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ST: Thank you for your time.
Zach: My pleasure. I recently heard Greg Bennett discuss what makes people successful, and it’s not just talent and hard work, but opportunity. So, I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk triathlon.
ST: What are you currently up to in Wisconsin?
Zach: Work, spending time with family, and work. Being in public accounting, this time of year consists of long hours, high levels of stress, and many nights in hotels. While at the hotels, I’m often spinning on my trainer – it has to be quite a sight as I carry my bike and trainer through the snow to my room. That being said, with the short daylight hours during winter, and being the triathlon off-season, it’s really the best time of year to focus on work.
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ST: Is Wisconsin where you grew up?
Zach: Born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin and currently live in Milton, Wisconsin. We’ve talked about leaving the cold and snow for warmer climates, but our family lives in the area and we’re proud of our Wisconsin heritage.
ST: I'm not encouraging you to move, but you can live in a warmer climate and still be Wisconsin proud.
Zach: Ha! You wouldn’t have to twist my arm too hard, but it would probably be without my wife. She loves the season changes and would get homesick pretty quickly.
ST: A few years back you were overweight, and now you are very fit. What inspired you to make a change?
Zach: I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was sitting in a hotel room in Cincinnati, Ohio, enjoying dessert after a large meal with co-workers. I grabbed a handful of gut and felt like I was hit by a lightning bolt – I was fat. It seemed obvious at the time, but the thing with weight gain is that it happens gradually over time. I didn’t realize how much weight I had gained (70 lbs from my current weight) until I saw myself in pictures. I had two young kids at home that needed me, not just now, but when they had their own kids. If I continued down this path, the chances were good that I wouldn’t be around for them. It was on me – I needed to make changes if I wanted to see changes. And the rest is history.
ST: So how did you get started?
Zach: My wife was involved with JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), and they have annual century bike rides around the country to raise money for diabetes research. There is a great local JDRF group that trains together and I tagged along on their training rides. I was immediately hooked on the lifestyle and camaraderie, but wasn’t losing the weight as quickly as I had hoped. We joined our local YMCA for the winter and I started running on the treadmill and the weight started to melt away. Well, it wasn’t actually running, it was more like 2 minutes jogging, 2 minutes walking, eventually working my way up to running a 5k without stopping. The next summer I was encouraged to put the bike and run together and try a triathlon. I swam a couple of times when I was in grade school, so I figured that was enough to complete the race, but I had a lot to learn. I originally signed up for a sprint triathlon, but as I was checking in, a friend said they were doing the Olympic. Not to be outdone, I changed my registration to the Olympic. It was a sufferfest, but I was hooked.
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ST: What does your training look like over the winter?
Zach: According to Training Peaks, it looks like my training falls off a cliff! To be serious, my work schedule really dictates my training. My work day starts early when I’m most productive, before the phone calls and emails start, so I’m usually training at night. This year I’m increasing my off-season swim focus so I’m not always racing from behind. My swim workouts are moving from once a week (yes, one of the many reasons I suck at swimming) to 3-4 times a week.
ST: Your season highlight of 2015 is likely the overall age group win at IRONMAN Chattanooga and the subsequent ticket to Kona.
Zach: For sure, that achieved a goal I honestly didn’t think was possible. There are so many great athletes racing these days that it takes a near perfect race plan to come out on top. My 2015 racing highlight actually occurred at a local 70.3 in June, Toughman Wisconsin. I caught the lead on the bike, and it was surreal to be behind the lead vehicle, my first time following “the clock.” It was a lot of pressure I wasn’t expecting. I felt like I had to “prove” that I belonged at the front while I had my coach on my other shoulder reminding me that I needed to save some energy for the run. Coming off the bike, there is a steep ¼ mile hill to navigate. My family was waiting at the top, not knowing that I was in the lead. They had joked about me being in the lead, but they honestly didn’t expect it, so it was really cool to see the shock and pride when I crested the hill. I was able to hold on for the win and will always remember the smiles, cheers and tears from my wife and 2 kids as I ran down the finish chute. It was a dream come true to come full circle from that fateful night in Cincinnati to a 70.3 victory, with my family by my side.
ST: So I guess you are not just doing M dot races.
Zach: 2015 was a semi-boycott of M dot races except for Chattanooga. Their races are well run, and usually provide more competitive fields, but are outrageously expensive in an already expensive sport. The non-M dot races, especially the locally organized races, are also well run, and usually provide a more personalized experience. They also offer free beer, which is hard to beat.
ST: Was that Chattanooga race even on your calendar?
Zach: No, Chattanooga was not on the calendar. I was supposed to be taking a year off from the Iron distance to support my wife as she trained for Ironman Wisconsin. But after a couple of 70.3 wins, I was in great shape and really wanted to see what I could do at the full distance. Ritch Viola, founder and “CEO” of Team EMJ, also had great vision and thought I could be competitive at the full distance. He was very encouraging (as long as my wife was ok with it) and provided great support. It took me a couple of months to fully commit and I signed up for the race about 4 weeks out.
ST: Did your wife approve?
Zach: Great question! There were many, many, many discussions and compromises, but she ultimately approved… and encouraged me. Ironman Wisconsin was my first choice. Being a local race and a non-pro race, it would have been awesome to fight for the top spot. But I had promised her that she would come first and she wanted me around the course cheering her on. In the end it was an easy choice – happy wife, happy life!
ST: But I believe you have been to Kona 3 times already?
Zach: This coming Kona will be my third attempt at the race. There is something about Kona that draws me in. It may be the challenge of qualifying, the hype of the race, the elite field, or the challenging conditions, but whatever it is, I cannot get enough. I have yet to execute a race in Kona that I’m satisfied with, so hopefully this coming October we can chat about the third time being the charm.
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ST: Talk about that race day in Chattanooga.
Zach: There was a little strategy in picking Chattanooga – it’s a river swim which would help neutralize my swim deficit; the bike is rolling which would play into my bike strength; and the run is brutally hilly which would make it more difficult for someone to catch me from behind. Fortunately, the race unfolded as I had hoped!
Race morning starts early! It’s a rolling swim start and it’s first come, first served. I wanted to be positioned towards the front, so after setting up in transition, we took a bus to the swim start… and sat for 2 hours! It was a long wait but worth getting out front. The river swim was everything I hoped it would be. It was not only fast, but also very scenic as you swim under several bridges and are surrounded by hills and cliffs.
The bike is also scenic, but fairly uneventful. Once outside of town, there are very few spectators, except for one town where you pass through twice. There were many miles of solo riding and it was an effort to stay focused on the present. I tried to make a game of the hills and treat them like a roller coaster – power up, fast down. After moving to the front around mile 70, I really settled in and went back and forth with another age grouper, and that helped to maintain focus and power.
We came into transition together, but since he had started the swim earlier, I was the virtual leader. A year earlier, I led Louisville off the bike, but ended up finishing second after the run. I think my downfall that day was lack of confidence and negativity. This day I would stay positive, maintain my focus on what I could control, and stay confident that I could win. My mantras were “positive thoughts,” “light feet,” “damn you’re lucky,” and “no regrets.” Personally, I thought the hills were insane. It’s a two loop course and the hills are on the back 5 miles of the loop – a real mental test at the end of the race. I usually don’t cramp, but from mile 13 on, I struggled with hamstring cramps and side-stitches. I’m guessing it was from the hills and lack of maintaining good form. My coach was all over the course providing great feedback and helping me through those dark times.
I’d like to say that I soaked up the crowd and the pure joy of crossing the line in the lead, but all I wanted to do was stop and lay down. I’ve never been that drained by a race and had to be wheeled away from the finish line. With the rolling swim start, even though I crossed the line first, I had to wait 15 minutes before it could be confirmed. Once I knew, and didn’t feel like I was going to die, there are no words to describe the elation. It was honestly a dream come true and validated all of the sacrifices.
ST: I noticed that you are riding a Trek Speed Concept. As a Wisconsin native, would it be considered treason to ride a different brand?
Zach: Can I plead the 5th on that question?! I've loved my Speed Concept, but will be switching it up this year and will be riding Felt. Felt has been a strong sponsor of Team EMJ and they have an excellent, high-quality reputation, and I'm looking forward to the change. That being said, it does feel a bit like treason since Trek's headquarters are just down the road.
ST: Did you enjoy Chattanooga outside of the race?
Zach: My wife and I used the race as an extended date and were pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed Chattanooga. It reminded us a lot of Madison. The downtown was easy to navigate, had many fantastic (non-chain) restaurants and the people were extremely friendly, exuding southern hospitality. My wife loved the scenery just outside of town, the quaint countryside and the rolling hills. It was a great race venue… other than the hills on the run!
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ST: When did you join Team EMJ?
Zach: 2015 was my first race season with EMJ. I first saw them in Kona in 2014 and they seemed to be everywhere, were well organized, and all of the guys were wickedly fast. I knew walking away from that race that I wanted to be a part of the team. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my best race season was my first with EMJ. It’s a brotherhood of down-to-earth guys that push each other to greatness.
ST: Did you apply or did someone invite you?
Zach: I applied as soon as the application process opened. EMJ originally started out of California and it’s been fun being part of the team’s expansion east.
ST: So what is on schedule for 2016, other than Kona?
Zach: I’m all in for Kona this year. Right now, I’m planning to race a 70.3 each month from June to August, to keep my racing sharp, but I have big goals for Kona and want to save my best for October.
ST: Are you talking about the annual Slowtwitch gathering in Kona?
Zach: Of course, free beer! I was there in 2014 but didn’t win any of the door prizes. I’ll be training hard to change my fortunes in 2016.
ST: You are married and have two kids. How did you meet your wife?
Zach: On the dance floor - my smooth moves caught her eye! I had a friend that was also interested in her and I was going to step aside to keep the friendship intact. Fortunately, she had her eye on me and wouldn’t let me go. I slow-played it and the rest is history. In my mind, she has achieved more than I ever will. When she was 26, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Since that time, she has raced 2 full Ironmans, 7 marathons, and qualified for Boston multiple times. I’m able to walk out the door and start a workout, can eat to fuel, and don’t have to worry about my blood sugar. Not her. She has to plan her meals hours before she works out, she has to eat to control her blood sugar, and she has to continually monitor her blood sugar. If her sugar goes too high, her body starts producing deadly toxins. She has never let those obstacles get in her way and daily inspires others to take on their own challenges.