The Numbers Do Lie!

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As a coach I talk to my athletes about a lot of things that impact the outcome of a race. I’ll admit, I don’t like getting tied up in numbers when it comes to racing. I think through training and racing enough you should have a good idea where you are in terms of pacing and speed and then you need to use good judgment when you race. I think watches and power meters are great tools but we race with our heart. I know this goes against the teachings of many people out there who claim to have data to support their claims. When you race with your heart, you don’t have scientific evidence to prove anything. But I’d like to share with you something that happened this weekend which further proves that when you focus less on numbers and race more with your heart the impossible becomes possible.

As many of you know, my 17 year old daughter was diagnosed with non Hodgkin’s lymphoma on January 23, 2013. She underwent an aggressive form of treatment which ended on April 15th. Prior to her diagnosis she was a competitive swimmer and had several goals on her plate. One was to be a 4 year varsity lettermen on her high school team. Others were to make to the finals of the 500 all 4 years and go to state and place in the top 16 so she could become an all state swimmer and have her picture in the hall at school. All of those goals were squelched this year when her high school coach wouldn’t let her swim on the team (this is a topic for another article). However, her number one goal was to go to sectionals in swimming. If you aren’t a youth swimmer who swims on a club team, getting to sectionals is the goal of almost every kid on the elite teams.
Prior to her diagnosis, Lauren had not hit a qualifying time in her two primary events, the 500 or the 1650 (mile). She was close and just prior to her diagnosis she was hitting times in practice which gave all of us hope that she would reach her goal. We would talk about splits she was hitting in practice and prior to races we had strategies in place on how to pace and what times to hit, but still, no sectional cut.

Then she got sick. It took a month and three hospital visits to find the tumor. She lost over 20lbs and had 5 inches of her small intestine removed. Ten days post surgery and prior to the start of her chemotherapy she swam in her high school conference meet. She placed 4th in the 500 and had her second fastest time ever. This was further proof that she was in the best shape of her life when she became ill. During her chemotherapy treatment she kept telling us that she would get back to swimming and that she would get her sectional cut.

In May, she resumed swimming on a limited basis. Her times were nowhere close to where she was pre-diagnosis. Of course, as a coach I know you don’t come back from a major illness and get fast right away. She would go to practice and come home frustrated at her times and her lack of improvement. The medication had caused her to retain a lot of water and she was now 20lbs heavier than she ever had been before. Her times were that from three years ago but she kept going to practice. She was frustrated with her weight, frustrated with her times and frustrated and angry with life in general (and yes we have gotten her help) There were weeks where she wanted to quit and we told her that if she did, no one would blame her. She would always tell us “but I want to make my sectional cut”. If I’m being honest, I thought it was a pipe dream but I never relayed that to her.

In October she swam in her first meet. Her coach had her swim the mile!! Her time was 20:12. Not a bad time for most people I know, but it was far off from her 18:40 just prior to her diagnosis when we knew she was in great shape. She swam the event again in November and went 19:50. On December 6th she went 19:12. The goal for sectionals is 18:34 which converts to an 18:11 at sea level. Just prior to the December 6th meet she started to exhibit symptoms she had experienced prior to her becoming sick. She started belching a lot and throwing up when she would eat. We adjusted her nutrition, consulted with her oncologist and had a scan completed. She was free and clear yet she started to get stomach pains again.

Over Christmas break, her team practices twice a day and puts in crazy yardage. There are only two major meets left in which she can make a sectional cut. Because of her illness we elected to only have her attend one practice a day. Prior to Christmas, the Arapahoe High School shooting occurred. The young lady who died in the shooting was a grade school class mate of Lauren’s. This sent her into a deep funk. Cancer, weight gain, another Colorado High School shooting, the death of an acquaintance and her times in the pool were stagnant. We stopped talking about sectional cuts in our house. In fact, we stopped talking a lot about swimming because the news was never good. Her times weren’t coming down. In fact, her coach very diplomatically told her that her strength to weight ratio was off and that she wouldn’t get faster until she got stronger and lost weight.

The one year anniversary of her diagnosis was on a Thursday and one of the two remaining meets was on Friday. She came home from school, ate, belched a lot and off she went. We didn’t talk about split times, we didn’t talk about effort and we surely didn’t talk about sectionals. I told my wife that if she goes 18:45 I would be surprised given the times was posting in her practices. I guessed 18:45 based on the splits she had been giving me from practice.

When I saw her before the start of the race I asked her how she was. She told me that she had thrown up everything she had eaten after warm ups, that her side hurt and that she was concerned she wasn’t going to even finish the race. I told her to do the best she could and that if she stopped there was no shame. I asked her what her race strategy was and she said she was going to go out, find a pace and hold it “whatever that is because I have no idea what my pace is anymore”. I told her to try and hang with the girls next to her as long as she could because she has a tendency to be conservative and then saves too much for the end.

As she got to the blocks I notice she was dancing around a little so she must have had a song going through her head. My wife counts her laps and I time during the mile. Typically, we know the splits we want her to hit and we have certain movements we make with the lap counter she can see which lets her know if she needs to pick up the pace or hold pace.

The gun went off and the girl next to her went out in a dead sprint. She was two body lengths ahead of Lauren at the 50 yard mark. The girl to Lauren’s right was at the same pace and I just hoped that she would pace with her and not the sprinter. Luckily she did.

I was watching her 50 splits and she was coming in faster than her prior swims and she was consistent. She was hitting mid to high 33 second splits per 50 yards. At one point in time, Kathy (my wife) started jamming the counter up and down which meant go faster. I yelled across the pool to stop doing that because her splits were even. She had completed her first 500 in 5:30 which was her fastest 500 time of the year and that she was still swimming side by side with the girl next to her.

Around 700 yards the girl started putting some space between them. Kathy started jamming the lap counter and Lauren’s splits remained mostly the same. About 1000 yards into the swim I noticed her coach start giving her signals to hold her pace and at times to pick it up. If you have never been to a youth swim meet, coaches have certain verbal and non verbal signals they give swimmers which lets them know what they want them to do. Typically, if you aren’t on pace to accomplish anything great you get no reaction from your coach. When the coach gets involved you are on to something. Still, I thought he was just encouraging her to go faster. His pre race remarks to her didn’t mention splits and they didn’t discuss a sectional cut. Her last race was 38 seconds off the qualifying time and let’s face it, that is a lot of time for someone to cut, especially when you have missed a lot of practices.

Shortly after this, another mother on the swim team came up to me and said “Shawn says she is on pace and to get her going”. I didn’t know what was happening. I yelled at Kathy to start jamming on every lap. The girls on her swim team had lined the side of the pool and every time she would swim by then would yell loudly for her to go. Her coach was now standing, whistling and pointing for her to go.

I kept watching her splits and since I hadn’t paid attention to a sectional cut in over a year I didn’t have a clue what she needed to hit overall time or split wise. Was this really happening? Was she really on pace? Was this a joke?

With 200 yards to go someone told me that if she held 1:07’s she would make it. She was still splitting mid 33 50 splits but started throwing in a few 34s which was not good. I prayed, please don’t let her miss by a second, she has been through a lot.

She came to the wall with 50 yards to go and someone told me she needed to go sub 34 to make it. We rang the bell indicating to her she had 50 left. I saw her pick up her kick. She approached the far wall and Kathy jammed the counter one last time. I saw her sprint and give everything she could. She touched in 18:32. I told her that people were telling me she had made it. She looked at me and said “Dad, it hurts so much and she threw up in the gutter”. She got out of the pool holding her side. There were parents and others swimmers all around her and she just wanted to sit down because she was in pain.

I turned and talked to another father and he said, “I don’t think that time is good enough, I’m not sure what they are telling you is correct”. Kathy came over and I told her what people were saying and she said “no way, I don’t think that was fast enough”. We hadn’t focused or talked about the sectional split for a long time and for some reason we all thought the time to hit was 18:26.

I finally walked over to her coach who was beside himself happy. I asked him if she had made it and he said “yes by over 2 seconds”. She had split the last 50 in 32 seconds flat which was her fastest lap of the day.

I went and shared the news. Kathy and Lauren both started crying. Other parents on the deck were crying. Her teammates were hugging her. It was the craziest thing I had witnessed on a pool deck. One year and 1 day post diagnosis, just over 7 months from being released from the hospital and she had just posted her fastest time ever in the mile. Goal accomplished.

But my reason for writing this has nothing to do with a great feel good story. It has everything to do with guts, determination, perseverance, desire, believing in yourself AND stop focusing so much on your numbers and start gauging your heart when it comes to effort during races. When the goal is on the line, do you have the guts to push through the pain barriers in your mind and do the unheard of?

For years we had talked splits. Hit this split, focus on this split. It was numbers, numbers and numbers. But this year, we didn’t talk numbers. We just talked about giving it all you had. Train hard, race hard and everything will fall into place. There is power in releasing yourself from having to hit certain targets. A lot of the athletes I know get so caught up in the numbers, that when the numbers don’t align, they want to quit or get down on themselves. Laurens splits in practice averaged about 1:10/100 yards. Her mile race, she averaged 1:07’s. If she were like most athletes I know, she would have given up long before the event. I don’t know how to explain why this happened. I do know that when you race with your heart and dig deep in your pain cave incredible results can and do occur. Heart rate monitors and power meters are great tools, but they don’t measure what matters the most and that is your desire to win and what pain you will go through mentally and physically to achieve your goal.

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Pete Alfino is a level II USAT certified coach and the owner of Mile High Multisport. An accomplished triathlete who has completed 4 Ironman races, he has successfully coached triathletes of all ages and abilities from sprint to Ironman races. You may contact pete at to learn more about the triathlon coaching services he provides via Mile high Multisport.