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Triathlon: The Tale of Ben and Jillian

Recently, two of my favorite trainers/podcasters participated in triathlons, with very different experiences and race results. I thought it would be fun to compare them, and see what we can learn.

DISCLAIMER 1: I was a runner on my high school cross country team, for two years. Pretty consistently, I finished races at the back of the pack. I also used to ride my bicycle a lot, for transportation. As I entered college and adult working life, I have not done either of these activities on a regular basis. Currently, I live near the ocean, but never swim there, and I have an in-ground swimming pool, which I maintain for the kids, without using it very much myself. I am not criticizing anyone who attempts a triathlon.

DISCLAIMER 2: There is already a lot of negative press about Jillian’s race results, and I do not want to add to that. She was invited to participate, and despite her lack of preparation (noted below), she was brave enough to give it a try.

Jillian’s Triathlon

Jillian Michaels at the 2013 Nautica Malibu Triathlon (London Daily Mail)

Jillian Michaels at the 2013 Nautica Malibu Triathlon (photo: London Daily Mail)

The Competitor: Jillian Michaels describes her triathlon experience in the opening segment of the Jillian Michaels Show episode  Jillian Takes On Michonne (Stitcher Radio, iTunes). Yes, fans of The Walking Dead, she also interviews actress Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne. Anyway, this was Jillian’s first triathlon. (She previously completed a bicycle race, which is at least part of the triathlon experience.)

Family Status: Jillian has two young children with partner Heidi Rhoades. (A memorable quote from the podcast: “Who has time to practice for these things? I gotta work! I have kids!”)

The Race: She participated in the 2013 Nautica Malibu Triathlon, in the Individual Celebrity category, for charity and to promote the Eboost energy drink. Here is a course description: “The Nautica Malibu Triathlon presented by Equinox Herbalife International Distance race course features a 1.5K Pacific Ocean swim, a 40K out-and-back bike course along the Pacific Coast Highway, and a 10K out-and-back run course on pavement and blacktop along the sands of Zuma Beach.” This would be described as a “standard” or “Olympic” distance.

Race Preparation: Jillian has difficulty with “freestyle” swimming, and does the breaststroke instead. She did some swim training in a pool, but did not practice swimming in open water (and certainly not in the proper wetsuit). She prepared for each individual portion of the race (swim, bike, run) but did not practice transitions from one to the other, or combinations of the events. Jillian admits that she is not an “athlete” and prefers to use exercise as a way to “be around for my kids, and fit into skinny jeans.” On the other hand, she has earned a martial arts black belt, and she is very disciplined when it comes to her daily workouts and training others for weight loss. She has mentioned on several podcast episodes that she hates running, and has only been doing it in preparation for this event. Her podcast co-host criticized her for ignoring the advice of several people during the weeks prior to the race

Unexpected Events: She had a surfing wetsuit, purchased shortly before the race, instead of a more buoyant triathlon wetsuit. Fortunately, a triathlete who was meeting her for the race quickly provided the proper attire. Also shortly before the race, her bicycle was “wrapped” with promotional stickers and improperly reassembled. This caused problems with her brakes and front derailleur. In the transition from the bike to the run, she had to pee, but did not want to stop, so she had to deal with the discomfort for the entire distance.

Race Results: In the small field of Individual Celebrity female competitors (four women), Jillian finished, apparently despite herself, in last place.

Ben’s Triathlon

Ben Greenfield finishes just before the 10 hour mark (photo: Ben Greenfield Fitness Facebook page)

Ben Greenfield (center) finishes just before the 10 hour mark (photo: Ben Greenfield Fitness Facebook page)

The Competitor: This is certainly not Ben’s first triathlon, since the Ironman championships require a certain number of prior races and finish times in order to participate. In fact, Ben has been a triathlete for several years, and was a member of Team Timex. Ben says this will be his last time racing in Hawaii.

Family Status: Ben and his wife Jessica have five-year-old twin boys. (Ben said several times during his race recap podcast that his top priority is his family, including homeschooling his boys, followed by his businesses, and his musical interests. He did not have the time or desire to train as a top competitor.)

The Race: An Ironman triathlon consists of  a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2-mile (42.2 km) run. The World Championship race in Kona, Hawaii, also adds the difficulties of heat, humidity, and a steep uphill bike course.

Race Preparation: Ben has been preparing meticulously for this triathlon, and previous ones this season, by using a minimalist training style (fewer hours per week, with maximum efficiency) and low-carb “ketogenic” diet, while tracking his progress and physical changes… for science! He acclimated himself to the heat prior to arriving, and anticipated many of the small details involved with an all-day race. Of course, as a triathlete and personal trainer, with graduate degrees in sports science and exercise physiology, this is not a hobby or one-time charity event.

Unexpected Events: During the opening swim, Ben followed a swimmer (“drafting” in his wake) as he normally does. He finished a little slower than usual, which he jokingly blamed on the person he was following, and that they went a little crooked from the start to finish points. He described his bike ride as less “energetic” than previous races. This could be a combination of the low-carb approach, and his attitude about the Ironman Championships as a “fun” race (because he does not expect to keep up with the top competitors). A major problem during the bike ride: His carefully-prepared water bottle (including several nutritional ingredients) had not been refrigerated, and the contents turned sour in the Hawaiian sun. As he put it, “after mile 60 of the ride, I consumed nothing but ‘Bonk Breaker’ tablets and Peppermint Tums.” His run was uneventful, until the last mile when he heard from a spectator that he was very close to the sub-10-hour mark (five minutes!). He sprinted the last mile, and just made it. After the race, he experienced a major “full-body cramp” and a giant muscle “bubble” in his abdomen. Some topical magnesium provided immediate relief.

Race Results: Ben Greenfield’s race results are included in his podcast episode 260, as well as a premium (subscription) episode in which he provides all the details related to his blood tests, training methods, etc. The official race report shows that Ben finished just under the coveted 10 hour mark, certainly not at the front of the pack (number 122 in his age category, for example, out of about 180), but he arrived less than an hour behind number 1 in that group.

Lessons Learned

Ben and Jillian both have popular podcasts in the Fitness and Nutrition category of iTunes, but I don’t know if they have read about each other’s triathlon results. Here’s how I see it, as an inexperienced, outside observer:

Did they achieve their goals?

Ben wanted this to be his Ironman Championship “swan song,” and I think he went out with a bang. He planned ahead, executed his plan, and finished well in his age group. He readily admits that with more training time and effort, he could have finished better, at the expense of his other commitments.

Jillian was venturing out of her comfort zone into a new activity, and her goal was to cross the finish line. While her ego might have been bruised along the way, she fully acknowledged the difficulty of the event, and was pleased with herself for finishing.

Did they practice what they preach? 

Ben certainly did, as he documented the entire experience, including his training schedule, diet plan, race preparations, lab visits, medical examinations, and more. Ben was uncertain how the low-carb approach might affect his race performance, but he was willing to give it a try.

Jillian is a firm believer in goal-setting, that your thoughts influence your actions and outcomes, and so on. I’m pretty sure that if one of her Biggest Loser contestants said “Who has time for dieting and exercise?” it would be a bad day in the gym. So as much as I have respect for Jillian, as a user of her workout DVDs and a fan of The Biggest Loser TV show, in this situation she did not follow her own advice (or anyone else’s, apparently).

What do you think? Please leave comments below, or on our Facebook page!

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