Natural Experiment

© 2014 Euan Henry
Ironman 70.3 Princeton
Princeton, NJ ✮ 2014.09.21

Economics is the science of explaining tomorrow why the predictions you made yesterday didn’t come true today.Demotivators
My father is an economist. I’m not sure why exactly I mention this except perhaps to postulate that some of my wondering “what if?” is inherited. My father is somewhat of an exception in that he does not think of economics as a hard science, but more of a way of thinking about certain types of monetary issues. He’s a macro-economist (so different than the now super popular Freakonomics guy Steven Levitt), and he tends to be more a big picture guy. But he’s a good critical thinker, and I like to think I’ve followed in his footsteps in that regard. One of the core tools of economics is the “natural experiment.” This is when you get a chance to look at a data set that you couldn’t – or wouldn’t – be able to create for moral, ethical, logistical, or various other reasons. The various Freakonomics books are basically elegantly told stories of creative natural experiments. 
After Mont Tremblant, I had a theory that I had a better race in me but that I’d made some decisions during the week leading into the race that left me feeling flat instead of sharp. I felt like I needed either more rest or less rest. And, given that my focus is really on Ironman racing – for the remainder of this year, Ironman Arizona – and that I hadn’t done a big block of training after all the races I’d done over the summer, my best approach would have to take less rest. I should have treated the race more like a “normal” hard workout, much like any other weekend, when – just like a lot of age-group athletes – I often do a long, hard ride and/or a long, hard run.
This would have probably been nothing more than a theory, just another slightly more plausible excuse to toss on the pile, except I had another race two weeks after Tremblant. I had a chance to do something different. I had an opportunity to do exactly what I’d theorized I should have done and to see what resulted. It wasn’t a perfect experiment, since I was certain to benefit from the rest I had before Tremblant, but after two easy days (one day of travel and one day of mostly emotional and mental recharging), I got right back into good, solid training. And I kept that training going until the Friday before the race. I figured that a good taper would either be about two weeks – what I always do before Ironman – or about two days, and I wanted to see if the two day taper – just a bit of rest – would work out. The week leading into the race was by far the fullest week I’ve ever had before a race. If you were to just treat the race itself as a series of hard workouts on the same day, it would look very similar to a typical, moderate week of training. Slightly on the lighter side, but really very normal. Some hard work, then a bit of rest, then some more hard work. And Joel and I theorized that I would be able to perform in the race the same way that I perform regularly in the key workout sessions during training. 
And I did. Ironman 70.3 Princeton was a very satisfactory race. I “guessed” wrong and started on the wrong side of the line and got gapped basically from the gun; I’m just not yet a good enough swimmer to make the front group if I don’t get in a draft early. But I swam hard and had another fair swim, leading the second pack (again), which was nice considering that I felt that I swam about as well in Tremblant but without swimming nearly as well during training in the week leading into the race. It’s also nice to have some confidence that I can at least now control my own destiny in terms of not having a bad swim, even if I cannot yet control it in terms of having a good-to-great swim. Once on the bike, it was clear my legs were there, unlike in Tremblant. I rode strong at the start, and got stronger as the ride went on, and – most importantly – was consistent throughout. I was able to make some good long surges and to ride both hard and tactically. But on a flat-ish, fast-ish (the course was just shy of 58miles – 93km, so it was more like 2:05 for the ride for 56) in good conditions (humidity was high, but with temps in the 60s, it didn’t matter much and there wasn’t much wind to speak of), it would have taken more than I had to break away from athletes of Jesse’s and Viktor’s calibre. I thought I might have been able to take the sting out of their legs more than I did out of my own, but I still don’t have that depth of fitness yet. I was pleased with my run, running fast and consistently and – again, most importantly – getting faster as the run went on (fastest mile was from mile 10-11). 
Ultimately, it ended up as what I call a representative race – it was representative of my fitness and training. This was a race that I think probably would have netted me that top-20 in Tremblant, except – of course – it wasn’t in Tremblant. I didn’t break through what I thought was capable of (best example of that was at Wildflower in 2009), but I had a race that met my expectations, both in terms of overall performance and also results. I consider myself a podium finisher, and I found myself on the podium, and on the “right” side of any gaps (closer to the winner’s time than to 4th). After a pretty erratic season, it seems like things are coming together at the right time. I feel like my instincts are good. And that I can trust my sense of what’s right and push a bit harder without feeling like I’m going to dig myself back into a hole. I’m not afraid, and I need not be afraid, because I did more, and I had a better race, not a worse race. My body responded in a race the way I thought it would. And should. Finally.
The phrases, “it’s a rebuilding year,” or “I learned a lot,” are pretty cliched in sports; they tend to be overused as ways to put a positive spin on something where there’s not a lot of real positivity. Certainly nothing that has come out of this year has been as satisfying as actually winning a race, but I do feel like I’ve rebuilt a lot of what I lost. And I do feel like I’ve learned a lot that will pay off in the future, both at Ironman Arizona this year and also over the next few years. The timeframe of validity for those refrains is pretty limited – I figure this race was about it, but I genuinely feel like there have been more positives than the box score might indicate.
As I sat enjoying an enormous whole bacon cheesesteak from Hoagie Haven and drinking a $5 Shake from Thomas Sweets at the Carnegie Lake finish line, the spot of so many of my formative experiences as a rower at Princeton University, it seemed very appropriate. I first found myself as an athlete rowing on that lake. And sitting on the bleachers after Sunday’s race, I felt like I had found myself again.

3 thoughts on “Natural Experiment

  1. I love this post. Learning always continues, doesn't matter what your level is. So many lessons here: pre-race, lead up, etc. What matters is you are racing at a level that you want to be at and should be. Your triathlon resume is one most aspire to. In the end, all that matters is how you feel about it. I think you are awesome, and inspirational, as do many others. Keep it up. Keep pushing, keep questioning and thanks so much for letting us see a glimpse behind the scenes of what makes a professional triathlete, professional.


  2. I really appreciate you taking the time for these posts Jordan.I love this sport because it's so challenging. Your insights are so honest and helpful in overcoming my own challenges. Look forward to seeing your efforts coming to fruition for you at IMAZ!


  3. Well done! Congratulations. That was a great breakthrough.

    Side note: I call this year my “transition” year because of my coaching change at the beginning of the year.. I've had a lot of breakthroughs and a lot of lessons learned, but none of it has really been negative. Like you, I'm heading into my biggest race of the year, and everything is starting to fall into place.


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