An Incredible Career Journey with Lisa Bentley

Coach's Note By Lance Watson

One of the amazing things about coaching nearly three decades is you have the opportunity to work with, and observe, athletes growing and evolving throughout their high performance careers. There are lessons to be learned in patience and sticking to a long term plan in developing ultimate athletic potential. I have had the good fortune to work with many amazing athletes, but only a few come along who have all the attributes to become a champion. There is the obvious genetic gift. But that gift is wasted if there is not a burning desire to be great, coupled with the necessary work ethic to transform that raw talent into race performance excellence. There must be self belief, resourcefulness, and sports-intelligence. The athlete must willing to accept small, intermittent performance gains in exchange for liters of sweat. Over 11 years I was fortunate enough to coach Lisa Bentley and watch her career develop and blossom. The way Lisa poured her heart and soul into her athletic career on and off of the race course is now legendary. As with many great athletes, it took years of dedication to break through. There are few overnight sensations in sport; the “sensation” generally is a result of years of preparation, honing the mind and body.

When I first started with Lisa, she was not new to endurance sport. Lisa had the good fortune of professional guidance under her first triathlon coach Kevin Mackinnon. She had also run competitively through her youth and had been a top Olympic distance triathlete and duathlete on the national triathlon scene in Canada. She had started to immerse herself into longer triathlons. While she was obviously talented, she had not yet ascended to a level few athletes attain. She was one of many good athletes dueling in the shadows of the Canadian greats Heather Fuhr, Peter Reid and Lori Bowden.

When Lisa first approached me for coaching, she had such passion for what she wanted to achieve and such conviction and self-belief in her athletic path that I could only say “yes”. The first six months of our coach-athlete relationship was about getting to know each other and educating her about how to train under my training principles. Like most great athletes, she always asked constructive questions, and she partnered with me in the process of preparation for her training and racing blocks. Once I had laid out her final training plan, she committed herself to it with 100% belief in the process. It is critical for an athlete to have complete confidence in the plan on paper if she is to maximize her training sessions. This trust was a vital component in her development and continued excellence.

Lisa’s first Ironman under my guidance was Ironman New Zealand in 1999. She scored her first Ironman podium there and I remember her exclaiming afterwards “I always dreamed of being on the podium at an Ironman!” She also ran a 3:01 marathon. Lisa was already regarded as a good runner, but this performance put her on the radar screen as someone who would be feared in the Ironman marathon. The learning for Lisa and I from this event was that she had the run ability to win, but we would need to concentrate on developing her bike to get her close enough to the front to win. Her bike leg had to eventually be strong enough to get her to the marathon without too much fatigue in her legs.

During the following three years we put gradually increasing emphasis into her riding, while maintaining quality, faster sessions in her running. We increased the frequency of long rides and added tempo sections at threshold within these rides. We would always close out her 5-6 hour rides with maximum effort hill repeats to train her body to be able to push at the end of a long hard effort. Her bike times gradually improved, but initially her marathon times slowed a bit in response to the arduous bike schedule, and due to a more aggressive racing strategy on the bike in Ironman competition. She was still running superhuman sub 3:10 marathons regularly, but we always maintained the goal of running a sub 3:00 hour marathon off of a competitive bike split.  

Through 2000-2003, we also worked hard on her mental training and preparation. We created structured mental training routines, and regularly debriefed on her success in creating positive, proactive, and engaging training sessions. Lisa embraced her mental and emotional development with the same zest that she tackled her physical training. One particular session stood out in 2001, where Lisa had a long bike workout of over 5 hours on her schedule, followed by a run off the bike. It was a tough session on a freezing cold Ontario winter day. Lisa struggled emotionally that day, though, as always, she performed the tasks at hand. Work ethic was never a question with Lisa. After reviewing the session, we both agreed it was not the mental disposition that we wanted her to race from, and not the kind of mindset that would win championship events. Going against anything that made sense from a perspective of sound physical training planning, I asked her to repeat the exact same session the next day with the sole focus of shifting her mental focus to enjoyment and staying on task, rather than dreading every minute of it, and pining for it to be over. Showing incredible commitment to bettering herself and trusting in her coach, she performed the session again, but with a 180 degree shift in attitude. She met her mental and emotional goals, and actually did a great job on the session. This was an important learning experience and milestone session in her career, and one we still talk about.  

In 2000, returning to New Zealand, Lisa won her first Ironman. Coming off the bike, she was close enough to the front of the race that she managed to run her way through the field for victory. That year she cracked a top 6 in Kona. Subsequently Lisa won Ironman New Zealand again in 2001 and Ironman Australia for the first time in 2002.

Creating an optimal training environment is essential to maximizing any athlete’s performance. The better job you can do with this, the better the odds that you will reach your true, full potential. This was fundamental to Simon Whitfield’s Gold Medal performances in Sydney Olympics and the Manchester Commonwealth Games. For Lisa, an important step in constructing her best training environment was taking a leap of faith and leaving school teaching in 1999. Lisa is a savvy business woman who negotiated all her own contracts from day one. It is her sense of self-belief and resourcefulness, coupled with her great personality, which allowed her to survive in the early days. One of the biggest hurdles for rising international athletes is garnering the resources to be able to create an environment that allows them to train, rest, keep up their therapies, while still being able to pay the rent and eat. Triathlon has lost many talented athletes over the years to lack of funding, usually in their early 20’s and well before their prime. To survive, it is a necessary skill to be able to operate their athletic career much like a small business. Lisa has always had good business acumen and that is a contributing factor to her being able to commit completely to sport and high performance.

Currently, one of the roles of a modern coach is to help an athlete develop a high performance network. An experienced coach knows that they can not be a master of all skills, though mastering many skills is one of the exciting challenges of triathlon coaching! Lisa expanded her network over the years and this is one of the reasons she has was able to compete so frequently, and with so much sensation. A key to success is to surround yourself with people who believe in what you are trying to achieve, and who have the skills to help you get there. Beyond a great lead coach, look at areas of sport psychology, body therapy and maintenance, sport medicine support, nutritional advice, training groups and partners, athlete-peer mentorship, and specialist coaches in strength, and other sports. Lisa gradually moved through this check list and owes a lot of her success to her own motivation to seek out great people. For years I have advised newer athletes to listen to all sources of information with open ears, and to filter what you need and what is relevant to where you are right now in your journey.

Lisa was rigorous in her body maintenance, and integrated sport physiotherapy and dynamic strength training, acupuncture and had top notched sport medical support. Her massage therapist generously gave her therapy at night at her home to save Lisa travel time and allow for greater rest time. She has had great technical support and advice through several career supporters. Her husband Dave helped to manage several facets of career, including acquiring the best equipment, smooth travel itineraries, and on the ground race support when inevitable curve balls arise. At the end of the day she relays all feedback and information from all these professionals back to me, to make sure it all fits into the master plan. 

A healthy, positive training environment greatly affects athletes’ success. While Ontario has some great training spots in the summertime, the winters can be a challenge. Reaching your full potential is not a seasonal endeavor. You must train all year round, and have a purpose in each phase of your annual schedule. The first few years Lisa and I worked together included extended training camps in San Diego and Australia, in a coached environment with world class training partners. Later she moved toward two and three month winter camps in Florida. Pre-Kona Lisa bunkered down at the Hilton Waikoloa on the race course for her Hawaii Ironman preparation. She created a support network and solicited world class training partners in both locations, including Nigel Gray and Craig Alexander in later years.

Over the years Lisa managed to adapt to the physical training demands of Ironman, and we noticed that she was recovering from long distance triathlon better and better. This allowed her to compete more often, gaining valuable racing experience. This became evident during the 2003 season, where Lisa again traveled to Ironman New Zealand in hope of another great performance there. Lisa raced admirably and fought to the end, but placed 3rd despite running a closing 3:02 marathon. Two days after the race Lisa commented how great her legs felt. I could tell that while she gave herself full credit for a best-effort race on the day, she felt unsatisfied with the end result. She felt she had more to give. After several long discussions Lisa decided to race Ironman Australia only five weeks after Ironman New Zealand. On a training schedule which entailed a lot of rest and low effort, aerobic training, Lisa surprised us both and won Ironman Australia. The surprise was not the win, but that she did it on the tough, hilly run course of Foster with a career best 2:58 marathon! As many will have noted, she emulated that formula in 2006, backing up her 3rd place at Hawaii Ironman with a 2nd place at Clearwater Ironman 70.3 World Championships a mere 3 weeks after Kona! While she admitted to “feeling Kona in her legs” on the run, Lisa still had a great race.

Lisa really moved into her prime in 2003-2004, and like other great Ironman athletes, she arrived at a place where peak athletic development intersects the kind of mental and emotional maturity that only comes after 10 years of racing internationally.

In 2004, after falling off her bike and breaking her ribs, Lisa bounced back with her best Ironman ever. Rather than being defeated by this misfortune, we looked for opportunity. The ribs limited the swimming and running she could do, so we decided to focus on the positive and work on her cycling. Lisa could not ride on the road, but she was able to ride to her heart’s content on the stationary trainer. Years of run training allowed her supreme running speed to return prior to Ironman Australia in very short order. The result was an astounding World’s best time Ironman that year. After five years of targeting that perfect Ironman race, her cycling ability finally reached the point where she could ride with the best, and then back it up with her unbeatable marathon.

Heading into 2007, on the heels of a podium finish in Kona 2006, at age 38 Lisa’s program had to evolve to a one peak season. When working with newer, developing athletes, I will work towards a two- or three- peak season, do to the resilience of younger athletes, and the greater window for gross improvements. A veteran champion athlete will focus on one major peak in the year, and refine training protocol to achieve it.

Athletes get very fit, very fast, after years of high level training. The key for then in their late 30’s is to stay healthy and consistent. As athletes move towards the magical age of 40, there is still the ability to race fast, as demonstrated by Ironman legends Dave Scott, Paula Newby Fraser, Karen Smyers, and Cameron Brown. Recovery time from dynamic speed and threshold work (running in particular) is greater. These sessions need to carefully indicated, and used in moderation. On the flip side she had a highly tuned and efficient aerobic engine. For 2007, early season training entailed increased aerobic training volume at lower intensities than previous seasons. This is still hard work, but taxes the body in a different manner. As the season progresses we interspersed more recovery days and recovery weeks and key her up for important endurance and Ironman pace work sessions. Closing in on Ironman, we trained less volume that in previous years, and highlight interspersed strength oriented intervals sessions such as running hill repeats and over geared, low cadence bike efforts mixed with threshold efforts on the stationary trainer to standardize and quantify output.

2007 saw Lisa win her final Ironman, on her home turf at Ironman Canada. Later, in 2009 I was fortunate enough to share Lisa’s last professional win with her in the Philippine at Ironman 70.3. This emotional win was a testament to toughness and experience as she endure 40C temperatures to come from behind on the run to win, as she had so many times in her career.

Lisa developed through the classic stages of every great athlete: “Learn to Train; Learn to Race; Learn to Win”. The long term lesson at the end of a great career is that there are many ingredients in the recipe for greatness. The key is adding the right ingredient at the right time, to truly reaching lifetime potential.

LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 28 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Contact Lance to tackle your first triathlon or to perform at a higher level. Find more tips on Twitter @LifeSportCoach

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