When Talent Runs Out

May 6, 2024

In my early 30s, I was obsessed with triathlon.

And I mean obsessed.

My brother introduced me to the sport. He was a card-carrying professional who was competing on the international stage at the Military World Games and ITU races. If he could do it, I figured that since we had the same genetics, I could, too.

I decided to become a professional triathlete before I had ever raced my first triathlon. I started training with my brother, and he would not be embarrassed by his protege showing up to a race looking like a novice.

Over the next couple of years, I raced nearly every weekend during the spring and summer. When I wasn’t racing, I was going on long training rides and grueling runs. I started two-a-day workouts pretty early on, and soon I was training up to 25-30 hours a week.

When I wasn’t training, I was recovering, eating, or reading about triathlon. I become a forum junkie, spending countless hours browsing mindless threads for any nugget of wisdom that would propel me forward in my quest.

In my first year in the sport, I saw some success in the very competitive California scene, and I began to challenge the best amateur athletes in the nation.

Then I got serious.

For my second season as a triathlete, I set my sights on getting to Kona, the proverbial big dance. I hired a world-class coach whose list of clients included some of the biggest names in the sport. I was one of only four amateur athletes chosen for his program that year, and the goal was clear: become a professional.

I redoubled my already herculean efforts. I stopped seeing friends who were not also training partners. Looking back now, I can see that I also was completely ignoring my wife and our marriage was falling apart.

But I barely even noticed. Nothing would stand in the way of achieving my goals. To qualify for Kona, one must place in the top few spots in their age group (out of hundreds or even a thousand) at a sanctioned Ironman event. Since there were only a few, the competition was fierce. Slots were distributed by the size of the field, but to ensure I qualified, I needed to place in the top 5.

I decided to go for qualification at St. George UT. This was a new race this year, and the hellish landscape would make for some very tough conditions. I saw this as a competitive advantage. I knew that at the other races the best athletes would have raced the course many times, knowing exactly how to pace themselves. At St. George, because it was new, there was no such knowledge advantage. And I knew that while there might be some athletes who were more experienced and had been training for longer when the conditions got unbearable, there would be none tougher.

Race day finally came and I was as fit as I have ever been. My training times showed that I could target a finish time of 9 hours and 15 minutes, so I built my race plan around that pace.

I was trained, I was confident, and I was there to win. There was nothing left but to execute. Dawn came, and with it, ferocious winds. As I was setting up my transition area, I could see whitecaps on the reservoir where we would be swimming 2.4 miles.

“Good,” I thought to myself. I had grown up a competitive swimmer, and the rough water would improperly drain the weaker swimmers’ energy.

When the starter’s gunshot rang out, I lept into the scrum with reckless abandon. Within a few meters, I found myself in a small pack at the pointy end of the race. The swim was as grueling as I expected, but with every stroke, I knew I was distancing myself from the competition.

I exited the water in the top few in my age group. The bike portion was my secret weapon. Being newer to cycling, I had focused an outsized proportion of my training hours on becoming a cycling force. I trained with road racers, who were notoriously faster than triathletes, honing my legs.

​I set a blazing pace. One by one, the pack that I had finished the swim with began disappearing in my rearview mirror. By the halfway point, I was no longer catching any other athletes who had started with me. I knew I was in the lead.

​The course was an out-and-back, and I finished the first half in a record time—faster than any race before and well under my planned pace. I was a little surprised because I was feeling really good and riding within the power limits set by my coach.

​When I made the turnaround, horror crept in as I realized why. For the entire 56-mile second half, I was facing a 30 mph headwind.

​Riding for 2.5 hours straight into a relentless headwind like that is a special kind of demoralizing. When riding at my target power output, I felt like I was standing still. I started getting caught by some of the athletes whom I had dropped miles before.

​Determined to hold onto my lead, I upped my effort to maintain contact with the leaders. Riding 112 miles in a thinly padded race suit, hunched over in a time trial position, is extremely hard on the body. Chaffing, cramping, and saddle sores were all a part of the game. By the time I started nearing the transition area, I dreamed of throwing my $10,000 carbon fiber bike as far as I could and watching it shatter into a million pieces.

​I flew through the transition and started the marathon-length run, which was always the toughest part for me. My strategy was to outpace in the swim, increase my lead on the bike, and hold on for dear life on the run.

​Within the first few meters, I knew something was wrong. I knew that I needed to maintain a pace under 7:15/mi to hit my target time. Based on my training, this was easily manageable and should have left me with gas in the tank to finish strong.

​But I looked down at my Garmin watch, and I was struggling to even crack an 8-minute pace. My legs felt like jello. I willed them to turn over faster, but I began to stumble and cramp. I knew what I had to do. I forced myself to dissociate from the pain and go deep into the cave.

​My favorite quote at the time was from a popular book, Born to Run:

“Make friends with pain, and you’ll never be alone” – Ken Choubler, founder of the Leadville 100 Trail run

​I forced my rubber legs to push on for mile after mile, exhausting mile. The route wove through beautiful red rock box canyons, a marvel of geologic splendor.

​But the sun beat down relentlessly, and the heat reverberated off the unforgiving canyon walls. I later learned that the canyons’ temperatures reached 113 degrees that afternoon.

The next memory I have is waking up in the medical tent hooked up to an IV. I sat up, confused and disoriented. I saw my shoes on the ground next to my cot, and I furiously grabbed them and started lacing them up.

A volunteer who saw what was happening rushed over and asked me what I was doing. I told him that I had a race to finish.

It was then he told me that it had been reported to the medical tent that a runner had passed out on the course. According to spectators, I was confused and delirious and laid down on the boiling blacktop. As he described what had happened, I became aware of the painful blisters on my back and arms.

They had sent the paramedics out to find me, he explained, and once you are involuntarily pulled from the race, you were automatically disqualified and no longer allowed to compete.

I began to sob and retch as I realized that my dreams for the day were over. The countless hours, early mornings, and months without a single cheat meal all evaporated as my body collapsed in that barren, stark canyon.

The 12-hour drive back to San Diego was a silent pity party of self-loathing. The ruthless thoughts sprang forward.

How could I be so stupid?

Why did I not recognize that I was exerting too much on the bike?

Why didn’t I drink more water?

Why was I so… weak?

Back at home in San Diego, I lay in bed, wallowing in misery. I started frantically looking for a new qualifier race, but they were all sold out. My dreams of reaching Kona were over.

I called my coach for the post-race debrief. I recounted the events of the day, feeling increasingly sorry for myself as the conversation went on. As I told him about waking up in the medical tent, I was fighting back tears.

“And the worst part is, now I can’t go to Kona!” I wailed pathetically.

There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. He finally broke the silence.

“Who the fuck are you to think you deserve to go to Kona?”

His words pierced me like a knife.

I’m not sure I’ve ever received a more contemptuous ass-chewing. Through clenched teeth, he reminded me that people trained their whole lives and would never even so much as sniff a slot to the Ironman World Championships.

Who was I, who had been in the sport for less than two years and was racing in my second full Ironman, to dare whine about not getting a slot to the most coveted race on the planet?

I stopped sniffling. I knew he was right.

My whole life, I had been told that I could do anything I put my mind to. And thus far, that had been proven right.

I had grown accustomed to achieving whatever I wanted. I would go up against seemingly insurmountable odds and always manage to come out on top. I would blow off studying for the entire semester, cram for a final the night before, and somehow pull an A out of my hat. Anything that I decided was worth pursuing, I could rely on natural talent to take me most of the way there and then close the gap with sheer will.

Of course, when things got really hard, or results didn’t come quickly enough, I would decide I never really wanted it in the first place and immediately abandon any real effort, doing just enough to get by.

Because I had internalized the belief that I could do anything that I put my mind to, I made sure to do whatever I had to keep that narrative intact.

My dear friend and one of my mentors in the coaching world, Elliot Roe, describes this phenomenon in his excellent book A-Game Poker (which is valuable far beyond the poker world.)

Further, I learned that I was addicted to praise. This meant that all of my successes, wins, and achievements were only measured by external recognition.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this dramatic failure was the catalyst to unwinding an identity.

It was the beginning of asking the question:

Who am I without my achievements?

​Finding the answer would take the better part of a decade.

​To finding the limit,


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