Slowtwitch interview with Brad Kearns and Andrew MacNaughton

Conducted 8.27.02,
by Dan Empfield


INTRO
: Any triathlete who was one back in 1987 knows of "Brad and Andrew." They are a matched pair—"twin sons of different mothers," to steal a phrase from the pop music era just prior to their own. And, like Butch and Sundance, or Cheech and Chong, they're perfectly well identified by first names only—if you hail from that era.

Brad Kearns and Andrew MacNaughton came from less than zero to rule the world of triathlon for about two-thirds of a season. During the spring and summer of '87 they were unbeatable. Untouchable. They didn't win their races by seconds. They won by minutes. Against all comers. When they entered a race forget the Big Four, Ken Glah, or Mike Pigg. The only question was, which of these two would win?

Their span of wins started with the Desert Princess races in late '86, a three-duathlon series of 10k-60k-10k races in Palm Springs that drew many of the world's best triathletes. Kearns won the first two of those races, placed well in the third, and won the series. While Kearns would continue to regularly win, his buddy MacNaughton took seven consecutive triathlon victories in the spring of '87, not losing until Mark Allen bested him in June. In that six-month span, at least one of the two had beaten Ric Wells, Scott Molina, Scott Tinley, Glen Cook, Mike Pigg, virtually every great triathlete of the day save Allen.

Why were they so dominent? Yes, they were superb athletes, but they weren't more talented than the rest of the first tier. Frankly, they were better because they were smarter. 1987 was the year of the "Scott handlebar" and of the "Quintana Roo wetsuit." Brad and Andrew were among the first to understand the values of both, and they approached both training and equipment scientifically—probably more so than their competitors.

Not only were these two the best in their day, their performances stand up against the best today's athletes have to offer. MacNaughton remained a force, especially on the bike, through the early 90s, and he rode the bike in a way that has only recently been matched (he set a bike course record at the Wildflower Triathlon that withstood the onslaught of almost every top multisport cyclist until very recently).

Both retired from triathlon in the mid 90s. Kearns wrote a book which remains one of the most successful of those written by triathletes: Can You Make a Living Doing That? He headed up the Wellness Program for Interwoven—a Silicon Valley software company—but missed "cashing in" by about a year. "The year before my options vested," said Kearns, "the stock was at $80 a share. By the time they vested it was at $3 a share."

Now he's gone back to his triathlon roots, and has started up a series of triathlons and multisport events in and around his Auburn, California home. (His half-ironman debuting in July, '03 will certainly make the Slowtwitch Party Tour). His season calendar can be found at his Bradventures website and includes triathlons, long and scenic bike rides including an upcoming century, an off-road tri and an adventure race.

MacNaughton walked clear away from the sport when he retired in '94, disgusted with the politics that bothered a lot of us back then. He remained instrumental in working with Olympic Champion (and fellow Canadian) Simon Whitfield, though, from '96 through '99, and still tries to help those who've got talent, smarts and a work ethic (like recent Canadian Ironman runner-up Jasper Blake).

MacNaughton became an adept web designer early in the internet craze, and has more recently switched to digital video editing, i.e., he's now in the movie biz. His short movies and documentaries can be seen at Jagent.com.

SLOWTWITCH TO BRAD KEARNS: Why have you decided to enter the mileu of the race promoter?

BK: I feel that my best opportunities are in leveraging what I gained during a career as a pro triathlete—my experiences, my relationships with sponsors and the press, and all that. Plus, I want to share with people the unbelievable place in which I live. The community here has opened itself up to the idea of triathlons, and it seems I'm a good bridge between Auburn and the multisport world.

SLOWTWITCH: Now that you're on the other side of it, is it your goal to have your races be part of the pro circuit, with a prize purse and all?

BRAD KEARNS: Woah, that's a tough one. You get a different perspective when you're on the other side and you have to count every penny. I wouldn't mind having a purse, but honestly a pro has to add value. I don't know that I always added value when I was racing. It's not enough for a pro just to show up, and frankly, I wasn't given anything when I was racing. I don't owe anything to any of the pros racing today.

SLOWTWITCH: Are you more likely, then, to just buy a pro or two and have them show up, as opposed to offering the purse for all-comers?

BK: I'm more likely to offer the purse. I'm more comfortable with that. But what I'm even more likely to do—especially because I can do it now—is to consider the financial situation of those who'll want to race but can't afford it. Sometimes I think our sport caters too much to an elite subset of people. I want to offer a low entry to students, and to be able to accommodate everyone who wants to race, if possible. I might give someone who can't afford the half-ironman, for example, a free entry if they'll come volunteer for the shorter race the day before.

SLOWTWITCH: You and Andrew were the fastest triathletes in the world during that one Spring and early Summer season in '87...

BK: Well, you're the only one who remembers that.

SLOWTWITCH: I don't know. It's come up a few times as certain course records you guys've held have been broken. Andrew's Wildflower bike course record was only recently broken by Jurgen Zack and Steve Larsen.

BK: I think the performances of the pros in our era hold up pretty well. That time during the late 80s, there were some fast athletes. I still don't think anyone today goes as fast on the bike as Pigg did back then.

SLOWTWITCH TO ANDREW MACNAUGHTON: I was talking to Brad, and he remarked that he thought that Mike Pigg in his prime is still the fastest rider ever to race in triathlon.

ANDREW MACNAUGHTON: It was a different sport back then. Nowadays the short-course guys are less interested in cycling fast, and rightly so, they need to concentrate on the swim and run. The half-ironman distance is where you see the biking abilities show up. It's probably—in theory anyway—the most competitive distance. The long guys can come down and the short guys can go up. It makes for great races and it highlights the bike.

SLOWTWITCH: In other words, the best athletes are those who're in a sport in which the bike leg is not so important. But I still have the same question: How does the bike leg compare, your era to this?

AM: The fastest athletes are in the short distance. "Best" is a judgement call—is the 100M world record holder a better athlete than the marathon world record holder? (According to the TV coverage, yes!) My comment is—almost all marathoners would have loved to be 100M people, but no 100M people are interested in being marathoners. Good biking really comes out in the middle distance. An example is [Chris] McCormack. He's a dominant force in draft legal races, but take out the drafting, and he's minutes ahead. That's an example of how the hard riding is evident, just like in my era.

SLOWTWITCH: So the half-distance is the triathlete's version of the "race of truth," at least in terms of bike riding ability?

AM: Back when I was racing, you had do all distances, but now, the best short-course guys don't move up to Ironman—of course McCormack just did one. [In my day] everybody said to Simon [Lessing], "Why why don't you do Ironman?" His answer was, "Why would I? I only have to race for 2 hours and I earn as much as a guy doing Ironman." The half is a distance the short guys can ride though, and that is a test of their cycling abilities. Also some of the demanding races of varying distances in the Alps will test them.

SLOWTWITCH: In other words, the best athletes from both long and short would meet at the half. And you ruled that distance when you raced and I'd like to know, Andrew, how did you ride so fast?

AM: You are what you are genetically, so obviously you do the best you can with what you have. My secret was an efficient pedal stroke. I wasn't as physically strong as the other guys, so I had to work very hard at generating the best possible pedal stroke.

SLOWTWITCH: How did you determine "efficiency?"

AM: I worked on my pedal stroke for several years. When I started riding in Lake Tahoe, there were two guys, Bob Roll and Marcel Niger who were the local studs, and I got tips from them. Ray Browning even tested me in the lab one day. Our marker for efficiency wasn't oxygen consumption, or heart rate, although I had that tested too. It was strictly limited to the pedal stroke—the idea of how force should be applied around the pedal circle. I figured I couldn't push the same gears so I pedaled at a higher RPM and with a more efficient stroke. At least that was my theory.

SLOWTWITCH: Is that how you were able to turn in your fastest rides, like in Wildflower in '91?

AM: That wasn't the fast ride. Yes, that's when the record was set, and it stood for awhile. But I'd just recovered from food poisoning, and rode really conservatively that day, so that I could go the whole way. The year before, in '90, on a slightly different course, that was the fast ride. I was clear of Todd Jacobs by about 200 yards during the whole race, both ride and run. There was no drafting, no working together, by either of us. The time was several minutes faster, but not the same course. We rode so hard we ran in the low 1:20's. If you can call that running... If we'd done that ride on the '91 course, well... It still would have been broken!

SLOWTWITCH: With so many victories among the two of you, how is it that neither of you are not more prominently remembered?

AM: I think our problem was timing. Instead of having a career in which we gradually got better and then hit the top, we hit the top immediately. We went from being unknowns to a place where on a given day one of us would race better than anyone else could. After 1987 one of us might win a race, but that sort of effort was sporadic. I went from zero to being perhaps one of the world's top five triathletes. But then I went from there to being a good second-tier athlete. If you'd have taken mine or Brad's wins and reshuffled them into what would appear a more normal career, we'd have made different decisions and things might've turned out differently.

ADDENDUM: After reading this interview with Andrew MacNaughton, Brad Kearns had this to say about his friend's bike riding ability, and their (and especally his own) approach to training:

BK: MacNaughton talks about his pedaling efficiency which is great but the reason he was able to go off the front was that we did things like ride from LA to Baker, a 200-mile ride. Or to Santa Barbara and back, also 200 miles, which he did on a regular basis. Or the fact that he enjoyed the part of his day on the bike seat, so he rode at least 40 every single day, often very slow but he put in the time.

The reason I beat Kenny Kaboom at Desert Princess was that ten days before the race I got on my bike in the dark and rode all out from Woodland Hills to Barstow—140 miles—pushing the pace the whole way. When I got off the bike in Barstow I was certain that I would win. I'm not sure many up and coming guys are doing stuff like that today. How did Molina win '88 Ironman? He went to Palm Springs and rode 1100 miles, and ran 100 miles, in 11 days.

I did my best when I trained alone or with Andrew and didn't overly worry about mileage or heart rates—just did what I felt was right and was inspired to do. When I was tired I rested. On the flip side, because I was free from the shackles of coaches, weekly mileage totals, peer pressure, etc., I was able to push myself to do extraordinary workouts that helped me reach a higher fitness level—to go from 1:53 Olympic to 1:48 or whatever. When I departed from intuitive, relaxed approach I suffered and struggled—looking outside for answers from coaches or comparing my training to other people.