Ryan: So is this like a call and response situation or would you like me to just monologue?
Laura: I’m assuming it will break out into a monologue at some point since that’s your general nature.
R: It will be hard to avoid that.
L: We’re going to try to target the monologue into a specific direction. I’ll start off by saying that you play many roles in our 4 member family system: there’s husband, dog dad, frequent subject of my psychological experiments, to name a few. But today we’re going to talk about your role as Ironman sherpa / endurance sherpa / my life sherpa in general.
We have raced 11 Ironmans together as a team, I’d say with a pretty high level of success, and I think that we have co-evolved our approach and our participation within each race. What are your thoughts about that?
R: There’s no choice but for this to be a monologue so buckle up. First and foremost, it’s funny that you started it by saying that I play so many different roles. The interesting thing about being a sherpa is that it’s encompassing of all the other roles that you play in your family. I think a lot of people see the race day sherpa, and I don’t want to belittle that part, but I really believe that being a sherpa or being a teammate begins when the training begins.
The evolution of it is really interesting to look back on because I think that one of the special things about you and I is that we almost start doing some of the right things before we even know what we’re doing. We jumped into being an Ironman team before knowing anything about it. But it definitely is an evolution because at first, I didn’t understand what it entailed. You told me what you were doing but to try to conceptualize a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike plus a marathon – until you’re there, you don’t understand what it really is. So I think that any first race is surprising, overwhelming, super exciting and fulfilling. I think Ironman racing is where you can see humanity at its best and feel real joy around you.
To talk about where we’re at now, together, between the things you’ve gone through like canceled swims, canceled races, combined with the things I’ve supported you through – that I think I’ve supported you through – I think that what we’re best at now is being ready for all of our plans to go wrong. If you go in knowing that it’s going to be a weird day – that’s so much safer than over-planning it. So I think that’s where I’m at now – I’m more comfortable with the ambiguity than I’ve ever been before.
I told you I’ve got some good monologues in me.
L: Yes, I know you.
I like what you said about the beginning where we didn’t know what to expect but we sort of fell into our roles naturally. At my 1st Ironman (Arizona), even before the evolution of csstumes and stuff like that, you did stand outside in the rain with me all day. Can you talk about that and what made you feel compelled to do that?
R: I just knew that I wanted to do the race with you.
I knew that I wanted to be a part of your race day and I could sense a transfer of energy. I think the obvious energy transfer is what a spectator can give a racer but there’s also the energy that comes back. The more I saw you and the more I gave to you, the more you gave to me to be in it with you. And that’s why I wanted to be in the elements. Almost every other spectator had found a bridge to stand under and I just stood out in the rain.
Then after that experience, we both read that book Endure (by Alex Hutchinson) and that’s when I learned that there was actually a science behind what I was doing – the fact that smiling measurably decreases the experience of pain. That’s where those costumes come from, that’s what it evolved from – from standing out in the rain to really understanding not just what I could do for you but for other racers too. There’s a lot of people who probably see me do that and think I’m just being a clown. I know that’s what it looks like because I’m in these ridiculous costumes but there’s a real reason why I do that. The book is about optimizing performance by non standard performance means. Everyone knows that you can get faster by training, but how can you improve your outcomes on race day? That’s why they talk about how the New York City Marathon is the easiest marathon to run because there’s people lining the streets the entire way. So I thought that if I could find a way to make you laugh or smile, it could take the pain away for 1-2 seconds, maybe a mile.
L: I think some people might have the idea that they want to make their racer smile but maybe not go to such extremes –
R: Listen, I’m going to be the best at what I do. Could I make you laugh if I tell you a joke as you go by? Yes, I’m full of jokes. Really good jokes for the record, I want that in the newsletter. But I’m going to go to an extreme –
L: People might know you from Ironman and just think that you’re super out there and that’s just your personality but you’re really not like that normally. Can you articulate anything about what this has brought out of you, in your personality?
R: Well for one, it’s given me more and more race day anxiety.
Neither of us have ever really wanted to be the center of attention and when I signed up to do that, even if I only had you in mind, it’s just so far outside of my normal personality and comfort zone. And the other thing is that I’m a leader in my life. I haven’t really had to ever be just a role player. You all are the stars on the course and I’ve actually learned that there’s an important role in being a supporter. I’ve realized that I’m willing to go as hard into my supporting role as I go into my leadership at work. And going hard as a supporter at an Ironman might be having the best and most ridiculous costume on the course. The cool thing for me is that my #1 focus is to be a good teammate for you. NYX athletes are a close 2nd. What’s 3rd is racers that don’t know me, and I get to play a supporting role that they didn’t know they wanted or needed but they get. For free.
L: If we look outside of the progression and evolution of the costumes, is there any Ironman that stands out to you as your best performance?
R: Yea it’s appropriate that you use the term performance because I think the best performance goes beyond the costume. Part of that is optimizing the amount of times that you get to see it. The one that sticks out to me is Louisville. I got a lot of compliments that day from a wide range of people, on and off the course. We got to see you a ton of times. It sucked that the swim was canceled but I got to take a rented bike and ride alongside you in my Kentucky Derby suit singing the backstreet boys to you and that is one of my fondest individual memories.
L: Chattanooga sticks out for me as your most complete performance. Those 2 races were very similar. Those were my 2 canceled swim races. They’re also races where you had to get on a shuttle bus to go meet me in the middle of god-knows-where on the bike course. But I think Chattanooga was so complete because of the within-race evolution of costume. It started off with minimal cowboy attire and a whip. You first started whipping at me and shouting out cowboy phrases on the bike. I think that was the only race where you were a full character. You started speaking in a southern accent and you even had phrases that you learned.
R: Yea I did research for that role.
L: What was that one phrase that was about 3 whips of a goat’s tail?
R: It was that I’ll see you in 3 shakes of a goat’s tale. I researched old southern farm sayings. But I also think Canada-man was pretty unforgettable.
L: Well that’s my favorite.
R: I have a better southern accent than Canadian accent though – which is pretty disappointing.
L: That is disappointing, especially given our French Canadian last name.
Alright well, outside the costumes, what kind of advice would you give an aspiring race sherpa in terms of preparation. I’m not talking about how you support me in training, but just specifically for race day.
R: There really is a tactical side to race day. As much as you need to account for any variables and prepare your mind for anything to happen, the most important thing is to have a tactical plan. You have to know the race map. It can get confusing and those maps that Ironman provides never look like what the actual course looks like so if your goal is to truly optimize seeing your racer, you really do have to plan it out. The thing that you also have to be prepared for, and I mean this with a lot of love, you don’t know how your racer is going to wake up that morning. You have to be prepared to give them the space they need to have whatever they’re going through that morning. It’s hard to predict.
L: Are you saying that because I always wake up in a bad mood on race morning?
R: You wake up in all different states. Have you slept? Were you throwing up the entire night before? Are you in a good mood, are you ready? Was the swim canceled? Was the entire race canceled?
(All things that have actually happened.)
And whatever the racer’s state is the day of is justified and it’s theirs to have. So I’ve learned just to give you space. You don’t even have to ask them if they need anything, you just have to be there. If they drop something, you can pick it up. If they ask a question, answer it. If they leave their timing chip in the hotel room, you can bust your ass to get back to the hotel room and back to transition as soon as you can. It’s almost a unique blend of preparation and not preparing at all.
L: And sometimes you blast Ludacris’s “My Chick Bad” in the hotel room.
R: Yea there are things like that. There’s blasting, “My Chick Bad.” I’ve sung “Eye of the Tiger” while walking behind you on the way to transition. You have to read the room though.
L: Well speaking of giving me space, let’s talk about some general ways to describe what our home environment is like during a taper.
R: OOF! There was a time where I was lucky enough to be traveling for work while you were tapering –
L: It did seem to work out very specifically that you were always traveling the week before all of my races.
R: Yea I have no idea how that happened. It was definitely absolutely under no circumstances definitely planned. But uh, that’s an interesting time. You really have to be open to giving your racer space when they’re tapering. I think that over the course of all of our years in racing, which is quite a few now, I think that the only dishes that have ever been broken in the house have been broken during taper week.
L: That’s not true, I break dishes all the time.
R: Ok you’re right. But there’s a very real increase in the amount of force used throughout the home. The energy is certainly palpable. To be in the house – if I’m being honest with you – is terrifying. I walk on eggshells. I also try to go on as many dog walks as possible, not for exercise –
L: Just for safety – totally get it.
R: Yep, that one is a great excuse.
L: Would there be any advice that you’d give somebody that is maybe considering entering into a relationship with somebody who does this sport or has some other exercise compulsion.
(See the video for Ryan’s response.)
L: Ok well what if they’re already screwed? What if it’s a long term relationship, and one of the people is discovering that they might like to get into endurance? What should the other person be prepared for?
R: Well that’s our story. Triathlon was part of our life when we moved to Colorado but it wasn’t Ironman for a couple years.
It’s not just about completing a race. It seems like that on the surface. It seems like somebody is trying to go 140.6 miles or 70.3 miles or whatever it is but there’s probably something else that they’re trying to improve upon or discover in themselves. You might not understand. That’s one thing I’ve learned. It’s hard supporting without understanding but you have to support your human. I think it’s also important to understand that usually the racer wants you to be part of it too, whether or not they say it. It’s more than just a physical accomplishment and it does take a big commitment, and if you love the person next to you, you signed up for that kind of commitment.
L: Just out of curiosity, if we were to make this specifically about me so we don’t generalize what’s going on under everyone else’s surfaces, is there a way for you to articulate what you think I’ve been trying to do or find?
R: Well it has evolved. I saw you at one point and still in many ways see you trying to not find your limit but maybe trying to expand your current boundaries. Without getting too personal, we’re all impacted by our childhoods and I think some of us are told when we’re young that we have limits to what we can do and not given the space to grow. And through these long endurance events I saw you discover and then break down some of those notions that you have limits on your ability. It’s not about having unlimited growing ability within the sport, it’s about understanding that and applying it to your life. That’s the one that sticks out the most.
I would also like to add that you are also just bat shit crazy. Am I allowed to say that? I don’t know if you’ve gotten any less bat shit crazy.
L: That’s a fair assessment.
R: You are a super inspiring person to me and I’m always proud to brag about you, so I do then have to also include that you’re absolutely nuts. There’s a reason why we’re doing this interview in separate rooms.
L: For sure.
What do you imagine are some of the differences between being married to somebody who exercises compulsively and somebody who maybe understands and incorporates the concept of moderation?
R: Well I definitely didn’t marry a normal person and I absolutely love that. I’ve learned that trying to change you is a fool’s errand and I also just really love who you are so I’m willing to take some of your “insanity” as… fun? So I guess as challenging as it can be sometimes, I really wouldn’t trade it.
L: Since part of this sherpa life is knowing that I’m going to be gone training all day on Saturdays, you’ve recently taken up a new hobby yourself – which we’ve discovered might be starting to turn into its own compulsion – where you go to a nursery every single week and purchase more and more plants.
R: Yea… Luckily, the house is now full of plants and I don’t know where I could even fit another one.
L: I do feel like I’ve heard you say that before though, and then this past weekend you went and purchased some exotic shower plant.
R: I have a very similar philosophy about Thanksgiving: you don’t save room, you make room. I can always make room for an extra piece of pie and I can make room for an extra plant. That’s the reality of this addiction. So yes, my coping mechanism to being married to you is gardening. Sure, it’s expensive but it’s not nearly as expensive as your hobby.
L: Well maybe we can wrap this up by saying that it’s good to have a coping mechanism.
R: Yes. And a lot of meditation. And the right amount of mood stabilizers.
L: Thank you for your time.
R: Do I get compensated for this time?
L: Yes. I’ll take money out from our bank account and put it back into our bank account. And then you can go buy some more plants.