Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 52 – Dan and Melissa – STRETCHING THE LIMITS OF PERFORMANCE – Part 1 of 3

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DAN: I also felt like I didn’t need to retire because now I still just run and so I’d like to qualify for Olympic Trials in the marathon. And so for me, it’s really just about playing outside, and I just really enjoy training every single day. So, I feel like I’ll never actually retire.”

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JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host Jesse Funk. Today, I have another special episode where I’ve got two people hanging out with me. It’s always nice when I get multiple people to talk to because then I get to talk less, and I get more information so it always makes my job a little easier. Dan is a former Division One runner, former pro triathlete.

I’m going to ask him about that story because I’m sure there’s a story there. He has a Ph.D. in Integrative Physiology. He’s currently working as a biomechanics researcher and we’re definitely gonna get into that.

Melissa is also a former D1 runner. She currently trains with the Boulder Track Club. She has a Master’s in Integrative Physiology if I remember right. I didn’t check that before we got going, and is currently working on her Ph.D. They’re both coaches and run the Velocity Canyon Endurance project. Welcome to the show. Dan Feeney and Melissa Mazzo.

DAN: Thanks for having us.

MELISSA: Thanks for having us.

JESSE: You just said it nice. Did you practice that? Did that just come naturally?

DAN: We’ve been practicing most of it.

MELISSA: Oh, yeah. I mean, we’re in quarantine so got lots of time [??? 01:47].

JESSE: 3, 2, 1 okay. Do you do either of you have a musical background at all?

DAN: No.

MELISSA: No.

JESSE: Okay. Okay. The reason I ask is because there’s like, so if you play in an ensemble of any sort, you get used to basically, whoever’s leading does this breath, and they go. And then as they come down, you get the downbeat, and everybody goes at the same time. So, I was just like, maybe that’s your trick like, got time musical background. So, Dan, I’ll hop back.

You were telling me before we got going. So, you raced as a professional triathlete for, I think four years. I think that’s what I read. And you felt like you weren’t good enough to have a formal retirement. What’s the story there?

DAN: Yeah. So, Melissa and I met running at University of Delaware. And at the end of my sophomore year, they actually decided to cut the men’s program. So, I was faced– I was thinking about transferring because I just really wanted to keep running. I was super into it. I felt like I had a lot of untapped potential. But at the same time, USA triathlon began what’s called the Collegiate Recruitment Program [??? 03:02] take college runners or swimmers if they had a background in one or the other.

So, I grew up swimming basically [??? 03:10] I was 17 and I started running. So, instead of transferring, I basically just started training for triathlon then. I did a little stint at the Olympic Training Center, kind of try out, see how it goes, and then ended up racing mostly ITU Triathlon, Major League Triathlon, and then a few half Ironmans over the next, yeah, four or five years.

I did it in conjunction with while I was doing my masters in the beginning, my Ph.D. I felt like it was really nice balance between the two things. I never would say I really like fully jumped into only doing triathlon, but I had a couple of results where I was super excited about it. I also felt like I didn’t need to retire because now I still just run and so I’d like to qualify for Olympic trials in the marathon. And so for me, it’s really just about playing outside and I just really enjoy training every single day. So, I feel like I’ll never actually really tire.

JESSE: Yeah. So, I have to go on a little personal diversion here. What year did you join the CRP?

DAN: Probably 2012 would be my guess.

JESSE: Okay. Did you go straight to the draft legal and qualify or did you do nationals that year at all?

DAN: I did age group nationals and then qualified with one of those EDR races, the Elite Development Races that year. Yeah.

JESSE: Yeah. You didn’t happen to go to Barb’s clinic after the race in nationals that year, did you?

DAN: I went to one before the race actually.

JESSE: See, and that’s where I would have missed you because that was my first clinic with Barb was after that race.

DAN: Nice. That’s awesome.

JESSE: Yeah. So, I refer to myself as like a tag along with the CRP group because like, I didn’t hit like the qualifying, like A standard in running or anything. It’s all like high 15s in my 5K time. But Barb allowed me to kind of come along and meet with that group. So, I was like I knew when I saw your name I was like, gosh that sounds familiar for some reason, and I just don’t know.

So, apparently we just missed crossing paths at that point. So, one thing, whoever’s listening, kind of catching you up; one thing Barb mentions is that there is a… So, Barb Lindquist is the former head of USAT’s Collegiate Recruitment Program. And one thing Barb always mentioned is there is a big jump from like amateur triathlon to pro triathlon even if you easily qualify. So, can you tell me about the transition from one to the other and kind of what your experience was?

DAN: Yeah. I definitely was pretty green. Like I was 20– Actually, I think I turned 21 the year that I turned pro, but I only raced amateur for three months, which was maybe good and bad. I was in Delaware still at the time, so there wasn’t a ton. It’s like we live in Boulder now. So, I would have a really good idea of what the scene was like. Being in Delaware, I really didn’t have a great idea of exactly how fast people were biking. I just knew I could run pretty well and I was pretty decent.

So, I mean my first pro race I actually still did on a road bike with clip ons and I raced ITU. But for me, it was just everything was faster. Like showed up to the first race and I just remember being like, totally overwhelmed with the routines that people had. In draft legal, actually my first pro race was the one that Hunter Kemper broke his elbow at like [??? 06:34] before the Olympics.

So, I mean, I first off remember getting out of the water suddenly like a minute behind the leaders which was not super exciting and then going okay, well draft legal bike is probably gonna be pretty easy, but just absolutely hammering for 40K and then getting off and having to run 10K and suddenly not being nearly as fast of a 10K runner as I thought it was.

So, that and then the non-drafting world just for pros, like the swim is so much faster. If you’re not swimming at the front end you’re not gonna be riding with anyone, and then the riding is just full on because you don’t have anybody around you a lot of times you know, the drafting rules are a little bit more strict. So, definitely jumped into the deep end.

I would probably do it differently if I had this past view of how I have it now, maybe got another year biking under my belt. But I also really just like kind of going to like the most extreme ends of things at first and then figure out how to go from there.

JESSE: So, that’s the one thing that, you know, and you see it too with Hunter Kemper and you know all the big names, [??? 07:39] and all the guys now or ladies, really. It’s like we have this kind of on the outside looking in, have this kind of like idealized version and you can watch. Like they streamed Barb’s Olympic race on Facebook the other day, so I like watched the whole thing.

And it’s like you watch them and because they’re so good at what they do, it’s like, they make it look easy. But you know that they’re just like, crushing it the whole way and you experience it firsthand. So, I always like hearing from pros and former pros or like, [??? 08:17] I’m like, even if I’m in great shape, it’s still just brutal all the way through.

DAN: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I definitely experienced it a bunch of different times. My first year we did ITU World Duathlon Championships, which were draft legals. And so sort of our CRP group thought, well, at least everyone ran in college background. So, should be no problem. But I mean, running at 10K in low 30 minutes and then jumping on a bike. And then another 5K was also just you know, throw us into the deep end and nobody is really ready. So, it is [??? 08:49] when you watch those top athletes and they do look fluid, and effortless and to get to that point, it’s really a beautiful thing.

JESSE: Yeah. So, Melissa, I mean, it begs the question, how did Dan not pull you in and be like talk to Barb and like?

MELISSA: Oh, he thinks about it. But I take things a little bit more slowly and I got into triathlon after he moved out here to Boulder, after I kind of saw how amazing all the athletes were around here, and had kind of followed his journey through the whole professional track of triathlon. And so I opted for the collegiate club team and tried it out at CU for two years. I also have zero background swimming. So, he basically taught me a few years ago from scratch.

I like doggy paddled to the end of the pool, maybe on a good day. So, that was super cool. We got involved with a local master swim group and I started in the slowest lane with the 80-year-olds who’ve been doing this forever and they kind of taught me the ropes. I actually ended that two years of doing triathlon with like a quadrupled duathlon type thing at collegiate nationals that year. This swim was canceled. So, it was an Olympic race, a sprint race, and a relay. That was a lot of fun.

JESSE: Was that back to back to back? Or was that multiple days?

MELISSA: It was two days. So, the Olympic [??? 10:18] day or the sprint on one day and then the Olympics and the relay on the second day.

JESSE: Okay. Okay. And clearly you survived, you’re not dead, you actually made it through. How was the recovery after that?

MELISSA: …after that.

JESSE: Do what?

MELISSA: I couldn’t run for about two weeks after that. It was just like totally smashed, but it was awesome. It was such a good experience.

JESSE: And was that the end where you’re like, okay, I blew up all the– I put all the energy I could into this weekend and now I’ve done forever. Or what was it like, how was the transition from there?

MELISSA: I realized I was super excited when this one was canceled. Then every race, I was just really looking forward to the running. So, I decided, you know what, I have a lot of running goals that I still want to chase down. So, I kinda switched back over.

At that point, we were already training with the Boulder Track Club a few times a week. And I was like, you know what, I’m just going to go full-on towards getting back on the track, running fast 5K, doing the short hard stuff.

JESSE: Are you doing like pretty typical training schedules as far as like, kind of mirroring what you did in college; similar number of days, similar number of speed work, all that kind of stuff?

MELISSA: Yeah, it’s been pretty cool. Running with the group is honestly just the best. So, we do workouts on Tuesdays and Fridays, and then we have [??? 11:43] on Sundays, that is just open to anyone. So, that’s keeping it pretty similar to college. And then we actually have a husky who loves to run. Most of our easy days are running with her. But in college, I actually had four different coaches for my four years. And so I spent a lot of the time injured or like trying to adjust.

JESSE: Not sure, right. Because there’s no unified vision for the whole point. Yeah.

MELISSA: Right. So, it’s been awesome staying with a group consistently for the past few years. And we kind of read each other’s training programs a little bit too, if we want to try something new. So, that’s a lot of fun, just having someone to bounce things off of.

JESSE: So, I mean, you do not– you don’t argue with each other? You’re like Dan, that’s a little too tough or Dan, it’s a lot easy? Or you don’t yell at Melissa, “Hey, I can handle more than that. I don’t need an easy day.” Do you deal with that or is it just a simple like, okay, okay, coach that’s what I’m doing today?

MELISSA: That’s funny.

DAN: We have a good back and forth because we both readily acknowledge that we respond to things differently. Like, for me, it’s just like long, grinding tempo runs, long uphill stuff. I could do that every week and I’d get pretty strong off that. Whereas Melissa’s on the very other end of the spectrum.

MELISSA: I just want to do like 200, hill sprint. [??? 13:06] we need that top-end stuff to feel good. But I’ve also been training for shorter races. So, it’s a good compliment, kind of not overlapping that much in terms of our goals. So, it’s definitely a fresh perspective when we look at each other’s training.

DAN: And I think it keeps us from getting into one route too easily. Like, for me, I really hate going and running hard 400s or 200s, but Melissa’s doing it. It’s something that, you know, even if you’re training for a marathon or trail race, you should do. So, it ends up balancing out pretty well.

JESSE: Yeah. I just lost my train of thought. Dan, are you training by yourself all the time, or are you also with the Boulder Track Club?

DAN: I also run with the Boulder Track Club. So, we’ve got a really nice group of guys and girls that everyone works full-time, we just– I mean, when you’re commuting to work, we start our hard sessions at 7:00 AM on Tuesdays and Fridays and then get done in enough time to get to work. And I agree, just like Melissa said I don’t think I would be nearly as motivated as I am without that group. We’re not meeting right now, but we still have a Strava group and we still group texts and stuff like that.

JESSE: I know like, I went out to the track this morning to do some intervals and just for no reason at all, I was like, man, I really missed my guys today, the guys I trained with at college. It’s been like nine years now. But for whatever reason, it just struck me this morning just– It’s a nice day here like 60, sunny, it smells like track. Yeah. Do you guys get that?

I always wait and my girlfriend [??? 14:41]. She doesn’t come from an athletic background. So, I’m just like, it doesn’t smell like track season yet. Like the track has to be wet, a little rainy like 55 to 60, somewhere around there. And then I’m like, now it smells like track season.

DAN: Yeah. It’s a beautiful smell like early spring morning definitely get that. We had one of those days this week, I feel like. Definitely a lot of nostalgia too.

JESSE: Yeah, it’s all mixed in there and you’re just like… Something about, at least for me starting High School, going through college, just having that kind of cycle for eight years, essentially. It’s like, the seasons to me are spring, summer, fall, winters? Like, no, it’s cross country, indoor, outdoor, triathlon, like those are my seasons. Dan, I want to talk about your work. So, you work as a biomechanics researcher, I think predominantly on footwear. Is that correct?

DAN: Yeah, exactly.

JESSE: Okay. So, tell me a little bit about what you do.

DAN: For sure. So, I work for a company called Boa Technology. You’ve probably seen it on cycling shoes, the dials, our snowboard boots. We also are in tennis shoes, running shoes; kind of all over the place now. Starting about two years ago, which is around when I started at Boa, and then even a few years before that, sort of the idea was to transform the company from just like a closure system or like replacing laces to saying, how can we fundamentally change how shoes fit for someone?

And if we make something fit better, can you improve their performance? So, you know, if you think of any of the road racing shoes, like the super shoes that have come out now, if it doesn’t [??? 16:27] well, then maybe you’re losing some of that potential. Maybe there’s actually a little bit there.

So, my job was basically to come in and work with one other guy at the time Brett, and then we have a third person or team Kate and build a biomechanics lab. So, we have 2,700 square foot lab space, and basically any shoe that goes to market that isn’t just a lace replacement. So, if you look at like the New Balance 1,500 or the Saucony Switchback for running shoes, you’ll see that they’re totally different.

They don’t have laces on the top, they have lace on the side of the shoe, and we’ve tried to design straps and materials that will better conform to a wider shape of feet. And we’ll actually test all those shoes in the lab. So, any shoe that goes to market, the goal is to have that test in the lab and make sure that it’s providing some sort of benefit to the athlete. We’re not just doing it to do it.

JESSE: Okay. So, this is actually my first cognitive introduction to Boa. So, help me get up to speed. So, you’re testing basically the fit, the last of the different shoes for various companies, you’re like kind of an independent consultant?

DAN: It’s interesting, right? Like, it would sound like we’re an independent consultant, but we’re actually an ingredient brand. So, if you think of like, GORE-TEX [??? 17:43]. Like brands will buy at the factory level, the ingredients to make the shoe. What’s unique about us is we do have this product service where we don’t just want to give brands parts, we want to actually be involved in the development of that shoe.

And so for cycling shoes, for example, for the longest time, they had just basically been okay, let’s use Velcro, let’s use a ratchet system. And then about 10 years ago Boa came in and said, “What if we do it differently?” And now we’re trying to do that again and say what if there’s a totally radically new way we can actually wrap around the foot. And if it does fit better, we should be able to test some sort of performance derivative there.

JESSE: Okay. So, I’m with you now. The likeness to GORE-TEX makes things a lot simpler. It’s just how it is. I mean, I worked in a shoe store for a number of years. So, I was like I’m familiar with all the components and kind of some fitting shoes to people, but not actually the development stage which is pretty neat. I mean, how do you get to work there just because you’re like, I’m a really cool guy and I know like– I know about engineering and I can run? How does that inroad… What is the inroad into a technology company like that?

DAN: For sure. I think I’m super lucky because I think a lot of people that study biomechanics or physiology at some level probably would really enjoy a job like this. There aren’t just a ton of them exactly in the footwear development world. After I did my Ph.D. in Integrative Physiology, I really specialized in like very esoteric stuff like mathematical models of neurons. But really, you do your Ph.D. to learn how to learn, which is kind of a cliche.

But from there, I started working for a tech startup in Silicon Valley for a little bit. And then this opportunity at Boa came up and it was sort of just a really cool dream come true to say, let’s take these engineering and physiology perspectives that I have, and let’s apply it to footwear. And so especially some of the trail running initiatives that we have some of the cycling and ski initiatives that we have are super exciting because they’re sports that I do as well.

So, it does help them have that background in those sports. I know, I can narrow down where I think a performance benefit might be. Like, if you’re running down a really steep trail, the fit of a shoe actually starts becoming super important. Or especially if you’re trying to change direction really quickly on the trail. And so having that athletic background definitely does help too.

JESSE: So, I’ll get a little shoot nerdy here, I guess. So, if you’re listening, I apologize if this isn’t interesting. So, when you’re talking about trying to like fit a last, how do you compensate for basically foot swelling and change of foot size during exercise?

And obviously, it’s going to be different depending on the application. Say, if I’m going out for a half-hour run versus, like my friend, Pat going out for 30 miles, he’s gonna have a lot different kind of issues than I am because I’m simply not going to have the duration of time to have that increased swelling. So, do you guys or how do you guys deal with like changing foot shape as exercise goes on?

DAN: Yeah, it’s a really good question. And they’re a bunch of different ways that you could go about answering it. I guess starting at the very beginning is depending on the nature of the shoe. So, we have worked in a lot of trail shoes where we expect it to be a more ultra trail type user. So, [??? 21:22] trail ultras, etc. And so definitely, there’s going to be swelling.

There’s also just going to be a desire may be to change the fit during that race. So, if you’re gonna [??? 21:31] versus downhill, you might want a different fit, you might want to ratchet it down before you go down the hill. That’s one of the nice things about Boa is it’s more modular. So, just by turning [??? 21:40] either way, you can actually increase or decrease the tension on the shoe.

MELISSA: But by just a small amount. [crosstalk]

DAN: Yeah, by just [??? 21:46]

MELISSA: Compared to laces, it’s a lot more precise for sure.

JESSE: Right. I actually think now that you’re mentioning, you mentioned ratchet, and I was like I think, I actually think I’ve seen those on the cycling shoes. I can’t recall where I was. Maybe racing 70.3 Santa Cruz, I was with my friend Kevin, he was looking at a pair. I can’t remember which manufacturer had them, but he was really excited about it at the time.

DAN: Yeah. About 80% of cycling brands will sell them. You see them less in triathlon, but they’re still pretty common. And a lot of the top pros will, in longer distance races, will use a shoe with a Boa dial just because it generally fits a bit better. The other thing we do is we have really low friction components. So, like you said, your foot swelling over the course of a run, it might not necessarily mean that you want less fit in your midfoot, you just might want some room to accommodate your toes.

So, we’ll try to intentionally design how the shoe is actually closing so that as you move, the shoe can kind of conform to your foot as it changes over time. So, for the longest time, people measure their feet by just standing on a Brannock.

But when you’re moving, the actual morphology of your foot will change. So, that’s one of the cool things about our designs is because it’s really low friction it can actually move with your foot a little bit. And it’s hard, just using my hands I can’t really explain it. But if you look up some of the shoes that I was mentioning. I think you can kind of see how it’s a different way to approach fitting a foot rather than just tying on top of the foot, getting really tight in one spot, this is trying to get a more uniform fit.

JESSE: Do you guys, because you’re doing all this testing, do you have a situation ever where you’re like, they’ll give you a new shoe or I don’t know what– Do you get pre-production shoes or post-production?

DAN: We usually. Now, it depends. When we’re working with brands that we already work with, we do pre-production stuff [??? 23:37] something.

JESSE: So, do you ever get– They’ll send you a pre-production model and it’s just like, whatever, you know, the other part is obviously optimizing the upper and what the upper is made out of and the various layers of the upper. But do you ever get them and you’re just like, there’s weak points in the upper where you’re like the durability of the shoes is going to be down because of the material they’re using and like… I don’t know whether that’s in your purview as a company, but just do you ever get to see kind of outside things like that and say, “Hey, you might want to check this out and see that change as well?”

DAN: Yeah, that’s one of the really cool things. Because with the brands we work with, we are pretty deeply connected. So, 18 months before she goes to market, hopefully, were included in those first design briefs. And one of the first questions and one of the first capabilities that Boa had was the durability of our system. So, any shoe that has a Boa system on it is guaranteed for life of the shoe. So, we will test any configuration and by configuration, I mean what are the angles that these laces are going through, and where on the shoe are these laces being placed? We will test that to make sure it adheres to our standards so that it’s not going to break on you.

Now, on the flip side, our newer kind of biomechanical testing will include both quantitative data, so running, changing direction, whatever in the shoe, but also qualitative feedback. And so we’re at the point where we’re working with brands and saying, hey, this isn’t maybe this is great or this isn’t great, and here’s why. Let’s fix it for the next round. So, a lot of times that’s the goal is to make sure that anything that does get to market improves fit, improves performance, and people will qualitatively like it.

JESSE: Okay, okay. So, my next big question here is Melissa, so since you are working on your Ph.D. in I’ll say a similar field, it’s the same umbrella. I don’t know if you’re specializing in the same field. Are you going to take all of Dan’s information and build a competing company?

MELISSA: Totally. No, just kidding. Honestly, when he got this job, I was like, you are raising the bar so high for me to now graduate and find a job that is as cool. Especially if you want to stay here in Colorado. But no, it’s awesome. I love being in a field where like Dan kind of mentioned you study something so specific in this tiny little pocket of science for your Ph.D. And I get to see how he’s applying what he learned to the same field, but like this whole different side of it. It’s really awesome.

Also, just seeing how a company applies science, and you’re the only true scientist– no, they’re two of you. So, you have like two true scientists at Boa. And they’re translating their research and how they think about all these concepts to a company that’s really focused on the marketing side of it, just interacting with brands and knowing how to present it and it’s definitely helpful looking forward.

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