Trading Columbia Med School For Pro Triathlon

by: Matt Dixon

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PPF Pro Update: Cecilia Davis-Hayes

In just her first year as a pro, Cecilia Davis-Hayes has already achieved a podium spot, taking 2nd at the Philadelphia Escape Triathlon. Today, we document her journey from Columbia medical residency all the way to the podium last weekend.

Becoming A Professional 

Before diving into the race details, it’s worth sharing some context on Cecilia and her path to becoming a professional. After a couple of highly successful seasons racing triathlon as an amateur while enrolled in medical school, Cecilia faced a tough decision: To continue with her medical studies and the grind of a residency program or take a multi-year break from medicine in order to explore her potential as a professional athlete. Thankfully, this choice was made easier when Columbia University offered Cecilia a two-year hiatus to pursue triathlon full-time.

Late in 2016, Cecilia transferred from regular purplepatch programming to become a part of the purplepatch professional squad, coming directly under the guidance of Paul Buick and myself. The first step in the program was to build the resilience and fitness necessary to be successful at the Hawaii pro camp in January. I remember Cecilia telling me she had never worked so hard, yet it was only January and the load hadn’t even truly begun. During camp, it was a game of survival, with the load and grind making it an emotional and physical challenge for every athlete. Cecilia handled it well, but her performance level across the sports was not at the pro level. She had major technical issues in both running and biking, low muscular resilience, and a lack of range of speed and endurance across disciplines.

Despite these setbacks, Cecilia demonstrated tremendous athletic awareness, an underlying set of physiological traits, and most importantly a great desire and commitment to self-improvement. Cecilia didn’t approach the camp with fear, and although it was a humbling experience, she thrived in the opportunity for learning. On a daily basis, she did her best. That was all we could ask. She also left camp with a clear set of areas to focus on, which included components around self-management, technique improvements in bike and run, and her overall training approach. If she could return to New York and implement the changes, she had the potential to improve tremendously.

As this past weekend’s Philadelphia Triathlon demonstrated, Cecilia is a completely evolved athlete. She still has a long way to go, but the results so far have been thanks to the following:

  1. Putting herself in front of her coaches Committing to pro camp and immersing herself into a daunting experience without fear, accepting it would be a humbling experience.

  2. Immersion in self-improvement: Cecilia is fastidious about learning and understanding what she needs to improve.

  3. Execution: Learning what is required is step one, but it is useless without proper implementation. The tough part is to focus on these lessons when no one is watching. Progress is agonizingly slow, often imperceptible, but Cecilia was committed to the cause.

  4. Leaning in: Constantly sending check-in videos of progress, asking for next steps, searching of incremental gains anywhere she could.

  5. Embracing the journey: The final aspect of the journey so far has been the ability to realize that hard work doesn’t always yield immediate results. She has had to re-learn how to race, evolve to a new distance, and experience a different style of racing.

In six short months, Cecilia has completely evolved her technique, form, racing style, and profile as an athlete. She has moved toward becoming competitive at the highest level. Cecilia is nowhere near her potential yet, but she is on the path and her rapid progress has stemmed from a complete commitment to the process of radically improving style, form and approach. It hasn’t come for free, but Cecilia has applied the same mindset and approach that have made her successful in life to this new and crazy adventure. The lessons from Cecilia are applicable to everyone who is keen to excel in any pursuit in life. Nothing comes for free, nothing is promised, but the more you immerse yourself in the process, the better your odds for satisfaction, pride, and happiness with your results.

Philadelphia Escape Triathlon

Cecilia also recognizes the progress she has made, noting that this past weekend’s race “felt very different… it was less like hard work and more fluid,” explains Cecilia. “I was still trying hard, but I let it happen by focusing on form and running well, rather than specifically chasing a pace by piling on more effort.” Further, the Philadelphia race tossed Cecilia a curveball when the swim was canceled at the last minute, turning the triathlon into a run-bike-run duathlon. Cecilia recognized that a much longer, deeper warm-up was required: “Starting with a fast run changed everything, compared with a swim. I jogged for 10min, did drills and lunges, then a 3 mins of tempo, then 4 strides followed by jumps on the line.” As expected, the pack run at the beginning of the race was particularly fast but it didn’t phase Cecilia as she decided it wasn't worth staying with the leaders if it required red-lining so early in the race. “I thought of the first 2.1 miles as a ‘5k pace’. I let two women run out front, getting about 25 seconds on me, but close enough to see on the bike.” The second fastest bike split in the race allowed Cecilia to break away from the pack of women she ran with during the first run, and she then remained in second place through the tape, finishing less than two minutes behind world class triathlete, Alicia Kaye.

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