Sunday, September 22, 2013

Must Read: Swim Bike Run: Our Triathlon Story

I just finished reading Swim Bike Run: Our Triathlon Story by Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee and World Champion Jonathan Brownlee. It is a must read for triathletes, elite athletes, potential Olympians, swimmers, cyclists, runners or general sports fans.

For the triathlete, the best in the world offer tips on racing and training for a triathlon. For the elite athlete or potential Olympian, they offer their opinions on training, competitions, coming back from injury, fitness, sports psychology, and dealing with pressure and the Olympic experience. Topics that are present in most sports. For the sports fan, it tells the story of two Yorkshire brothers who grow up swimming, biking and running their way to Olympic glory in their home country.

Like a typical autobiography, it starts in the Brownlee brothers' childhood. They describe how they became involved in the triathlon from running cross-country races, swimming at a local club and biking wherever they went. They loved all three sports not thinking of becoming triathletes. Jonny being the younger brother wasn't as interested as Alistair but rather than sit on the side of the pool when Alistair was swimming, he swam too (although he did not like it at first). Alistair was the leader and Jonny the follower.

There is typical sibling stories that are remembered differently. One of them saying "he won't agree but..." then the other telling the same story from his perspective.

They are brutally honest about each other's faults (and strengths) with a chapter dedicated to "Brother on Brother".  I did wonder if they had been so honest at the time, or if some opinions came out while writing the book.

"Jonny told the interviewer how helpful he'd been when I was injured, how he'd waited to take me training, how he'd stopped to hold doors open for me. I was gobsmacked. My first reaction was disbelief -- 'Clear off, Jonny!' But I think he actually believed it, or at least wanted to believe it."

Jonny is open about believing that he can not beat his older brother, but it's not as simple as Alistair being the big brother.

"I had never beaten Alistair when we had both been fit. When I had come out on top they were both freak occurrences -- I knew he was below par, I knew what he had gone through the week before. I didn't know how to beat him. But he knew how to beat me. And I felt that if I were on my best-ever day and he was on his best-ever day, then he would beat me.
It's not a fraternal blind spot. If I were to train with anyone who was constantly beating me in our run sessions, then I would assume they would beat me in a race situation. That's just what happens. When Alistair and I play each other at tennis, I have always won. So I expect to keep winning."

They are also honest in their belief in themselves often sounding cocky, but being as dominant as they are, it would sound fake if they said "we were lucky to get the win."

Examples of their self-confidence include:

 "If some random rider were to get out of the saddle and sprint away up the road, everyone would now look at us before doing anything, almost as if to say, what are those two going to do? If Jonny and I attack together, you can sometimes see our rivals thinking, ach, there's no point chasing them. I'm sure I've been away and people have thrown in the towel, so we now try to exploit that by doing it more and more".
"The strangest thing about it was how easy it all felt. The bike had felt good, and the hardest part on the run was the first lap. From that point on I just felt better and better. Even as I ran round I was thinking: should it really feel this easy? .... You train so hard that you always want to race to the best of your ability. You want to go as fast as you can for as long as you can. Well, winning Madrid felt so easy that I didn't have to. There was no stimulus to really push myself as hard as I could because I was winning comfortably while running comfortably."

I imagined a rival reading it and wondering what they thought, especially Javier Gomez. Although they have high praise and respect for Gomez they also analyzed him and his performances.

"I can tell straight away how Gomez is feeling by what's happening to his mouth. If his lips are pulled back, if his teeth are a little exposed, he's struggling."

They are also quite blunt on their opinions of fellow racers but often times don't name names.

 "Walking away afterwards, pushing your bike, hair sticking up with sweat, the fragments of other athletes' justifications and rationalizations can be both amusing and infuriating, 'Oh, I came twelfth, but I did the fastest run.' 'If only I'd made that lead group on the swim I'd have won.' It's nothing but self-deception. Al will have killed himself on the bike to establish his winning lead. If that deluded guy does make the lead swim-group next time, he probably still won't win, because that harder swim/bike will take its toll."

They wrote about competitors making excuses if the weather was bad and would actually revel with those thoughts before races knowing which athletes could be discounted and wouldn't try their best. They talked about their competitors not being able to keep up with them and about trying to push the pace in order to hurt them. They weren't shy in naming names when describing specific races.

"Racing in the World Series event in Madrid in 2011, Al, Javier Gomez and I were dragging the bike pack round. We were doing all the work. I looked back and saw Olympic Champion Jan Frodeno wasn't doing a thing. I was only twenty at the time, but laughably I wasn't having it. I dropped back. 'Come on, Frodo, you lazy git -- come and do some work!' He looked at me desperately. 'Give me two minutes, two minutes.' 'No, Frodo, you can have one flipping minute!'... "I love these moments. It's the very heart of the race. And I particularly enjoy it when people are much more tired than you, when you're shouting at them to come through and then you realize, okay, you can't come through because you're spent. You look at them and think: you're suffering, and I'm not."

Before reading that paragraph, I watched last weekend's grand finale have the exact same circumstances. Gomez and the Brownlees were doing all the work on the bike when one of the Brownlees went back to yell at the other cyclists to do some work. I had never noticed them doing that before, so it was interesting to read it in the book afterwards. Last week, they may have been trying to hurt their competitors more than usual knowing that Alistair wouldn't be able to run well with his injury.

Mixed in with their personal experiences are three separate sections for Swim, Bike and Run that are invaluable to a budding triathlete (or swimmer, cyclist, runner). These sections include:

  • Why swim (bike, run)
  • Why we swim (cycle, run) as we do
  • The hard yards (training)
  • The secret of Triathlon swimming (cycling, running)
  • How to Improve Your Swimming (Bike Technique)
  • Coaches' Corner (with tips and example of training sessions)

Another separate section is entitled The Brownlee Way where they discuss body and mind.
They also describe their "rules/tips" which include:

  • Be consistent
  • Train with others
  • Set goals
  • Mix it up
  • Prepare for anything
  • Race as you train
  • Listen to your body
  • Do something rather than nothing
  • Make it fun

I won't go in detail, but I could have used some of those tips when I used to compete.

Finishing the book after seeing Javier Gomez win the Grand Final last week (with Alistair injured once again) I did wonder if Gomez read their book and changed his training. The commentator was saying that Gomez had been training with a track specialist and improving his kick at the end. He outlasted Jonny at the Grand Final as Alistair stopped running to cheer on his brother in the final straight when he was far behind struggling with his injury.

The most insightful parts of the book are when they discuss the sport of triathlon, the tactics and strategy that are involved and how they have succeeded and co-operated as brothers.

"[at a] training camp...we were running 400 metre laps in 64 seconds. Some triathletes watching couldn't understand it, because our pace during races is closer to 71 seconds for 400 metres. What that intensity gives us is the ability to react to moves in races, and to make them. If you want to run 10 kilometres in 30 minutes, it's not just about being able to run a kilometre in three minutes -- you need to be capable of running it in 2 minutes 50 seconds too, because the pace will rise and fall during the race itself. And if you are used to running faster, then running at the steady pace becomes easier and more efficient."
"You're never sure with triathlon whether it attracts obsessive people in the first place or it makes you obsessive, but the relationship is there regardless."
"I've trained next to divers before. I know they do train hard, but fundamentally they just dive into water, don't they? I'll watch them when I'm slogging up and down the swimming pool and feel a touch aggrieved. But what great about the sport we do is a simple equation: what you put in, you get out. In a skill-based sport it's nowhere near as straightforward. When I played football there were some lazy lads who still had the best touch you'd ever seen. If you're lazy in triathlon you won't even get started."

As for Canadian content, they mention Simon Whitfield twice. Once to explain how triathlon has changed since Simon won the first Olympic triathlon in 2000. They were comparing how fast the run has to be now in order to win. The 2004 run was even slower than the 2000 one.

Here's the other time:

"I remember talking to Simon Whitfield, the first-ever Olympic triathlon gold medallist, before I raced in Beijing. He told me that he made sure he was good enough not to have to worry about qualification, which was another way of saying that if you're good enough to win a medal, you will be selected without having to think about it."

In the end, what was clear to me was that the talent, genetics and love for swimming, cycling and running were there from the start (especially for Alistair). Jonny did play other sports that he loved. Their training regimen and determination have made them the best in their sport. Jonny has definitely benefited from having Alistair as a brother. Without Alistair, I don't believe that Jonny makes it to world level. He didn't have the self-confidence or training knowledge in the formative years. He followed what Alistair was doing, but now Jonny has the talent, knowledge and determination to hold his own. Alistair could have done it on his own, but he has also benefited from training with the second (or third) best triathlete in the world. They have both benefited from training and competing with a teammate who wants each other to succeed as much as they want to succeed themselves.

Reading the book also gave me a different appreciation for the triathlon. I understand the tactical part a lot more and what it takes to excel at it (or at least survive for the recreational triathlete).

Sharing their story and tips with young British athletes, will invariably leave a legacy of British triathletes who will grow up wanting to be like the Brownlees. They hosted their first "BrownleeTri" sprint triathlon in their county this weekend with over 800 participants. British triathlon will be alive and well way past the Brownlees' retirement.

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