Tuesday, February 2, 2016

In Our Corner: Mike Coughlin

by Nick Mathers

Mike Coughlin is an experienced Endurance Corner athlete with Ultraman Canada, Kona, Epic Camp and multiple AG podiums on his resume. We took some time to talk with him about his background, his recent focus on Ultraman and his views on coaching.

Endurance Corner: Let’s start off with your background in the sport.
Mike Coughlin: I came to endurance sport in my mid-20s. It wasn't part of my development. My sports in high school were downhill skiing and golf.

I experienced the common story of stumbling into triathlon as a means of improving fitness by joining a local YMCA tri program. But it was the social side that really stuck out for me -- there was this whole party going on and I wanted to be part of it. As soon as I got a taste it was all downhill from there and I got more and more involved.

I did my first ironman -- Ironman Canada -- in my third season of triathlon. Up to that point triathlon was one of many sports I had been dabbling in. However, training for ironman tapped into a non-physical aspect of athletics I had never experienced. It was a process of self- discovery.

EC: How did you develop from your first IM into a Kona qualifier?
MC: Kona was a goal from early on. I looked at my times and saw it as a goal that was achievable but just out of reach. In the next couple of years I got close but not quite there.

To make that next step, I signed up for Epic Camp. When I sent in my application for the New Zealand '06 camp I wasn't even sure I'd be able to get in. When I did, it was, "Oh boy, I better be sure I'm fit enough to do this."

By the time Epic Camp came around I was in phenomenal shape and I was a bit of kid in a candy store -- chasing the yellow jersey -- I burned out pretty hard. But it was a rush. Honestly, I'd probably do it the same way over again.

That's when I met Alan and Gordo. Dr. J was there. KP was there. It was an awesome experience being surrounded by such a great group of people. It also really showed me what I was capable of.

Once I recovered, I was incredibly fit. I qualified for Kona that year at Ironman Canada.

EC: After getting to Kona the first time, did you have a feeling of "what now?"
MC: I had that feeling exactly. I also knew that I needed a break from ironman training.

In '07 and ’08 I started putting more time into my local coaching business -- The Discomfort Zone. I grew my roster of athletes, expanded my group programs and hosted my first destination training camp. I also formalized my coaching certifications with the National Coaching Certification Program here in Canada.

Of course, training and racing triathlons still continued, just at a less competitive level. My fitness had slipped a bit but my motivation to train diligently had returned. In retrospect, it probably took me those two years to recover mentally from Epic Camp!

I signed up for Beach to Battleship in November '08 with some of my athletes, and saw an opportunity to settle some unfinished business at the ironman distance. While I had been to Kona, I still didn't feel I had raced to my fitness level -- either in qualifying for or racing Hawaii. It was a short buildup to B2B, but I did everything right and finally nailed the marathon off the bike.

EC: Do you continue to focus on ironman?
MC: While there are a number of iron-distance races I want to do around the world, I'm not in any rush right now. That's mostly because there's a trade off with that distance since it requires such a specific preparation.

Also, for me, triathlon is very social. I like the race atmosphere, regardless of distance. I try to avoid the pigeon-holing of only one distance.

EC: How did the interest in Ultraman come about?
MC: I first got the Ultraman "experience" as a crew member as part of a layover on my way to Epic Camp. I was I was heading down to New Zealand a month early to get myself ready for camp and I found my way onto Epic Camp veteran Michael Hanreck’s crew.

I left the island going, “One day I need to do this thing." That wasn’t because I considered myself an ultra athlete but because the event just seemed so cool.

When I ran to potential at Beach to Battleship a few years later, the switch went off that maybe I was ready to do the training to put two marathons together at the end of a race.

I used '09 to focus on Olympic distance racing to get my swim fitness up and I set the plan for 2010 as Ultraman Canada and 2011 as Hawaii. That's when I gave AC a call. I had been watching him grow as a coach and develop skills that were both unique in the triathlon coaching industry and well-suited to helping me with my goals. Plus we got along great.

We started our coaching relationship at the beginning of 2010.

EC: Tell us a little about your build into Ultraman.
MC: In terms of whether I would do well at Ultraman I wasn't sure, but Gordo called me out a little and reminded me what I had done at Epic Camp with being able to put up big days back to back.

There was a real hiccup at the start when I wanted to prove to Alan (and myself) that I was committed to nailing the program. I tried to change everything from my schedule to my diet to adherence to a consistent program (which always had been my achilles heel) -- to change myself into the person I thought I needed to be to do well at Ultraman.

And I got injured.

It was here that I really began to understand Alan's depth as a coach with everything from rehab exercises to how to objectively look at something. I'm naturally quite emotional in how I handle the ups and downs and he took that out of it and just presented solutions.

We came out of that experience with a high level of trust and understanding. One thing that we recognized was I needed to be able to schedule the training into my life rather than sticking to a rigid schedule. Alan would say, "Here's what I want you to do; you need to figure out how to fit it into your life," as opposed to, "Here's what you're doing each day."

The build itself wasn't what you would think of as an “ultra” program. Key workouts involved near life best efforts over durations ranging from five minutes to six hours and were very challenging.

I had a harder time with those workouts than the race itself. While there was a physical component to that, a large part was the mental aspect of being pushed outside what I thought I'd be able to do. Alan has such a great ability to identify your particular limiters.

The last six weeks were really less about developing fitness and more about practicing for the race -- working with a support crew, swimming solo with a kayak.

I had a fabulous experience and I learned a ton at the race.

EC: With focusing on such a long distance race, will you continue to race the other distances?
MC: Yes, but not as often. I love racing, but last year was my lightest racing schedule in ages since UMC was mid-summer and I lost a good part of our Canadian tri season to taper and recovery. My preparation for Ultraman Hawaii this year will involve a bit more racing, but still less than normal. I’m making up for that by racing the American Triple-T in May. That’s four races in three days!

EC: How did you get involved in coaching?
MC: One of the natural progressions for me was to coach the sessions at the YMCA that got me involved in triathlon in the first place. I taught myself the coaching side of things to give back to the group that helped me get started and found that I really enjoyed it. That was when I decided to pursue coaching more formally.

Coaching is a real passion for me, in part because I get to share what triathlon has given me and create an environment that fosters a similar positive experience for others. Helping an athlete achieve a personal best -- whether it be qualifying for Kona or finishing a first triathlon -- is an incredibly satisfying experience.

EC: You coach a number of people yourself. Does anyone see you being coached as a negative thing? Sort of, "Why aren't you following your own plan?"
MC: I don't get that. I think I'm more likely to get, "Well, you're NOT being coached, why should I?"

I find that being coached is proving that coaching is a good investment.

EC: What are some of the biggest challenges in coaching?
MC: As coaches it's hard with athletes that want to come in and see results right away. With a really good relationship, it's the second and third seasons that really present results. If you're coming in and you're a good athlete already, then there probably aren't any quick gains. And if there are quick gains then it's probably not specifically due to that coach.

Coaching is all about trust and trust takes time to establish. Technical skill and knowledge are important, but they can’t be fully applied if the athlete is not completely committed to the program, and that does not happen without trust. I think that is one reason why you see athletes switch coaches so often.

With Alan last year, I was thrilled with how Ultraman Canada turned out, but the real accomplishment was the trust that was established. I’m really enjoying the process and looking forward to what's to come leading into Ultraman Hawaii.

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