Another 10-year
"Overnight Success"

May 18, 2000 (

Ed. Note: Classen's recent rise is recounted elsewhere on Slowtwitch

It’s been very enjoyable reading Kerry Classen’s results on Triathlonlive and Slowtwitch the last few weeks. As I prepare to do a few events myself and wonder every now and then whether I ever had ANY athletic ability, reflecting on Kerry’s successes helps me to face the dark cold mornings just a bit more fortified.

Kerry’s path to the winner’s platform has been a very long one, but when he started to train consistently this winter I had an inkling that he’d surprise a few folks. Most people don’t know his background. I do. That’s why when he asked for a bit of guidance last year I didn’t hesitate to say yes. All I needed to hear him say was that he was absolutely committed to seeing how good he could be.

Kerry and I share a very similar athletic history through our teen years. We both swam a lot. I think the understanding we have of each other stems mostly from this shared experience. When I say we swam "a lot" I mean two daily sessions—totaling 14,000 yards or more—nearly every damn day for years. If you’ve been a competitive swimmer at that level at a young age you know what I’m talking about.

Young swimmers like Kerry often swim over 20 hours per week. I did that, and ran most days for 30-60 minutes, and lifted weights three days per week, too. This is the type of training that builds a very good plumbing system—the kind of pipes you can only build when you have all the raging the hormones of a teen-ager. If you look at the history of triathlon, it’s not hard to see that most of the top people all have a very similar history: very long hours of aerobic training at a young age. Dave Scott, Mark Allen, Scott Tinley, Spencer Smith, Simon Lessing, Ken Sousa (an underrated legend), Erin Baker, Lorretta Harrop, Joanne King … the list is very long. (I will write a piece on my thoughts on the issue of long, hard training for young athletes soon).

Kerry swam for Mission Viejo from 1984 –91 and had freestyle PB’s of 1:44 for 200 yards, 4:38 for 500 yards and 16:01 for 1650 yards in high school. His best friend and training partner Eric Diehl swam 1:35.5 for the 200 yards in high school and 1:49.1 for 200 meters. Can you imagine what those training sessions were like all of those years?

I can. That’s why I knew that Kerry could be one of the best triathletes in the world. He also ran cross-county all four years in high school. On top of that, he’s got a bit of a temper, the kind of temper that usually gets him in trouble but sometimes gets channeled into performance. My wife Erin is like that. She was fueled by anger for 20 years. She never really understood where it came from but she utilized it as a tool very successfully.

Kerry’s also a bit fearless when it comes to facing physical discomfort. That’s one thing you get from swim sets like 10x400 meters on as fast an interval as you can make, week after week. Then coming back the next day with 10x100M fly or 5x1500M or anything the coach can throw at you.

Kerry’s also been in the Navy and lived a bit during his hiatus from triathlon. I don’t think there are many people out there in triathlon-land today who can appreciate how tough it is to survive the ordeals you have to go through in that atmosphere. The tough get tougher.

So when he asked me for some guidance, I knew my job would be one of mostly trying to get him to be patient, consistent, rational and calm. It’s not hard for Kerry to find the motivation to train a lot. He’s still young (only 27!) and still wants to find out how good he can be. And he does train a lot. He trains more than every single one of those guys he’s beaten in the first two Xterra races. I don’t blame a few of those guys for not having the motivation or the time to train like Kerry does. Guys like Tobin and Overend have "been there, done that."

I once raced (well, chased is more accurate) Kerry Classen for over 2 hours in a 2:10 race. This was in Mammoth, California, in 1990, and I was more than a bit surprised that it took so much time and effort to catch this 17-year-old kid who, at the time, was very light in triathlon credentials. I was very fit back then, racing well, and living in Boulder, Colorado. I figured the 8,000-foot altitude in Mammoth would work in my favor and the event wouldn’t hurt me too much. If Kerry hadn’t showed up it would have happened in exactly that way. I could see the potential just oozing out of this guy. I saw him at some other races and he raced pretty well, but he just never quite got it together after that until now, ten years later.