Checking in with Gordo

author : trilover
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Gordo graciously took the time to check in with the community and subtly reminded us through his own actions that simplicity trumps complexity in succeeding in triathlon.

By: Lu Duong

Gordo Byrn solidified his mark in the Ironman world last March at Ironman New Zealand with his stunning 2nd place finish in 8:39. He then stunned the triathlon world (particularly his fans and readers) by announcing his retirement shortly afterwards. As he indicated in his previous interview with BT, Gordo excelled in venture capital prior to dedicating his time and efforts to the sport nearly a decade ago. Returning to the business world, a new wife, and new goals, Gordo graciously took the time to check in with the community, and in typical Gordo fashion, subtly reminded us through his own actions that simplicity trumps complexity in succeeding in triathlon.

1. Gordo, many of us were surprised at your sudden (at least on the surface) decision to take a break from elite racing and return to the business world. How long had you mulled the decision before arriving at the conclusion?

Similar to the debate over many things, life is not a binary choice. I always have a wide range of options rolling at one time. Because I live my triathlon-life in public, I suppose, that it is natural for folks to think that is all I had going on. There’s a lot more to me that what hits gordoworld.com.

In Spring 2005, I had a few things happen at the same time. After a massive year in 2004, I became very tired and will discuss that in your next Q. At the same time, I was chatting to a buddy and realized that we had an opportunity to start a new business. As well, he had a separate project that he wanted me to undertake. So I took on the assignment and put together a business plan for a new company that we started.

How fast did it happen? Pretty darn quickly. I went to a board meeting at the end of March and six weeks later… my New Zealand house was on the market; the draft business plan was completed; I was engaged; and my work permit application was submitted in Bermuda.

Moving acrossed continents, getting married, changing careers, forming a new company… throw on top of that some substantial fatigue – no wonder I had to dial down the training.

2. Many individuals on various triathlon-related message boards surmised that you simply "burnt out." Laying the question to rest, did this have any factor in your decision to walk away?

I wonder if they were giving themselves permission not to try?

Fatigue is the natural consequence of work. As it takes a lot of work to achieve anything worth having, folks that get a lot done will overdo it at times.

I was fortunate to be able to take myself, physically, to a place that only a few get the chance to explore – there are things that I learned that only of few of us know. After that, my body felt like a break. I strongly resisted my need to rest, but… it was a bit out of my hands and I was forced to accept reality, eventually. Friends, family and outside interests are nice to be able to fall back on in those times.

As for walking away, it was more simply having to rest. The level of training that is required for performance at my IMC04 level wasn’t possible. In triathlon terms, there was no decision to be made – my body made the decision, my mind eventually accepted it.

I was physically exhausted for much of 2005, no doubt. However, that was just one part of my life. In other areas I made decent progress. So it was one-dimensional burn-out (which I had with finance while I was improving at triathlon). Not really surprising when one considers the level that I took myself to in 2004. There are a few examples out there that I (can now) recognize and I feel for those guys, especially the ones that only have triathlon.

We need to be willing to push ourselves far beyond what we think is possible (or reasonable) if we want to come close to attaining our potential. There are many, many examples of great athletes that have written themselves off for a season in trying to figure out how much they can take.

We can learn a lot about what works for us by discovering what doesn’t. With the benefit of seven months where I thought about training more than doing it, here are some lessons that might benefit your readers.

Recovery needs to increase in line with training and performance
With my own racing as well as the guys that I coach, life-best athletic performance often follows periods of forced recovery (injury, burnout, life situation). Often the only time we give ourselves permission to back off is when we are sick, injured or totally fried. You can learn a lot about yourself when the rug is pulled out from under you (I learned that for the first time when I got divorced).

Focus your training around enjoying what it takes for YOU to improve
My rapid improvement came from the fact that I deeply enjoyed following the lifestyle that was required for me to improve (process-orientation). When I shifted my training towards the sessions required to achieve a certain result (goal-orientation), my satisfaction dropped. A lack of satisfaction, combined with a lack of recovery, cooked me.

Ironman is a volume game
Anyone that tells you otherwise is most often trying to sell you something. In an over-scheduled society there will always be a profitable niche available for those teaching how to perform with less. You can become decent (better than you ever thought possible) but you will never fully tap your potential. Not the most popular message to some but a fact of life at the top level.

Nothing is better than being truly great at something
Molina once said that out of the blue. We were walking across a field in Queenstown, under starlight, after a few beers. As usual, it took me a few years to understand what he was talking about. What I think that he meant: the lessons that we learn from a relentless pursuit of personal excellence stick with us far longer than any result. Time spent towards personal excellence is never wasted.

As for walking away... just reading that question fires me up. You know what’s more satisfying than starting competitive athletics at thirty and ripping an 8:29 Ironman? Doing it twice. Assuming my immune system and lower legs hold up, then I’ll be around for a few years to come. I hope to race long course AG worlds in 2008 when I “turn” ITU-40. I’m unlikely to race as an elite in my 40s, so if you will be in the 40-44 then consider yourself warned – ha ha.

3. You are also balancing a new career and more importantly, a new wife, professional Monica Caplan. Was it difficult in adjusting to these major changes in your life?

My happiness never really came from what I was doing. Rather it was more about doing what I wanted to do. The knowledge that, whatever I do, it is my choice – that has helped me become very adaptable and is a great attribute to have.

The difficulty was not so much the change. The most difficult period (by far) was before I realized that I had to change. Once I made the decision to change and get back to doing my best in the direction I was going… life went back to normal.

4. Do you miss the camaraderie of elite training with your old buddies (KP, Clas, Molina, Bjorn, et al.)

The only person I truly miss is Stuart McGavin. I think about him often.

As for the lads, I’ll see most of them in January at Epic New Zealand – no doubt it will be time for a little payback on my under-trained butt. That’s OK, a lesson in humility is useful from time-to-time.

Molina, I do miss the guy. Hopefully, I’ll be fast enough to train with him a bit this southern summer when I visit Christchurch. There was a period in Christchurch when I was training 15-20 hours per week with him – I was blown away that I could just turn up at his garage every morning and learn. That was a special time for me.

5. You recently wrote in your blog that you have revisited your seminal piece, "The Four Pillars." However, you're now approaching it from the perspective of the triathlete balancing standard work, family, and training. Do you have any thoughts or additions on the piece arriving at it from your vantage point now?

None whatsoever, that’s my best training article. Constantly improving by “adding,” that’s a trap. If I could improve it by taking things out – that would be good.

In athletics, Molina and Hellemans are coaches that understand the benefit of teaching simplicity. Our minds constantly seek to complicate things – one of the key roles of leadership is simplifying and directing folks to what matters.

6. At this juncture, do you foresee a return to the sport in the future?

I never left.

Remember that I’m a regular guy. I have doubts as to whether I’ll ever be able to get back to “that level,” whatever it was. Getting there isn’t what it is about though – it is about enjoying the journey to wherever I happen to end up.

Dave sums it up best, “We never stop training, we simply train at different levels.”

I get sore, I get tired, I eat crappy sometimes and I have trouble getting out of bed. It’s as much of a challenge for me as the next guy. My satisfaction arises from overcoming myself – it’s like that for most of “us” and Ironman contains a lot of “us”.

Exercise is what makes my days satisfying and my nights peaceful. I’ve tried other methods but all the other methods involve hangovers of one form or another.

7. Do you find it more difficult to focus on nutritional goal-setting now that you only have a handful of hours dedicated to training?

Good question. Some folks were a bit disappointed at my wedding that I hadn’t puffed up! 0-6 hours per week of training and I looked OK. I wasn’t going to give them the “out” of seeing me puffy.

Initially, managing my appetite down was a challenge. Five years of training 20-45 hours per week. Heck, I started endurance training so I could eat more. Once I managed my appetite downwards I applied my own advice. I eat like I recommend on my tips page. Very low sugar and processed starch – no bread, no cereal, lots of lean protein and veggies.

It helps to be vain. My desire to look good is much greater than my desire to eat sugar. In the past, when I would come off training, I’d eat poorly because it was the only time of the year that I could. I didn’t enjoy it, it was self-sabotage. Molina thinks that I liked putting on 25 pounds just to show that I could lose it. I can’t afford to do that now, so I don’t.

8. You're very big on goal-setting and systematically creating target points to achieve them as benchmarks. Do you have any business goals you wouldn’t mind sharing with us?

Our primary goal is to deliver long term equity returns for our investors of 5% per annum in excess of benchmark. In a low interest rate/low inflation environment, that will keep us in business. For property, I expect that we will move into a lower return environment over the next 3-7 years. Most folks are basing their return expectations on the recent past – if that continues then great, everyone will look like heroes. However, I wouldn’t want to build a business on that premise. In property, I am most interested in investments where equity returns are created independent of market growth.

In delivering those returns, we want to provide our team with an environment where they can continue to learn and work with people they respect. Ultimately, that is what retains good people and creates value.

As for personal business goals:

  • Be able to use my skills creatively;
  • Continue to learn;
  • Continue to outperform in whatever I do;
  • Maintain the respect of people that I respect – I used to want everyone to like me, now it is (mostly) about maintaining the respect of the people I admire; and
  • Cover my personal overheads.

With business, finance and personal investing, I need to constantly consider the difference between taking an action “because I can” and taking an action “because it moves me towards my personal goals.”

There are many things that I could do to achieve greater success in the eyes of others but these wouldn’t move me towards my personal goals. The first ten years of my working life were spent working towards an outside view of success. I became much more effective once I was working in-line with my internal view of success.

9. There's a wonderful new look to your website, are you taking new clients?

Glad you like it. It turned out really well thanks to my web-guy, Brian Johnson.

I’m taking on a few coaching assignments with people that I get a chance to train alongside. I’ve found that my effectiveness is far, far higher when I’ve trained with an athlete and can understand their outlook.

Most folks don’t need my approach. They need a simple plan and they need to learn to stick with it. There are many people that can help with that. The assignments that I take on are where I think that I can learn something while helping the athlete become the very best that they can be.

10. What's in store for Gordo that we can look forward to? Any headway with your new book?

The book will come out eventually. A book is a massive undertaking and I am not willing to make space for it right now. Too many things would have to go from my current life. We could probably use this interview as a chapter based on how much I’ve written!

As for what’s next? My Top Ten remains the same:

  • Monica
  • Win IMC
  • Write book
  • Build tri team
  • Property biz
  • <6 min 400 IM
  • Stay focused
  • Continue to learn about sport
  • Stay fit and healthy
  • Take one month to relax and reflect each year

I haven’t seen any reason to change that list so I will continue to work toward it over the next five years. I’m patient, well informed and fully funded – a good mix in business as well as athletics. My competition will need to work pretty hard to beat me and we will all get better by trying to crush each other. Tom and Cam did me a favor. Who knows, I might have really retired if they hadn’t beat me.

11. Gordo, a piece of advice please for all of us looking for a bit of motivation and inspiration during these holiday times with delicious food surrounding us…

One for the dinner table…
The most valuable friend is one that supports our strengths, rather than tempting us and taking satisfaction in our weaknesses.

One for those of us at a crossroads…
It’s tempting to think that the people at the top of their fields are better than us. They simply had the balls to try.

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date: January 1, 2006

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