Oct 17

In my emerging series of interviews with fitness/sports luminaries, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak yesterday with Matt Fitzgerald, who is a well-known endurance sports journalist. Matt was a contemporary of mine at Haverford College, and went on to write several books and publish numerous articles about training and nutrition for triathletes, runners and other endurance athletes. In view of his recent publication of Iron War, a book about the epic Ironman competition between Dave Scott and Mark Allen that culminated in 1989’s race, he and I had a phone interview yesterday, Sunday October 16, which follows.


Noah: It’s been quite a while! Tell us a bit about your career and what you’ve been doing since Haverford.

Matt: As you may recall, I was a runner throughout high school, but I burned out and did not run at Haverford. It is one of my great regrets because Haverford has such a great program, with Tom Donnelly as the long-time coach. I was always going to be a writer – since 9 years old. I was an English major at Haverford. After graduating, I moved to San Francisco and the first job I was able to get was with a start-up endurance magazine, Multi-Sport. The magazine did not survive long, but it gave me some experience and re-ignited that fire of endurance sports – that runner in me. I started running again, lost some weight, got fit, and in the meantime continued working as a journalist in endurance sports.

After Multi-Sport, I started writing for Triathlete magazine, worked for some dot-com start-ups, and then eventually struck out on my own. For 7 years, I was free-lancing and then in 2001, I started writing books. My first book was published in 2003. Somewhere in the mix, I got a coaching certification and got certified as a sports nutritionist, which gave me the credentials to write about endurance sports. I have also done some consulting work for various sports nutrition companies and have created training plans for triathletes and runners. All of the aspects of my career have been thematically related: endurance sports, fitness and nutrition.

Noah: Why did you decide on a career in endurance sports journalism?  I see that you do a lot of writing on the topic – how did you get into it?

Matt: That was an accident. I wrote poetry the whole time I was growing up and while I was at Haverford. All through that time, I knew there was no possibility to make a living writing poetry. My father was a writer and a novelist and while he did quite well, it was not quite well enough to support a family of five. He therefore did a lot of technical writing on the side to support the family. I have that same passion for writing as my dad did – I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a writer. I felt that journalism would be a good way to have a career that was enjoyable even if the journalism was not my ultimate passion. I knew I wanted to do some kind of journalism as my day job and continue to do my poetry on the side. When I got to San Francisco, I told myself that I was going to take the first decent job that I was going to get. And that first job was really an accident, getting the job for Multi-Sport. Once I had that, it was like being type-cast in Hollywood – it was as though you’re that guy who played the villain with the German accent in a movie. That is the role you end up playing.

Noah: What is your own training routine? Do you run marathons or triathlons?

Matt: Yeah, I started getting back into running in my mid-20’s. I ran my first marathon when I was 28. Since then, I have run maybe 14-15 marathons - half for fun, half seriously. I did my first triathlon in 1998, and I’ve done 13 triathlons, and one Ironman. I go back and forth: at one point I will focus on triathlons, next I will work on marathons.

Now, I have had a lot of injury problems. I would have run a lot more if I’d managed to keep myself healthier. But I always do have some goal in front of me. Endurance sports is my business, so I have every excuse to walk the talk. I always have a lot of time to train. And training is really the source of a lot of learning that I do. Everything that I write about is experience-based. I have had a lot of injuries. When I work through an injury, not only am I working through it myself but I am passing that along to others through my books and articles. It is a nice synergy there.

Noah: I’ve been reading Iron War. First of all, it’s great reading – an odyssey through the lives and adventures of some of the most amazing endurance athletes alive. What was it like interview & (I presume) get to know the likes of athletes like Dave Scott and Mark Allen?

Matt: Hobnobbing with some of the world’s greatest athletes is one of the best parts of what I do. People who are very accomplished in their endeavor are inspiring. I have had the chance to meet Haile Gebrselassie, who is probably the greatest distance runner of all time. I am good friends with Kara Goucher, one of the best American runners. I first met Mark Allen in 1996 after he won his last of 6 Iron Mans. And I’ve done consulting work for the same company as Dave Scott.

Endurance sports are different from the major team sports. If you run the New York City marathon, you are on the same starting line as Kara Goucher. We are all in it together. It is very easy for anyone to relate those who are winning medals and breaking records. At the same time, these people put a lot more people into it. Endurance sports are a lot different from fan sports like football where you have no real connection to the professional players. Running and triathlons are different: even the top athletes don’t see any separation. You are all doing the same races. Most of these people are very down to earth – there isn’t a whole lot of ego. And yet what I have found is that these athletes are are exceptional in ways that are interesting.

Noah: In reading your book, I’ve noted that with these endurance there is often an emotional back-story. It sounded as though Mark Allen had a difficult upbringing.

Matt: Yes, well, the reason is that unlike other sports, in endurance sports your success often is directly related to your tolerance for suffering. When you think about it, it’s that tolerance for suffering that separates the very best from everyone else. When I talk to the top athletes, they say physically that we’re all the same. The separation therefore is mental: it’s the willingness to endure the suffering of extreme fatigue and pain. That ability is not a switch that just gets turned on at the start of a race, and it does not get turned off afterwards. It is part of their personality. The question then becomes what gives a person the ability to suffer. It is often something that the person is going through, that strengthens them. Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” So often there is that back-story. Frank Shorter recently revealed that he was a victim of child abuse. However, that is not always the case. There is a nature vs. nurture thing. Some are born with that capacity, that mental capacity and toughness. Dave Scott is an example of that sort of person. He was born with a special drive that made him willing and able to successfully compete in sports like the triathlon.

Noah: As a seasoned endurance sports journalist, what lessons did you take home after having researched and written this book?

Matt: As I was writing this book, I expected to come away with some big overarching lesson. I mean, it was a great story – and usually the lessons from these kinds of stories are like, “Don’t ever quit!” In writing the book, I came full circle. I wrote the book because I admired Dave Scott and Mark Allen. And in it, I explored the question of how they were able to do what they did. Like Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, there was some science built into my research. I tried to look at the anatomy of mental toughness: my question is whether there is some learning that someone like me, the average endurance athlete, can emulate. What has enabled these guys to become these amazing athletes? Was it training? Was it some aspect of their personality? What I learned is that they have something we normal people don’t – and all I can do is to admire and appreciate it. It is a very moving story to me. I always got a certain feeling when I thought about this story, or looked at the iconic picture on the cover. It made me think about the indomitable human spirit. I ended up deciding that it is all about that feeling of awe and reverence when you see the very best perform an incredible feat. They just add to our lives. They make you say “wow.” There is a value in that feeling.

Noah: What did you learn from your interaction with these folks? What advice can you pass on to others who are thinking about getting involved in endurance sports?

Matt: The number one item of advice is to always put enjoyment first. If you look at surveys of why people begin exercise programs, they are usually given a list of five reasons. Usually, the top reasons for starting an exercise regimen are “weight loss,” that is #1, and “improve my health” is #2. But if you look at people who have been exercising for a long time, people who consider themselves athletes, those reasons are close to the bottom. “Enjoyment” is number 1. And close to that is “accomplishing personal goals.”

Exercise is hard. That is what makes it rewarding. Part of what makes it thrilling to finish a marathon is that not everyone does it. You have to enjoy it. You have to be getting something out of running itself. You can start for whatever reason you want, but it’s important to realize that you’re not going to be doing it a year from now unless you enjoy it. And you need to give yourself permission to make it fun – it does not necessarily have to be done in a scientific, perfect way. Exercise is not effective at all if you don’t do it. It needs to be something that speaks to your heart, and that you enjoy doing.

One of the surest ways is to set a goal to do an event. There is a magic in crossing your first finish line. I hear those stories all the time: it is a grind, it is a slog, but when they cross that first finish line, it changes a person’s life and they are hooked! You need to give yourself that chance to fall in love with exercise.

Noah: Please give us a short overview of the book – what’s it all about and why should people read it?

Matt: I think Iron War is one of the most fascinating, momentous and moving stories in the history of sports – all sports! It was one day, one race, when two legends of a particular sport engaged in a titanic battle where they redefined the possible and went places no human had gone before. It was the culmination of a huge rivalry of two mythical, larger-than-life figures. The Ironman triathlon was the pinnacle of triathlons: it was the only race that mattered. And you had these two people who were complete opposites. Dave Scott was the old school jock whose philosophy was: “I will out-run you, I will out-suffer you.” And Mark Allen is  a very spiritual guy, the kind of person who did not get caught up in the “arms race” of training. And these two figures both got to the same pinnacle in very different ways. For years, throughout the 1980’s, Dave would crush Mark. He won year after year, six times throughout the 1980’s. As I write about in the book, Dave suffered injuries or had personal problems, yet somehow he would always find a way to get on top of the mountain. Their rivalry just built until 1989 during which Dave and Mark had their finest years ever. And here was the Ironman that October in Hawaii, actually 22 years and a day ago. It could not have played out in a more dramatic way. The two men raced side by side for eight straight hours – in a 140-mile race! There is also a whole spiritual dimension, some cosmic elements, some real stuff that happened which was really hard to believe. There is very rich back-story. It is about a race, a rivalry, as well as the personalities, the island. I am a fan of all sports, but I don’t think there is a sports story that matches it.

Noah: What was most enjoyable about writing this book?

Matt: I think probably the most enjoyable part was the research. You know, I had a goal of taking an event that happened 22 years ago and bring it back to life in a way that made the reader feel like they are right there – almost like a film adaptation, where you are inside the story. I just needed to accumulate the huge volume of information and research: I did interviews with the people who where there, or anyone who was connected to that event. Not only the two guys themselves, Dave and Mark, but I also tracked down all of these people, all of the other top competitors, even people involved in organizing it. These were the people who got the sport of triathlon off the ground. And it was so much fun. Every single one of them felt that “yes, this is a story that needs to be told the right way!” People were super-cooperative and excited to share their small slice of it. Each person I spoke to had 1-2 just golden nuggets that added up to an exciting story.

Noah: To change the topic, as you may know, my blog is focused on the problem of obesity and how it is impacting our country. What’s your take on the steps needed to remedy this crisis? Give us your perspective.

Matt: Obviously obesity is a tough problem. My perspective is that it all comes down to two things. In a sense, science and technology got us into this problem: they have made our lives more convenient and easier. And I do see the potential for science and technology to get us out of this problem, whether it is possibly new drugs, or this brave new world of genetic manipulation. We are able to create a rodent that can’t get fat, so it will only be a matter of time before we can do the same without ourselves. That is the realist in me speaking. But that does not solve the entire problem.

Obesity is a symbol of a deeper problem, which is that we are just not using our bodies enough. Even if we could create a pill or modify our genetics, I would not consider that something to fully celebrate. There is never going to be a complete substitute for physical exertion. The problem I would like to solve is finding ways for more people to exercise and participate in sports. And there it is all about motivation.

I remember talking to a Navy Seal, a guy responsible for their recruitment program. The washout rate for their program has been the same for 30 years. They have brought in all kinds of psychologists to figure out what is the profile of people who succeed or who don’t succeed. And what have they come up with? Nothing. It is hard to bottle the essence of what motivates people.

It is not like it is that mysterious as to how we can lose weight: physical exercise works. If you are dedicated to doing it regularly, you get a benefit – and you see a benefit. The question is how you get people to start doing it. Part of the answer to that question is to look at people who have started doing it. They develop a deep passion for a particular kind of activity and they find community it in. But no one has found a way to turn it into a formula or recipe to work for everything. Everyone has to find it for himself or herself. There are small things that you can do.

The company I used to work for, Competitor – their Rock n’ Roll half-marathon series has done wonders to address the problem in a small way, creating these festive environments – like a marathon meets a theme park. And about half of the people who do those events are first-timers. So that is working to bring people into becoming physically active. But is that changing the statistics? Not really. So it is all about motivation, finding ways to get people to find exercise fun, so that they find it worthwhile.

Oct 16
They continue. Each man runs not as fast as he can but as far as the other can, having already swum 2.4 miles, bicycled 112 miles, and run 24 miles, with the balance of a marathon left to run, all in tar-melting heat. That is why the pair remains as if tethered wrist to wrist after racing nearly a full-day shift, well ahead of the 1,284 of the best triathletes in the world. Each is trying with all his might to break the body, mind, or spirit of the other, but although all of these elements in both have been stretched to the breaking point, none has yet broken.
From Iron War, by Matt Fitzgerald

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