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Tri Mojo

Quiet Strength

Strength isn't always about being big and forceful—sometimes it's about being subtle and patient.

Every month, I do a workshop with the local chapter of Girl’s Inc., a non-profit organization that helps to empower teenaged girls to find their voice, dream big, and thrive through the support of each other and their communities.

I am proud to be part of that community, by helping them to find their mojo during some of the hardest years of their lives. It took me a long time to build the woman I am today, and I wasn’t facing half of the obstacles that some of these girls are up against in their teenaged years (drugs, violence, broken homes, zero support).

I’ve been through the standard growing pains of most—bad self-esteem, broken heart, re-broken heart, jobless, aimless, and feeling lifeless against the cold hard floor that is “rock bottom.” And like most, I’ve found a way to pick myself back up again.

For me, it was fitness. Fitness saved me a from a variety of alternative lifestyles, and it is for that reason that I have become almost evangelical about helping other people choose a workout over the many other things one could choose to “self medicate.” Some people reach for Prozac, I reach for a twenty-mile run. Some people want to shut the world out by sitting in a dark room with a pack of cigarettes. I hide myself in the pool for an hour. In my opinion, there is nothing that a three-mile run can’t make better—even if to only clear my head, or find an outlet to put some of my negative energy. I’ve come to rely on fitness for so much more than simply fitting into a pair of skinny jeans.

Over the years I’ve grown out of the black hole I refer to as my “20s” and have seen my hard work and persistence finally pay off. I married a wonderful man, have been working steadily in a career that I love, and have grown my passion for triathlon into a lucrative hobby. Nothing about my success has been immediate. And none of it has been calculated. It was born from a quiet strength that can only occur when you listen to your heart, stay true to who you are and “wiggle.”

I learned how to “wiggle” from my father, an entrepreneur who started his own business and went from the sole employee of his cable company in a one-horse town, to the Chief Technology Office in a New York City-area company that provides cable systems to colleges and universities across the nation. It took him decades to get where he is today. Growing up in a household where the entrepreneurial father was the breadwinner taught me a few things. There were turbulent times, of which I was only exposed to a fraction of the actual emotional fallout that my parents went through as they tried to save and/or grow the business through the years. The one thing that my father always made sure to communicate to me through those highs and lows was the idea that one must continue to move, no matter how small a motion, in order to grow. He called this “wiggling.” I liken it to the “Ironman shuffle,” a term used to describe that “running, but not really” motion of the feet as you move at a snail’s pace along some portion of your Ironman marathon. It’s not about moving fast, it’s about moving. Period.

My mom, an innovator herself, has always taught me to see the beauty in every situation. As an artist, she would see designs and ideas where others would see trash. Literally! In one of her quilting projects she took a picture of dumpster containers and used it as inspiration for a wall-hanging made from a collage of vibrant fabrics and elaborate stitching.

Being around this kind of quiet strength and creative energy taught me that being successful doesn’t always have to be a marquee event. It’s not always about huge victories and monumental achievements. Mojo isn’t made from a handful of premium, exotic ingredients—it’s formed slowly over time from a pinch of success here, a scosh of success there.  It’s a pantry-raid of odds and ends that go into the slowcooker and end up forming the kind of delicious concoction you’re not sure you can ever truly recreate.

In a recent workshop with Girl’s Inc, I asked the girls to tell me what they pictured when I said the word, “strong.”

What does strong look like?

I asked them, does a bodybuilder look strong? Is a tornado strong? What about a wrecking ball? They all agreed these were strong forces.

“What about a blade of grass?” I asked them. “Is grass strong?”

They wrinkled their faces at me. Some shook their heads. Grass was decidedly not strong.

Consider the blade of grass. Have you ever seen a blacktop driveway, or a sidewalk where a single green shoot was poking up through the hard, cemented surface? How did that happen?

Quiet strength. Somewhere beneath the hard surface, a small blade of grass was forming, moving a little bit from side to side, then up, and every so often around the hard obstacles in its path. Over time, it made its away toward the light, an unstoppable force that forged a path through the blacktop and out into the world.

We all have the potential of this blade of grass, but only if we keep wiggling. Sometimes we have to be creative to find the beauty in a situation, or the opportunity under the rubble. Remember that mojo is a powerful force, but it is also a quiet strength.

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Tri Mojo

Use Your Mojo For Good

Look beyond the glitz and glory, and focus on the heart and soul of our sport

I happened to stumble upon a rather unflattering portrayal of triathletes earlier this week, while doing some research on a few things.

An article from the March 2010 issue of Details magazine announced that triathlon has become the new status symbol. It opens with the author describing a hypothetical dinner party, in which he must tolerate the company of several white-collar people who happen to be triathletes. It goes on to talk about the apparent trend of Type-A personalities who get into triathlon primarily for the bragging rights (the author likens the discussion of tri training to the mention of one’s posh summer home). Annoyed yet? If not, feel free to go read the rest of the article, and wonder where the keys to your Bugatti are (maybe you left them behind at one of the “pussy” races you recently completed).

Of course there is some elitism in triathlon, just like there is in any other sport. But in my six years as an avid athlete and coach, the majority of the people I’ve interacted with have been down-to-earth folks who use triathlon as a soul-searching journey. We load our bikes onto (or into) everyday sedans, work across a variety of industries, and use triathlon to feel good about ourselves, for ourselves (lest the cachet of being a triathlete be all about what OTHER people think of us).

Here’s the thing. Most of us feel good when we engage in tri-related activities, because we have set out to accomplish a certain goal and that engagement is real-time feedback on our progress. To that end, we will convey pride and enthusiasm over the matter because as it turns out, it’s pretty challenging for the “Average non-Bugatti-driving Joe” to organize his lifestyle around work responsibilities, family commitments, social engagements, and training sessions. Some of the mojo that comes with being a triathlete is derived from the idea that we have become skilled at managing our schedules in order to do the things we enjoy in life (that might sound easy, but think of all the excuses, temptation, and sacrifice that come with managing time). It can feel like evoking a superhuman power just to arrange one’s day for an hour-long swim at the over-chlorinated, always-crowded community pool. That’s no summer home in the Hamptons, my friend!

It’s been said, “that with great power, comes great responsibility,” and lately I’m beginning to feel the same way about mojo.

If you’re a triathlete, you will inevitably impress somebody with some aspect of this experience in your life. Maybe you’re the mom who has to juggle her workouts around her kids’ schedules. Maybe you are the star employee at your company who has to squeeze workouts in before 7:00AM conference calls. Maybe you are the cancer survivor who is still weak from treatment, but making a comeback by training for a new kind of challenge. At some point, somebody is going to look at what you do and be in awe of the idea that you “do triathlon.” And this is where you must remember to use your mojo for good.

The moment someone recognizes you being “triathletic,” you have an opportunity to show that person that the stereotypes above are not true. You can show strength by allowing yourself to be “out there” looking a bit silly, and er, perhaps even a bit slow. (Hey, those recovery runs aren’t going to do themselves, right?). And who cares if we don’t look like a “picture of fitness.” What does that mean, anyway? Have you seen what we look like in compression socks? I wear mine in clashing fluorescent colors. It’s not about being glamorous when we work out (heck, I could be mistaken for a sweat tsunami during any tempo ride). And it’s not about training to channel some kind of cardio rock star. We train because we have goals, and we should do what we can to make the sport look accessible and fun, as opposed to snobby and status-driven.

You can show humility even if you happen to be on top of a $15,000 carbon speed machine. Nobody needs to hear the live broadcast of every component on your rig. Instead, talk about something more relatable to those around you—when in doubt, ask someone else about themselves.

Real mojo comes from a strong sense of self-confidence and a powerful energy to push through limits and reach goals. The challenge is to use this energy in a productive way—to enhance yourself and the world around you. If you’d like to see how some triathletes are using their mojo for good, tune in to LAVA Magazine for a new column featuring triathletes who use their training to improve the lives of OTHER people.

What would Mr. Dumenco have to say about these people? Maybe I’ll make some room for him at my next dinner party.

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Tri Mojo

Work(out) Smarter

Cramming on a project? Step away from your desk. Your best thinking is on the other side of a run.

Mental skills training is all about training the mind to get a predictable (and successful) outcome from our physical performance, but it’s worth mentioning that it can also work the other way. That is, using a carefully orchestrated physical performance in order to prepare the mind for an intellectual challenge.

For many athletes, this probably doesn’t come as a surprise. While you might not understand the science behind it, you have experienced the way your mind clears after a good workout and how it enables you to tap into a sharper cognition thereafter.

A recent article in WIRED magazine cited research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where it was determined that a perfectly timed small workout could be the key to your best thinking. The article describes non-vigorous workouts that avoid overtaxing the mind as being the best option (such as a treadmill run), and stresses the importance of maintaining a consistent heart rate around 60% of your max heart rate for 20 minutes. The “good thinking” won’t kick in for five to twenty minutes after you end the workout, and will be at its best for just under an hour before the effects start to fade.

What does that mean for the multisport athlete? An opportunity for better time management. Knowing that a physical workout can help you put your mind to better use, makes it a perfect complement to a work-day challenge. Typically, having a big project to tackle during the day could be used as an excuse to AVOID the workout; when in reality the workout might be just the thing you need to put your best brain forward on the task at hand.

One of the ways I make my training routine work is by scheduling workouts in a way that enables me to benefit from the cognitive “after effects” of exercise. For example, if I have a run to complete that takes about an hour from warm-up to cool down, I know it will be easy for me to get that completed during a lunch break. So I look at my work schedule for the week and try to determine which of my projects could use my strongest thinking. Reorganizing an Excel spreadsheet is fairly mindless, but drafting a messaging architecture for one of my clients requires a full tank of creative gas. So I plan accordingly: schedule the run during my lunch hour on Tuesday, and tackle the creative thinking project afterward. In this two hour window I’ve maximized my schedule by using my workout to further my personal goals in triathlon, and my professional goals at work. It’s a win-win situation that makes the most of my time.

 

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Tri Mojo

The Mantranome

Turn your mantra into the melody that keeps you moving

When I was learning to play the piano, I used a metronome to help me keep the appropriate tempo in the music. A metronome is an instrument designed to mark exact time by a regularly repeated tick, and is used by musicians to stay on a precise rhythm while they perform. Unfortunately, I don’t play the piano much anymore, but I have borrowed the idea of the metronome in my training over the years.

During piano lessons I used to get lost in the music, struggling to find the beat again while my fingers fumbled over the keys. The metronome in the background served as a guide to help get me back on track. After pausing to hear the rhythm, I could find my way back to the chords and continue playing the song.

This isn’t dissimilar to the way I train. When I start to fade during a workout, I catch myself quietly chanting motivational phrases in a rhythm that encourages me to pull myself back into the game. My pace livens up, my form improves, and I come out of the rough patch.

I’ve come to regard this mental exercise as the mantranome—a mode of thinking designed to activate motivation through a regularly repeated mantra, which encourages an athlete to stay committed and focused on the present moment.

I know—there’s a lot going on there. How is a mantranome different from a regular ole mantra?

According to Wikipedia, a mantra is a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of “creating transformation.” That’s a little deep for this discussion, but it’s a fair statement. A lighter definition from Oxford dictionary defines a mantra simply as, “a statement or slogan that is repeated frequently.”

In mental skills training, I talk about the mantra as a tool an athlete uses during a workout or race that helps them stay focused on the task at hand in order to successfully execute their short-term goal. For example, a mantra will help you get through a challenging interval session, or stay on pace during a long ride.

How does the functionality of a metronome combine with the idea of the mantra to form a powerful tool for athletes? Because we can layer it in with other elements to form a sort of “song” that’s used to power us through challenging periods of work.

Here’s an example. I’m running along for an hour or so and feeling pretty good. My pace has been consistent for several miles and my heart rate has stayed in the appropriate training zone. I begin to run uphill, and notice that my legs feel like cement. As I feel my motivation start to deflate, I begin to chant a mantra in my mind to stay focused. “Things in motion, stay in motion.” While I recite the mantra to myself in conjunction with a measured breath, I notice the sound of my feet striking the ground, the swish of my water bottle in my hand, and the slight percussion of my keys jingling in my fuel belt. These sounds begin to form a melody to me, and I start to hear where each one fits in against the recitation of the mantra.

“Things—in—mo—tion—stay—in—mo—tion,” repeated slowly with a consistently timed strike, swoosh, jingle and breath. The pattern is born within 60 seconds, the song takes hold in my brain, and the mantra becomes a metronome to keep pace with. Before I know it, a few more miles have passed and I’m back in good spirits.

This exercise supports several tenets of mental skills training. It provides an anchor point in the mind that enables an athlete to focus on the present moment, generate positive self-talk, and appropriately manage energy.

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Tri Mojo

Revamp Your Habit Fields

A collage of motivating content transforms my filing cabinet into a positive habit field

Recently, I read an article on habit fields by Jack Cheng, a New York-based writer and designer who writes about battling distraction and mustering up the self-discipline to do fulfilling creative work in modern times. In the article he talks about some of the things he does to ensure his mind stays focused on his work in the design industry. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the way his methods would translate to athletes and the distractions we must navigate to stay disciplined in our training.

He starts by defining what a habit field is, and asks us to consider the desk in our office. What does it make you think of? Perhaps it was a desk you built yourself and you can recall the pieces that had to be put together. Maybe it makes me feel annoyed because of the labor involved. Maybe the first time you saw your desk was when you began working at your job—it could bring back feelings of insecurity as you struggled to figure out your role in the company. The point of the exercise is to associate the desk with a memory. These memories store behaviors (i.e. we do certain things, or feel certain ways after engaging with objects that are paired with a specific memory). As Cheng states, “The sum of these stored behaviors is an object’s habit field, and merely being around it compels our bodies and minds to act in a certain way. By understanding these invisible forces and employing strategies to shape them, we can enjoy more frequent, sustained periods of flow.” In the athlete world, flow is that state that enables us to “get in the zone” and move through a workout with a consistent, precise focus.

Cheng’s article goes on to describe some of the habit fields associated with his objects. For example, he has a “distraction chair” he retreats to when he wants to check his Twitter feed or do other mindless activities that might disrupt his ability to be productive. When he sees this chair, he has memories of checking email, surfing the web, etc. He now associates the chair with this “leisure zone” and will avoid the it if he needs to focus on a deadline (turns out, his desk is where he goes when it’s time to write, design or code).

This got me thinking about the environments I typically find myself in, and the habit fields attached to various objects I interact with. Do they have an impact on how I execute my training?

With a full-time job in a marketing communications firm, and a part-time job as a freelance writer and triathlon coach, I tend to have a lot of “To-Do” lists to manage. It occurred to me as I was learning about habit fields, that one of the reasons I’m able to juggle all of this responsibility is because I have instinctively set up my environments to keep all of my goals top-of-mind, regardless of which environment I’m in.  For example, my desk at work is where I focus on digging through research to find insights that inspire great creative work for my clients—however, there are many “objects” in my workspace that are focused on my life as a triathlete. The filing cabinet is a collage of inspirational words and imagery that I’ve collected over the years, providing a wealth of memories that encourage me to behave like an athlete at all times. For me, that means making sure I drink plenty of water throughout the day, eating healthier snacks, and staying focused on my workload so I manage my time in a way that enables me to have time to train. While a collage is two-dimensional and not an actual “object” that I interact with, it transforms the cabinet (which I do interact with) into a habit field that helps to keep my athlete discipline in tact.

Similarly, I’ve found ways to keep work on my mind while I’m training. Long runs have always provided a great outlet for me to digest big projects. Any time I have a multi-hour run scheduled, I know that I will end up with solutions for some of the problems I’m tagged to solve at work. There are certain objects I always have with me when I do a long run. One of these is a fuel belt. I tend to associate the belt with thinking and introspection, rather than pacing and training zones as one might expect.

While Cheng’s example of habit fields are more linear in nature (his desk means it’s time to work; his arm chair means it’s time to relax), my habit fields feel more convoluted. But in both cases, the habit fields are effective—Cheng successfully completes his coding, and I successfully balance working, training, coaching and freelancing.

Take some time to look around the environments you most often spend time in. Make a list of some of the “major “ objects on the scene. What do you associate your coffee mug with? How about your iPod? Or a particular pen you like to write with? Your computer? How about your running shoes— do you wear a certain pair of shoes if you know you won’t be running that far? Perhaps they give you blisters, so you only use them for shorter, less intense runs? Is there a different memory when you see a spin bike versus your own bike set up on a stationary trainer? Do you think about your workout differently when you’re using one as opposed to the other? The memories and associations you make with various objects can impact the experience you have around them. These habit fields could be feeding into the success of your training, or they could be holding you back from discovering your true potential. If you can identify the habit fields that contribute to “bad behavior” (for example, skipping workouts, eating poorly, making compromises about your training, or constantly thinking negative thoughts), you can start making changes to remove them from your environment. Use different objects to create better habit fields to activate a more positive, focused mentality.

There’s a saying, “you are what you eat.” What you put in your body has a huge impact on what your body can put out for you. Habit fields should be considered the “food” for the mind. Just as you tailor your diet to nourish your body for optimal performance, tailor your environment to let you marinate in memories (and subsequently, behaviors) that set you up for success.

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Tri Mojo

Mojivation

Motivation gets you moving, but mojivation should launch you like a rocket

In a recent 90-minute cycling class, I professed my love to twenty athletes staring up at me as we made our way through our fifth tempo ride in the workout. The weekly ride starts at 5:30AM and as we close in on the final strides of the workout, it always feels like an adventure is coming to an end. Earlier, I woke up at 4:22AM—eight minutes before my alarm clock was set to go off. I really wanted to snooze, but instead I peeled my body from the bed and changed into my “superhero” clothes (I confess, padded shorts and a heart-rate monitor have a cape-like effect on me).

The house is cold in the morning, but the chill in the air is just enough to pull me out of my grogginess. The scent of coffee brewing in the kitchen helps to ease me out of the “wish I was still sleeping” funk. Within 30 minutes of waking up I can easily muster the motivation to go through the motions for a workout. All summer long I did just that, waking early to do sunrise swims in the nearby lake, or cross-county century rides on the rural roads of upstate New York. These mostly solitary workouts are always pleasant for me, because I look forward to a stretch of “me” time where I can get lost in my own introspection.

In the winter, everything changes. Eighty-percent of my training is shared with 50 athletes as I coach them through a 16-week program designed to build endurance. Back in 2008, I was an indoor cycling instructor training for my first Ironman. With a full-time job in an advertising agency, and a part-time gig teaching a handful of weekly cycling classes at Gold’s Gym, I had to come up with a way to train myself while upholding all of my responsibilities. So, I created a program that would allow me to use my classes as training time, while giving other people the opportunity to experience some of the cycling workouts an endurance athlete does to get stronger. A winter tri-training program was born.

Over the years, I’ve experienced incredible growth as an athlete. I’m heading into the mid thirties, a time that’s been regarded as the period when one’s body starts to struggle with metabolism and retaining strength, yet my body has been leaner than ever before, and my endurance has improved across swimming, biking and running

A lot of people look at my schedule and think that I must be insane—how does one person work 40 hours per week, train nearly 20 hours per week, manage 50 athletes through a 16-week program, and on top of that find time to write articles for the fitness industry and volunteer as a mentor for a local non-profit organization whose mission is to empower teen-aged girls?

I used to think that it was just because I was motivated. I like the things that I do. My full-time job is fun and challenging. For me, exercise feels like a trip to the spa—it’s relaxing when I’ve had a hard day, and invigorating when I need a kick-start. Working with teenagers to build self-esteem, and athletes to build fitness, makes me feel like I’m doing something to improve my community. I don’t see my commitments as hours of the day that I’ve lost, or things that I have to do. I’ve found a way to touch my responsibilities with a magic wand, and transform them into things I passionately execute, rather than merely “do.”

It occurred to me in that morning class that it’s not about motivation—traditionally defined as “the reason to act in a particular way.” It’s about mojivation—the spark to ignite energy from within.

Back to those twenty faces staring up at me in class…

I realized in that moment that those people were plenty motivated to arrive to class at 5:30AM. But something bigger than a 90-minute cycling ride happens in that room. People are “coming with me” as I describe the tone of the ride. They believe in themselves when I move past the nuts and bolts of the “scenery” and describe the inner dialogue that happens with our little voice when we start to approach the limits we believe that we have. As I narrate us through the winding country roads, up to the top of the hills, past the last mailbox in a set of intervals, and around the corner for a final push along the white line…I realize that they’ve let me take them past the physical demands of the workout and pitch them the idea that their mind is capable of unleashing a person from within that has been dormant all…this…time.

Seeing that transformation in people does something to me. It’s almost as if that new-found energy in people feeds my desire to push myself—not just as an athlete, but also as a person. In the first 30 minutes of class, if I catch someone’s eye I usually get the “screw you, I hate this class” look. But if I look at the same person in the last 30 minutes of class, it’s completely different. In a second I can feel that there is mutual respect between coach and athlete…for the road we’ve traveled so far, and the road that is yet to come. For the hard work that’s required to strengthen our minds and bodies. For the trust we must have in each other as intensity ebbs and flows.

It is from this place that I profess love to my athletes—many of whom I do not know outside of the context of the training program. It’s about finding that drive that amplifies the essence of YOU, and using it to experience the motions, rather than simply “go through” them. It’s about finding the mojivation, rather than the motivation.

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Tri Mojo

Your Mind, the Machine

Fancy gear only gets you so far

Triathletes are a disciplined bunch. Ask anyone you know who is training for a triathlon, and within 10 minutes you’ll likely hear a brief rundown of the races they plan to enter, the training routine they follow, the brand of bicycle they prefer, and something funny that happened in a workout last week. But ask them to describe their mental skills training routine, and you might get a blank stare.

As a long-time runner turned triathlete, turned fitness professional, I’ve been in the endurance sports industry for nearly 15 years. I ran competitively in high school, college and beyond; have completed five marathons and two full Ironman races; and have done workouts that most people would deem “crazy.” I’m not unlike my peers when it comes to these credentials—but where I do stand out is in my passion for training what I consider to be the most important muscle in the body — the MIND.

Triathlon is a sport that is bedazzled with gear galore—sexy gadgetry, cutting-edge technology, specific clothing and accessories for each phase of the race, and nutritional supplements that almost feel like something Alice in Wonderland would have happened upon (take this gel to feel stronger, eat this tab to feel energized, drink this potion so you don’t bonk). With so much fanfare around getting the right gear, doing the right workout and signing up for the right races—we sometimes lose sight of the source of our REAL strength.

Your mind, the machine.

I’ve realized over the years that my gravitation to endurance sports was not due to any “great genetics” I have in swimming, biking and running. Truth be told, my body fat percentage typically measures higher than the traditional “athlete” range, and I haven’t got a prayer at ever becoming fast enough to be a professional triathlete.

What draws me to this sport is the opportunity it presents to challenge myself. Not just to see how fast I can go in the water, on my bike or down the road on my own two feet—but to see what I can overcome when I perceive myself to be at an insurmountable obstacle.

Over the years I’ve realized that my instinct to motivate people pairs nicely with my greatest skills—writing and getting to know what makes people “tick.” I use these skills in my day job as an Account Planner in a marketing services agency, and in my part-time work as a triathlon coach and freelance writer in the fitness industry.

Simply put, I know how to make YOU want to challenge yourself, and what it will take to lead you through a series of steps that will leave your perceived limits in the dust.

People often wonder why anyone would want to feel challenged to that degree. In terms of pushing yourself physically, I suppose we all like the sense of accomplishment that comes with getting to the next level (seeing a faster pace, having a stronger body, etc.).

The mental challenge of this sport has a slightly different (but equally rewarding) return on investment.

Mental skills training is all about changing the way you THINK, and the transformation that you undergo as an athlete will translate into the rest of your life. If you’re a mom, mental skills training will make you a stronger parent. If you’re a CEO, mental skills training will make you stronger leader. If you’re a friend, lover, or spouse—mental skills training will enhance your relationships with people.

I often tell my athletes to make their training about something bigger than just making it over the finish line. When I work with athletes to develop their mental skills, we often uncover just how much their emotions come into play when they are training or racing. Making some changes to the way they mentally approach triathlon not only enhances their athletic performance, but their overall life experience.

Let’s get out the tri mojo, and put some moxie in our miles this season.