Kellyn Taylor

The first adult sports camp I participated in was a Multisport School of Champions event hosted in San Diego by Triathlete publisher John Duke and eight-time Ironman world champion Paula Newby-Fraser way back in 1996. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to take part in many more triathlon and running camps, and I remember each experience both vividly and fondly.

I’m hardly unique in this respect. No one ever regrets attending an endurance training camp. There’s a dreamlike quality about these athletic idylls, all-too-brief escapes from everyday reality centered on a passion shared equally by all partakers. That’s why I decided to get involved in the camp-hosting business myself. Do you want your 2022 to include an experience you will treasure for the rest of your days? Click here to learn more about the three 80/20 Endurance/Endeavorun camps we’ve lined up for next year.

If you need more persuading, read on. What follows is a “lost chapter” of my book Running the Dream: One Summer Living, Training, and Racing with a Team of World-Class Runners Half My Age. It describes events in my life on August 19, 2017, two days earlier I’d strained a hip abductor tendon during a workout with the Northern Arizona Elite professional running team in Flagstaff, Arizona. In the wake of this calamity, team member Stephanie Bruce invited me to participate in the adult running camp that she and her husband, Ben, were hosting that weekend, as a way to take my mind off my injury. Enjoy!

Cast of Characters

Nataki = My wife

Coach Ben = NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario

AJ = AJ Gregg, strength coach and PT for NAZ Elite

Wes Gregg = AJ’s brother and colleague

Kellyn = NAZ Elite member Kellyn Taylor

 

50 Days to Chicago

I went for another long walk with Nataki this morning, my injured groin grabbing warningly a few times as we went.

“The Chicago Marathon is fifty days away and I can’t even walk without pain,” I pouted.

Nataki laughed, which wasn’t the reaction I expected or wanted. But her attention was not on me but on our dog, Queenie, who’d lunged at a bird.

When we got back to the house I emailed Coach Ben to request that we meet as soon as possible after his return from Malaysia to discuss the way forward in my training. I killed the next hour like the injured fake pro runner I was, sandwiching a round of rehab exercises between contrast-therapy treatments, and then drove to Hypo2 for yet another appointment with AJ.

“How was dinner?” he asked as he led us into his office.

Nataki and I raved about the previous evening’s meal at the Cottage: artisan greens salad with beets and fennel root, cold smoked salmon tartine, venison for Nataki, and flank steak for me. AJ was very pleased.

“So, what’s the report?” he asked, abruptly shifting the topic of conversation to my groin.

I told him about my less-than-encouraging my walk, realizing as I spoke that I sounded like a teenager confessing to a joyride in daddy’s Lexus.

“Well, then, you’re not running tomorrow,” AJ said flatly.

Swallowing the urge to protest, I dutifully ran the cold laser on my reddened inner thigh for 10 minutes. When this was done, AJ put me back on the treatment table and repeated the same tests he’d used to diagnose the injury two days ago. I bent my left leg sharply and swung it out to the side like a dog watering a fire hydrant. AJ then applied gentle hand pressure to the knee, his eyebrows raised inquisitively. I shook my head, so he applied a little more pressure. I shook my head again and AJ pressed down even harder.

“Huh,” he said. “Your range of motion is back to 100 percent.”

I pounced.

“What harm can it do me to run for a few minutes tomorrow, really slow,

just to see how it feels?” I asked.

“None, as long as you stop right away if there’s pain above a three out of ten. You might even find that running loosens it up a bit. But to be straight with you, I’ll be happy if you’re running again in eight days.”

In the afternoon, I returned to Hypo2 with Nataki for a classroom session with attendees of Steph and Ben’s running camp. The topic du jour was mental toughness.

“What I love about running is that it’s the only part of life where you get to choose how much you suffer,” Steph told the gathering. “And the more you are willing to suffer, the greater the reward.”

Ben Bruce chimed in from the wings: “It’s kind of a messed-up sport.”

“It is messed up,” Steph agreed soberly. A camper named Amanda raised her hand and asked Steph what she tells herself during difficult moments in a race.

“Well, I’m a huge Rocky fan,” Steph confessed, lightly blushing. “I think maybe it’s because Sylvester Stallone reminds me of my father. Anyway, I usually think of lines from Rocky movies. For example, in Rocky IV there’s the part where Rocky draws blood from Ivan Drago and his trainer tells him, ‘See? He’s a man just like you!’”

At four o’clock, we shuffled over to the strength and conditioning room for a group strength workout led by Wes Gregg. Ben explained that the exercises Wes was about to teach us would all be bodyweight movements we could do at home without equipment, or using household items for resistance.

“At home, I use my kids for some of this stuff,” he said. “I just have to decide if I want to lift the three-year-old or the two-year-old.” Pausing momentarily, he grinned with a sudden thought. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I did like Hercules and the bull and kept using them as weights as they got older? Imagine when Hudson is 18 and I’m like, ‘Come here, son. Daddy’s going to pick you up,’ and he’s like, ‘This is kind of weird.’”

I laughed like a man desperate for a laugh, much louder than anyone else in the room.

In the evening we gathered again, this time at Kellyn’s house, which sits alone at the end of a dirt road. I found my fellow campers in the backyard eating pizza and drinking beer and wine. After sunset we drifted over to an area where camp chairs had been arranged around a bonfire. Steph invited everyone to write down their A, B, and C goals on a notecard and then share them with the group.

When my turn came, I told my fellow campers I was training for the Chicago Marathon and that my C goal was to run my fastest marathon since my fastest marathon nine years ago, my B goal was to beat that nine-year-old personal best, and my A goal was to do something that made other runners believe they could achieve their own A goals. Next up was Donna, a 42-year-old Californian who started running just two years ago and has already completed six marathons. “I just love running so much,” she told me at the welcome dinner two nights back, “and I feel pressure to get as fast as I can before I’m too old.”

“I want to move to Flagstaff,” she said now. Everyone laughed. “No, I’m serious!” she protested.

One of the last to speak was Mary, who’d come all the way from eastern Canada despite being injured like me and unable to run. The instant she opened her mouth, her eyes filled and a soblike sound escaped her.

“I just want to run,” she said, “to be healthy. I’ve lost my passion and I want it back.”

I waited for the group’s attention to move on, then rose and walked over to where Mary was seated, crouching before her.

“It sounds like you’re feeling pretty hopeless,” I said. “I’ve been there before.”

“Can we take a little walk?” Mary asked.

“Sure, of course,” I said.

Mary stood and led me into the darkness away from the fire. When she was satisfied we were fully out of earshot, she opened up.

“I just turned 50,” she said, emotion overtaking her a second time. “I love Spanish culture and dance. I speak the language. That was my passion for a long time—Spanish dancing. But then I got away from it. That was okay, though, because I still had running. I’ve run most of my life. I love it. I’ve been pretty successful at it.”

“It’s a part of your identity,” I threw in.

“Right. But now I don’t even have that. I’m stuck in an endless cycle. I get injured. The winters are pretty brutal where I live, and by the time spring comes I’m way behind in my fitness. I spend the whole summer just catching up. Then I get hurt again. I’m getting older. I don’t have kids. I work from home, making competitive dance costumes. When I can’t run, things get pretty dark. I almost didn’t even come here. I thought, ‘What’s the point?’”

“I get it,” I said. “I haven’t been able to run for three days and I’m going nuts. Earlier today I was driving through town and I saw people out running and I thought—”

“—you don’t know how lucky you are,” Mary finished.

“Exactly,” I said. You know, I’m always a little annoyed when people give me advice based on the idea that whatever has been true for their lives will inevitably be true for mine as well. But I think it can’t hurt for you to know that there have been times when I was certain—absolutely convinced—that I would never be able to run another competitive marathon, or even jog ten miles without pain. And now here I am at 46, running almost as well as I ever have—until Wednesday, at least,” I laughed. There’s hope for you.”

“I know,” Mary said. “Thanks.”

I asked her if I could give her a hug, if only for my sake, and she said I could.

“Are you glad you came, though?” I said as I held her.

“Yeah,” she said. “I am.”

We returned to the circle, where Steph had the campers write down their greatest fear, share it with the group if they were comfortable doing so, and toss into the bonfire.

***

Ready to experience some camp magic of your own? Click here.

Anyone who has ever used a piece of cardio equipment at a public gym has some notion of exercise intensity zones. Here’s an example of a chart you might see stuck to an elliptical trainer at your local health club:

Training heart rate intensity zones example
Example of Exercise Intensity Zones

Athletes scoff at such simplistic, one-size-fits-all guidelines. For starters, they are based on the supposition that every human has a maximum heart rate equal to 220 beats per minute minus their age in years, which is very far from being true. My own maximum heart rate at age 49, for example, was 181 BPM, or 220 – 39. These charts also convey a misleading impression that individuals with any particular health or fitness goal should do all of their exercising in the zone associated with that goal, which is also untrue. I can assure you that doing 100 percent of one’s cardiovascular exercise at 60 to 70 percent of maximum heart rate is not the most efficient way to control one’s body weight. Those nice round numbers—50 to 60 percent, 60 to 70 percent, etc.—are a bit suspect as well.

A variety of more sophisticated zone scales—not all of them heart rate-based—have been developed for use by endurance athletes. Of these, Joe Friel’s is perhaps the best known and most widely used. David Warden and I created our own zone scale for athletes who wish to train by the 80/20 method. All of these intensity rating systems—or most of them, anyway—share certain characteristics that make them better than the ones you see at the gym. In particular, individual zones are linked to key physiological thresholds that vary with fitness and require testing to determine.

Athletes put a good deal of trust in the 80/20 zone scale and others, and rightly so—they work quite well. The funny thing is that very few elite endurance athletes use intensity zones of any kind. Take runners, for example. In any type of high-intensity workout, an elite runner is likely to try to hit a certain target rather than stay within a zone. For instance, a runner might do a set of 1-km repeats at critical velocity, which is the fastest pace that can be sustained for 30 minutes. Or a triathlete might do a long ride featuring alternating 10-minute blocks performed at Ironman power +10 watts and Ironman power -10 watts. Low-intensity sessions, which dominate the training schedules of all elite endurance athletes, are governed neither by zones nor targets but are done entirely by feel.

The core of my endurance training philosophy is that athletes of all experience and ability levels should train the same way the pros do, albeit scaled to their level. But if that’s the case, then why do I prescribe intensity zones to nonelite athletes when elite athletes don’t use them? The short answer is that, precisely because any person who has ever exercised in a public gym is familiar with the concept of zones, this tool is helpful in facilitating correct workout execution for less experienced athletes. The way the pros regulate intensity is difficult to do unless you really know yourself as an athlete.

When I trained with the NAZ Elite team in 2017, Coach Ben Rosario always gave each athlete a precise pace or time to hit in each workout, and he was able to do so because he knew his athletes thoroughly. For example, one day he had Kellyn Taylor complete a 4 x 300m cutdown at the end of a workout. He asked her to complete the reps in 52, 51, 50, and 49 seconds, basing these numbers on her known one-mile race pace of 50 seconds per 300. She hit these numbers dead-on.

Chances are, you don’t know yourself well enough as an athlete to train with such precision, which is why you need zones. No problem. Because I truly believe that all athletes should train like the elites as much as possible, I try to have it both ways in the new 80/20 run plans I created earlier this year. Yes, the workouts use zones, but in many of them the workout descriptions instruct athletes to aim for a particular target within a zone.

An example is lactate intervals. This workout type (there are nine separate levels) features sets of 30-second intervals that are meant to be run at the fastest pace a runner can sustain for 15 minutes. In zone terms, it’s a Zone 4 session, but the specific pace target falls smack in the middle of this zone for the majority of runners. Less experienced runners are free to just think of the session as a Zone 4 workout and trust they will get the desired benefit regardless of where they land inside this zone, while more experienced runners can try to nail their 15-minute pace with Kellyn Taylor-like exactness and benefit that much more. With time, of course, runners can graduate from the first approach to the second, and from there they can advance to signing a running footwear endorsement contract and going to the Olympics.

Recently I created a custom training plan for an Italian ultraendurance cyclist who was preparing for a pair of multiday, multi-thousand-kilometer bike tours, and who told me in the onboarding questionnaire he submitted that increasing his functional threshold power (FTP) had been a major point of emphasis in his training.

For the runners in the room, FTP is intended to serve as a proxy marker of lactate threshold intensity on the bike. It is, by definition, the highest power output a cyclist can sustain for one hour (this being the average amount of time a trained cyclist can sustain lactate threshold intensity in a laboratory setting) and is determined through a 20-minute time trial, where the average wattage sustained in this test is multiplied by 0.95 to arrive at a final result.

Again for the runners in the room, an FTP test is essentially the equivalent of a 5K running time trial, which takes 20 minutes to complete, give or take. So, tell me: If you were training for a seven-day running event that would cover many hundreds of miles in total, how concerned would you be about lowering your 5K time?

It’s not that FTP is completely irrelevant to the kind of fitness needed to excel in a multiday event. It’s just that other things are more relevant, and therefore treating FTP increase as a point of emphasis amounts to taking your eye of the ball. But I’ll go even further and say that obsessing over FTP increase is a counterproductive distraction if you’re training for anything other than an FTP test. In fact, even if you are training for an FTP test, increasing your FTP should not be your top priority throughout the process.

That FTP has become the standard measure of cycling fitness is more a matter of historical accident and exigency than any intrinsic superiority of FTP relative to other measures. Research has shown that various tests and measures, including ventilatory threshold, respiratory compensation point, respiratory exchange ratio, maximal lactate steady state, maximum power in a graded exercise test, power-to-weight ratio, and VO2max are about as good at predicting real-world cycling performance. The only reason FTP rather than any of these other things is the bright, shiny object that cyclists and triathletes can’t seem to take their eyes off is that the other things aren’t as practical outside of the exercise lab.

The same principle holds for any test or metric you might use to measure fitness or a component thereof in the training process. Among athletes there is an unfortunate propensity to seek continuous improvement in any test or measurement you put in front of them, no matter how tangential it is to the specific type of fitness they need in order to excel on race day. I’ve seen athletes sabotage their own progress by overemphasizing everything from VO2max to body weight to barbell squat performance.

I get it. If a given metric is performance-relevant, it’s easy to assume that improving that metric will always translate to better performance on the race course. But it doesn’t work that way, because there’s no such thing as general fitness. Each event demands a very specific type of fitness, and the goal of training is to be good at that, not good at every conceivable proxy. For example, if your VO2max is increasing in the late stages of training for an ultramarathon, it’s likely because you’re not doing the necessary training to increase your respiratory exchange ratio, which has greater relevance to ultramarathon performance.

The time to see your VO2max increasing in training for any event that is likely to take more than an hour to complete is early in the process, before you shift your focus to more race-specific fitness priorities. In fact, if you’re a more experienced athlete, you could successfully gain in the type of fitness you really need for a particular event without seeing any change in your aerobic capacity. The typical elite endurance athlete attains a lifetime peak in VO2max in their early 20s, and then continues to improve on the race course for another decade. Kellyn Taylor, my former honorary teammate on HOKA Northern Arizona Elite, recently set a 10,000m PR of 31:07 at age 34. It’s very likely her VO2max was higher at 24.

There are some things you might measure in the training process that, in some cases, should decline in the late stages of preparing for a race. Examples:

  • If your sit-and-reach performance (i.e., hamstrings flexibility) declines ahead of any running race, that loss of flexibility indicates that your “leg stiffness” is increasing and your running economy improving, which is a good thing.
  • A 2004 study by researchers at Ball State University found that the calf muscles of college cross country runners got weaker and smaller over the course of a competitive season, which sounds bad, but the muscles actually shrank more than they weakened, which means they actually got stronger relative to their size, which is a good thing for a distance runner.
  • Similarly, when I was training for Ironman Santa Rosa in 2019, my anaerobic capacity decreased in parallel with gains I made in aerobic fitness and endurance, which was good for my Ironman performance prospects.

It is useful and all but unavoidable to measure things during the training process. But it’s important to maintain perspective on the numbers as you go. The goal is not to get better at everything all the time. The goal is to maximize race-specific fitness on race day. Achieving this goal will require that you prioritize different components of fitness in the proper order and that you hold steady in certain metrics and be content to go backward in certain others in some periods. In short, govern the metrics, don’t let the metrics govern you.

The conditions for this year’s Boston Marathon were famously brutal, claiming many victims among the race’s 27,000 participants. Among them was professional runner Kellyn Taylor, who dropped out at 20K with symptoms of hypothermia. In a tweet posted later that day, Kellyn wrote, “I wonder if I just wasn’t tough enough to weather the storm.”

I got to know Kellyn pretty well during the 13 weeks I spent training with her Northern Arizona Elite team last year, and based on this exposure I can assure you that her blunt self-criticism right was right in character. Toward the end of my stint in Flagstaff, Kellyn, who is training to become a firefighter, tweeted out the news that she had “failed miserably” in a standard firefighter physical fitness test, which requires participants to complete a series of tasks in three minutes or less. When I discussed Kellyn’s “miserable failure” with her during an easy run a couple of days later, I learned that she had missed the cutoff by just 12 seconds!

As you can see from these two examples, Kellyn Taylor is highly self-critical, but in my experience she is not unusually self-critical for a champion athlete. Indeed, self-criticism is part and parcel of the champion’s mindset—an essential part of the mental formula for success.

This is not to say that all self-criticism is good. As a form of self-talk, self-criticism can be symptomatic of two very different things: high personal standards and low self-esteem. I believe that too many athletes and coaches view all self-criticism as problematic and fail to properly distinguish low self-esteem and high personal standards.

Low self-esteem is a consequence of caring too much about what other people think—or what we think other people think. When we compare ourselves to those around us and decide we don’t measure up in important ways, we tend to develop a generalized sense of low self-worth that can hold us back in life in a myriad of ways.

I have a runner friend who struggles with low self-esteem. As much as she loves running, for a long time she refrained from investing herself more deeply in her pursuit of improvement because she felt that she somehow didn’t deserve it. Only when she fell in love with a guy who helped build her self-esteem did she break out of this pattern. With her boyfriend’s support, she cleaned up her diet, started foam rolling, and began to do various other little things that she hadn’t done previously because she felt she wasn’t good enough to bother, and her running took off.

But this isn’t an article about self-esteem. It’s an article about the far more overlooked matter of personal standards of character. In my view, there is no better way to feel good about yourself and to have a positive influence on other people than to hold yourself to high standards of character, and endurance sports offer a terrific forum for character development.

What do I mean by character? A grab bag of qualities including discipline, positivity, steadfastness, and courage that contribute to success in life. However much or little you possess of these qualities, their limits will be tested in the context of endurance training and racing, and it is precisely by testing the limits of our character that we strengthen it.

It doesn’t happen automatically, however. What is guaranteed is that endurance training and racing will expose our lack of discipline, positivity, steadfastness, courage, etc. What is not guaranteed is that we will admit these lacks and set about addressing them. This is where self-criticism comes in. If we’re not willing to admit to ourselves the character flaws that hold us back as athletes, these flaws will continue to hold us back.

Ironically, low self-esteem itself is an impediment to healthy self-criticism based on high personal standards of character. That’s because it takes a certain degree of confidence to tune out society’s judgments and be your own judge, grading yourself in areas that do matter (e.g., how steadfast you are) instead of things that don’t matter (e.g., how you look in a swimsuit). So, if you currently lack self-esteem, you may need to work on that before you turn your focus to character development.

In these matters I speak from personal experience. In my forthcoming memoir, Life Is a Marathon, I recount “the day I discovered I was a coward,” which was the day I intentionally missed the start of a 3200-meter track race during my junior year of high school because I feared the pain. I’m sure some people will read this and think I’m being too hard on myself. But I’m glad I called myself a coward, because calling myself a coward was the thing that spurred me to work on gaining courage, and consciously working on gaining courage was the thing that transformed me into the ballsy athlete I am today.

In summary, self-criticism grounded in high personal standards of character is an effective tool for improvement. The proof is everywhere. Let’s go back to Kellyn Taylor. In her next marathon after Boston, Kellyn claimed victory over a strong field and recorded a time (2:24:28) that only six other Americans have ever exceeded. And the next time she took the firefighter physical fitness test, she passed.

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