303’s Dana Willett spoke with Eric Kenney about how he manages to land top-notch talent for his coaching services, the importance of tough love and humble pie, his newest venture – the BTC men’s elite triathlon team (and how he hand-selected each member), his non-negotiable Code of Conduct contract, and 120 seconds from the Lake Placid finish six years ago that he just can’t forget… and is a driving factor in his determination to solidify an official Elite race category.
Eric Kenney’s background & EK Endurance Coaching
Eric Kenney has been coaching a variety of endurance sports for almost 20 years. From east-coast rowing teams, to cycling, to alpine and ice climbing, to triathlon. Oh, and ski mountaineering racers – a growing sport in the U.S. But his primary focus today is triathletes, though he is quick to add he doesn’t have a preference for which sport he coaches, saying, “It’s not really about the sport or the level of an athlete’s competitiveness. It’s more about the athletes themselves, and how engaged they are going to be in their training. Conversations are usually the same, whether you have them with a pro, or someone doing his first Ironman. I just like working with athletes who do a good job, and enjoy super dialed coaching; those are the kinds of people I love working with.”
His largest venture to date is his coaching business, EK Endurance Coaching.
Through leading this large group of varied-abilities athletes, Eric has realized his niche for working with truly competitive individuals, regardless of where they fall on the racing spectrum. “Many of my athletes tend to be standout talents – that kind of amateur to elite athlete who has the ability to be a podium contender. And those athletes tend to be the most visible, so then I draw more clients who identify with that,” he says. “I enjoy working with all different ability levels because it makes me a better coach – as a coach, you have to recalibrate your head depending on your athlete. From Sam Long, who is a young pro and can handle an enormous workload, to someone else who might be in their first year of triathlon, making that time adjustment. I learn a lot from working with different levels of athletes. There are certain types of people you just click with right away and there are others that take more work… and so I’m always trying to be better in that sense, and give the athlete what they need.”
Sometimes what an athlete needs is a bit of tough love: “The needs and personality of a particular athlete can change; sometimes athletes need to push hard, and sometimes they need me to be hard on them. But that doesn’t work all the time. There are days you can’t be like that; days you shouldn’t be like that; that is a dynamic, changing thing. That’s also something I periodize into training; there are times during build up to a race when they need to be broken down a bit; everyone needs a bit of humble pie; other times they need to be built up, and need a bit of confidence. I try to do both, and work it in. No matter what, we’re doing this to have fun. Even for professionals, you have to have fun. Having a sense of humor and not taking yourself too seriously is a good attribute.”
The start of BTC Elite
So why form an Elite triathlon team? And why men only?
The answer to those two questions is one and the same: Vixxen Racing.
“I’ve been working with Liz West for a long time, and when she started Vixxen Racing she came to me and asked me to be their performance director for the team. If there’s anyone who could do it really well, it’s Liz. I am the team head coach and performance director. The farther we got into it (BTC Elite), it was obvious it was going to be a men’s only team because of Vixxen racing – I have no interest in starting a women’s team considering my involvement with Vixxen.”
Eric continues, “I’m a huge supporter of women in sport; I love that equalizing factor – when women are actually faster than men – it’s really intriguing to me.”
“Having my own team has come up every year for three or four years… usually in the fall. I’ll put it down on paper, and then I’ve always hesitated. But last year Lance started calling the EK Team the ‘Blue Train,” and it came up again. Liz was one of the first people I talked to about this to make sure this would work out,” he explains.
Once he’d brainstormed and run his ideas by West, he started considering athletes, and sponsors. “I have partners and company associations because of the things I love – no other reason. People like Steve Richards of CMS and Kenny Withrow… I wanted to bring some of the aspects of a true team like a cycling team into triathlon.” He adds, “I wanted a small group, an easily manageable group; I wanted it to be an elite development team because I feel there is a large gap between amateurs and professionals… I wanted to do more team work, and team coaching, and have everyone truly support each other. All while being a local, really small team. Everyone has each other’s phone numbers, trains together, has dinner together, and has a HOME.”
This concept of HOME and belonging comes up several times during our conversation, and obviously resonates for Eric. He explains, “That was my vision for the team. – I wanted to branch out farther than coaching an elite squad within my (EK Endurance Coaching) business, and create a home for those people looking to make a next step – even professionals. Colin (Laughery) had no home – now that he’s on the team, he’s received increased sponsorships, coached team workouts, camaraderie…There’s no home for a lot of these people – part of that is the nature of this sport – it’s not thought of as a team sport. But there’s so many positives of being part of a team.”
The relationship with Boulder Tri Club (BTC)
BTC Elite bears the Boulder Triathlon Club name, but it’s a name-only relationship: “We decided to name BTC Elite to give the club more promotion and more presence on that upper tier racing level. One of the problems with elite teams within a larger club, the elite team can take resources away from rest of club; we have completely avoided that by having our own sponsors. The elite team is providing this promotional aspect at a different level without taking anything away from the club.”
How are athletes chosen for BTC Elite Team?
All BTC Elite members are hand selected. Eric explains, “I want to keep it small, in the range of about ten members.”
And what parameters does Eric use to select members?
“Well, it really comes down to character,” Eric says: “I wanted to have the nicest, classiest guys I could find to be on the team. The best ambassadors possible for the team, for our sponsors, and for our partners like BTC. This is priority #1, for sure. The Code of Conduct I have my athletes sign is first and foremost for being on this team. It’s a full page contract. Without that: no deal.”
The additional factors considered are #2, amount of racing, which races, ability to develop as an athlete; and #3, how fast you are.
“We have a pretty broad range of speeds and strengths on the team,” Eric points out. “Speed comes third because, if I was a sponsor, who would I want people to talk to? If I was an athlete new to the sport, who would inspire me? I want guys like that.”
He continues, “People know Colin Laughery, Conrad Rodas, Kenny Withrow – these are people who are very friendly, extremely easy to talk to, and love the sport they are in. They love all the other athletes. They are great ambassadors of the sport.”
Who are the team sponsors, and how are athletes & coaches compensated?
The major sponsors of BTC Elite are:
CMS – Title sponsor (The official team name is: “BTC Elite powered by Colorado Multisport”)
EK Endurance Coaching
Athletes wear the team kit 100% of time, and no one is getting paid any money, including Coach Eric Kenney. Eric adds, “All of these sponsors on the team are in place because they are the best – I sought them out because these are products I believe in, credible products. I’m at RallySport because it’s the best gym. I reached out to CMS because they’re the best, and I trust them. I wanted to get everyone on a Felt – the best tri bikes out there – so I asked, “what’s it going to take?’ That’s how our sponsors came to be.”
And, no one on the team is getting paid by the sponsors – “So the athlete comments are genuine,” Eric says proudly. “We have the best everything.”
Wait, you’re not getting paid? Why are you doing this?
“I get to work with a great group of athletes,” Eric says altruistically. And then he adds, “You can call this giving back to the sport. I want to build this elite field. Currently no one races elite – there’s age groupers and pros… There are dozens of guys in the area who should be racing elite – it would make the entire sport better, and it would make the entire ranks better.”
Please explain the “Elite” category
“A team like BTC Elite or Vixxen is a lot more accessible and more reachable than the pro field… When you see someone above middle of the pack, or top 20 age group, those athletes can reach elite. It’s within their reach. My goal is to develop this elite/amateur level of racing – at some smaller local races you can see this in the results – the top finishers are minutes ahead of the next racers – they should be racing elite.”
Not to mention being more spectator-friendly, and a racing category that is “aggressive and extremely fun spectacle of triathlon,” according to Eric.
“The teams like this should be extremely fun to watch, and also extremely accessible; they should be incredible ambassadors for the products they are using,” Eric defines.
So many smaller, local races (like Without Limits, have an “Elite” category. BUT, Ironman doesn’t have Elite category; so… what about that?
“I think the Ironman brand of races are really missing that level. There is nothing between amateurs and pros – they don’t have elite category and the rolling starts really eliminate ‘racing,’ and so I think there’s a lot of room to have an elite category, a ‘racing’ category – people who are trying to compete and get on the podium and go to Kona. All of those athletes – elites – should come to the front of the line. I think Ironman should have an elite category.”
An edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting Ironman Finish Story… that eats at Eric Kenney to this day.
Eric underscores his enthusiasm for an Elite category through the telling this story…
“In 2011 I raced Ironman Lake Placid, and the age group below me was men 30-34. There were five spots to Kona that year, and – get this – the 2nd place through to 7th place spread between those six guys was TWO MINUTES – six guys, in a 9-hour, 45-minute race. Five spots to Kona, no roll-down. That’s the story I want to hear: guys running shoulder to shoulder – who’s going to make it, who isn’t. There’s an insane, epic, remarkable story in there. That’s incredible.
“Some guy got the last Kona spot by 20 seconds in a ten-hour race. That to me is just as crazy as the Raelert-Macca finish at Kona… that is the same level or interest for me.”
Eric’s desire to elevate interest in the sport of triathlon, both for the competitors and the spectators, underscores his effort to establish the local, elite level of racing. He says, “I want to make that professional field better, make it deeper… We’ve got the races here in Boulder – we have the Peak – HELLO! – and I think there are more Gwen Jorgensens out there, but we’re not going to find them in our current state. We have the best college tri team here in the state – these athletes need to have a place to go once they graduate. Maybe they’re not ready to go pro right out of the chute; maybe they’re worried about getting crushed because they’re not quite there yet. It doesn’t make sense to put them in the 25-29 amateur field and have them mop up everybody – That’s not going to work…
“An elite team would give them a HOME.”