Endurance sport is tough on athletes; lots of training and preparation, a long day out at a race, needing to fuel properly and maintain consistent energy. Something I’d never thought about is about how all of this also relates to those putting on races; the people behind the scenes who direct, set up, marshall, referee, draft bust or time races for us. Chatting to John Levison really highlighted this and I felt learning from his routines, perspectives and knowledge could give us all a lot to chew on.
John is basically ‘Mr Triathlon’. He has been around triathlon for almost as long as the sport has existed. He not only runs Tri247.com – the website most UK (and probably other country too) athletes go to for news on the triathlon scene – but is regularly found at races as the go to race commentator. His knowledge is deep and having spent so long in the sport he knows the courses and athletes inside out. I jumped at the chance to pick his brains and learn about what goes into commentating a race and what psychological traits he sees displayed prevalently within the most successful triathletes.
The triathletes you are usually interviewing or commentating on will have all prepared for their races. What sorts of preparation do you need to do for your commentating sessions?
In some ways, I would say there are lots of similarities to what the athletes themselves do. Firstly, the majority of the work if you like is not necessarily specific. Just as an athlete will have some events they are racing / targeting, the fitness and ability to do those comes from consistency of general training, month-on-month and year-year, which builds them the base and the fitness and strength to which they then fine tune / taper / specific prep for the requirements of that event.
Similarly, that my day ‘job’ if you like is following / reporting / writing / researching / interviewing and more within the triathlon world – and that I’ve also been around for a long time – gives you a pretty strong base of experience, knowledge and understanding to call upon when needed. To that, you then do your specific ‘homework’ – what is the course? How many laps? Who is racing? What happened last year(s)? Who has been in form this year? That type of thing. Depending on the type of race, I might contact an athlete, a coach, someone else within the triathlon world, just to get their thoughts, and hopefully that gives you a rounded view of what you are going to expect and might highlight something you hadn’t thought of. Just like an athlete though, simply doing lots of hours of prep immediately before with no base, probably won’t get you very far!
I always estimate that you probably only ever use about 10% of the information that you might have (or is probably tucked away in the triathlon archives of my brain somewhere!), but for me at least, just going through that process gives me more confidence that I’ll be ok on the day. The objective is to try and be ready and potentially use elements of that preparation – not to try and use every statistic, just because you happen to have it.
Just like many of the athletes, I’m reasonably confident that I could probably get away with doing less and ‘winging’ it so to speak on race day on the basis of all of that accumulated knowledge / experience – but that’s not something I try to test out, as I’m sure it would come back to haunt me!
I’m probably also quite fortunate that my memory for triathlon history (and as my wife will confirm, not a lot else!), is quite strong, so most of the time, there is usually a nugget or two of trivia or memory about an athlete or a race that might come in useful.
Commentating on a triathlon sounds like it must be quite a feat of endurance – especially those with lots of waves so will last for hours – how do you pace yourself and stay focused?
It definitely can and does get physically and mentally tiring. On a bigger and/or longer event, you will typically be working with one of more other commentators, and you do have to take those breaks. Your natural inclination at something like an iron-distance event is that you want to be (and you probably think you can be…), ‘there’ all the time, but you just can’t.
If you get too physically tired, you just can’t keep the energy up in your voice which will show. You’ll also not be switched on mentally, so if you are trying to communicate for example on an Age-Group World Championship, and there are multiple waves in progress at the same time, having a clear head and being able to track what is happening in real time across multiple categories is – to me – really important. I want to be ready to potentially call an athlete down the finish line to be a British / European / World Champion and ideally be building up to that for the crowd (which will likely have friends / family / coaches there), and give them that moment and recognition as it happens – and ideally not 15 seconds after they have crossed the line, when that time has passed. Seeing the smile on someone’s face – and it may be the one and only time in their life they achieve it – when they can hear that they are being recognised and that quite possibly it’s the first moment that they know they have won a medal, is really special.
I’ve also now done several events over the years which will span 3/4/5 days of back-to-back work, like the Commonwealth Games / European Championships / Grand Final and the Nottingham-Leeds double-header this year. You also have to remember that you want your energy (and voice…) to get you through the entire competition, not just the end of the day. Triathlon does lend itself well to natural highs and lows (in terms of energy and excitement) during a race, so you’ll have natural excitement at the start / swim exit and transition / laps (if appropriate) as athletes pass, so there is opportunity there where you are naturally calmer and other times where you need that energy.
Do you get nervous commentating?
Weirdly, I can’t honestly say I’m nervous when speaking to a crowd even if there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands (Hyde Park in years past I’m guessing?), or indeed, for some of the online stuff I’ve done. Even that you don’t actually know what you are going to say / there’s no script / anything can happen.
I can only rationalise that as a) it’s a triathlon, b) I figure approaching 30 years of in-depth watching / studying / writing / researching means I’ve got some solid experience, history & understanding to call upon, and c) I arrive prepared! Typically I may have only one piece of paper (number / athlete / country and a couple of bullet point / memory jogger notes), but have found that’s way more useful than a folder full of information that you will never, ever get to refer to in real time. I suspect I only ever use 5/10% of the ‘stats’ I know – but just going through the process provides that extra confidence, plus there can always be that random elite who appears out of nowhere!!!
I think I’ve also come to the conclusion, that what probably helps is that I genuinely ‘care’. Might sound a bit weird, but there are plenty of people (and commentators and other people in sport generally), for whom it is a ‘job’. That’s fine, I get that but for example I really was genuinely ‘in the moment’, and getting excited and trying to build up that finish to the women’s Age Group 70-74 race when I spotted with about 10 minutes to go that there was a realistic chance of a sprint finish. And I don’t even know the people involved !!!! Doing that isn’t difficult – but it is if you don’t have the passion to be looking ahead / working things out and trusting your instincts.
All things considered, I would much rather have a microphone and be talking to thousands of people than have to go into a room with 10 others and try and make small talk. That’s way more pressure and stress to me.
You have watched a lot of triathlons over the years. What traits have you seen in triathletes that you really admire? Are their traits that seem to be much more common in triathletes than other sports?
Triathletes, even the Pros, tend to be there because they truly love the sport. At the (very) top of the sport – a Gomez / Brownlee / Ryf / Duffy / Frodeno – the rewards can be significant financially, but that can only be part of the motivation. The sport is simply too hard in terms of the training requirement and competition, to do without passion. One way you can see that is randomly go to the results of say a World Junior Championships 15 or 20 years ago. Assuming you’ve been around a while, I bet you will recognise a significant number of those names from 17/18 years of age, still racing all those years later. A few may have become ‘big’ names, others not so, but there has to be internal motivation to keep doing it for all of those years that goes well beyond hoping to gain fame or riches.
I’d say that triathletes are also very resilient, perhaps stubborn, and seem to be able to bounce back from things that most would struggle hugely with. Of course, in recent months I think everyone has seen what Tim Don has come through with a broken neck, the Halo and then winning his first Pro race back. There are so many more though – look at Gill Fullen’s return from cancer and surgery, the winner of the Age-Group Champs (Overall) in Glasgow recently, Trish Deykin, suffers with MS, a former club mate of mine, Fiona Ford, got totally wiped out by a car and was told her sporting career was done… she subsequently made the podium at Kona. And that’s just three that spring to mind, there are so many others, Pro and Age-Group.
Triathletes also tend to be organised and dedicated – and not just those that are at the top of results lists. I’m also constantly amazed out how many doctors / medics / surgeons and the like manage to also be top performing triathletes! There is a saying along the lines of, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person”. That does seem to ring true in our sport. Most the British Age-Group athletes that you may see on the Kona podium multiple times, tend to be very busy professionals too.
If you could put together an Ironman relay team of any triathlete in the world who would you pick for each leg and why?
That’s a tough one!
If we take men first, from a commentary viewpoint you take Harry Wiltshire – because it doesn’t matter how far away you are, you just look for his windmill left arm and you can confidently state exactly where he is. And to be honest, that’s typically at the front anyway!
The bike? Perhaps either Marino Vanhoenacker or Sebastian Kienle. I was in Klagenfurt when Marino broke the IRONMAN world record and I’ve followed his career quite closely. He races for one reason – to win. He has no interest in playing safe for a podium, it’s usually win or go home in an ambulance! I remember a quote he gave me in an interview, “I’ve definitely lost out on a lot of podium positions in my career which I might have gained by being a bit more conservative – but then again, I don’t think I’ve ever lost a race that I could have won.”
Sebastian is similar – races with such passion, and when he is in full flight, a sight to behold. I still remember when he caught and passed the lead group at a 70.3 World Championship in Vegas. He went past with such power that it was as if he was on a motorbike.
Run wise, well to absolutely guarantee yourself some killer quotes at the finish you go with Lionel Sanders! He’s got one of the worst ‘styles’ you’ll ever see, he looks permanently injured and as if he is limping – but he can push himself to deep, dark places – and stopwatch tells you he can run too. Being in Kona last year and actually feeling the conditions first hand, Patrick Lange finishing at sub–6 minute mile pace after almost eight hours is staggering too, while given his performances this year, I would like to squeeze Jan Frodeno into this team somehow too. So many options!
For the women, swim – Lucy Charles. No explanation necessary! For the bike, well I think right now we are seeing Daniela Ryf proving that she is absolutely the best female cyclist we have ever seen in the sport. If she can produce the all round race in Kona on a good day that she is capable of, her own course record will be smashed apart.
For the run, I pick Chrissie Wellington. Her final race in Kona was truly remarkable. She was a broken, physical mess coming into that race after her recent bike crash, yet at her ‘worst’ she had the mental strength and pain tolerance to still beat the best, and she did that on the run. She looked out of contention at T2, but in the first 100m of that run you could see that she was not ready to give up yet. It was a worthy way to call time on a wonderful career. I think we may have seen faster ‘runners’ than Chrissie, but would any of them beaten Mrs Wellington, head-to-head, when the chips were down?
What has been your favourite triathlon to commentate on?
Genuinely, I really don’t know if I could pick just one. While we generically might call it all ‘commentary’, exactly what you are doing, what you are talking about, who you are taking to, will depend upon the type of race, the length of race, where you are within that event, are you ‘on the ground’, the voice in the air, live broadcast etc.
A few that spring to mind:
European Games 2015, Baku, Azerbaijan – I can pretty confidently say I would never have been to Azerbaijan, had it not been for triathlon! That was a great week, working with a great team of people. The British men’s team (Benson, Bishop, Graves) produced perhaps the single best team performance I have ever seen. The domestique / pilot approach to racing has many critics, but on that day Tom and Phil gave absolutely everything they had and Gordon finished the race off in style, holding off their fast finishing Joao Silva. It was a staggering performance from the British team.
Outlaw Half 2017 – A month or so earlier I’d done a big interview with Gill Fullen (https://www.tri247.com/triathlon-features/interviews/gill-fullen-interview-cancer-strikes), a brilliant Age-Group athlete now in the 50-54 category who is just a legend of an athlete. Gill had recovered from cancer and major surgery that winter, but had kept it pretty secret from all but her closest family and friends. We’d spoken privately a few months earlier, as Gill found out that I’d had cancer myself some years previously, and I said that – when / if she was ready – I would be interested in doing an interview with her about it. That time came, and it turned into a long and detailed piece that I wanted to do ‘properly’, and I felt that Gill had really given me her trust and was very open, to someone that she didn’t really know that well. I got to know her better through that – and that interview was very widely read. So, when she then won – overall – the Outlaw Half a month later and I got to be the one explaining to the crowd who this was and calling her across the line – it was a special moment.
Glasgow 2014 & 2018 – Commonwealth Games and the recent European Championships, both wonderful events at Strathclyde Park. Great venue and both brilliantly organised. I’m a big fan of Nicola Spirig (who also won in Baku), and so it really is a pleasure to be able to just watch her at her best and be able to share that with the crowd. The Mixed Relay events at both were also brilliant. The battle for Silver and Bronze in 2014 between South Africa / Australia / Canada was epic, while last week just shows how close and unpredictable the relay format can be. I also really enjoy commentating on the Age-Group races too, and trying to give those and the athletes in them proper attention and focus. The team in Glasgow just did a brilliant job, they really did think about the Age-Group event and I’m pretty sure 800+ athletes will have left with a very positive experience of being part of Glasgow 2018.
I feel guilty not mentioning so many more! My first ever commentary was World Triathlon London in 2010 when Alistair Brownlee hit the wall with 200m to go and wobbled down the finish straight – that quite a start! The Club Relays at Nottingham is just a fabulous race and part of the fabric of the domestic season while doing some live stream broadcasts is a different buzz. I hope there are plenty more highlights to come in the future.