Mark Alfaro on the run at Ironman Santa Rosa
TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I recently got the chance to talk triathlon with Mark Alfaro, TCSD’s new Track Coach. We are so lucky to have Mark coaching us. It is always great to such good volunteer leaders like Mark. I’m certain you will enjoy getting to know him.
Craig: What sports did you like to do when you were a kid?
Mark: I grew up in Paradise Hills in the 80’s and my cousins and I would play stickball which we played with a half of a broomstick and balled up wad of aluminum foil with rubber bands wrapped around it. We didn’t have videos games to keep us inside back then so we had to be creative which was mostly due to the fact that our parents immigrated from the Philippines and had no personal experience with American sports.
My friends from the neighborhood and I were constantly outside riding our bikes, sometimes for miles or running from one person’s house to the next. When we moved into a new house, I would ride my bike back down to my old neighborhood and ride up and down some really steep hills in between. With that being said, I never complain about the bike elevation in a triathlon bike course, the more climbing, the better!
A few years down the road, I became active in team sports starting with basketball and football but stuck with football because I didn’t have to wear my big plastic athletic glasses as a defensive player. I continued to play football in high school, but because I played running back, I was automatically put on the track and field team and ran the 100 meter, 200 meter, 300 meter sprint and anchored the 4 x 100 sprint relay. I won the 100m, 200m and relay a few times and made the All CIF team in the 100m and 200m events. I also tried to run cross country as well but the longer distance killed me because it felt like we were running races like 400m sprints, which was probably the case. Most guys were laid out on the ground after passing the finish line.
After high school, I kept up with running, but mostly short distances and dabbled in mountain biking but didn’t sign up for any races because I felt pretty burned out from all the years of structured training. I did however, remain a gym rat, sometimes going to the gym three times a day.
Craig: What was your first triathlon like?
Mark: A good friend of mine was home from Los Angeles one weekend and he told me he was training for a triathlon. I honestly had no idea what was involved in a triathlon but after a short explanation of the three events, I felt that it couldn’t be that hard. I knew how to swim, I could ride a bike pretty well and I was a runner – I got this! So about four weeks before the race, I start training for the Hemet Tinsel (reverse) Triathlon. I went to my neighborhood 24 Hour Fitness, jumped in the pool and quickly found that the swim was going to be a challenge. I couldn’t make it to the other side of the pool without gasping for air! I came back the following day and an older guy could tell I was having some problems so he tried to give me some tips but nothing was sticking. After two weeks of failing miserably at swimming I was ready to give up but I didn’t want to disappoint my friends.
With four weeks of swimming under my belt and a few bike rides and runs, I was nervous but ready for my triathlon. But this wasn’t a regular triathlon. This was a reverse triathlon starting with a 5k run, 20k bike and finishing with a 150m pool swim. The other thing that made this triathlon unique is that it is during the holiday season so people are dressed up in Santa Claus, reindeer, and elf costumes!
The experience was unforgettable. I ran the 5k way too hard and my legs were cramping half way through the bike and getting passed by people in costumes was really embarrassing and humbling. I finally got off the bike and nervously jumped into the 50 meter pool which looked gigantic compared to my 3-lane 25 yard pool back home. Within the first 10 strokes, both of my calves cramped up and I couldn’t swim! I hung on to one of the lane dividers until the cramping subsided and got back to work but the cramping wouldn’t stop. On my last lap of the swim, I tried to back stroke instead and my friends were cheering me on from the deck. I felt really defeated that day but I did not want to let that defeat be my defining moment in triathlon.
Craig: How did your first TCSD races go?
Mark: After the Hemet Tinsel Triathlon, I decided to get a little more serious about my training and took swim lessons at the YMCA and I also got all of the right gear for my next triathlon. I got a triathlon kit, a wetsuit, triathlon cycling shoes. My second-hand bike had an old Triathlon Club of San Diego sticker on it, which I thought was ironic because I never imagined I’d be doing a triathlon and that sticker was the reason why I initially joined the club. After a few more months of swimming, the right gear and “serious” training, I signed up for my first TCSD Beginner Triathlon at Glorietta Bay. I had been out for a few practice swims before and I could swim pretty well to the white buoy which was about 100-150 yards away from shore.
As people started lining up at the swim start, I noticed that there were a lot of kids and people who did not look very athletic. I really felt like I could actually win this race today.
I can’t remember if it was a whistle, buzzer or gun shot to signal the start of the race but I went out right in the middle of the pack and swam really hard for the first 50 yards and the combination of contact with other swimmers and losing my breath got me into a panic. My chest felt really tight and I couldn’t breathe! I swam to a paddleboard and hung on for what seemed like forever and I stared back at the beach watching people transition onto their bikes. As I watched the last few swimmers starting to head towards the beach, I felt good enough to give it another go and finally made it out of the water, extremely disappointed in myself but also felt that this was the defining moment of my triathlon career. I got out of my wetsuit, clipped on my helmet, unracked my bike and finished the rest of the race. It was a humbling and comedic experience because I really felt like I could win the race that day and I was the third to last person who came out of the water, with the other two being kids.
My second event with TCSD was the duathlon in Black Mountain, which was another event that kicked my butt, but these early experiences are what motivated me to get help from a triathlon coach.
Craig: What led you into coaching and what are your certifications?
Mark: My first triathlon coach was Tomas Atiles who also happened to work at Hi-Tech Bikes at the time. I told him I wanted to get serious about training and that my goal was to do an Olympic distance triathlon in the summer. For the first time in a long time, I was back on a structured training plan and this was an adjustment for me and my family. Triathlon training takes a chunk out of somebody’s time and when you have a full time job and three small kids, time is a precious commodity. Over the next few years I would work with a few different coaches and my abilities improved over time. After completing my third half ironman, I was ready to take on a full Ironman and after that experience I decided that I wanted to help other people realize the same dream. I earned my USAT Level 1 Certification in 2013 and will be doing my Level 2 within the next year or two.
Craig: What is the Performance Strength Lab?
Mark: Aside from being a certified USAT Level 1 triathlon coach, I am also an NASM Certified Personal Trainer and USA Weightlifting Sports Performance Coach and partner at an athletic training facility called Performance Strength Lab.
Joe and Shiloh Beckerley were long-time friends of mine from the Hi-Tech Bikes triathlon team and we shared the same dream of one day breaking free from our corporate jobs and having a training facility for endurance athletes. We are all working professionals in other fields, but we all had a passion for fitness and working on the side as personal trainers for our friends and led small group workouts and spin classes throughout San Diego. One day, Joe tells me that he was ready to make the move and found a facility within a stone throw’s distance from Mission Trails and within a few weeks he was buying equipment and moving in. I decided to stop by the new facility one day and after seeing Joe’s dream starting to come to life, I wanted to share that dream with him. After bribing Joe with a few IPA’s at our local brewery, he and Shiloh agreed to let me go on this journey with them as their partner.
In the first few months of building the facility, we were trying to define ourselves and as we worked with our athletes, we knew our primary focus was strength training for endurance athletes.
Joe and I are both passionate about strength training but we are also triathletes and runners and we know that many people in our sport lack the knowledge and experience to enhance their abilities through strength training.
Many of our clients are competitive athletes who come to us are looking to become stronger and faster and there have also been a few who come to us with overuse injuries often caused by repetitive motion and the lack of strength training.
We are big believers in implementing a periodized strength training program that complements the athlete’s endurance program and we hear our athletes tell us how much stronger they felt during their races.
Craig: What is the philosophy behind Performance Strength Lab?
Mark: One of the main reasons why Joe and I are good friends and partners is because we both have an unquenchable thirst for learning and improving. And learning bears its greatest gifts in failure and getting over failure and moving on to the next challenge.
Our philosophy is built on strength and helping someone become a stronger person both physically and mentally and we often tell our clients, “Finish Strong!”. For those Ironman athletes out there, we know how tough the marathon can be at mile 2, 6,12 or 25 but we spend a lot of time programming strength training so our athletes can cross the finish line feeling strong and great about what they accomplished. Joe and I have both competed in some tough events and “Finish Strong” came from Joe’s dad during Ironman Coeur d’Alene in 2015 when it was almost 110 degrees on the run course and he was ready to throw in the towel.
Craig: What advice would you have for a person considering going to their first TCSD track workout?
Mark: My advice for someone new to our track workout is that everyone will have to start from somewhere. If you are new running or haven’t done structured interval training, we will slowly ramp you up and also teach you about proper technique and strength training to help you avoid common injuries that new runners experience. Even seasoned runners can benefit from our track workout because we program our workouts with a strength component like squats, lunges and core work which help runners and triathletes delay the onset of fatigue during the longer events like half marathons and marathons.
Craig: What are some of the more common running mistakes made by triathletes?
Mark: Many common mistakes that new and seasoned runners make is running too much, too fast, too soon. Newer runners are feeling the health benefits and the endorphins that running produces and before they know it, they are dealing with common running injuries like runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, shin splints or other leg injuries. Seasoned runners may take a break after a long season and many feel the need to get back to mid-season form as quickly as possible, but the body needs time to adapt to that kind of stress. I know, because I have made some of the same mistakes. This is one of the biggest reasons why I decided to become a coach. I want to help people avoid the same mistakes and help them reach their goals without having to go through the same challenges.
Craig: How can people contact you if they would like more information about your coaching, the track workouts or Performance Strength Lab?
Mark: The best way for someone to get more information about our coaching and what we do is to come to facility. We are on the eastern border of San Diego right in the heart of Mission Trails Regional Park. I am also always available to talk during our track workout on Tuesday and many of our clients attend the workout and they can tell you more about us, as well.
We offer a free trial membership to TCSD members so they can experience what we do every day.
Send me an email at email@example.com or visit our website at performancestrengthlab.com to schedule an appointment.
Craig: What are some of your favorite destination races?
Mark: When I decided that I was ready to take on an Ironman, I wanted to race a tough course but also a course that my family would really enjoy. I have family in Vancouver (Canada) and have always heard awesome things about British Columbia and Whistler and it did not disappoint. Whistler is an amazing town that is usually known as a winter destination but the race is in the middle of the summer and the scenery is amazing.
Another city I really loved was Chicago. I was there for work a few years back and when I found out that there was a marathon there, I put it on my bucket list. In 2016, I was lucky enough to get a lottery spot for the Chicago Marathon and it was one of my favorite marathon venues because the course runs through the entire city of Chicago and everyone is out cheering for the runners from start to finish. As you know, Chicago is known for the deep-dish pizzas and it’s a great post-race treat for pizza lovers like me.
My next destination bucket list race is somewhere on the east coast like New York City Marathon or the Marine Corp Marathon in Washington DC.
Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over the sport of triathlon, what would you change?
Mark: When I started racing triathlons, I had no intentions of ever doing an Ironman and these days I see more and more first-time triathletes want to race an Ironman for their first triathlon. I love their courage and inspiration and it is not their fault for wanting to do something as exciting as an Ironman.
With that being said, I am an advocate for a system that requires first time Ironman entrants to have raced a half-iron distance race within the last year.
I think there are two main reasons why this should be put in place. The first reason, being that Ironman training is at least double the amount and time of training for a half ironman. Most people can’t handle the amount of training for a half-ironman and think they can get away with using a similar training program. Those of us who have trained for an Ironman know that this isn’t the case, especially if you want to do well. The other reason is simply just safety. Racing an Ironman is stressful even on seasoned Ironman athletes. There were at least four reported deaths during Ironman events in 2017 and most of them probably had pre-existing conditions that were probably unknown to the athletes until then. According to an article written in 2016, “Eighty-five percent of the 109 deaths reviewed between 1985 and 2015 were men, with their average age hovering around 50 years old…. a full seventy percent of the deaths, as ESPN noted, happened “during or upon exiting the initial swim leg.” Available autopsies showed pre-existing heart problems in more than half of cases, which likely contributed to fatal arrhythmias in the water.” There are risks even in the safest sports but almost all rigorous sports require experience at difference levels before being allowed to enter the main event. Baseball has the minor league system, basketball has the college system and the D-league, American football has the college system and no martial arts tournament would allow a white belt to face a three-stripe black belt, so why allow a novice triathlete attempt an ironman? (Source: https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-do-so-many-middle-aged-men-die-during-ironman-competitions)
Craig: What are your favorite benefits of TCSD membership?
Mark: My favorite benefit of TCSD is the people you get to meet during events and meetings. I still remember a lot of people from the first time I did the beginner triathlon eight years ago. I met Tony Truong at San Diego International Triathlon five or six years ago while we were both still fairly new to the sport and we have been friends ever since and I have been able to share a lot of great memories with him on and off the course. Bessy and Roger Leszczynski, I have known for a few years in different social circles and I feel that we are threads of this great community of people who just happen to love the sport of triathlon.
Craig: Tell us about your relationship with TCSD legend Jonathan Jefferson?
Mark: Back in college, I worked at the Union Bank as a customer service rep and I worked with man named Jon. I didn’t know too much about him except that he was a really nice, down to earth guy who had two massive Chesapeake Bay retrievers whom he talked about often and I always remember Jon’s smile. After college, I moved on to work somewhere else and during my first year as a member of TCSD, I saw a familiar name on the yahoo groups email come through, it was Jon! Apparently, Jon was coaching or leading the open water swim at La Jolla Cove and I sent him an email telling him that I would come out there one day and he said he was looking forward to seeing me. It wasn’t until a year later that I finally saw Jon, but it was during his fight with cancer. I think of Jon Jefferson every time I come to a TCSD meeting because I can feel his smile and his presence in the room. Many of the people reading this may not have known Jon, but if I could give you a reason why this club is one of the best triathlons clubs in the world it is because of how the people of this club loved on Jon and his family during his fight with cancer. TCSD is more like a family than it is a club, some members may even take the last slice of pizza just like your older brother or sister used to.
Craig: How has triathlon saved your life?
Mark: Before I started training for triathlons, I was working 60 hours a week and was at risk of hypertension and diabetes. I was also 50 pounds overweight. It wasn’t until I saw a picture of myself from our vacation in Hawaii that I was shocked at the person I had become. I was an athlete all my life and I let work and other things take over that part of my life.
Triathlon has saved my life in more ways than I can imagine. The sport of triathlon not only brought me back to my athletic roots, it also helped me become a balanced athlete, both mentally and physically. Some sports require you to be an extremist. Ultra-runners for instance (my people as well) will only run anything over 50k because marathons are too short. In triathlon, we are a melting pot of runners, cyclists and swimmers and everything else in between, even ultra-runners!
Craig: What are your future triathlon goals?
Mark: This year started off with Oceanside 70.3 which I came into without too much expectation because of a knee issue I was recovering from and just too many workouts missed on my training plan for one reason or another. The best part about being out on the race course is seeing all the people I have gotten to know over the years from TCSD like Tony Truong, my old friends from Peakfinders and FilAmtri, and our Performance Strength Lab athletes.
Next month, I will be taking another shot at Mountains to Beaches which I did last year and didn’t do as well as I had hoped and I am also signed up for Santa Cruz 70.3 in September. I plan to do another marathon or ultramarathon in the fall but that is still up in the air. I also plan to do a few local triathlons this year as I’ve been missing out on those the last two years because of Ironman training and hopefully I can earn an invitation back to nationals in 2019.
Craig: Mark, thank you so much for sharing your story and for all you do for TCSD. Good luck with Performance Strength Lab, your racing and everything else you have going on!
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.