Imagine this: 90 degrees, cloudless blue skies, and a light breeze gently blowing across a calm sea. Sounds picturesque right? Almost like I’m describing the perfect vacation destination.
Now to add a little bit of context… you’re conducting maritime patrols in the Middle East, confined to 500 feet of floating steel and it’s been 3 months since you last touched dry land. Doesn’t sound too enticing now, does it?
Hi I’m Dale, the Air Defense Officer in USS STERETT (DDG-104), currently on an extended deployment to the Middle East with Carrier Strike Group 11. I’ve been with Team Zoot since 2019 and thought I’d share my experience during the global pandemic, which has been quite unique to say the least. Now that vaccines are being approved there’s light on the horizon, but for me the story is far from over.
2020 has certainly been a rollercoaster for the triathlon world; curfews, lockdowns, and social-distancing have all impacted our daily lives, not to mention the continuous cancellation or deferment of events that frustratingly threw our well-structured training plans out the window. I’m sure I’m not the only one who asked their coach “what do I do now?”
I got into the sport a little naïve and absent-minded to tell you the truth. I had given up baseball a few years earlier and transitioned to playing tennis year-round. I graduated high-school as sportsperson of the year but was really a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’; never really excelling at one particular sport. I got to college and decided I needed a change and a challenge. I honestly owe it to my aunt, uncle and two cousins who were immersed in the sport of triathlon, and seemed to really enjoy everything about it. So without doing any proper research I dove head first into the wonderful world of triathlon, buying a flashy Avanti Kona TT bike as my first investment.
Let’s just say I learned the hard way about this sport. I chose a sprint-distance as my first race and I’m convinced I came second last, and that’s by no stretch of the imagination. I was a fit and healthy 20yr old who could swim, bike and run any day of the week, but putting it all together at a fast pace during a mass-participation event with hundreds of people encircling me…hell no. What a fail! Some people just have raw natural talent, but for the rest of us mere mortals it turns out you actually have to train for a triathlon. My ego got a huge reality check that day and unfortunately it took almost a decade of completing sporadic events here and there for me to learn this important lesson.
After a somewhat mediocre performance at 70.3 Atlantic City I made the smart decision to stop downloading random online training plans and finally invest in a certified triathlon coach. I’ve been working with Rob Barlow of Foundry Multisport since the end of 2016 and it has honestly been the best decision I ever made. Hindsight is a beautiful thing and even though I can’t change my past, I know I can improve someone else’s introduction to triathlon by stressing the importance of a coach. Even if it’s just an enticer event or short-distance race to see if you like the sport, trust me when I say to be smart, invest in yourself and get a coach.
The Strike Group sails
I’ve deployed overseas several times before, but never during a global pandemic. As a few of my colleagues and I like to joke: nothing will stop the U.S. Navy going to sea, not even a deadly virus. Truth be told, this would turn out to be a unique deployment like no other. Port visits to explore foreign countries were extremely unlikely, and while we expected extended periods at sea, I don’t think anybody could have predicted confinement at sea, away from home for some 10 months total.
The story really starts in early April when the crew permanently moved on board. Unfortunately there’s no assigned gym room, and unclaimed realty is quite limited, so anywhere you can fit equipment is where it stays. You’ll probably be shocked to hear what is available to fulfill the fitness needs of 300+ crew members, and trust me when I say you have to get creative with your workouts.
4 spin bikes, 3 rowers, a rack of dumbbells, and 1 treadmill. Yes, you read that right, just one treadmill for over 300 crew. Can you imagine going to your local gym and contending with every other patron for that one vital apparatus? Luckily we operate 24/7 so the gym never closes, and I assure you there have been plenty of times I started a 3hr bike ride at 2am. All I can say is thank goodness I’m the only endurance athlete on-board otherwise nobody would complete their long sessions.
Even though we’re in the middle of the ocean there’s no opportunity to jump in for a few laps around the ship. I should know…I’ve asked the Captain. So you have to make do with what you have, which for me means supplementing swim sessions with a lot of weights, bands, and core work and plyometric sessions. I really enjoy whole-body Tabata sessions, and try to fit in one or two 45min sessions a week as part of my strength work. The good thing with Tabata is that most of the exercises are bodyweight, so I can venture to the upper-decks and maximize soaking in the vitamin D at the same time. Plus a little fresh air doesn’t hurt from time to time.
You might be asking why I didn’t bring my own bike and turbo trainer with me. Other than the limited space we have, I questioned whether I wanted to risk my bike getting seriously damaged by a colleague proclaiming to be the next Tour de France domestique. Fortunately the spin bikes have a built-in power meter that easily connects to my Garmin, so I was really quite set with all I needed. I have to admit, even though I have lots of songs and podcasts saved on my phone and my coach provides a good variety of sessions, I’m still staring at the same blank walls 10ft either side of me. After 6 months I decided enough-is-enough and printed a few photos of tree-lined trails just to add some variety to the surroundings and provide a little mental respite.
Training on the ship is not without its challenges. I mentioned the poor equipment-to-crew ratio and dull surroundings, but I also have to somehow fit sessions around a complex work schedule and meal hours. Each day requires a certain amount of time being “on watch” in the Combat Information Center, plus attending numerous meetings and briefs for different committees or upcoming events. And then there’s the dynamic nature of being a warship in the Middle East and the threats we respond to each day. While the gym might be open 24/7, the galley has strict meal times so add this to the mix and the need to actually get some sleep and suddenly a lot of planning has to go into determining my workout schedule.
I’m grateful that my coach is extremely understanding of life at sea, not just for the hectic schedule I mentioned, but also the fact that the weather gets the biggest vote. We’ve endured rough seas that pitched and rolled the ship in every direction; throwing bikes across the room and turning an easy zone 2 run into an hour of undulating threshold hill intervals. It’s certainly not without challenges and you very quickly learn the limits and when to say it’s just not safe to be using the gym equipment.
Rest and recovery are an essential part of endurance training - you have to listen to your body and train for your age. In San Diego I worked regularly with Joshua Mack of Hands on Wellness, and honestly I don’t have enough pages to write how amazing he is. He worked his magic week after week, ensuring I recovered from the heavy training and was well prepped for each race day. It’s vital to have a well-structured recovery plan, but unfortunately there’s no certified sports masseuse nor the ability for ice baths on the ship. Luckily I had room in my sea-bag to pack the foam roller and Hyperice massage gun with me. They’re compact and make a heck of a difference before and after training.
What are you training for?
With no opportunity to leave the ship for the remainder of 2020, my coach and I decided to use this opportunity to boost my overall fitness. It also presented an ideal time to shift gears from the normal 7-day cycle to an 11-day cycle (10 days on, 1 day off); something I had been wanting to try for a few months. We started in early April, building a solid foundation of aerobic efficiency before moving into some heavy speed work sessions. With a focus on fitness and short-distance training I averaged roughly 85mi of running and 400mi of riding per month, which doesn’t sound like much but I’m also competing with 300 other souls for the equipment each day.
We all have our favorite training sessions and like many others, I have a love/hate relationship with specific workouts. Love it or hate it, speed work is an essential part of training, and it’s surprising that I actually enjoy doing Yasso 800s. The satisfaction usually surfaces during the final set though. For the bike I really enjoy long outdoor sessions riding the 125mi roundtrip from downtown San Diego to San Clemente Beach via Camp Pendleton. For indoor rides (like I’m currently restricted to), I’m a big fan of the 70.3 Knockout Punch Session by Josh Amberger. It’s just over 2.5hrs long and is 100% true to its title – I highly recommend giving it a go.
Training was going quite well and fitness improving over the months , and I surprised myself in August with the Ironman VR17 event; clocking a 1:48:28 for the 3km run, 40km bike and 10km run (10:09 / 58:22 / 39:57). I didn’t set any records but it would have been enough to win my Age Group and place 6th overall. I say “would have”, because there’s another downfall to being confined to a warship at sea… there’s no internet Wi-Fi to upload my Garmin. If you’re a data-driven geek like me you’ll understand how frustrating this is, not just because of the Ironman VR events, but more-so for uploading to Training Peaks. It’s like I’m reliving the “Great Garmin Outage of 2020” each and every day - talk about being disconnected from the world.
With the inability to upload data or even review the Training Peaks schedule, I had to rely solely on emails with my coach. Each week I’d send through the essential data (speed, time, distance, work, Normalized Power, and any reflective comments about the sessions), and he would provide the next 10 days’ worth of workouts. I suppose being disconnected like this has its benefits. By virtue of the circumstance it forces you to withdraw from scrutinizing every minute detail of a session, and better reflect more on the holistic aspect of the training. Not having access to Training Peaks means Pseudo-coach Dale here doesn’t pour over the analytics and start recommending sessions to improve LTHR, VO2max or FTP. It really emphasizes trust and ownership between athlete and coach, and at the end of the day you have to LISTEN to your coach.
The New Year is fast approaching and I’m still deployed in the middle of the ocean with no end in sight. Literally! It’s a tough situation to be in but I think being a triathlete has actually prepared me mentally for just an occasion. Whether I’m training or competing, if something arises that impacts my plan I always say to myself ‘can you control it? No… then move on from it.’ I’ve applied the same mentality to my current situation with the simple task of focusing on the present and what I can control.
With that in mind it’s always good to have goals, so it’s no surprise I’m back into a dedicated training plan gearing up for a return to racing in 2021. The big picture goal is to qualify for the 2021 World Champs, so at the moment the line-up is 70.3 Oceanside, 70.3 Galveston and Ironman Oklahoma. Kona continues to be the elusive dream but I’ll get there, even if I’m toeing the line at 80yrs old.
In the meantime, my training has returned to a Base/Build phase with three main goals in mind:
- Build aerobic efficiency,
- Improve musculoskeletal durability, and
- Improve fat burning and ability to spare glycogen stores.
I have no idea if the events I registered for will reach fruition as we fight through the pandemic or if I’ll be back in San Diego in time, but I need consistency and something to take my mind away from the monotony of what seems like an eternity confined at sea. In a somewhat twist of fate, perhaps it’s no fluke that my Ship’s motto is ‘Forever Dauntless’.
At the 2019 Ironman 70.3 World Championships, Zooters from all over the world were descending on Nice, France, traveling far and wide to compete. I was extremely appreciative that Shawn O’Shea and the company really do believe in Ohana - the adage that Zoot is family. It was fantastic to bring the athletes together, especially the locals from Team Zoot Europe. That really set the tone for the coming two days of racing - team members literally lined the race course cheering louder than anyone for the Zoot athletes as they raced past. We stand out in a good way, and you simply couldn’t miss us in the unique fluoro gear.
I’m honestly a big fan of Zoot’s apparel line (especially their run singlets and aero racesuits), so when I received confirmation for the 2019 team I was ecstatic to be joining an innovative company and group of like-minded athletes. The team naturally gravitate to one another whether it’s organizing a weekend training session or throwing a high-five on the race course. This will be my third season with the team and even though I’m stuck at sea indefinitely, I know this is a fantastic community to be connected with. Just like the Navy is my at-sea family, Zoot is 100% Ohana.
Follow Dale on IG @daleaxford as he travels the world with the U.S. Navy