I had the privilege this month to talk triathlon with TCSD member, Rich Sweet. In October Rich won the men’s 55-59 age group at the Ironman World Championships in Kona. He beat the 2nd place guy by 21+ minutes and set an age group course record in the process. I know you will enjoy getting to know the World Champ!
Craig: What were your sports when you were younger?
Rich: As a youth I focused on swimming, racing sailboats, and wrestling in the winter in high school. I started swimming competitively when I was 8 years old and continued until 13 years old. I was very competitive in all four strokes, but freestyle and butterfly were my favorite. Around age 12–13, I found myself standing among men at times because I was a late bloomer, and I was not as competitive as I once was.
My father was an avid sailor, and I grew up on sailing on the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. At age 12, I started racing sailboats (Lasers and larger boats) with many podium finishes, at regional and national levels, and this passion and competitiveness continued into my 30s. When the boats were put away for the winter, I wrestled in high school with moderate success because I did not like to cut weight to get in lower weight groups. As a result, I found myself facing much larger opponents at times, which was fun and challenging.
When I was 28, one of the boat owners who I raced with introduced me to auto racing – he collected and raced vintage Porsches. While I could not afford to collect and build Porsches, I did race with Sports Car Club of America Improved Touring (SCCA IT) for 8 years racing with podium finishes on a regional level. Getting back to sailing and or racing cars are bucket list items for me later in life. Both are the same type of people with one group having dirtier hands at times.
Craig: What obstacles have you overcome to become a triathlete?
Rich: In my 30s, my wife and I were raising a family and almost all of my other hobbies were put on the back burner for a while. I was always a casual runner, but at the age of 38 my weight ballooned to more than 200 lbs. About this time my mother passed away suddenly at 63, and my father had passed 7 years earlier at 65. Their deaths at young ages were a day of reckoning for me given my health trajectory.
At some point in life, we realize that “genetics loads the gun, lifestyle pulls the trigger,” and this becomes clearer as we age. At this point I started to really watch my lifestyle and focused on losing the weight and changing my diet. Within two to three years, I was able to get my weight and blood work to normal levels for my age and build, but I still wanted to get more physically active. I raced a couple of half marathons and then decided to buy a mountain bike to balance the running.
Craig: What was your first triathlon like?
Rich: After a few years of running and mountain biking I became interested in learning more about triathlons after coming across a TCSD race at Fiesta Island one weekend morning in 2006 when I was running. After talking the ears off some of the club members that morning, I decided to join the club. After a few weeks of stalking various races, I finally worked up the courage to try a beginners race at Glorietta Bay. Before signing up for the beginners race, I did get to the TCSD Master swim a couple of times after not swimming for 20+ years, but I felt my bike and run fitness was sufficient to go through the paces.
I remembered this practice race morning in vivid detail, mainly because I was the only one who showed up with a mountain bike and a rented wetsuit (from Nytro). The club members were very supportive and helped me set up a proper transition area with bike and run gear set up against a tree. Members even helped me put on the wetsuit correctly after first putting it on with the zipper in the front. In the end I was second out of the water, way back on the bike (obviously), but I was able to finish third after a short two mile run. Soon after, I bought my first wetsuit and tri-bike, a used Cervelo P3 that was too small but looked fast to me.
Craig: What was your experience like at the first triathlon you actually had to pay for?
Rich: Some months later, a co-worker of mine, Jeff Fieldhack, and I were randomly talking about bikes during lunch, and I learned that he was a seasoned and successful triathlete (and former professional tennis player). Jeff mentioned to me that he was racing Wildflower in six weeks, and he encouraged me to sign up. I later went to him as I learned the Mountain Bike Sprint and Olympic distance events were sold out, only leaving me the option for the 70.3 race. He said, “What do you have to lose?” Just sign up for the 70.3, and we can train for the next 6 weeks together. I said ok not really knowing what I was getting into, but I was happy for his offer to train with me.
Over the course of the next six weeks, Jeff and I trained most days during the week and weekends. He is 100% responsible for starting me in this sport, and anyone who knows Jeff can attest that he has always been a positive influence for me during all of our workouts. No matter how bad I was suffering at times compared to him, he was and continues to be encouraging and complementary.
In the end, I had no expectations for the race other than to see what would happen. I finished with a time of 5:48:14 (29:46 Swim; 3:19:18 Bike; 1:54:12 Run) and placed 54th in the 45-49 age group. After the race, I was hooked: All I could think of was how I was going to improve on this time.
Jeff and I have now been training together for more than nine years.
Craig: What have been some of the funniest, dumbest or strangest things you have seen as an athlete?
Rich: Through the last nine years in the sport, there are many funny, dumb, and strange things I have experienced, but the following are the most notable.
My second Triathlon was the Buffalo Springs 70.3 in Lubbock Texas. Jeff wanted to go there because at that time there were Kona Slots. So I thought, ok, let’s do it. For this race I learned a valuable trick that I continue to use today for bike racks. When I got to my bike after the swim, I found my bike knocked off the rack laying on its side and all of my nutrition had poured out of the aero bottle. Needless to say, I was very stressed about this, as I had no clue when I would have any fluids (or what the fluid would be) in this south Texas climate. As a precaution, I now always take a bungee cord and tie it (with a quick release knot) around my seat to the rack so no one moves my bike or knocks it off.
The oddest thing I ever have seen was in the same Lubbock race on the bike. I glanced over to see a pickup truck coming the opposite direction, and I thought I saw Jeff in the passenger side of the truck…“What is he doing in the truck?” I thought. As it turned out, he got a flat and a local guy offered to drive him back to the aid station in hopes of cutting his tubular tire off the rim so he could replace it with the spare. In the end Jeff being Jeff, he went to the Race Director at the finish and DQ’d himself for getting outside assistance, even though he had to ride in on the flat and got a ride in the opposite direction of the course.
The funniest thing I have ever seen was during the swim this year in Kona. About 15 minutes into the swim, people are starting to settle into packs and finding feet (drafting) is a big deal to save energy. The first guy I found literally had feet that looked like the size of a bear with very distinct big orange callas pads. Every kick he made was like prop wash from a power boat. So, I thought perhaps I would put in some effort and get by him but realized that he was moving as fast as I wanted to, so I settled back in behind him. At some point at the boat turn at the half-way point, I lost him only to see him again with about half mile left in the swim, and I was actually relieved, as this was a familiar set of feet and behavior. This was actually a good distraction as I was thinking during the swim how I would describe these feet that I have never seen before during any race. The hobbit did come to mind during the swim, but thought they were just too big for that comparison. Later, I did check the swim finisher pictures and believe I found this guy, he was huge in all propositions even with a full beard. Impressive that he is competing in Kona!
Craig: 2018 was the 5th time you have raced the Ironman World Championships. How did your first 4 attempts go and what did you learn from those experiences?
Rich: After a few 70.3 races, I decided to do my first full Ironman distance race in 2011, which was Ironman France in Nice. At this time, my bike and run conditioning were good, but not good enough to get a Kona spot, but this was Jeff’s goal. We also went with a few other San Diego TCSD guys, and we trained all winter/spring together for this race. For me, my expectation was to have a good showing and learn some lessons from my first full Ironman race.
In the end, Jeff was third in his age group, and got his Kona slot. Jeff is five years younger than me, so we don’t compete in same age group. I was 20th with a time of 10:36. I learned that I biked too hard on bike the first 30 miles, walking aid stations on the run, and had a poor overall nutrition plan. Nonetheless, I was hooked again for this longer distance, and as soon as I got home, I signed up for Ironman Louisville eight weeks later in August. With the primary goal to get a Kona slot.
The training for Ironman Louisville included working on the prior race mistakes and improving conditioning for the expected heat for Louisville in August. My training was impactful, and I placed 1st in my age group and 16th overall with a time or 9:31, and I got my first Kona slot!
Six weeks later, I was racing in Kona with whatever rest and conditioning could be maintained after Louisville. Kona is a tough race, and my lessons learned at this race was no sugar, like Coke, on the bike. I ended up 39th in my age group with a time of 10:05. Jeff finished 41st also in his age group with a time of 9:44.
In 2012, both Jeff and I were plagued with injuries. January I was hit by a car in Fallbrook and Jeff later broke his foot on a trail run. With contusions on my right knee and Jeff’s healing foot, we raced Ironman St. George in the spring with top 10 finishes. The next year was really about focusing on work and rehab for both of us.
It was until late 2013 that Jeff and I signed up for SuperFrog and Ironman Cozumel. The time off and rehab paid off with both Jeff and I, second and first in our age groups, finishing within 20 seconds of each other and both receiving Kona Slots for 2014.
The prep race for Kona 2014 was IM Lake Steven 70.3, which was 8 weeks out from Kona. My 2014 goal was top 10, and I felt I could do this based on the results of my competitors who I have raced against in the past. In the end I was third, and this was my first podium. Still my swim/bike was top 15 only, and I ran into 3rd from there with a 3:13 marathon, and a total finish time of 9:39. The key takeaways there were I got lucky, and I was able to execute the run. But I was still not happy with my bike abilities.
My Kona 2015 (qualified in IM Texas) goal was still to be back on the podium but closer to the top competitors off the bike. That was not to be, but still I was able to run down the ex pro Jurgen Zack at mile 20 after he had a 20-minute lead in front of me off the bike. This year I was 2nd with a time of 9:46.
At Kona 2016 (qualified at IM Texas again) my body was starting to feel the mileage, and my run form was falling apart with hamstring strains in both legs. I knew going into Kona this year that my run conditioning was lacking, but my focus on the bike allowed me to improve there with a 7 min faster bike split but a much slower 3:36 run. I ended up 8th with a time of 9:46. Not what I was hoping for, but honestly not surprised as you have to be able to run in Kona to make the podium.
Once back from Kona in 2016, I took some time off to work on house projects, reflect on run challenges and decided to hire a coach who literally showed me how to run again – the right way. He taught me that my over striding and fixation on striking my fore foot was what caused my hamstring injuries. After focusing mainly on the run through the winter, I decided to enter Ironman Boulder June 2017 to test drive my run. But all I did through the winter was run with last minute swim and bike build. This was not sufficient to put a solid race together, but still I was lucky enough to get a roll down Kona Slot. In the end, I withdrew from Kona because I did not feel I was ready to be competitive as my bike fitness was way down. So, my sights became focused on Kona 2018 as a new 55-year old. I kicked off my training for Kona 2018 late September with Al Torre and Jeff, who were riding their last long bike rides before going to Kona to race a few weeks later.
Craig: What was the 2018 race like for you?
Rich: After withdrawing from Kona 2017, I set course to what was needed for Kona 2018 and had to include focus on staying healthy and listening to my body. I did have a little setback in February 2018 when I fell getting out of the pool and came down hard on my knee. This forced me to focus more on the bike and did not really run much before IM Texas where I hoped to qualify. What I found, though, was there was a huge amount of fitness transfer from the bike to my run fitness as I was able to run enough in IM Texas still to win. After IM Texas I was able to resume running and was starting to see my speed come back after really spending 2 years learning to run again. I kept the bike as the primary focus through the summer and did a test race in September with no taper at Superfrog just 4 weeks out from Kona. This allowed me to gage race fitness and how I would taper the next 4 weeks.
For Kona, I always arrive the Sunday before the race to give me time to acclimate to the temperature and time change. During Race Week I train enough to stay sharp but try to stay off my feet and get at least eight to ten hours of sleep per night. Jeff and I did our normal race week workouts and noticed it was much more humid than prior races (due to rain at night) so sweat rates would be higher. The days leading up to the race I focused on taking in more sodium than normal and even drinking my race nutrition throughout the days leading up to the race. It is normal to have prerace anxiety through the week which can manifest in a lot of issues and for me it is normally not being able to fall asleep. But for me having the surprise arrival of my son and brother-in-law Wednesday before the race really took the edge off and left me very relaxed and able to sleep well. It is really great to have family and close friends at the races and this is the first time at any IM to have both here in Kona.
Race morning I was up at 3:45 and had the usual coffee and toast with almond butter. Also drank 2 bottles of Infinite but in a lighter concentration which I use on the bike. I typically keep my race morning nutrition on the light side and only ate a banana and Bonk Breaker bar while relaxing in the transition area before the start. The swim start is always stressful no matter how many Kona races you have done. The key for me was just keeping steady and not wasting energy battling for position. For me I could swim a sub hour but then my HR would take longer to come down to normal range for the bike. For me it was important to get on the bike and be able to push from the start which I did. This year the marshalling was much better than previous years and the penalty tents were over flowing at times. I mention this because during the bike it is very hard to stay away from the packs especially when the majority of the athletes are getting on the bike course in a span of 15 minutes. Can be very frustrating at times. Throughout the bike I stayed on target power of 200W and about 20 miles out from T2 I backed off a bit on the bike and started to take in more nutrition for the run mainly because this is typically my stronger portion of the race.
Once off the bike and running I saw my son at the first mile who told me there was one person off the bike in front of me about 8 minutes ahead of me. I was happy to hear that but did not know who it was so I kept steady. To my surprise I passed this leader at mile 4 and he was not running that well; perhaps he over cooked the bike. On the way back from the first turn on Ali’i Drive I was able to see the 2 Germans who are good runners and they appeared to be running well so I kept steady knowing I was about 5+ minutes ahead of them. Once I passed by my son again he told me I was about 8 minutes ahead of the second place guy who was one of the Germans who has won his age group 4 times in Kona. After that update I would not have anymore chances to see how my position was fairing until mile 17 when we turn at the bottom of the energy lab to head back to the Queen-K. At this turn I checked the mileage on my watch and then checked it once I saw the 2nd place German and he was about 2 miles back (15-16 minutes) so I again stayed steady. Once back out on the Queen-K Jeff passed me about mile 20 and we ran for a bit and he said he felt he had 3 or so guys up ahead of him in his age group and I agreed that he should keep pushing. I felt there was no need for me to push any harder and risk walking at the last climb 1.5 miles before the finish so again I kept steady. As I hit the top of the last hill I saw my son again who told me I was 20 minutes ahead of the 2nd place German so that felt great to say the least. As I entered the finishing shoot I could hear Jeff’s name being called out as he was about 20-30 seconds ahead of me. In the end my goal of arriving healthy and rested paid off as I won my age group by over 20 minutes and set a new course record for 55-59 of 9:14:23. Admittedly the bike conditions set this up, but whatever was given to us on the bike was taken away in spades on the run as this was by far the hottest run I have ever done; even worse than Houston or Louisville.
Craig: Jeff Fieldhack has been a key person in your success as a triathlete. How has Jeff helped you?
Rich: Jeff and I talk multiple times a day, not only because we are friends, but we share a common passion for racing and training. We are constantly evaluating what is working, what is not, how we are feeling, what new things we will try and more importantly goals. Recently it has been harder for us to meet to train due to life, work and distance, but we look at all of our workout stats (power, heart rate, cadence, average speed, pace etc) and chart course ahead to both training and race execution. I will say we may not agree on everything which is healthy, but keeps us never being complacent.
More importantly we both love to hear about other peoples experiences, too, to help mix things up.
Craig: What advice would you want to share with someone just getting started in triathlon?
Rich: Enjoy the journey and find people to share it with at all levels. I remember 1 gal in Houston at IM Texas say – Raise your hands as you cross the line in victory, because it feels the same whether you are first or last. It is your individual journey and victory.
Craig: What advice would you have for someone that is already a few years into the sport who is trying to qualify for Ironman Kona or the Ironman 70.3 World Championships? As you answer this question, let’s assume that athlete has proven they are pretty good by getting on the podium of some local races.
Rich: Set realistic and stretch goals for training. Know your competition’s strengths and weaknesses. Pick a course which favors your strengths and train like you race – this will help with confidence. Know your limits especially at IM Distance races. Make sure your nutrition is practiced, as well. Lastly, address any physical kinks before they become chronic injuries.
Craig: Who have been the most influential people in your life?
Rich: Even at age 55 I still hear and reflect on the instruction and advice of my father. He has shaped my ability to overcoming adversity, deal positively with uncertainty and ambiguity encountered in life daily. My father was the most influential for me and inspired me to set and achieve my goals. He was a General officer in the Army with a very successful career. As a family we camped and sailed all the time and he always would give me responsibilities, but first show me how to do those jobs. For example, help him check the trailer lights, level the trailer after parked, checking the tires on the vehicles, painting my room, and even allowed me (trusted me) to take out our boats with friends at a young age ~12. My point being is he would inspire me to learn new things, do them the best I could and allowed to me fail and correct course on my own. Same applies to my start and participation in triathlon.
Craig: How do you balance racing triathlons with your family and career?
Rich: I am a Electrical Engineer by education and have spent 30+ years in the wireless industry. I have been fortunate to find the balance of work, sport and life mainly because I never stop unless I am sleeping. However, there are sacrifices at times. My children all have their sports (Running, Tennis & Baseball) and my wife teaches and plays tennis at a level 5. I enjoy my kids sports at times, but usually drop them off for most activities then my wife will pick up or we even ride share with other parents (uber too). I am not an armchair parent and feel my kids will go to whatever level they want in sports as it is up to them. If they show the interest and are putting in the work there is no limit to the resources and support I will offer for them to achieve their goals.
I bike or swim in the AM before work. During work I will run and or swim. Occasionally I can do a short ride depending on meetings. After work I go to Fiesta Island and this time of year will ride until almost dark then I run in the dark on the lighted paths. The weekends require coordination of rides for kids activities Thursday/Friday in order to plan the weekend training. I don’t mind driving kids around in the AM because I like to train in the heat of the day when the wind is blowing. In this case I can be found on the Strand. In all I typically train 12-15 hours a week with peak weeks 20-25 hours which is largely a result of bike volume.
Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over the sport of triathlon, what would you change?
Rich: I would wish for safer training venues for the bike. Better behavior from cyclists that breeds contention from car divers. I will not ride alone anywhere, but the Strand and Fiesta Island but still with mirror and lights. I hate the indoor trainer, but will use it at times.
I think the sport has become too expensive for new sustained participation especially at the 70.3 and IM distance with expensive entrance and lodging fees (it is all dialed in to empty your pockets). As with sailboat racing perhaps there needs to be a Spec bike for the sport? I talk to my nephews who think they need a $10K+ bike to get into the sport and go fast. I have never spent more than $8K and even $3-$4K is getting a solid bike to start. This perception needs to change.
Craig: Do you have any sponsors?
Rich: No I am not sponsored and I have never really pursued sponsorship. I do ask for my TCSD discount thought. I have, however, in the past been a formal/informal brand ambassador for the products I use religiously for racing and training. Those include Kiwami, Desoto, Infinite Nutrition and ENVE. I also have good relationships (with full acknowledgment that I am a difficult customer at times) with the local bike shops to include Moment, Pulse and special mention to Mike Willard at the Trek Super Store for his flexibility to get me in the service shop at a moment’s notice and the quality of his work is better than sponsorship.
Craig: What are your future triathlon and endurance sport goals?
Rich: I will race to win in Kona 2019 and this will be tough knowing who is aging up. Jeff and I will perhaps enter Wildflower, IM Boulder and Superfrog.
Bucket list is an open marathon and perhaps a 50K. Ultimately I would like to get a mountain bike and qualify for Leadville – this race looks awesome and hard!
Craig: Rich, thank you for sharing your story. It’s not often that I get to talk with a World Champion. And I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to anyone that has seen Big Foot, especially during the swim at Ironman. We are in the same age group, but you are such a good guy that I’m still going to wish you good luck with all your future goals.
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.