Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The (Real) Life of the Pros, Part 2:
Team Marsh & the Five Year Mark

Copyright (C) 2011 Kathryn Hunter
In 2005, after Amy crossed the line as first amateur and third overall at the Buffalo Springs 70.3, she had two important decisions to make. Decision 1, she'd just unexpectedly qualified for Kona – was she going to take the slot? She had to give an answer no later than that evening, in literally a matter of hours. At the time, she hadn't planned to do an Ironman-distance race, and in fact had no desire to even attempt one, but friends urged her to accept, saying she would never get another chance at Hawaii. So after agonizing back and forth until the very last minute of the cutoff, with her heart in her throat, she called to say she was in.

Decision 2 was much easier. Brandon Marsh had something that had been burning a hole in his pocket for more than 48 hours, but it had just never felt like the right time. So when they got back home to Austin after the race, and Amy came over to his apartment, he asked her to help him unpack. Amy was reluctant at first, making it clear that she just wanted to lie on the couch and watch TV, but Brandon was adamant. So after Amy dumped his duffel bag out – "There, it's unpacked" – and Brandon had a minor heart attack – "Something else is in there...right?" – Amy found the ring, and Brandon presented the next big question. This time, the answer required no deliberation.

Married in January of 2006, the Marshes have just crossed the big five-year mark. They still live in Austin, but spend four to six months of the year racing and training out of the country. Brandon, 36 years old, has been a pro since 2004, and Amy, 33, since 2006. Brandon currently coaches with Team TBB, and they are working towards eventually being on deck coaches with a group of athletes. In terms of overall finishes, 2009 and 2010 were very successful years for them both. In 2009, Brandon placed fourth in the Buffalo Springs 70.3, ninth in Ironman Florida, and ninth in Ironman Wisconsin, and in 2010, he came in fifth at Ironman UK, and took ninth place at 70.3 New Orleans and Ironman China. Amy was first overall female at the 2009 Ironman Wisconsin and the Buffalo Springs 70.3, and followed up in 2010 with a first at Ironman China, Ironman Lake Placid, Triathlon Du Jura, and the Rev 3 Iron-distance in Cedar Point. Last October, she also returned to Kona for the first time since 2005, coming in at 11th overall.

The Marshes joined Team Bike Boutique, coached by Brett Sutton, about a year ago. Before then, Brandon and Amy had a unique relationship – they were not only husband and wife, but coach and trainee.

Brandon and Amy had met at masters swimming at the University of Texas in 2001, often exchanging a "hey how are ya" across the lane lines. Brandon was the first to tell Amy she should give triathlon a shot – Amy, a lifelong swimmer, was of course fairly opposed to the idea of running and cycling. But in 2002, she did her first triathlon, the Danksin, on a borrowed mountain bike. "I don't remember how I placed," she says, "but I remember going home and looking for the next race to do because I absolutely loved it."

After she signed up for the Gulf Coast Triathlon, she asked Brandon, who'd been competing since he was 13 and had gone to Kona as an age grouper the year before, if he coached anybody. He said, "Well, no. But would you like to be a guinea pig?" Amy and another friend from masters swimming became Brandon's first students. Alongside his full-time job in environmental consulting, Brandon started writing workouts for the two of them every few weeks.

Amy was the one to ask Brandon out the first time. After a successful finish at Gulf Coast, she called him to say she'd like to take him to dinner as a thank you. When Brandon's coworkers got wind of it, they said, "Sounds like a date." Brandon told them, "It's not a date. She gives me money. I give her workouts." That night he and Amy met and talked for two hours at the restaurant. When he got to work the next day, his coworkers asked him how it went. "You know," Brandon said. "I think it was a date."

So after a few more dinners and Shrek 2 and traveling to races together, the coaching got a little more complicated. Amy's biggest block of training came before her first Kona race, while they were engaged. Brandon says he can remember the "breakdown" very clearly. "She was saying, 'I'm so tired, but I feel like I'm not doing enough training.' So I asked her if she wanted to do more, and she said 'No, I can't do any more. I'm so tired... But I'm not doing enough training.'" Fortunately, he says, it was only about three weeks out from the race.

In coaching, there's always a delicate balance between the coddling Dr. Jekyll and the tough guy Mr. Hyde. Take it too easy on an athlete, and she turns into a cream puff. Take it too hard, and you'll either get a raging case of Black Swan, or you'll push her out of the sport entirely. For the Marshes, add to this already complex and finely nuanced relationship the domestic day-to-day. You'd have to assume it would be impossible. Most married people would rather stab themselves in the foot with a cheese fork than take direct orders day in and day out from their spouse.

Amy and Brandon learned the hard way, early on, how to weather the storms. About four weeks into their marriage, they took a trip out to Fort Davis. The landscape in this part of West Texas is legendary, for its desolate beauty as well as the heat and rolling hills. The Marshes were doing a 75-mile loop, which started out with a grueling six-mile climb. Amy, not quite the cycling phenom we know now, had only been biking seriously for a few years. "You didn't tell me it was all uphill," Amy said, to which Brandon returned, "Well, I told you it was pretty hilly." And from there it was Brandon at the front, Amy falling off, Brandon slowing down to wait, Amy back on his wheel, Brandon speeding up, Amy falling off, and so on, with both parties beginning to imagine how nice it would be to toss the other in a patch of prickly pear.

"I'm pretty blunt sometimes," Brandon says, in way of prefacing his remembered comment. "I said something like, 'Look, this isn't a neighborhood ride. We can't be out for six hours – we're going to run out of water. There's nothing out here.'" Amy, of course, was less than pleased by his direct approach, and told him she'd rather he just rode on without her. So he did.

"We call this our divorce story," Amy adds to the telling.

But what better to save a freshly minted marriage than a sudden, redemptive calamity? Brandon was waiting for Amy at the outskirts of town. When she met up with him and as they were having it out once more, Brandon noticed that her seat was crooked. So he took out his multi-tool and straightened it...and the seat post clamp broke. With six miles to go – again, nothing but steady, steep climbing – and a 100-to-1 chance of finding a tarantula before a mechanic, Brandon swapped his bike out for hers and rode the rest of the route standing out of the saddle. Ah, chivalry. Amy, of course, felt a little more friendly toward him after that.

And now, after five years, they still train together nearly every day. Brandon continues to push the pace, and Amy has to work hard to keep up, but maybe that's the secret to some of their success. On the bike, Brandon says if Amy's barely hanging on he knows he's riding well, but if she's "chatty cathy," then he needs to pick it up. And Amy's competitiveness keeps her chasing Brandon through run and swim workouts, too, (especially the swim workouts – Amy's the born and bred swimmer in the family) even when she's dead tired. Now that they know each other better, they're a little more careful about pushing each other's buttons, though it does still happen now and again. Sometimes it's just too tempting… In spite of the challenges, Amy says, "It's just nice waking up knowing you have a training partner for the day, every day."

It sounds a little like a fairy tale – big names, big travels, big wins, and spending every day doing what you love alongside the person you love. But despite their success, even the Marshes have the same relentless demon as most pro triathletes: finances.

"Some pros think that if you raise up the bottom end of the prize money, then you elevate the field across the board and make it less of a fringe sport," Brandon says, mentioning that the Slowtwitch interviews with Mark Allen and Chris McCormack particularly resonated with him. In his interview, Mark Allen had compared the French Open and the Masters golf tournament's credibility to that of triathlon. "Until race directors and sponsors raise the bar and compensate the pros financially for something close to what the athlete is worth, triathlon will never be perceived on par with those types of events," Allen said. ["Mark Allen on prize money – and a Chilean surprise," by Timothy Carlson; Jan 31, 2011]

Kona's first place purse is $110k, compared to $1.35 million to the winner of the US Open. Not to mention that the top 100 golfers in 2010 made at least $1 million in prize money alone, and the top 10, around $5 million. Also, of the WTC races, Kona is the biggest payout by far. All others range from between $3k and $18.5k. And although it's clear that the winners are underpaid, since they're often able to take advantage of sponsorships and appearance fees, the athletes who suffer the most from the skimpy payouts are the ones just starting out. Often a fourth or fifth place finish is barely enough to pay for your travel.

There could be some positive aspects to scraping by. Maybe poverty keeps you pure, but then again, maybe not. Maybe it just keeps you thin.

There's no trust fund or mystery donor keeping the Marshes in the caviar and fine champagnes – they make it work with a combination of accumulated savings, coaching income, and winnings. And they don't stock their pantry with fish eggs and swanky booze. Their favorite dinner the night before an Ironman? A pint of ice cream. "We're fortunate to be on the end of things where we are able to make it, where we're able to save a little bit," Brandon says. But they're also realistic. "We like to say that we're retired now, and we'll work later," Amy says.

There are other luxuries that pros don't have, too, little freedoms that any ordinary soul would take for granted. Going through a different, arbitrary athletic "phase" or "focus" ("I'll try parasailing this year!"), deciding to have a baby, skipping a few weeks of working out, resting an injury completely, or whatever it might be... You can't alternate triathlon training with another all-consuming obsession or responsibility and still hope to be the best. Your life is always pointed toward the next big race on the horizon, or you're falling behind.

You're also forced to take the risks with the rewards. Last year when they were training with TBB in Switzerland, Brandon was riding with James Cunnama, and Amy with some of the other women on the team. It was cold and wet, and Brandon and James came up on a group of cyclists stopped on the other side of some rail road tracks. At first they thought nothing of it, but when they realized the cyclists were members of their team, Brandon started counting heads...and realized that Amy was missing. "It's something that everyone worries about if your significant other trains, or if you don't train together," he says. He rode up on the scene to see Amy lying on the ground, surrounded by blood. She was badly cut up and bruised on her right side, and had a concussion. "She literally looked like she'd been in a boxing match. Black eye, stitches," Brandon says.

Then, a week later, still in Switzerland, when Amy was out riding again she was hit by a car. This time, she fell on her left side. The man stopped, and was clearly shocked to see the extent of her injuries – she quickly explained that no, he was not responsible for all of that. Amy did some water running in the following weeks. "But four or five weeks later, she won Lake Placid," Brandon says.

And always for Brandon there were minor injuries – shin splints, IT band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, and on and on. For Amy, there'd been a string of long-term set-backs – two years of relentless plantar fasciitis (one year in the right foot, the next in the left), a stress fracture and six weeks in a boot, tendonitis in her ankle, the crashes. "This is the first winter probably since I started triathlon that I've actually been running consistently," she says.

And the running is going well. That's why the Marshes are hoping for big things this year – for Amy, no less than a podium finish at Kona.

Plenty of people would say that building a life around triathlon is impossible – that Ironman training is, in fact, the fast-track to divorce. But you never know quite where life will take you – sometimes the woman swimming in the lane next to you becomes your lifetime training partner; sometimes the race starts off badly and you end up first cross the line; sometimes all the most important decisions of your life come up within 24 hours; and sometimes, rarest of all, you get to do what you love, and it works out.

I asked the Marshes what they plan to do in the long-term, when they're done with competition. Brandon hopes to continue coaching – he says he wants to always stay involved in triathlon in some capacity. He and Amy exchange a smile. They're in no hurry, they say, but they've got other plans, too.

Brandon says, "I'm waiting for her to cross the finish line in Kona one year and say, 'Ok, let's have kids now. Start tomorrow!'"

Amy's next race is Abu Dhabi on March 12, and Brandon's is Singapore 70.3 on March 20. Cheer them on!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cervelo P4 Di2 with internal routing

Here is a Cervelo P4 that we installed Di2 on. We routed the cables internal and as one can see there are very little exposed. The front bottle was drilled out to hide the batterie. Gromets were used to give it a cleaner look. So with some bravery, a drill, a little soldering, you can make the fastest frame have the fastest cable routing.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Aerodynamics: Victory by a Thousand Cuts

(C) Copyright 2011 John Mott
Jordan Rapp, a 2x 3x 5x Ironman Champion meticulous about aero details | Photo By Eric Wynn

Some say that aerodynamic tricks are silly, and they're right (at least partly). There's no single aerodynamic gimmick on the market, no single tweak you can do with your cable routing or spare kit configuration that will move you up from the back of the pack to the front, or even from the middle of the pack to the front. Given this fact, some conclude that rather than spending time thinking about bike setup, one should spend that time training instead. Not bad advice, since training more is a sure way to get faster for most of us, but it does overlook an important fact – when you cut a few seconds here and a few more there, and add up that time savings over dozens of little improvements, you can end up with a huge improvement. And don't let anyone tell you that you have to be going a certain speed for aerodynamic improvements to help – since slower riders spend more time on the course, they actually save more time at a given distance (even though they save less drag).

So details matter, but there are significant challenges in wading through various marketing claims and deciding on the best options for bike gear and position. Marketing claims are often complete fabrications, fast positions are often uncomfortable ones, and the best gear is sometimes prohibitively expensive. ATC would like to help by giving you our top ten aero tips, many of which will not cost you a penny. So here they are, listed in approximate order of "Bang For The Buck."

1. Position: Get yourself in a comfortable, powerful, aerodynamic position. The best place to start is to read up on F.I.S.T. positions. This philosophy of fitting is an industry standard used by pro cyclists and triathletes alike. (ATC offers F.I.S.T Certified Fits.) It may be that your current bike doesn't have the head tube or seat tube angle necessary to achieve your best position, which is where having a tri-specific frame is a big help (see tip #2). While you want to try and get as aerodynamic as possible, your position must also remain comfortable enough to not distract you from the real goal – any serious pain should be suffered in your legs (that is, in pedaling faster). It's worth taking the time to figure out how to get yourself aerodynamic and comfortable, because potentially minutes of time are on the table. Unless you need a new frame, this will cost you very little money, but it may take a lot of experimenting with small adjustments to make a fast position work for you.

2. Frame: A good tri frame will provide two things: minimal aerodynamic drag and support for a good aerodynamic position. Once you know what your ideal position is, you'll want to find a frame that can support that position. A professional fit can help recommend frames and sizes that will work for you, or you can read up on stack and reach and figure it out for yourself. Ideally you want a frame that will fit your position with as few spacers as possible, and a normal length stem (70 to 120mm). It's better to have a nice aerodynamic shaped head tube than round spacers sticking into the wind! (And safer, too.) Good tri frames will also hide cables inside the frame, feature aerodynamic tube shapes wherever possible, shield the rear wheel from the wind, and provide a steep seat tube angle that allows you to get the front of your body low while keeping your hip angle open for power.

Beware of frames that only look aerodynamic. Stick with brands with a proven track record of wind tunnel development like Cervelo and Cannondale. Generic frames are often solid bikes that look great, but they rarely are truly aerodynamic.

3.Remove Clutter: This is a freebie! It's common to see people with multiple water bottles and large contraptions to hold spares and food at sprint and Olympic distance triathlons. The truth will set you free – in a sprint you probably don't need any water bottles, and you usually need only one bottle for Olympic distances. Since longer races have hand-ups, you can often get by with just one or two bottles even for half and full Ironman races. So in short, don't haul around gallons of water that you're not going to use, but be sure to try these strategies out in training so you can be confident and comfortable with them. Also, keep your spare kit as compact and simple as possible. Don't think that just because you have spares and bottles behind your seat that the wind isn't hitting them. It probably is! Inexpensive aerodynamic water bottle placement options abound. One of the best, and simplest, is to mount a cage between your aero bars with zip ties. This setup was used by Macca while winning the 2010 Ironman Championship with an aggressive attack on the bike leg. Others prefer the larger Profile AeroDrink style setups with a straw. Be sure to cut that straw short, though – round shapes are among the least aerodynamic possible. ATC stocks a wide selection of bottles and cages you can try.

Race numbers are sometimes provided as large pieces of paper. You can attach these in an airfoil shape around the seat tube with a bit of tape. (This way if you don't already have an aero seat post, now you do!) Also you do not have to wear your race number during the bike leg of most triathlons. Get yourself a race number belt and leave it in transition until the run so it isn't flapping around in the wind while you bike. WTC/Ironman brand races do require you wear the number however.

4. Tires and Tubes: There's a great tragedy in the world of triathlon and bike racing, and it occurs all too often. A cyclist will spend $2000+ on a set of fancy race wheels, and then put a slow tire on them. The result is sometimes a race wheel setup that is slower than the person's training wheels! Two things make a tire fast: rolling resistance and width. It doesn't matter much if you go with clincher or tubular, since they perform similarly when you use the same level of tire. Use the free rolling resistance chart provided by to get an idea of what tires are fast. ATC stocks some great ones like the Vittoria EVO CX 320tpi and Continental GP4000s (Recent findings from many sources indicate the 4000S has excellent aerodynamics as well as rolling resistance). If you use clinchers, pick up some latex tubes for a little extra rolling resistance improvement (and don't worry, the fast tubular tires have latex in them already). Latex tubes can be hard to find at most bike shops, but ATC always has some in stock. The good news is as you upgrade to these faster tires and tubes, you are also getting more comfortable tires and tubes! The downside is often shorter life and less puncture resistance, so save your premium tires for race day (and maybe the ATC Saturday Ride).

Tire width also plays a role in speed – the narrower a tire is, the less aerodynamic drag you will get. This is especially important up front, where the tire is not shielded by the frame at all. A good compromise for time trials is to use a narrow (19-21mm) tire up front and a normal (23mm) tire in the rear. You'll get the benefit of increased comfort and flat resistance on the rear tire, and optimum aerodynamics up front where it matters most. For road races and crits, stick with 23mm all around for better cornering stability. The author, being an aero weenie, tried a 19mm front tire in a crit once....once.

5. Aero Helmet: These are relatively cheap for the drag savings they offer. You'll want to pick the smallest size that fits comfortably, and the tail of the helmet should lay flat against your back when in your aero bars. Helmets with vents offer extra cooling on hot days, but those vents also slow the helmet down a bit. You can always tape the vents over on cold days, though. Don't worry if you tend to ride with your head down a lot. Aero helmets are faster than road helmets even when the tail is sticking up in the air.

6. Clothing: Another cheap way to go quicker – make sure your clothes don't flap around. A fancy skin suit would be ideal, but any tight-fitting clothing will work. (Some have even been known to just borrow their wife's shirts for a snug fit!) Consider avoiding gloves – it seems crazy but since they're up at the front of the bike there's a measurable drag increase from wearing them. Those looking to split aerodynamic hairs should look for suits without pockets if they don't need them. If you plan to do bike races or time trials, be sure the suit has sleeves, as sleeves are required at most cycling events. (Update: as of 2011, USAC cycling events no longer require sleeves for time trials)

If you do bike racing events, numbers are often provided that must be attached to your jersey. While it is required that you use at least four safety pins to secure it, you can also use 3M spray glue to keep it tightly attached to your jersey instead of flapping in the wind.

7. Aero Wheels Aero wheels look super cool, and they do work, but they are expensive. A disc wheel in the rear is almost always the fastest option, even on hilly courses. If you can’t face the price tag you can always get a wheel cover from Despite being a bit heavier, they are just as fast aerodynamically. For front wheels the best choices are deep rims from HED and Zipp, as they have patented rim shapes that outperform most generic wheels. Other brands, such as SRAM, license Zipp rims and can be a better value at the expense of a bit of extra weight (which, trust us, does not matter as much as people claim). The deeper the better as long as you can handle them in crosswinds. If you aren't sure how deep of a rim is right for you, feel free to drop by ATC and ask about a demo set to try. And don't be afraid to run a disc in the rear. Since the rear wheel doesn't turn and steer you, most find that they are no problem to handle at all.

8. Front End: The front of the bike hits undisturbed air and is the most important part to improve aerodynamically. Be sure that your aero bars, fork, and brake levers have nice aero shapes and minimal size. A good rule of thumb is to go with the narrowest aero bar option available, since any extra width would just be extra frontal area. (And you shouldn't be touching that basebar much anyway.) Vision makes a great line of very affordable aero bars that are also among the most aerodynamic. Those looking for the ultimate might step up to the 3T Ventus, or 3T’s uci legal options if you plan to go to some big-time bike races. For brake levers the Vision aero brake levers are incredibly aero and light, and not too expensive, so are a good choice as long as you can handle grabbing the sharp edges.

Forks are probably the single most important bike component aerodynamically. 3T makes a great line of aerodynamic forks with their Funda series, and most good TT frames like Cervelo P1/2/3/4 and Cannondale Slice come with great aero forks from the factory.

9. Cable/Wire Routing: Another freebie! Make sure your cables are not any longer than they need to be, and keep them nice and tidy. Sometimes a zip tie to make things orderly can be a help. If you have an aerodynamic shaped frame, run wires for computers and power meters along the trailing edges of tubes, not the leading edges.

10. Chainrings: A minor detail but easy to install and pretty cheap. Aerodynamic chainrings can save as much as six seconds per 40k. Once your current chainring wears out, you might as well try an aero one.

We hope these tips help to improve your races this season, but don't forget to train! Also, feel free to comment with your own aero tips.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Austin Marathon SALE Feb 18th-20th

The Livestrong Austin Marathon is next weekend, February 20, and we're celebrating the best way we know how - BEER. No, that was a joke. (Really.) We're having a sale. Get warm and cold weather gear (you never know), nutrition products, 26.2 tees, and more. And for those of you lookin to get off your feet for a while, try life on two wheels with a Cannondale starter package or a heartbreakingly aero Cervelo P2 Carbon. Today is the day of love, people! And personally, we think an aerodynamic head tube is a little better than a stuffed bear.

Best of luck next weekend, and alright, alright, we weren't kidding about the beer. But only after we set our PR. We're always looking for fresh material, so send us your local race reports, please - running, cycling, triathlon, adventure racing, and any other athletic endeavors PG-rated and interesting. Email us at

In the next few weeks, check back for articles about pro triathletes Brandon and Amy Marsh, pro mountain biker Tristan Uhl, and why you should ask a fast chick out for a ride. In the meantime, drop by the shop and check out the goods:

  • 20% off all Zoot Compression - socks, tights, shorts, calf guards
  • 20% off all nutrition products - Powerbar, Gu, Hammer, Carb-boom, E-Gel, Pure Sport, and more
  • We have 26.2 marathon tees for men and women (and 70.3 and 140.6 tees, too)
  • 2010 Bikes on sale - check out our clearance page
  • 20-40% off 2010 wetsuits and clothing

Also in stock - the 2011 Cervelo P2, Cervelo's most popular tri bike, at $2395

Cannondale Carbon Package Deal - $1795
The smoothness of carbon and all the accessories.
Cannondale Starter Road Package - $995
A great entry-level road bike with plenty of extras.
The Carbon Tri Package - $2295
A full carbon tri bike, plus shoes, pedals, helmet, and more!
The Starter Triathlon Package - $1395
Your first tri bike and all the gear you need to get out on the road. Comes with shoes, pedals, helmet, and more. Upgrade to the 2009 Jamis Comet for $100.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Kathy Rakel, the Davison D1 family, & Why Swimming Is Like Pool

Do you remember your first swim? For some, having been knee high to a starter block, it's difficult to remember. For others, who began full-sized or even with a few gray hairs, the memory is more vivid. There you are, choking on a cocktail of lake water and motor oil with your goggles kicked halfway off your face, thrashing around in what looks and behaves just like a slow pack of blind, panicked salamanders. And when you do manage to finally make it through the course and stumble onto shore, the only thing stopping you from kissing terra firma is the guy taking race photos.

The sad thing is, that scenario doesn't just describe the first, or even second, third, or tenth, race for many triathletes. Some age groupers who take themselves fairly seriously at the sport will run 60 miles a week and bike ten hours every weekend, but they won't swim more than five times a year. And technique? Forget about it. They'd sooner spend 50 bucks on an aerodynamic water bottle than an hour of coaching.

But why?

Misconception #1: If you don't learn to swim when you're young, you never will.

Kathy Rakel

When someone comes right out and tells you she's going to win gold at the Olympics in 2016 (in a tone without an ounce of bravado), you start to listen a little closer. Pro triathlete Kathy Rakel, 26, grew up in San Antonio, but currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and works full-time as an F-16 Intelligence Officer for the Air Force. (That's right, she's pretty much the chick from Top Gun, except not a lesser civilian.) She's also a member of the Air Force's Triathlon Team, which means she can train full-time roughly a quarter of the year. Since turning pro in January 2010, she's been driving out to California to train with Siri Lindley, who coaches other top triathletes like Mirinda Carfrae, Hayley Peirsol, and Leanda Cave. That's where Kathy was headed on Friday, kindly consenting to what I'd promised would be a "brief" phone interview. Interviews and word counts have one very important thing in common, however – it's hard to stick to a number when the story is good.

Last June Kathy became the first woman in the Air Force to ever win the Armed Forces Triathlon Championship. The best part? She won the race by seven minutes. She would have gone on to the international competition a few months later, but the host country cancelled at the last minute, so her current goal is to become the first American to win a gold medal at this year's World Military Championships, which will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in July. Rio de Janeiro also happens to be where the Olympics will be held in 2016. With her military background, Kathy says one simple thing fuels her passion for winning gold: a deep desire to hear the American National Anthem.

But why 2016 and not the upcoming 2012 Olympics in London? Kathy has decided she's not (quite) ready. With a full-time job, training is difficult, and she wants to focus more on her swim technique in the meantime. Kathy falls in the "non-swimmer" category - that is, unless you consider fourth-grade summer camp a solid background.

Kathy played basketball and golf in high school. She discovered triathlon in 2005 at 20 when she was at the Air Force Academy. During the spring semester, a friend encouraged her to do the sprint-distance time trials that qualified top finishers for the team that would represent the AFA at the National Collegiate Championships. Kathy took second place overall, though she'd had zero tri-specific training beforehand. "I knew enough about swimming not to drown," she says, "but actual swim workouts were completely foreign to me." Cycling was something new, as well. When she heard the Collegiate Championships would be an Olympic distance race, she politely turned down the spot on the team.

But the damage had been done - triathlon had caught her interest. She was a decent runner and a quick study at cycling, and in the fall of 2005 during an exchange program to West Point, went from complete newbie to holding the fastest bike split of the tri team by the end of a single semester. In 2006, she signed up for 2007 Ironman Arizona on a whim...finishing at 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 42 seconds, and unexpectedly set the fastest female Ironman-distance time for the Air Force Academy – a record that still stands today. That's when she started hearing "you really should try to make a go of this," and a few months later, she did.

Kathy finished that first Ironman swim at 1 hour and 8 minutes, which may sound fast to us flailers and really is quite good for a non-swimmer, but is a slow split for a would-be pro. In 2008 while getting her Masters at the University of Arizona, Kathy got really serious about her swim training, putting in five to six days a week at the pool. I asked her if in the process she had learned to love swimming, and Kathy laughed. "I love the combination of the three sports, and would absolutely not enjoy doing any of them as a single sport," she says. "I love it, but in the context of also cycling and running."

The hardest part about her swim training, she says, was the mental aspect. "I was very hard on myself, and I always expected my times to get faster, and to see personal bests at any workout." Fourteen months ago, she was feeling discouraged with her swims, often getting out of the water early, and sometimes in tears. "Having a positive approach might actually be more important than the technique work," Kathy says. "You have to be in the right frame of mind for everything else to even matter." Lindley helped her adjust her mental game as well as her training plan; now Kathy focuses on shorter distances than she used to, doing more 25-meter and 50-meter repeats.

Kathy says she's also seen an incredible improvement in her stroke from a half-day swim clinic with Sheila Taormina, an Olympic gold medalist who competed for the US as a swimmer, triathlete, and pentathlete in three different Olympiads. "Her approach completely clicked with me, and my results show that," Kathy says, admitting that she also studied and highlighted a great deal of Taormina's recent book, Call the Suit.

The swim matters more for Kathy than it does for most. Not only does she compete as a pro, but her military competitions (and, of course, the Olympics) are ITU, draft-legal races. The swim leg may not necessarily win a race in that context, but it can certainly lose it. Kathy admits she has a long way to go before she's first out of the water, but progress has been good, which keeps her motivated.

Sometimes it's easy to put the cart before the horse, or the medal before the five years of training, and so on, so I liked Kathy's final piece of advice most of all. "It's not just about being passionate about the sport," she says, "but about being passionate about particular goals you can work toward." So fellow flailers, take it one stroke at a time.

Fortunately for the non-swimming population, Kathy's not the only pro to start from scratch and work her way up. Another classic example (thank you Slowtwitch!) is pro cyclist John Howard, who at the Hawaii Ironman in 1980 swam a 1:51 and came in third overall, then with a year of practice and coaching, swam a 1:11 in '81 and won it. (Click here to add to the thread.)

Kathy races as an ambassador of Team Red White and Blue, which seeks an active role in assisting wounded veterans as they reintegrate into society upon returning from combat and leaving their position in the Active Duty force or National Guard. She is also sponsored by RTS bikes, Champion System, Ultimate Cycles, Clean Bottle, Doctor Hoy's Natural Pain Relief Gel, GU, Profile Design, PowerCranks, and Team FCA Endurance. For more information, visit her blog.

Misconception #2: You can teach yourself how to swim well.

(Ok, that's a lie. You can, but it takes a lot longer... Do you really want to learn from scratch what previous generations have already perfected? It's kind of like re-engineering the banana instead of buying it at the grocery store.)

The Davison D1 family

Put three life-long swimmers under one roof and what do you get? A lot of heated, hours-long arguments about two-second differences...and an empty pantry.

James Davison, his wife Bree, and his two younger brothers, Scott and Cole, live in a big, noisy house in South Austin, a house where if you knock you're given a reprimand - the door's always open, they'll say. Each of the three brothers, originally from Mission Viejo, California, has swam about as long as he's walked. James was a scholarship athlete at University of California, Berkeley, and Scott at the University of Cincinnati. Cole currently works as a swim coach at Life Time Fitness in South Austin.

James, a world-ranked swimmer, competed in everything from the 200-meter to the mile through high school and college, winning one high school national championship race and making top 5 in several others. He did his first sprint triathlon in 2004, at the age of 25, and it went down about as you'd expect. He was first out of the water, then got passed...and passed...and passed on the bike and run. He soon learned that he could never set foot in the pool for six months and still come in with the lead pack on the swim, but he had to train hard in everything else.

While getting his MBA at the University of Arizona, James was the swim coach for the university's club triathlon team, the Tricats. Bree helped, as well, both of them teaching - as is the Davison way - always from the water and never from the deck. Here in Austin, James works full-time for IBM, but he still dabbles in a little swim instruction. Probably for the sheer entertainment value. (Everyone needs a laugh now and again, right?)

According to James, there's nothing special about triathletes. Or in other words, it's not that they're inherently bad swimmers. The way he sees it, there are "swimmers" and "non-swimmers," and triathletes fall in the latter category, mostly because they haven't spent enough time in the water to feel at ease with the idea of putting their face (far enough) under the drink. "It's not necessarily something you need to start at four, or at any specific age," he says. "It's more that if you spend a certain amount of time doing something, you get comfortable with it." It's not a revolutionary concept, just a hard-to-follow one: practice makes perfect.

That said, practicing the wrong thing won't help you as much as practicing the right thing. "Most non-swimmers try too hard," James says. "They try to do things that the water would do for them for free." The first thing he works to make beginning swimmers understand is that their speed, or lack of, is not a fitness problem. And he asks them to take what they know and throw it out the window. Learning to swim - the right way - is learning a completely new skill. The good thing is, getting a handle on a brand new skill is much faster than fine-tuning an old one, or so says James.

James often breaks it down to the simplest element, and then goes from there. "Swimming is floating faster," is his mantra. "Where your arms are and what they're doing is really one of the less important things in swimming," he says. "There's 20 different ways to move your arms that are just as good as any other way. If you're doing the fundamental things wrong, then how your arms move isn't going to help you." Often he'll start you on floating and rotation drills.

"Hardcore runners are always the hardest to teach, because they try to run in the water," James says. "The hip motions of swimming and the hip motions of running are fundamentally opposite of each other - in running your hips don't move, your shoulders and arms move. In swimming, your hips move and your shoulders and arms move in the same direction at the same time, instead of opposite of each other."

The first thing, he says, is to break the person's concept of timing. "Some people aren't willing to put in the time it would take to get good at it or to learn, but the important thing is to show them the right timing and then make them practice that timing enough that they can walk away and come back two days later and do it right again."

It worked for my husband, who with three lessons went from 40th in his age group to fourth. (We won't talk about my swim times.) When I forced an estimate out of him, James said four to eight hours of real technique coaching (often hard to find, he says), spread out over six weeks, is what it might take for most beginners to see a significant improvement. Now, while the swim may not be the longest portion of a race or the most important (particularly in sprint or Ironman distances), it does seem like even an hour or two of learning and practice would benefit a triathlete more than an aerodynamic water bottle or skinnier brake levers.

Philosophies differ widely, so take 'em or leave 'em, but here's some Davison swim tips:
  1. "Swimming is floating faster."
  2. Swim the straightest line possible. In a pack start, pick the shortest line between you and the buoy - don't follow the herd and just line up in the middle, as one side or the other is likely to be closer.
  3. Never sight the buoy in rough water. Always sight the tallest object in the distance behind it. Also, sight as part of your breathing motion.
  4. On race day, don't warm up in the water if it's cold. It lowers your core body temperature and forces your body to work hard to stay warm.
  5. If you can, wear a wetsuit for competition. The worse a swimmer you are, the more worthwhile it will be. A wetsuit helps you float.
  6. The best place to draft is directly behind another swimmer. The second best place to draft is alongside the person, with your shoulders roughly at his or her hips.
  7. In training, flip turns are always worth it. It just means you're getting more actual swim-time in.
  8. If you're a new swimmer, breathe every other stroke and switch sides during training. That said, if you're talented enough to swim in a straight line without breathing on both sides, have at it.
  9. Do kick, but mainly to rotate. Your feet are powerful tools for rotation, and rotation is where most of your power should come from.
  10. Get your head farther down in the water. If the water hits somewhere around your hairline, you're not low enough. Most of your head should be under the water.
  11. Don't worry about your hands and arms until you're swimming 1:20s. Arm movements, technique, and kicking, are all secondary to floating. The right head and body position will get you to 1:20s per 100. Once you're there, then you can start worrying about what to do with your hands and arms.
  12. If your shoulders are hurting, nine times out of ten it's a technique problem, not just muscle soreness from working hard.

As Kathy said, the biggest hurdle to becoming a faster swimmer is probably the one in your head. The best thing to do when you're feeling down about your swimming - like when your coach offers to "race" you to the other end of the pool with his hands behind his back while wiggling his left big toe and whistling Howdy Doody (and still wins) - is to challenge him to a little time trial (oh, how we shall miss thee RunFAR TTs) and then put those air foils and mad bike training to good use.

For coaching inquiries, email

Misconception #3: All training, swim or otherwise, is work.

Patricia Murphy, and why swimming is like pool

Age grouper Tricia Murphy, 40, is another lifelong swimmer, but you can always depend on her to take a slightly different approach. "I like swimming, but nowhere near as much as running and biking," she says. "I love to talk and it's hard to carry on a conversation during a swim work out."

Tricia has more energy than anyone I know. And I'm talking sheer force of personality, not just her lung-busting swim power. I met her last summer after she'd raced and finished as first overall female three weekends in a row. She had also, after 15 years of competing (and often winning her age group) in triathlons, just quit smoking. I'm truly glad that I met her when I did, and not before. Legend tells of Tricia lighting up right after the finish line - something that might have broken my spirit, had I just seen her come in ahead of me.

Tricia is often first out of the water on the swim. Her current goal (and she has come close) is to break an hour in an Ironman-distance swim. She's lived in Austin 18 years. Originally from Rhode Island, she started swimming young, at a local YMCA. As soon as she'd completed the classes - tadpoles, starfish, sharks, and all other aquatic stepping stones - she joined the YMCA swim team. One of nine children, she says she guesses it was something to keep her busy, or in other words, a variety of free child care.

"I'm really glad that my parents made me learn to swim as a child," Tricia says. "Even if you're not going to do triathlon as an adult, it's a good thing to know how to do." She smiles and adds, "I think everyone should know how to play pool, too." As good as she is, Tricia has always maintained that for her, triathlon is, first and foremost, what she does for fun.

Not to contradict myself here, but I think Tricia's philosophy is solid, and often under-represented on this space. For some, the danger of triathlon training is taking it too seriously. You can look at swimming as a life skill, a challenge, or an occasional venture into the unknown, but unless it is your job, you shouldn't look at it as work. After all, you're not getting paid for it, and "work" that you're not getting paid for is simply not going to get done.

So for heaven's sake, don't foster a new nicotine addiction, but give swimming a real chance, and keep your love for all three pieces of triathlon alive...even if that love is not entirely equal.

Copyright 2011 Kathryn Hunter
Contact Kat at with questions, concerns, corrections, or ideas.