TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
This month I caught up with the TCSD’s very popular Brian Maiorano. I really admire Brian on so many levels and was grateful for the chance to get to know him better. He has given so much to our local triathlon community so he is definitely someone you need to know.
Craig: What was your athletic background when you were younger?
Brian: Growing up I did a lot of hiking and camping in the mountains and playing in the surf on the beach. And I’ve been riding a bike pretty much daily since pretty much forever. I really can’t imagine a world without bicycles.
But my big adventures started when I went to grad school in Missoula, Montana. For the next 17 years I explored the huge wilderness around by any means possible: mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, white water canoeing, back-country skiing, peak bagging, backpacking, snowshoeing, etc.. Everything from day trips to two-week long expeditions without seeing a road (and usually seeing more elk than people).
None of this was competitive; it was more about wanting to see the view from the next ridge over, paddling down a set of rapids without flipping, checking out the wildlife in the meadow, and always, always, always wanting to explore and discover new territory.
So it was very much an endurance-based background–activities that went for an entire day, or maybe an entire week. And also a bit of a stubborn background–for more than a decade I had a notion that I just HAD to ride my bike to work EVERY day of the year, whether the temperature was 10 below zero, 3 feet of snow buried the ground, or black ice covered the roads. Which also explains how I learned to fall off a bike without breaking anything.
Craig: How did you get started racing triathlons?
Brian: In my mid-30s I kind of slid out of shape; all of the adventuring turned into more weekend-warrioring and my belly looked like I was preparing not just for one Montana winter, but for a 10-year hibernation. And job stresses led to some very unhealthy eating habits.
I spent the winter of 2004 in the gym to drop 20 pounds and get back into shape, but decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in the gym. My friend John Weinert convinced me to do the Grizzly Triathlon—a local sprint. It was 11 months away, so I thought I had plenty of time to prepare, and made the bold and entirely naive prediction that I would win my age group.
Except that I spent the summer in the wilderness as always, and didn’t exactly train other than doing the same mountain biking and a little bit of running that I always did. And never mind that my only swimming experience was dragging myself out of the river after I’d flip my canoe, which really wouldn’t get me more than 25 yards. Of course, I put off the learning-to-swim part until a few months before the race. Somewhere along the way it dawned on me that I wouldn’t win my age group…
The race was uneventful, except that in hindsight I probably spent 5-7 minutes in T1. It was an indoor pool swim. April in Montana is not really open water swimming time. I must have put on three different layers for the bike. Afterward, of course, noticing that the fast people were just rocking speedo’s in the 40 degree air.
But I was completely hooked by the competition, and a lot of things clicked for me. It was a great outlet for that; no longer did I need to be competitive about my career and relationships (or Scrabble); I could channel that energy into just going faster. But there was a lot of naivete to conquer in transforming this mountain man into a triathlete.
Craig: What are some of your memories about your especially naive early years in the sport?
Brian: After that first race I wanted to learn everything I could about human physiology, training, racing, etc. I read the equivalent of a college degree in the topic, talked to as many athletes as I could, and raced as much as possible. But of course there was no substitute for experience.
Once, after a dismal run in a sprint race, I was trying to find reasons why it was so much slower than my stand-alone 5k. Having heard so much about dehydration being a concern in ironman races, I decided that “must” be what had happened to me. A few days later I explained this to a fellow in our master’s swim group (who happened to be a retired pro triathlete).
And, with only the barest hint of sarcasm in his voice, he asked, “Do you really think you got dehydrated in a little over an hour?” And it was then I realized I had a lot more to learn about the sport.
Craig: Tell me some other lessons you learned the hard way through experience.
Brian: I had no clue about pacing when I first started racing. This was before Garmins and power meters, and I hadn’t ever run on the track. In my first 5k, I wanted to break 20:00. I knew that was a 6:25/mile average, and that there would be mile markers on the course. Someone had told me to negative split the race, so I thought I’d try that: first mile at 6:30, second at 6:25, and third at 6:20.
I was wearing a Timex with a lap function, and hit the first mile right at 6:30. I knew I needed to speed up, but had no real gauge of my gas pedal. At mile 2, the “12:15” on my watch made no sense at all, so I just pressed “lap” and kept running. But ¼ mile later I was on the verge of passing out…lungs on fire, legs wouldn’t lift, etc. And I was getting passed by 13-year old girls.
After dry-heaving my way across the finish line in 20:40, I figured out that I ran that second mile in a way-too-fast 5:45, and then slowed to a 7:45 crawl as I crashed and burned.
In fact, for the first couple of years I raced, I dry-heaved at pretty much every finish line. But doing that at 10,000 feet at the top of a hill climb race was enough to convince me to learn how to pace myself. That really hurt.
Which all probably explains why I’m now a huge believer in using Garmins and power meters to learn appropriate pacing, and to hold back early in a race for a strong finish.
Craig: What did you do before moving to San Diego?
Brian: My career was in natural resource management; everything from river restoration to designing and building mountain bike trails. It was immensely gratifying work and I accomplished some things for which I’ll forever be extremely proud–things that I don’t think I could ever top. Plus, some of my work days were hiking/mountain biking/canoeing through the mountains!
It involved a lot of coalition building amongst very different and opposing groups—seeking common ground and creative solutions to reach very ambitious goals. But it was brutal emotionally—very controversial and very exhausting. It took a toll on me and I burnt out. I tried moving to Colorado for a couple of years, but I knew I just needed a new career.
Craig: How did San Diego come to be chosen as your new home?
Brian: In 2008 I decided to take a 1-year sabbatical and figure out what came next. After having lived in rural, snowbound and inland areas forever, I had three criteria for where to live: 1) a large-ish U.S. city; 2) on the ocean; 3) where I could ride my bike year round. Hawaii seemed too isolated, and Florida is…well…Florida…So that left SoCal.
A co-worker mentioned San Diego, and my first Google search turned up the TCSD page. One announcement was for the Friday evening potluck at La Jolla Cove, and I decided that sounded like a pretty ideal way to spend a Friday evening, and that I should probably get myself there as quickly as possible.
It took a few months to sell my house, but by September I had sold or given away pretty much everything I owned, and headed off to San Diego. I had never been here, but everything I owned fit in a small U-haul, so I figured if I didn’t like it, I’d just find somewhere else…
Craig: What volunteer jobs have you done for the TCSD?
Brian: Right away I started volunteering for the club; it was a great way to meet people in my new home! The first workouts I led were the No Frills Great Western Ride for the Alternatively Scheduled. Being on sabbatical and in no hurry to start my day, and having a new-found aversion to cold temperatures, these were every Thursday at 10:00 a.m.
And it was there I learned that a lot of San Diegans would rather ride their bikes than work an 8-5 schedule. We had a core group of 4-6, with a bunch of other “guests” who would show up when they could. We rode hard, and every Thursday I would go home and lay on the couch and moan for the rest of the day. Eventually I was nicknamed “The Mayor of the Great Western” – a title which I’ve sadly lost.
Over the years I started leading the Friday evening La Jolla Cove swims, helping with the potlucks and club races, and handling the registration at the aquathlons. Pretty much whatever there was a need for.
And last summer, I was elected to the Secretary position on the board of directors. The position involves taking minutes of board meetings and helping set policies, budgets, etc. It’s been eye-opening to learn how much behind-the-scenes work goes into running the club.
Craig: Wow! You have certainly done a lot for the Tri Club! I think a lot of people have been pleased to see more transparency from the TCSD leadership. That is no knock on the past leadership. I recognize that sometimes the leadership of any volunteer organization needs to make decisions without the luxury of polling every member. How has this group of officers employed checks and balances on one another, but still managed to get things done?
Brian: The board is seven people, all with diverse opinions. As a whole, I think we represent all of the different interests of club members. A lot of longer-term issues get decided at board meetings (budgets, which races to hold, etc.), but a lot happens on the fly and decisions are needed within hours. Stephen has continued to expand the practice of reaching out to others to help make decisions—whether that’s the sponsorship director, the race director, the email moderators or the volunteer council (about 40 people who regularly volunteer for the club). And he’s been great at putting together the quick polls for all members on a bunch of issues.
Sometimes there are difficult issues, and sometimes there’s lively discussion…but we all get along well and respect each other’s opinions.
Craig: What has been so great about your experience as a TCSD volunteer?
Brian: First, it was a great way to meet people in a new city. Also, it was a good way to give back to the community that supports me when I’m racing. We’d all be paying a lot more for races if all of those volunteer spots had to be filled by paid staff. And, of course, there’s something just intrinsically satisfying about helping others; it feels good to get a heart-felt “thank you” from someone who acknowledges your work.
But my volunteering also directly led me into coaching. People I trained with had always told me that they liked the workouts I led because they had a specific purpose; they weren’t just “Oh, we’re going for a ride today and maybe stop for coffee.”
But I also really enjoyed hearing about people’s backgrounds, their training, and how they balanced it with the rest of their life. You can learn a lot about someone during a long climb in East County when you’re breathing so hard that your partner is the only one able to talk.
And I guess I offered some useful tips, because more and more people started telling me I should go into coaching. In particular, that I should focus on that one-on-one model that I still use, rather than group workouts. I believe it was Elizabeth Daubner who coined my unofficial business slogan: “Because it’s cheaper than a psychologist.”
The support of people in the tri club was immense from the very beginning, even though for the first year I had that fear of, “Holy cow, how am I ever going to pay the rent with this business?” But people believed in me, which meant a ton; I’ll be forever indebted to them for their support. And I was having a blast, and so knew I just needed to be persistent and make it work.
Craig: Coaching is your full time career now. What is your coaching philosophy?
Brian: When I moved to San Diego, I noticed some big patterns amongst triathletes. There were the folks who’d been athletic for a long time, had a healthy perspective on the sport, stayed mostly injury free, and balanced triathlon with the rest of their lives.
And then there were a lot of members who had jumped into the sport with great enthusiasm, but were overdoing it: picking race distances way beyond their experience level; training themselves into exhaustion; obsessing over triathlon to the point of hurting their family/social/employment relations, and injuring themselves along the way. And then, a year later, selling their bike, throwing away their running shoes, and never wanting to train again.
I knew right away that I wanted to help those people–help them balance their triathlon goals with the rest of their lives, and I help keep them injury free. I now call it “Train Smarter, not Harder”, and even front-of-pack athletes are amazed when they find they can improve with fewer training hours than they’ve been doing. It’s all about structured workouts, good swim technique, good run form, appropriate pacing, and knowing when to rest and when to go hard.
In short, I want people to enjoy this sport their entire lives. Turning 40, 50, 60, or even 70 doesn’t mean it’s time to sit on the couch. I’ve coached two women in their seventies (Mickie Shapiro and Susan Norman) who raced Hawaii Ironman. They’re such an inspiration to me. And Gerry Forman is another one who we can all aspire to be like.
Craig: How can people contact you for more information about your coaching services?
Brian: Website is http://www.TriathlonLifestyleCoaching.com, email is brian@TriathlonLifestyleCoaching, phone is 619-977-4348. Or find me at La Jolla Cove or “my office” at Mission Bay/Fiesta Island.
Craig: You and TCSD Vice President Brian Wrona had a big match race at the San Dieguito Half Marathon in February. How did that race go for you and what was at stake?
Brian: When I ran for the TCSD Secretary position, I made two campaign promises: 1) To take excellent minutes of board meetings; and, 2) To beat Brian Wrona in a half marathon in 2013. He, of course, could not let such a promise go unchallenged, and threw down the hilly San Dieguito half in February as our contest. He had beat me there by 5:00 in 2012, so I had some work to do.
In August, I actually wrote a training plan for myself, and actually sort of followed it when I felt like it. And started running more miles than I’d ever run before; starting at 30-35/week, and building to 40-45 through the winter. Lots of tempo miles, but no track work.
To our friends, though, it looked like we were each trying to win simply by making the other person gain weight–constantly encouraging each other to have that third slice of pizza, and to be sure to order dessert. Somewhere along the way Wrona offered to shave his head if he lost.
In the meantime, I was dropping ten pounds and also dropping hints about a sub-1:30 goal. I was also spending some time on the course, figuring out my pacing for each of the uphills and downhills. As you know, it’s a very technical course, with very little flat ground and a tough 150 foot climb in the last ¾ of a mile.
My race strategy was to simply go sub-1:30 using my own pacing plan, but not start really racing until the last mile. I knew I needed a big enough gap on the last hill so it didn’t turn into a sprint finish— I knew he’d beat me if it did.
On race day, Wrona started fast, like he always does. I ran my own race, and caught him around mile 5. I think I asked him if he was dehydrated from partying the night before, and he asked if I had any cramps in my legs—you know, general pleasantries. We ran together for about a mile, and then I pulled ahead just by following my pacing plan.
At the mile 8 turnaround I was maybe 20-30 seconds ahead, and honestly I forgot about Brian and started focusing on catching the runner with the beautiful stride 30 seconds ahead of me. Which kept me distracted for the next 4 miles…
On the last mile, I really started pushing, this time trying to reel in Les Shibata on the big hill. Les is a great racer and an inspiration, and I knew he’d tow me up the hill. But halfway up I heard footsteps over my shoulder. Sure enough, it was Wrona.
I tried a surge to drop him, but it really wasn’t much of a surge, and soon he pulled up next to me. He said something like, “Looks like it’ll be a photo finish,” and then took off with 400 meters to go. He trounced me in the sprint, and beat me by 10 seconds.
But we both went 1:29-something, and honestly I think that was more important to both of us than who actually won (although I’d have liked to have seen him with a shaved head…). But I did vow to never again lose a race in the last 400.
Craig: Will there be a rematch? Don’t you have a campaign promise to keep?
Brian: Well, you know how politicians are with campaign promises… But having a friendly rivalry in the club is a great motivation. So I will use this opportunity to throw out a new challenge: who will be the first to go sub-5:00 in a mile and/or sub 17:30 in a 5k? And also point out that I am taking great minutes of the board meetings…
Craig: Brian, I’ve heard TCSD members raving about the minutes you take. Your penmanship and grammar have no equal. I’m cheering for you to beat that Wrona character. At the rate he’s going, it won’t take long to shave his head. Thank you for sharing your story!
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.