How Triathlete & Author Len Joy Optimizes His Mind & Body For Peak Performance

I have goals for my triathlon and my writing career. To achieve those goals I have to work at it every day. By definition if you are doing something every day, then that’s a habit. There are days when I don’t feel like working out or writing. But I have to show up even on those days when I don’t want to. Especially on those days.

As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Len Joy.

Len is a nationally ranked triathlete and competes internationally representing the United States as part of TEAM USA. He is an award-winning author of the novels, American Past Time, Better Days and Everyone Dies Famous.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I had an idyllic childhood, growing up in Canandaigua, New York — the gem of the Finger Lakes. Canandaigua is a small town, but not too small. The nearest “big” city was Rochester.

One of my earliest and fondest memories is the cross-country motor trip our family took in 1960. That trip was the subject of the only poem I ever had published:


I think about my Father.
It is 1960. I am 9 and we are on the vacation
we have talked about my whole life.

We have a mint-green Chevy Wagon pulling a canvas tent trailer.
No radio, no seat belts, no AC. We add an air-cooler in Albuquerque.
They say we’ll need it for the run across the desert.

Six of us in that wagon.
Mom and my three sisters and Me and Dad…the Driver.
I always sit up front because I am the Boy.

From Canandaigua to Chicago, then south.
We miss the twisters at Roman Nose, but catch the rain in the Panhandle.

On to Gallup where Mom and Dad fight.
Up to Angel Lake in the Rockies. The car overheats.
The road is narrow and winding. I am scared.

We drive through Vegas at midnight. So many lights.
We don’t stop. I sleep through the Desert.
I wake up at the Flamingo Motel in Pasadena.

Disneyland is cool.
Knott’s Berry Farm is boring.
I like playing shuffleboard at the motel pool.

My Uncle takes us to the Beach.
The ocean’s too cold. It knocks me down.
I can’t get out. I like the motel pool.

Then we turn around.
Wall Drug, the Corn Palace, Mount Rushmore (where I get lost).
Back through Chicago and all the way home.

Four weeks to California and back.
Seven thousand five hundred and forty-nine miles.
Dad drives Mom keeps track.

We come home and I grow up.
Dad goes to every lousy basketball game (home and away)
Even when we lose 18 in a row.

I came of age in the ’60s and that was a turbulent time. The Viet Nam war was raging, Rochester and other major cities were torn with riots, and in the spring of my junior year, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The sheltered, Norman Rockwell life we were living had come to an end.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a writer and elite amateur athlete?

When I went off to college, I had a boyhood fantasy of becoming a world famous novelist and a professional football player. After my first-year term paper was shredded by a hard-ass literature professor I abandoned my novel ambitions, and after two years of being relegated to the kickoff team I faced reality and gave up on my pro football fantasy.

I was a good athlete, just not professional grade. I loved sports and for years I played golf, tennis, league softball, squash and YMCA basketball. My sports career took a dramatic turn, however, when I tore my ACL during a basketball game. After the surgery I no longer had the confidence to play basketball with intensity so I decided to become a competitive distance runner.

I quickly discovered I was not competitive with elite runners of my age. One day, at a neighborhood block party, a woman told me she had just competed in the Chicago Triathlon and a light went on. I was good — not great — at swimming, biking and running, so I thought, maybe if I did all three sports together, I could become an elite triathlete. It was a naïve notion, but at least I was smart enough to realize I would never achieve that goal without professional training. I hired a coach and she has helped me to make that dream possible.

That was twenty years ago. I’ve now competed in over eighty triathlons and I’m slowly working my way up the rankings. Of course, as I get older the number of athletes in my age group keeps declining. My goal is to be the last man standing.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My parents were great. They were always encouraging, but they had perspective. They grew up in the depression and came of age during World War II. They knew there were more important things in life than sports or grades.

My dad was a good athlete. He encouraged sports without pushing them. He would play catch with me whenever I asked, take me golfing (enduring my temper tantrums), and even though he couldn’t swim he made sure my three sisters and I learned how to swim. One year he stepped in and coached my Little League team when we needed a coach.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Once in a junior varsity basketball game, I grabbed the rebound on a missed free throw, faked out the guy defending me, and scored easily. Too easily. It was their missed free throw and I had just scored for the other team. The lesson I learned that day was, “Pay attention.”

I thought that was a lesson I had learned forever, but thirty years later in a race in Lake Havasu, I was on the run segment trying to catch the runner ahead of me. He didn’t look like much of an athlete and I wondered how he had gotten so far ahead. When I finally caught him, I realized I was no longer on the race course. I had been pursuing a guy who was just out for a Sunday jog.

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?

Have fun.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

The lock down has affected everyone. Because I write and train from my home, it affects me a lot less than people who have real jobs, but it still has totally disrupted my plans and my routine. It sounds trite, but I have tried to make the best of the situation.

I usually have 8 to 10 races a year, with lots of travel. All races have been canceled, but at my age, I can’t even think about not training. My coach changed my workouts so I do less hard running and spend more time strengthening my core and improving my flexibility. When races resume (next year, I hope) I should be stronger and less likely to get injured.

My novel, EVERYONE DIES FAMOUS, will be released in August. I realized, with so many folks sheltered-in-place, there was an opportunity to solicit reviews from writers and critics who might not otherwise have had the time. I now have a number of favorable advance reviews and I’m looking forward to a successful launch next month.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress.

Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

Preparation is the key to having a successful race. My coach gives me a workout plan that builds up to the race in such a way that my body is prepared on race day. In the days before a major race I will survey the course — check out the roads and trails where I will be running, ride the bike route and when possible get in a practice swim. On race day I set up my bike in transition and then walk through the entry and exit path I will be taking. After I clear transition, I will do a warmup jog and some stretching exercises. While I am stretching, I visualize the race from start to finish, reminding myself of what I need to do at each point in the race. When they call my wave I am confident that I am ready, both physically and mentally.

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?

I never thought much about breathing until I started wearing a COVID mask. I don’t like the masks, but I understand their necessity. I wear a gaiter and I run in the early morning to avoid other people. I make sure to pull up the mask when I encounter anyone. Like the rest of the world, I look forward to the day when I won’t have to wear one.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

I have a checklist I follow before every race.

  • Exercise taper so my body is conditioned, but not fatigued;
  • Bike tuned;
  • Gear packed including extra socks, trisuit, goggles;
  • Race day nutrition organized;
  • Study the course so I know what to expect;
  • Know where I’m going to park on race day;
  • Set out everything the night before the race;
  • Go to bed early.

How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?

I don’t have a great diet, but I am serious about weight control. I weighed 175 in high school, but after college, I gradually gained weight until one day, twenty years later, I weighed 190. I realized if I didn’t change my eating habits in another ten years I’d weigh over 200.

My coach recommended the MyFitnessPal app. With the app I recorded everything I ate. That helped me make choices I could live with. I didn’t make dramatic changes. I eliminated between meal snacks and reduced portion-size. In six months, I was back to 175, and that’s what I weigh today. I should get down to 168 for optimal performance, but that would require me to reduce my daily wine and cheese intake and I’m not ready to do that.

These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature.’ Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?

I have a lot of habits. I’m fortunate that many of them are “good” habits.

  • Early riser — most days before 5 a.m.;
  • Workout six days a week — one to two hours usually;
  • Walk my dog twice a day (maybe that’s his habit, not mine).
  • Write or revise or review someone every day;
  • Always have a novel I’m reading
  • Magazine junkie — I subscribe to over a dozen literary and political journals — conservative, liberal, and lunatic fringe.
  • Watch a lot of television — this is the golden age of TV drama — The Wire, Breaking Bad, Fleabag, Game of Thrones, After Life, The Sopranos, etc.
  • Wine & Cheese — every day.

According to my physician, my daily wine and cheese routine is not a “good” habit. But we have different definitions of good.

I have goals for my triathlon and my writing career. To achieve those goals I have to work at it every day. By definition if you are doing something every day, then that’s a habit. There are days when I don’t feel like working out or writing. But I have to show up even on those days when I don’t want to. Especially on those days.

Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

I think you have to pursue activities you enjoy. If you need exercise, but hate running, don’t try to develop a running habit. Find a different exercise.

Getting rid of a bad habit is tough. I feel fortunate I never smoked, because the smoking habit is tough to kick. For behavior that I know is not good for me, but which I’m reluctant to give up, I compromise. I skip the extra dessert; pass on the 3rd beer; put the pizza away before I eat the whole thing; I’m not breaking the habit, just containing it. It’s a start. I think you have a higher chance for improvement if you aim for incremental progress.

As a high performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?

I usually work out in the early morning and start writing about mid-morning. I find the exercise, even when it is really tough, helps prepare me mentally for the rest of my day. Exercise is uncomfortable, but that doesn’t bother me. My mind tells me it’s a healthy activity, so when I start to write, I’m in a good place. The physical exertion helps set up the mental activity.

Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.

I don’t meditate, but I daydream a lot. Especially when I’m on a long run or bike ride or even a swim. Sometimes I play out scenes in my head that I’m working on. The exercise helps open my mind to other options I might not have thought of while I was just staring at the computer screen.

Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?

In my first novelAMERICAN PAST TIME, one of the characters, Jimmy Stonemason, is called upon to deliver his high school class commencement address. Here’s an excerpt:

“Okay. Here’s what I figured out so far: We’re all going to fail.” He paused to let that sink in. “We’re not going to fail to plan. We’re going to make all sorts of ridiculous plans. And you know what? God’s going to laugh at our plans. Most of us are going to fall on our face. The unlucky ones are going to grab the brass ring, and then they’re going to realize they didn’t even want a brass ring.”

“A lot of those self-help books have ten-step programs for the reader to follow. I wanted to come up with my own program, but I figured, ten steps are too many. My dad would probably walk out before I got halfway through, so I figured a three-step program would be better.”

He walked back to the lectern and glanced at the notes from his speech again. “Okay are you ready for this? The Jim Stonemason three-step program for a successful life?

“Step 1. Forgiveness.

“It’s not a perfect world. Sometimes the people we count on — our parents, our teachers, our friends — they are going to break our hearts.

“Guess what? They’re human. We have to forgive them. Because if we can’t forgive the people who helped to get us to this point, we won’t be ready when we move into the real world. Because if there is one thing I am certain of, it is this: we are all going to fail.”

He stopped smiling. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, then continued, with a slower cadence, as though he were searching for just the right words. “When we fail, even if the failure is catastrophic, it doesn’t have to be forever. We have to forgive ourselves. Let me repeat that. We have to forgive ourselves. As long as we’re still breathing, we have a chance to make things right. But we can’t if we’re spending all of our energy blaming ourselves. So when you stumble, give yourself a break.”

He took another deep breath and his shoulders sagged into a more relaxed posture. “I thought to myself, that is a damn good first step. And, after I sat in my room for a few more days and hadn’t come up with any more steps, I had an epiphany. Why not a one step program?” He scanned the crowd. “I don’t see y’all taking any notes so this will be easier for you to remember. Right?”

Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I don’t know if I have.

I was dealt good cards in the game of life. Had great parents. Grew up in a pleasant small town where I made lifelong friends. Met Suzanne Sawada in college and we’ve been married over forty years (sometimes I lose count of the years). Raised three wonderful children who still love their parents. Had the privilege of owning a company with awesome employees and customers for fifteen years.

Now I’m in Act III, still healthy and active and pursuing new dreams. Some people are born on third base and think they hit a triple. I know I’ve been lucky.

These are difficult times. It is easy to see the differences in our society — race, class, age. If we just focus on what divides us, I fear our society will continue to fragment. The characters in my novels are flawed. They have good intentions but some times their beliefs or their behavior or their language is inappropriate. Maybe even unacceptable to some readers. Just like the real world.

We are all imperfect human beings. My hope is that some readers will find something to love in a character I created, even though that character isn’t someone they would typically hang out with in the real world.

It’s a small thing, I suppose, but it’s something.

Can you share your favorite Life Lesson Quote? Why does that resonate with you so much?

Just one? This is my favorite question. The Economist magazine has a feature in their daily online news digest where they provide the quote of the day. I’ve made a habit to check it every day and save those quotes that resonate. Here are my favorites:

  • “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” — George Burns
  • “Nothing is a hobby — each discipline is its own world with its own high standards.” — Patti Smith
  • “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20, has wasted 30 years of his life.” — Muhammed Ali
  • “I’m not young enough to know everything.” — Oscar Wilde

And my number one favorite:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” — Steve Jobs

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

That’s an easy question. I would love to have lunch, or breakfast, or preferably a beer with Oprah. She created great opportunities for often undiscovered or lesser known writers. Her selections were sometimes surprising, but always first-rate. And to me she seems like a very genuine person. It would be fascinating to have a conversation with her. I’d be happy to pick up the bar tab, if that would help seal the deal.

Len Joy (lots of open slots on my calendar)

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