Mark Baldwin: The Evolving Athlete

Warren, NJ resident Mark Baldwin is a late-blooming triathlete.  As his opportunities to play the team sports dwindled following college, he turned to endurance pursuits.

After graduating from University of New Hampshire with a B.S. in chemical engineering, Baldwin’s career took him into quality management.  His pursuit of fun took him from team sports to running and subsequently triathlon.  Baldwin’s best triathlon time is 2:37 in the Steelman Olympic distance triathlon(1.5 km swim, 40 km ride, 10 km run), with a 3:03 personal best in the Bay State road marathon.  OxygenFedSport interviewed him on triathlon, and managing time to train effectively.

OXF:  How did you get into triathlon?

MB:  I’ve always enjoyed sports.  I reached a point in my early 30s where I just felt like I wasn’t getting to play enough.  I started to run sporadically, 3 or 4 times a week for 6 weeks. Then for 6 weeks, I wouldn’t run at all.  I wasn’t regimented, but I also wasn’t a couch potato.  People would ask, “Have you run a marathon?”  My answer was always “no.”  After a few years of conversations about “how can you be a real runner if you don’t run marathons,” I decided to take running more seriously.

I started running every day, and I didn’t stop.  I ran every day for two months, and I said to myself, “There’s a marathon two months from now, the NJ Marathon.  First let me make sure I can run 26 miles, and then I’ll sign up and do this marathon.”  So I ran 26 miles on one February Saturday, just around my house.  Although I had a couple of rests, I ran 26 miles.  And I entered the marathon.  That was around the year 2000.

photo of Mark Baldwin

Mark Baldwin. Photo courtesy of Mark.

OXF:  In high school, did you play baseball, did you run track…?

MB:  In high school, I didn’t play any team sports.  I played with my friends after school.  Mostly football and softball.  It’s more fun for me to play baseball or football when you can get 20 people.  But it’s harder to organize that when you get older.  People have marriage, children and jobs….  I played softball on the company softball team, whatever company I was with.  But that’s once a week during the summer.  That just didn’t cut it for keeping active.

But your original question… Triathlon isn’t just a sport: it’s a lifestyle.  It’s not something like golf where you can go out once a week.  That discipline began when I started running seriously.

After that commitment to start running, I ran marathons for a few years.  I ran other distances, half marathon or 10 k.  After 5 years or so, I wanted more variety.  Triathlon or duathlon was interesting to me.  I’d never done much swimming, never had access to a pool.  Some triathlons had a duathlon option; you could do run-bike-run instead of swim-bike-run.  I did some duathlons and did pretty well.  I’ve got a couple of podiums in my age group for duathlon.

I don’t know what it is about me, but I’d have conversations with friends… people asked, “Have you done a triathlon?” and I’d say, “Not exactly,” and they’d say “Well, you haven’t done a triathlon,” and I’d say, a duathlon is pretty hard.  And I said, “Let me try triathlon.”

OXF:  How did you prepare for open water swimming?

MB:   I joined the YMCA and took a couple of swim lessons.  And believe it or not, I studied how to swim on the Internet.  There’s some good instruction and YouTube-type videos filmed underwater, of professional swimmers.  It helps you visualize what you’re supposed to be doing in the water.

I’d find a video of, like, Ian Thorpe [Australian Olympian swimmer], swimming, a 20- or 30-second clip with a really good view of his stroke, and I’d watch that 20 times, to ingrain in my memory.  I’m watching his arms, his legs, his hip rotation.  I’d visualize what I’m supposed to be doing.  When I took lessons at the Y, the swim coach would tell me what to do, but she wouldn’t show me.  Telling you what to do isn’t really that much different from reading what to do in a book.  Seeing it and feeling it is more effective.

OXF:  Is Olympic distance your preferred distance?

MB:  Yes.  I’m not a big guy.  I try to go to a race where I feel I have an advantage.  I have good endurance, starting as a marathon runner.  Being relatively lightweight, the longer the race probably increases my chances to win.  A sprint distance race is only an hour long.  If someone is simply larger, has bigger muscles and more mass, they can be faster than me.  I’d like to try a half Ironman distance next year.  A longer race requires greater discipline as well, to maintain the right intensity for several hours.  It takes a lot of mental focus and discipline.

OXF:  How is the open water swim different than swimming in a pool?

MB:  It was very different.  I’d read about it, but experiencing it is different.  What I’d read was, you’re with a bunch of people who are all in the same place, trying to go in the same direction at the same time.  The advice for newbies is to start the race at the back, or off to the side, to limit your contact with other swimmers.

A big difference in open water swimming is, there’s no line painted on the bottom of the lake like there is in the pool.  Being a new swimmer, I spent all of my time trying to become a better swimmer.  But there is an aspect to open water swimming that requires you to be able to pick your head out of water for a fraction of a second, look in front of you…  After you take in that visual picture, you put your face back in the water, and then your mind processes that image, and says “Did I see an orange buoy?  And if I did, was it to the left or to the right?  Should I be adjusting my direction?

OXF:  With the swim, what’s more challenging?  The stress of being in a tight group, or the direction finding?

MB:  For a new swimmer, the stress comes from a fear of not getting oxygen.  You’re swimming with your face in the water all the time.  If you’re a good swimmer, you’re not even taking your head out of the water.  You just turn your head and your mouth comes a millimeter above the water and you take a quick breath and your face goes back in the water.

When you’re learning to swim, you’ll do something wrong with your positioning and get a mouthful of water instead of air.  That’s very stressful because at the moment you were breathing, you had already run out of oxygen.… that causes a lot of stress.  Being able to swim relaxed and not make breathing errors is key.  And to have enough confidence to go, “I’m going to get air and not water.”  If you have that hint of fear in your mind [of not getting air], you’re mentally not able to focus on anything else.  It took quite a bit of practice to become relaxed in the water.

OXF:  What’s the most difficult aspect of triathlon for you?  The swim, the transition to running?

MB:  Swim is absolutely the most difficult.  When the race starts, there’s a bit of adrenaline; there’s people thrashing all around you.  You’ll be bumped by somebody, or you’ll reach on your stroke and hit somebody’s foot in front of you.  So that adds to your mental load, being conscious of the people around you, coupled with trying to look every once in awhile to see you’re headed in the right direction.  Those additional mental tasks intrude on my sense of calm that I need to swim my best.  Those first 500 meters, there’s a bit of panic, concern about what’s going on around me.  It takes me 500 meters or so to get beyond that into a comfortable groove.

OXF:  What sort of intensity workouts do you do?  In terms of lactic threshold or anaerobic threshold?

MB:  There’s a variety of intensities that you use.  You have some longer duration workouts at a lower intensity to build endurance.  Then you have moderate distance, higher intensity tempo type workouts where you might have 20 minutes within a 40 to 60 minute workout at race pace.  You also have a much shorter duration, very high intensity workouts anywhere from 10 seconds to two minutes, but at very high intensity.

OXF:  How many times a week are you doing intensity workouts?  Is there a time of year when you might be doing multiple hard workouts before tapering?

MB:  What you’re doing is physiologically challenging your body to do something it couldn’t do, at least it’s very uncomfortable to do, and try to force it to adapt.    By running or biking a longer distance, that challenges your body.  “Wow, I’ve only ever run an hour before, I ran two hours today, I’d better adapt!”  Likewise for high intensity, if you sprint all out for 10 seconds at maximum intensity, and you rest for a couple of minutes, and do that again, do 10 of those, you’ll feel that later on.  It was only a minute and a half of work, but you’ll feel that the next day.

OXF: Do you apportion the high intensity workouts among the different parts of triathlon?

MB:  There’s three sports and you need to improve in all of them.  Some people come to triathlon from a collegiate swim team background.  They don’t need to practice swimming much, but they need to do a lot of training on the run.  I’m the opposite, I come to triathlon mainly from a land sport background; my weakness is swimming.  It happens that swimming is hardest to do because it involves commuting to the pool.  Running or biking, you just put on your shoes and you go.  So if I have an hour for training, and I go running, I get an hour of training.  If I have an hour and I want to swim, I’d only get five minutes because the other 55 minutes are spent commuting and changing clothes.

OXF:  How do you do bricks?

MB:  I do a bike-run brick mostly.  It’s easier.  If you don’t have [access to] a pool, it’s harder to do the other part.  And actually, the bike-run is the hardest transition.  When you’re swimming, it’s mostly an upper-body thing, and when you’re biking it’s mostly lower-body.  It’s really not that tough of a transition to from the swim to the bike.  When you go from the bike to the run, you were just jamming the pedals for an hour or so.  That’s a much harder transition physically than swim to bike.  So that’s the one that I practice.

OXF:  How do you balance training demands of triathlon with your job, your family?

MB:  Life is a long series of choices.  We choose to invest our time in the things that are important to us.  This is something that I enjoy, so I choose to make time for it.  I’m not as well read as other people, I don’t watch television like other people do.  Most people, 9 out of 10, would have time to train for a triathlon if they just cut their television time in half.

OXF:  How many hours a week or year are you putting in?  Including races?

MB: Anywhere from five to ten hours a week.  A good week, approaching racing season, would be 10 hours a week, a bad week when I’ve been busy would be a 5 hour week.  Ideally, I’d do 8 or 10 hours every week.  I don’t always get that.

OXF:  Do you have a particular goal race this year?

MB: I haven’t picked one; I have a favorite race which would be the Steelman Triathlon in Pennsylvania.  I like it because it’s held in early August in a reservoir, Lake Nockamixon. I’ve done it three or four years.  And except for this year, the water’s always been too warm for wetsuits.  There’s a triathlon rule related to water temperature:  If the water temperature is 78 degrees or above, you cannot wear a wetsuit.  Well, you can wear one, but they won’t consider you for awards.  A wetsuit gives you greater buoyancy and greater speed in the swim.  It’s an advantage.

OXF:  So everyone has to wear one or nobody wears one.

MB:  If it’s for scoring… if you don’t care about your score, you’ll finish, but you’ll be ineligible for awards.  Because the water was warm and you’re choosing to wear the wetsuit for competitive advantage.  I don’t own a wetsuit, so I’m crossing my fingers and hoping the water temperature is 78 or above so I’m not disadvantaged.

OXF:  Do you have any goal events, have you thought about a half ironman?

MB:  I like [the Steelman] because the water is usually too warm for wetsuits.  And also, the bike course is a bit hilly.  I’m a lightweight, so gravity is my friend.  The other thing, triathlon is an expensive sport and I’m trying to do it on a budget.  If you want to compete at a high level, you spend a lot of money on a triathlon bike, you spend money on a pool membership.  I don’t have a triathlon bike, I have a road bike.  I don’t have a wetsuit.  On a hilly course, a triathlon bike won’t give you as much of an advantage.  It’s very aerodynamic;  If you’re going uphill, it’s not helping you.  I did a different course, a NJ triathlon, which has an absolutely dead flat bike course.  There, the people with the $5000 triathlon bikes have a distinct advantage.

Next year, I’d like to do a half iron distance, but I haven’t picked a race.  Mostly, I’ve tried to travel to races within a couple of hours’ drive.

OXF:  Is there anything particular you do to recover?

MB:  Walking or very easy bike riding.  It’s active recovery, so you’re moving.  You’re getting circulation and giving your cells the raw material to repair themselves.  It’s good to move, but at a very low intensity.

OXF:  Any advice for beginners?
MB:  Practice.  There are a lot of events out there.  Start with a sprint distance race.  Practice your weakness.  Not many people are gifted at all three events.
OXF: How do you handle adversity during a race?
MB:  I came to triathlon from a marathon background, where the real race begins after passing the 20 mile mark. The last few miles of an Olympic distance triathlon feel remarkably similar to the last few miles of a marathon. Towards the end, there’s always an internal debate as my body screams “let’s slow down” and my mind says “no, not until we cross that finish line.”  It still takes a lot of will power to keep going full throttle.  I race partly just to find out what I’m capable of, and to give anything less than all I have would be to deprive myself of the opportunity to find out.