Before finding the passion and speed in the triathlon world AJ Baucco was a drummer for a punk rock band. More recently he was the fastest amateur at 70.3 Florida and he had a few words with slowtwitch.
Slowtwitch: At 70.3 Florida you crossed the line just a bit over 4:11, and that was the fastest amateur time and 13th overall. Going in was that something you thought you might be capable of?
AJ: Absolutely. That was my goal from the beginning. I went to Florida to win. Period. The “winning mentality” may be new for me, but it has been very much ingrained in my head from my coach, Paulo Sousa. My day in Florida wasn’t perfect. The swim felt long, and I really struggled with the heat and humidity on the run. I’ve had many dreams about being the first amateur at a big race. I just can’t say that race was my dream race. It is funny how that works out. I was proud of the fact that I held tough on the run and did my best with the conditions, but when I finished, I didn’t think my time was going to be the fastest. If anything, that race gives me hope for much stronger performances in the near future.
ST: You didn’t have a winning mentality before?
AJ: In previous years, I was very competitive, but I never really had that burning passion to win. I found myself settling for decent results. A few seasons ago, I raced 3 weeks straight in or relatively close to Cleveland, and I was 2nd, 3rd, and 3rd. In each race, I was given an opportunity to take control, and in each race, I passed that opportunity up. I was definitely inexperienced back then, and I lacked the confidence necessary to compete at a high level.
ST: So how did you connect with Paulo Sousa and when was that?
AJ: Ah, the infamous Paulo Sousa… I’ve been lucky enough to be coached by Paulo since last December. I had spent the last couple years working with a very close friend from Cleveland, Jim LaMastra. Anyone from Northeast Ohio knows Jim as the guy who wins just about every race in town, but I know him as the person who really made me believe in my ability. When we noticed an opportunity to work with Paulo Sousa, we knew it was the next step in my progression as an athlete. Towards the end of last summer, a friend from Cleveland sent me a link to one of Paulo’s blog posts. The post, titled “A Call to Action,” hit me on a very personal level. Paulo talked about the need for an elite training squad in the US. Paulo recognized a problem and came up with a solution. I respect him for that and could not be happier to be a part of the Triathlon Squad. I’ve spent almost this entire year with my squad mates, and it is paying huge dividends. And not just for me… you may have heard of my squad mate, a pretty fast girl named Heather Wurtele. Yeah, she just won Ironman St. George by 36 minutes.
ST: NOLA 70.3 wasn't terrible but didn't go quite as well. Did you ride too hard?
AJ: Like Florida, I went to New Orleans to win the amateur race. I can sit here and say that not having the swim was my reason for not winning, but that’s not true. Everyone had to deal with the same conditions. Unfortunately, I did not adapt as well as I should have. I went into that race with a very specific plan, and I abandoned that plan when the race changed formats. Even though I denied it for weeks, I can now admit that I rode a bit too hard. I don’t think that riding 2:11 is too far out of my reach, but 2:13-2:14 would have been much smarter that day. My running was not at 100% then, and I definitely dug myself into a hole with that kind of ride. We all know that hindsight is 20/20. While I was racing, during each moment, I felt like I was doing everything right. That is the beauty of racing. There is always something that we want to change about our performance and it is the reason that we come back time after time.
ST: 2:11 is pretty fast and 2:13 is not shabby either. Would you say that cycling is your strongest discipline?
AJ: To be honest, I always considered myself a decent runner. A couple of years ago, I jumped into a local half marathon and ran 1:14. Every year, my running gets stronger but I just haven’t had that big performance yet. This year, cycling has become more of a focus. We have some very strong riders in the Triathlon Squad, like Trevor Wurtele and Ian Mikelson, and they have been pushing me out of my comfort zone all year. I feel like my ability to sustain a long, hard effort, while maintaining a solid aerodynamic position, has become a strength of mine. Even though I feel like my cycling has been strong, I know my running will continue to improve. One missing aspect of my training, in previous years, has been raw running mileage. Before working with Paulo, I suffered a few injuries, including a season ending broken heel last year.
ST: Are you riding with a power meter or just by pace and feel?
AJ: It’s all about the power!!! Late last summer, I received an opportunity to live and train (for free!) up in the Jura Mountains on the French/Swiss border. I lived in this super quiet mountain village for 8 weeks with 15 other athletes. We were part of an altitude study done by researchers from the University of Zurich. We spent 16 hours a day confined to dorm rooms that were set at 8000ft above sea level. We spent the other 8 hours riding, eating, and doing performance tests. Part of the study was to complete two V02 Max tests and one 40min TT during each week. Let’s just say that we all became a little obsessed with how many watts we were putting out. Living in a training center with a huge group of professional or near professional riders definitely changed the way I viewed cycling. As soon as I got back to the States, I invested in a Powertap. I can honestly say that training with power has taken my riding to a whole new level. Unfortunately, I don’t have the means to race with power at the moment. But, I know that would alleviate some of my pacing issues.
ST: How did CapTex Triathlon in Austin go for you?
AJ: Capital of Texas Triathlon was a rough day for me. Pulling the plug less than 2 miles into the run was a really tough decision, but I think it was one of the most mature decisions I've ever made in a race. Last season, I raced an entire Half Ironman on a heel that I thought was bruised. As it turned out, I turned a small fracture into a clean break and missed 4 months of running. I've had some issues with my feet since the race in Florida, and those issues have recently spiraled a bit out of control. It is really easy to over compensate for small issues and make matters much worse. I was a bit worried leading into the race, but I wasn't about to drop out before the race began. Like always, I started with the intention to win. I made the pack on the swim and led the majority of the bike. I came into T2 within seconds of a few other guys and I really hoped everything would feel good on the run. I came up limping at mile 1 and decided to call it a day shortly after. It's hard to leave a race while in contention for the win, but injuring myself further is just going to delay any progression. I'm confident I'll be healthy soon, and I already look forward to racing again in July.
ST: Bummer AJ. What is the plan for getting healthy?
AJ: It's all right. These things happen. There is no one else to blame but myself. At Florida 70.3, I made a spur of the moment decision to leave my soaking wet socks in T2. As it turned out, my wet feet combined with nearly 4 miles of off-road running, destroyed the bottoms of my feet. I'm talking about blisters more than 2 inches in diameter. After Florida, I didn't miss a beat. I ran over 20 miles in the two days following that race. It was incredibly painful, but I figured that I wasn't going to cause any real damage by training on them. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that the blisters were keeping me from slightly overpronating, which is my natural gait. A new gait caused a new pounding on the outsides of my feet, which eventually led to me limping off the course in Austin. My plan is to let the skin really heal this week while I travel away from Austin, Texas and head towards St. George, Utah. I will just consider this a mid season break.
ST: Aren't you heading to a camp with your Triathlon Squad in St. George?
AJ: The Triathlon Squad has a month long training camp in St. George, Utah starting next week, so I need to be healthy and focused. These camps are no joke. We get the work done every single day. Mix that hard work with the St. George heat and it should be a really solid month.
ST: Can you actually get healthy while in camp?
AJ: Of course. I am hoping that my feet will be healed up before the camp begins in a week, but if they aren't, Paulo will make sure that I get back on track. He knows quite well that an injured athlete isn't going to be progressing as well as a healthy athlete. If I need to miss a few days of running to have a solid 3-4 weeks of running, that is what will happen. These camps are very difficult, but the training isn't unstructured or dangerous. In my eyes, the key to our improvement is incredibly consistent, smart training that is strung together over the course of several weeks. Put those month-long training blocks together all year. Repeat that process for a few years and then see where you're at. It's all about the consistency.
ST: You are almost living the life of a Pro. When is it time to step up to that level?
AJ: If you are referring to the fact that I make no money, live out of my car, and don’t stay in one city for more than a month, then yes, I am living the life of a pro! In all seriousness, this year has already been a blast. I have been given an amazing opportunity to travel, race, and meet tons of really cool people (read: girls). As far as turning professional goes, I would really like to make the jump in the next couple months. I don’t have any intention of being a scrub pro. I want to make the jump when it really makes sense. At this point in time, I feel like it is an appropriate step I need to take if I want to keep improving. My coach, Paulo Sousa, and I share the same vision. It’s a long-term commitment to excellence that keeps us moving forward. Many new professionals or elite age-groupers tell themselves, “I’ll give it a year or so. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll do something else.” That’s the wrong attitude. Becoming a world class professional in Ironman is not a one or two year process. It takes real time and a real commitment. I’ve never half-assed anything in my entire life. If I am going to commit to Paulo and the Triathlon Squad or a career as a professional triathlete, you know that I am committing for the long haul. So don’t be surprised if I’m still around 10 years from now.
ST: Is there any Pro you particularly respect and why is that so?
AJ: I respect any professional that sacrifices everything in pursuit of their dreams. Everyone dreams, only a few people have the balls to make those dreams a reality. In triathlon, I love the guys who paved the way, like Tinley, Scott, Allen and Pigg. Those guys made something out of nothing. They did the sport when everyone else thought it was crazy… and they did it well. Peter Reid also stands out. Not just because of his accomplishments on the world’s biggest stage, Kona, but because of how much respect he had for the sport. To me, he was the ultimate professional. He was willing to give up everything in pursuit greatness.
ST: You mentioned living out of your car. That does sound very exciting.
AJ: This isn’t the first time I lived in a car or on the road. I have been living like this since I was 18. I spent 3 years touring and playing drums for this punk rock band. We’d spend every summer on the road. Living out of my car now is like a freaking dream come true. Imagine cramming into a small van with six smelly punk rock kids during the hottest part of the year... then proceed to eat, sleep, and live in that same van with no AC for the next 8 weeks. Talk about living the dream. I have lots of stories, but I remember one particularly hot day in Las Vegas. The temperature hit 125 degrees while we were “killing time” in a Wal-Mart parking lot. One of the guys literally started to vomit from the heat. We thought he had heat stroke or something (he may have just been hung over). We could have been in serious trouble if it weren’t for those Las Vegas buffets. We hauled ourselves into one of those and soaked up the AC for nearly 6 hours. I don’t want to get into the rest of the story, but it involves our roadie attempting to eat one of everything from the dessert section. Predictably, it ends with all of us getting kicked out of the casino.
ST: How do you go from punk band drummer to a very fast triathlete? It would appear the musician lifestyle is quite counter to staying in shape.
AJ: The two lifestyles are polar opposites. That is obvious. But, the way I fell into both lifestyles are very similar. Why do 15-year old kids want to dye their hair red and shave a mohawk? I spent a lot of time rebelling as a kid. During these years, a lot of my aggression was taken out through playing music. Looking back, it was probably the best path I could have followed. Many of the other kids we hung out with went down pretty dark paths. I like to think that many of them grew up, but some ended up in jail and some of them passed away. But for the five guys in the band, we had bigger aspirations. Music was our outlet, and we didn’t let any of the other bullshit get in our way. I know every loves a story about sex, drugs and rock n roll, but that wasn’t really our story. We had our fun on the road, but our focus was always the band. After years of identifying with this subculture, I started to rebel against it. I was exhausted from the late nights. The kids that I used to identify with didn’t seem to have any direction. They seemed lost. I had too much ambition to be dragged down along with them. Four years ago, I had just gotten back from an entire summer on the road. I moved in with this kid, Brendan Barton, who was training for his first half Ironman. I remember he used to wake up at 6am to ride. My friends and I would still be sitting around the dining room table drinking. This happened for the first few weeks we lived together. Eventually, he threw a pair of trainers at me and told me to run. I did. It was exactly the outlet I needed. The need to be rebellious diminished quite rapidly when my body got tired. That kid changed my life. I owe the world to him. I would have never discovered this side of myself without his guidance.
ST: Are you still friends with Brendan?
AJ: Brendan has been my closest friend for years. I consider him family. Even though I have been away from Cleveland for a while, we still call each other every week. Oddly enough, that kid has always been one of my biggest role models.
ST: What car do you actually drive and how many miles do you have on it?
AJ: I drive, when it is functioning properly, a 2005 Scion XB… the toaster on wheels. My buddies give me a hard time for it, but that car can fit a lot of crap in it! I own a fair amount of stuff, and you’d be surprised how well it packs in that car. The car has about 80,000 miles on it but 20,000 are from that last year. Driving across the country has been killing that car. When I originally drove it from Cleveland, OH to Tucson, AZ, I tried to pull a trailer full of pointless belongings. I have definitely slimmed down in that department. It makes the traveling much easier.
ST: Anything else we should know?
AJ: I am lucky enough to have an incredibly supportive family. Even though I don't see them that often, they are always on my mind. I also have the most beautiful niece in the world who I miss every single day. My heart belongs to my friends and family back home in Cleveland. I have an incredible support crew back there including my longest standing sponsor Fleet Feet Sports. They have two amazing stores in Northeast Ohio. I also want everyone to know the Cleveland triathlon scene is one of the strongest triathlon communities in the country. I'm honored to be a part of it.
A few more things... The tattoos on the back of my legs say "Sacrifice" and "Persevere". My favorite on-the-road meal is a meatball sub from Subway (with southwest sauce). I am an very social person so I encourage people to approach me if they see me somewhere. For the people stuck in the online world, you can friend me on Facebook. But, you have to at least include a message saying "Hey! I'm also a triathlete" or "I saw you at a race or on Slowtwitch" or simply "I'm a girl." I hate it when people friend me and then never say anything to me. Also, I have recently joined the world of Twitter. Follow me! My twitter handle is "irunshirtless" because... I do!
AJ Baucco's blog can be found at aj-baucco.blogspot.com