Thursday, February 12, 2015

Triple Threat Profile: Chad Zeman - Rhode Island

Chad Zeman is a new member of the Triple Threat Triathlon team representing the small but mighty state of Rhode Island. Among other things, here he talks about running at the collegiate level, getting back in shape after a 75 lbs. swing, and "unfinished business" at Ironman.

What's your background and how did you get into triathlon?

My background started as a trouble maker turned runner. I was in karate at a very young age and decided to beat people up, and boy did I always get in trouble! Looking back at my 8 year old self, I had waaayy too much energy. My parents finally had it after I was kicked off the bus (for the 30th time) and made me walk home. I decided to run the 3-4 miles home to tick them off.

That started the sports craziness, and I was on every team imaginable, including junior high cross country and track. I ended up winning most of my races, and knew I was onto something. When I got to high school, I was deciding either to play soccer or run in the fall and play baseball or run track in the spring. At that age, I was tired of relying on a team and wanted to decide my own success. If I lost, I wanted it to be on me. So I chose to run. My first high school race was a 15-team invitational and my coach threw me in the varsity race, explaining it was just for experience. By mile 1 I was in a pack of ten at the front, by mile 2 there were three of us, and I ended up pulling off the win.

My Junior year I was asked to join team USA in the Down Under Games in Australia. I ended up placing 2nd overall with a 14:53 5k, and couldn't believe it. That upped my training and motivated me even more. By the time I graduated, I had placed All-State (Illinois) a few times. I received letters to run for various schools, and ended up choosing a local school, Rockford College. In 2006, I wanted to see what my legs could do after a swim and bike. I signed up for a sprint tri with a 400m swim and doggy paddled my way through… fortunately there were shallow enough spots for me to walk! I came out of the water in 650th place and finished 54th. I had an absolute blast, and that was the beginning of triathlon for me.

Tell us some more about your options for running out of high school, and why did you choose Rockford? How brutal is running at the collegiate level?

I had several options, including a scholarship from Eastern Illinois University, and my high school coach was pushing his alma mater as well. Then I got a call from a hall of fame coach who had just retired from teaching/coaching high school and had taken the job at Rockford. He came to my home and I was instantly won over.

Not only was it him that won me over, but the idea of starting something new. I loved the idea of helping build the program from the bottom up: recruiting, going through the rough spots, and showing the conference that a new team could do some damage. So I ended up at Rockford and my last season we reached our goal of winning conference. Our coach was conservative in terms of training because we had such a small team my Freshman and Sophomore year, but it was still 50-70 miles a week.

Track was a little more brutal. We had no indoor facility on campus and had to drive 30 min to get to the nearest track. So a lot of my runs during indoor season were outside in -10-40 degree weather. When the outdoor season hit, we were 3 miles from the closest track so that became our warm up and cool down. By my Junior year I started to win some races, but my Senior year is when everything came together. Collegiate racing is something that I LOVED. It was always competitive and you had to show up ready to be your best. My blood is pumping just thinking about it! If kids in high school have the opportunity to race in college, do it. It is an experience you’ll never forget.

How would you sum up your 2014 season, and what was the highlight & lowlight?

I’d sum up my 2014 season as “let’s not fall back into a slump like 2010.” After my disappointing Ironman in 2013, I needed to sign up for something big to keep me training. When my wife got the call that she was being transferred to Rhode Island, it wasn’t until we settled that I found what race I was going to do. I saw a blurb that MMRF was waiving the entry fee for Ironman Lake Placid if you raised $5,000. My dad had just gone through cancer treatments so MMRF, though not his specific cancer, was a good fit. I signed up and we raised over $5,000 for the cause. I had put the training in I needed and was going to shoot for a PR.

As for my lowlight, about three weeks out from IMLP I twisted my knee and could hardly walk, let alone bike or run. I decided to take a full week off and see what would happen. About 15 min into my first run back, I was done. I called MMRF, explained what happened and asked what my options were. Thankfully they allowed me to transfer my entry to 2015!

My highlight was about 3-4 weeks after IMLP once my knee was healed, at the TDD Sprint Triathlon in Douglas, MA. It was my first and only tri of 2014 and I wanted to make it count. To my surprise I ended up winning the race! I was happy with my swim, very happy with my bike and pleasantly surprised with my run.

Looking at your two Ironmans (IM Wisconsin in 2010 & 2013), here's what I gather. The first one was like many people’s: happy to be there, racing somewhat conservatively, and wanting to finish with a smile on your face. Then, based on your 5:36 bike split, I'm guessing you laid it on the line in 2013, going for a stellar time, and bonked on the run. Where am I right and wrong?

After the Boston Marathon (2009) I was mentally and physically drained. I didn’t even train for Boston and should have taken that as a warning sign going into IMWI. I had gone from a 135lb collegiate runner to 160lbs at the time of Boston. By July of 2010 I was ~180lbs, and my buddy asked what I’d been doing for IM training. I didn’t fully realize that I had an Ironman in 2 months. I put in 10-15 total training sessions (yes, total… as in a 5 mile run is one). I had 2-3 open water swims, a few bike rides with nothing over 20 miles, and one long run of 15 miles. I knew it was going to be a rough day, so my goal was just to have fun and finish. It was a painful 14+ hours!

Chad en route to an impressive 2:50 at Boston
By the end of 2012 I was 210lbs and my wife and I spoke about our future and what we truly wanted. This was truly my bottom, both personally and physically. I still remember the dressing room I was in when I broke down. I had gone up nearly 8 pant sizes in 4 years. That’s when a career change occurred which really helped me turn things around. After college I became the Assistant XC and Track coach at Rockford while getting my Master’s in Education. One year into it, the head coach retired and I took over. During this time my wife and I also got married and had our amazing son.

The job was awesome at times, but also very tiring and time consuming. Once I left Rockford, it was like a huge weight had been lifted. I no longer had to attend morning meetings, check on my student-athletes to see if they were in class, prepare for practice, figure out schedules, what meets I was going to recruit, what meets we were going to race, calling recruits from 6pm-10pm, etc. I’m now in the healthcare industry building electronic health records and training staff how to use them. I can now focus on work at work with a traditional schedule and focus on family and hobbies much more.

running his way back in shape

This career change helped me turn the corner and ramp up for IMWI 2013. I wanted to hit the 10 hour mark and put in the work, but was still na├»ve to the Ironman distance. I got out of the water when I wanted too and hit my bike split... the only problem was I never peed on the bike nor had to. I also remember only have 3 gels on the ride with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was so used to racing without nutrition that I never put it together. Early on I was ok, but my body started to fall apart fast. My lips, eyes, fingers and knee caps were purple. I had EMS repeatedly ask me if I was ok. They even radioed other EMS stationed at various mile markers to watch for me. I ended up sitting at an aid station, just eating and drinking. I’d get back up and at the next aid station I’d do the same thing. That is how you end up with a 10 minute slower marathon split than bike split!

My feelings for both IMs were the same – when and where can I do the next one.

What's on tap for 2015 and what are your goals?

2015 is very busy. I have a local half marathon in March, Challenge Knoxville in May, Patriots 70.3 (Mass) in June, and IMLP in July. If I don’t qualify for Kona then, my plan was Ironman Louisville. But that race is sold out so I may do IM Maryland in October (editor’s note: just sold out this past week). If I don’t qualify there then I’m done with Ironman for a while and will enjoy the Olympic and 70.3 distances.

My ultimate goal is Kona. It’s been a dream, as for many triathletes, to race there. For my half marathon I’d like to bust out a 1:20-1:25. As for the Patriots 70.3 I’d love something around 4:25. For IMLP, I’m shooting for sub 9:30.

Based solely on your previous Ironmans, an outsider might be surprised to hear of these Kona aspirations for the near future. How much is "unfinished business," especially from the 2013 race, fueling your motivation this time around?

reach high, young man!
Yeah, it would be surprising to a lot of outsiders looking at me and thinking I’m nuts. But 2013 left so much “unfinished business” as you say. If I would have fueled properly on the bike, I know I could have gone ~3:15 on the run and been close to the 10 hour mark. That would have placed me 5th or 6th in my age group. If I don’t qualify, it wasn’t for trying. My son has been showing a lot of understanding of hard work and what it looks like. However, hard work doesn’t always mean you get what you want. I hope that either way this experience can be a life lesson for him.

Outside of the nutrition, unfinished business, and hopefully making this a life lesson sooner or later for my son, it’s my last shot I have at Ironman for a long time. Nowadays I don’t have the personality to sign up for a race just to do it. I want to be competitive and try to win at everything. I know that training 10, 12, 14 hours a week for me and my family will not work in the long run and it’s not fair to my wife. So the motivation to give it one last go is definitely there.

Have/will you change your training approach this year vs. 2013, or will the biggest key simply be better execution on race day? What kind of splits do you anticipate it will take to qualify?

I didn’t do enough bricks in training. I also didn’t properly train and fuel at the same time. In addition, I wasn’t paying attention to what my body was experiencing on the bike. So this is my first Ironman I’ll have a power meter. If I’m feeling great, I’ll know I need to hold myself back depending on the numbers. The swim is about establishing my position, the bike is about maintaining or improving my position and the marathon is the real “start” of the race for me.

Looking back, there was no strategy in 2010 and 2013. I wanted to just get through the first one. My last one, I wanted to race hard. Well you can’t just race Ironman hard… you have to race smart. So this year is full of strategy. Due to what happened in 2013, I needed an outside perspective on my training and strategies so I hired AJ Johnson from D3 Multisport to help out. We’ve been working on the struggles I’ve had and really dialing in the power and what I can handle. Between him, a focus on nutrition, adding more bricks, and the motivation… this could be the year.

Lake Placid is tough… obviously great competition and a hilly course. I’m thinking for myself it’ll take 1:05, 5:15, and 3:05. I’m on my way with plenty of time left. I just need to keep building and deliver on race day.

From your blog and just in talking, I know you're a proud husband and father. What works best for you to fit heavy IM training into life?

It’s a constant battle. I’m usually working out late (9pm – 12) on week days. I really don’t want to intrude like I have in the past. I’ve tried to get up at 4-5am, but working out till midnight the night before puts a damper on that. On weekends it’s either when they are napping or we’ll throw in a movie or something while I go for my long ride. Sundays I tend to head out when I can. I’m also very lucky that I only need 6 hours of rest. My wife is awesomely supportive. She loves watching me race and I love the support, so luckily I have that on my side!

What's the local tri scene like in Rhode Island, the smallest state in The Union, and what are the pros and cons of being a triathlete there?

There are a ton of triathletes, but in terms of racing, there aren’t very many options in Rhode Island. However, Connecticut is only ~20 min away and Massachusetts is ~35 minutes away and they seem to offer a decent amount of races. Since being in Rhode Island I've basically just trained and there are some great places here. Once the spring hits, there are a lot of runners and cyclists out on the roads, and I’d say 95% of drivers are respectable and give you plenty of space.

One con is often traveling out of state to race. Also, everyone seems to knows you… you can’t go to a race to sneak in an age group award or out-lean a stranger! On the pro side is a good balance of being serious and not serious about triathlon. When I train with locals, we are pushing and working each other hard. After that, it’s a lot of fun and talking about the sport.

Related Posts:

Tour of Sufferlandria: Chad Zeman

Nine Hammers Review: Chad Zeman

Triple Threat Triathlon - National Team interview archives:

Fast Erin Feldhausen - Wisconsin

Rob "The Law" Forshaw - Massachusetts

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