A Chat with John Highfillby Michael Orendorff, June 2014
I came. I sat down. I listened. I ramble talked with a tired mind post-bike ride with John.
Still, I came up with no focal point for an article; no solid footing on which to build. Michelle dropped in a few times and in seconds, with a comment/observation, gave insight not gained in many minutes of discussion.
I guess I could box him up for you. And then let’s see how he breaks out of the box you and I build.
THE BOX: 15 years a family physician — a profession entered after first obtaining a PhD in Chemical Engineering. 21 years with Michelle. Four children at home – Benjamin, 14, Rachel 12, William 10, Ellianna 8. Now let play the stereotypes you have in your head for both of those professions, maintaining a long marriage and helping to raise multiple children. Engineers? Yeah, you know that stereotype. Three-dimensional thinking critical to being a good chemist? You bet. The stoic GP who listens but never reveals except for delivering diagnosis, prognosis and instructions? Yep, we’ve clicked off a few ways to pigeonhole him. Does the following fit that?
Four months prior to the 2010 Boulder Peak Triathlon, an Olympic distance, John began his tri journey. As with most newbies, the swim was his Achilles heel – still is though improvement continues. At Boulder Peak that year he nearly quit in the first 100 meters, during which he was kicked, hit and swum over – a pummeling he’d never experienced before. Though he never grabbed a support kayak he did take a breather near one and the kayaker told him to relax, that he could do this. Off he went, slowly and steadily, finishing the event.
Prior to that first tri in 2010 he had been teaching himself to swim – watching online videos, becoming confused with the advice and jargon, trying to not go backwards when attempting to use a kickboard. (He swears that’s true.) Since then he has worked with Susanne Divelbiss, a local high school and youth group swimming coach, to gradually bring down his swim times while also building his swim confidence. His half-iron swim times have declined from 49 minutes down to 45 then 43.5 then 41. (Selfishly, I hope he continues to drop down to 31 or 32 so he and I can have some good races, which I think he will then win due to his excellent biking, good running off the bike and relative youth. I would love to get beat by him.)
Key people: Don’t be offended if your name is not in this list. (Mine certainly isn’t.) John stresses that it’s the group love, so to speak, that is addicting. (I’ve only heard positives from people who have gotten out with him to ride or run, so that must be true.) But key people along the triathlon path have been the Steves, Paul D, Adrian C, Kim A, and Irena V.
Favored distance: Hasn’t settled on one. He’s leaning toward Oly but he’s done four half-irons that have been enjoyable challenges so the jury is still out.
A non-racing triathlon purpose: John takes the responsibilities of his profession, marriage and children seriously. Triathlon is his disengagement exercise. Swimming is the most disengaging of the three disciplines. That is, disengaging from the other parts of life but still fully mentally engaging, Michelle stressed.
Key non-SBR (Swim-Bike-Run) activities: John does weight training regularly, a must for good mountain climbers and half-iron racers. He focuses each session on a particular body region, e.g. legs. (One can see that strength when riding with him.) He also follows a very healthy eating plan – no fast food, good selection of healthy meats and vegetables, lunches usually at home with Michelle’s sustaining fare, always being aware of what he puts in his mouth. That enables him to not need any sugary foods until entering the third hour of training (a great sign that one is fueling properly in the rest of life).
Most satisfying event experience to date: The HITS weekend in Grand Junction this year. It was with family. He liked the small field and found the event well-organized with the RD (race director) accessible. He unexpectedly broke the 5:20 half-iron barrier and son Benjamin finished his first Olympic distance tri that weekend. (btw, Benjamin did his first tri at age 5.)
Long-term sustaining vision: John’s sustaining vision to keep himself going years down the road is almost completely from within. A key part of that long term vision: He wants to be able to do these types of events when he’s 75, twenty-eight years away.
Lowest athletic moment: John’s athletic low occurred during his three years of medical residency. He says that on January 1, 2004 he hit a weight of 191.4 lbs on his 5’8” frame. He felt sluggish. Stairs became difficult to ascend. So he began cycling and weightlifting. (I say that was to our gain as well as his.)
Michelle emphasizes John likes to do things that are tough. In engineering he chose one of the more difficult areas – chemical engineering. When summiting fourteeners he has done a mid-winter climb using a backside route up Pikes Peak. So I hope the following gives him a sustaining tough challenge to keep him in our sport: I often say we cannot tell ourselves we have conquered this tri sport until all three disciplines have been brought into balance – no glaring weakness in one or the other. Let’s hope John continues with us at least to that point as he is a great addition on rides, at events and just good to have around in general.
My parting shot: John, you’ve got to quit resting while you wait for us on a bike ride. Circle back, John, circle back. Then re-do that hill or sprint away from us again. No fair to re-freshen while the rest of us mere mortals struggle to catch up.