Book Review:The Distance (An Average Joe’s Path to Balancing Family, Work, and Triathlon) by David Mills

David Mills is not the kind of person you could make a lot of excuses to.  He trained for, and completed an Ironman triathlon (Louisville) while working as a navigator for the US Airforce in Okinawa (that means not only long but irregular hours), being a father to 2 children (including changing diapers), completing grad school courses, and attending church.  His book ‘The Distance’ chronicles his route to the finish line as ‘an Average Joe’… Although the description above doesn’t make him sound so average!

Let me get one thing out of the way: the author is a Christian, and not at all shy about it.  If you want your reading material to be 100% secular, you should be aware of this.  If you’re like me, and interested in being part of a tolerant society, you can treat an author’s faith as part of their voice, like a naughty sense of humour, or a tendency to overuse parentheses (like this!).

I generally stay away from biography and non-fiction, as I like my reading to have an escapist quality, but I did enjoy this book.  The book is fairly light reading; it is broken up into short chapters that give David’s overall journey a logical structure.  He starts off with not only a good overview of triathlons (specifically Ironmans) but also a self-examination of what made him want to attempt something he admits is ‘crazy’.

After a little insight into the mind of Average Joe Ironman, he spends a few chapters giving us background on his family (including how to include them in training), work, athletic background and surroundings.  This sets the stage for us to understand how little time he would have to spare, but the other nice part, is we feel like we’re getting to know the man, and the whole read feels like a conversation with a regular guy.  His humour and spirit really help in this regard.

From there he moves into the 3 disciplines of triathlon, one chapter at a time.  These were my favourite parts; even though I have my share of triathlon experience, I found David’s take to be enlightening (especially from the perspective of training longer distances) without alienating me by being overly technical or daunting.

“The swim portion is like the bouncer at the door and if you want to make it to the party inside you’ve got to train and find a way to overcome your fear in order to get past that beast of a swim.  The swim portion keeps out the riff-raff”

David’s advice is to be as relaxed as possible, not only for energy conservation, keep your technique clean, avoid the melee of feet and elbows, but also from a ‘stop and smell the roses’ perspective.  It’s solid and sensible advice.

I got the most out of the bike chapter; since Ironman biking distance represents the biggest jump from my comfort zone (I’ve run a marathon and swam 2.1km in races before, but never biked more than 55km) in my weakest discipline.  David correctly identifies cycling as the most time consuming discipline, as well as illustrating the importance of knowing basic bike repair:

Part of the spirit of Ironman is self-sufficiency.  You can’t accept any outside aid from friends or family, and no one else on a bike can lend you any tools or help either….Flat tire? Change it yourself. Broken Chain? Should’ve carried a chain tool and a spare link…”

 He also stresses the necessity of eating while on the road.  I always knew to take in calories during the race (I usually use gels and sport drinks) but I didn’t know that most Iron distance athletes use real, solid food like bagels (or rice balls wrapped in seaweed if you’re in Okinawa!).  The idea of taking nutrition breaks at local stores/cafes makes longer rides seem more appealing, I’ve got to admit.

Once you get to the run chapter, you’ll see where David’s ideas get a little revolutionary.

“…you don’t have to run as much as someone training for a marathon… all that swimming and biking you’re doing is also increasing your overall fitness… If you must err, then err on the side of undertraining.”

Obviously his advice is always geared toward completing the Ironman, not competing or achieving a specific performance goal.  He also highlights a difference between marathons and Ironman: the lack of headphones forces the athletes to be more ‘in the moment’ and cultivates a more communal atmosphere as athletes talk with each other and get engaged with spectators.  I liked that he was able to see a positive side to what most of us see as a real negative to triathlon racing.

For my part, what I’ve gathered from this book and other sources that the obstacle is simply wanting it badly enough; everything else is just an excuse.  So will I be doing an Ironman next year? No, I don’t want to.  I don’t want to spend hours and hours on my bike (I could live with more running and swimming, I guess), or ask my family to make sacrifices on my behalf, or handle the more complicated logistics of travel and accomodation.  I will tell you though, that after reading this book, I don’t want to do it a lot less.

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