The following is a guest blog "What It Takes" by competitor Aaron Patel
When I saw my first triathlon I was 6 or 7 years old. It was the television broadcast of the Ironman World Championship. The most grueling one day race in the world. I had no comprehension of what they were really doing but I was fascinated. Year after year I watched this race unfold on TV. Every year I was in awe. I can distinctly remember saying, “I could never do that. It isn't physically possible."
Years down the road I was in high school. No real athletic ambition. I was looking for the best way to get my minimum PE requirements without having to do any actual running. Shot put and discus fit the bill nicely. These guys fell into the body builder mindset of eating as much as possible to gain mass. Turns out you need to do actual work or all that mass turns into fat. By my junior year I topped out at 280 pounds and majority of that was far. I was not a happy person. Then it all started with a dare. A friend made a $20 bet that I couldn't do a full season with the cross country team. Game on. I suffered through that year but I finished. Sometimes dead last.
But I was proud of what I had done and kept running casually through college. At least until a friend got me to my first marathon. Then an injury got me to buy a bike. That led to triathlon. Suddenly I was looking down the barrel of my first Ironman. I finished. I was proud. But that only led to the next challenge. I can finish, so now how fast can I finish?!?
It was inevitable that health and fitness would become my career. I was addicted. But I'm also very aware of my limitations. I have absolutely nothing in my background or family tree that makes me pre-disposed for being an athlete, let alone a competitive one. I don't have genetics that let me just naturally swim, bike, run fast. The first time I met my coach, and now mentor/boss, it was at a beginner's clinic before my first open water race. The first thing he said was, “How many sports are in triathlon?” He got the usual answers he was looking for: 1 (triathlon), 3 (swim/bike/run), 4 (swim/bike/run and transition), 5 (if you count both transitions).
Everyone was right and wrong. His answer was that it's infinite.
To really truly maximize your potential it's not just about laps in the pool, hours on the bike and miles of running. It's strength training. It's nutrition; nutrition in training, racing and everything you eat each day. It's how much you sleep. Stretching, massages, race tactics, how aerodynamic your bike is, do you have bike handling skills in the rain, do you know how to draft in the swim, how light are your shoes, have you tested your lactate threshold so you can properly periodize your training plan around your strengths and weaknesses so that you peak for maximum performance on the day of your A race?
Are you mentally tough enough to hurt more than the person in front of you? Most people would be shocked if they knew how much thought had been put into the placement of the water bottle on my bike. Something that might save me a full 8 seconds in a race that takes over 2 hours, but that can be the difference between winning and losing. The very first race I won was 1.2 mile swim followed by a 56 mile bike. 2nd place had a faster swim time than me and a faster bike time. The difference was in the time it took to transition from one to the other. Everything I do throughout the day is either going to help or hurt me when it's time to compete.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Aristotle
The key to over-coming my lack of natural talent, is paying attention to the little things. It comes from being consistent day in and day out. It's not just working out, but that was the first layer for me. When that became routine I learned more about nutrition and improved my diet. I hired a coach to make my training better. I spent time in a wind tunnel to test my bike position. I learned how to improve my sleep. I had blood work done to see what nutrients I was deficient in. I experimented and turned myself into a human guinea pig.
Lots of people look at pro athletes and think they're fast because they're gifted or they train the most hours. Those are both true in most cases, but it's not was separates the good from the great. Look at the top professionals of any sport. Genetically, they're all the same. No one has an advantage.
They all train a lot and train hard. The difference comes from paying attention to the small details. Preparing yourself for anything and everything. Mentally telling yourself that there is no option. If the race doesn't unfold the way you wanted/expected then you adapt. There's no time to feel sorry for yourself or make excuses. You accept what you have that day and you make it work. The race doesn't start when the gun goes off. Nor does it stop when you cross the finish line. It's a journey that never ends. And I'm very privileged that I get to experience it at all.
Aaron Patel has been a certified triathlon coach with Playtri since 2008. He's taken himself from an out-of-shape and overweight high school student to a health and fitness expert that loves to compete and push himself to the limits. He competes at every distance from sprint to Ironman to off-road, has finished on the podium at Ironman and qualified for multiple World Championships. What drives him most is sharing his passion for sport and fitness and helping others.