Triathlete Simon Whitfield happy to be old dog and underdog
Three-hour bike rides. Two-hour runs. Chlorinated eternities spent staring at the black line on the bottom of a pool. After more than two decades spent chasing (and twice catching) the dream of an Olympic medal in the triathlon, how does Simon Whitfield get through a gruelling work week?
Canadian triathlete Simon Whitfield took Gold in Sydney and Silver in Beijing.
STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR
In a word: Earbuds. He listens to music and podcasts and books to pass the eons spent pedalling and pounding the pavement.
“The other day I had a three-hour (bike) ride to do. I listened to three hours of the Stephen King book,” Whitfield says. “I tell myself I’m going to go out the door to listen to Stephen King. I really look forward to it.”
Though many elite athletes eschew such distractions while training, Whitfield is unrepentant. For one thing, it keeps him up on world events. Fareed Zakaria’sGPS, a weekly look at foreign affairs hosted by the CNN correspondent, is among his favourite podcasts. For another, it keeps him inspired.
“When Tragically Hip ‘Makeshift As We Are’ comes on with five minutes to go in the run, it kind of saves you,” he says.
It’s not as though Whitfield, at age 37, has ever needed much external prodding during his memorable climbs to the five-ringed podium. Still, it’s been a dozen years since he won gold at the Sydney Olympics, and four since an epic sprint for silver in Beijing, and the sport’s continuing evolution has continually underlined a harsh reality: He must get faster or get out.
Lately that’s meant Whitfield has stepped up his pre-Olympic training to combat a wave of younger elites who have changed the way triathlons are contested. Swimming and biking are still important, clearly, but the run has become the thing.
It used to be that Whitfield could ease into the 10-kilometre run, approach it tactically. Now the world’s best — the likes of British brothers Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, age 24 and 22 respectively, who finished one-two in the world championship in 2011 — are running at a far more blistering pace. Whitfield’s coach, Jon Brown, who finished fourth in two Olympics in the marathon, says some of Whitfield’s best competition in the triathlon would make decent stand-alone runners on the world stage.
And so Whitfield, a married father of two girls who is based in Victoria, has been spending time in southern Ontario training with Olympic-bound marathoners Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis. Running alongside two-thirds of Canada’s marathon team has made him feel stronger in more ways than one.
“They’re 20 pounds lighter than me — first time in my life I feel like the huge man,” says the 150-pound Whitfield.
Says Brown: “He’s had to reinvent himself to adapt to how the sport changes ... Looking over his training, (running) was the one area where there were gains to be made, just doing a lot more volume and trying to just give him a few more percentages of capacity on the run. It’s going really well. (Training with Coolsaet and Gillis) has given him that couple of per cent of effort that would be very difficult to do by himself.”
It is, to say the least, an unconventional approach to triathlon training. But while Whitfield speaks of the Brownlees as the “overwhelming favourites for a one-two (finish),” he also seems comfortable about being one of the sport’s old dogs, not to mention a decided underdog.
“I’ve gone away from the textbook,” he says. “You’re supposed to have a very balanced program, very structured. But Jon and I don’t work like that. Jon and I have the luxury of many years of doing this. We make our plans as we go with a general concept of where we’re going. If we get to a Friday and it doesn’t look like my 37-year-old body can do it that day, we don’t do it. But if we get to other days and I’m feeling good, we take the opportunity. At my age, you have to take some risks.
“Some people will read that and go, ‘Oh, you can’t train off intuition.’ But in our case we can because we’ve got a good sense of where I am and where we’re trying to go to. And Jon knows when to push me, and when to shove me, and when to grab my shirt and hold me back. Because our communication is really good and there’s no external noise or, as my dad calls it, the fog . . . My dad worked at Dupont for 35 years. He would say, ‘Don’t let the fog roll in.’ The fog is just a reference to all that energy that goes sideways. All the people and the noise and the static that distracts you. You don’t let it roll in.”
Parenthood, he says, helps explain his perspective.
“Being a father helped me in 2008. I had my first daughter then, and I felt free,” he says. “Before you have kids and something else is more important in your life, you feel at times a little bit trapped by it. That can help you or hinder you, depending on who you are. Now I feel free. All I care about is preparation now.”
How will it go for him in London? Nobody can say, but whatever the result Whitfield seems at peace with the way he has approached his latest run at the Games.
“I’m OK with it either way,” Whitfield says. “If I’m successful, I will be at the park the next day with my two little girls. And if I’m not successful, I will be at the park the next day with my two little girls. They will still be infatuated with pink and dolls. And if I have a shiny metal thing around my neck, they will probably say, ‘It kind of looks like the other two. Can we go back to the park now?’ ”
Placing his earbuds on the front seat of a rental car after another morning slogging it out with the marathoners, Whitfield chuckled at the thought of an impending swim-bike-run slugfest.
“You want to go down swinging,” he says. “I’m going to go down swinging.”
The Competition: Brownlee brothers
Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, the British brothers who finished one-two in the triathlon world championships in 2011, certainly can’t be accused of being overconfident as they approach a date with a home-country Olympics.
“Everything has to go right for us to finish first and second (in the Olympics),” Alistair Brownlee told The Guardian last year. “In triathlon, there’s a 50 per cent chance of something going wrong. So I’d say there is a one in four chance of it happening for both of us. The odds stack up.”
Simon Whitfield, the Victoria veteran who won gold at the 2000 Olympics and silver in 2008, scoffs at what passes for math in the Brownlee family. Is there, in fact, a 50 per cent chance of something going wrong for the British duo that has dominated the sport of late?
“No,” said Whitfield. “He’s right, there are so many variables in triathlon. But by him saying 50 per cent he means it’s a high probability compared to other sports that something will go wrong. Mind you, nothing ever seems to go wrong for him. And I don’t mean that in the sense he’s lucky — he makes his own luck, continuously. . . . Certainly (the Brownlees are) the overwhelming favourites for the race. Any other answer would be dishonest. They’re the overwhelming favourites for a one-two.”
That’s not to say Whitfield is ruling out the possibility of an upset. The event begins with a 1.5-kilometre swim, continues with a 40-kilometre bike ride and concludes with a 10-kilometre run. From the frantic start to the gruelling end, the expected plot can turn.
“Just with the amount of gear you need for triathlon. Just getting down to the start line with everything you need is a challenge . . . . There’s so much paraphernalia,” Whitfield said. “With the swim, you can get hit at the swim buoys, you can lose your goggles, you can get beat up pretty badly, which is sometimes just a matter of luck. On the bike, you can have flat tires or crashes and interactions with other athletes. And then the run — you’ve got to get to the run and be fuelled properly, which presents its own challenges.”
The Brownlees won’t be the only threats. Spain’s Javier Gomez has twice been crowned world champion at triathlon’s Olympic distance. And the field is deep.
“If those two Brownlees didn’t exist (Gomez) would be winning races by the same margin he used to,” Whitfield said. “Those two took the baton from (Gomez) and went with it, and they’ve taken it to another level.”
-- Torstar News Service