The Power of the Present

It would be unfair to say that Tim Reed won this year’s 70.3 Ironman World Championship by virtue of his sons Oscar (age 4) and Arthur (age 1) repeatedly falling ill in the weeks leading up to race day. Reedy—who outsprinted Germany’s Sebastian Kienle in a heated battle to the line after more than three and a half hours of racing—had failed to stay healthy while he and his wife Monica played nurse to their sniffling and sneezing kids. A surprise last-minute wisdom tooth extraction merely topped off his ever-changing preparation for the race in Mooloolaba, just three hours north of his home in Byron Bay, Australia.

It is fair to say, however, that Reed went into the race relaxed. Unpressured. And that’s the biggest take-away from this monumental win—Reed races best when he’s stress-free and enjoying himself. He admits, “In the past I have definitely been fitter for World Championship events, but I let the pressure of the race and my personal ambitions take the better of me. This time I didn’t have the perfect preparation at all. Whatever the result, it would be a bonus. As triathletes, we train so much that we are often over-trained and we don’t realize it. But this time, things were very busy at home and my training was far from ideal. Maybe these setbacks were exactly what I needed.”

Triathlon is the ultimate endurance sport, so it may come as a surprise that Tim Reed, at 31, initially set off playing rugby and basketball. At age 18, he trained for a mere six weeks before racing his first Ironman. He ended up walking the concluding marathon.
From there on he began to race here and there, now and then.

By 2008, at age 23, Tim was ready to double down on his efforts. He took a shot at racing abroad and emailed, by his own account, “Every tri club in Europe.” One Spanish club replied to his request for support and Reed, who doesn’t speak Spanish, set off to become a professional athlete. “All I did was train,” he says. “I ended up traveling back to Australia, working as a coach, but the taste for the sport just stuck with me. In 2010 I decided to bite the bullet, go back to Europe and have a go at it.”
The workload of professional triathletes is tremendous. Reed puts in about 23-24 hours of training every week, which he claims is considerably less than what some of his competitors do.

The bike training is the most enjoyable part for me. Long after I finish my career I’ll still be riding bikes. I could give up running and swimming much more easily. Biking gets me going. I love going fast. When I am training alone, I’ll put on my race wheels. Going fast gives you such a buzz. Cycling is my biggest pain cave, I love going deep. But it’s also my ideal recovery training: I love riding my mountain bike on a rest day.

Tim Reed has become synonymous with the Budgy Smuggler race briefs (For those in the Northern Hemisphere where the brand isn’t yet as ever-present, think of the small, brightly patterned briefs often seen in a competitive swimming environment). The family-owned brand out of Sydney has been Reed’s longest standing sponsor, and there’s no question in Tim’s mind that he’ll always race in his signature swimmers. He is quick to avow that the support of the crowds at the races is much higher when he’s smuggling his budgy, and that there’s a certain psychological side to it too.

Initially though, it was all based on comfort during the race, as there are physical benefits to the briefs, including no chafe caused by rubbing and more effective ventilation.
“In the end, I just love ‘em,” he says.

Jump back to Mooloolaba, the scene of a legendary face-off between local favorite (and budgy-smuggling) Tim Reed and Sebastian Kienle, the 2014 Ironman World Champion and 2012 and 2013 Ironman 70.3 World Champion. Reed uses the word “tenacious” to describe his rival, an athlete he respects and holds in high regard. “Sebastian never races for second,” he says.

When Reed emerges from the clear blue ocean onto Mooloolaba beach, he is in a group of about a dozen athletes. Kienle is about 90 seconds behind. The bike course is technical, which is much to Reed’s liking. He loves the way his Trek Speed Concept handles through the corners, accelerates out of the turns, and climbs effortlessly. In a triathlon of this particular distance, it’s the strategy of many riders to break up the pack right away, which makes for a succession of high-power surges.

There’s no slipstreaming allowed [in Ironman], so you have to put in a sustained 400-Watt effort for up to two minutes if you want to pass whomever’s in front of you. You’ve got 100 meters of athletes in front of you, so there’s no other way. Such a surge can potentially destroy your run two hours later, which is another reason to do it right away.

At the start of the half-marathon, Reed felt strong and confident. “I generally know from my power on the bike how I’ll need to pace the run. If my power numbers are really high, I generally take the first kilometers of the run easier, to fuel up and hydrate.

The trick is also about knowing the athletes you’re up against. When the heat is a factor, I’ll often go full effort immediately to make everyone panic. I know I’m good in hot and humid conditions. When you’re racing a guy like Sebastian, however, there’s no point. He won’t fall for it.

Reed and Kienle fought it out for over an hour, attack after attack. Faster and faster. At this level of the sport, says Reed, the difference between the top guys is ever so slight. Every athlete is in impeccable shape. It’s an athlete’s mindset that makes the difference. Your thirst for victory is what makes or breaks your race—especially in an Ironman 70.3 (half distance).

In Reedy’s words: “In a full Ironman, you really have to remain calm and cool. Put in a solid effort, but never hurt yourself. It’s the distance that will hurt you and slowly take you down. An Ironman 70.3 is very different. It’s high threshold, not just endurance. The pain is there from the beginning and only gets worse. You go as hard as you can.”

It’s the ability to lose yourself and focus on what’s immediately around you that makes for an optimal performance—your breathing or your cadence, for example— rather than dwelling on your swim or worrying about your run. It’s about focusing on doing what you can do right there in the moment.

He calls it “the power of the present,” and it’s a philosophy that clearly works for him. In fact, his capacity to focus on the present may have been the deciding factor in his World Championship because he was able to compartmentalize the whole race into the few final meters. “Win this short sprint,” he may have been thinking, “and you’ll win the race.”

And perhaps, being present in the moment for his family before the race, when he was wiping noses rather than keeping to a strict training regimen, also played a part in his legendary win. He was focusing on doing what he could do, right there in the moment.

The reality of Reed’s astounding win is that he was more prepared—mentally and physically—than the rest of the field, and that he had the most left in the tank at the end. But with each telling, a story morphs slightly. Details are refined and themes emerge. Years from now, when Reed tells the story of this triumph to his sons, don’t be surprised if the renowned family man’s tale begins with, “Let me tell you about how you helped me win the World Championship…”