Bob Williams profile and interview

Conducted 8.25.01
by Amy White

As a fertile medium for growing adventures, Bob Williams' 31-year career in the U.S. Navy was a petri dish. Even his attempts to keep fit while serving abroad were adventurous.

There was, for example, the pool in Bahrain that had to be chilled to be swimmable. He was able to use it when he wasn't at sea during the Gulf War in the early 1990s. "I did get the base commander to install backstroke flags in order for swimmers to avoid hitting their heads (mostly just me)," he recalled with deadpan wit.

Williams, 59, was born in Connecticut into a Navy family. His father was assigned to submarines, and he moved with his two sisters and two brothers to a host of different cities as he grew up. He took up swimming in high school in Bremerton, Wash., reaching the finals of the 1960 state championships in the 200 free as a senior.

He kept swimming while enrolled at American University in Washington, D.C., and took up crew, too. "Swimming in those days was a bit different from now," Williams recalled. "Then, workouts were limited by the amount of time eyes could tolerate the chlorine since goggles were not yet available. Swimmers also had to touch each wall with a hand before turning whether flipping or not." Interval training wasn't yet common, and the building that housed the university's pool was so poorly insulated that the water temperature sometimes had to be jacked up into the 90s just to keep the air temperature in the 60s.

But Williams' team was lucky enough to have a coach interested in the "new" interval training method. The team did well, and Williams broke some school swimming records and was named an All-American in the 200 free.

When he graduated in 1965, he volunteered for U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School and was assigned to destroyer-type ships. "For the next few years, I exercised very little, gained some unnecessary weight, smoked a bit, picked up some other unhealthy habits, and generally led the lifestyle most of us would not prefer," he said.

In the early 1970s Williams learned about U.S. Masters Swimming and returned to the pool, competing first at the local and then at the national level. And he kept fit despite the sometimes challenging conditions his work as a surface warfare officer presented: "While at sea, I either ran on our flight deck or, if that was unavailable, simply in place."

In 1992 an acquaintance suggested he try a triathlon. "I was hesitant to do so since I was in such great awe of the Ironman triathletes I saw on TV in Hawaii," Williams said. "The acquaintance went on to compete at Hawaii and later gave me a blow-by-blow description of his race. I thought if he can survive, perhaps I could also."

Two years later he bought his first triathlon bike, trained and completed a race in Columbia, Maryland. He was soon keen to try again, applying the lessons he learned from one race over to a new challenge.

In 1996, Williams retired from the Navy and set out to reach a long-held goal: biking across America. "In late August of that year, my touring bike and I flew commercially to San Diego, where I swam the 1.2 miles across San Diego Bay on a Saturday and then swam as part of a four-man relay 11.5 miles around Coronado Island on Sunday," he said. "On Monday, I was on the bike with my tent, sleeping bag and other camping gear packed away and pedaling up the California coast en route to Yorktown, Virginia via the scenic route."

He arrived on a "beautiful fall day" and was met by family and friends, who joined him for the final 25 miles into Yorktown and the end of the Bicentennial Bike Trail—the last chapter in a 5,400-mile, 63-day journey.

Needless to say, that gave him a lot of confidence in his cycling.

He already had the swimming part down. Williams holds U.S. Masters records in all sorts of events—and he's been chosen as a U.S. Masters Swimming Long Distance All Star in 2000, 1999, and 1997, as well as a Long Distance All American from 1993 through 2000. He was first in his age group at the Chesapeake Bay 4.4-mile swim this year, in a time of 1:53.

Of course, his success is not limited to swimming—hardly. He was a USA Triathlon All-American last year and has enjoyed top finishes over a host of distances.

This is a heavy Ironman year for Bob. It started at Ironman California, where he took third in his age group in 11:23; there were only two slots to Kona on offer, and both were snapped up. But he did qualify for Ironman Canada there, so he headed to Penticton last week. This was after he finished fourth in his age group at Ironman USA in Lake Placid. His 11:38 there took a chunk out of his previous year's time of 11:44—which was good enough for first last year. As he lightly points out, Kona slots went as far as third place. Had he been competing in the age group below him, he would have qualified easily—11:47 qualified in that age group. Who says it gets easier the older you get?

Williams hit paydirt in Canada, qualifiying by finishing third in a time of 11:23. That means he's raced three Ironmans in advance of the World Championships in Kona. "I was lucky enough to get a Hawaii slot," he said, "but I feel a bit like the dog who finally caught the car he was chasing: What now?"

He qualified for Kona last year, too, finishing in 13:05, but believes he has some unfinished business there.

Meantime, Williams also raced his fair share of half-Ironmans this year, finishing second in his age group at the National Championships in Tupper Lake (5:03) and taking third at Blackwater Eagleman.

We decided it was high time to pick Bob's brain for some advice about swimming, about training, and about living the good triathlon life. We're happy to say that we were right.

AMY WHITE: Bob, the first thing I think our readers should know is that you are a thorough dominator in the swim. How did you get to be so good, and what kind of work do you do to keep yourself at that level?

BOB WILLIAMS: I believe I had a breakthrough in swimming in the mid-1990s when I was
consistently training with someone who was a bit faster than I but was like a metronome in his consistency. While swimming alongside him, I tried various techniques to go faster, and I was able to get instant feedback about what worked and what didn't.

First, I found that swimming with my head down with the water level about in the middle of my head, not at the forehead level where I used to hold it when I was more of a sprinter, allowed my legs to float higher, decreasing drag and obviating the need for a strong kick to keep my legs up. Reducing drag meant less energy to go the same speed or less energy to go faster.

Second, I found that lengthening my stroke and pushing water well past the bottom of my suit was particularly effective in increasing speed. I have come to emphasize the push so much, I believe my arm stroke should be renamed "push" rather than "pull."

Third, I found that when I stretched my hand out in front of me, I needed to avoid having that hand stay near the top of the water. Having to start the pull with the hand near the surface of the water forced my body to lift in the water and created drag which took significant amounts of energy to sustain. Alternatively, having that hand start the pull six to nine inches below the surface reduced the amount of lift and allowed the hand to pull the body forward rather than up and forward.

Fourth, I found that rolling the body while I pulled (pushed?) was very effective in allowing employment of maximum strength of the chest, upper arm, and back muscles. Thus, when I pulled the right arm, I was rolling over onto the left side.

Fifth, I found that swimming intervals is the most efficient use of time in the water.

AMY WHITE: What are the most common mistakes you see people making in the water? And, to follow that, what one change do you think most triathletes could make to their swims to improve?

BOB WILLIAMS: First, there are many ways for a person to improve his/her swim time, such as putting more time into workouts, changing body position, undergoing strength training, etc. In order for a person to achieve improvement, he/she must be able to get feedback to find out if a particular change is working. The best means for getting that feedback is a pace clock. I encourage swimmers to check the clock on every interval. When you reduce drag by perfecting your body position, you may not feel a change in speed since you are exerting the same amount of energy; only the clock will tell you that you are faster. Thus, before you try to change, know what your basic speeds are for repetitively swimming a particular distance aerobically.

Second, I commonly see some, not everyone, make one of the following mistakes:

o Holding the head high where the water is at or above the forehead level. Holding the head high forces a swimmer to either exert a significant effort in kicking to keep the legs up or have the legs sink and cause drag. Sprinters can hold their heads high since their race is so short and they have abundant energy. But it is my opinion that those who want to excel in longer distances must reduce drag and keep the body level in the water. Getting the head down so that the feet come up is a step in that direction.

o Lifting the hand out of the water before it has gotten back past the bottom of the swimsuit. The majority of the effect of the arm stroke comes from the push that your hand achieves from when it is below the chest until it goes well past the bottom of the suit. To realize the full effect of that push, the wrist must bend to push the water back rather than up.

A good training technique is the catch-up stroke, where a swimmer pulls one arm at a time while the other hand stays on the surface directly ahead of the body. When I do this stroke, I pull one length using the right arm, then do the second length with the left arm. After each arm stroke is finished I will count slowly to about three while my hands are together in front of me and I am gliding. I often use a pull buoy and hand paddles to emphasize the feeling of the push.

AMY WHITE: Please tell us about your favorite race, and why it's your favorite.

BOB WILLIAMS: Ironman Hawaii. Although I have only raced it once, I found that being among the best triathletes in the world is very motivating. There is no easy way to be competitive for this race; one must keep healthy, make long-range plans, put in the miles, and make a significant financial investment to toe the line at this world championship. I first qualified in 1995 and then again in 1998 but did not go either year because of overtraining injuries.

Finally in 2000, I actually got to the starting line but not before coming down with a cold in the days prior to the race. Thus, I feel that I have some unfinished business in Hawaii and would like to start healthy there, and soon.

AMY WHITE: When did you start racing Ironman, and is it now your favorite distance? What is the attraction, do you think, of long-course racing?

BOB WILLIAMS: Ironman has become a favorite since it involves so much more than just going the distance—it is nutrition, it is recovering from mistakes made during the race, it is adapting to changing weather conditions, it is dealing with a mind that sometimes says before the finish line is reached, "That is enough," etc.

AMY WHITE: Please tell us a little bit about a typical training week. What does it entail?

BOB WILLIAMS: I try to swim five times a week and alternate bike or run every day. Running every day is counterproductive for me, as is biking; too much of either makes me prone to injury. However, running is my weakness and I know I need to do some speedwork in order to become faster, but I have not yet returned to such speedwork. That said, my nominal training week currently consists of:

Monday: Swim 4,500 yards at noon, run 8 miles in afternoon
Tuesday: Swim 4,500 yards at noon, bike 55+ miles in afternoon
Wednesday: Swim 4,500 yards at noon, run 8 miles in afternoon
Thursday: Swim 4,500 yards at noon, bike 55+ miles in afternoon
Friday: Swim 3,000-4,500 yards at noon, run 8 miles in afternoon
Saturday: Compete swimming or triathlon
Sunday: Bike 100+ miles with Team Bonzai teammates/friends
Rest: If tired, I will quickly change the above and take a day off to rest.

AMY WHITE: What's your all-time favorite workout, and how many times a year do you get to do it?

BOB WILLIAMS: My favorite swimming workout, which I do about once per week, is:

Warm-up 800 easy including 100 breaststroke and 100 backstroke.
Pull or swim: 1X800 yards negative split on 12 minutes (13 minutes if
swimming meters) immediately followed by:
2 descending 400s negative split on 6:00 (6:30 for meters) immediately
followed by:
4 descending 200s on 3:00 (3:15 for meters) immediately followed by:
2 sets of 4 descending 100s on 1:30 (1:40 for meters)
Cool-down 200-500 easy swim

AMY WHITE: Do you follow any specific training philosophies and, if so, what are they?

BOB WILLIAMS: Avoid training when noticeably tired. When in doubt, take a nap.

o Always use interval training in swim workouts. This necessitates a pace clock or a watch.

o Always stay aerobic in swim workouts except perhaps for the last 25-50 of a particular repeat swim.

o Never shorten the rest between intervals in the midst of a swim workout. If I think I may be getting too much rest, I strive to exert more now and adjust the interval in my next workout.

o Always try to negative split (first half slower than second) each swim. If I can't, I feel that I have gone too fast too soon.

o Always try to conserve energy early on in order to be able to descend the times for a given set of repeat swims. For example, in pulling four descending 200 meters on 3:15 in the workout above, the optimum times for me would be 2:45, 2:40, 2:35, 2:30. If I swam the first 100 of each 200 at about the same speed, I would have to work hard only the last 100 to descend the times. I guess one could label me a bit lazy, but using such techniques allows me to concentrate on my form, keeps me motivated, and lets me swim within my
capabilities.

o If unable to descend times in a workout, consider calling it a day rather than beating myself up.

AMY WHITE: What's your favorite strategy for recovery?

BOB WILLIAMS: At the end of a swim workout, I make certain that I cool down (swim easy) for 200-500 yards to allow the normal circulation to return to my muscles. I like to think of it as allowing the lactic acid to be dispersed throughout the body. I do know that missing such a cool-down adversely affects my swim performance the next day.

During a workout, maintain hydration. While the body allows me to go an hour or so without adequate hydration, it forces me to pay a price afterwards, often leaving me fatigued the next day. Thus, I feel it is important to continuously hydrate during workouts, preferably with a sports drink.

I have found that immediately after biking and/or running, drinking a large glass (more than 16 ounces) of Endurox R4 (three scoops) greatly satisfies my appetite and seems to improve my ability to quickly recover.

AMY WHITE: What do you like to do in the off-season, if you take one?

BOB WILLIAMS: After Hawaii, there are the 3,000-yard and 6,000-yard Postal National Swim Championships, which must be completed before November and serve to keep me swimming. In January, U.S. Masters Swimming conducts the One-Hour Postal Swim that requires one to have some prior training. For biking, however, the winter in Maryland necessitates some reduction in outdoor biking mileage for me, since I do not handle the cold weather well. Thus, I make tradeoffs between the disciplines in the winter until the weather allows me to get back to training fully in all three events.