A TriForcer’s Ride with Chris Lieto

Today’s guest blogger is TriForcer Andrew Sellergren.  When Andrew isn’t dutifully following his TriForce HIM training plan he’s a high powered engineer at a little web company called Google.  Andrew joined Christ Lieto on a ride out in wine country where he got to pick the Kona runner up’s brain on training.  Andrew later got Chris to come to Google to give a motivational talk & join a group of TriForcers for lunch.

TriForcer Andrew & Chris Lieto

Okay, finally, the full rundown.  This is going to be long since I was listening keenly.  Hope it’s useful/enjoyable.  If you have any specific questions as to what Chris might say about X or Y, go ahead and ask since I may have the answer, but not remembered to write it below.

Day started out at Spoke Folk Cyclery in Healdsburg.  The zozi people had OJ, coffee, muffins, etc. provided for breakfast.  There were two white cats milling around.  I asked the guy behind the counter what their names were; he told me Cat 1 and Cat 2.  There was one other guy with a shaved head milling about (not to be confused with Chris), apparently he’s a current Cat 1 racer.  He told me he used to be in triathlon.

Enter Chris.  He was wearing head-to-toe KSWISS/Trek gear, seemed a little shy at first, but maybe just because he hadn’t had his coffee yet.  We talked briefly about the cyclist in San Francisco who ran a red light and killed a pedestrian a few months ago, then lamented on Mission Cycling Group the death of his helmet (see http://www.sfbg.com/politics/2012/04/05/was-cyclist-who-killed-pedestrian-reckless).

More and more riders were showing up, now.  Most of them seemed to know each other, either from cycling or from working together at zozi.  Everyone had nice, smooth legs.  I suddenly felt self-conscious for my stubble.

There was only one other triathlete in the group, I later learned, and even he was rocking a road bike.  I was already getting crap for my TT bike, so I knew I was an outsider in the group.  That’s okay, triathletes have always been lone wolves.

After some interviews and photos with Chris, we headed out.  We had the benefit of a sag wagon following us and it was really tempting to break down on purpose just so that I could take full advantage of the mechanic.  Or even Tour de France style, hold on to the car while he stitched me up.

We learned that there was some heavy traffic along our route, mostly due to Vineman going on at the same time.  Actually, most of our route went backwards along the Vineman course.

The first hour was pretty slow and uneventful.  There was a lot of stop and go and we didn’t average more than 16 mph.  We rode as four sets of two abreast, which was new to me since I don’t often do group rides.  We were told that we should rotate frequently so that we could all have a chance to ride alongside Chris, but it didn’t really happen.  I did get some time with him during this first hour though, conversation was as follows:

Chris: “Hey, so what’s your background?”

me: “I’m a triathlete who started off as a swimmer and a runner, so my biggest weakness is the bike.  I guess that would be my first question: what’s the best way to improve your cycling?”

Chris: “You know, I didn’t even start riding until I was 25, so…”

me: “That’s about how old I am.”

Chris: “Ha!  Yeah, but when I first started out, I did a lot of group riding, which I think helped ensure that my technique was good.  Beyond that, it was mostly a matter of getting two medium to long rides, and two short rides in per week.  For the short rides, one was a threshold workout, one was a recovery.  Also some one-legged drills.”

me: “Oh, interesting.  My coach uses PowerCranks.”

Chris: “I don’t recommend those.  You can screw up your stroke with him.”

me: “…”

We talked a little bit more about his background (he started off in water polo) and how he’s taking this year off from Kona because of a calf injury.  Eventually, I rotated out so someone else could jump in.

About an hour into the ride, we stopped at a porta potty and regrouped.  Then the real fun began.

The course itself wasn’t very hilly at all, save a few rollers, but each time we approached an incline, I immediately knew the difference between me and the rest of the group.  Whereas I would normally ease off (or at least stay steady) to conserve energy, the rest of the group seemed content to push on up.  I didn’t have trouble keeping pace with them, but it required me to push upwards of 350 watts, which is considerably higher than my threshold of 250 (I weigh 145 pounds, by the way).

On one such incline, I made the mistake of shifting too quickly so that my chain came off.  I hopped off and fixed it in 5 seconds or less, but a gap had already formed between me and the group.  I started pounding away to try to make up the ground, but no matter how hard I pushed, the gap stayed the same.  According to my Garmin profile, I was pushing 500 watts for about 3 minutes.  We were moving around 26-28 miles mph. Luckily, the group stopped not far up the road.

After the stop, the paceline only got more ridiculous.  We were single file and, as the roads opened up, a few of the other guys got more bold.  They passed Chris on a straightaway and blew by a turn we were supposed to take.  Chris and I yelled at them as we took the right turn to follow the lead car.  Chris signaled for me to come up beside him, then said:

“I don’t know what these guys are doing.  They go hard for 2 or 3 minutes then blow up.  They’ll never get better like that.  Hop on my wheel, they’ll never see us.”

Obviously, I hopped on his wheel and we burned at 28-30 mph for 5 minutes or so.  Eventually the rest of the riders caught up and we started riding as a single-file group again.  We held an average of 24-25 mph over these 5 miles, then were soft pedaling for a while.  It’s amazing how much easier it is to ride when you’re drafting.

Soon, the cyclists in the group got antsy again and decided to attack.  As they went off, I hung back with Chris.  He signaled for me to pull over so he could fix his saddle.  I don’t remember his exact words here, but he seemed pretty frustrated.  This wasn’t the kind of workout he was hoping for.

For the next few miles, Chris and I rode alone at 18-20 mph.  There wasn’t much to our left or right but rolling Sonoma countryside.  No cars.  At some point, I woke up and realized I was casually riding alongside a man who went 8:22 and placed 2nd at Kona in 2009.  Surreal.

We talked about a lot of things during those miles, but mostly I picked his brain about training.  I was happy to hear that he takes much the same approach as we do under Kevin’s tutelage.  Namely, for the bike, he opts to do only one threshold workout per week, the rest are recovery or steady with some tempo intervals (on the order of 20 minutes) built in.  He often does VO2 max intervals, something along the lines of 5×1:00, 5x:45, 5x:30.  I asked him what he would do differently if he were my age again.  He said he’d be more patient, especially with injuries.  He said that he wished he realized earlier that every workout needs to have a specific goal in mind.  Usually it’s just building a base.  He talked about how just last week he was in Jamaica and didn’t have access to a bike like he thought he would.  He was happy to find that when he returned to California, his power and fitness were still really good.  I told him this made me feel a lot better about heading to North Carolina this week without access to a bike.

After we caught up with the rest of the group (who eventually stopped to wait for their celebrity), we were pretty close to home.  We rolled back in just as a limo full of drunk girls was shouting “Ow ow!” to us.

We cleaned up and headed to lunch where we got to hear a lot of stories from Chris about his career and personal life.  I’ll summarize as much of this as I can remember in the “tidbits” section below.  Overall it was a really cool experience, well worth the money.  I had figured I might be paying just for a picture with Chris Lieto, but I got a lot more out of it than that.


These are mostly things I remember one-off, not necessarily in context, but I hope they’re interesting:

When asked what his most gratifying sports experience was, he mentioned his 2nd place finish at Kona.  He said it was also really disappointing because he came so close to winning, but mostly he was proud.  He raised a good point, which is that he tends to get the most crap for having a bad run when, in fact, there are plenty of other athletes who have a bad run, but don’t happen to be in 1st place off the bike.  He said he doesn’t race for 3rd place, he races to win.  In 2009, he said he had the level of fitness to do it, but not everything fell into place for it to happen.

Chris started off being coached by Dave Scott and Mark Allen consecutively, one of which set a lot of rules for him, the other of which allowed him to break all those rules (I don’t remember which was which, or which came first).  He followed that by coaching himself, which was a massive failure, and now is coached by Matt Dixon.

He doesn’t record his workouts.  He says he wishes he did because there’s a tendency to compare your fitness in any given year to the highest level of fitness from the year before.  The truth, however, is often that your level of fitness is much improved compared to the same time last year.

Chris doesn’t know his zones.  He does a lactate test to set them and his coach works off them, but he does a lot by feel.  He talked a lot about HIM effort and IM effort, though, so it’s clear that he has several different levels of effort that he’s conscious of.  If he races with power (which he often doesn’t), he only turns on the computer for the first hour and the last hour.  The first to make sure he’s not going too hard, the last to make sure he’s going hard enough.  When asked to reveal what his wattage is, he said not even his family is allowed to know that.

When Chris was first getting started in triathlon, he looked up to Macca and Peter Reid.  He said that in general all of the elite triathletes get along, so there maybe isn’t as much animosity as we expect from hearing Macca’s badmouth.  He said he was sworn to secrecy regarding funny stories from Ironman after parties.

When he first decided to do triathlon, he set a lot of crazy goals like winning the world championships.  It was only when he entered Vineman 70.3 and finished pretty high overall that he knew he could cut it.  He said the toughest part of his career was the period around Kona 2009 when he actually finished 2nd 8 or 9 races in a row, 3 times to Craig Alexander.  At Boise 70.3 in 2009, he lost to Craig Alexander by 1.5 seconds at the line after Craig ran a 4:50 last mile!

About Coady

Lucky to be coaching some really awesome & fun people!
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