Mastering transitions in sport, life and lockdown

By Andy Blow | 7 Minute Read

I've been a long-time reader of Gordon Byrn's blog and have watched with interest as he transitioned from a successful career in finance to a world-class triathlete and ultra-distance champion. 

Gordo now juggles finances, family, fitness, and triathlon coaching from his base in Colorado and I reached out to him to find out how his mastery of transitions (in both a sporting and life sense) have helped him navigate the pandemic...

 

Hi Gordo, I first came across your insightful blogs in the early 2000s when I was competing in and coaching triathlon. It's my understanding that you came into competitive endurance sports relatively late in life? 

As you say, considering how fast I became, I had a very late start. I played team sports in high school, a couple years of club rugby, then joined a masters swim program at 30.

Once I started training, I was an athlete who got faster and faster (in amateur terms at least). Then things plateaued and it took a lot of work to get the last 5% out of my times.

 

You went on to compete at a world-class level over the IRONMAN distance. What's your proudest competitive sporting achievement?

My best race was 8:29 at IRONMAN Canada, running 2:46 off the bike. A lot went into that performance and it didn't come as a surprise if I'm honest. I raced to my potential and even dealt with a flat that day.

What was a surprise was winning Ultraman Hawaii. That win changed my self-image and enabled me to see myself as an “athlete” for the first time.

 

Gordo Byrn with a cup of teaCredit: Gordo Byrn ©

 

And when and why did you stop competing?

The last time I was "really" fast was when our oldest was two years old and my wife was pregnant with our son.

Preparing for IRONMAN Arizona, I crashed at the end of a long ride. That ride was supposed to be my last long ride before Az but it turned out to be the last long ride of my triathlon career. I broke a couple ribs and, during my recovery (six week of not a whole lot), I decided to take a break and that was it for me.

 

You still keep fit now despite not racing. What have been the main challenges for you when transitioning from training for competition to exercising for health-related reasons?

The biggest challenge was overcoming the belief system that I created to motivate myself to do the extreme training required to get very good at endurance sport.

I had a number of beliefs about minimum training volume, about body image, about nutrition, about a life with meaning, which proved false.

Everything in the “real world” is easier. It’s my beliefs that can be a challenge.

When I'm not exhausted from training, it's far easier to be healthy, serve my family and direct my life.

Of course, these days (at 51), I couldn’t do the training, even if I wanted to.

 

And what advice can you offer athletes who have been highly competitive or elite level and are starting to wean themselves away from competition and into a more ‘normal’ life?

Take the drive you have, to be better than others, and channel it into being the best version of yourself.

Pay attention to older mentors, both in terms of what they get right and their regrets. I was fortunate to have coaches who were good men, as well as being great athletes.

 

Gordo Byrn running on a treadmillCredit: Gordo Byrn ©

 

You’ve written a blog for more than 10 years, which is an impressive streak of consistent writing. What drives you to do it with such regularity?

The blog goes back to 2000, a defunct site called Tri Forum.

I’ve always written a lot, it’s how I think, take small risks and hold myself accountable.

When my kids were born (2008), I had a very strong drive to leave them a way to get to know me more deeply. By the time they reach my age, I’ll be gone, or very different.

 

You’ve talked a lot about self-improvement and very openly about the redirection of self-destructive habits in your blog. What are the most impactful changes you’ve made to your life in this regard in the past 10 years?

There was a day 25+ years ago when I was sick of being unhealthy. Going for a walk in the mid-90s grew into a lifetime habit of daily exercise.

Around the time of my 30th birthday, I realised there was nothing left for me in finance. My position in my firm was secure and I was set to reap the financial rewards. That future, however, seemed empty to me.

I took a sabbatical and focused on my greatest passion, triathlon. After eight weeks of “living the dream” I took a year’s leave-of-absence and never returned.

As for a new habit in the last decade… train before breakfast and wake up before 5am. Those two goals, while simple, forced a lot of positive changes, which continue to positively impact my life.

To say “yes” to waking up when the clock says 4-something requires me to say “no” to a lot of other stuff.

Finally, my marriage. When I married Monica, I made myself a promise that I would do whatever it takes to have an outstanding marriage.

The filter “will this help me win IRONMAN Canada” was replaced by “what will this do to my marriage.”

 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve been putting more regular posts out and there are a lot of great anecdotes for those of us who are parents and dealing with similar situations to your own. Can you summarise your top 4 recommendations for parenting during lockdown?

1. Have a written schedule.

2. Release yourself from specific goals. For example, the schedule itself is more important than what’s on it.

3. Go to sleep when the kids do.

4. Train before the kids wake up.

 

Gordo Byrn scheduleCredit: Gordo Byrn ©

 

Was there anything you were ‘certain’ of before the pandemic occurred that might be up for review now or in the near future?

I’m laughing because last week I told my wife: “You need to take whatever you thought you’d be doing for the next two years and throw it in the trash. It’s gone.”

I’m good at ripping up the script.

Time has taught me that close personal relationships are far more valuable than external achievement. My life has been stress-tested by the pandemic and my family has passed the test.

 

Is there anything you’ve learned you can easily live without since the lockdown period started that surprises you? 

Home gym is key! Being prepared was a fluke. My squat rack was a Christmas gift to myself.

My wife is extroverted so she recharges via connection. If you’re wired that way then lockdown can be tough.

As for me, I’m good. I recharge by introspection.

If a reader is having trouble then I recommend Man’s Search For Meaning and If If This Is A Man - I've found holocaust literature is a valuable source of perspective.

If that’s too heavy then follow a couple Navy Seals on Instagram. Those guys have excellent thought habits - as I used to say about racing IRONMAN, your mind will quit long before your body.

Applying Jocko Willink’s book, Discipline Equals Freedom, enabled me to deepen an already successful life.

 

Gordo Byrn's home gymCredit: Gordo Byrn ©

 

Clearly there are going to be a large number of negative knock-on effects of the pandemic (direct and indirect) but what, if any, positive effects do you think will emerge or are you seeing already?

In April 2020, every single person, worldwide had an opportunity to take a cold, hard look at their life and see what was lacking. All the BS of day-to-day living was eliminated.

There was a unique opportunity to ask ourselves, “what is missing?”.

I asked that question back in 2000 and following my personal truth has led me to a wonderful life.

Big shocks are opportunities to take stock.

 

If you could choose a sector of business to be in during the next 3-5 years what would it be and why?

Family advisory with a focus on human, rather than financial, capital. It’s an area where I’m world class, can be true to myself and earn a good return per hour exchanged.

For other people, I would seek a niche where you can be world class with a product directed at an affluent demographic.

For young people, work with the absolute best people, who will hire you. Out of college, I fell into a group of world-class investors and hit it off with my first boss. It took 30-months for me to learn the hard skills of my trade. The soft skills took far longer - they remain my weakest area.

For work, I’m not a follow-your-heart guy. I think it's better to achieve mastery in a field where you can get paid, then save like crazy and get yourself to the position where you can afford to work part-time.

Out of college, it took me ten years to find a passion other than the typical interests of a young man - wine, women and song. Following my passion, on more than a part-time basis, would have led to disaster.

Not sure where to take your life? The Artist’s Way helped me decide how to change (circa 2000). I did the entire program, as outlined in the book. Every single thing on my Top-Ten list (an exercise in the book) came true over the following ten years.

When I was on the far side of change, The Algebra of Happiness was a great read. Scott Galloway is a fantastic writer/blogger - I wish him happiness and look forward to his posts each Friday.

 

Thanks Gordo, I'll have to check out those recommendations. And thanks for taking the time to speak to us today. 

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