I first came across the name, Rhys Spencer, after the 2010 Victoria’s Duathlon. This race usually contains a solid mix of the region’s top triathletes and duathletes so you know the competition will be tough. The field is much larger than our typical duathlons with many athletes taking advantage of this first event of the season to assess their fitness levels. This is what makes it such a great, early season test.
When I was looking over last year’s results, hoping to see a respectable bike split after a lot of off-season training, I noticed several of the people finishing around me had hammered their two wheelers over the 30k course. From that comparison, Rhys’ name popped out in a big way as he was right beside me in the finishing column but his bike split was much faster. In fact, it was the 4th fastest of the day. Because I could not recall his name from a past race, I ended up digging through some of his other results on the web where I could see he definitely knew what he was doing out there on a bike.
Coincidentally, it was around this time I also noticed his name in a Twitter reply on my coach’s site. If he knew Tyler, I figured he must have some intriguing triathlon opinions so I decided to follow his tweets. Quickly, I could see that he had a vast background in triathlon and cycling so I sent a few cycling questions in his direction which he swiftly answered with amazing responses.
As I thought about future guests for this Local Age Grouper series, I figured I could use the forum to ask this interesting, Toronto based Ironman a little more about his racing history and the use of philanthropy in many of his events. Of course, he generously accepted and provided some fantastic insight on what makes him so much more than your usual weekend warrior.
10 Questions for Rhys Spencer
Q1. In early blog entries ( http://www.rhysspencer.blogspot.com/ ), you mentioned that you had been through a significant lifestyle change. How did you get away from your bad habits to find the world of triathlon (and cycling)?
- Well, quitting smoking after 7 years was hard but I remember thinking, if I can do that cold turkey, I can do anything. So I started to mountain bike with some friends in Dundas who were very influential in my decision to me lead a cleaner life. We all enjoy our beer (then) and our wine (now!) but we hung out a lot back then and hit the local trail scene in Waterdown and Dundas. I was hooked and quitting smoking was actually quite easy because I had this outlet that made me feel really good and healthy which kept me away from the behaviors that I associated with smoking. You want to quit smoking? Three rules:
• you have to WANT to
• realize you are quitting a behavior as much as an addiction
• find an outlet and set yourself up for success
Mountain biking was that outlet. Soon, I was reflecting on my teen years, watching The Badger Hinault and Greg LeMond in the tour with my Italian neighbours, and the famous 1989 Iron War in Hawaii between Dave Scott and Mark Allen. I said, "well, you just quit smoking, picked up mountain biking & didn't finish last...you can do anything...". From there, it was an 18 month progression from duathlon, to sprint tri, to the Peterborough half Iron Distance to Ironman Florida in 2000.
Lastly, at the time I was getting into all this, I met my wife to be whose dad, when alive, was a HUGE ROADIE! Luck would have it, I found the love of my life who also "got it" when it came to 6 hour rides followed by 2 hour naps and plates of pasta. I am truly blessed in that regard!
Q2. You have used your athletic abilities to accomplish much more than personal glory. Through fundraising efforts, you have given a large portion of funds back to the community. What initially gave you the idea to use your racing as a charitable outlet?
- Truthfully, it started on a whim and then quickly grew into something that "felt right". My first Ironman I did it initially via my employer where they matched what I raised and we donated to the Food Bank of Toronto. It was as fulfilling as the accomplishment of finishing an Ironman and that nugget of memory I placed very near to me and promised never to forget.
Q3. How do you decide which charities to support when you are drawing up a fundraising plan?
- One commitment I made to myself was to change it up. Sometimes volunteering turns to work because you are repeating year over year over year and the reward I have witnessed with others, begins to fade and it turns to work. So I said to myself, "what do you feel passionate about that needs help TODAY...?" So charities I have supported include the aforementioned Toronto Food Bank, Breast Cancer Society, Lymphoma and Leukemia Foundation, Sick Kids Hospital, United Way Peel Chapter, to name a few. It keeps it fresh and I get to learn about their causes and why they are important, under-funded and need awareness.
My mother passed of AML Leukemia and my wife's father, a brain tumor, so clearly those two charities are a constant thread for our charitable donations budget.
Q4. You changed your 2011 schedule due to a recent invitation to compete in the Ironman Championships, via the lottery. What will be the goal for this year’s Kona race?
- I struggle with this every swim session!!!!!!!! I want to compete, I would love to leave the Ironman sport on Alii Drive with a PB but I am realistic. I haven't raced Ironman in 3 years, I just started swimming, after a year off and I took 8 weeks off running this spring. So, I have a lot of catch up to do. Other side of brain is saying, the sport has become very fast in 40-44 age group so treat this race like a celebration of turning 40, a celebration of "what's possible", a celebration of where I came from, and a celebration into Ironman RETIREMENT!
I think that was therapy typing that, the goal is: HAVE FUN!
Q5. Will you still be able to ride in the Tour for Kids, as per your earlier plans? Or, will training for Kona be too much of a distraction at that point?
- My #1 commitment in 2011 is to do the Tour for Kids charity ride. 3 great cancer camps are supported by amazing fundraisers, athletes and volunteers. What a celebration! And, if we map out where it lands, in relation to Kona, I actually think the Tour for Kids is a perfect block of training. It is 7 weeks before the race, gives me a huge bike test (doing 800K over 4 days) and I can then recover for a week and hit out some hard epic runs and swims while maintaining bike fitness with some threshold work in the odd local road race/time trail. The whole package is just one big celebration of giving back and athletics, a perfect marriage!!
Q6. A few years ago, your major focus was the Ironman distance triathlon but in recent seasons you have concentrated more on your cycling. Why did you decide to switch the direction in your recreational pursuits?
- I hate swimming. I really do. That bloody black line is like a horrible relationship but you keep going back for more brutal suffering. And trust me, my wife Meredith will tell you, letting go of Ironman was like a break up for me because I couldn't figure it out. It had been 10 years of my identity and gave me a real belief in myself. I owe the sport that much. It has helped my career, my relationships, and my beliefs. Sounds corny but it is true. Then last year I crashed bike racing, got really battered and bruised and couldn't swim or run. That was the plug, I was done because I was forced away and I realized how free I felt. Kind of like finally walking away from a bad relationship!! So I focused 100% on the Green Mountain Stage Race in Vermont and had a superb time.
Kona is too sweet to pass, so 1 more year, and I will say knowing that I feel liberated and free to train and enjoy all of it. It is a great feeling!
Q7. To date, what is your most memorable sporting moment?
- As a competitor I have one very poignant, special moment. I finished IMUK in 2006, eight months after my mom passed. I crossed that line and had my dad, sister, bro-in-law, wife, niece and nephew there. I was a euphoric 30 seconds off a PB but a hard course. But that wasn't why it was euphoric. I ran the last 5K in 22:30 and it felt like a sprint, thinking only of my mom. I was running on air and when I finished and hugged my dad, it was that 10 seconds that told me so much about life, about my family. I will never forget that and it can't be repeated.
As a fan, being at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff with my dad and my mom in 2003 watching Wales beat Ireland for their first Grand Slam in 25 years. That means going unbeaten in the Six Nations beating Ireland, England, Scotland, France, and Italy. Think Canada - Salt Lake City Olympic gold medal game, on steroids.
Q8. Who is the one athlete from the sport of triathlon, or cycling, that you love to watch compete?
Simon Whitfield. He's such a warrior racing, and a down to earth great guy to ride a bike with and chat. What he did in Beijing, with that much pressure, was poetry in sport.
Q9. What is the one thing you would do (if you were running the show - OCA) to make the sport of cycling more popular in Ontario?
- Too many to list. I can't even start. I will say, culturally, cycling is a mess both from the athlete and the UCI, the CCA, and OCA. Wait, the answer really? Outsource race organization to 1 organizer to consolidate and create a consistent, safe race experience. That one person is Graham Fraser.
PS: PLEASE GRAHAM!!!! -:)
Q10. From your years of experience, what advice would you give to someone about to attempt their first Ironman?
- The same thing someone told me on the balcony of the Florida hotel the night before mine. A total stranger said this and it really resonated.
"You're prepped, fit and ready to go. Two things: you only do your first one ONCE so enjoy it, and something WILL go wrong. What separates a good from bad race is problem solving."
To learn more about Rhys and his Charitable Causes, please visit his blog.