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Sunday, February 27, 2011

The (Real) Life of the Pros, Part 2:
Team Marsh & the Five Year Mark

Copyright (C) 2011 Kathryn Hunter
In 2005, after Amy crossed the line as first amateur and third overall at the Buffalo Springs 70.3, she had two important decisions to make. Decision 1, she'd just unexpectedly qualified for Kona – was she going to take the slot? She had to give an answer no later than that evening, in literally a matter of hours. At the time, she hadn't planned to do an Ironman-distance race, and in fact had no desire to even attempt one, but friends urged her to accept, saying she would never get another chance at Hawaii. So after agonizing back and forth until the very last minute of the cutoff, with her heart in her throat, she called to say she was in.

Decision 2 was much easier. Brandon Marsh had something that had been burning a hole in his pocket for more than 48 hours, but it had just never felt like the right time. So when they got back home to Austin after the race, and Amy came over to his apartment, he asked her to help him unpack. Amy was reluctant at first, making it clear that she just wanted to lie on the couch and watch TV, but Brandon was adamant. So after Amy dumped his duffel bag out – "There, it's unpacked" – and Brandon had a minor heart attack – "Something else is in there...right?" – Amy found the ring, and Brandon presented the next big question. This time, the answer required no deliberation.

Married in January of 2006, the Marshes have just crossed the big five-year mark. They still live in Austin, but spend four to six months of the year racing and training out of the country. Brandon, 36 years old, has been a pro since 2004, and Amy, 33, since 2006. Brandon currently coaches with Team TBB, and they are working towards eventually being on deck coaches with a group of athletes. In terms of overall finishes, 2009 and 2010 were very successful years for them both. In 2009, Brandon placed fourth in the Buffalo Springs 70.3, ninth in Ironman Florida, and ninth in Ironman Wisconsin, and in 2010, he came in fifth at Ironman UK, and took ninth place at 70.3 New Orleans and Ironman China. Amy was first overall female at the 2009 Ironman Wisconsin and the Buffalo Springs 70.3, and followed up in 2010 with a first at Ironman China, Ironman Lake Placid, Triathlon Du Jura, and the Rev 3 Iron-distance in Cedar Point. Last October, she also returned to Kona for the first time since 2005, coming in at 11th overall.

The Marshes joined Team Bike Boutique, coached by Brett Sutton, about a year ago. Before then, Brandon and Amy had a unique relationship – they were not only husband and wife, but coach and trainee.

Brandon and Amy had met at masters swimming at the University of Texas in 2001, often exchanging a "hey how are ya" across the lane lines. Brandon was the first to tell Amy she should give triathlon a shot – Amy, a lifelong swimmer, was of course fairly opposed to the idea of running and cycling. But in 2002, she did her first triathlon, the Danksin, on a borrowed mountain bike. "I don't remember how I placed," she says, "but I remember going home and looking for the next race to do because I absolutely loved it."

After she signed up for the Gulf Coast Triathlon, she asked Brandon, who'd been competing since he was 13 and had gone to Kona as an age grouper the year before, if he coached anybody. He said, "Well, no. But would you like to be a guinea pig?" Amy and another friend from masters swimming became Brandon's first students. Alongside his full-time job in environmental consulting, Brandon started writing workouts for the two of them every few weeks.


Amy was the one to ask Brandon out the first time. After a successful finish at Gulf Coast, she called him to say she'd like to take him to dinner as a thank you. When Brandon's coworkers got wind of it, they said, "Sounds like a date." Brandon told them, "It's not a date. She gives me money. I give her workouts." That night he and Amy met and talked for two hours at the restaurant. When he got to work the next day, his coworkers asked him how it went. "You know," Brandon said. "I think it was a date."

So after a few more dinners and Shrek 2 and traveling to races together, the coaching got a little more complicated. Amy's biggest block of training came before her first Kona race, while they were engaged. Brandon says he can remember the "breakdown" very clearly. "She was saying, 'I'm so tired, but I feel like I'm not doing enough training.' So I asked her if she wanted to do more, and she said 'No, I can't do any more. I'm so tired... But I'm not doing enough training.'" Fortunately, he says, it was only about three weeks out from the race.

In coaching, there's always a delicate balance between the coddling Dr. Jekyll and the tough guy Mr. Hyde. Take it too easy on an athlete, and she turns into a cream puff. Take it too hard, and you'll either get a raging case of Black Swan, or you'll push her out of the sport entirely. For the Marshes, add to this already complex and finely nuanced relationship the domestic day-to-day. You'd have to assume it would be impossible. Most married people would rather stab themselves in the foot with a cheese fork than take direct orders day in and day out from their spouse.

Amy and Brandon learned the hard way, early on, how to weather the storms. About four weeks into their marriage, they took a trip out to Fort Davis. The landscape in this part of West Texas is legendary, for its desolate beauty as well as the heat and rolling hills. The Marshes were doing a 75-mile loop, which started out with a grueling six-mile climb. Amy, not quite the cycling phenom we know now, had only been biking seriously for a few years. "You didn't tell me it was all uphill," Amy said, to which Brandon returned, "Well, I told you it was pretty hilly." And from there it was Brandon at the front, Amy falling off, Brandon slowing down to wait, Amy back on his wheel, Brandon speeding up, Amy falling off, and so on, with both parties beginning to imagine how nice it would be to toss the other in a patch of prickly pear.

"I'm pretty blunt sometimes," Brandon says, in way of prefacing his remembered comment. "I said something like, 'Look, this isn't a neighborhood ride. We can't be out for six hours – we're going to run out of water. There's nothing out here.'" Amy, of course, was less than pleased by his direct approach, and told him she'd rather he just rode on without her. So he did.

"We call this our divorce story," Amy adds to the telling.

But what better to save a freshly minted marriage than a sudden, redemptive calamity? Brandon was waiting for Amy at the outskirts of town. When she met up with him and as they were having it out once more, Brandon noticed that her seat was crooked. So he took out his multi-tool and straightened it...and the seat post clamp broke. With six miles to go – again, nothing but steady, steep climbing – and a 100-to-1 chance of finding a tarantula before a mechanic, Brandon swapped his bike out for hers and rode the rest of the route standing out of the saddle. Ah, chivalry. Amy, of course, felt a little more friendly toward him after that.

And now, after five years, they still train together nearly every day. Brandon continues to push the pace, and Amy has to work hard to keep up, but maybe that's the secret to some of their success. On the bike, Brandon says if Amy's barely hanging on he knows he's riding well, but if she's "chatty cathy," then he needs to pick it up. And Amy's competitiveness keeps her chasing Brandon through run and swim workouts, too, (especially the swim workouts – Amy's the born and bred swimmer in the family) even when she's dead tired. Now that they know each other better, they're a little more careful about pushing each other's buttons, though it does still happen now and again. Sometimes it's just too tempting… In spite of the challenges, Amy says, "It's just nice waking up knowing you have a training partner for the day, every day."

It sounds a little like a fairy tale – big names, big travels, big wins, and spending every day doing what you love alongside the person you love. But despite their success, even the Marshes have the same relentless demon as most pro triathletes: finances.

"Some pros think that if you raise up the bottom end of the prize money, then you elevate the field across the board and make it less of a fringe sport," Brandon says, mentioning that the Slowtwitch interviews with Mark Allen and Chris McCormack particularly resonated with him. In his interview, Mark Allen had compared the French Open and the Masters golf tournament's credibility to that of triathlon. "Until race directors and sponsors raise the bar and compensate the pros financially for something close to what the athlete is worth, triathlon will never be perceived on par with those types of events," Allen said. ["Mark Allen on prize money – and a Chilean surprise," by Timothy Carlson; Jan 31, 2011]

Kona's first place purse is $110k, compared to $1.35 million to the winner of the US Open. Not to mention that the top 100 golfers in 2010 made at least $1 million in prize money alone, and the top 10, around $5 million. Also, of the WTC races, Kona is the biggest payout by far. All others range from between $3k and $18.5k. And although it's clear that the winners are underpaid, since they're often able to take advantage of sponsorships and appearance fees, the athletes who suffer the most from the skimpy payouts are the ones just starting out. Often a fourth or fifth place finish is barely enough to pay for your travel.

There could be some positive aspects to scraping by. Maybe poverty keeps you pure, but then again, maybe not. Maybe it just keeps you thin.

There's no trust fund or mystery donor keeping the Marshes in the caviar and fine champagnes – they make it work with a combination of accumulated savings, coaching income, and winnings. And they don't stock their pantry with fish eggs and swanky booze. Their favorite dinner the night before an Ironman? A pint of ice cream. "We're fortunate to be on the end of things where we are able to make it, where we're able to save a little bit," Brandon says. But they're also realistic. "We like to say that we're retired now, and we'll work later," Amy says.

There are other luxuries that pros don't have, too, little freedoms that any ordinary soul would take for granted. Going through a different, arbitrary athletic "phase" or "focus" ("I'll try parasailing this year!"), deciding to have a baby, skipping a few weeks of working out, resting an injury completely, or whatever it might be... You can't alternate triathlon training with another all-consuming obsession or responsibility and still hope to be the best. Your life is always pointed toward the next big race on the horizon, or you're falling behind.

You're also forced to take the risks with the rewards. Last year when they were training with TBB in Switzerland, Brandon was riding with James Cunnama, and Amy with some of the other women on the team. It was cold and wet, and Brandon and James came up on a group of cyclists stopped on the other side of some rail road tracks. At first they thought nothing of it, but when they realized the cyclists were members of their team, Brandon started counting heads...and realized that Amy was missing. "It's something that everyone worries about if your significant other trains, or if you don't train together," he says. He rode up on the scene to see Amy lying on the ground, surrounded by blood. She was badly cut up and bruised on her right side, and had a concussion. "She literally looked like she'd been in a boxing match. Black eye, stitches," Brandon says.

Then, a week later, still in Switzerland, when Amy was out riding again she was hit by a car. This time, she fell on her left side. The man stopped, and was clearly shocked to see the extent of her injuries – she quickly explained that no, he was not responsible for all of that. Amy did some water running in the following weeks. "But four or five weeks later, she won Lake Placid," Brandon says.

And always for Brandon there were minor injuries – shin splints, IT band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, and on and on. For Amy, there'd been a string of long-term set-backs – two years of relentless plantar fasciitis (one year in the right foot, the next in the left), a stress fracture and six weeks in a boot, tendonitis in her ankle, the crashes. "This is the first winter probably since I started triathlon that I've actually been running consistently," she says.

And the running is going well. That's why the Marshes are hoping for big things this year – for Amy, no less than a podium finish at Kona.

Plenty of people would say that building a life around triathlon is impossible – that Ironman training is, in fact, the fast-track to divorce. But you never know quite where life will take you – sometimes the woman swimming in the lane next to you becomes your lifetime training partner; sometimes the race starts off badly and you end up first cross the line; sometimes all the most important decisions of your life come up within 24 hours; and sometimes, rarest of all, you get to do what you love, and it works out.

I asked the Marshes what they plan to do in the long-term, when they're done with competition. Brandon hopes to continue coaching – he says he wants to always stay involved in triathlon in some capacity. He and Amy exchange a smile. They're in no hurry, they say, but they've got other plans, too.

Brandon says, "I'm waiting for her to cross the finish line in Kona one year and say, 'Ok, let's have kids now. Start tomorrow!'"

Amy's next race is Abu Dhabi on March 12, and Brandon's is Singapore 70.3 on March 20. Cheer them on!

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely love this article...what a great story. I cannot wait to see that finale where Amy crosses the finish line at Kona, podium finishes, then says time for the next chapter...kiddos!

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