Three years removed from his silver medal in the triathlon at the Beijing Olympics – and three years older – Simon Whitfield returned to China's capital city last September. The 36-year-old was in the snarl of a difficult season. Unfamiliar results in various races – 30th, did not finish – stained his usual sterling results.
On familiar ground in Beijing, where Whitfield sprinted to a stirring silver in 2008, memories and experience did not propel him from the morass of second-tier finishes. It was a big race, the grand finale of the ITU world-championship series, and Whitfield – a man who delivers in big races – was on pace with the leaders through the 1.5-kilometre swim and 40-kilometre cycle but fell back in the crucial 10-kilometre run to the finish, a minute off the pace of the top quartet.
The London Olympics were 10 months away.
Something had to be done.
He turned to his new coach for help, Jon Brown, a Brit relocated to Whitfield's B.C. home ground of Victoria. Brown, a man of few words, intimately knew the very top end of athletics – and bitter disappointment. He twice finished fourth in the Olympic marathon, 7 seconds from bronze in 2000 and 15 seconds from bronze in 2004.
Brown ripped up Whitfield's long-established program, training and racing. The winner of the first gold in Olympic triathlon was starting over. He skipped the Pan Am Games last October, along with other international races, eschewing the prestige of top results and the prize money. Brown, revamping the training arch with one end point, London, added significantly more running time to Whitfield's weekly calendar, inline with the trend in elite marathoning. The likes of Reid Coolsaet, one of three Canadian marathoners set to race in London, does the equivalent of about five marathons a week in his training.
"You need to take risks, you need to change things, that's what we're doing this year," Whitfield said in an interview at a Vancouver gym in April, on a promotional tour for his new sponsor, Duracell.
"I was running a certain speed, I was running really well, I was coming 12th. We had to change something. My body has just adapted. Different stimulus creates different adaptation. I'd done virtually the same training for 12 years. Now I've changed the stimulus, and my body has to adapt, and we're hoping it will lead to the improvement."
Whitfield, who turned 37 in mid-May and says this will be his last Olympic Games, trains about 10 hours a week on each discipline, swimming, cycling, and running. Five years ago, it was roughly a dozen hours in the water, eight on the bike and just six on his feet.
On his advanced age – at least relative to his Olympic rivals – Whitfield is now sanguine, after feeling somewhat daunted last year. His training group has been whittled to one partner and his coach. Adapt had become the principal watchword, half of the idea being carefully calibrated science-based training schedules, the right mix of paces and distances, and the other half being looser, the building of a core toughness, an attribute hard to gauge. Old school, Whitfield says, not unlike the first Rocky film.
One modern tool discarded is the ice bath. Used by many athletes to recover more quickly from tough workouts, so muscles are less tired the next day when more training is scheduled, old-man Whitfield and coach Brown decided Whitfield's body had to face the equivalent of a new three-word motto if he was to succeed in London. Adapt or die.
"It's more training than I've ever done," Whitfield said. "The race is won by the person who adapts to the most training." Ice baths aid recovery – "but then you don't adapt. You break it down, then your body has to adapt."
In the simplest terms, Whitfield went through an unusually extended period of building a base of strength and fitness, holding back on the intensity training. It's cost him in races. He was 18th in a race in Sydney in April. In San Diego in May he was 11th. He's okay with it. Where he finishes in London is the only thing anyone will remember, he well knows. In 2004, ahead of the Athens Games, Whitfield says he was "greedy," harvesting top results early in the season and faltering at the Olympics, placing 11th.
In 2008, Whitfield was in part guided by a coach named Paolo Sousa, a man he has called an "evil genius." Sousa has a PhD in mechanical engineering and brought an "evidence-based" approach to triathlon training. Together, they worked on a "very careful build." It showed in the results. Racing in Vancouver in early June, 2008, Whitfield's face looked extremely pained as he crossed the line sixth, 39 seconds behind the winner, Spain's Javier Gomez, who sprinted across the finish looking like it was the end of a leisurely stroll.
Two and a half months later, in Beijing, Whitfield grasped silver. Gomez was fourth.
"He obviously overcooked it earlier in the year," Whitfield said, looking back on those months in 2008.
The program this year is not entirely dissimilar in philosophy, even if it is completely retooled for an older athlete who still feels he has a tremendous capacity for training.
"It's based on the concept that once you start doing that intensity training, you're kind of spending money from the bank. You get something from it quickly, you get that benefit, but it limits how far you can go."
Whitfield remembered meeting one of his heroes, the legendary road cyclist Greg LeMond, at a barbeque in Minneapolis in 2008. The group crowded around LeMond, listening to stories, getting devoured by mosquitoes. LeMond – the first American to win the Tour de France – talked about some of his training in Reno, Nev. Ride the bike straight to the mountains, right into the wind, as long and hard as possible. Then, turn around, speed back home, downhill, with the tailwind. The first part for endurance; the second for speed; nothing precisely measured.
It, in part, inspires Whitfield's regime today, even as numbers and training schedules remain fairly exact.
"There's something to be said to not being married to numbers. There's something to be said for just getting on the bike, and working hard. It worked for Greg LeMond. Mental tenacity driving into the wind, and leg-speed work riding out. It's simple."
Then beyond all the calculations, and all the work, there remain the crucial moments where a person's personality – knowing one's self – plays the key role. In triathlon, it's often on the floating pontoon starting area.
Whitfield's tried several guises.
"I've got to be the guy who's relaxed. In the Sydney Olympics, I made a joke about sharks to the guy beside me. 'Hope we don't get eaten,' and he was like, 'Go away.' He was all flustered. In Athens, I changed the way I approached it, and thought I would be intense about it, but it backfired, and I had a terrible swim."
In Beijing, 2008, he went back to comedy. He mulled what sort of odd fish there might be in the water. It worked. So, come London, spot a smile on the face of a seemingly too-relaxed Canadian, a pioneer of his young sport.
"You have to figure out just the right level, who you are."