TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I recently sat down and talked triathlon with TCSD member Chris Holley. Chris was on my radar because I knew he was a great volunteer, but along the way I learned he has achieved some amazing weight loss accomplishments. I know you will be impressed with his story.
Craig: What was your athletic background from your school age days?
Chris: I was in sports all through my childhood. Started with swimming back in Minnesota and onto soccer, football, wrestling, and swimming all through high school. Going to school at Westlake High School (Westlake Village, CA) I was never a stand-out athlete being around several other athletes who went onto play for the NFL (Superbowl Champion Tight-End Billy Miller of the Saints), but I was always towards the top. We were league champs all 4 years that I played, and it was great to be a part of that history. I got into football because it gave me a reason to not go home after school, and a free reason to hit someone. So, every practice I was always running the ball up the middle when I could. Looking back I’m happy I don’t have any TBI’s (traumatic brain injury), or so I’ve been told. Swimming I was only 1 of about 5 people on the team that could butterfly without being disqualified so I ended up being pulled from freestyle (my best) and stuck on butterfly for 50, 100, 200, and all the IM relays. I still hate the stroke.
Craig: How did you end up living in San Diego?
Chris: I was living in Nashville, TN at the time where I just got into the IT field. I moved away from CA since my dad was able to get me a job out there, and I was always good with computers. When I was traveling upgrading routers (the things that make the internet possible) during the whole Y-2K scare, I was sent to San Diego for a week. Ironically, growing up in Westlake Village I never went down to visit San Diego. The farthest south I had gone was Seal Beach for family gatherings. When I got here back in 1999 I knew right then that this is where I wanted to move to next and stake my claim. I’ve been here for 10 years only to realize that my family who lives in Minnesota still hates me when I rub the weather in their face as they are freezing. It was the people, the weather, and the laid-back way of life that really made this place where I want to call home. I’m not in the IT field directly very much since moving into the technical side of sales, so I spend most of my time being the pitchman and training sales reps for Quest Software.
Craig: You have shared with me that at one point you were very over weight. At what point did you bottom out and how heavy were you?
Chris: I’m not sure what my heaviest was. I was in denial about being overweight, so I just brushed it off. I avoided the scales because I didn’t want to know that I was over 400 pounds. I’d work all week and then go to the local bar on the weekends to try and escape those 80 hour work weeks. I felt trapped, like this was the best my life was ever going to be. One night I passed out in a friend’s bathroom at a party. When I woke up, I looked at myself in the mirror and didn’t like what he saw. I knew right then that I needed to make some major changes so I immediately stopped drinking and started working out at 24 Hour Fitness. That one night is when I realized everything would change for me.
Craig: What were the key factors that enabled you to lose weight?
Chris: Not liking who I saw in the mirror was a pretty big factor. It was that spark that I needed to start changing things. Cutting out drinking, though, was the most difficult. It wasn’t so much because it was drinking, but it was also my social life. I felt as though I was going to lose who I was and my sense of community at the time. That was a huge step. I had to give up who I was and my sense of security so that I could become someone I liked and felt good about. I’d use going out for walks, or going to the gym to pass the time instead of going out drinking to socialize. As I got more active and weight didn’t come off I started moving to the various fueling strategies laid out in Bob Seebohar’s Metabolic Efficiency Training. This has enabled me to stay healing and when I decide to follow it, my weight has stayed healthy.
Craig: What prompted you to do your first triathlon?
Chris: It was back in 2010 when I happened to get a postcard in the mail about the inaugural TriRock Triathlon. I was just doing 5K’s then and I really don’t like running. So I figured why not give it a tri? I was a high school swimmer, I’ve peddled 12+ miles around Pacific Beach (intoxicated at times), and I can walk a 5K… why not give it a shot? It was Steve Jobs who said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward: you can only connect them looking backwards”. When I look back at things I managed to see all these dots I connected, that I had no intention of trying to connect at that time.
Craig: What was your experience like at TriRock?
Chris: Going into this race I didn’t know about TCSD, I didn’t even know people did triathlons outside of the Ironman that was on the ABC Wide World of Sports that I remembered from watching with my uncles back in Minnesota. I showed up to the race with a bike from craigslist, a 5 gallon bucket from Home Depot, bike gloves, 7-up, and a small sandwich for once I was finished with the bike. I didn’t have a wetsuit or a tri kit. I was a bit in shock showing up to get my packet the day before and if I had a loudspeaker in my brain people might have heard me say “Oh, Sh*!” more than 5000 times. I really leaned back on what I learned from my high school football coach Jim Benkert. He taught us that everyone faces adversity of some kind, and only you can control how you’re going to let that affect your outcome. I set out to do that race because I hadn’t done anything like that before and I wanted to finish. I didn’t care that in T1 I did a full wardrobe change, took about 15 minutes to eat some food, drink a soda, dry off a bit, and then put my bib on my shirt for the bike ride. I was there for me, and I blocked out everyone around me. Coming out of T2 I rolled my ankle, but I had a brace with me in my transition area (I had rolled it 2 weeks before). I threw it on and walked every meter of that 5K without any care of time. I remember turning the corner on the island, seeing the red carpet and getting my medal. To me at the time, that race seemed like Mount Everest. I think I was so intent on finishing and proving to myself that if I set out to do something, that I forgot to have fun and enjoy the experience. I always make it a point to tell people new to the sport to enjoy the experience. When you’re an overweight athlete it’s a constant battle of inner voices in your head of judgement, negative self-talk, and self-doubt. I think reminding people to stop, take a look around at the people who are cheering for you, and be grateful to be a part of the moment.
Craig: You had a big gap between your first triathlon and your 2nd triathlon. What brought you back to triathlon?
Chris: I had always wanted to return to do another triathlon, but 2011 I injured myself snowboarding up in Mammoth (I still blame Def Leppard’s Rock of Age’s). I was at the snowboard park and took a jump and landed pretty rough. Gave myself a concussion, broken collarbone, hyper-extended right knee. Needless to say I didn’t recover with enough time to race in 2011, and then in 2012 I had signed up to do the TriRock again. At the same time I found myself going back to my old drinking ways and decided to go to the Vikings/Chargers game that same day so I blew off the race. Then at a ’12 NYE party, I was talking with couple about running. As we were talking the wife mentioned that she did the 2010 TriRock and we shared some stories about the race. Then back in March I get a message from her that I need to sign-up for ITU 2013 in April. I laughed and said I haven’t been training for anything and I’m out of shape. She kept bugging me almost daily about it. Apparently her husband signed up before she did, and she wanted the buddy discount and package that included sunglasses and a backpack. So she really needed someone to sign up. Finally I caved, and about 3 weeks before the race I signed up. That woman is Diane Borys who I give the credit to for getting me into this sport. I got a one piece tri kit from Amazon, and a wetsuit (NOT A TRIATHLON WETSUIT). I told myself that I’m not going to make the same mistakes as TriRock. I had a lot of fun this time around and looking at the Clydesdale times, I thought to myself if I get the right gear and some training… maybe I can be the fastest fat guy. I wanted to be called up on the podium in front of everyone. A couple months later at the 2013 TriRock I went from sprint to Olympic and took first in the Clydesdale division.
Craig: You have had 4 Ironman finishes. Which races have you done and what were those experiences like?
Chris: Ironman Arizona in 2014 was my first Ironman when I decided that if other people could do an Ironman I could. After going to a TCSD Meeting of the 2013 Kona viewing party and listening to Luke McKenzie talk about it and seeing other members wearing their gear and tattoo’s I decided that if they could do one, I can do one. I had always thought only professional athletes did Ironman events. I remember seeing Julie Moss doing the crawl on TV with my uncles saying that only crazy people do these things. So my perspective had completely changed after that meeting. I wanted to do Wisconsin but registration was closed, and only IMAZ was available. After hearing horror stories of trying to get into IMAZ, I got the help of 2 friends and my mom to help get me into IMAZ online. When registration opened, I didn’t get it, and 2 of my friends got messages that they couldn’t register. Then I got an email saying that I was registered for the 2014 Ironman Arizona. I’ve got the best Mom in the world! I happened to be in Vegas at the Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon, and was going to be boarding a plane back home. The internet at the airport sucks for registering for Ironman events, just an FYI. The girl I was dating at the time Corine Rogers was also doing Ironman Arizona and we each finished the race and became an Ironman. I’d go onto marry her 3 years later. I then went onto do Ironman Louisville in 2015, and Wisconsin and Arizona again in 2016. Everyone should do Wisconsin and Louisville at least once… the support and the crowds are like no other.
Craig: You have shared with me that you could be the poster boy for making a checklist of gear to bring to a race. What pieces of equipment have you forgotten to bring to a race?
Chris: Everyone who knows me, knows that I forget at least something for races. In 2013 at ITU, I forgot the timing chip and my wetsuit (the water was cold… very cold). At St. George 70.3 I forgot my bike helmet and my girlfriend (now wife) worked it out for another member to bring my helmet out to me. Got into the NYC Triathlon, sent my bike using TriBike Transport … only to forget my pedals at home. I did the Lifetime Tri up in Oceanside and forgot my wetsuit yet again, and that race was in October… I couldn’t feel my legs until mile 3 of the 5K. I also go against the grain of trying new things on race day… at Ironman Louisville I forgot my tri kit shorts. I didn’t discover that one until Saturday getting my gear ready. Thank GOD I didn’t chafe.
Craig: What are your favorite TCSD membership benefits?
Chris: I hear everyone say the discounts or the aquathons, but for me it’s watching new people come into the sport and find themselves like I found myself. Being able to volunteer coach with the TCSD Masters program the last 3 years has been amazing. I’m taking a break from it as my job has picked up and has me travelling more, but giving back has always been my favorite benefit.
Craig: You are in charge of the swim exit volunteers at SuperSEAL and Oceanside 70.3. What has this experience been like for you?
Chris: I’ve been a volunteer and moved into a Volunteer Captain at the Ironman races here in San Diego for the last 2-3 years. I started volunteering as a swim buddy at Koz races, and really had a lot of fun. The first time I was a swim buddy was at the Carlsbad Triathlon, and there was a woman struggling and freaking out a little because she felt she couldn’t do it. We did the side stroke and talked a bit, and before she knew it we were at the shore. As she got up, she gave me a big hug and said that she could not have finished the swim without me being there. I was hooked, and then being a VC with Ironman and pulling athletes out of Oceanside harbor is just a feeling like no other. Thousands of athletes coming through with smiles, thanking you, giving you hugs, and then the volunteers coming up to you afterwards sharing their stories and seeing them come back the following year to either race or volunteer.
Craig: You are a certified coach. What are your strengths as a coach?
Chris: I’m an Ironman Certified Coach and Licensed Primary Sports Nutritionist. I take a holistic approach to the athlete and what they are trying to accomplish. What an athlete does during the day and what they use to fuel during the day affects how they will perform. It’s not just what you eat 30 minutes before, or during your workout that’s going to get the best performance gains. I don’t just deal with triathletes either, I’ve worked with Crossfitter’s, Strongman Competitors, Runners, Swimmers, Obstacle Course Racers as clients who have gone on to place first at their competitions. It took some trial and error finding my coaching strengths, but I’m a no nonsense coach. I expect my athletes to follow the plan that we build out that works with their goals, take ownership of their choices, and put in the work.
Craig: What tips would you share with someone doing their first triathlon this year?
Chris: As cliché as it sounds… it really is just about having fun and enjoying the moment. When you sign up for that first triathlon you have a goal in mind. Stay focused on that goal, but also be grateful for the chance to be a part of the experience and the moment.
Craig: If people would like to contact you about your coaching services, how can they reach you?
Chris: I can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Craig: Who have been the most influential people in your life?
Chris: I mentioned my football coach Jim Benkurt earlier. Every football practice he would talk about adversity and to always hold your composure in the face of adversity. He didn’t limit the adversity to football either, it was a life lesson that I still carry with me today. One of the things he would always tell us, as well, was that you’re not going to be the best at everything and you don’t have to be the best, but you have always be the best you. He would say that every time that we would lose our composure on or off the field.
Les Brown is the other person that has played a huge role lately not just with Triathlon, but my personal and professional life. He’s a motivational speaker, and during my training I’m always listening to him along with some others instead of music. He mentions a few things that really stand out and change how I was I looking at life. He quoted Wayne Dyer “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” And that quote resonated with me, and it really allowed me to change my life. He also speaks of the 3 P’s: Passion, Patience, and Perseverance. Those P’s have gotten me through the many dark times of an Ironman race, and also with my career.
Craig: What are your future athletic goals? (This does not have to mean a specific race time or a specific race finish. It could mean that. But it could mean lots of other things, too, like keeping the weight off and leading a healthy life. It could mean being a good mentor to others as a coach. Etc.)
Chris: I’ve been taking a break healing up, but I would like to complete the Trans Am Bike Race from Astoria to Yorktown before I’m 50. That’s my big one, but right now as I heal up and am able to do more things I want to get back into the short course where it all started and help find that fun again.
Craig: Chris, thank you so much for sharing your story. TCSD and the San Diego community are grateful for all you do. Good luck with your future goals. I know you will continue to inspire everyone who is lucky enough to come into contact with you.
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or email@example.com.