(This article came from a post from the forum that I sent to one of our coaches, Mike Ricci for his thoughts.)
"I just wanted to put this out there again though it's been said many times. We have a local triathlete who has been doing this gig for a couple of years now. Not too long ago he was living on the streets and was way into drugs etc. His life came to point to choose and he choose to get clean and triathlon is his outlet. Recently he took 4th in his AG at IM 70.3 Cozumel. He went nearly 24 mph on the bike, and ran decent as well. His swim is a constant improvement, so he lost some time there. He managed to pass 70+ on the bike and 10+ on the run to finish is the top 20 overall including pro's.
I say it's all about the engine because he is riding a Motobecane that is about 5+ years old. I don't think he even bought it new, I think it was used. So there you have it. Five year old aluminum bike that is definitely not the most aerodynamic thing out there, I wish I had his engine."
BUT IS IT ALL ABOUT THE ENGINE? LET'S LOOK INTO THIS MORE...
Over the course of history we’ve seen examples of this type of ability, whether it be a six year old picking up a foreign language, or a fifteen year old playing a musical instrument like someone with 25 years worth of experience. Talent is talent. Let’s take a closer look at your neighbor, the former homeless guy, with the used bike and as you call it ‘the big engine’.
In order to be good at anything you have to have talent, plain and simple. In triathlon, football, tennis, baseball etc. We’ve all heard the stories of the big fat kid who went on to play college football and then the NFL, but hates football. He’s talented enough to be ‘good’, but not passionate enough to be great. And there’s the difference. The best athlete isn’t always going to be the most talented but one who works the hardest.
Triathlon is a blue collar sport. And by saying that, I mean it’s about who does the most hard work. If you haven’t done intervals on the track until your abs cramp, or haven’t swum so hard and so long until you can’t lift yourself out of the pool, I can promise you, that you can work harder. There is a certain level you have to get to in order to be good, but it’s a completely different level to be great. A high VO2 Max is a wonderful thing, but it’s only part of the equation.
Your friend’s results are impressive, there’s no question, but with time and learning how to swim better and to run a little better than ‘decent’, we’ll see how far he can go. Maybe he’s really not doing well at all compared to how good he could be? Winning your AG at 70.3 Cozumel or coming in the top 20 might seem like a big deal, but how does that stack up in one of the premier 70.3 races like Oceanside in the spring or how would he do at 70.3 WC in Mt. Tremblant?
Would he ride better on a new tricked out, 16 pound Specialized Shiv, Trek Speed Concept or Cervelo P5? Almost certainly he would. But who is to say he isn’t over biking and leaving a lot out on the run, and that would make his overall race even faster.
As an example of how much VO2 matters, we’ll use Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers. Frank Shorter was a friend of Steve Prefontaine, and Frank won the Gold medal in the marathon in the 1972 Olympics in Berlin, along with Silver in the 1976 Olympics, in Montreal. Rodgers won the Boston and NYC Marathons four times between 1975 and 1980. If you’ve ever seen them run side-by-side, you have this tall lanky guy who kind of lumbers along and another shorter guy who runs as efficiently as a deer in the woods. One guy has a VO2 of almost 80 (78.5), and the other guy has a VO2 in the low 70s (71.0). And their marathon PR’s are almost identical with Shorter running 2:10:30 and Rodgers with a 2:09:27.
You might ask yourself, how could that be? Well, Rodgers was once a two pack a day motorcycle riding 20-something year old. He jumps into the Boston Marathon and within a few years, wins the race. He even stopped to tie his shoe along the way. His time was 2:09:55. He has the engine for sure!
Shorter, with the lower VO2 and more efficient running style is just as fast. Is it that he used to run at 8,000 feet 3 times a day in his build up for the Berlin Olympics in 1972...or was it his will and talent? The answer is all of it.
Could Rodgers have been even better if he trained at 8,000 feet and was able to smooth out his running form? We’ll never know.
Work ethic has a lot to do with how far you can take your talents. If you are really passionate about something, and you have the talent for that something, chances are you can do well and be successful. If you have a lot of talent and no passion (not a good work ethic), then you won’t achieve what’s possible (these are called coach killers because they drive coaches nuts!). As a coach who has worked with some of the most talented athletes in the country at the collegiate level, I would say it all the time, “Give me an athlete who is willing to work hard and I can turn that person into a very good triathlete”. Nothing drives me more crazy than a kid with all kinds of talent, who didn’t want to follow the plan or wasn’t coachable. The world is littered with those athletes, and they are soon forgotten. What we do remember, are the ones who work their behinds off and combine that with the their talent to be the best.
As much as we think the engine is important, we have to realize that a high VO2 is important, but it’s not the only thing. The best athlete doesn’t always win, but the best athlete who works the hardest, usually does. “The will to win is nothing without the will to prepare”.
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Mike Ricci, the USAT National Coach of the Year, is the owner and founder of the D3 Multisport coaching group, through which he coaches all levels of athletes from beginner to elite. Mike is also the former head coach of the 2013 National Champion CU Triathlon Team, and has guided them to 4 consecutive collegiate National Champion titles from 2010-2013. Mike has written training plans for Team USA for the past several years, is a USAT Level III Elite coach, and has helped many athletes to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona.