My cousin Garry is an inspiration to me and the rest of our family. A few years ago he took up triathlons for fun (who does that??) and he soon found that he had a natural talent. Since then he has gone from strength to strength having recently returned from the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Yup, he really is that good!
Today I have put Garry "The Ginger Whippet" Whyte (my special name for him!) in the GW Hot Seat for a good grilling because I want to know how it all began.
Q1: When and why did you first get into triathlons?
A1: Well GW, that is a very good question to kick things off and not one I can answer quickly. Two main defining points and people. Firstly, my best friend Dean. He was taken ill when we were both working on an oil rig in Korea in 2007. He ended up spending over a month in a hospital in Korea and the doctors informed us that one of the main reasons he survived his ordeal was that he was fit - Dean was (and still is) a keen cyclist. I was reading one of the cycling magazines by his bedside (that was resting nicely on my beer belly) and I had that eureka moment: “hmmm... maybe I should get myself a bike". And so it started.
Fast forward a few months. I now have a bike, I'm living in Abu Dhabi and I'm cycling around Khalifa City doing my usual 20km route which was all I could manage at that point. One day this guy stopped me and asked who I was and how long I had been cycling. His name was Andy Seager and he became my mentor and convinced me as a non-swimmer/runner and beginner cyclist to try a triathlon. DAMN HIM!! And that is how it all began.
Q2: Tell me about your first ever competition.
A2: I remember it very well. It was a local supersprint distance triathlon in Abu Dhabi. The distance was 300m swim, 20km bike and a 3km run. Funny, I remember that the turn point on the swim was the aforementioned Andy Seager who was bobbing around in the water. Everyone was taking great joy in slapping his head as they turned, myself included. I completed it - very slowly - but found myself hooked!
Q3: Describe your training routine when prepping for a competition.
A3: Hah, that is a difficult one to answer really. Triathlon becomes a lifestyle choice. I don’t think I ever stop training. For sure, I focus on a specific race and adapt the volume/intensity of the training accordingly but in general and to keep things simple, I try to fit in three swims, three rides and three runs along with two strength and conditioning sessions per week. (Remember kids, REAL MEN SQUAT!). It's important to keep in mind that recovery is when adaptation occurs so rest is every bit as important as a training session.
Q4: What is your weakest/strongest element of triathlon?
A4: Swimming is my weakest discipline. That and my general diet which is the crucial fourth part of a triathlon. In 2007 I could hardly swim at all so truth is I have come a long, long way. My strength used to be biking and remains so over shorter distances but I would say that running has become my forte over the last few years. It must be thanks to my long legs!!
Q5: The Ironman is an epic event and not for the faint of heart. How do you prepare yourself physically AND mentally?
A5. Great question and I am glad you touched on both the mental and physical preparations, both equally as important. Physically, ironman training is very demanding. I spend approximately 10-15 hours a week training in general, but for the key Ironman sessions, this will increase to around 20 hours. Ironman demands a level of endurance that can only be trained and developed through hours spent in the pool, on a bike or running. I have a coach and we work together to fit everything around my work/life schedule and make sure every session is specifically geared to my end goal. When it comes to mental preparation I have a clear focus - turn up at the start line in the best physical shape possible. For me that means body fat at a minimum but a healthy minimum. If that happens, then I go into the race very positively. If I have any self doubts regarding my physique then it has a negative effect on my performance. The role of psychology in a triathlon cannot be underestimated.
Q6: You have competed twice in the South African Ironman and recently returned from the Kona Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. How did these two experiences compare?
A6: Nothing, and I mean nothing in triathlon can compare to racing in Kona. It is the epicenter of our sport. Non triathletes won’t really understand but talk to any triathlete about the Mark Allan/Dave Scott Iron Wars and mention places like the “Queen K”, “Ali’i Drive” and “Palani” and it immediately resonates. To have the honour to compete in the same event is something I will never forget. What an experience!!! South Africa was different. That is where I raced my first ever Ironman in 2011. A lot of my, actually OUR family flew all the way to Port Elizabeth to support me, including your parents. As they will testify, it is an amazing place and a great race. I completed it in 10h 37 minutes which was a very satisfying first attempt at the Ironman distance. I went back in April 2014 to race again with my TRIbe team from Dubai which proved to be the perfect way to gauge my improvement over the last three years. I had a great race and came in second overall in my age category which rewarded me with the invitation to race in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. In general, competing an Ironman is the same regardless of the location:- once the starting gun sounds it is you against 140.6 miles. You go through trials, tribulations, pain, ecstasy and elation. It really is the best 17 hour drug available, especially when the finishing line is in sight!
Q7: What do you think about when it hurts and just how badly does it hurt?
A7: It hurts a lot at times. What is pain though? That is what I ask myself during every single race. In the Kona Ironman run I lost two toenails and honestly it didn’t bother me at the time. I think of friends and family with illnesses, disabilities and those who would give everything to have the chance to be in the kind of “pain” that an ironman triathlete encounters. It’s a great leveller and I feel humbled and gratified every time I race. I know he is disgraced now but Lance Armstrong’s quote “pain is temporary” is true and gets applied regularly in my life and that of other athletes. I need to state though that “pain” occurs regardless of the distance. I find that a sprint distance triathlon (750m/20k/5k) hurts as much as an Ironman. It’s one hour of high intensity pain as opposed to 10 hours of “nagging” pain".
Q8: Do you have any pre-race rituals?
A8: Yes. I always want a photo with my “special” green budgie smugglers swimming trunks. I never wear them apart from pre-race and if they fit me well and there are no overhangs then the omens are good for a fast race!
Q9: How do you balance your job, personal life and responsibilities with training?
A9: I alluded earlier that triathlon is more a way of life now for me. However the goal is to find a work/training/family balance that works for everyone. I know Claire will be reading this so I will come clean and admit that I struggle at times to get the balance right. (And before I go any further I want to say how grateful I am to Claire and my daughter Sophie for their continued patience and unwavering support. I literally couldn't do it without them). In Dubai we had some of the best facilities available for training but since moving to Houston, Texas it is even better! I have a gym next to my office that has a 24 hr swimming pool that allows me to swim every morning prior to work and then have a lunchtime run or strength session. I am trying to work my training around only having a long (3-4hrs) bike on a Saturday morning at 7am and a Sunday open water swim. I do a lot of travelling for work which is also a challenge. Anyone who travels knows that hotels and flights are not good for the diet. I am writing this post at 34000ft with a coffee and chocolate brownie staring at me!
Q10: How important is diet and what do you eat/avoid?
A10: Diet is everything. Typically three months out from an Ironman I try to go into “lockdown” where I cease my intake of carbs. The purpose of this is to have a high fat diet and thus train my body to become more efficient at using fat (unlimited supply) as a source of fuel rather than carbs (very limited). It is a very fine line and requires lots of discipline. I avoid pasta, bread, beer, rice, fruit etc and as a general rule I avoid sugar. I can’t remember the last time I had a can of coke. Diet is a very individual thing and great caution needs to be applied. I get tested regularly and my % body fat reduces greatly when on my “lockdown”. (See above green trunks picture!). Post race, however, I love pizza, beer and chocolate brownies! I think I could sum it up by saying that to compete at the highest level, training is not enough. Body composition is a major factor because let's face it - the lighter you are, the faster you run!
Q11: Are there ever times when you ask yourself “why am I doing this?”
A11: Never. I love doing it. Even in the darkest moments of a long race I absorb energy from the athletes around me. The mind and body are wonderful things. One minute you are tired and want to stop running and then suddenly someone shouts your name or you see a friend spurring you on and you spring into action once more! It's an amazing feeling. In Kona, I was running in a famous part of the course called the Natural Energy Lab which you reach after approximately 16 miles. I was having a “moment” where I felt the overwhelming urge to just stop and rest. At that point I caught sight of my friend and fellow athlete David running towards me and suddenly mind overtook body over and instead of stopping I actually picked up speed and smiled as we passed one another. The body has two potential limiters that need to be trained - the mental and the physical. Remember the Olympics in London? Johnny Brownlee received a penalty and had to run like mad to get into the medal position. He eventually secured the bronze medal but not before ending up in a medical tent for half an hour. Without a doubt his mental limiter was pleading with him to ease up but due to his intense physical training and mental preparation he pressed on regardless and came away with an Olympic medal.
Q12: What has been your proudest moment so far?
A12: I thought I would have answered this with the moment I finished the Ironman World Champs, but it’s not. My proudest moment was finishing my first Ironman in South Africa because the family was present. That year, 2011, was a stressful year and to complete that race while supporting Multiple Sclerosis was a big, big thing for me. Representing Great Britain in the European Championships in Turkey 2012 was also pretty special. Oh! And it would be remiss of me not to mention the Abu Dhabi Triathlon in 2013 when I managed to finish on the same leaderboard as the Olympic Champion Alistair Brownlee!
Q13: What is your best piece of advice for someone starting out?
A13: First and foremost to enjoy the journey and not to take it too seriously. And when the going gets tough, remember that crossing the finishing line is worth all the effort.
Q14: Finally, what is next in store for Garry Whyte?
A14: After completing two Ironman events this year I plan to take a step back from long distance racing. Having recently relocated from Dubai to Houston my plan is to participate in local events around Texas with a focus on Olympic distance. That said, Ironman Texas is in the Woodlands which is a mere 20 minutes from where I live so watch this space!!