What is your athletic background?
In high school I was a good swimmer and I also played football, which was unusual. Not too many people did that. I learned as a child growing up that I had excellent endurance and that, although I wasn’t a top athlete, I could keep up with everyone. I didn’t compete at the collegiate level. My parents were definitely not athletes. I grew up in the inner city of San Diego where I learned to survive. If you were a good athlete, you could pretty much stand your ground. I think in some ways it was good for me because it gave me the grit and mindset to continue to be the best I could be.
How did you get started in triathlon?
As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in San Diego, where the sport was born. One day, in 1975, I decided to run down the beach and I learned about an event called the Tug’s Tavern Swim-Run-Swim, which is at Pacific Beach. It was a half-mile swim around the pier, five-and-a-half-mile run down the beach, and then another half-mile swim around the pier. The first year there were 400 athletes. I showed up at race day with no training and I came in 30th. I thought if I just did a little bit of training I could do very well. The next year I was 4th overall. It was kind of a wake-up call where I really found my niche of swimming and running.
When did you decide to enter a full IRONMAN?
I met Tom Warren, the man who put on the Tug’s Tavern event and also who won the IRONMAN Championship in 1979 when it was on Oahu. He showed me an article on the race, which was quite intriguing. I went home and talked it over with my wife — we had just got married — and she said, “Let’s go for it!” Before I knew it, we were in Hawaii and there were 99 athletes entered. ABC Wide World of Sports was there with Dick Lampley along with Diana Nyad and Dave Scott. I thought, “Wow, this is going to be pretty special.”
After finishing 7th overall, I thought that this ultra-distance endurance test may just have been a one-and-done opportunity. The sport was so uncommon, nothing like anything I had ever done. Back then, there wasn’t all the social media there is today. But the event was on TV and people started talking about it. In 1981, they moved the event to Kailua-Kona, which is located on the Big Island of Hawaii. I prepared for it much better and I finished 6th overall. That was quite an honor. I went back in 1983 and finished 10th.
When IRONMAN started to become a lot more popular and people wanted to take endurance racing to a whole new level, an event called the Ultraman was created. From start to finish, it’s a course that travelled around the entire perimeter of Hawaii and covered a total distance of 320 miles over a three-day period. Because of my extensive background in swimming, my strategy on the first day was to go out hard right from the start in the 6-mile swim and then be consistent on the 90-mile bike course. My second-day strategy was to continue to remain consistent for the 165 miles on the bike. Because my running skills were so strong, the double marathon on day three was easier on me than on my competitors. My results: I finished first in 1983 and I came back to win it again in 1985.
In 1984 I continued to race in full Ironman distance triathlons. In 1986, I went back to Hawaii [for the IRONMAN World Championship] and placed 34th. I think it was then that reality set in: I was a dad and I had a full-time job instead of working part-time and being sponsored by Nike and “living the dream.” I realized it was time to put this thing aside and be a good dad and husband.
How did you initially approach training for an IRONMAN?
Back in the 80s, we weren’t overly scientific about our triathlon training. It was just volume, volume, volume. I can remember biking about 400 miles a week and racing as much as I could. Not much of a taper. Just high volume. I had some success but I think to continue with that type of training regimen for an extended period of time might have led to some problems with injuries.
Coming back into the sport in 2013 was different for me because there was a whole new generation of triathletes. The first thing I realized was that people in all age groups were much better runners off the bike. So you really had to be strategic on being strong in the swim. The pacing was key compared to back in the early days of the sport when you just got on the bike and hung on. The lesson learned: You really have to transition off the bike and run well.
Training today is becoming much more challenging for athletes without a coach. The sport has become so complex. It’s hard to find a coach with a background in exercise physiology, sports psychology, biomechanics, competency in aquatics, a good understanding of biking, and on top of all that, one who is nutrition savvy. My best guess is that the vast majority of people train inefficiently and continue to do too much volume.
How do you mentally prepare for a race?
In the early days as well as now I think I’ve always been fortunate in that I have a lot of tenacity and mental toughness. The nickname I had as a kid was “Mad Dog.” That name followed me into the sport of triathlon. I can remember in 1982 [at the IRONMAN World Championship] I came off the bike in 20th and slowly started to move up. A few competitors who were actually better than me were upset, saying, “How can you do this? I’m so much better than you?” I told them, “I don’t know. We’ll talk after the race!” I finished 6th overall. To move up 14 spots was significant for me, and I believe my mental toughness was a major contributing factor to my success.
I think I was born with the ability to get in that “zone” that athletes talk about, almost like a trance. I know when I’ve done 100-mile trail runs or 24-hour track runs, I experience the same phenomenon. I’m in that place where I don’t feel anything and I’m very comfortable. It’s more like playing than working. I’m calm and I’m relaxed. I first experience being in that zone when I train, and I’m able to take that same ability to race day.
So when I get to the most important races, I’ve already done the heavy lifting: the physical training combined with the mental toughness. Even for Kona, if you take the top ten people who are predicted to win and put them on a treadmill, their oxygen uptake levels are probably almost identical. The athletes on the podium are the ones who have the will to win, who can dig deep, who have the most grit, who can pull it out, and who are mentally the toughest. It’s the demons in your head that either make or break you on the physical part.
It comes down to continuous improvement. The Japanese word for it is “kaizen.” For me, that’s one of my core values and that’s the way I live. My friends remind me that I have no idle, and that I don’t slow down. My continuous improvement is a combination of factors: wisdom, experience, and the know to adapt to any situation.
I’ve probably done more than 50 triathlons from sprint all the way to a three-day triathlon and a 100-mile trail run in Colorado at 12,000-13,000 feet elevation. I was also the USA 24-hour national champion. In Leadville, Colorado, I ran a race [the Leadville Trail 100] with the Tarahumara Indians. You may recall them from that book, “Born to Run.” In 1994, I participated in that event. I was in fourth place at mile 84 when suddenly two Tarahumara Indians passed me. I finished in 6th place. It was definitely one of the highlights of my career.
How does your background in physiology help you?
A whole bunch! My master’s degree in exercise physiology from San Diego State was beneficial to me earlier in my career when I thought I was just going to be a coach. I wanted to understand exercise physiology so I could really understand the body. During that time, I was racing a lot and I thought that would be really key. My recent coursework, where I’ve gone through IRONMAN University’s Certification Program and USA Triathlon’s Level 1 Certification Program, has also better prepared me for participation and coaching in the sport. I’ve also learned an invaluable amount through TriDot.
All in all, I feel confident in these areas and understand why certain things have to be done in training for myself and for my athletes. And if I’m presenting at a clinic, I can explain extensive scientific principles so my audience can not only clearly understand them but effectively put them into practice.
What’s your take on the “fast before far, strong before long” philosophy?
The workouts I did back in the early 80s were similar to what people are doing now. However, I probably did too much volume then, compared to today when the big emphasis is on less volume and more high-intensity threshold work on a more regular basis. It makes it tough if athletes don’t understand that. And if they don’t have the background, they’re missing the mark. As coaches, we have to be mindful of providing our athletes with a training program that contains less volume, incorporates high intensity sessions, and allows for adequate recovery.
Check in tomorrow for the conclusion of our interview with Kurt.