybe go to the Olympics or race professionally. In 2011, I was working at HSBC, and I asked them if I could take a leave of absence. They gave me a year to pursue triathlon more seriously. I ended up winning the age group level of almost every race I entered, and then I finished fourth overall in my age group at the World Championships in Kona. How did that happen in such a short period of time? I grew up with two older brothers, and I always wanted to play with them. There was this unspoken rule that if I wanted to play with them, I had to toughen up. If I fell down, I had to get up and keep going. As a kid, I believed that I could do whatever they were doing. I never took no for an answer. I just kept trying and trying until I was able to do what they were doing. I feel like that has translated to my life as an athlete. Also in banking, you never say, “That’s not possible.” If your boss wants some information, you go to the ends of the earth to find the information. I took what I picked up in banking mixed with my experience as a kid and applied it to triathlon. I was like, “Alright, this is where I want to go and, that’s just how it’s gonna be.” How did your intense banking job impact your success as an athlete and your ability to build a career around it? I learned that if you dig hard enough and work hard enough, you’re gonna figure it out. I think that’s translated really well to triathlon. If you just keep on plugging away and trying different things, you figure out how to get there. You don’t say no or can’t. You say, “Next time, I’m going to try this and see if it works.” The other side of triathlon is sponsorship. When I decided that I wanted to race professionally, my PowerPoint, writing, and general business skills went to good use in trying to get sponsorships. I put together an athlete profile that was just perfect. It had great pictures, and from a formatting perspective, it was really well presented. I wrote cover letters to all of the sponsors I wanted to work with and highlighted what value I could bring to them individually. Unless you have a business background, that’s not necessarily something you would intuitively think to do. That helped me really get my career off the ground. My first year as a pro, I was sponsored by Shimano and got a deal with Cervelo, Clif Bar and Saucony. My sponsorships weren’t huge from a dollar perspective, but simply getting in the door was an important thing for me. Your process clearly worked. How do you set aside the time to do it properly? When I started racing professionally, I don’t even know if Instagram was a thing. Today, social media has become such an important part of what it means to be a sponsored athlete. These days, it’s really not just about the performance. It’s not just about getting up every morning and training, and then going to a race and performing. There’s a whole marketing and social media component of a sponsored athlete. My actual training time varies between 28 to 40 hours a week, and then I usually spend about 25 hours a week doing sponsorship stuff. I write blogs, do photo shoots, have calls to come up with activation ideas, plan video shoots or go to tri clubs and speak. There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s really not just training and racing. Piampiano’s KIT: Triathlon, Training, and Trends An aerial drone view of Sarah (pink cap) relaxing after swimming with training partner Chelsea Sodaro in the Belvedere Lagoon in Tiburon, California. Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Sarah on a training ride in Olema, California. Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesSarah (right) with training partner Chelsea Sodaro in Marshall, California. Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images How has the coverage of triathlon, and endurance sports in general, changed? Several years ago, I was working with a sports agent who mostly represented MLB, NBA, and NFL players. I wanted to work with her because I was interested in getting some non-endemic sponsors and getting publicity outside of the triathlon world. She couldn’t believe the triathlon event organizers weren’t spending marketing dollars on creating rivalries between the players, getting TV rights, and creating drama around triathlon events and the athletes. She said that all other professional sports spend money on marketing the players. That’s something that hasn’t really evolved in triathlon. Since then, I’m part of an organization called the Professional Triathletes Organization. We’re currently focused on bringing triathlon to the mainstream, because for the sport to evolve, and continue to evolve, it has to be brought to the mainstream. As a sport, that’s something we haven’t really done a good job doing so far. If you don’t see it, you can’t believe it, and you can’t aspire to do it. Every year the Ironman Kona is shown on TV. They do a mix of showing the pros and other inspirational stories, but it’s the only triathlon event that’s mainstream. People are very aware of the Hawaii Ironman, but they’re not aware of everything else that goes on. People spend hours watching poker games on TV, because they’ve done a really good job of bringing it to the mainstream, putting on television, and having commentary that people are really interested in. Same thing with golf. Twenty years ago, people weren’t watching golf in the way that they watch it now. It’s been brought to the mainstream. It’s become a household event that people want to follow and participate in. There’s a lot of room to do that within our sport. Over the past decade, what have you learned about training, sleep, and recovery for you personally? The one thing I probably noticed the most when I made the transition from working in a corporate environment to training and racing full time was the recovery component. When I was in the corporate world, I would work 16-20 hours a day and then get on my trainer at two o’clock in the morning so I could get my workout in. I was never getting enough sleep, and I was constantly getting sick and injured. When I turned pro, suddenly my whole life was about training and recovery. I went from getting four hours of sleep a night to getting eight to 11 hours of sleep. The recovery practices I took up became really productive to my results, and I saw a huge upward trajectory in my training. People ask me what I would have done differently. Looking back, I definitely would have trained less and focused more on recovery. Recovery is king. That’s definitely one thing I’ve learned. For me, the keys to performance are hydration, recovery, and fueling. Make sure you’re eating enough, eating at the right time, hydrating really well, and getting enough sleep. People are spending thousands of dollars on recovery devices, and then they’re only getting four hours of sleep or starving themselves and they’re wondering why they’re not performing well. Those are the three biggest influencers on your performance. There are new kinds of trends for how people can monitor their health, overall stress on their bodies, and recovery. What have you found that works? How do you figure out if you’ve recovered? You have to become acutely aware of how your body’s feeling. I think sometimes people sell themselves short. For example, this morning I had a pretty hard bike session. When I got on the bike before the session started, I was just dying. I said to my husband, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” I was just feeling terrible, but the session went fine. I think sometimes it’s just that your body is waking up. I use a Cercacor Ember device that takes a whole range of measurements. I use it first thing in the morning and in the evening before I go to bed. It measures things like resting pulse rate, heart rate variability, my hydration levels, and my oxygen saturation. All of those give me really good information, but I also don’t take them as gospel. My heart rate variability one morning may tell me that I’m recovered and ready to go, but that does not necessarily mean that I’m really recovered and ready to go. I could still go out that day and have an absolutely terrible workout. I could have a great workout on a day when my heart rate variability says that I’m under recovered. Part of it is matching what the metrics are saying with how you’re subjectively feeling, and certainly looking at the trends is very important. If I have a week where my heart rate is really elevated and I’m also feeling fatigued, that probably means I’m under recovered. How much does mindset fit into this equation? I think mindset contributes significantly to your success as an athlete. You can be a really talented athlete, but if you’re not mentally strong, it’s only gonna get you so far. I believe in the curse of the super talented athlete. I find that really talented athletes who have the capacity to crush everybody are not the ones that end up being the most successful in the end because they tend to be mentally weaker. Then there are the athletes who are gifted, but not that gifted, and have to really work for their success. They’re the ones that end up being the grinders, and they never give up. They just push to get themselves to the top. They feel like they’re at a deficit coming in, so they have to make up for it with mindset and work ethic. I think the mental game is more important than what your physical gifts are. You’ve clearly had a mental game since you were a young kid, chasing your older brothers around. What do you do now to get your head in the game? My general feeling is that every day I go out to train is an opportunity to train my mind. I truly believe that you never, ever give up. If you’re in a training session and it’s not going well, then adjust your expectations for the day. If I’m supposed to run at a six-minute pace and I can’t hit those numbers, then I’ll do the intervals at 6:10 pace or 6:15 pace. I adjust my expectations to make sure I get the workout in, instead of quitting the workout. I feel good about that. I would feel worse about myself if I just quit. Sarah does a zoom session with her trainer, Charlie Reid, in her carport. Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images I view every single session as an opportunity to test myself mentally. I find that if you learn how to adapt in training and learn how to push through the times when things aren’t going well, you take that mental training with you into competition. In Ironman 70.3 races, where you could be racing for four to 14 hours, there is no way that everything is going to go perfectly. The more you practice overcoming adversity, just like practicing fueling, you’re going to be equipped to handle it during a race. I do feel like my mind is my strongest asset and that I get a lot of my mental training from my actual training. For both races and training, do you practice taking nutrition and hydration? How many people are doing that? I don’t think a lot of people take fueling and hydration seriously in training. They show up to races, like an Ironman, and everybody’s very serious about nutrition and hydration because you’re out for such a long period of time. But if you haven’t practiced, you end up with a lot of GI distress. The things that I’ve learned in training have been pretty amazing. For example, when I first started doing Ironmans, I would always bonk about two hours into the bike ride. I couldn’t figure out why. I remember very specifically being in LA and doing an Ironman-specific ride. At about three hours into the ride, I started bonking. I stopped and bought a Coke at a convenience store. I drank the Coke and started riding again and I was back. I felt great for the rest of the ride. I thought, “Wow, that was really interesting.” When I went out on another Ironman ride, the same thing happened and I bought another Coke. I started riding really well. So now, at about two hours into every Ironman race, I have a Coke and it works for me. I think if you’re willing to be thoughtful and try things in training, you can learn a lot about yourself. When I first started doing Ironmans, I was hard-pressed to eat 150 calories an hour on the bike. Now I eat upwards of 450 calories an hour on the bike, which is a lot. How much of that is through your drink? I do a mix. I make these rice bars, and eat one an hour. I usually eat a pack of Clif Bloks an hour, which is 200 calories, or I’ll have a half a pack of Bloks and a gel. I get about 100 calories through my electrolyte mix, and then I add the Coke that I drink halfway through, which is about 275 calories. I have a very detailed eating plan that I go through for Ironman races. You can’t just go out and have 450 calories an hour, Most people’s guts wouldn’t be trained for that. Anytime I ride over two hours, I am actively practicing to eat every 15 minutes. I used to only eat Clif Bloks and Clif gels at races, but in an Ironman, I would get to a point where my teeth would hurt. You’re literally eating liquid sugar for 10 hours, and as great as they taste, it’s really disgusting after a while. I found what works for me with nutrition is to vary it up. If I get calories from my electrolyte mix and a rice bar, which isn’t too sweet, and then a pack of blocks an hour, I’m able to take in calories much more easily and with more regularity than I was before. Do you pull from trends in other sports? The nutrition part for me is a little bit of trial and error, but I was also inspired when I read the book, Feed Zone Portables, by Dr. Allen Lim of Skratch Labs. He has a huge section that goes over how your gut is able to absorb energy. For example, rice bars are quite hydrated. If you eat something that’s well hydrated, you stay hydrated and your gut’s able to absorb it more readily. Otherwise, your gut has to pull water out of your cells to hydrate whatever it is you put in, like an energy bar, and that actually dehydrates you. I thought that was really fascinating. I also read a book called Velochef by Henrik Orre, the nutritionist and chef for Team Sky, now Team Ineos. It encouraged me to try some different things and those things worked for me in training. Then I tried them in races. It was a little bit trial and error, but certainly reading is an incredibly important thing. I find the same thing with training. I have a good relationship with my coach, Matt Dixon, and we have really evolved my training over the last 10 years. We’re doing a lot more endurance riding and really high intensity stuff. We’ve done a bunch of testing and looked at how I respond to training. We’ve determined that I respond best to high intensity work, but a lot of that’s come from reading and listening to podcasts. We’ve researched fat oxidation, how your body uses carbs and fat as energy, and the different training zones to maximize that. You can actually improve your performance through things like that. So a lot of it is education and then just being willing to try things out. Do you have any go to podcasts or books for learning or just for fun? I tend to listen to a lot of podcasts just for fun that have nothing to do with triathlon. I love How I Built This. I listen to The Morning Shakeout with Mario Fraioli (@mariofraioli). And then I just talk to people. My husband is a sports chiropractor, and we tend to have a lot of conversations about what he’s reading. I talk to my strength coach about new research. Matt Dixon with Purplepatch Fitness has been your coach from the very beginning. What have you learned about working with a coach? I would definitely say that my relationship with Matt has evolved over the years. When I decided to take triathlon seriously, I wanted to be coached by one of the best coaches in the world. I researched who they were and reached out to a bunch of them. When Matt and I decided to work together, I was so excited to have a coach, and I assumed that he knew all when it came to training. I just aimed to please. I didn’t want to fail on a certain workout, because I was afraid he would think that I wasn’t good enough. If I was tired, I wouldn’t communicate that to him. I wanted him to think that I was always ready to go and that I was always motivated. In reality, that’s just not the case. You’re not going to feel good on every single workout, and you’re not always going to be motivated. Over time, Matt and I developed a very collaborative relationship. Now if I’m feeling consistently tired over a number of days, I’ll let him know. He’ll either tell me that’s how I’m supposed to feel and to keep pushing, or he’ll have me back off a bit. Because of my background in running, I have a good sense of what I need to do to progress my running, so we work together on that. I think the more you work with a coach, the more they get to know you and you get to know them. You learn how to work well together. Moving Forward in Uncertain Times What would you be doing right now, if this coronavirus shelter-in-place wasn’t happening? I had planned to have a less traditional start to my year. I was asked by Clif Bar, my sponsor, if I was interested in racing the Boston Marathon, and I said yes. My plan was to kick my year off with the Boston Marathon in April, and then do the Belgian Waffle Ride, which is a 135-mile gravel race, with 13,000 feet of climbing. It’s pretty epic. I was going to kick my triathlon year off after that with a 70.3 in Chattanooga in May, and then I was headed to Slovakia for an event with the Pro Triathletes Organization called the Collins Cup. After, I was going to do some racing in Europe, a summer Ironman, and then get ready for Kona. It’s been fun watching you chase down the QOMs on Strava instead. Yeah, that’s been fun. When COVID first happened, I felt inclined to take a step back and not do anything with intensity. Then it became apparent that this was going to last a lot longer than a couple weeks. At this point, all triathlon races are canceled at least through July, and my expectation is maybe the whole season is going to be out. I felt like I wanted to have some goals to work towards. Now, I will have a QOM attempt scheduled for a certain day, and that’s my hard session. I’ve really been enjoying it. It’s cool to see how I compare against these amazing female cyclists. It’s been very motivating, and I’ve actually hit some of my best numbers ever. It’s been really fun. Assuming we get back to racing at some point this winter or early next year, what are your goals on the horizon? Well, the Boston Marathon is currently rescheduled for September and the Belgian Waffle Rider is rescheduled for November, but to be honest, I’m not even thinking about those. We should know sometime this month if the World Championship in Kona will take place in October. If it does, that will be my focus. I just think it’s hard to have any type of expectations for 2020. Personally, I’m just assuming that there won’t be any races. I’m going about chasing my QOMs, doing my Zwift races and not getting caught up in whether things are being canceled or not being canceled. An aerial drone view of Sarah riding Barnabe Mountain on a gravel bike during a training ride in Lagunitas, California. Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Beyond 2020, I’ll be transitioning out of triathlon. At some point, my husband and I want to start a family. I’m pretty interested in transitioning into more gravel racing, ultra running, and doing some marathoning. Running’s always been my first passion, and I totally love it. I just started getting into gravel biking this year. It’s so fun, and it’s challenged me in new ways. This is a great place for all kinds of cycling. I was asked recently where my favorite place to ride is and I said,”Probably here.” When you’re riding on Route One from Mill Valley to Stinson, or up over Seven Sisters to Mount Tam – it doesn’t really get more beautiful than that. BoFax is a four mile climb with about 1500 feet of elevation gain, and then at the top of it, there’s the Seven Sisters segment, which are like seven big rollers. Seven Sisters is a very challenging segment for me because you need to have that super high, short spurt of power. I am not a high power person, whether it’s running or swimming or cycling. I actually race at roughly 90% of my VO2 max which is pretty crazy. The power I can hold for hours on end is not far below what my VO2 max power is. I just don’t have a big range. So the power I put in to get over the Seven Sisters is the same as a long climb. You’ve now spent equal parts of your life in Maine and California. How do the two compare? My heart is with the East Coast. I love it. I hope to move back one day. Although, my husband reminds me that I only visit the East Coast now in the summertime. I forget how awful the winters are. I do have to say that living in California is really special. I love that I can ride and be outside year-round. It’s just incredible, and the trails here are amazing. Whether you’re a road cyclist, a mountain bike rider, you like gravel, or trail running, this place is like heaven. What’s not heaven is the cost of living. It’s very expensive here. I could buy six houses in Maine for the price of one in California. What about youth sports? What changes have you seen? When I was a kid, my parents threw me into every sport possible. I skied, played soccer, basketball, softball and hiked. I feel like these days, as soon as kids show promise in a single sport, they’re being pushed into that sport. They’re asked to focus on one sport from a very early age. For kids to be lifelong athletes, I think it’s really important, at least through high school, to try to encourage them to participate in a broad range of sports. I know that’s a hard thing. I’m sure you’ve read the book, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. His whole thing is you need 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything and the sooner you start, the better. I do think that’s true, that you find mastery at 10,000 hours, but I also think there’s a whole mental component. If you’re burning your kids out, and not letting them find their own journey, the likelihood of them actually staying in sports is pretty low. David Epstein’s book, Range, challenges Gladwell’s theory. It says that the people who are most successful in life are generalists who find what they’re good at through experimentation. You didn’t start triathlon until you were 30 years old. A couple years later, you were able to take that energy and what you’ve learned in other parts of your life and become one of the best. How much of your success do you attribute to genetics, or your mindset and self-belief, or all the things you do for your body – training, nutrition, hydration, recovery? Genetics certainly plays a factor. I think that no matter how mentally strong you are, if you’re not somewhat gifted, it’s not going to happen. Personally I think mindset is the most important factor in transitioning from a good age-group athlete to one of the best athletes in the world. Where did the nickname “Little Red” come from? When I was younger, my ski coach at Carrabassett Valley Academy called me Little Red because of my red hair. It just stuck and everybody started calling me Little Red. Where can people find you? You can find me on my website, on Instagram @spiampiano, and my Facebook Page. I’m also on Prokit @spiampiano. For more interviews with triathlon and Ironman greats: Mark Allen, 6x Ironman World ChampionSarah True, 2X Olympian Triathlete; @sbtrueProkit Moms in Sport featuring @meredithkessler, @jackiehering, Beth McKenzie and Hillary Biscay The post Sarah Piampiano-Lord, from 100-hour weeks to the top of Triathlon appeared first on Prokit.
67 minutes | May 4, 2020
Dr. Megan Roche and David Roche on Running, Coaching and Finding your Why
Dr. Megan Roche (@meganroche) and David Roche (@davidroche) have made their mark on the trail running world. While they have street cred through national titles and Trail Runner of the Year awards, it’s their contributions to the running community as coaches, authors and purveyors of the Happy Runner mindset where their impact extends far. We get into it all in our interview, from self-belief and mental health to overcoming roadblocks. Megan is an MD and is working on a PhD in epidemiology at Stanford to study the genetics of sports injury; combine her experience as an athlete with deep scientific knowledge and you’ve got special insights on training, performance and finding meaning on the journey to reaching your potential. As David and Megan say many times, “a little bit of kindness goes a long way.”Listen to the podcast on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify Listen David Swain (@swain): What did you both have for breakfast this morning? Megan Roche: I love that question. I’ve recently been on a toaster waffle kick. This morning, I had classic multigrain toaster waffles with a very hearty amount of maple syrup. David Roche: I’m a big children’s cereal fan. I had some peanut butter puffins, which are possibly the most delicious snack on the planet. Then we both had a substantial amount of coffee. Megan: That’s very true. You can get the culinary theme of our family: children’s food. Journey to Coaching How did you make your way into running? Megan: I grew up playing a lot of sports: soccer, field hockey, basketball. I ultimately went to college to play field hockey. I always knew that I loved running. When I was a field hockey player, I got pumped to do wind sprints. After I wrapped up field hockey in college, I took a fifth year to run track and cross country. That was really my first journey into running, and l met David during that time. We found running together. I loved track, but there was just something about being able to connect with nature on trail runs. Having the time to play in the mountains together was so meaningful. David: I was a middling football player. I went to college to play football and quit. I had always been curious about endurance sports. I remember my first run coming off football. I barely got around the block before I had to stop, and I was sore for days. Fortunately for me, I met Megan right as I was starting to get a little bit more serious about pursuing my potential. I was researching everything I could. Megan is so brilliant, and it was like having a textbook next to me. We both got more serious at the same time. How did you ramp up from there? Megan: For me, there was a lot of trial and error. Both of us love exploring different training methodologies and trying different things, and we certainly tried a lot on ourselves. That kind of stoked our curiosity for coaching. On the trails, we’ve tried all different kinds of things in terms of speed work and long runs and, we’ve definitely had a hearty mix of successes and fails, which have been equally fun. David: In terms of a timeline, I would say I picked up running in 2006 and started to realize my potential trajectory by 2012. For anyone thinking about exploring their potential, you have to give it time. I remember back in 2010 or 2009 when I thought, “Okay, this is just what I’m capable of.” I’m so glad that I was too stubborn to accept that. It’s something we see all the time in coaching. Often, your true capabilities lie so far on the distant horizon. David and Megan Roche in team USA jerseys What are the most common roadblocks you see that stop people from reaching their potential? David: If you think about the time and quantity of work it takes to explore your potential in anything, it’s so daunting. It starts with small actions that add up to really big actions over time. For most people, they reach some point in that process where their self belief foundation gets shaken. That’s where the roadblocks start to hit. For a runner, maybe they build up to 50 miles per week for the first time and they get a fractured tibia. They may think that they will never be able to do more than 50 miles a week, but in fact, the injury is a part of the growth process. They are actually capable of doing 100 miles eventually, and that’s where their true potential would be. Or maybe it’s not. In order to reach what you’re capable of, you have to overcome those crises of self belief that we all face in anything we care about. That’s how we view our roles as coaches. We are shepherding athletes through that process and helping them understand that this stubborn self belief is not a choice. It’s not something you can take or leave. It’s the only option. Megan: Yeah, I love that. What we try to emphasize with the athletes we coach, anyone from top level professional trail runners to people who are just starting out with running, is that roadblocks are common across the board. If you push your body hard enough in training, you will have roadblocks, whether that’s injury, burnout, or feeling mentally fatigued. Normalizing that for athletes is part of what’s going to help them grow as runners. It’s also one of those amazing things about running that transfers to life. How much of self belief is affected when you look different from the person who beat you at a race? Does genetics play a role in reaching your true potential? Megan: We’re continuously exploring this in the scientific community. I do a lot of work on genetic predictors of sports injury. I think genetics also apply to performance, and there are probably even genetic predictors of self belief, like the capabilities to believe in yourself. Of course, all of those things can be modified with the environment over time. For runners who are coming into the sport, it’s helpful to avoid that comparison trap. Understand that genetics are genetics, and we all have different genetic gifts. It’s important to work with what you have and harness that self belief to turn out consistency over time. You will truly maximize your genetic potential through that consistency. David: Megan explained it to me in a way that has been super helpful. When we talk about genetic talent for running, we’re actually talking about 1000, or maybe even 10,000 different variables, some of which we know and others which we don’t. For example, take VO2 max which probably has several dozen sub-variables, from capillary formation to oxygen processing. Some people will have a very high talent for VO2 max, and others might not. If you look at those thousands of variables, all of us are talented in some of them. Those will only come out with work over time. It might not lead to a VO2 max of an Olympian, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a total boss. Almost all talents just take time, patience, and self love to fully shine. It’s rare that something shines naturally. That’s where the joy of the process comes in, exploring those limits. You’ve talked about finding your “why.” Can you talk about the process that you use, either for yourself or for your athletes, in finding your why? Megan: We mentioned earlier that if you do a sport long enough, you will hit roadblocks. That’s really where the why comes in. Getting through those roadblocks requires a why that is positive. It requires a why that’s internal and not determined by external factors, like comparison or performance. It needs to be motivated by the joy of the process, the joy of waking up and being consistent over time. We try to make goals in two ways. One is a why that is structured in long term belief. What do I want to do in three years? Where do I want to be? Then we layer in short term goals. Why am I getting out of bed today? What brings me joy, and how can I be consistent over time? David: I love the philosophy end of it. Whether it’s running, athletics or business, it’s all a metaphor for life. If you give yourself fully to your experiences in life, you will have experiences in such a real and lasting way that go beyond successes or failures. It has to be bigger than “I like running” because honestly, no one likes running all the time. It’s a grind for a reason. We like our athletes to have a mix of those big philosophical things and the small things, all that fun stuff that gets mixed in. Megan: Some days, my why might just be toaster waffles and syrup. That’s a good enough reason for me to get out the door. It’s really fun to have both the little and the big whys. How do you help people if their why isn’t connected to their strengths? David: Honestly, I kind of like exploring those disconnects. We’ll say to athletes, “We don’t care about your race results.” We say this to draw them to a place where they’re not motivated by what they succeed at, but by what lights their imagination on fire. I personally like athletes to do things that make them uncomfortable, if that’s what they enjoy, or pursue the thing that they’re born for, if that’s what they enjoy. I actually think when there’s offset there, that’s where the interesting stuff can happen. Like with my background, I was a power lifter and sprinter, and I’m not sure I was born for long distance running. To me, part of the fun is that some of my runs feel so bad. Megan: That’s an interesting point. I don’t see long distance running as one of your weaknesses, even though you see it as one of your weaknesses. I see that a lot with athletes I coach. Often, perceived weaknesses are not necessarily true
36 minutes | Apr 21, 2020
Sports Nutritionist Anne Guzman on health, performance and finding what works for you
Anne Guzman is a sports nutritionist, former pro cyclist and lifelong learner obsessed with sports science and helping people reach their physical and mental potential. We caught up with Anne for this podcast to go over how athletes can maintain health during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well thoughts on performance nutrition, food journaling, weight and body image, and practical tips on pre, during, and post-race nutrition. While Anne can go deep on the research and science, she knows how important it is to be able to translate that science into practical and actionable insights for all of us. For her personal story, and other tips, check out our interview with Anne. Listen to the podcast on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. We’ve included a few highlights from our podcast with Anne below. Listen David Swain: What type of athletes do you work with? Anne Guzman: Everyone from 16 and 17-year-old athletes to masters athletes and pros. For people who have never worked with a sports nutritionist, what do the first couple weeks look like? It’s so individual. For me, food journaling is important. I want to see where somebody is coming from, so I can help them make directional changes. There’s a bit of a misconception that elite athletes are immune to inadequate eating. A food journal makes the athlete part of the process. I know that it’s time consuming. It takes some commitment. On the other hand, if someone is willing to put that commitment in, then it’s something they want to do. I don’t really work in calories, but I start with the big picture: carbohydrates, proteins, macronutrients. When I first meet someone, I try to get to know them. I want to help them improve their health and their performance. It’s not about, “don’t have this or don’t have that.” A big part of my approach is to focus on what they want to add versus on what to take out. I generally want to see where they’re coming from. Are you a parent masters athlete with three kids and a full time job? That’s really important for me to know. I might get your food journal and see some interesting patterns. If you are an athlete who has a lot of time to prepare your food, that’s a completely different scenario that we can take advantage of. Everyone’s so different. It’s difficult to have a cookie cutter approach, but there are some foundational things everyone can work on. Maintaining Health through a Pandemic We’re living through COVID-19; What are things you’d recommend to build or maintain healthy habits? I think this has really thrown a lot of people’s eating patterns off. Take a moment to focus on your habits. Are you someone who is stress eating all of a sudden because you’re home? Or are you not eating? Let’s assume you’re suddenly home and you don’t want to go to the grocery store often. You probably bought some frozen food. I think it’s important to say that we can stay healthy with frozen produce. It really bothers me when I see influencers suggest that everything has to be fresh organic. Not everyone is going to be able to have the luxury to buy fresh and organic. You can still get nourishment from frozen produce, and it’s going to be a really important thing right now. There are a couple staples that I think are good to have in the house right now: quinoa, oatmeal, pasta, rice. You can get frozen Thai vegetables, frozen avocado for guacamole, frozen chicken, refried beans. You can create a lot of simple Mexican-type meals. You can do slow cooker or rice cooker oatmeal with cinnamon and chopped apples or dried apples. Those things can go the distance budget-wise, but they still taste good. Smoothies are excellent, too. I think we need to just be a little more forgiving. This is also a really critical time for making sure you don’t lose your muscle. We lose muscle really quickly compared to how long it takes to put it on. If you aren’t doing your normal exercise routine, try to meet your daily protein needs. Maybe that means that you supplement with protein powder twice a day right now, on top of your meals. Use chickpeas. They’re so easy to work with. You can make your own hummus. Just throw chickpeas in a food processor with a bit of lemon juice or garlic, which you can buy in a jar and frozen. Obviously, you need exercise to maintain that muscle as well. On the mind-body side, with yoga, meditation, sleep: What things would you be paying attention to right now? Sleep, yoga and nutrition all maximize our health. Paying attention to all of those is going to help your immune system. A lot of people are probably going to bed with their phone and reading the news a lot more than they might normally. I think it’s important right now to make a commitment to leave your phone outside of your room. Stress really impacts sleep. I think the idea of meditating is intimidating to people. It’s not like you suddenly have to sit for 20 minutes. Even taking three minutes to focus your thoughts can really help with sleeping as well. This crisis has brought me back to yoga. I’m doing a lot of free yoga online. I’m loving Yoga with Adriene and Eckardt Yoga. I’m all for supporting paid programs as well if you can afford it. You can just do 10 minutes or you could do an hour. It’s just an opportunity to be present. Let yourself just be in the movement at the moment. I think that’s a gift because it’s really easy to get caught up in the uncertainty. Sleeping, yoga and exercising are definitely important. It may be hard to exercise right now, or maybe some people are actually exercising more. What about tips on how to exercise now that our schedules are thrown off and we’re stuck at home? I’m really attracted to this whole idea of bite-size exercise right now. I’ve read a lot of research on continuous sitting. After 30-60 minutes, sitting has negative metabolic impacts. It is impactful to stand up and move for three minutes. I’m not talking about three minutes of burpees, but just marching on the spot and doing some sideways lunges. Set your alarm for every 45 minutes. Maybe you do five minutes of movement with some intensity, but you do it 10 times a day versus doing one hour of exercise and sitting for 16 hours. Those bite-sized movements add up. There’s no magic bullet that’s going to keep us healthy, so we’re going to focus on the basics. Keep eating produce, whether it’s fresh or frozen. Think about getting all the colors of the rainbow because every different color provides different types of nourishment. Create an environment where your bedroom is only for sleep. Maybe try some meditation or yoga before going to sleep or in the morning. Recommendations for helping people stick to something? For some people, calendars on the fridge really work. Look at it every day, and give yourself a green checkmark. Work towards doing something, like 15 minutes of exercise five times a week. You’ll see all those checkmarks. There can be something positive about that. Create an environment for it. Even if you live in a small space, physically choose your exercise area and that can help. Sports Nutrition and Performance: What works, myths and why it’s individual Let’s get into the sports nutrition and the performance side of things. The context for nutrition is so important. It really is dependent on the duration and intensity of the race. For example, if you’re heading into a race of 40 minutes to an hour, you don’t have to carb load the day before but it’s still important that you’re meeting your calorie and carbohydrate needs the day before and having a proper pre-race breakfast. You want to have optimal carbohydrate intake during the race. You would practice that to know. If you have an event coming up, mimic it in training. If you can create a day that you repeat before a lot of races, then your life becomes a lot easier. You then have a pre-race day routine to go to every single time. For the morning of a race, I like to say go backwards from race time. If you’re racing at noon, go back three to four hours, and that’s when your last full meal is going to be. This is a normal meal. It has 20 to 30 grams of protein. It’s probably lower in fiber and not as high in fat as normal. That’s to ease the digestion a little bit. But three to four hours is a normal amount of time to digest a meal. When you only have an hour to go before the race and you’re warming up, then you want to focus mostly on easy-to-digest carbohydrates, like a sports drink, banana, or some chews. Again, that’s something you should experiment with in training. Never try a new food on race day. Anything you eat the hour before the race really becomes performance nutrition. It can positively or negatively affect your performance. That kind of nutrition timing system works just as well for a road race or a longer endurance race. It’s about the last main meal, working backwards from race time. Think easy-to-digest carbohydrates, low fat, low fiber. If it’s a longer duration race, I would recommend increasing the carbohydrate intake. Do you wake up at five to have a meal three hours before an 8am race, or is it better to sleep? It depends on the race. If you’re doing a one hour race, I would say sleep. You can replenish some carbohydrates in the morning and really just go for it because you’ve had a good pre race day. You’re not waking up glycogen-depleted. You rested the day before the race, so you didn’t deplete as much glycogen as yo
90 minutes | Apr 13, 2020
Jeremy Jones’ Road from Snowboarding Pioneer to Climate Champion
Jeremy Jones (@jeremyjones) didn’t set out to start a movement or change an industry. But he did.Jones reimagined snowboarding and forever shaped how big mountains are ridden. He could have stopped there. Instead, he started a climate movement with Protect our Winters, created Jones Snowboards to push snowboarding innovation, and along the way starred in 50+ movies. It all seems so big and so unreachable. A kid who hitched rides to Jackson Hole receiving a Champion of Change Award from President Obama. But as Jones shares, it all starts by taking one step, sleeping in one friend’s closet, following one passion and focusing on it with unwavering intensity. And doing it with curiosity, respect and admiration for your surroundings and the people who came before you. This is Jeremy Jones and here’s his story from a conversation with @prokit two days before the pandemic lockdown began in California. “It’s one step at a time. We need to just start.”Listen to the podcast on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify Listen David Swain (@swain): What did you have for breakfast? Jeremy Jones: I had pistachios. I skipped breakfast basically, had this early interview. Tell us about your journey from Cape Cod to the big mountains. Jeremy Jones: I grew up at the highest point of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, so naturally we were mountain folk, at 200 feet above sea level. My grandfather fell in love with Vermont later in life. My parents followed him, also later in life as young parents. We’d all go to Stowe every weekend. They would say to me and my brothers, “All right kids, we’ll see you at lunch. Get out of here.” Growing up on Cape Cod, hockey was the sport. We were all serious hockey players, but pretty quickly, my brothers and I just felt the pull of snow. You don’t even really realize it’s happening. As I got more serious about hockey, my parents would say to the coach, “He’ll play on the travel team, but you’re taking him because we go skiing every weekend.” By the time I was 12, hockey went away really fast. What was the state of snowboarding in Vermont in those days? I feel super fortunate to have gotten into the sport when I did, which was at nine years old. I was really into skateboarding, and I started seeing snowboarding in skateboard magazines, like Thrasher. I saw the first Burton Backhill in Shaw’s general store in Vermont and knew that’s what I wanted for Christmas. Santa blessed me and my brothers with Burton Backhills, and we went out behind our house instantly. We were able to make turns in powder, but hardpack was basically impossible. Back then you could trade in each year’s board and get credit for the next one, so I kept trading in and trading in. I eventually got a Burton Cruzer which was a board with edges and high backs, but I still really struggled with hard snow. One night the sun was setting, and I was at peak frustration because I got this board to be able to ride on hard snow, but still couldn’t do it. I went to the top of the hill and got up to speed, and I swear it was like something just hit me. I remember exactly where it was on the mountain. I just tipped it over on edge and made a toe turn, then tipped it over and made a heel turn. I did that to the bottom of the mountain. I was so excited to get back up there, I broke a buck on the binding. I used to ski all day and then go snowboard by my house, but from that point on, I started going home earlier and earlier to snowboard. And what about your brothers who went on to found Teton Gravity Research? My brothers were not nearly as impassioned by it, but they enjoyed it. The Burton catalog had a list of mountains where snowboarding was allowed, and when I saw Stowe on the list, it was life changing for me. I remember snowboarders were allowed on the mountain at noon. You used to have to get checked out to be able to snowboard, and I was the first person to be certified. On the first day my brothers and I went up, we got yelled at by skiers. My brothers took one run and were back on their skis. They still snowboard and ski, but I never touched my skis after that. What were your aspirations at that point as a kid? What level of support did you get from your parents? My parents were not helicopter parents, let’s put it that way. Once snowboarding was allowed at the mountain, I was officially done with hockey. I remember the coach called my parents and said, “What do you mean he’s done? That’s ridiculous.” There was no family meeting, zero discussion with my parents. My parents were like, do whatever you want. At that time, there was really no such thing as being a pro snowboarder. There were guys like Terry Kidwell and Jim Zellers. People that were getting free boards and maybe getting some trips paid for. My brothers and I got so into it every day, first lift to last lift, no matter what the conditions. My dad worked really hard so we could go up there on the weekends, and some weekends he wouldn’t be able to go because of work. We figured out who the best skiers on the mountain were, and we connected with them. We asked how often they were out on the mountain and they said, “Every day.” We asked what they did for work. They would bartend at night and paint houses in the summer. We’re like, that’s what we’re doing. We said to my dad, “Guess what, you can do this every day.” Sure enough, we started painting houses and working in the restaurant industry. From there, how did you get to Alaska? It happened fast. If you look at the product in snowboarding between 1987 and 1991, it’s like 50 years of evolution. It’s crazy. When I was 14, I went to my first contest a half hour away. I had no idea what type of snowboarder I was. I won the race. I did more races and kept winning. I had this passion that I’d never had before, but I was struggling in school. One of my dad’s closest friends, Warren Cook, was running Sugarloaf in Maine. They had a small academy there, Carrabassett Valley Academy (CVA), and they were trying to grow the snowboard program. I went there for the winter semester, and that’s where I met Mark Fawcett. We got to snowboard every day and compete every weekend. I was doing really well, and at 16, I did my first pro contest. I got third place and was able to take that money and go to the next pro competition and keep doing that. By 18, I was in Alaska with my brothers. Jeremy’s first ever snowboard contest, the Muffin Cup in Stowe Vermont. @jeremyjones What were the competitions like then? Back then it was all about overall World Champion, which was racing and halfpipe. There was no such thing as a snowboard park. Everyone did everything. It was all about the overall performance, and I won the junior regional overall title. So, I was decent in halfpipe on a good day, but when it came to racing, it just really clicked. I think I won something like 35 races in a row. When I turned pro, I did a race and got third place and in half pipe, I got fortieth. That was the last halfpipe contest I ever did. Why were you good at racing? What was it about you or your approach? First and foremost, it’s repetition. My brothers and I just had this deep love for it. Yeah, we all love the pretty powder days, but early on we coined the phrase “love of sport day.” It’s when nobody’s there, and it’s raining and icy. I remember the lift guys telling us we couldn’t get on the lift because we’d get frostbite. We found this cream that we could put on our face to not get frostbite so we could go up. I could say this 20 years ago, when my big mountain riding was taking off. I was doing it more than anyone in the world. If you do something more than anyone in the world and you’re a decent athlete, you’re going to get to the upper 93%. We’re all fighting for the extra 2%, 1%, or maybe it’s half a percent. That extra half percent takes 80% more work. I had something that I loved so much, that had me working without realizing I was working. I was getting the reps, riding in every type of condition. I was chasing my brothers down a mountain, just trying to keep up because they were on skis and I was on a snowboard. That’s where it works. I see it now with my kids. I just spent a week with them riding bumpy hardpack. I bring them everywhere, from Chamonix to Canada. They don’t think twice about tricky lines or entries because they have so much repetition in bumpy hard snow. What was it like showing up in Alaska for the first time? I got to Alaska. My brother got a helicopter. I vividly remember my first run. My brother went first and told me to ride on his tracks. I dropped in totally blind, perfect powder, pink light. My throat was in my stomach. A 2000 foot face unfolded in front of me, and it was one of the steepest things that I had ever ridden. I just let go and let my board take me down the mountain. I was in total control and was laying out these turns with my head two feet above the ground. I mean, if the hook wasn’t set before that, it was officially set at that moment. Teton Gravity Research shooting the movie Higher in Nepal; Jeremy Jones drops into Shangri-La. How do you manage fear? Fear is an interesting thing. These days I’m camping in front of lines, hiking up them and then snowboarding down. We leave camp in the dark, and the mountains are making noises. I bring this up because now instead of being on a slope for two minutes, I’m on a slope for a couple hours. It’s like I’m looking down the barrel of a shotgun, meaning if there’s a small avalanche, I’m going to be at the bottom of that mountain really fast. I ha
56 minutes | Mar 16, 2020
Zwift CEO Eric Min on Entrepreneurship, eSports and Reinventing Indoor Cycling
When Eric Min was thinking about starting the indoor cycling giant Zwift in 2013, he wasn’t sure his previous business success was enough to justify calling himself an entrepreneur. He turned to his co-founder from his last startup and asked, “did we just get lucky or are we entrepreneurs? Let’s test that. If we do it again and it works, then I’d say we’re entrepreneurs.” Eric can safely call himself an entrepreneur. Zwift hit the cycling scene in 2014 and hasn’t looked back, raising $170 million and forever changing indoor cycling. And with the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing, Zwift is now one of a group of companies with a solution for both community and fitness, two things we will all need a lot of. Eric talks a lot about Zwift’s quest to reimagine eSports and a bold vision to land the sport in the Olympics. If you’re like many who aren’t gamers, the concept of eSports is as foreign as the Fortnite craze. But Zwift has nothing to do with sitting on a couch. It’s people of all ages, all around the world, racing their bikes against real people through iconic mountains and cities. They just happen to be inside. Chasing a goal, avoiding traffic, and most certainly getting a lot more fit. As Eric explains in this wide ranging interview with @prokit co-founder @swain on entrepreneurship and growing a community, Zwift has no plans to stop with cycling. Running, triathlon, rowing: all sports where you can make indoor training a game. Listen to the interview on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Listen A New Cycling Community is Born What did you have for breakfast? I have oatmeal every morning. Yesterday, I did a Gran Fondo on Zwift and felt a little hungrier this morning, so I had some rice and meat. Tell us the story of Zwift. The idea was born in November 2013. I live in London and I’ve been a cyclist since I was a young teenager, so indoor cycling wasn’t foreign to me. It’s what I did when I couldn’t get outside. November is not a very nice month in London and I was spending a lot of time indoors, thinking about my next business venture. One idea that hit me was that after over 20 years, indoor cycling still sucks. I thought, what if we made the proper investment to create a really nice indoor cycling experience and make it social. No other products out there were doing that. I wanted our product to be a game and not real video in order to be able to create an MMO (massively multiplayer online). A video game was the perfect platform to do that, but my partner and I built trading systems in our previous venture. We knew nothing about video games. I started Googling and I came across a project developed by John Mayfield, who would eventually become one of our co-founders. He was into cycling, but didn’t have time to ride outdoors when he got home because of the lack of daylight. He was riding indoors and realizing the same thing I did, which was that everything sucks. He decided to build himself a game. It was a single user experience. When I saw it, I thought it was a beautiful product. I knew if we made it into an MMO, it would be a great place to start. I reached out to him and around four weeks later, we connected in LA. Apparently, many people had contacted him. My partner, Scott Barger, and I were the only ones who showed up at his door, so he took us seriously. Soon there were four of us starting the company in January 2014. We did an offsite in Palisades Hills and put together a roadmap. It was a bunch of yellow stickies on a refrigerator. It took us six months to turn it into a product that we could show to investors. By September, when we launched our beta, we had raised $7 million from friends and family. My partner and I made some money from our last venture, so we funded the initial development with five to eight people, and then from there, we went out and raised a reasonable amount of money. Originally, it was $3 million, but we were oversubscribed by a lot. I knew this product was going to cost a lot of money to build. We’ve raised $170 million and we’re not done. Were friends and family investing in you and your founders or the vision? Or some combo? It was a combination. Many of my early investors are friends in the cycling industry, either as independent brands or they have worked in this space. There are others who invested because we were successful in the last venture. Those people are not cyclists and were investing in us personally. I think all of our investors have a better understanding of this company compared to my last one. My parents still don’t know what I did with my last venture, but they totally understand Zwift. My dad is 86 years old, and he rides on Zwift every day. So people thought, these guys have figured out how to make a startup successful and they probably could do it again. We didn’t know if we could do it again. I asked Alarik Myrin, my partner from my last venture, did we just get lucky or are we entrepreneurs? Let’s test that. If we do it again and it works, then I’d say we’re entrepreneurs. What was the thought process of bringing the same group of founders back together to start Zwift? My partner, Alarik Myrin, is not a cyclist, which is great because he keeps me grounded. I’m the guy who dreams big and he’s the one who checks my ideas. He actually liked this one. He had been encouraging me to look into opportunities within the cycling space, because he knew my network was pretty strong. Since I spent so much time cycling, competing and using the equipment, he thought I could probably come up with some idea that hadn’t surfaced yet. I had stayed away from cycling because it was too close to my hobby. Turns out this was something tens of thousands of people wanted. How has the audience and customer base for Zwift changed over the years, and how are you thinking about that for the future? I thought all of my hardcore cyclist friends would show up first, but they’re showing up last. I misread it. It turns out it’s much easier to convince those who have never ridden indoors to ride indoors. All my friends are middle-aged guys and they’re set in their ways. They have a terrible impression of indoor cycling. They just don’t know how much Zwift can change that experience because of the competition, the social connections you get, and the convenience. You don’t really understand that until you’ve tried it a few times. It’s been much easier to acquire customers who have very little experience riding indoors. I just didn’t expect that. The smart trainer concept is still new to a lot of people. Zwift has training plans that are designed by coaches for different kinds of races. I can sign up for a plan and trust that a coach put real thought into it and that helps get me moving. Many people show up on Zwift because of the training plans. They want to improve their performance, or they have a goal and want structured training. The community aspect on Zwift is super strong for those who are into that. Some people show up to Zwift just to race. That’s all they want to do. The remaining third of our audience are people who just want to ride like they do outdoors. They’re not competitors or in training. Those are the three cohorts: People who are training, hardcore competitive cyclists who want the competition, and people who are joy riding, being social and burning some calories. In terms of the hardware, we don’t make our own hardware or smart trainers yet. We work with partners who’ve been making trainers for the last 25 years, but we do plan to introduce our own hardware in the future. The integration of software and hardware is something that I think we should do. We’re in the best position to innovate what that experience might be. Ideally, the rest of the industry would follow suit and invest alongside us. The best way to explain it is the way Google owns their Android platform and also makes their Google phones while allowing Samsung and Huawei and LG to make competing hardware. That model works really well for us. On creating your own hardware, how much of that is a necessity for controlling the quality of the experience? I’m glad we started our business without any hardware because it was just easier to work with existing hardware partners. We needed to establish our platform. Now, we’re in a position to lead on the innovation front with our own hardware. There’s no way we’re going to be able to supply the whole market of around 300,000 smart trainers-a-year ourselves. We want to make sure we work with the biggest partners and make sure that we’re creating great products for consumers. We also want to be in a position of leadership on the innovation side. What’s been the hard part about scaling the company? We raised $7 million initially, then an angel round of $10 million. We did a series A of $27 million, and a series B round of $125 million. We did that every two years or less. Now we have 330 employees. It’s a real pain in the ass growing that fast. We added around 150 people in the last 18 months. With that growth, you don’t double the productivity instantly. In fact, I feel like we slowed down. We’ve made changes to the way we’re organized, and all of this is just an investment in further scaling. We needed to do this to make sure we can keep up with what we want to do. We need to set ourselves up for another big growth spurt in another two years. We have four office projects. It’s a lot of infrastructure work behind the scenes just to make sure that we work productively. Where are your people? We’re headquartered in L
75 minutes | Mar 3, 2020
Sonya Looney: Mindset, Pregnancy and Life as a Pro
Sonya Looney (@sonyalooney) is an engineer by trade who’s journey to becoming a pro mountain biker started by simply showing up to a ride with friends. That phrase — Showing Up — is her common thread. Want to become a public speaker? Offer speaking on your website and see what happens. Want to start a podcast? Well, start a podcast. Want to change your diet? Take the first step, be consistent, and maybe start a supportive Facebook Group to keep learning. Sonya is expecting her first child any day and has this to say, “I’m a woman, I’m an athlete, I’m going to be a mom, and I can be all those things at the same time.” Whether as a pro mountain biker at the world’s biggest ultra endurance races, or as an entrepreneur, Sonya turns ideas into actions and has stacked the deck in her corner for maintaining a growth mindset by building a podcast where she interviews experts on everything from nutrition and psychology to meditation and medicine. Navigating life as a pro athlete, and now a pregnant athlete, is certainly not for the faint-of-heart. There is no playbook and putting yourself out there and sharing the journey takes vulnerability and courage, two things Sonya has a lot of. Our conversation has been edited for brevity. Listen to the full interview on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Listen The Beginnings of a Pro What did you have for breakfast this morning? I have the same breakfast every morning, except for the weekends – steel cut oats with hemp hearts, a couple of tablespoons of ground flax, berries, sometimes some walnuts or pumpkin seeds and a little bit of maple syrup. And my Americano. How does your breakfast change the morning of a big race? It gets a little less fibrous, and because I’m often in different countries, I try to keep my breakfast really simple. Two pieces of bread with almond butter and jam and that’s it. Walk us through your path to a career in mountain biking. Growing up, I didn’t even know that cycling was a sport. I learned to ride a bike as a kid and that was that. I played tennis in high school and my dream was to be a pro tennis player. Then I started running my senior year of high school. I wanted to run a marathon and didn’t know how to train properly, so I ended up getting a stress fracture. During my recovery, I went to spin class at the gym. Spin class led to some guys saying, “Hey, do you want to go mountain biking?” So I went mountain biking and they said, “You should sign up for a race.” I said that I’m a runner and didn’t know much about this mountain bike thing. They said I was just scared, which was basically an invitation for me to prove them wrong. They did that on purpose. Two weeks later, I signed up for a mountain bike race. The important thing about this story is that we often have the opportunity to try something and we don’t do it. You just never know how your life path will twist and turn if you just try something new. If I’d never tried mountain biking, I wouldn’t have traveled the world and met the people I’ve met and had my life go in the direction it has. What did your journey look like from that first race to becoming a pro? The interesting thing about endurance sports is that it’s actually not as hard to become a pro as it is in other sports, like basketball. To become a pro in mountain biking, you go to races around the country and accumulate points that let you upgrade. I was able to become a pro in a few years, just from racing around. Most professional endurance athletes have to work at jobs outside of racing and it’s not as glamorous as people might think. Endurance athletes have to have passion for what we do because we have to make it work with everything else going on in our lives. I was still in grad school while I was a new professional racer. I was doing a master’s program in electrical engineering, working two jobs, and training and racing. It was tough, but I learned time management and work ethic, which has really served me well. At that time, I was cross country racing, which is shorter distance racing. I never really achieved a high level of success. I was a mid-pack cross country racer and I started plateauing. I finished my masters and started working for a solar engineering company. I thought, what do I want to do now? I wasn’t progressing anymore and wasn’t really having that much fun. Someone suggested I try distance racing. I did a 50 miler and then a hundred miler. I tried stage racing, which are multi-day races, and realized I was actually really good at it. I just fell in love with it. That was in 2010 and I’ve been endurance racing for almost 10 years now. In ultra distance running and biking, you need to put in serious hours. How do you approach that and find the motivation? The reason I love endurance racing is simply because I love to ride my bike. Also, I train a little unconventionally. Because I live in Canada, I do my structured training in the winter indoors on the trainer. The summer is for going out and having fun on my bike. If I feel like going hard, I’ll go hard, and if there’s something I need to work on, I’ll work on it. I take away the hard structure in the summer and just try to stay in love with my bike. That’s how I’ve been able to race for so long. Most people think that you need to train a lot more than you actually need to train. I’m quite interested in ultra running. I think you need to put in time initially, because your body needs to adapt to that type of physical stress. Same with the bike. I’ve spent so many years riding my bike, and it’s all accumulated. A big training week for me is 15 hours and a moderate week is 10 to 12. There are weeks, and there’s been a year, where I only trained eight hours a week. Becoming a plant-based athlete and lessons in habit change Another big transition for you was becoming plant-based. What led to that and what have you learned? I changed my diet in 2013. I first met my husband at a bike race. I noticed that he was eating these huge plates of beans, grains, and vegetables. He told me that he ate a vegan diet and my initial impression was, “Oh no, a vegan.” He said he was eating that way for longevity and health in his life and suggested I watch a documentary called Forks over Knives. I’m a curious person, so I eventually watched the documentary. I was blown away. I used to think high blood pressure was just genetic in my family and that cancer was bad luck. I learned that you can actually reverse type 2 diabetes and prevent Parkinson’s disease and things that I thought were just bad luck. I started changing my diet in the middle of my race season. I was worried that I would get slower, or that I wouldn’t get enough calories. I didn’t really know of any pro endurance athletes who were vegan, but I had to give it a try. Something weird happened. I got faster. I wasn’t expecting that to happen. A plant-based diet is the best anti-inflammatory diet you can eat. It reverses heart disease, which for many people will start when they’re children. I’ve been doing research on the importance of plant-based nutrition for kids. It leads to better blood flow, better oxygen flow, and better elasticity in veins and arteries. Your body is a system. If you treat your body right, everything gets better. I went from trying to get on the podium at races to sometimes getting on the podium to winning races, including a seven-day race. I didn’t talk about my diet for about four years because I didn’t want people to feel alienated or to think I was judging them. But I really believed in it and it changed my life in a dramatic way. I was reading about people who didn’t know they were sick until it was too late, and decided it was important to talk about the diet. It’s been super rewarding. Almost daily, I get feedback from people that their lives are better because they’ve changed their diet completely or added in more plant-based foods. You’ve talked a lot about habit change. Shifting how we eat must be one of the most complex habits to change. How a person changes a habit has a lot to do with personality and situation. Being an athlete, I was afraid to make an immediate switch. I switched over the course of a couple of months and started by eating 80% plant-based. I was still eating fish, some cheese and milk in my cappuccino. Over time, I phased out those things and then I just didn’t want them anymore. When my husband changed his diet, he threw everything out in one day. He became 100% plant-based and never went back. I think it just depends on your personality type. If you told me I could never have something again, I wouldn’t want to do it. It’s too extreme. You have to figure out what works best for you. For some people, 100% plant-based won’t ever work for them. Just commit to what works for you. In general, for a habit change, consistency is the number one most important thing. Just commit to doing something and show up for it every day. You start building integrity and trust with yourself. You start thinking, what more can I do? You end up wanting to do more because it feels good to be doing that thing for yourself. How do you think about nutrition overall and how you build your meals? Eating whole foods plant-based means not eating processed foods, or eliminating as many processed foods as possible. It doesn’t have to be complicated. When I’m building my meal, I start with a whole grain of some kind, like barley, wild or brown rice, or
72 minutes | Jan 16, 2020
Ultrarunner YiOu Wang: Learning, Consistency & the Pursuit of Excellence
Ultrarunner YiOu Wang didn’t grow up a runner, or even an athlete. Her form of competition was excellence in academics and you’d find her on the math and debate teams. Fast forward to today and she’s one of the world’s top trail and ultra runners. Her path has one common thread, whether in sport or academics: setting goals and putting in the work to reach her potential. “One of the reasons I really love running is because you get out of it what you put into it. You can set goals and then over time, as long as you’re consistent and put in the work, those goals are achievable.” YiOu discovered running during college in Boston and has since become a force on both roads and trails. She is a two time Marathon Olympic Trials qualifier, 2017 US 50K trail national champion, two time winner of Lake Sonoma 50, and most recently she won the 2019 North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. YiOu sat down with us and shared insights on her training routine, nutritional strategy and the mental side of running and pursuing goals. Our conversation has been edited for clarity. Listen to the full interview on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Listen The Making of a Runner David Swain: I like starting with a hard question — what did you have for breakfast this morning? YiOu Wang: I had black coffee and leftover rice with fried eggs and soy sauce. And a chocolate chip cookie. I woke up at 6:30 with a grand plan to do a short, easy 45 minute run. I got up and it was cloudy and foggy. So I started with coffee and then I opened my laptop and got sucked into a lot of work emails. An hour and a half later I thought, oh I’ll just run when it gets sunny later in the day. Tell us about the 10 year old YiOu. Were you playing sports? I wasn’t much of an athlete growing up. I was definitely more focused on academics. I started swimming in middle school because I needed it to go on a college application. I quit swimming after a while because I didn’t like smelling like chlorine all the time. I never thought of myself as an athlete. My parents placed a lot of emphasis on academics because we were an immigrant family. They wanted me to go to college and build this better life in the US which is why they moved here. It was a very strict household, the classic Chinese tiger parents. Growing up, there were moments where I kind of chafed at that because I saw my peers doing things that I was not allowed to do, like going to sleepovers or going to the mall. I was like, what do you do at the mall? It was such a mystery. What were you doing when all your friends were at the mall? There was a lot of studying and extracurricular activities. I was on the math team and debate team and I did get into theater. I played piano quite seriously. There wasn’t time to socialize. Looking back on it, I’m very thankful that my parents made me pursue things. They instilled in me this idea of if you’re going to do something, try to do it the best you can. Take it seriously and actually follow through. There were many times when I wanted to quit my piano lessons, but my parents wouldn’t let me. I’m glad because I learned to love music and that’s something that I’ll have for the rest of my life. They showed me that you have to work hard for whatever you want in life. YiOu and her team winning the Chemathon high school competition in 2002 And you ended up at MIT. When I entered college, I thought that I would follow a pretty traditional track – study science, then get a PhD or maybe medical degree and work as a research scientist for some large biotech or chemical company. When I left home, I finally started developing a sense of what I wanted to do for myself aside from pursuing that very traditional track, like all good Asian children. In Cambridge and Boston is where I first encountered running. I was working hard in my classes but got inspired by all of the energy surrounding the Boston Marathon. During the entire spring leading up the race, the whole city knows about it. Everyone is training for it or getting ready to watch friends or family who are training for it. It really inspired me to want to do the Boston Marathon. My first step was very academic – I did a lot of research. Google had just come out and there were only 10 search results. I would go online and research how to run a marathon or how to start a running program and read as much as I could. I loved learning about the physiology, the footwear, the gear, and the concept of a training program. I always love learning about new subjects or ideas. This was a completely different challenge from what I did in the classroom or in a lab. It felt like a good balance for stress relief and maybe a way to connect with a different group of people. So I started running on my own and really loved it. Are there similarities between reaching your potential in academics and running? One of the reasons I really love running is because you get out of it what you put into it. You can set goals and then over time, as long as you’re consistent and put in the work, those goals are achievable. I get a great sense of confidence and satisfaction when I achieve something. Whether it’s learning a particular subject or piece of music or completing your first 5K or half marathon or marathon, I think having goals is really important in life. I’ve pursued different things over the years – academics, music, running and athletics. But all this time what’s been most rewarding is not necessarily winning, but knowing that I put in all of this really hard work. It took me four years to even finish the North Face 50 Miler. So it’s been a really long journey. Everybody sees a win on this one day, but it really started five years ago with a DNF and me wanting to just finish this race. What happened after school? Did you find a balance between work and running? I met my husband Sean on the East Coast. He grew up in Mill Valley, CA, and went to Cornell for engineering. We lived together for about a year in Boston. Boston winters are quite tough compared to California ones. After we finished school, we both wanted to be outside, to be more active. We happily moved out to CA in 2009. Sean works for Google and loves it. I kind of kicked around different ideas of working for Genentech or UCSF or another research institute. But without a PhD or an MD, you don’t have very much autonomy in the kind of work that you do. It’s often the same thing day after day, like running assays or tests. You’re at a bench by yourself doing experiments all day. I dreaded getting into that kind of life. Then an opportunity landed in front of me. A small private school in San Rafael was in desperate need of a math teacher. I’ve always liked teaching and tutoring, so I started teaching seventh and eight grade math there. I’d never taught in a classroom before and it seemed really exciting to have to learn a new skill. I’ve learned over time that I’m not someone who can do the same thing day after day. I always want to learn new skills, new knowledge, and that’s what really excites me about life. Most people hear that story and think it’s so crazy. It was crazy! I couldn’t sleep at night because of how challenging it was. I learned that I can take on a job that I don’t have the skills for because I can learn them. As long as I put in the effort, ask people for help, and try to do the best I can, if I’m passionate about what I’m doing, I can do anything. And when did the professional runner part happen? After we moved here, I started running and training more seriously because the climate was more conducive. I was not fully employed at the time, so I had a lot more time to train. I wasn’t thinking that I would ever become a professional runner, but I wanted to keep improving, especially in the marathon. I started working with a coach for the first time in 2010, and I quickly saw a lot of improvement in my marathon time, from three and a half hours to breaking 2:50. I thought, wow, maybe I can get that Olympic trials qualifying time. At the time it was 2:46. I put in a lot of training with my coach and ran a 2:38 marathon in 2011 in Duluth, Minnesota, which was above and beyond what I ever could have imagined myself running. I just enjoyed that day because it didn’t come immediately. It was the result of having dedicated myself to marathon training since 2004. I think after that race I thought of myself as a pretty solid sub elite runner. I ran local road races and marathons for a while. Then I got into trail running just from living in Marin and having access to all these beautiful trails. I found myself doing a lot of training runs on trails, but didn’t really think of it as a space where I could compete until 2013-14. I had a major ankle injury in 2013 and I took the whole year off of running. I had surgery and was on crutches for a while. After I recovered, I thought it was time to dive into trail running, especially ultra running. The endurance aspect of marathoning was a strength of mine and what I enjoyed the most. I wanted to extend that and try a 50K and see what happened. Turns out, I really like it! I also love the community around trail and ultra running. After having done well in some races in 2014 and 2015, sponsors started approaching me, which was really cool. It is validation of the hard work and results. It is a very rewarding process to be involved in making a product and representing a brand. You just won The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile C
52 minutes | Nov 6, 2019
Alison Tetrick: From Brain Injury to Gravel Adventures; Life as a Pro Cyclist
Pro cyclist Alison Tetrick didn’t have a traditional upbringing full of team sports and structured activities. Rather, Alison grew up on a cattle ranch, and used her grit, drive and belief that anything was possible to become a collegiate tennis player before quickly hitting the cycling world tour as a road racer. Today Alison Tetrick is lauded in the world of gravel biking, and as an ambassador for her sport. But the journey doesn’t follow a straight line. Her cycling career almost came crashing down after a traumatic brain injury from crashes in 2010 and 2011 left her in a spiral of disorientation and depression. We talk about her path back to the top levels of cycling, finding balance, what she’ll be doing in ten years, her career off the bike, role models, and why gravel biking has found the perfect combination whether you’re winning or on the “party bus.” My conversation with Alison Tetrick has been edited for clarity. Listen to the full interview on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Listen Playing to Your Strengths David Swain: Most people are used to seeing you on a bike, but you recently hiked up Mount Whitney. How are your legs feeling after a 24-mile hiking adventure? Alison Tetrick: It was my first hike of the year, so I thought I might as well hike 12 hours up to 14,505 feet. It wasn’t that hard, but walking down completely destroyed my legs. So the fact that we’re sitting here on the couch? Well, good luck to me when it’s time to get up. Growing up on a ranch isn’t your typical upbringing. What was it like? I have amazing, free-spirited parents who are very successful and athletic in their own right. They always had this dream of having a cattle ranch. So, they kept working their way up, and we started out on a ranch in Los Alamos in Santa Barbara County. Alison riding the Oso Flaco Dunes, 1989 When I was in junior high, we moved up to Redding. As a child, I didn’t play a lot of organized sports because the closest town was at least 30 miles away. My parents were not willing to commute to soccer and gymnastics or anything like that when there was work to be done at the ranch. So we were really active, but probably not in the traditional sense. Instead, there was a lot of horseback riding, fence fixing, water checking, and really letting the freedom and the space cultivate our imagination. What did the ranch look like? How many cattle and staff were there? These are 2,000-acre cattle ranches with several hundred heads of beefmaster cows. My parents were pretty much the only staff. From time to time, they’d have a caretaker or a ranch hand help. When there was a big roundup, they’d call in some friends, but it was just the four of us for a couple of years. (I have an older sister.) My mom’s parents lived on the property as well. It was my job every morning to feed the chickens and the horses, and to check on the water. Water is big for cows. Where are your parents from? My parents were both born in Northridge, which is in the L.A. area. They met at Los Angeles Baptist High School, and they’re still going strong and madly in love. They were high school sweethearts, and they both went to UCLA, where my dad played football. My mom is a tremendous athlete, and she is still is out there playing tennis every day. Your grandpa was a competitive cyclist, right? My dad’s father, Paul Tetrick, was an army veteran and a contractor in L.A., and he did a lot of buildings and things like that. He passed away last year. He was a runner, and after age 50, he just couldn’t run anymore. But he saw local group rides in L.A. and thought, I’m going to go keep up with these young guys. Then he hopped on a bike and found a love for cycling. He rode until the age of 85. The guy has over 17 national titles in the master’s categories and rode his bike every day. He was the one who kind of elbowed me and said, “Hey Al, you should try out this whole bike racing thing.” This was after I played tennis in college and started working in Boston. I still had a lot of competitive drive, but I wore tennis skirts and liked to run, and it was not for me. But he said, “Just try it! You know, you can go to the Olympics. You’ll be great.” And I did—I went out and tried a couple of bike races and triathlons. Then I was headed to the Olympic Training Center for a talent identification camp, and the next thing I knew, I was racing all over the world for the national and professional teams. My grandpa was just tickled to death. He was not the most emotional or giddy guy, but he loved me a whole lot. Cycling became our language. My grandfather was the first person I’d call after races, and I would cry, and that made him a little uncomfortable. But he really understood that, and it was a special connection for me. Alison and her Grandpa, Paul Tetrick, in 2012 That is special. Where did your drive and abilities come from—how much do you think is innate and genetic vs. something external? It was interesting, the way I was raised. I wasn’t thinking about gender barriers or what I should or shouldn’t do. I just had this whole open range and freedom to go out and explore. I think it gave me a lot of mental fortitude and stubbornness, and maybe a little fearlessness. My dad raised really strong women, and my mom’s really strong. My parents would say, “Do whatever you set out to do, but just make sure you do your best.” So when I actually did start playing team sports, I said, “I’m going to get a full ride to college and play tennis because that’s what I want to do.” And people said, “You can’t do that. You just started, and you’re a freshman in high school.” I would tell them, “Well, watch me.” Genetics are definitely a factor, though. Playing tennis, I started a little late, but I think my parents are incredible athletes, and my dad’s father showed me you could pretty much perform at any age. I did always feel like I was on my back heels in tennis. You’re playing women who have been practicing the sport for 10 to 15 years. I often felt like I was “dropped,” to use a cycling term. Basically, I felt like I was kind of behind, but when I got on a bike—well, maybe I didn’t have the skillset for fast ascending or a switchback on a single-track mountain bike. But what I did have was that the harder I pedaled, the faster my bike went. In tennis, I never felt the more tennis balls I hit, the better I got. Sometimes it just went in my head and made me want to cry. How do you think about playing to your strengths as an athlete? I think as an athlete—and this applies to the real world as well—a lot of people want to focus on the things you’re not good at. And yes, you should work on your weaknesses in case you need them, but I think training your strengths is just as important. Knowing I am good at solo wins, good at time trialing, good at having a lot of power for a long duration of time—these are all important. I might lose time in technical sections, and maybe these are things I’m not good at, but if I don’t train my strengths, then how am I going to win? I want to train my strengths so I can win with them, and then also work on my weaknesses in case my strengths aren’t working that day. Head Injury & Recovery Talk us through your career as a cyclist and the kind of the progression you went through. I started racing pretty quickly. I was still pinning my number upside down and getting dropped on every start line because I couldn’t figure out how to clip in fast enough. Three months later, I was racing in Europe for the national team; it was a huge trajectory, and it was trial by fire, which meant a lot of failure, some success, and a whole lot of fear. What was the environment like, being new to your sport in Europe on the biggest stage? I was there in a development role. I was really fortunate, when I first started racing, to have this incredible group of women who were confident enough in their own achievements to really help me. Sometimes it felt a little bit like hazing, but they would give me roles and team directors who invested time in me, and coaches, and a whole list of professional teams who believed in me even though I was very new. They were willing to dedicate their time, so I think I was more worried about disappointing the people who believed in me. Then came the results. And with that, it made me dig really deep and find some incredible results and fail pretty hard as well. I started racing in 2009 and 2010, so this was pretty early in my career, but it was probably one of the best years I had racing. We won the Giro d’Italia with the national team, with Mara Abbott. I was winning yellow jerseys, winning overall races. And I was feeling like I was finally losing some fear and gaining experience and thinking I could do this. And then I had this horrific crash in late 2010 that shattered my pelvis, and I was life-flighted out, unconscious, with seizures and a traumatic brain injury. That was pretty-life altering. But I think that injury was such a focus on the bones, and on trying to get me back on the bike, that some of the things that were happening in my head were ignored. Plus it’s really hard to diagnose and quantify head injuries. So in 2011, I came in pretty hot once I could get back on a bike. I was very focused—probably too focused—on external validation. I was thinking about the Olympics, thinking about the national championships, whatever it was. And I went to the Pan American Games for the national team and represented them in the time trial, and I had a flute crash hit my hea
74 minutes | Oct 7, 2019
Mario Fraioli: Athlete, Coach & Host of The Morning Shakeout Podcast
In the running world, Mario Fraioli has covered it all. He immersed himself in the sport first as an athlete, and now as a podcaster, coach, and author. Today, Mario combines a love of the sport with innate curiosity—he’s got empathy for everyone he meets, especially those who come into life through his trademark podcast and newsletter The Morning Shakeout. Just as most great athletes and leaders stick to a consistent schedule, Mario hasn’t missed a week of publishing The Morning Shakeout since it debuted 203 weeks ago. We sat down to get into everything: coaching, training, the state of running, the value of personal relationships, and the tools in Mario’s kit that keep him moving as a writer, entrepreneur and athlete. If you want to hear Mario in action, here are a few podcast episodes to start with: Shalane Flanagan, Ryan Hall, Kara Goucher, Des Linden, Colleen Quigley, Scott Fauble, Stephanie Bruce, Gwen Jorgensen, Brad Stulberg, and Frank Gagliano. Follow Mario on Prokit @mariofraioli.Listen to the full interview on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Listen Breakfast, Basketball & College Running David Swain: I came upon your podcast a year ago, and it’s drawn me into the running world in a way I never would have expected. You discuss the highs and lows of competition, and the broader issues impacting society beyond running . I’m really excited to have you here. Mario Fraioli: That means a lot to me, and it’s what I hope people get out of the show. It’s a lot deeper than how your last race went, or what your mile splits are. Whether you’re a professional athlete or an enthusiastic age-grouper, there are a number of things that can affect your training in racing and in life. I love to dig into what that looks like, and I hope people will find those themes throughout the conversations. We’ll move on now to a really hard question. What did you have for breakfast this morning? Mario Fraioli: I was up early, got out of bed at 5 a.m., because I was meeting someone for a run at 6 a.m. On the way to the trailhead, I had a CLIF Nut Butter Bar and a cup of coffee. Then, I went over to Phil’s Coffee here in Corte Madera, had more coffee, and got a bagel sandwich. That had cream cheese, a little olive oil sprinkled on it, tomato, and cucumber. Do you have a go-to breakfast? If I’m in a pinch—if it’s going to be an hour or less from the time I get up to the time I’m running—I’ll just grab a bar of some sort. Usually a CLIF Bar, but I also like those ZBars. If I have more time, maybe two hours before my run, I’ll toast a couple pieces of bread. Trader Joe’s has this awesome cinnamon swirl bread—it’s definitely a vice of mine—and I spread a little bit of butter on top. I am fairly certain it does nothing for performance, but it’s quick carbohydrates. It tastes good, it settles well in my stomach, and that’s usually what I’ll have before a run. If I don’t have it before a run, I’ll usually have it afterward with some yogurt and maybe a banana. Let’s talk about your road into running. What were you, Mario, doing as a 10-year-old? Not running. I was doing what most 10-year-olds in my area were doing. I was playing youth soccer; I was playing Little League baseball. Basketball was my first love. I was also on a few basketball teams at that time and played a bunch of different ball sports. Where did you grow up? In Central Massachusetts, in a little town called Auburn outside of Worcester, which is the second-biggest city in the state after Boston. So you were playing basketball. How did you get here? I loved basketball. I was a big Celtics fan growing up. My house was around the corner from Holy Cross College, which is a small Division I school, and they would make it to the NCAA tournament out of the Patriot League every year. I was a big fan and went to a lot of their games. Bob Cousy, who is a Celtics legend, went to Holy Cross—and I wanted to be like Bob Cousy when I grew up. I was pretty decent at basketball, and I played through junior high and then in high school. I also went to summer camp for basketball at Clark University, where my mom worked, and there was a coach there named Jim White who I became pretty close with. He had played in college and was a mentor to me, and he told me I should run cross-country in the fall to get a good base of endurance for the basketball season. I said, “Sure, whatever you say,” and I started running cross-country at Auburn High my junior year. We did not have a big team—or a strong team, for that matter. The janitor at the school was our coach. He was an avid runner himself, but not very hardcore, and we weren’t really training. We raced twice a week and in between we’d run two, maybe three miles. We never did speed workouts, and I didn’t know anything about training. I loved to race, though. I loved the competitive aspect of it. I loved that I was fully in control of my own destiny on race day. If I made a move and it panned out, I could win, and if it didn’t pan out, it was on me. I loved that about running from the beginning, but again, we weren’t really training. A big turning point for me was at the end of that season—my junior year. I was running in the last meet of the year; it was the Central Massachusetts Championship. Long story short, I missed making the State Championship by one spot, or seven seconds, and that really lit a fire under my butt. I realized I was pretty good at running. I was better at it almost instantaneously than I was at basketball, which was a sport I’d been playing my whole life. I can remember being so fired up after that race. So I decided to actually train. I was still committed to basketball my junior year, and we had a guy on the team named Kevin Reed, who was just phenomenal. He ended up playing Division I at Maine and took them to the NCAA Tournament, which was pretty cool—but I wasn’t going to play while Kevin was there unless he needed a breather. So I made the decision to quit basketball and join the indoor track team. I really got interested in training theory and how people trained for long-distance races because I knew there was more to it than what our coach was saying. And it just sort of continued to snowball from 1998 through today. What happened when you went back to State the next year? I did not win, but I finished seventh in Massachusetts. Obviously, it was very bold of me to say I was going to win as a junior who missed qualifying the year before. But I really thought I could win, and I ended up working pretty hard that summer going into my senior year. I ran almost every day, maybe 30 or 40 miles a week, which was 30 or 40 miles a week more than I’d run the summer before—and I saw the results. I was much more competitive, even against some very good runners, and I realized that I could be a strong runner if I stuck with it. Fast-forward a couple of years. So you’re running in college? I ran collegiately at Stonehill College in Northeastern Massachusetts, a Division II school. Mario at Stonehill College in 2003 I was recruited to go to Stonehill. I was not given a scholarship out of high school. Actually, at the time, they didn’t have any scholarships. But I liked the fact that I could run on the team there. It wasn’t a Division I program—it wasn’t super-deep—but I knew I was driven enough to succeed, and the school was about an hour away from home. So, it was far enough away that I could have some independence, but it was close enough that I could get back and my parents could go to races. Did you start out in journalism? When did you start writing? No, I didn’t study journalism in college at all. Actually, the only journalism class I took was in high school. It was a half-year elective where we had schooling in the classroom, and then our “work” was actually writing articles and putting together the school paper. You know, looking back, I’ve always been a writer—even when I didn’t know it. In second grade, we had this project where we had to publish our own books, and we got these sheets of white paper and had to write a story and illustrate it. We folded the books in half and stapled the spines. Then we took construction paper and each made a cover. I thought it was the coolest thing. The teacher laminated the books, and then we put them on the shelf in the library. I remember that very vividly; it was such a huge thrill. I loved the process of producing this thing, which started as nothing and then eventually became a finished product that I and others could enjoy. And I’ve always enjoyed writing. I’ve been journaling since I was a young kid. Even when I started running, I had a paper training log and liked writing my reflections on whatever workout I did that day, or whatever race I ran that weekend, even though no one was reading it but me. And then, fast-forward to college, I hated taking tests. I was never a good test-taker, but I loved writing papers. I ended up majoring in philosophy in college. And one of the reasons I ended up majoring in philosophy was that there weren’t many tests—just papers, and as long as you could state an argument and then back it up, you weren’t going to fail. There was something about that that really appealed to me, and I didn’t mind the long nights sitting in front of a computer writing away. I’ve always loved writing. I just never knew where it was going to lead me. Mario Fraioli writingInterviewing Jared Ward Coach Mario Fraioli: A Personalized Approach Now you’re a runner, a coach, a podcaster, an author, and a husband. How has the way you see yourself evolved over the years? Everything you mentioned is a part of my identity. Even beyond those things, I’m also a friend, a brother, and a nephew. Those are all important parts of my life, and I appreciate them. Now, at 37 years old, I can’t say I’ve always known these were aspects that helped define me as a person. It’s looking back, though, at my progression as a human and as an athlete—at the decisions I’ve made along the way—that what I’m doing now makes sense, professionally and personally. These are all threads that have been there my entire life, and now they’re interwoven. For people who aren’t familiar with your history, would you talk about your coaching? You coach some elite professional runners and some everyday runners as well. More than half my roster is age-group athletes who don’t run professionally and have a lot of other things going on in their lives. I sense in your podcast a lot of empathy for who each person is. You were interviewing Lee Troop, and it was clear you both value personal connections and picking up the phone to call your athletes. There’s not a lot of that happening right now. How do you think of yourself as a coach? Chamonix 2019 before UTMB I think that’s a good start. It’s interesting that I am coaching. Coaching, I should say, is how I spend most of my “working time.” When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in college, I had no idea. I switched my major so many times, and I ended up choosing philosophy because I liked writing and I liked the subject matter and I liked thinking about things. My minor was psychology. I thought this would be a good way to get into grad school and maybe get into counseling, because I always liked listening to people. Even going as far back as junior high, when friends were going through a breakup or their parents were going through a divorce. It wasn’t that I had all the answers, but I could listen, and I knew there was a lot of value in that. Maybe sometimes I could provide some perspective and get people to think differently about the situation. I do a lot of that as a coach today. And then, marry that with what I was describing earlier about studying training theory, because I didn’t have a great coach in high school. You’re merging those two things. People come to me for coaching because they want to prepare for an ultra race or run a marathon or qualify for Boston. There’s something formulaic about that, but for me, it is very personal—and there’s only a set number of athletes I can work with because the level of time and attention that I give each one is so high that it’s just not scalable. This is because I get to know the athletes as more than just athletes. I like to understand what else they’ve got going on in their lives and how that’s going to affect their training and racing. And then, on the flip side, I consider how their training and racing fit into everything else. Because if there’s not a level of harmony there, they’re not going to have the success they want. If their training and racing are causing family stress or taking away from their ability to perform at work, that’s not good. And, if their personal or professional situation isn’t allowing them to do the type of training they need to do to get where they want to go, then we’ve got to figure that out too. The only way you can understand these things is by talking to people frequently and on a deep level. I’ve always just been a curious person, and the coaching I do is very personal. When I left Competitor in 2016, it was to join a coaching startup in San Francisco. I was the Director of Coaching, and I quickly realized that what I thought of as coaching wasn’t scalable. It just wasn’t a good fit for me. That was three years ago, and I’ve been working for myself ever since. The way that I like to coach—it’s the way I know how to do it best. I take a lot of pride in the relationships I have with my athletes. There are a couple athletes I’ve been coaching for 10 or 11 years now, and many of them for the last seven or eight years. Some of the newer ones, I’ve still had for three years at this point. That’s what coaching is to me. It’s not 16 weeks of marathon training resulting in personal bests, although that’s a small part of it. I see it as more of an ongoing relationship, meant to guide a person’s training. I look at it as a bit of life coaching as well. I’ve had athletes comment on that, and I’m fortunate to have had coaches after high school who taught me the value in that. Frank Gagliano, a big idol and mentor of mine, is 82 years old and still coaching after 58 years of doing so—he really drilled into my head that this isn’t a three-month thing. If you’re into coaching for the right reasons, it’s a much longer commitment. Your podcast episode with Frank Gagliano—I would highly recommend readers go to The Morning Shakeout and look that one up. He has so much wisdom and experience and knowledge. He’d never been on a podcast before. He dropped all of it—maybe not even all of it, but he dropped a lot of it in the 80 minutes we talked. That was amazing. I mean, you could see how much he cares—his ability to talk about the people he coached 40 years ago like it was yesterday. He calls his athletes family. And Lee Troop, who you mentioned earlier, has his athletes over for barbecues. He says they’re like his second set of kids; they’re family to him. A lot of the athletes I work with are close to my age. Some of them are a little bit older. I’ve got a couple now who are young enough to be not my kids, but younger siblings for sure. And that’s how I think of them as well. They’re a big part of my life, and even some of the ones who I’m not writing workouts for, I am still in very close touch with them. And I think that’s what it’s about. How do you help people through periods of burnout, whether from their sport or from other stress points in life? I am in the business of stress management, and it’s exactly as you described. There’s training stress, there’s work stress, there’s life stress, there’s emotional stress, and there’s physical stress. It’s all stress, but your body can’t really differentiate any of it. It just knows it’s being stressed, and there’s a capacity there where if you exceed it, you could get hurt. You may snap at your spouse or a coworker or your kids; you may fall into a little bit of a depression. All these things can happen. Back to the holistic nature of my coaching, it’s getting to know the athlete as a person and knowing the different things that are going on in their lives. And it’s not being nosy necessarily—if an athlete doesn’t want to talk to me about something, I’m not going to force the issue. But a lot of them are very open about what’s going on, and I’m careful to respect their confidentiality. As I tell them, though, the more information I have, the better decisions I can make with regard to their training. If I know that work is crazy and they’re putting in 80-hour weeks, but they’ve got 10 hours of training on their schedule and they’re a type-A person who wants to check all the boxes, they’re going to do that 10 hours of training come hell or high water—and that means they’re sleeping four hours a night. That’s not good. If I know that, I can’t do anything about their 80-hour work weeks, and maybe that’s the reality for a while, but I can adjust their training to make sure the stress load is manageable and that we’re not overdoing it. I’ve been doing this long enough as an athlete where I’ve gone over that edge, and it can be really hard to pull yourself back up after that. What have you found works for adjusting to new habits as an age-group athlete who requires more time and structure? On a very basic level, it’s just talking about what their typical week looks like. What time do they wake up most mornings? What commitments do they have? I like to look at their week as a whole. And some of those things are very fixed, like work hours or when the kids go to school. Maybe Monday they have no time, and that’s going to be a rest day. Maybe Tuesday they’ve got a half-hour, and we can make the most of that half-hour by sending them to the gym. Maybe Friday they work a half-day and have a three-hour window in the morning, so that can be a longer training day. It’s really about knowing that for each athlete, maybe they’ve got five hours a week, so let’s maximize those five hours. This doesn’t mean we’re going full-throttle for five hours, but we want to make the best use of that time. And looking at that in the context of everything else, it’s about making sure we’ve built in enough time for rest and recovery. Training, Endurance & Strength On training, are there common pieces you see the average endurance athlete missing? One of the two biggest pieces that jump out to me is overall consistency. If you want to be good at something, you’ve got to be at it for a long time. There are people who’ll run for 10 or 12 weeks at a time, and then for whatever reason, things sort of fall off the rails for a while. Then, when they try to get back into it, it’s a lot harder. I’m a huge believer in consistency, which doesn’t mean you need to train at the same level throughout the year, but you need to develop those habits. If we can keep those habits going over time, we’re going to see success. But often, that consistency piece is missing. The second thing—and I’m sure this goes for other endurance athletes as well—is that many runners are running too hard most of the time. Generally, about 20% to 25% of your overall week should be at an intensity that I would consider hard. And that can be varying degrees of hard, and the rest of it should be fairly easy to moderate. For a lot of people, half their week is really hard and the other half is moderately hard. They’re in this gray zone all the time, which you can get away with for a while—especially when you’re new to a sport. But eventually, you plateau, and you’re just not going to go anywhere. One of the most common things I do with athletes is slow down. People who come to me for coaching, they usually have a big goal. They’re pretty driven. So it’s getting them to buy in and take their rest and recovery days a lot more seriously that’s important—otherwise they’re not getting as much as they could out of their hard workouts. What about strength training? Where does that fit in for you? My thinking on strength training has evolved. I never enjoyed it much as an athlete. I liked running a lot more. In recent years, though, as I’ve gotten well into my 30s, I’ve realized how important it is for overall health and body balance and longevity. And I’m pretty religious about getting into the gym once a week when I’m home. It’s a lot harder to make time when I’m traveling, but I’ll still do those exercises on the road. I’ve made strength training a consistent part of my week. Thursday mornings, when I’m home, I’m at the gym in San Francisco at 6:30 a.m. And I’ve seen the results in my running. Last fall, I ran my best marathon ever at 2:27:33, and the 10 weeks before that marathon, I ran 60 miles a week. That isn’t low mileage for me, but it’s pretty low mileage before a marathon. I was consistent with it, though, and I was also consistent with my gym work, and I felt better at the end of that race. I just felt more solid, and I looked more solid too. I didn’t fall apart. In terms of my coaching, strength training isn’t something I emphasized early on. Some of my athletes work with their own strength coach or personal trainer, and that’s great. I don’t try to mess with that. I do want to know what they’re doing and when, though, so I can plan it into their week. Now, I try to have all my athletes doing some type of strength training every week. It doesn’t have to involve putting up heavy weights, though there is a benefit to that. And I think you want to be doing this training under the eye of a coach—it can be dangerous otherwise, but at minimum getting them to do some bodyweight work two to three times a week is ideal. I often say I don’t coach runners—I coach athletes who specialize in running, and I’m really trying to focus on that athlete part. Running is only one part of athleticism. I think strength training and mobility are a huge component, regardless of what you’re doing. Strengthening your body so it’s resilient and you can get the most power out of it, but also, just overall resiliency to injury. If you’re doing it well, you’ll really see the performance benefits too. Say you’re on the road. What kind of bodyweight work do you prefer? So you can actually find this online. I put together a strength routine a few years ago—a lot of simple exercises, and you don’t need a lot of equipment. It’s mostly pushups, reverse dips, some core exercises, lunges, and squats. If you are able to get one of those balance balls, you can do some hamstring curls and some other abdominal type of work. And, if you have access to just a simple dumbbell, single-leg deadlifts are great. The routine is just 10 exercises, and it hits everything from head to toe. They’re very basic movements as well. In my experience, most athletes don’t do any type of strength training until they’re forced to. It’s usually when they get hurt and are prescribed some rehabilitative exercises that they end up doing strength for a short period of time—and then they get better and it goes out the window. But I’m telling you, in my experience as an athlete and as a coach, I have seen that the people who do strength training on a consistent basis are healthier overall. Mario Fraioli’s Thoughts on the Running World Can you give us a snapshot on the state of the running world? What are some of the trends? What’s happening in each segment? The running world is pretty segmented. I coach a lot of ultra runners, and I’ve been into ultras myself since moving to the Bay Area in 2014. Ultra running is seeing a lot of growth, though it’s still a pretty small piece of the overall running pie. But more athletes are running these events, more brands are getting into the space, and more sponsorship dollars are coming in. It’s interesting because ultras aren’t easy, right? But I think that’s why people are doing them. They’re looking for their next challenge. Maybe they’ve already done the marathon or the half-marathon, and they want to scare themselves. And what better way to scare yourself than by going out into the wild for several hours and seeing if you can make it around a mountain? I’ve said this in a couple other places before—my wife’s a triathlete, so I’ve observed the sport both on the ground at the events themselves from an age-grouper’s perspective, and I follow it a little bit professionally. I like to joke that ultra running is the new triathlon. There are a lot of similarities as far as the growth patterns go, in terms of the races and the athletes participating in them and who’s getting into them. And on the professional side, the way athletes are being sponsored, it’s very similar to what’s happened in triathlon. I think ultra running is in a space now where triathlon was maybe 10 or 15 years ago, so it’ll be interesting to see how it progresses. You know, there’s a bit of gear involved in ultra running. There’s certainly a lot more gear in triathlon, but it’s very different than marathoning or road racing or track and field, where you really don’t need a whole lot. Moving over to the roads and in marathon, what’s interesting to me is this resurgence of the competitive amateur runner. At the highest level, we’re seeing that the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials and the marathon are going to have way more qualifiers than they’ve had in quite some time. That’s what things were like in the 80s, when marathoning was a race rather than a participatory sport. It’s still very much a participatory sport now, but the racing side of it is starting to see a little bit of a resurgence, and I’m interested in seeing where that goes. The Boston Marathon just opened up for registration, and registration filled faster than ever—and they tightened the standards. That’s a sign the sport of marathoning is healthy and in a good place. Outside of these traditional events, there are some nontraditional things we’re seeing, like the Speed Project out of LA. You go from LA to Vegas, and it’s very underground. They don’t advertise it. There are no real rules, but it has a big social media following, and it’s all done on Instagram and livestreamed. It’s got this cool factor to it. Other events have popped up just like that. The Orchard Street Runners put on these events in New York that take place at night, and they’re very secretive and invite-only. I think the winner gets $150 and there’s a party afterwards, but it’s very underground and it’s unsanctioned and there’s something cool and pure about that. The rise of run crews, especially in major cities, is starting to kick up a little bit here in San Francisco as well. And then on the track side, it’s dying a bit, honestly. Not to be totally morbid, but interest in things like the Olympics and the World Championships is going down. Doping runs rampant through it all, and I think that puts a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths. And the sport, at the professional level here in the U.S., is pretty sad. In Europe, stadiums sell out. That isn’t the case in the States, and the sport keeps shooting itself in the foot in many ways. It’s been spiraling downward for a while. How about progressions in trail and ultra running, and how that scene compares in the U.S. vs. Europe? The sport is in a different place here. It’s smaller, for a number of reasons. A lot of it comes down to permitting, as many of these races run on public lands. The reason a lot of the races sell out is because the field size is capped at a few hundred people—even Western States, which is the original hundred-miler and the most popular ultra in the U.S. In contrast, I was just at the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in France, and it’s a weeklong festival of races. They have a 50K and a 101K and a 140K, and the big one, UTMB, which is 170K. There are over a thousand people in every race, and you’re in the town of Chamonix, and it has this big-time feel. It feels like the Super Bowl over there, and it is very much a professional sport, and it’s televised. In the U.S., it isn’t even close to that, and it’s always going to be limited by the permitting issue. Ultimately, ultra running is more than just running around a scenic mountain. You have people who are doing 24-hour records on the track and national championships and such on the road. But that’s not as sexy as the trail and mountain stuff. It doesn’t photograph quite as well for Instagram. We’re seeing some growth there, though. I just don’t know how big it’s going to get. Is there a solution to the public lands piece? Can we do more to celebrate people being out on their feet on public lands? Dealing with the government is complicated, and getting permits for these things is complicated. The North Face Endurance Challenge, which is one of the most competitive ultras in this country, is right here in our backyard in the Marin Headlands. And I think that’s actually a pretty big race in terms of numbers for the U.S. It’s between 500 and 800 people, and there’s a big prize purse, so people who want to race it will show up. But I don’t think they’re going to suddenly let 5,000 people on the trails. Chances are they’re worried about the damage and the precedent that would set too. I just don’t think the powers that be want to go down that road. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon—not unless someone buys a huge chunk of land and creates their own trails. Are there companies or organizations that are setting the trends in the space right now? The North Face has done so from an event perspective. They’ve had the Endurance Challenge series for a number of years now, and they have grown it beyond the U.S. They’re definitely invested in it, and I can’t imagine it’s a huge moneymaker for them given how much it costs to put on these events for such a small number of people. But they’re committed to it because they want to grow the sport and create those opportunities, and they’re doing it from a product and athlete perspective as well. Salomon is huge in the space, based in Europe. Over there they’re even bigger, but they sponsor a lot of the top athletes. They’re sponsoring more events, and they’re bringing on more ambassadors here in the U.S. Because there is growth, a lot of brands are getting into it. Adidas and Nike, which are legacy running brands and have been in the sport for a long time, have started making a push in terms of sponsoring athletes and getting behind events. There’s a lot of momentum, which is exciting. But ultimately, I’d say the North Face is leading the way. Salomon is leading the way too; that’s in their DNA. As far as some of these other brands go, I think they’re getting into it because it’s hot right now. So it will be interesting to see what happens there. Burnout & Business We often get so caught up in the pursuit and the status and the vanity of the sport, which tends to push us away from the health we are pursuing. What can we do here? A very basic thing we can do—whether it’s on an individual level or through a platform like Instagram or Facebook, or on a blog or a podcast—is just share our stories. I think that every interview I’ve had, and every conversation, has involved stories that resonate with people. I believe we see ourselves in other people’s stories, which creates a feeling of solidarity—the feeling that we’re not alone in whatever it is we’re struggling with, and some of the stories contain solutions that can point people in the right direction. Really, it’s just being empathetic and realizing that even if it looks like someone’s got it all together from the outside, the truth is that everyone’s struggling with something—and that’s not a bad thing. Some people are struggling more than other people, but I think simply not being showy, and then just being willing to help others is key. Sometimes I’ll pick up the phone and call my athlete and see how they’re doing. I’ll do that with my friends too. I’ll do it with my brother. I’ll do it with my dad. I mean, we all have phones in our pockets, but we don’t use them to call people all that much. Picking up the phone and just calling someone can go a long way—but it’s easy to get swept up in the inertia of our lives and forget to do that. You talked about struggling with burnout earlier this year, which is super-common. You’ve got a lot going on with your coaching, your own running, and your podcast. How do you keep it all together? Yeah, I definitely dealt with some burnout earlier this year, and it was as much personal and professional as it was athletic. It’s all the same, and all these things affect one another. And I think for me, speaking to the running side specifically, I was really excited after the California International Marathon (CIM) last fall; setting a personal best revitalized me athletically. Then my eyes got really big, and I wanted to do all these things in the spring—like go all in on a 5K PR knowing I needed a break after CIM. ” Crossing the finish line on Sunday in 2:27:33 at the age of 36 in my tenth marathon was a thrilling, validating, and straight-up special moment for me. I totally lost my shit. I’ve been at this crazy sport for 21 years and haven’t broken a personal best at any distance since 2007. ” – Mario on Instagram. Photo Credit: Jason Suarez. So I fizzled. I lost some of that excitement, only I had these races that I’d signed up for in April—and by early March, I was completely fried. I wanted to take a bit of a break, but I was committed to these races, and the travel was covered. And I had to accept that. If I’m generally not excited to train, then I don’t train. I’ll run what I want to run. I would have raced a lot better if I had stuck to the training plan, but I also realized that I couldn’t force it. Personally, professionally I was trying to do all that around putting the newsletter out every week, growing the podcast, and traveling a whole bunch. I did a bad job of managing my own stress, and self-awareness is huge for me. I’ve gotten better at developing that over the years, and I was just aware of it. So I backed off. It was just like giving myself a bit of grace. Everyone’s gone through it at some point. When you’re ambitious about something, that’s great—but it can also be your kryptonite. How has the media landscape changed for you over the years? The landscape is constantly shifting. I think bigger media companies are having a tougher time reaching an audience. And the way a lot of these companies survive and make money and pay their bills is by scaling. I think people are looking for more and more of a personal connection these days, and I think that’s why I’m able to do what I do. People can reply to my email every week, and I’ll write them back. And I think that’s not going to happen at a bigger brand. I have a few people helping me out, and they get paid for their work, but I’m not paying a full staff. Thinking about it from a business standpoint, I just have to support myself and cover my needs. The way people consume media is shifting as well, and they’re looking for things that resonate with them—whether it’s other personalities, training tips, or nutrition-type stuff. They don’t want general advice anymore; they’re looking for something that speaks to them. And people are following writers rather than publications. I hate calling myself “my own brand,” but people really are becoming their own brands. They have their own ways of communicating. This is because when you’re chasing scale, the quality of the content suffers. So you know, for me, I like to be in control of what I want to do. And I think the bigger publications are spread too thin and they’re trying to cater to too many people. Talk about supporting your business with sponsorships, and Patreon for direct-user contributions? I stick to one sponsor per month for the newsletter. For the podcast, that’s on a per-episode basis. I think there’s value in consistency, and in having a brand sponsor four to five episodes. But it’s really a combination of a sponsorship model and reader and listener support, which is not unique. I borrowed that idea from Surfer’s Journal. They put out a magazine, and their tagline involves being reader-supported with assistance from five brands that share values with the content that they’re putting out. That’s what I try to do as well. Long-term reader support is more sustainable, in my opinion. And you know, I look at my readers and listeners as investors in The Morning Shakeout because they’re forking their money over to support my work. And you know, some people do exclusive content on Patreon and people are paying for that. For me, there’s no real exclusive content. Billy Yang and I do a podcast every week that is available on Patreon only, but that’s not what people are putting the money up for. They want to support my work because they genuinely find value in it. And that means a lot to me. And then the sponsorship stuff—it’s going well, but it’s a lot less predictable. Sponsors can pull out, and there have been months and episodes of the podcast where I haven’t had any. So it’s all about trying to find the right balance. But most importantly, when it comes to the brands I partner with, I want to be consistent with the values of the content I put out every week. For example, this month’s newsletter sponsor is Tracksmith. They were my first sponsor three years ago, they’ve been consistent, and I also race in their gear. Everything that I’m about is consistent with what they’re about. And I think there’s value in it for them because they’re partnering with a trusted source in the space. There’s value in it for me because my bills get paid, and there’s value in it for the readers and listeners because they know they’re getting an authentic recommendation. That’s often harder for bigger brands to do. Mario Fraioli’s Resources: Toolkit & Gear Let’s take a look at your toolkit. What are your go-tos for tech, apps, and gear? Apps: I have no social media apps on my phone. I took them all off because they were too big of a distraction. This doesn’t mean I don’t use them, but I use them pretty deliberately. Watch: I use a COROS Pace. It’s a newer, smaller brand in the GPS watch space that sponsored my newsletter a year ago. The Pace does everything I need it to do, and I’ve got their app on my phone that I sync with Strava. Shoes: I’ve probably got something from every brand in my kit. I like comfortable shoes that I genuinely enjoy wearing.I like Nike’s trail shoes. I’ll race in their Vaporfly 4 Percent.I have a pair of HOKA Rincons and a pair of Cliftons that I’m running in right now.I’ll wear my pair of New Balance 1500 Flats on the track.I have a couple pairs of Altras: one pair for the gym and one for the trail. Kit: There are two main things I rely on.Tracksmith, a sponsor of mine, puts out a lot of their stuff that I race and train in. I’ve bought quite a bit of it myself.I have a lot of Patagonia trail gear that I wear. I love their shorts. I think they make the best trail running shorts period, like five-inch strider pros and five pockets in the back. I can put keys and fuel and all kinds of stuff in there. It’s funny—as a younger runner, I didn’t carry anything with me, but now I’ve got my phone, I’ve got my keys, I’ve often got my headlamp in there. And I like having pockets for the marathon. Coaching: I use a platform called Final Surge to manage my athletes’ training and communications. It’s been great for me, and syncs with Strava.Training: I didn’t know what Strava was before I moved to the Bay Area in 2014, but I got on within a week of being here. It’s become sort of my de facto training log. I upload all my training there; I don’t hide any of it. What newsletters, books, and podcasts do you turn to? I subscribe to a bunch of newsletters because I like that format. One that has nothing to do with running is called Next Draft by a guy named Dave Pell. He’s been in the newsletter game for a long time—puts one out almost every day unless he’s on vacation—and he has answered a lot of my questions. It’s kind of a quick-hits, snoozy style, but he injects his own personality too. He does a great job, and he’s been doing it successfully for a long time. I also subscribe to Alison Wade’s Fast Women newsletter. She’s very good at what she does, and her newsletter is very thorough. Alison was actually one of my editors back when I got started. She had the Fast Women website, which was owned by New York Road Runners at the time, and some of the first interviews I ever did were for that site. I’d say my newsletter is more personality-driven. It also has some analysis and links to things that I’m reading and paying attention to, but hers is just very comprehensive. Anything that’s going on in women’s running, you’re going to see it in Alison’s newsletter, which comes out every Monday morning—and it’s long. It’s not just results-oriented, either. Alison’s got a little commentary of her own in there, but she’s doing a great job with it. In terms of podcasts, I share a lot of them in The Morning Shakeout every week. I’m a big fan of the Rich Roll podcast. I like a lot of NPR shows. Fresh Air is great. I love Terry Gross; she’s a great interviewer. How I Built This is a cool podcast. I have a very entrepreneurial spirit, so I like hearing how other companies came to be. That’s continuing education for me. I’ll sit there with a notebook like you have now, and I’ll take notes like I would in a class. I’m always scouring the internet for running-related stories; I don’t have a method to that madness. It’s kind of chaotic, but I’m a bit of a tech nerd. There’s a guy named John Gruber who has a blog called Daring Fireball, and I borrowed my sponsorship model from him. His consistency is really impressive. I’d love to get him on my podcast because I’ve heard him allude to the fact that he’ll run from time to time, just as a means of fitness. Again, consistency is a major theme in my life, whether it’s training, coaching, or podcasting. I haven’t missed a week of The Morning Shakeout in 201 weeks now. I look at a guy like John Gruber, who has made a living writing Daring Fireball for 12 years now, and I aim for that same consistency. I want The Morning Shakeout to be consistently good enough for people to keep coming back. Are you seeing intersections across sports where one sport is evolving based on another? All over the place. I think runners pigeonhole themselves. As I was saying earlier, I look at runners as athletes who specialize in running, and I think it’s important that they work on their overall athleticism. Even if they’re training for long distances, I want them to realize the importance of sprinting from time to time, of getting in the weight room, and of paying more attention to how they’re actually moving. My wife comes from a swimming background; she has been in the pool since she was four years old. I can keep myself afloat in water, but I’m not a swimmer at all. A couple of years ago, though, she had me take a lesson with her Masters coach in San Diego, and he was great. He approached it from a very technical standpoint, which is how they start training you as a swimmer when you’re a kid. You get in the pool and you do drills and you work on your stroke, and when you get that down, you do these workouts that are going to help you improve your fitness. Running doesn’t work that way. Especially at the youth levels, it’s focused on just getting the kids running. And that’s important, to a degree. But with any other sport, it’s all about how you are moving and what the technique involved is. It’s about nailing that down first before we start layering. And oftentimes, with running, it’s just about building fitness and throwing workouts at people—and it’s rare that runners spend time optimizing their form unless they’re hurt. I like to emphasize technique. I’m always looking at how people train for other sports. Like power in cycling, it kind of revolutionizes the way people train—and power is starting to make some inroads into running. The technology’s not there yet, and the mechanisms are a little bit different and not quite as reliable. But I think it’s interesting in terms of how we quantify training. Looking at heart rate, looking at perceived effort, looking at pace—all these different ways that we can quantify and prescribe training are interesting to me. For example, swimming is kind of all intervals, even on the easy days. In running, we think of intervals as just for hard training. I’m always trying to look at different sports and what people are doing to improve—to see if there’s something I can take away and apply to my own approach or to the athletes I coach. And back to podcasts—one of my favorites is Finding Mastery with Michael Gervais. He’ll have a lot of athletes on, plus business folks; he’s had Satya Nadellafrom Microsoft and Steve Kerr, Coach of the Warriors, and they just talk about building team culture and the approach needed to get where they are. Not all of that’s directly applicable to running, but I pulled two or three pretty good gems out of it. So I definitely think we can learn from other sports. Awesome. It was a pleasure having you on. Thanks for having me. This was super-fun. We’ll see you on the trails. Cover photo credit: Jody Bailey The post Mario Fraioli: Athlete, Coach & Host of The Morning Shakeout Podcast appeared first on Prokit.
57 minutes | Sep 16, 2019
Sarah True on a Life of Endurance
Triathlete Sarah True has spent over a decade on world podiums. She was the top American in triathlon at the 2012 London Olympics with a fourth place finish. In 2018, she made the leap to Ironman distance and instantly made a mark, finishing 2nd at Ironman European Championships in Frankfurt and 4th in her Kona debut at the Ironman World Championship.Like most professional athletes, Sarah True’s journey hasn’t been all champagne and podiums. She is among pros like Michael Phelps and Lindsey Vonn who are starting to lead the way talking openly about the mental health challenges, depression and post-race blues that affect so many people in sports and society. 2019 was a year of perseverance and grit, with back-to-back nightmare scenarios at Ironman Cairns and Ironman European Championships, where 100+ degree heat led to blacking-out in Cairns and being pulled off the course with a several minute lead with less than 1km to go in Frankfurt. We spoke at her home in New Hampshire in August shortly before she pulled off a last minute Kona spot at Ironman Mont-Tremblant. Sarah True is much more than the All-American athlete. She is thoughtful, deeply articulate, and understands her mind and body with the nuance of a professor. Her sense of humor, big smile, and dog, Buddy, made this a special conversation. It has been edited for brevity. Listen to the full interview on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Listen Childhood, Competition & Cooperstown, New York David Swain: So what’d you have for breakfast this morning? Sarah True: I had toast with peanut butter and strawberries and coffee. I was kind of in a rush. Normally I’m more of an oatmeal or overnight oats person. I’m a fan of oatmeal too. But now that we’ve talked breakfast, let’s start with your childhood and your intro into sports. Where did you come from? I’m an upstate New Yorker, originally. We moved to Cooperstown, New York when I was four, and that’s where I spent my formative years. It’s actually a village; there are about 2,000 people living there. And the place really comes to life in the summer, especially with all the baseball tourists. But mostly, growing up, it was a great place to be outside without my parents watching over me—you know, a pretty quintessential small town. What sports did 10-year-old Sarah True play? I tried everything, basically. I think if I’d had a hockey rink nearby, I would’ve been a hockey player. We played pond hockey quite a bit, and I loved it. I swam, I ran, I played soccer. I played baseball, of course—Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame. I really tried everything, and I definitely gravitated toward sports because I liked the idea of focusing on something and getting better. One of my frustrations with soccer was that you could spend a lot of time on the bench, and it wasn’t up to you. I liked the idea of just being free and in control of my own performance. So were you a natural athlete growing up? I think I was a pretty good athlete. I was always active. I’m the youngest of three, both of my siblings were pretty active, and I wanted to beat them. The reason I joined swimming was because I was not allowed to. My sister had joined swimming, so of course I was just clamoring to join the swim team, and she had a size advantage over me for many years. But then I realized that if I outworked her, I could beat her. I think it’s important, you know, to have that role model because definitely we’re hardworking—and I think that was something I took away from watching my siblings play sports. “…I was 13 and decided to swim the 9 mile length of Otsego Lake in my hometown, Cooperstown. My swim fitness was lacking, I borrowed a too big wetsuit not intended for swimming that lasted about 5 minutes & lathered myself up with Vaseline (I’d heard that the English Channel swimmers do that). With the help and support of my family, I made to the end of the lake in well under 4 hours. When we are kids we don’t overthink our preparation or equipment; we just do. There’s little doubt in our minds about what we can accomplish. With a big new challenge ahead, I’m trying to channel my inner 13 year old. ” — Sarah True Were you competitive as a kid? Yeah, super-competitive—but I had a lot of interests, and I wanted to see them through. I tried theater, I tried dance, I tried all these different things, and I realized that if I wanted to get good at sports, I couldn’t do everything. Narrowing things down was one of the harder decisions I had to make. Did you specialize in a specific sport in high school? I swam and I ran. By the time you reach high school, you really do have to pare it down a bit. I also did some bike riding in high school, but really I think it was my junior year when I did my first triathlon—and basically, I felt like that was going to be my sport. So from that point on, I added a couple more triathlons every year. Then, by the time I graduated from college, I pretty much had the choice of either going to the real world or seeing this triathlon thing through. And here I am today, still doing it. What about college? Were you mostly a swimmer? I went to Middlebury College, and one of the advantages is that you can’t start practice until November 1. For somebody who was really active like me, that was definitely a draw. But also, I think that probably limited my performance as a swimmer. The upside, though, was that I could go hiking and backpacking, and run the rest of the year and ride bikes and just continue to do what I’ve always done. I wanted to be active without pigeonholing myself too much. Sarah True’s Progression as a Triathlete What’s kept you motivated over the years? I love the sport. There are definitely times it can be more of a love-hate relationship, but I think that’s more of a love-hate relationship with myself as an athlete. My appreciation for the sport hasn’t changed. I think that triathlon—by nature of being three sports—has really appealed to my not having to decide on one sport. There’s something freeing about a sport like triathlon, where you can dabble in three high-level sports without feeling the burnout that I would have felt if I’d been a single-sport athlete. Talk about your progression in triathlon over the years. When I grew up, there was NBC coverage of the Hawaii Ironman. I was seven or eight years old, and I was a swimmer at the time. I liked to run, and we didn’t see that many women on TV for sports. This is one of the few sports that we would see televised, and there was something that just resonated with me. It wasn’t necessarily that event, but the fact that I saw women doing sports I liked on TV. Part of me—well, it really appealed to me, so I put it on the mental back-burner as something I could do someday. And then, once I was a triathlete, I didn’t have tons of interest in doing Ironman. I was doing short-course racing at that point, and I wanted to go to the Olympics. I was very driven in trying to get an Olympic medal. I was fourth—pretty close, but not quite there. And you know, Ironman was just something that I told sponsors I might do because in the U.S., we pay very little attention to short-course racing, but we pay a lot of attention to Ironman racing. So that was appealing to sponsors. And I didn’t say no, I wasn’t going to do it, because I honestly didn’t know at the time. That said, it’s very different physiologically, and it requires a different investment of energy. A lot of my time and energy went toward short-course racing, or just traveling and living out of my suitcase for so many months out of the year. How many races a year did you complete? How many short-course vs. Ironman? I would race over 10 short-course a year, but I was gone over half the year. With Ironman, you really only get two shots at a full-length race per year. So you don’t race a lot. You can do some half-Ironman races as training, but not a lot of racing overall. It was a lot of time, you know, by myself. It was a lot of staying motivated, and I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, so I didn’t want to make the move because I felt I had to. In an endurance sport, we have the ability to move up in distance as we get older, and physiologically we start to shift and lose some of our speed. It’s a pretty natural progression. You’ll see in running, 5k or 10k runners moving up to the marathons once they’re in their 30s. You know, in triathlon, you’ll see short-course racers moving up to half-Ironman distance and then to Ironman distance. I only wanted to make that jump if I felt like I could be fully committed—not because I was just ticking a box and keeping sponsors happy. So it wasn’t until a couple years ago that I basically had an epiphany where, while before I didn’t feel some strong impulse to do an Ironman, I realized I wanted to do one personally. I wasn’t sure I could do it, though. I didn’t know if I could put in up to 30 hours of training by myself. I didn’t know whether I was strong enough, or tough enough. So I think that desire to prove something to myself was 100% a driving motivator. And then, once I realized I was pretty good at it, it became more of a professional goal. Basically, my relationship with the sport has changed as I’ve changed as a person. So you’ve been doing Ironman distance for two years now. I heard you were in Australia a couple months ago, with cool conditions until the day before the race. My race in Frankfurt was actually my backup race, because initially I’d gone to Cairns, which
61 minutes | Sep 6, 2019
Rich Roll, A Life Transformed
Plants, sleep, and becoming a fully-integrated human from the depths of addiction I stumbled upon Rich Roll’s podcast a few years ago. It was one of the few that stood out and embodied so much of what has drawn me to the health, mindset and reaching our potential. Not just from the perspective of an athlete, but as a person, an entrepreneur and a parent. It turns out I wasn’t alone; his podcast has been dowloaded more than 60 million times. Rich Roll had the American Dream—Cornell and Stanford degrees, a great job, a wife, but by age 39 the pieces weren’t lining up. In Rich Roll’s words, “From the outside looking in, it all looked pretty great, but on the inside I was like this decaying corpse. I was really dying because I was living at odds with the person I was meant to be.” Rich Roll talks about this moment of clarity and the road he’s been on over the past 12 years to understand himself and, in doing so, shape how many people think about endurance, food and the human experience. We get into it all: food, recovery, sleeping in a tent, meditation, parenting, running a business and finding balance in the chaos. Our discussion has been edited for clarity. Listen to the full interview on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Listen From Model Student Athlete to Rebel David Swain: I like to start with a hard question. What did you have for breakfast this morning? Rich Roll: I didn’t eat anything for breakfast this morning. I’ve got some espresso right here. This morning I woke up, had a cup of coffee, and got my daughter off to school. Then I went for an hour-plus run and drank a bunch of water and came over here. I experiment a little bit with intermittent fasting. Not in the formal sense. Plenty of days I don’t eat until the late afternoon, sometimes not until dinner. My training’s going to start ramping up incrementally, so I don’t know how tenable that will be when the physical pressures start to mount. For people who don’t know you, talk through your story and what you were like as a kid. I’m originally from Michigan but really grew up in the Washington, DC suburbs (in Bethesda, Maryland). I grew up middle-class, had two parents who took care of all my needs. They’re still married. In retrospect, I was a very awkward, insecure kid. The parlance is that everyone else had the rulebook for life, and I was stumbling around in the dark. I think that is a pretty accurate description of how I felt, and how I had a lot of difficulty trying to make friends and be social. I wasn’t by any indication athletically gifted. I was bullied on the playground, and I was the last kid picked for whatever ball sport happened to be going on. I have a weak, wandering eye, so I wore a patch in elementary school. I also had the headgear orthodontia. It’s not a vision for you. Basically, I struggled. I am a very sensitive person, and it wasn’t until I found swimming that I latched onto something meaningful. I did show some natural acumen in the pool at a very early age and had been on swim team since I was six years old. Around the time I was 10 or 11, I was good. I wasn’t amazing, but it was the one place where I actually felt at home. Also, when your head’s underwater, it’s this calming, soothing, womb-like environment away from the playground—and I just gravitated more and more into that subculture until it really became my life. From your book, Finding Ultra, it sounds like you hit a point were you were at the pool every chance you got? Yeah, full on. I started taking it seriously around 15. That’s when I started hitting the double workouts with the alarm clock going off at 4:44 a.m. I’d be in the pool, go to school, and then practice for two hours after school every day. I was part of a club team that was known for producing national and international caliber swimmers. When I was 15 and joined that club, I was the worst in the group. What I figured out, though, was that if I was willing to put in the work and double-time it, I could make up that talent-deficit gap, and so I quickly distinguished myself as a workhorse. I was the guy who was willing to do the kind of stuff no one else wanted to do—swim the events no one wanted to swim, like the 200 fly. The herd is thinner there. By repeatedly showing up, by the time I was a senior in high school, I was one of the better swimmers in the area and getting recruited to colleges. That discipline and focus then spilled over into my academic life. When I was in third and fourth grade, I was essentially failing out but really learned how to approach my academics with the same rigor that I approached my athletics with in the pool. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was a pretty good student—the top of my class. Fast-forward to your 30s, and there is some real career success. What about those major life moments and struggles? There were lots of ups and downs. I had a protracted battle with alcohol that short-circuited my swimming career in college and took me to some pretty dark places. I got sober at 31, and in the wake of discovering sobriety and spending 100 days in an Oregon rehab and really getting the wind knocked out of me and the carpet pulled out from underneath me, I realized that I had become a pretty broken individual. I had burned all my bridges, so when I got sober, I was intent on repairing that wreckage. As you mentioned earlier, when I graduated from high school, I was a bit of a golden boy. The world was at my feet, and I really blew it. I destroyed a lot of those opportunities, and I had a tremendous amount of shame and guilt over that. I really felt like I needed to prove to the world—and to myself—that I could be that person again. That was really the engine, the gestalt that pushed me forward. And by the time I was 39, I had achieved some success. It was really like me trying to jam this square peg into a round hole and prove that I could be this lawyer. There was nothing about being a corporate lawyer that I liked or that I gravitated towards. It was just—this is what you’re supposed to do. For somebody with my academic background, this was the responsible thing to do, and I grew up in an environment where that was what you pursue. It wasn’t about following your heart; it was about being this person in our culture. At 39, I checked all those boxes. I had a nice car. I had this nice resume. I’d met my wife. From the outside looking in, it all looked pretty great, but on the inside, I was like this decaying corpse. I was really dying because I was living at odds with the person I was meant to be. I was having this existential crisis that I wasn’t even consciously aware of, and that really collided with the health scare because I hadn’t been taking care of myself during that decade. I was just a workaholic and a fast-food addict, a couch potato. Despite having been this swimmer in college, I wasn’t working out or doing anything like that. I was just in the law firm eating Chinese takeout and hitting Jack in the Box on the way home, or Taco Bell, or what have you, and I’d put on 50 pounds. These crises collided with each other on the staircase one night when I was walking up to my bedroom and had to pause halfway up a simple flight of stairs, winded, and just had this dawning epiphany, like wow. I would still look in the mirror and think I was this Stanford swimmer. Denial works like that. The moment just really snapped my denial and made me realize I was living in an unsustainable way. I found I needed to make some changes, and most importantly, I was willing to make those changes. I had a very strong, profound sense that this was a special moment. The universe was opening itself up, and I just remember it being very visceral. I think the reason I was able to take that moment seriously is because it was very similar to the day I decided to get sober. It was one of those brief windows of opportunity, and if you’re able to grab onto it and take action, your life can change so dramatically. Had I just decided to take action tomorrow, who knows what my life would look like today? That was going on in the back of my consciousness during the staircase episode. That was really the beginning of deconstructing the life I was living to build a new one. You didn’t just become a swimmer again, but this full-on ultra-endurance athlete. Things like the EPIC5 that most people have never heard of? I had never heard of these things either. First I changed my relationship with food. I adopted a plant-based diet. I suddenly had this resurgence in vitality and energy levels. I almost had to start working out again because my body was vibrating. My wife was like, “Go outside. You’re driving me crazy.” So I started running and swimming and doing things I hadn’t done in a very long time. My wife bought me a bike for my birthday, but I had no plans to become a competitive athlete again. It was really just this process of reconnecting with myself physically and realizing that that brought me a lot of joy. It reminded me of what it was like to be a kid and get dropped off at the pool in the summertime and spend the whole day there. It was very primal. Then I thought it would be fun to challenge myself and do an Ironman. That was like a bucket-list, 40-year-old-guy thing to do. So I stumbled across this article about a race called Ultraman, and this guy David Goggins. That was my introduction to the ultra-endurance world. I’d never heard of David Goggins. I’d never heard of Ultraman, which is this double-Ironman race. I didn’t know that human beings were capable of doing anything longer than an Ironman. I just knew I was captivated by this subculture, and I knew that somehow I was going to become a part of that community. It took a w
47 minutes | Jun 4, 2019
Kate Courtney, World Champion Mountain Biker
Kate Courtney’s resume doesn’t look like many 22-year olds. Unless their names are Mikaela Shiffrin or Abby Wambach. She’s a 12-time mountain bike national champion, 2017 U-23 World Cup overall champion, and now, the 2018 UCI World Champion. It’s fair to say she’s just getting started. And with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics not far away, we’ll be hearing her name a lot more. Cycling is a national pastime in many countries, but Kate Courtney’s story paints a different picture for what could come out of the US in the years to come. She didn’t get her start on the typical team sports shown on TV — she started on her high school’s mountain bike team. She did it for fun. She loved it. She saw progress, and she never looked back. Kate Courtney and I sat down to talk about growing up, and the nutrition, training and mental strategies that have allowed her to reach the highest levels. Also, her community of support — parents, coaches, sponsors — and the role they play. As always, I was hoping to find the secret shortcuts to performance. Instead, a reminder that greatness is better measured as hard work in, progress out. But don’t forget to take those naps, lean on a community that believes in you, and start your day with some meditation. Our conversation has been edited for brevity. Listen to the full interview on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify. Listen David Swain: You just won the World Championships, but let’s start small. What’d you have for breakfast? Kate Courtney: I had some pancakes. It’s my go-to. Get some maple syrup involved, you know? KATE COURTNEY’S PATH FROM HIGH SCHOOL MOUNTAIN BIKING TO WORLD CHAMPION You’re back from Europe after winning the World Championships. Talk me through the last few weeks. World Championships was certainly a big end to the cross-country season. The aftermath was a little crazy. We ended up going straight to Marathon World Championships, which is quite outside my comfort zone and was a huge challenge, especially given the emotional high of winning Worlds and that huge dream coming into fruition. Took a little bit to recover from, and way maybe not so pretty at times, but I made it through Marathon Worlds. Racing for five and a half hours instead of an hour and a half is something that will serve me well in the long run in terms of building that endurance and giving me a benchmark of how hard a race can be. Then I was able to go on vacation for a bit. I brought my bike, which has been a key insight in the last couple of seasons. After racing ends, I love to just ride as long as I want with gummy bears as fuel; not be eating Clif bars, and leaving at a certain time, and riding for certain amount at a certain power. I just get to go and explore beautiful places. We rode Stelvio. That was my first ride in the rainbow jersey, so it was a special moment and a really good way to kind of reset mentally while still doing what I love and being on the bike. I only got to watch your win on YouTube, unfortunately. Coming across the finish line, walk us through that feeling. The roar of the crowd was intense. The World Championships was in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. It was a really special atmosphere — unlike any event I’ve been to. I think there were 25,000 fans, and that was equal for the women’s and the men’s race, which was really cool to see. For reference, that’s more than the event at the Olympics. The Olympics sell 20,000 tickets. To be able to compete in that atmosphere was a huge honor and was really motivating, but to come away with the win and especially in a kind of surprising fashion at the end is really exciting. It was very cool to have that support and to see those crowds for what has been a bit of a niche sport in the past. While we’re sitting in the shadow of Mount Tam in the US where mountain biking was started, it’s been pretty dominated by Europeans the last couple of decades, and particularly the Swiss. They win basically everything. We’ve got the 2020 Olympics coming up in Tokyo. I don’t hear it being talked about yet much, but I’m sure it’s on your mind? It’s been a big topic of conversation for a couple of years for us. I narrowly missed going in 2016. I took two quarters off at Stanford and was a bit young and racing the U-23 category, so it was a huge long shot, but at the end of the day, I really wanted to go. Not making that team was a disappointment; it would have been discretionary pick. It really galvanized my desire to go and really perform well in 2020. After that year, it’s absolutely been a focus, and I think of it as a four-year plan. This was another step in that direction, and this year the focus was building endurance-based power. To come away with a win this year, I think it’s a foot in the door. It’s showing me that dreaming of being the best in the world is possible on my best day ever. Being able to wear the rainbow jersey is a good reminder that every race is different, and I’m not at the top of the field yet, but that on the perfect day when the preparation is right and the conditions all work out, that it’s possible. It’s really motivating for me heading towards 2020. We’re north of San Francisco in Marin staring at Mount Tam out the window. That was your childhood playground — talk about your athletic journey growing up. I grew up playing a lot of different sports. I ski raced for a long time. I ran cross-country. I rode horseback. I did gymnastics. I think, looking back, a lot of those things were individual sports that show a hard work in/progress out kind of mentality. I really love to see, I’m working on improving this skill, okay, I’m getting better at it. That was something I was really drawn to in all of those sports and found the perfect place for it in mountain biking. Growing up, the awesome thing was that those sports were just fun. My parents really didn’t put pressure on it. It was something we did as a family. Especially with mountain biking, it was a vehicle to get blueberry pancakes on Sunday mornings. It was not a competitive sport or something we did with a means to an end. It was just for fun. This morning, I rode with my dad and my mechanic, and we did a ride I’ve done since I was 14. Took us an hour less than when I was 14, which we joke about to no end. Being able to come back and know that sports are this amazing way to experience the world and to spend time with people I love is going to be really important in my career, and hopefully protect me from some of the burnout that comes from the harder parts of the job. Maintaining the fun in the sport while competing as a professional through college must not have always been easy. How have you been able to keep that? What role did your parents play? Where do you get your competitive drive? It’s hard to put your finger on. I’ve always been really competitive. For me, the key is effort in/progress out. I love to see improvements at something. Mountain biking is a sport that gives you a lot of opportunities to do so, whether it’s training with the power meter and seeing those numbers go up or even just today, riding with my dad and seeing that we can do that same ride in two and a half hours that used to take us three and a half hours. There’s really tangible progress in so many ways, and that’s something I’ve always been drawn to in athletics. Support has been a huge part of it. In college, in particular, I was fortunate to be close to my parents and have them really step up and support me, but it’s also a tricky balance. I think parenting an athlete is a really challenging thing. I’m incredibly grateful. My dad has always had a really good balance between believing in me and pushing me to see what might be possible, but also putting no pressure on me. At the World Championships, if you watch the video, a little tear-jerker, I cross the finish line and went straight to my parents, and we all cried our eyeballs out. My parents were there because they love me and they love the sport, and they would have been unconditionally proud of me. They’re proud of me just for taking the line — it’s something that takes bravery and a lot of preparation, and they respect that. If I had had my worst race ever at Worlds, we would have still gone and had champagne, and celebrated the season, and I would have been with people that love me and that I enjoy being with. It was a really special moment to surprise them, and surprise myself, and achieve something that we’ve talked about jokingly since I started. Because they never put pressure on me, because they believe in me unconditionally and love me unconditionally, it’s even more special. It’s a huge bonus to be able to achieve that together. I was able to give my dad the world champion watch on the podium. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever been able to do. He’s been checking the time a lot since then (laughing). “Does anyone need to know what time it is again?” I won the parent lottery. These sports like ski racing and cycling are individual sports where the US hasn’t always been at the front of the pack. They can be great outlets for kids and adults, even if you’re not competing. When you look at the future of cycling or outdoor sports in the US, are there things we could bring back or learn from? You started on a high school mountain bike team, which is a foreign notion to many of us. They’re fully-packed high school teams, right? Oh, it’s unbelievable. I went to Branson High School in Marin and started bike racing my freshman year. I did it in the spring as cross training for running. I was really into cross-country and was having some early success in the local leagues and was really motivated.
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