Our recent chat with Scott Molina highlighted a few things, in particular the innovative Iron Tour in France which, at one stage attracted the “who’s who” of international triathletes.
One of these triathletes was Ben Bright who at the time, was nipping at the heels of the likes of Simon Lessing and Mike Pigg, while based in France racing the lucrative European circuit.
A battle-hardened professional while still a junior in the 1990s, Bright is now a triathlon coach in Great Britain who certainly would fit the description as having “been around the block” in sporting terms.
Ben provides us with an in depth account of his triathlon career with fascinating and informative detail.
CRANK: Ben, you are currently based in England coaching triathletes of all levels, including guiding several world class trathletes like Tim Don to championship victories. How did you get started in the coaching business?
Ben Bright: Near the end of my career as a triathlete I did some work filling in for a swim coach in New Zealand who went off on holiday for 3 months every year. He had a small squad but it included a very good open water swimmer called Carl Gordon and I worked with Carl up to the Pan Pacific swimming champs in 1999 where he got a silver medal. I really enjoyed working with him, even though as an athlete I never thought I would be a coach. Sort of the worst thing you can think of doing when you’re an athlete. Anyway, my career ended abruptly soon after the Sydney Games and I didn’t have a plan really and I got offered a job as assistant coach in Hong Kong with the HKTA and I thought I might as well have another adventure so I went off and did that. It was a very good experience and taught me a lot. After 2 years I left there and did another 2 years as a swim coach, still in Hong Kong, and coached my first Olympian in the 100m free with a young girl called Hannah Wilson, which was also a great experience and taught me a lot.
CRANK: Having been a world-class triathlete yourself, would you say that this has been a major influence on your coaching style?
BB: I think everything you experience in your life and in your sport influences the way you coach but definitely having been an athlete myself there is a certain level of understanding of what the athlete is going through. That’s not always a good thing though because it can make you reluctant to prescribe something that you know will really hurt, or when you are giving your athlete a session and you can see that it’s hurting them, because you know what they are going through. I don’t believe that you need an elite background to be a good coach though, and there are plenty of excellent coaches out there who prove that. I think the main thing an athlete appreciates is someone they have trust in, who is not going to bullshit them, and who knows what is required for them to achieve their goals.
CRANK: I remember reading some where that while being coached by the legendary Brett Sutton , you ran 400 metre repeats on the track in your wetsuit at midday! Is this true?
BB: Ha! These stories get embellished and spread all over the place. There are loads of great stories I have heard where I have done something crazy but I don’t remember being there. Anyway, this one has an element of truth to it. I did do a few reps at the track in the evening once, but just 3-4x400m. I was struggling to cope with racing in the heat, being a very pale skinned boy from NZ, so we were looking at ways to help me adapt to that. I did a few reps and it felt terrible, as you can imagine, so I took it off. It was a short sleeved suit I must point out. Anyway, I find it interesting that other coaches can implement training interventions which could be seen as extreme, but they are seen to be pioneering and not ‘crazy’. For example, prior to the Athens Olympics the American marathoner Deena Kastor was doing long, hard sessions in hot and humid conditions with no fluids to prepare for the competition, because they felt she was going to lose far more than she could replace. On one hand that could be seen as dangerous but on the other she won, so they did what was required and they were innovative. Sometimes you have to push the boundaries a bit and take risks. When there is complete trust between the athlete and the coach you can do that.
CRANK: Could you give the reader an insight into life in the Sutton camp of the 1990s, given that you were surrounded by several of the top World Cup athletes at the time? What makes Brett so unique as a coach?
BB: Brett has many talents as a coach that make him stand out from others but really it’s his ability to get the absolute maximum out of the athlete that makes the difference. Because of his background in training horses and dogs in his early years he looks at the animal rather than the person when coaching a session. A person can lie to you and tell you they are feeling something they are not to get the outcome they desire. The animal can’t do that, so he sees exactly what is going on and whether he needs to adjust the session he has planned. He also instills a belief within the athlete that they can achieve their goals, that they are capable of doing it. Most people dream about winning big races but not many actually believe they can. Brett takes away the doubt and just gives them a task to focus on and that helps them keep a clear mind when competing. That is why he has quick success with athletes sometimes – the athlete is already talented so he just takes away the mental demons that are stopping them perform to their potential. Siri Lindley was a classic case of that, as an example.
Training in that environment in the 1990’s was a lot of fun but also pretty vicious. It was kill or be killed but that is common when you have high performing squads. It’s why you often get a batch of athletes coming through at the same time who are all world class and all from the same squad, and then for a period of years you have nothing when that squad disintegrates or athletes retire. The old school guys had the same thing – Lydiard and Cerruty had big success partly due to the group they put together and how the athletes reacted to training and competing with one another on a daily basis.
Anyhow, training with Brett at that time was pretty intense but fun. I loved to race so I got to race every day. It taught you how to fight and struggle and give your best even on a bad day because it was rare you were on top with so many good athletes there. There were quite a few athletes who came in with big reputations at the time who left soon after. We weren’t very nice to new people until they showed their colours. The main thing it taught me was pride in performance. 1st or 15th didn’t matter, as long as you gave it your all. If you gave up in training or in a race you knew very quickly what everyone thought of it – coach and athletes. That’s the sort of culture you’re looking for as a coach – when the group is self-regulating and the athletes take pride in not only their own performance but that of the squad as well.
I think things are slightly different now with Brett with regards to the competition within the squad though – eventually if you keep battering one another day in day out you will break down and we did that a lot in those early years so now I think he picks the time and place for that inter squad competitiveness, when the time is right and there will be gains from it. In the end you get paid to race, not to train.
CRANK: Many a South African triathlete campaigned on the French triathlon circuit of the 1990s with various clubs. Given that you, along with a large number of Antipodean triathletes were also regulars in France at that time, what was the French circuit like back then? To the uninformed, could you explain just how dominant Simon Lessing was at the time?
BB: Racing in France back then was a lot of fun. I first went over at 17 years old in 1992 with a group and there were seven of us living in a 2 bed apartment on a council estate at one point. It was not glamorous. I liken it to the wild west in a way – there were really no rules and we just did what we thought was right but we got it wrong sometimes. We raced a hell of a lot because there were so many races with, for us, good money. I didn’t race as much as others but I still did a lot and certainly over did it. One of my friends, Lach Vollmerhause, did something like 15 races in 16 weekends and it wasn’t unheard of to do multiple races in one weekend, sometimes even a half Ironman and an Olympic distance.
The racing was not very structured – there was no real series, just races people went and did. ITU was in its infancy and the World Cup series wasn’t important so people just raced for money and maybe went to Worlds every year to try and get a title. You never knew who you would be racing at any given race. Of course the bigger the money on offer the better the people turning up.
You had to be a member of a club to race and the big clubs would pay to have a good foreigner in their team. The team might pay you some money each month and pay your accommodation, but each deal was different. The only thing they really wanted you to do was the team sprint race at the end of the year and you could do what you wanted pretty much otherwise.
When we first went to France I’d just come off a very good season in Australia, having won the national series and also some big domestic races. I’d heard of Simon Lessing already, he was in the top ten at senior Worlds in 1990 as a junior, so I knew he was good but I thought I could have a go at him. In all my time racing him I only ever got close to him a handful of times. And by close I mean within 60-90seconds. I was pretty inconsistent after 1992 because of illness so I don’t think I raced him at my best very often, but even if I had it would have only meant I was a bit closer to him, never in front. He was like Alistair Brownlee is today – completely dominant. In most races he was the best swimmer, best biker and best runner, even against the best guys in the world. I remember Mike Pigg coming to Europe to take on Lessing. I knew him a little and I spoke with him before he raced him and Pigg was telling me he was going to do this and that and the other to him, that he was a pussy on the bike etc. After racing him and getting destroyed swim, bike and run like everyone else he was VERY humbled.
CRANK: Tell us about the French Iron Tour. What was it like racing flat out for several days in a row?
BB: The Irontour was great fun but tough. The woman who put it together and was the face of it had a great concept and after a few years it was one of the three biggest triathlon events in Europe. It’s a shame that it hasn’t survived because it was a really good test of endurance, both physically and mentally. I think she had offers to sell it to the TDF people at one point but held onto it. It would be interesting to see what it would have become if a big group like that got hold of it.
The event would normally start with an individual TT sprint like a prologue in the tour. Then you’d move into 3-4 days of either sprint or OD races before a day off and then another 3-4 races to finish, with one normally being a TTT over sprint distance. That race was horrible if you weren’t the strongest in the team because you were just hanging the whole time. One year on the final day we finished with an Olympic distance race that went up Alpe d’Huez and you started at your overall time. Simon Lessing was leading Mike Pigg by about 90 seconds and I was about 60seconds behind Pigg so they were the times we went off at. It meant that whoever crossed the line first was the overall winner so that was cool. Very tough but cool.
Each time you raced the Irontour it would be the same. The first 2-3 days it would be elbows out at the start and manic fighting just like any other race. But by day 4 or so guys were getting tired and you’d just roll down to the start line, no warm up, and go. There was no fighting because guys who weren’t great swimmers or who were low down on GC were getting sick of being beaten up so they would start behind and if you so it was more relaxed. Still hard racing but not as stressful. The worst days were around day 2-3 because you were really sore and tired and you still had another 5-6 days to go and it seemed interminable. It was really hard on the body too. I DNFed on the final day one year whilst in 3rd or 4th overall because I got sick – every year I did it my stomach wasn’t great in the last few days. The courses were really good normally, lots of climbs and technical descents so you could make up time on those if you pushed. I remember taking about 90 seconds out of Frank Clarke in Grenoble one year on a 9km descent. I completely took my brain out because I was doing well on GC but got dropped on the climb so had to make the time up somehow. I went past Steve Foster sideways into a hairpin at one point. After that race I had to have a quiet word with myself.
The other great thing about it was the camaraderie. Everyone was in it together and everyone was feeling the same and there were a million stories to tell so there were lots of laughs.
CRANK: You represented New Zealand at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The three or so years immediately leading up to this event certainly ignited a fiercely competitive ITU World Cup circuit, which previously had been a fledgling series finding it’s feet as the only draft-legal triathlon circuit internationally. How did you adapt to this new format of racing? How would you compare the World Cup circuit of the late 1990s to the 2011 version?
BB: It was quite hard for me to adapt to drafting events because I was more of a swim-biker in the non drafting days. It took time to get there but I worked hard on my running an eventually I felt like I could run with the best guys but that was near the end of my career and injury started to play a part so I didn’t get the chance to show it all that often. The biggest breakthrough with my running came when I moved to Christchurch in New Zealand and started working with John Hellemans. I got on really well with John and it was exactly what I needed at that time of my career – a bit more freedom and autonomy. John’s wife, Ien, is one of New Zealand’s leading sports nutritionists and after meeting with her I saw that I was under fuelling by about 50% for the amount of training I was doing. That was because I was always chasing my weight, trying to get it down for my running, but that was also one of the reasons I was getting sick a lot. Once I started eating properly and doing some work on my run technique my running improved a lot. I went from about 71-72kg to around 74kg at race weight but I was running about 60-90sec quicker than I ever had. That taught me a lot about how you run well. For different people it’s different. Most people assume you must be light but if you run from power then extra muscle, and therefore weight, will actually help you.
Racing back then compared to now I would just say that’s it’s a lot more sophisticated tactically. Obviously the speeds are higher as well, particularly on the run, but the top guys racing now understand the tactics and can execute particular strategies a lot better than we could. I think on the swim and bike there hasn’t been huge advancements physically but tactically it’s better. The run is a lot quicker though, probably 60-90 seconds faster over the 10km. The guys also train a lot more intelligently and more specifically to the event. Back in the early days of drafting it was just non-drafting racing mentality but we could draft. Now it’s a lot more like a bike race with lots of spikes of acceleration on the bike through the 40km. If you don’t prepare for that it will kill your run. I think seeing Chris McCormack (Macca) race the other week would have been an eye opener to a lot of people who do non-drafting who think that the draft legal guys can’t ride. It’s not that one type of athlete is better than the other; it’s just that it’s different and you have to prepare specifically for the event. If Macca spent a couple of seasons getting back into the swing of things he would eventually be back at the front but you can’t expect to train like an Ironman and then go and be competitive in an ITU race. That goes the same the other way as well. People should just accept that they are different events with different requirements and appreciate the skill and abilities of the athletes who compete at such a high level.
CRANK: In addition to great athletes, New Zealand certainly has produced a number of “visionary” coaches who were ahead of their time such as the great Arthur Lydiard and for triathletes, John Hellemans. Tell as about the legendary Hellemans and his impact on your own career.
BB: I wish I had got in touch with John earlier in my career. He was exactly what I needed: a more relaxed approach to things and I trained by myself a lot so my competitiveness in training was kept in check. Brett (Sutton) and John are two of the best coaches in the sport but with different approaches and that suited the different phases of my career.
With John we developed a really good training routine that worked well for me. That routine was built up over a period of probably 12 months so that at the start it was very basic and by 12 months it was very detailed. I would meet with John 1-2x per week to discuss training but that was it. I was old enough to know what I was doing at that stage so I didn’t need attention every day like you might when you’re younger. The training I did was at a lot lower intensity than I had done before so my base aerobic fitness developed properly and we did a lot of work on running technique. When I did do faster sessions they were very focussed and I was ready for them, not knackered all the time.
One of the things with John is that he’s not afraid to not change things. I think there are a lot of people out there who change their approach all the time. John relies more on the athlete’s natural progression – both physical and mental – to define the periodization phases through the year, rather than trying to artificially manipulate it. It makes sense when you think about it – a 45min run when you are not fit with no races for another 6-8 months is very different to a 45min run when you are in race shape with an event in 2 weeks.
CRANK: When did you decide to retire from pro triathlon and what did you move on to? Did you start coaching straightaway?
BB: I stopped about 6 months after the Sydney games. I had been struggling with a back issue for the two years leading up to the Games and after that race it got a lot worse for some reason. I was 26 at the time and I intended to race on for another 4 years or so up to Athens. It was an unexpected end and I went into coaching almost immediately.
CRANK: What are you up to athletically? Are you still active yourself training-wise?
BB: I can’t run because of my back but I ride my bike a bit. With every year I am getting less and less fit. When I stopped I could still go on a hard ride with the fast boys and give them some trouble but not any more. I enjoy my biking but at the moment I get out once a week if I’m lucky. I always say I’m going to do more but family and work always take precedence. I’ve always wanted to do the Cape Epic, but it’s too expensive now so I can’t justify it. I could do some swimming but I find it a bit boring unless it’s open water or catching some waves.