Lisa Bentley, 11-time Ironman champion, is a 51-year-old coach and motivational speaker from Ontario whose approach to racing and life is beyond inspiring. Bentley, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, speaks with gumption and sincerity and her example may be enough to propel us off the couch and into the wild as we face this first winter of the great unknown. Ben Kaplan caught up with Bentley after her workout on a recent Friday afternoon.
iRun: During the pandemic, have you ever felt down or like a loss of motivation?
LB: Everyone has days of lack of motivation. The main thing is these pandemic days become so similar, it feels like Groundhog Day, but I had more of them when it was winter. I’ve gotten somewhat used to it but I do remember days feeling a bit sad.
iRun: So what did you do?
LB: Figure out ways not to be. I would literally be determined to be happy. It would be a goal. So I would go to see my mom from a distance or talking to someone on the phone or walking my dog. Walking my dog has brought me a ton of joy.
iRun: For me, it’s been exercise. I’ve never run this much in my life and I edit a running magazine for a living.
LB: Exercise has been a huge part of it and completing a certain route or time or distance—whether a run or getting on my bike—brought its own goal and purpose and brought me a sense of satisfaction that got me through the day.
iRun: Is it true you’re sponsored by ASICS? What’s been your approach to pandemic footwear and what do you recommend?
LB: Yes, I’m part of the ASICS family. It’s ironic because the ASICS mission is “sound mind in a sound body” and I embodied that idea of mindset and heart-set throughout my entire career and now in my coaching and speaking. The amazing thing is that in spite of having very complicated, battered feet after 40 marathons (I have two torn tendons in my right foot because of my inherited flat feet), I am running totally pain-free for the first time in ages. My favourite training shoe is the Gel Nimbus 22, but I also run in the GT 2000 and Cumulus. The NovaBlast and DynaBlast are my go-to dog-walking shoes; for the rowing machine and strength circuits, I use the RoadBlast, and now that the colder weather has hit, I’m using the Gel Sonoma GoreTex Trail Shoe.
iRun: What’s your take on the importance of exercise?
LB: Control what you can control and take a sense of pride in it. And choosing to exercise brings you a sense of control. “This is my bike ride or run or plyometric session and this pandemic cannot take it away from me.” Exercise releases endorphins and brings a sense of pleasure, of satisfaction. It’s good for your self-esteem.
iRun: What else have you been doing to keep your spirits up?
LB: Doing things for others. When I was racing, I used to create a theme for my race which I would focus on when the effort seemed unsustainable. I have been doing that during this pandemic as well. For example, when I feel restricted or wishing that I could go to a restaurant or church or the gym, I return to my pandemic theme: Stay healthy. Then not being able to go to the gym or a mall or restaurant made sense and was bearable, even smart.
iRun: What are some other themes you have used?
LB: Be grateful.
iRun: As a coach, how are you keeping your athletes grateful?
LB: It’s a difficult year to provide motivation but I like to think that I am an athletic coach, life coach and “keeper of goals.” Our goals have had to evolve and my job is to provide motivation, not keep people motivated.
iRun: So what’s the answer?
LB: Create incentives and goals. Of course, when you take the gym and pools away from triathletes, it’s difficult. But it’s not something we can’t handle. We can use this as a time to focus on threshold and increasing intensity over shorter distances rather than just ‘surviving’ 6-hour rides and 3-hour runs in preparation for an Ironman. It has been fun to watch athletes run their best half marathon in prep for what is now Boston Marathon 2021 or ride their best 90K in prep for what has become Ironman Mont Tremblant 2021. Tell you the truth, I’m more worried about my mother in a retirement residence than I am about my athletes.
iRun: That would be hard, being in a residence.
LB: I just hope they don’t lock them in.
iRun: How are you adjusting to the pandemic?
LB: I’m not visiting people indoors. I’m not visiting restaurants. I can handle it thanks to my mini-daily goals and having our dogs to care for. I’m just concerned about my mother. I’m fine. I worry about people on their own, feeling a bit lonely and isolated and my concern is that people who need companionship are being taken care of.
iRun: That generosity of spirit feels like a good time to broach your athletic career. You’ve said compassion is the key to success. What does that mean?
LB: When I was racing, I knew my competitors. They were way better than I ever was—I knew their splits and there’s no way on paper I should’ve beat them, but sometimes I would. As I matured as an athlete I realized so much could be accomplished mentally by positive reinforcement, but also loving what you do and having compassion.
iRun: I feel like some athletes use anger or rage to pump themselves up.
LB: It goes back to when I was a teacher; an older teacher told me, ‘As long as you love your students, you’ll be OK.’ As long as you love the kids, there’s no problem, nothing you can’t handle. And it was true. When I was having a tough personal day and wasn’t full of love for my students, they felt it and those were tough teaching days. But when I had genuine love in my heart for my class, I could handle any curveball. When you love your sport, love to compete, it’s compassion: it’s love.
iRun: How did that manifest at an event?
LB: I could elevate my game way beyond my talent. I remember once competing with a chest infection and my internal message was: I’ll be the best person out there with a chest infection! I get to race! I will do my best with my deck of cards. When you throw your whole self into something, there’s no doubt you’ll be successful. I had no idea what success meant—it didn’t necessarily mean a win—but if you love what you’re doing and do it with compassion, it spurs belief. And when you have belief, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish.
iRun: What did you learn?
Belief trumps talent every single time.
iRun: We should mention that you had belief while suffering from cystic fibrosis.
LB: One of my secret powers was having cystic fibrosis.
iRun: Secret powers?
LB: It brought me purpose.
iRun: That’s such a cool way of thinking about it.
LB: Not many endurance athletes would want a genetic lung disease, but it brought purpose to my racing. Somewhere there was a family with a child with CF watching me, and that has a lot of power. So when you’re on the course of an Ironman going up and down on the rollercoaster and you have something like that to hold onto, it’s powerful.
iRun: It sounds powerful.
LB: I did the best I could do with my deck of cards and I didn’t measure success as crossing the finish line first. But that’s how it felt—and it allowed me to cross the finish line first.
Lisa Bentley is the author of An Unlikely Champion, and a speaker and a coach. Her website is LisaBentley.com.