Michael Lovato won this year’s Arizona Ironman and is eager to stake his claim in Hawaii’s Ford World Championships next October. But as many were saying the day he won his first Ironman competition in Coeur d’Alene, “Who is this guy and Where did he come from?” Well we’re here to tell you since he’s no longer a surprise and he’s hungry for a win at the World’s Championships. He was raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he grew up as a star youth soccer player. He attended Highland High School and became known as a sprinter running the 100, 200, 400 and 300 intermediate hurdles. Although he played every sport team and individual he could try, and although he loved the camaraderie of team sports, he excelled in individual events. At the University of Texas he ran distance events in Track & Field, specifically the 3,000 Steeple Chase but discovered triathlon and the rest is history.
Podium: Talk about some of the most influential people contributing to your sporting career and success in triathlon.
Michael Lovato: It was an intramural triathlon that I did for my first race down in Texas. I felt very fortunate because there is a great triathlon environment there. There still is. The university itself was just incredible. There were two athletes in particular that really inspired me from the very outset. One of the guys, I remember still, Michael Nyarko, from Trinidad & Tobago. He was a swimmer and was just incredibly fit, muscular and built like a triathlete. He rode a pink Diamondback. Then there was Annick Souhammi, Iranian and American and amazing. Michael actually crashed his bike in this race and even with road rash all up and down his body, he just jumped back on his bike and finished the damn race. I think he won it. It was one of those things where I realized this is a pretty unique sport, you don’t give up easily and you get in there and you battle it out no matter what. Here I was out there in my soccer shorts,180 pounds, muscular, trying to lift weights and be kind of big, and there were these svelte, muscular but lean, fast machines that raced the whole race in their swimsuits. I was shocked that anyone would ever do that. That was 1992.
It was 15 years ago, but right then I knew this sport was exactly what I needed in my life, because it is a competitive, individual sport that has an incredible camaraderie amongst the competitors, and there is a fellowship of people out there, doing something, enjoying it, getting healthy and traveling all over the place. All of those aspects about the sport just really appealed to me.
More recently, I have had the opportunity to work with Dave Scott as my coach. I hired him in 2001 when I was still living in Texas and then moved up here to Boulder to train. He is one of the most tenacious competitors, in any sport, that has ever walked the planet. The guy has done amazing things with triathlon and almost purely on his strength of mind. Physiologically he’s incredible, but as you watch him over time, I admire even more so his ability to use his own mind power to drive his body.
Podium: Ironman equals Dave Scott.
Michael Lovato: Exactly. And that’s how it was for me and when I decided to seek out a coach, I had never been coached individually before. In fact, he’s the only tri coach I’ve ever had. I realized I needed someone that had the practical experience and someone that’s done what I’d like to do, which is get to the top of the Ironman game. On top of that, I wanted someone who had the education in nutrition and the physiological knowledge. He has that background and he’s probably got more knowledge packed into his brain than most people can imagine.
Podium: When you talk about doing Ironman distances as opposed to the ITU format or Olympic distance, what is it that draws you to the Ironman?
Michael Lovato: I have a great deal of respect for what short course guys are doing, and especially nowadays. They are becoming much more well-rounded athletes than I think they were when the drafting format first came about. These athletes are working every bit as hard as we are in training and they’re out there putting in the long hours and dialing in the perfect race.
I think the difference is this: if you mess up in your race and you get tenth or twelfth or twentieth or you don’t finish, well you can just turn around and race the next weekend. So you could come off a moderately sub-par performance and go again a week or two later. That ability to kind of bounce back and race again right away minimizes the importance of that particular performance in their own emotional state, in their own mind, if you will.
With the Ironman I think it’s a lot different. I think you spend weeks and months preparing for one particular race, and if that race goes badly (badly could be fifth place for some people), well then you’re out for the count. You’ve got to wait another several months. Often you can only get to maybe three events in a year.
I think that gives you a little bit more incentive and it’s more of a reason to absolutely give everything you have and make sure you do your best.
That’s part of it.
There’s also just the fact that it’s just the most incredible challenge. You could be the most perfectly prepared athlete in terms of physical fitness. You can go out and train until you’re the fittest guy on the planet. But, if you don’t execute every little thing on race day, including your nutrition plan, race strategy and pacing, [you won’t succeed]. Everything has to line up well for you, along with a little good luck, all the right cards being dealt to you. I’m always chasing [the perfect race], because it is such a challenge. It’s so hard to accomplish that.
Podium: There are a lot of athletes that are so outcome driven that whatever their place is, that somehow is the determining factor as to whether they feel good about the race or not. You can only control what it is that you have control over in that particular race. When you look at your last year’s World Championships in Hawaii, you got a stomach virus just prior to the race, and then you took in some ocean water in the swim. Not a good combination.
Michael Lovato: Yeah, bad, yeah.
Podium: When you’re in the middle of that situation, how do you address it mentally? Sorry to bring up a low-lite for you, but…
Michael Lovato: Yeah it is, but it’s all right. I don’t think you can really talk about Ironman or triathlon, really, and not somehow get into something a little bit disgusting. After the race I got some tests done with a GI specialist, and found out I actually had giardia, and another parasite, blastocystis hominous, it’s called. So I had taken on two freshwater parasites in August prior to Ironman. So regardless of what I had done that day, the timing was such that I was going to be in that acute stage of the giardia at the time of Ironman. In addition to vomiting in the race, feeling terrible, wondering what was going on, I was a wreck for the five or six days post Ironman. I’m glad I later found out why.
So in a case like this, I would have loved to have vomited earlier because I wouldn’t have felt so bad for as long, but in the end I don’t think it would have mattered. I think the whole combination of bad luck elements kind of set me up for a challenging race like that. It was a different kind of challenge – one where I just had to try and persevere. So to do things differently I would have just gone back and tried not to drink so much water in the lakes and in the ocean. It’s definitely something I’ve been working on, keeping my mouth shut during the swim.
Podium: Mental skills. How have you developed or learned certain mental skills, and do you have any specific skills that you really attempt to focus on in your performance?
Michael Lovato: I think my greatest strength is a positive attitude. Actually trying to keep [my focus] positive and happy and enjoy myself. I think that in spite of what I’m doing, in spite of the pain and the bitter competition and everything we’re doing, for me the bottom line is if I can keep a pretty light attitude, that tends to help me more than anything else.
Some people might say he’s not focused enough. You see me in a race and I’m smiling, I wave to people. For me, that’s what works. That’s actually what helps me do better. I feel like I [pull] energy from other people when responding to that. That’s something that’s always been helpful for me. You see other people that win races with a steely look, they’re focusing down the road – they see nothing, you see nothing out of them. To me, I’ve tried that. I toyed with it in past races and it just doesn’t work for me.
So I just go into a race as relaxed as I can be and with a set of goals in mind. The first one is always being able to have fun. A close second goal is to finish. But I go in there with that in mind as my main priority and when I do, I tend to have a much better outcome. I’m not going to say that I feel great and 100% happy the entire Ironman. It’s not possible.
People sometimes ask me about visualization, what about the other ways that you actually prepare your mind to get through the hard times. What I find works for me is in my training and especially on harder days when I’m out doing a long bike or run or combo session where I’m doing biking and running, I really imagine myself out in a particular race course. I put myself in certain scenarios where I’m actually running on the Boulder Creek path, but in my mind, I’m down on the Queen K or I’m out on Alii Drive in Kona-Hawaii, or somewhere. I imagine exactly where I am on that course. And I think that does two things for me. First, I can get into that mindset, that race mindset where you have to be focused. I can do that outside of the competition when in a stress free environment. And then I can put that in the bank, if you will, and use it in the race itself. When I’m running down Alii Drive and I’m baking up and it’s humid and it’s hot in the race itself, I can then transfer back to Fourth Street that day, or running up the creek path, somewhere in Boulder in my day-to-day routine. It helps me deal with the stress of the race. And I think for me, those are the mental tactics that really do a lot for me.
In the last race that I won, Ironman Arizona, I went into that race trying to duplicate the exact mindset and mentality, the frame of mind that I had before Ironman Coeur d’Alene (which Lovato won in 2003). I wasn’t favored to win that race. I wasn’t even on the radar of most people. I was there to have fun and to try to have a good Ironman. I went into Arizona with that same mindset and I came away with the same results. For me, that’s definitely key.
Podium: In endurance sports, especially in racing, there are important characteristics to successful athletes, the management of suffering is one of them, confidence is another. There’s a school of thought in sport psychology that recommends athletes disassociate from their suffering perhaps channeling it onto other athletes in the race. There’s another school of thought that trains athletes to really focus in on the parameters of what their body can handle working to manage suffering close but not quite at the breaking point. Talk a little bit about suffering and what kinds of methods you use in managing it.
Michael Lovato: Suffering, or getting through the hurt is something that is one in the same with just being out there in an Ironman race. Often, you will get on the marathon and you’re hurting, you’re suffering just from the first step. So part of it is just acceptance. You have to realize that you’re not going out there to feel good, like you feel when you’re fresh. You’re going out there to feel good like you do when your body is working and doing what it’s trained to do. So sometimes I will try and think of the suffering as a natural byproduct. I don’t dwell on the pain. I actually think to say to myself, “this is exactly right.” This is how it’s supposed to feel.
If I need to distract myself, or if I need to somehow get around it, I look at what’s causing the suffering and see if I can use it somehow. So, it’s not just the race. If I look out there and I’m riding into a terrible wind and it’s hot and I’m thinking I’m suffering. I will think again about the cause. I tend to do better in the heat and the wind than a lot of others, so I think well gosh, I know I’m not hurting as bad as that guy. And that gives me a lot of power, a lot of strength.
I think that ties in with another [skill] you mentioned, confidence. I think confidence is one of the biggest things you can take into a race with you. If you have confidence on certain areas of your race preparation, it’s going to do you a lot of good. In my mind, confidence comes largely from the training I’ve done. That confidence on race days is enormous; it’s a huge, huge advantage. If I can be on the bike thinking I am doing great here, I’m the best at these conditions. Feel it, and really believe it based on what you’ve already done, then that’s going to be a huge advantage and an effective way of dealing with that pain that you’re feeling.
Podium: So you actually gain momentum from that and that can carry you faster and farther.
Michael Lovato: Absolutely. I think back, and my most recent race was the Ironman, Arizona. In the bike leg, I had come out of the water quite a bit behind, so I had a lot of people to pass. I went about it in a way that I was able to use different sets of motivations at different times in the race. I had a great time. I had a lot of experiences I’d anticipated, including some of the people that I was racing against. When I passed them, I came off the bike in first place, which I had never done before. So, a lot of new things were coming my way, as well. The fact is I felt confident in the preparation I had done and I was confident I could handle that situation and scenario at that time.
Podium: In ’05 as opposed to ’06 in Arizona, you bested your time by probably 24 minutes, I think it was.
Michael Lovato: Yeah. As far as those things I had control over, I was stronger. I had actually done more training and had done better preparation. I was weight lifting and did a good chunk of riding. My total preparation time wasn’t any more than I had last year, but I just did a little bit more quality training, and added more strength from just hitting the gym. I think that made a big difference for me.
On race day itself, there was a difference. This year I was very well rested. I did a four week taper going into this Ironman, so I went in a lot more rested which gave me the ability to push myself more on race day. I think I had a much better mindset this time with a different way of looking at the race. I just put together a good solid day. I was rested, pushed myself and had a good solid nutrition plan.
Podium: You’ve had some adversities as an athlete, and there are a couple of things with respect to Ironman that if you have a bad race it’s going to stick in your craw a lot longer than if you’re doing shorter course triathlons. And in addition to that, there are a lot of people that will define success or failure in different ways. How do you deal with adversity, and in particular as an athlete? And how do you define failure or success?
Michael Lovato: That’s an interesting question. For me, defining failure and success, I always have a set of goals, and they’re not just performance goals. I’ll have a set of goals going into a race, and if I meet those goals, at least two thirds of those goals, then I define that as a successful race. Sometimes it’s easier for me because I do have a pretty wide range of goals, and one of them is just to go out there and finish the race.
But then I look back to a race like Hawaii last year, and even the year before in 2004, where I went into the race under-rested. I couldn’t push myself, I couldn’t really perform and I just had a pretty sub-par day. In 2004/2005 World Championships, I really felt like those races by and large were failures – with respect to my expectations. I had gone in thinking I was going to be able to achieve a top ten, top five result, and I didn’t. Last year I barely struggled across in 400th place, I think. So I look at it that way. Did I meet those goals? No. But in the end, back to overcoming adversity, I think it’s important to consider expectations compared to what? In every instance of adversity a different plan of attack may be required. So it depends on what I’m trying to overcome.
If it’s like last year where I’m vomiting and I feel horrible and I’m barely finishing, I overcome that by thinking this is my worst day ever, but it’s a heck of a lot better than what I could have done ten years ago, or that the average person can do. I think I’ve got to stick it out because I’m able to, I can. It’s not fast, but the goal is to get to that finish line. I’m out there with 2,000 other people trying to get to that finish line, and it would be a huge slap in the face if I just gave up just because it wasn’t going well.
Podium: Goal setting, do you have a particular process or procedure that you go through to set goals and will you do that for the season? You’ve mentioned a couple times that you definitely do it for each race. How many will you have in a given race?
Michael Lovato: For me, I think it’s actually an area I can work on. My goal setting for a particular race is pretty good. My goal setting on a broader scale, like setting them up in January and writing down a set of goals for the year, I don’t get as specific with that and I don’t keep a record of them and tick them off as I go. I think the verdict’s out as far as this year is concerned, but that might be something beneficial for me to do in a more focused way.
In goal setting for a particular race, I’ll just sit down and start listing goals until I feel like I’ve got them all. Ironman, my first goal is to finish, next goal would be to have fun. After that, I’ll have a particular goal for each sport. In the swim there’s a goal I want to accomplish, and it’s not a time goal, it’s a matter of what I want to make myself do, the position I want to put myself in, a particular focus I want to have, how I want to get through that swim and in the bike and in the run.
Podium: The open water swim is a whole different animal than training at an athletic club pool. So, tell me how you prepare for that, and what is it about the swim you’re really hoping to accomplish.
Michael Lovato: You hit the nail on the head. It’s so different from the training I do in the pool I’m always so much better prepared. I feel like I’m a really good swimmer in the pool, and I’d say 50% of my swim races in the open water are disappointments to me. And that’s just something I’ve always struggled with. However, one thing that’s important with the goal setting, I will set a goal, and I’ll get to that specifically, but it’s always something I think people really, really let themselves get sidetracked by, if you don’t meet that goal in the swim it is incredibly important to put that completely behind you as soon as you leave the water. In the case of my wedding ring getting kicked off my hand, emotionally I actually was unable to get past that, and it affected me for the rest of the dayâ€¦a testament to how emotional things can affect your race, for better or for worse [no pun intended].
So, for me, in any scenario, if I meet my goal in the swim or if I don’t meet my goal in the swim, I immediately get on the bike and put it behind me. It’s like a good golfer, if a golfer misses a shot and he dwells on it, the rest of his round is over. So, it’s a lot like that in triathlon for me, and I think a lot of people miss that.
So, for me, I’ll put a goal on swimming either with a certain person or swimming a certain way, which usually is just to start aggressively enough to stay with the group that I belong with and then just to get into a point where you’re hurting really bad, like you mentioned earlier, you’re suffering, and just stay there and maintain my stroke because swimming is something that is so technique-oriented, I have the ability and fitness to swim like a lot of people, but it’s my technique that lets me down if I lose focus.
Podium: Tell me about your parents as an influence for you as an athlete.
Michael Lovato: I grew up with my mom and my step dad. My mom was really good at giving me and my sister the confidence and self-esteem so that we believed we could really do whatever we wanted to do. This wasn’t just with sports, but academics, with social scenarios, whatever. She was incredible. I mean I played basketball, I played baseball, I did gymnastics for a long time, I did soccer, swim team, water polo, and every one of those sports, she was supportive. She’d drive us to the races, to the meets, to the competitions. She’d be there for practice, everything. So I think that that support and the confidence that she instilled in us was huge. That was a big, big part of my development as an athlete.
Even now, because I think that it ties to a lot to my mindset, my mom’s seen me compete in 60-70% of my races since I started doing triathlon. She’s one that will often remind me to stay on my gameâ€¦.be relaxed, have fun and just go out there and do it. She realizes that that’s my strength and if she sees me drifting away, she generally will try and put me back in that direction.
Podium: Your wife Amanda races too. Do you help each other with your mental preparation?
Michael Lovato: Amanda, is a very different competitor than I, and also a professional triathlete. She shows me through her example, how I can be a little bit more balanced. She’s a little bit more of a cutthroat, sort of steely, tough competitor. When I first met her, she didn’t even know I was there watching the race because she’s so focused. So I think she’s given me a little bit of that extra edge, that focus I need, and I’ve given her the ability to relax and enabled her to deal with races in a more laid back manner, and maybe enjoy it a little more, too.
Podium: What’s been your greatest thrill in the sport?
Michael Lovato: Greatest thrill in the sport? Well, honestly, I do have to say that through triathlon I’ve met a lot of great people. I think that’s really it, in addition to my accomplishments. I’ve met a lot of my best friends. I met my wife at a triathlon. And so, for me, that’s probably my greatest thrill. It was in 1999 and I met Amanda in Montreal at the World Championships. Truly I’ll always have that with triathlon for the rest of my life because so many of my best relationships have come from that sport.
As far as the thrill of the sport on game day at the races, it swirls around and depending on the day, I’ll name a different race, but I probably have to say my first Ironman win. I feel like that was a coming of age for me. It was a landing on a certain level that I wanted to be on and it was proof to myself that I could accomplish a solid Ironman against good competition. I could do my own thing and not break down, and I think that was probably the most thrilling victory and the most thrilling moment to this point.
Podium: Do you have any particular goal in mind right now?
Michael Lovato: Yeah, absolutely. I want to win Hawaii Ironman, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and a lot more seriously just over the past couple years. It’s one of those things that it is the pinnacle of our sport. I think that there’s no other one day endurance competition like it. With the history that it has, the challenge that it has, and the competition that it gives, that, to me, is the ultimate and I want to win that race.