– By Matt Skoufalos –
For triathlete Sam Maxfield, most days of the week start very, very early in the morning. By 4:30 a.m., he’s hitting the pavement, either on his Cervelo S5 bicycle, or in running shoes, putting as many miles behind him as he can before heading into the finance department of Banner Health Center in East Mesa, Arizona, where he serves as the senior director of finance.
In the evenings, he’ll log another five or six miles on the road, an hour or so in the water – or both. All told, Maxfield exercises about 15 hours a week across all three disciplines: nine to 10 on the bike, three or four on foot, and one or two in the water.
After five marathons – three in Phoenix, Arizona and one each in Salt Lake City and St. George, Utah – Maxfield pushed himself to try his first half-Ironman: 70.3 miles distributed across a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run. This spring, he was scheduled to take on his first full Ironman triathlon, which is twice those distances, or 140.6 miles; due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the event has been pushed back to September.
“Exercise has always been important, going to the gym five to six days a week,” Maxfield said; “but endurance athletics was never my thing.”
A former collegiate lacrosse player, Maxfield said he’d always admired marathon runners, but “never really committed to it.” However, about six years ago, as he was approaching his 30th birthday and 200th pound, Maxfield started to feel like he needed to make a greater effort to keep himself in shape.
“I said, ‘I have a feeling if I get over that 200-pound threshold, I’ll never get back under it,’” Maxfield said. “I started running and losing weight, and then I decided to do a marathon.”
Maxfield describes himself as “a competitive person by nature,” but only within his own self-measurements. A desire to quantify his fitness against baseline levels, and to chart his progress throughout weeks of training “scratches that itch,” he said.
“The other piece of it is more from a mental sanity standpoint,” Maxfield said. “Work is extremely busy. It’s a way to cope with a very busy life. It helps keep me levelheaded and stress-free.”
“Even though it does mean I’ve got less sleep and am consuming more caffeine than I probably should, I think the mental benefits are just as great if not greater than the physical benefits,” he said.
“On rest days, I feel like I’m dragging even more,” Maxfield said. “Training keeps me going strong throughout the day, even when I’m not exercising, and those benefits I can’t quantify. It’s become kind of a healthy addiction, keeping me focused, attentive in other areas of my life.”
Triathletes in other parts of the country can find their opportunities limited by weather conditions that Maxfield doesn’t often face living in Arizona. He can increase the intensity of his bike rides by adding in the elevation changes of large hills and small mountains in the local environment. He can train year-round, setting out earlier in the morning during hotter months, and modifying his training schedule depending upon the climate conditions. Since all Ironman swims are conducted in open water, he can even take a friend or his brother to a nearby lake to put in the time outdoors.
One of the most important aspects of his training is “bricks,” Maxfield, said: completing two exercises back-to-back “to get your body used to changing from one sport to the next.” He’ll swim, then run, or bike, then run, at least two to three times during the weekdays; on the weekends, he’ll put together a three-to-four-hour bike ride and an hour-long run. Of the three, he admits that running is “pretty brutal.”
“An hour on the bike versus an hour running, running is three to four times worse on you,” Maxfield said. “The majority of this is endurance. How long can you go? One of the toughest things to get down is nutrition. I’ll burn probably 4,000 to 5,000 calories depending upon how warm it is outside. How do you refuel without disrupting what you’re doing?”
Just as important as getting his biochemistry right is establishing the psychological resilience of a triathlete, Maxfield said. Overcoming the emotional roadblocks associated with the concept of logging 140.6 miles across three physical disciplines means breaking down mental barriers that the brain erects out of self-preservation.
“Everything’s possible,” he said. “When you set a goal and little milestones to achieve it, you can do anything. A few years ago, I could barely run five miles without being gassed.”
When he does his full Ironman this fall, Maxfield will be reuniting with a few fellow triathletes he met while at the half-Ironman in St. George, Utah.
“When you find yourself bumping into the same person over a five-hour period, you start talking to them,” Maxfield said. “One was from New Hampshire, one from California; you meet some cool people.”
They all keep in touch via Strava, a social app used by endurance athletes to chart their individual performances and encourage one another at a distance. In St. George, however, all the competitors feel the support of the entire city, which “comes out and supports [the event] like crazy,” Maxfield said.
“It’s a huge race with people from all over the world, and it’s a fun one to do,” he said.
“Snow Canyon,” the centerpiece of the course, “is one of the most scenic rides of my life,” Maxfield said; “it’s beautiful.”
When he compares training mornings with those of his old routine – a quick breakfast before driving into the office – Maxfield says he’s got much more energy and alertness throughout his day, even as he puts his body through its paces. Three hours on the road between 5 and 8 a.m. opens his mind to things he wouldn’t ordinarily have the space in his day to contemplate.
“I’m not thinking about how fast I’m going on my bike, I’m just lost in my thoughts,” Maxfield said. “I feel like when I get to the office, I’ve already come up with solutions for problems I have.”
Of course, his workouts are all staggered against those of his wife, Brooke, who just completed her first triathlon in September 2019. As the couple balances their schedules around those of sons Connor, 9, Drew, 7, and Oliver, 3, the races themselves become something of a destination vacation.
“We pick places that are fun, get there early, and stay a few days afterwards to do fun things with the kids,” Maxfield said.
“That’s the challenge,” he said; “making sure I’m there for sports, church and other obligations. Life gets busy.”