Before you become a sniper, learn to lay down cover fire.
In May 2013, I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a BA in Interpersonal/Organizational Communication. In a nutshell that means I can speak to various sized groups of people and write a decent research paper. I initially planned to enroll in a graduate certificate program in Nonprofit Management thinking I wanted a career in the nonprofit sector. To make a long story longer, I enrolled in the program, quickly realized I didn’t have the experience to contribute anything to class discussions, that I don’t do well with online learning, and I was sick and tired of doing school work. I wanted to start doing something, applying myself in the real world, making money, etc. I was a millennial after all, these were the days of young people succeeding early, the days of FIRE (financially independent retire early), and who needs extra education anyway?! So I quit the program and dove into the job search with the very millennial mindset of “I’m going to apply for everything CEO and above” forgetting of course that one of the reasons I cited for quitting grad school was “not enough experience to contribute to online class discussions.”
In my mind I had the experience to at least be a mid-level manager or at least make a decent living. So I figured I’d be able to pick and choose my opportunities. My dad on the otherhand felt differently and continually told me “You can’t be a sniper until you learn to lay down cover fire.” In other words, I couldn’t be a specialist without first learning the basics and building a foundation.
Eventually I learned that I didn’t have as much experience as I thought and I needed to lower my expectations. I applied and interviewed for many different jobs under the sun ranging from grocery store bagboy to in store salesman, to call center agent. I got a job working for a social enterprise nonprofit called Lighthouse Works, worked my way up over the next couple of years before being recruited away by the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division. Personal circumstances caused me to decide to leave my comfortable job with the Navy and move out to Colorado. Once in Colorado I filled my time with triathlon training.
My triathlon career has followed much the same arc as my limited professional career with a few exceptions. I began racing triathlon with the goal of becoming the fastest blind Ironman of all time. At the beginning of 2015 the fastest Ironman time posted by a visually impaired athlete was 11:40:27. That time was soon lowered to 11:10:28, then 11:08:30 and 11:03:31. By the time I set foot on the start line of Ironman Arizona in 2018 the fastest visually impaired Ironman time was 10:42:59, and the fastest by a totally blind Ironman was 11:03:31. I did set the fastest time for a totally blind Ironman at 10:59:17 only after four full years of figuring out how to be a triathlete.
Over the course of those four years people kept insisting that Ironman wasn’t where I should be focusing my efforts. Several people said I should go to race on the Paratriathlon ITU circuit. I resisted for several reasons. I initially looked into ITU racing but it was harder than pulling teeth trying to figure out how to get onto the circuit. I’d send emails and get back a generic response with a link to lots of paperwork. I sent Facebook messages to athletes who were on the circuit seeking advice or guidance. I got little of either. So I summized that getting onto the ITU circuit was much like trying to get into an exclusive fraternity or club and I wasn’t about to beg and plead to get into some snobbish club. Not to mention ITU racing is significantly more expensive than Ironman (maybe I’ll get into those specifics in a post down the road). Plus those ITU blind guys were rediculously fast and I decided that I wouldn’t set foot on the same course with them until I had a fighting chance. In order to have a fighting chance I needed to become a better triathlete in general. And Ironman gave me that opportunity to develop as a triathlete more easily than fighting to get into the ITU club.
On the surface people view triathlon as the longer the event the more advanced. Sometimes that’s true. Ablebodied ITU athletes generally race sprint and Olympic distance for a while before stepping up to 70.3 before stepping up to 140.6. The idea is to develop speed and then add distance. But you can’t develop speed without a foundation. I quickly learned that I was not going to be fast at any distance of triathlon if I didn’t first have a tremendous base of swimming, cycling and running under my belt. So I did what I should have done much earlier in my employment search, I put down cover fire, training and racing at all distances.
In 2015 and 2016 I completed 18 races (10 triathlons and 8 foot/road races) ranging from 5k runs, to sprint triathlons, to marathons and an Ironman. If you’re interested here are those races listed out:
Date: Race; Time
01/10/2015: Disney Half Marathon; 2:24:42
01/11/2015: Disney Marathon; 5:49:06
04/26/2015: St. Anthony’s Triathlon (1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run); 3:25:14
06/07/2015: Pineapple Man Triathlon (0.34 mi swim, 15.4 mi bike, 3.4 mi run); 1:32:27
07/11/2015: Clermont Sprint Triathlon (0.25 mi swim, 10 mi bike, 5k run); 1:21:59
08/08/2015: Clermont Sprint Triathlon; 1:17:21
09/27/2015: Augusta 70.3 (1.2 mi swim, 56 mi bike, 13.1 mi run); 6:10:24
11/21/2015: Run Nona 5k; 26:59
11/21/2015: Run Nona 15k; 1:43:33
12/06/2015: OUC Half Marathon; 2:17:00
01/10/2016: Disney Marathon; 5:12:29
03/20/2016: Great Clermont Triathlon (1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run); 2:55:29
04/10/2016: Florida 70.3; 6:31:01
04/17/2016: Starwars Half Marathon; 2:18:45
04/24/2016: St. Anthony’s Triathlon; 2:50:32
06/05/2016: Pineapple Man Triathlon; 1:28:12
08/07/2016: Ironman Boulder; 15:47:11
12/04/2016: California International Marathon; 4:31:16
Laying down this foundation of racing allowed me to then narrow my focus in 2017 and 2018 to become more of an Ironman specialist. Becoming an Ironman specialist also continued to build a tremendous base for me to pull from when I then turned my whole focus to the ITU circuit at the beginning of 2019. After four years of laying down cover fire I finally felt I was ready to go head-to-head with those really fast blind guys on the ITU circuit. So how can you apply my dad’s advice to your circumstance? “Before you become a sniper, learn to lay down cover fire.”