Ed Baker will turn 40 on his next birthday. He was in charge of international growth at Facebook and then at Uber, after birthing a couple of startups, one of which he sold to Facebook. He’s an angel investor now, an advisor to tech firms, and may be the best amateur triathlete you’ve never heard of.
If you haven’t heard of Ed, you have an excuse: He’s only been a triathlete for a year and a half, taking up the sport as a result of a health intervention. “You look worse than I’ve ever seen you before,” his father told him. “You don’t look healthy.” So he quit his job at Uber and took up triathlon, in early 2017.
Ed had a background in running, but none in swimming other than knowing how to swim, and cycling only as an occasional commuter to work. How has the last 18 months gone for Ed? In July, 2 months ago, Ed was 1st place overall at Ironman Lake Placid among 2,000-plus finishers in 9:18:28. Last month, at Ironman Copenhagen, he placed 1st among the almost 2,700 amateurs in 8:27:10, which was the 8th overall time.
I interviewed Ed over the phone last week.
SLOWTWITCH: You were a cross-country runner in college. But you also went to Harvard. Did you think you had to choose between a business versus an athletic college?
ED BAKER: I wasn’t strong enough to feel like I could choose a college based on running. My mile PR in high school was 4:23, good for Florida, but the Stanford coach said, "It would be nice if you were 10 seconds faster." I wasn’t in the position where all the coaches would recruit me. I chose Harvard for academics. I wasn’t sure I would run in college. But I did speak to the track coach. Frank Hagerty. He was a Harvard alum, and as I got to know how the program worked it got me excited about it. He wanted to make sure the athletics never got in the way of academics.
ST: Can you describe your fitness regime post-Stanford, from 2007 on?
EB: I graduated from college in 2001 and between then and 2007 I kept running fairly competitively, working at the same time. I stayed in pretty good shape, qualified for trials, ran 2:21 [for the marathon] and 1:05:17 [for the half-marathon]. For those 6 years after college I felt like I was still going strong. From 2007 to 2017, life got in the way. Graduated from business school Stanford, started a company, got married, had 3 kids, sold my startup to Facebook, left Facebook for Uber, pretty crazy decade, I let myself get out of shape. I didn’t go cold turkey and not train for 10 years, but by no means did I stay in great shape. In February of 2017, on a family vacation, my dad said to me, “You look worse than I’ve ever seen you before. You don’t look healthy. You’ve got to do something differently.”
ST: Is that what got you back into endurance sport?
EB: That was it, to a large extent. I left Uber the following month, in March of 2017; the same week I left Uber, Eric Min [a founder of Zwift], reached out to me, I invested some money in them as well, he emailed me and said, I have a coach, Kevin Poulton, he could send you workouts every day. “I just quit my job,” I said, “so that would be great.” This was March of last year.
ST: When did cycling enter your life?
EB: First when I started working at Uber, in 2013, I’d never owned a road bike before then. I was living in Palo Alto and working at Uber in San Francisco. I’d like to get a road bike and see if I could bike from Palo Alto to San Francisco [I remember thinking]; if I could do that once a week, maybe that would make up for working crazy hours at this job. I bought a road bike in 2013, maybe early 2014, a Cannondale, I remember one night at the Uber offices trying to learn to clip into the pedals, and some of my Uber folks were teaching me how to clip out.
ST: Let’s talk about the balance between a hard-charging corporate life and a time-intensive sport like triathlon. Are they compatible? Or to put it another way, what makes them compatible?
EB: I think they can be compatible; one of the things that drew me to Matt Dixon, my coach now, he works with a lot of time starved athletes, helps them figure out ways to make the two compatible. A lot of it comes to scheduling your week, putting everything into the calendar. Just like putting everything at Uber in the calendar I need to put my workouts into the calendar as well. That said, at Uber things were a bit of an extreme, I wasn’t able to get enough sleep every night, that’s one thing I’ve really learned. The importance of nailing the basics. Sleep. Nutrition. Basic training plan. Strength training. What I was doing at Uber was not sustainable. It would’ve been hard to do both well [at Uber] because Uber was the extreme in terms of the sacrifices I had to make to be successful there. The triathlon training I’m doing now, I’m doing that at an extreme; I couldn’t have done that at Uber. That said, I’ve found there are a lot of parallels between success at Uber and my success at triathlon so far.
ST: A friend and I were in Lone Pine, California a few years ago, sleeping at the Bates Motel, basically, every night, climbing the East side Sierra portal roads, which are renowned as being among the hardest road bike ascents. We were in a café having dinner and two older gentlemen were having a conversation one booth over, and it was clear they were doing the same thing we were. I wheeled around and asked them if they were cyclists and, long story short, one was Michael Johnson, then-chairman of Herbalife, and the other was his buddy, a large commercial landowner in Malibu and L.A., and on the board of Deckers, which owns HOKA. What is it, do you think, that binds hard charging business people to this sport we do?
EB: One thing I love about ironman: It’s such a huge challenge, you can always get better, you never have the perfect race, that’s similar to how I felt in the business world. I always wanted to do my best, but always felt I could do better. That’s one thing that excites me about the sport. I want to realize my full potential, I’m not there, I’m not close to being there, but every race I do I get one step closer. What can I do better next time? I’m learning each time around, getting better each time. But I have so much more to learn.
ST: You’ve been at Facebook, Uber, and now Zwift. Your mission at each stop is growth: VP of Growth, or Growth Advisor. Can you tell us what that is?
EB: What it meant to be head of international growth at Facebook, or head of growth at Uber, my team was held accountable for growing the core business. At Facebook that meant increasing the number of montly active users. At Uber, it was trips every week. Rides around the globe. Weekly trip growth. That was our north star metric at Uber. Monthly activations was our north star metric at Facebook. My job was to grow our north star metric as quickly as possible. I say north star metric because at both companies our teams were metrics driven. We could run A/B experiments, see which one converted better and delivered more users.
ST: I would imagine that hard truth telling helps your approach to becoming a better triahtlete.
EB: One hundred percent. I’ve approached triathlon using a similar framework as I used at Uber and Facebook. My north star metric at Ironman is my time at the race. I think about what are the things I did at Uber and Facebook to help us get to that north star metric. Will this signup page or this work better? If we change the color, will this improve conversion? In triathlon, this is my first year, but, bike fit. I went to the A2 wind tunnel, tested out a bunch of helmets. Where should my water bottle be? Running those experiments. But you don’t have to go to the tunnel. I have a good friend who does field trials. He wrote a program to help him figure out the drag. He runs these experiments over time. Costs him nothing. Swimming, breathing patters. I always run in Asics, but I did 2 by 3 mile time trials. It’s not a perfect A/B test. But, first was in HOKAs, second in Asics. Felt better and went faster in the HOKAs.
ST: We can’t leave it there. Which Asics which Hokas?
EB: Hokas, the Clifton 5; Asics are the Gel Cumulus, which I wore both in Placid and Copenhagen.
ST: When did you begin your swimming journey?
EB: I’m even newer to swimming than to cycling. I began the swimming journey last summer. I was on a bike ride with some friends in Palo Alto. I was talking with one who swam with the Stanford masters team, she suggested I come out and swim with the team. “I don’t even know where to start.” Another friend said, “Just get in the 1:40 lane; I’m sure you’ll be fine.” 1:40 per 100 meters. [Note: on the 1:40 base means the swim, plus the rest, equals 1:40 as in, you’d arrive at the end of the swim in 1:30, rest 10 seconds, and then leave “on the 1:40”.]
ST: Whoa. Meters?! 1:40 for meters? I’m sure you’ll be fine in that lane?!
EB: Yeah. I think he saw I had the cardiovascular fitness.
ST: Short or long course meters?
EB: Long course. I had no idea what that meant. I emailed the coach. Can I come out to practice? He said okay. I asked where’s the 1:40 lane? It was one of the worst experiences in my life! Not able to keep up at all. I had people in the lane saying, “You should try to lift up your feet more so they’re not dragging in the water.” I just remember that morning, swimming back and forth for an hour without stopping. Just swimming back and forth trying to make it. Couldn’t keep up with anyone.
ST: Did that hook you? Or discourage you?
EB: You know, it made me determined to figure out how can I do better. It was clearly my weakest sport. Another parallel in business and sport, especially in growth, where is the most potential for improvement? Let’s tackle that first. Swimming was that for me. So, the next day I hopped in the 1:45 lane. Still in the back. Other people in the lane were very friendly, giving me pointers, I was at least able to keep up enough to start my swimming journey.
ST: You stayed in that Masters program? That’s where you got good?
EB: I stayed until we moved to Boston, last November. I found the Cambridge Masters. Now am in the 1:20 base lane, short course yards.
ST: Your PRs are 4:09 and 8:27 respectively, achieved starting in the Age Group wave. That’s quick growth over the past year and a half since you started triathlon. For obvious reasons you’re considering turning pro. But you’ll be 40 on your next birthday, which will make you one of the older rookie pros. Can you tell our readers about this element of your journey?
EB: First, I’m not even sure turning pro makes sense or not. I’m relying on my coach’s [Matt Dixon’s] advice. Does that make sense for me? Right now, no. I’m too new to the sport. Some people, on Facebook, some of my friends say, sounds like you should go pro. But it’s way too early in the journey to consider that. What I take from that is, as long as I keep getting better, and happy as an amateur, I just want to recognize my full potential. I don’t know exactly what it means to go pro. I have a lot more to learn.
ST: Explain to me why, a month after a well-earned victory in Lake Placid, you toe the line for Copenhagen?
EB: Good question. I originally signed up for Copenhagen only. But some friends told me how great Placid was as a course. I asked Matt, what about Placid, as well or instead of Copenhagen? He said that’s fine, you have 2 shots, if you don’t qualify at Placid you have a shot at Copenhagen. That’s why I signed up. Wasn’t part of the original plan. “Would it make sense 2 Ironman races a month apart?” Sure, he said. If you feel up to it. My original plan with Matt was to only focus on 70.3 this year, I did Texas and then Mt. Tremblant. I was planning to go to South Africa [70.3 Worlds]. But my wife got pregnant, she’s due any day now. In fact, I have my phone by my side, in case she calls. Instead, I should not go to South Africa, the same month my baby’s due. Mid-season I spoke to Matt [and we decided to change course]. “You can go to Kona,” Matt said. “Taper for Copenhagen or train thru Copenhagen and peak for Kona.” I said I prefer to train thru Copenhagen. I was surprised by how much faster my time was there. Much flatter course. Also, because it was my second Ironman, I had a better sense of what to expect, especially when it came to the marathon.
ST: What was your marathon in Copenhagen?
ST: What is your best event now?
EB: Good question. It might actually be the bike. The bike or the run. Bike split on Copenhagen was 4:29, my FTP is about 400 watts. I weigh 165 pounds. That may be my best now. It should be running. I’ve been a runner my whole life.
ST: Do you regularly ride Zwift rides now?
EB: Almost 100 percent of my training is on Zwift. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say this, I have not taken my bike outside since moving to Boston. I have done outdoor rides over the past 10 months, but not in Boston. I was at the Purple Patch pro training camp this past winter in Arizona, I did a ride with the Zwift group in California a few months back, but every single ride in Boston has been on the trainer.
ST: Do you ride the road or tri position on Zwift rides?
EB: Usually tri. Sometimes road. Road bike whenever my tri bike is at the shop. Usually tri bike.
ST: What are you riding? How many days a week? Which events? Are you part of the Zwift Academy? What?
EB: Matt Dixon puts my workout in Training Peaks. I download them into Zwift. I guess I ride about 4 to 5 times a week, 1 of those is a longer endurance ride, last week it was 5 and a half hours.
ST: You have Lionel Brain.
EB: I guess so. It’s kind of crazy, but I’m able to get thru it. I’ll turn Netflix on. Yesterday I watched the Facebook live of 70.3 World Championships. That was motivating.
ST: We have three Zwift rides on Slowtwitch, and two are structured training rides on Tuesday, 4pm Pacific, 7pm your time in Boston, the other is Friday, 8am your time. My ask – and I’m putting the heavy hand on your shoulder – I want you to lead one of our structured training rides. The freedom I’m giving you is to choose which you want.
EB: Okay, I appreciate that! I would love to. I’d be honored. As long as it’s not the day my wife goes into labor! Follow Ed on Instagram.
[Photos: FinisherPix®; except for the selfie just above with Tim Don.]