Meet Gordo Byrn: Ultraman world champion, multisport philosopher, and dad
I want to introduce you to some awesome Moms and Dads as I write these letters to you. I’m doing my best to balance being a husband to your mom, a good dad to you kids, and an athlete, but there are some amazing people in the world who are doing these things too. I think it’s important for you to meet them.
Several years ago I stumbled upon the website Endurance Corner. I was immediately taken with its collection of training tips and tools. The volume of it all was overwhelming to me – in a good way. Through reading at Endurance Corner I was drawn into Gordo Byrn’s personal blog entries. This wasn’t the normal stuff I’d read over and over on triathlon related websites. Gordo Byrn had things to say. He thought like I did sometimes and it was comforting to me somehow.
Over the years, I’ve kept up with Gordo’s writing as often as possible. And much of it inspires me as I continue on this journey of fatherhood with you kids.
Before triathlon, Gordo Byrn was an overweight venture capitalist – globetrotting, making lots of money, driving the sports car, taking expensive trips. A world away from elite athletics. But something changed along the way for Gordo. He took up running in 1994 and somewhat painfully at first, found an athlete lurking within him capable of extreme levels of endurance. In 1998 he started swimming and a multisport athlete was born. A victory at the 2002 Ultraman World Championships (3 days / 320 miles) is evidence of Gordo’s capacity for endurance sport. Among his numerous other accomplishments in the sport was a 2nd place finish and 8:29 PR at Ironman Canada (Gordo’s favorite race).
His book “Going Long”, co-authored with Joe Friel, is considered the standard for athletes training for Iron distance races. Over 50,000 copies have sold.
I wanted to get to know the other side of Gordo. The guy whose blog posts challenge me – beyond my athletic goals. I wanted to know the husband and dad side of Gordo Byrn.
It was an honor to interview him recently. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.
TriFatherhood: How long have you been married?
Gordo: Seven years on July 4th. I’m Canadian and figured that US Independence Day would make a great anniversary date if I married an American.
How did you meet your wife Monica?
Gordo: In a squash court, doing core work under the instruction of Dave Scott. Dave had an elite squad in 2004 and Scott Molina (my coach) recommended that I train under Dave. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn from a great coach and athlete.
How does does she contribute to your success as an athlete?
Gordo: She contributes to my success as a person – specifically, being with her makes me want to improve myself.
Something people rarely talk about is the reality that elite sport places a strain on every single relationship in your life. Having a singular focus to be your very best in anything is tough on relationships. So successful long-term athletic strategy needs to accept this reality and include phases in the season, across seasons, where people and projects (other than sport) are placed up the list.
As a man and a father?
Gordo: She has high standards and can offer correction in a way that motivates change. Interestingly, I read an article on John Wooden where he used that description as the definition of a good coach. So my wife is my best coach.
Give us a few words on marriage in general and how you and Monica stay happy/connected through all of the training and travel. That’s stressful for most couples.
Gordo: Kindness, a shared sense of humor and reliability – I hope my children are able to have relationships with people that share these traits with them.
A key thing that works for us is to make time for each other. Weekly, we go out to dinner. Monthly, we do one night away. Quarterly, we do a few nights away. These trips are always just the two of us. Sometimes they have an agenda, sometimes not.
As far as sport, my recommendation is keep your week as stable as possible and do races where you can sleep in your own bed. Be extremely careful with choosing life goals that require a lot of time away from home or make you so tired that your family needs to manage you (as opposed to you helping your family). You need a very unique family, and financial, situation for high-level endurance sport to make sense in the larger view of your life.
The changes resulting from the arrival of kids is stressful. Something I got “right” with the arrival of our first child was clearing my race schedule for the first six months of her life. By the time my son arrived, we were in a groove and I was able to race to the weekend after he was born (I brought my daughter with me on that trip).
How many kids do you have?
Gordo: We have a daughter (3.75), a son (1.0) and another daughter coming late-summer.
TriFatherhood: Talk about each of them…how are they different? How are they alike? What have they taught you?
Gordo: My son has a very mellow personality. He’s a reminder that you can get people to do a lot of things for you if you’re pleasant to be around.
My daughter is extremely high energy and very outgoing. She’s a reminder that being genuinely happy to see someone is one of the nicest gifts we can give another. Kids don’t have the social filters that we create for ourselves – my daughter has little fear in social situations and is very direct. It’s a good lesson that if you are honest, with an open heart, you can be very effective at getting what you want.
The only thing similar between the kids is their parents and their eye color.
You recently talked about having a personal happiness psychology and how knowing what yours is contributes to your success as a dad. Can you explain that to us here?
Gordo: There is a very good article by Drucker on Managing Oneself. In the article, he notes that, when we’re young, we don’t really know what we’re good at. I’d go further and say that most of us don’t know what brings us satisfaction either. If we’ve been fortunate to have parents that understand what they want, then we might have clear role models for our lives. However, that’s not common so most of us will default to what we think we should want. Those desires are heavily influenced by the media, who want our attention, often via fear/anger, and to sell us stuff. I call media-driven success “external”. By the way, winning races is often an external success – its fun at the time but doesn’t bring lasting meaning.
In my life, I had surprising external success at a young age. However, I noticed that it didn’t bring any lasting satisfaction and looked deeper into what might be motivating me. In looking deeply, I discovered my own motivators and discovered that my strengths, and desires, are simple. I share those in my blog so won’t rehash them here aside to mention that most endurance athletes value freedom far more than possessions. The compulsion that gets us to sign up for an Ironman race is often a desire to have time on our own and be free. The race isn’t always the best part of that journey.
My goal with my kids is to teach them how I experience the world. My second book (unpublished) has been written for them and shares what I learned in my first 40 years.
As for knowing that I’m a success as a parent. When my daughter tells other people that her Daddy loves her – that’s one measure of success. Giving a child the knowledge that they are loved, and the confidence to speak of love, is a gift that will help them throughout their lives. My parents helped develop my self-esteem and I’m seeking to continue their success through my own children. The strength of my daughter’s hugs is also a good metric on how I’m doing.
TriFatherhood: I pulled this quote from your blog: My longest term friend told me that I’d make a good dad because it will be OK when my kids find out who I really am. I enjoyed the statement but didn’t understand it until six years later. As I approach 40 this is a big part of why I started writing letters to my kids on TriFatherhood.com. Explain to us what you found out 6 years later.
Gordo: With sales and negotiation training, we can fool many adults with our words. These techniques are useful in parenting (!) but kids don’t listen to what we say, they watch what we do. Like it or not, the way we “are” is the single greatest influence we have on our children. That said, I know that I’m likely to overestimate my influence on my kids.
Specifically to that quote, now that I’ve experienced motherhood directly in my marriage. I realized that my friend (a woman and mother) was giving me a very deep compliment. It doesn’t get more real than telling a man that he’d make a good father for your children.
TriFatherhood: You’ve written lately about “creating space” for yourself. Are you talking about minimalism or does it stretch beyond “possessions”?
Gordo: Our culture glorifies dedication to outside pursuits that we, collectively, see as good. Service for others via parenthood, corporations, the military, our church or a sports team – these are often good things. However, I see adults that are trying to be too successful in too many areas. The beauty of parenthood is it forces us to make choices. The choices I am making are towards a consistent simplification of my life; to create space to teach my kids and to ensure that I continue to enjoy what brings joy to my life (time with my wife, daily exercise, visiting places of natural beauty).
When I think minimalism – the vision that comes to mind is a guy travelling around the world with only an ipad, a toothbrush and a spare pair of undies. That’s not what motivates me. For me, the goal is to be world class at a limited number of things. My things are: sharing love with my life; helping people with my writing and teaching my kids how I experience the world. Everything else can fall away, because I know if I’m hitting those three areas of external focus then I’ll be living well.
Some people appear to need a lot of stuff to be happy. That’s not the way it is with me and I’m lucky to have discovered that before it was too late for me to change.
TriFatherhood: What measures do you take to ensure that Monica and the kids remain your top priority?
Gordo: My kids aren’t my top priority and it surprises me that more fathers don’t admit that reality.
When I look at where I spend my time – say this past weekend and the past week, I see that my kids are very important but I’m spending more time in other areas of my life. Work is most obvious here and getting more efficient at work is a high priority for me. A question I ask a lot, “how can I change my life to rebalance my time towards my priorities.” Over the last year, I’ve been gradually tweaking my life to shift my time balance. If I’m unwilling to change my time allocation then, no matter what I say in an article, my true priories must lie elsewhere (or I’m trapped by fear and inertia).
My #1 external priority is my marriage to Monica. Anything, and anyone, that interferes with my marriage is removed – gradually, and with compassion. There is a huge amount of option value created in a stable, loving, long-term relationship and my marriage has deep appeal to what makes me a good investor.
So what works for me in relationships? There’s a book called The Four Agreements that gives an effective strategy for life. Other ideas:
Be open to your inner circle. We can deal with very difficult issues if we are open and honest with others.
Focus on your desired outcome – in relationships it is easy to get bogged down on always being right, or situations being unfair. If I have to admit I am wrong, and accept an unfair settlement, but get what I want… then that is a win for me. Human psychology is ill-suited to seeing through to a long-term win.
Being willing to settle for “less” to get what you truly desire – freedom is my biggest internal motivator. When I feel free the amount of time, and love, I can give my family is increased. Wisely, my wife gives me a lot of freedom! However, I also need to take responsibility for myself and ensure that I don’t overschedule my life and make myself miserable. To make anything a priority we need to build two habits: saying no with compassion and keeping promises – athletics built these habits with regard to myself and I was able to transfer those skills into my larger life.
Have conversations with your wife (and kids) where you actively seek to agree with them. Because our brains are good at finding differences, you may find agreement difficult when you start. Stick with it. To improve a relationship, and develop true influence, you need trust, which is built from a shared view of the world.
Strange as it might seem, the #1 priority in my life is getting out of bed before 7am every morning. If I can pull that off then it means that I’m not overtired and I do much better and directing the rest of my life. Oversleeping, and overeating, are big stress signals for me.
TriFatherhood: Your approach to life seems to have changed over the years. Has that also changed your approach to coaching and training yourself?
Gordo: I’m the same, but different. Where I’ve had success is directing change by realizing what I value today and considering what might become important in the future. Even if I’m fooling myself (!), the sensation of directing change is pleasant.
With coaching, the big changes are a deepening understanding of the issues that face working athletes and a broad experience of successful case studies. One of my mentors is Joe Friel and I joke that the only way to get 30+ years of coaching experience is to coach for 30+ years. Being open to change, working with the best in your field, learning by teaching and sharing what you know — all of these have been a help in learning my trade.
With regard to my own training, I’m undertrained and that’s a conscious choice to free myself from what’s required to place athletics and the top of my life. I was fortunate to have many years where athletic success was #1. I learned a lot from that period and it was a heck of a lot of fun. Today, my best coaches are friends that help me create the life I want to live. The people close to me have traits that I’d like to make my own.
TriFatherhood: Final words of advice for age groupers with families, working full time, and training for long course racing?
Gordo: Take the number of hours that you can comfortably train per week – divide those hours by three. The resulting number is the length of the longest duration race you should consider.
The opportunity cost of an extra 1-2 hours per day across a year is huge, but hidden. 250-500 annual hours invested wisely can transform your career, family finances or marriage. So think very carefully if the greatest return in your life is being tired from endurance training. High-level athletics was an extremely valuable phase of my life and I was careful to make time for other areas that were important. Our time is limited so choose wisely and remember why you started in sports.
TriFatherhood: 3 people, who aren’t family that you would like to spend the day with?
Gordo: Scott Molina, John Hellemans and Gordon Livingston. That said, I don’t sit around missing people, or things. I go to the best teachers and change my life to spend time with people that I value. If I don’t care enough to change then I don’t really care.
Gordo: Lawrence of Arabia
Gordo: Rage Against The Machine
TriFatherhood: Song that always got you fired up to race?
Gordo: Alan Parsons Project – Sirius
Put that song on, close my eyes, breathe deeply, imagine the start line at Ironman Canada and enjoy a surge of energy through my body – I can bring that race back into my body anytime, anywhere. I can go very deep inside myself when thinking about Penticton. Trying to win that race was a whole body experience.
TriFatherhood: Do you have plans for another book?
Gordo: Already written – my goal was to complete it for my kids, rather than publish. After Leadville Mountain Bike, I’ll have time to clean it up a little and may self-publish through kindle.
TriFatherhood: When will we see you race again?
Gordo: Racing enhances aspects of my personality that can work against where I want to take my life. Tapping my athletic gifts requires me to do things that work against a successful marriage and teaching my kids. I’ve transcended many things in my life (sex, alcohol, fatigue, corporate success) but haven’t quite figured out ultra-athletics. That said, I’m getting better. Should have life figured out by the time I’m 75.
This year, I’ll race Silver Rush 50, Tahoe Trail 100K, and Leadville. That said, I’m best when training in nature. You can find me at all the Endurance Corner camps and I’ll be continuing to do these as I love spending time with athletes and my coaching buddies.