Take 5: Boulder Olympic triathlete Laura Bennett | SummitDaily.com

Take 5: Boulder Olympic triathlete Laura Bennett

It's a good thing Laura Bennett is a morning person.

On a summery Tuesday in late May, the two-time Olympic triathlete and longtime Boulder resident came to Summit County bright and early at 5:30 a.m. for a photo shoot. For most of her life, the Florida-born athlete has been waking up at dawn (or before) to exercise, and exercise hard. On an average day, she rises around 5 a.m. or so — sometimes as early as 3:30 a.m. — and dives headfirst into race training.

"We're professional athletes and have all day to train," said Bennett, who's married to fellow triathlete Greg Bennett of Australia. "We get ragged on for waking up early, but we already live, eat and breathe the sport. No need to let it take over your entire day."

The early-morning routine started when Bennett was a youth swimmer and carried through to the varsity team at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. It didn't die there. In 1997 at 22 years old, her duty to habit earned an invite to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, which led to appearances at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and 2012 Olympics in London. She took fourth in 2008, 17th in 2012 and a slew of international wins in the years between.

Now 41 years old, Bennett is finished with Olympic racing — it's much too hard on the body these days, she says — but she's hardly finished with competition. The sun was just beginning to glow over the water when she arrived at Dillon Reservoir and the start line of the brand-new 106° West Triathlon, a half-Iron Man event scheduled to debut on September 10. It's the first and only tri with swimming access to the reservoir (aka the Front Range's water well) and Bennett can hardly wait. As for the cold, high-alpine water? Not so much.

"It was absolutely freezing this morning," Bennett told me around 1 p.m. after a few hours of photos on the bike route to Montezuma and run route around the lake. Luckily, she didn't have to swim in the frigid May water, just wade up to her calves for photos. But, come September, she and about 2,500 competitors (including fellow Olympians and international champions) will brave the elements for the debut of Summit's first half-Iron Man.

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Before then, Bennett talked with the Summit Daily sports desk about her Olympic past, the difference between an endurance and Olympic tri, and why it's not too late to train for 106° West — if you start this morning.

Summit Daily News: You're in town taking promo photos for the first tri ever on Lake Dillon. What has you excited to race in Summit County?

Laura Bennett: Number one, being able to drive to an awesome event is great. Distance can really wear on you. But, even in Denver, it's hard to swim on the open water. Growing up in Florida, I was never restricted to swim — we had the ocean. We're happy to see Dillon invite us to be here, and it's much cleaner than other water, like the Hudson (River) where you're worried about catching something nasty.

For me, with the Olympic drive, you're also looking for the best competition in the world. We want an experience-based triathlon and the altitude will be tough in this environment. The water will be freezing. I've done that before and it can be challenging, and it won't be easy, but when you combine all these things it really is just an epic way to do this sport. I've been to other races that are in the backwoods of a small town. Here, even if it's a bad day of racing you have a great day: the scenery, the location.

SDN: On the flip side, what makes you nervous about racing up here? Not only is altitude a factor — 106 West is also twice as long as an Olympic triathlon.

LB: I think racing hard at altitude (will be the hardest part). You think that you're fine — you walk around and feel great — but the minute your heart rate gets too high you'll have to walk to recover. That's my big advice: don't expect your pace to be the same up here. Try to monitor your effort and wear a heart-rate monitor. I do that anytime I race anyway, and as long as you aren't going over the redline you can race quite well at this altitude. But, if you don't have that, you'll be struggling.

SDN: Talk about competition at 106 West: As a elite athlete, is it more intimidating to race against Olympians in a standard tri, or is it more intimidating to join the public for an endurance tri?

LB: I think no matter what a great venue is important. The experience of racing is what triathlon is all about. Not one is equal to the other, so when you go out you want to experience something new and different. This is similar to the Olympics in that the experience of being here, in the mountains, at a great location with great friends, will make it just as fun. It's fun in a different way, but still fun.

SDN: What about the distance? Again, a half-Iron Man (70.3 miles) is more than double the Olympic tri (roughly 32 miles).

LB: I find the half-Iron Man distance really tough. It's an Olympic distance drawn out, so you still have that level of intensity, except now you need to maintain it for much longer. I hold onto all my finisher shirts from these distances because it really is a battle (laughs). I would do sprints if I could, honestly. That's where I'm at: I have power and speed, and I've just been building the strength and endurance for years. I honestly even found the Olympic distance challenging. I'm really more of a sprinter.

SDN: But you qualified for back-to-back Olympics tris through dedicated training. How does training for an endurance triathlon differ from an Olympic event?

LB: We look at the half-Iron Man distance training as aerobic conditioning. You want that no matter what, from Olympic to Iron Man, but with the Olympic distance you need strength a little bit more. No matter what, you want aerobic strength and muscle strength, and those two are huge components of triathlon (training) as a whole. Pushing those pedals over that distance for that period of time, plus handling your body weight for the run, all of it is important.

SDN: You developed a tri program through Training Peaks, the mobile training app, for 106 West. What are the main elements of that program?

LB: It's a lot of concepts we believe in already for any half-Iron Man. We'll also add the strength because you have a good hill climb, twice, for this course. The more aerobic strength and conditioning you have, the better. Once you hit an hour (on the course) you need that endurance ability. You need to make sure you're getting longer rides, longer intervals, and doing that regularly. You want to get over the distance mentally and emotionally, as well as physically, long before you come out.

Training for a triathlon is very individual. You need to know your strength and weakness. Say, for me, I swam in college, and so I don't put as much energy into swimming. The bike is a much bigger component, with a two-hour ride, plus an hour-fifteen run. We focus a lot on the run for strength and endurance, than work on the bike for endurance. Essentially, the swim is really only 10-percent of the race and you don't need to focus on that as much.

SDN: But yours is a special case — so many triathletes dread the swim because they don't have a swimming background.

LB: Sure. That's where we give tips on getting more comfortable in the water. Instead of swimming 20K per week you just swim six days per week, looking at the volume instead of overall distance. If it's a wetsuit swim like we're doing here, you do a lot of pull-buoy drills because you have the support with the wetsuit. You're buoyant. I even do that, too: If I know a race will be a wetsuit swim, I'll turn just about all of my workout into pull-buoy swims — maybe 50 to 75 percent even.

There are also different techniques you can use. It really does differ depending on the individual, and for this race we built a program that will get you fit. You still have to know yourself. A training program is only a guide, showing you how to structure your week. It provides the structure you need to know what is too much, what is too little, and how to change the program accordingly.

SDN: What's the trick to making a mobile training app work for you? It's convenient, but you also don't have the accountability of a real-lie trainer.

LB: The program is flexible to fit your needs, so you really need to understand what you want to get out of every session. Say, you wake up in the morning and have to do a strength swim workout and the kids are there, so you just can't get it in (that morning), but you can go to the gym later for a strength workout. It's knowing that, "OK, ideally I wanted a swim, but what was my body getting out of that session? What did it need?" You want to understand the program and the end goals, and our program helps people be adaptive. It doesn't have to be done to the tee, but the more you can get in, the better you'll be prepared.

We honestly thought it was a little irresponsible to write a program that was so flexible. You don't know the people, and when we're building a training program we ask people a ton of personal questions. It's just crazy to put a general program out to the public, at least for a trainer, but this makes it easier to get ready. No matter what it (the race) will be tough.

SDN: Which brings up a good questions: When should someone start training for a half-Iron Man?

LB: Ideally, you would have started already (laughs). But you'd be surprised how soon you can improve. I you have six weeks of consistent session — just once a day for an hour a day — that can make a difference. This is your routine, your habit. You figure out the time of day you have for yourself and build the rest of the day around that, if this is a priority to you. If it's not, you train when you can and then you'll struggle out on the course.

106° West endurance triathlon

What: The inaugural endurance triathlon in Summit County, featuring a half Ironman distances: a 1.2-mile swim on Lake Dillon, a 56-mile road ride to Montezuma and a 13.1-mile run around the lake for a total of 70.3 miles

When: Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016

Where: Dillon Marina starting line

Cost: $145 (quarter distance), $195 (half-Iron Man)

Online registration for the triathlon is currently open and the start list is restricted to 2,500 competitors. Price above doesn’t include online service fees and USA Triathlon fees. For more information on registration, training routines and more, see the official event website at http://www.106westtri.com. You can also follow the event on social media (@106westtri on Twitter, Instagram) for info and updates.