Today’s interviewee doesn’t shy away from adventure or endurance sport challenges. Beth Lahr York is a cyclist, competitive skydiver and former world record holder, CVR cycling athlete (virtual cycling platform) and commentator, triathlete and marathon swimmer in her spare time. Phew.
On top of that, the 48-year-old American is a successful, two-time Emmy winning producer and a mum of two. Earlier this year, she completed the 12.5 mile Swim Around Key West race, which is no mean feat considering she only learned to swim four years ago! We dive into this, the 4am starts it took to train, and more, in today’s Q&A.
You only learned to swim in 2015, but completed a 12.5 mile open water swim in June. How difficult was it learning to swim as an adult?
Learning to swim as an adult was hard. I made it to adulthood with one hell of a doggie paddle. I never had a fear of water and spent plenty of time body surfing, jumping off bridges, dams, waterfalls, rope swings, waterskiing, etc. But I never learned to put my face in the water and swim. So I was very nervous and self-conscious showing up at the pool.
I remember watching all the swimmers doing hundreds of yards as a warm-up, and I couldn’t even make it 25 yards in the pool without hyperventilating. It was so frustrating. I was fit and strong, and yet I was terrible. Part of me was pissed off that I sucked so much at it. When I pushed myself harder, I would end up moving slower, not faster. It was so counterintuitive. Swimming was the opposite of cycling and running. I wish I could say swimming came easy and I immediately loved it. I did not. Most of the time I felt so out of breath I thought I was drowning.
What kept you going on your mission to learn to swim?
Somewhere along the way, the challenge hooked me and I wanted to improve in the worst way. I worked hard. I started to improve. I got comfortable. I became relaxed. I knew that I’d never be fast, but that was OK, I could measure my progress in yards instead.
Ultimately, swimming has taught me so much. It has reminded me it’s never too late to learn and it’s a good practice in humility. I also learned how to breathe, to let go, to stop kicking when I am tired and to practice holding form when I want to fall apart. I knew I had to fully commit my mental and physical resources and quiet the voices of self-doubt. I had to stop asking myself “if” I could, and focus on “how” I could.
What was your training like in preparation for your 12.5-mile Key West swim?
My first step was evaluating if my goal would be in alignment with the time I could devote to reaching it. I started from a pretty low volume of swim training in January 2019. At the time I was swimming 1-2 days per week for about a total of about 4000-6000 yards, with my local Masters team at the YMCA pool. But I knew I needed to transition from the shorter, high intensity sets and build endurance and volume. I needed a plan that was consistent, but had to make sure I gave myself adequate recovery so I wouldn’t get injured.
I was introduced to some experienced marathon swimmers, asked a lot of questions and then leaned on my running background to create a training plan. I learned that I needed to get to 65-75% of the expected duration/distance of the race by 3 weeks prior to race day. I woke up at 4am and trained 3 days a week, focusing on efficiency and technique. I logged minutes of swimming instead of the distance in yards. This helped me relax into a comfortable pace that I focussed on sustaining for the prescribed duration. Every Friday, I added 15 minutes to my ‘long swim’ until I got to four-and-a-half hours. Mondays and Wednesdays I also incrementally added more minutes to my swim. The other days I cycled to keep my engine strong. I couldn’t have sustained the hours of effort without the cycling fitness I’ve built over the years.
Did you train in open water too?
Thanks to being in Massachusetts, none of my training was in open water. No wind, no current, no sea life, no waves. A climate controlled pool with a painted line on the bottom. Confident I had the volume, I knew there was plenty of other things I couldn’t predict or prepare for. Luckily I had hours of quiet in the pool to meditate on that.
While I tapered for the swim, I amped up my cycling in preparation for a 149-mile endurance cycling event that awaited me 7 days after Swim Around Key West. So my swim taper included two 100 mile training rides on back-to-back Sundays the week before the swim.
How did your Key West marathon swim go?
The actual race was amazing. It is such a privilege to line up for a race and I felt blessed to be spending a Saturday swimming around a beautiful island. After the months of tedious training, the event felt like a sweet reward for all the hard work. Getting to the start line uninjured was enough reason to celebrate. The first and last 2 miles were the toughest. But never once did I doubt I would finish. I enjoyed the warm water, I enjoyed the hot sun, I enjoyed celebrating what I had trained my body to do. It simply felt that I was exactly where I needed to be. I grew as a swimmer and as a person. And yes, I saw a shark. Which, in the warm embrace of fatigue, wasn’t at all scary. It was, ‘1, 2, breathe, 4, shark, breathe’. And if I had my eyes open at one point I would have seen the stingrays and sea turtle. I relaxed in the confidence earned by trusting my training and my body.
On to cycling. You’ve also completed the crazy-tough Mt Washington Hill Climb – a 7.6 miles uphill cycle event with an average gradient of 12%!
This was probably the most challenging race I’ve done. Despite all the training, it was still physically brutal and mentally excruciating. I realized there was nothing I could do to prepare, except the road itself. The auto road (race course) is only open to cyclists two days a year. Once for the “practice” ride and once for “race” day. Prior to the practice day, I spent time doing climbing repeats on Cadillac Mountain in Maine, and on some other mountains. I did 2-hour max threshold efforts on my trainer at a low cadence. I worked on my strength and my engine.
But still, my legs and lungs hurt so much and a boxing match was going on in my brain. My mind would oscillate between some tough-love coaching and negative self-talk. Some words I needed to repeat and burn in, and some I needed to flame out to ashes. There was a big part of me that saying, “What on earth were you thinking? This is so stupid… why did you even think you had what it takes to do this?” and another voice saying, “Shut the hell up, don’t be a wimp, you’ve totally got this… ”.
It took all I had to keep moving. I would see the switchback corner ahead and cling to hope that the road would flatten out once I made the bend. It never did. It literally never did.
Despite nailing my training, nothing could really prepare me for what it would feel like to make the relentless climb. Perhaps I had been too confident in my training but I was absolutely humbled on race day. I placed 4th in my age group, but completing the climb was my win. I conquered it.
You represent the US in competitive skydiving. Tell me more?
I’m part of an all-woman, 4-way formation skydiving team called FlyGirls. In 2018 we competed at the US Skydiving Nationals and earned a qualifying spot to represent the US in the World Cup. It’s worth noting that in the US, there are no gender divisions. All teams compete on a level playing field and can be co-ed, or be composed of all men or all women. Though there is not a specific women’s division in the US, there is on the World level.
What does competitive skydiving involve?
In 4-way formation skydiving competition there are 10 rounds (10 jumps). Each round is has a sequence of formations based on a “draw” from a pool of formations. A team earns a point for each formation it completes (in proper sequence) from exit and within the first 35 seconds freefall, and has a videographer who needs to capture the jump at proper angles so the judges can clearly see the formations.
How do you train for competitive skydiving?
A typical training day is sun up to sun down, with 10-12 jumps. The physical side of training involves practicing the formations and the exits. There is a lot of work on the ground to walk through the formations (and roll through on “creepers”; body skateboards that you lie on). But there’s also lots of mental preparation in terms memory, engineering, and concentration/focus. After each practice jump there’s a video debrief where we all discuss what went well, and what we need to do improve. In addition to training outside, we also train in a wind-tunnel to get in more repetitions more efficiently. Plus, it’s more convenient to schedule as you don’t need a plane or sunlight to practice.
You qualified for the 2019 Skydiving World Cup next week – congratulations!
For the 2019 World Cup Event, I decided to participate as an alternate due to time constraints. I intentionally ‘benched’ myself because with my race calendar, I wasn’t able to give it all of my focus. It simply wouldn’t have been fair to my incredibly talented teammates who can dedicate themselves 110% to the effort. They recruited someone to fly my position (there are specific roles/slots for each position). They have been traveling to California for coaching, to Canada for the wind tunnel, and devoting nearly every weekend to the task of preparing for the event [next week]. The goal is to get 250 or so training jumps and many hours flying in the wind tunnel. This year the event is in Arizona and I cannot wait to be there to represent the US and march out with them (#happiestbenchwarmer). Plus, I get to hang out with some really kick-ass women who inspire me.
You’re a commentator for the virtual cycling league, Cycligent Virtual Racing (CVR), and also lead rides and compete. How did you get into it?
I fell in love with virtual cycling 3 years ago when I was injured. I had a stress fracture and needed an outlet for my energies. I found Zwift and started riding with people from all over the world. I met so many women and was inspired to train in ways I never had before. Then I started racing virtually and became obsessed. I could race nearly any day of the week and never leave my house. It became a great way to test myself and my training. It also gave me a lot of confidence in my strengths, focussed my training and led to the merging of my personal and professional worlds. I’m a producer and director that has worked in broadcasting for 20+ years. I never could have predicted I would be producing World Class Esports broadcasts for CVR World Cup or doing play-by-play commenting on virtual (video game) racing. It’s way too much fun!
What are your tips for indoor cycle/turbo training?
I think it’s important to have diversity and goals. It can get boring if you don’t mix it up and if it becomes a chore. Is it fitness, being social, or increasing your strength and endurance? For me, it’s about balancing the fun of fitness and having an outlet to go all-out like a maniac but never leave my house. On the social side, I also founded a virtual team, Velocity Vixen, with a few other like-minded women. We are a co-ed group with more than 70 teammates from all over the world. That connection with others is inspiring and makes the world feel smaller and more open.
I also think investing in a smart trainer is worth every penny. Especially with all the new platforms coming out for training and racing. Esports is huge, but so are the social rides/workouts. And to get the most out of what is out there, hands down, the smart trainer makes it worth it.
With so many sports in the mix, do you have a favourite or a key passion?
I am most passionate about challenging myself. I like to amass different skills from each passion that I can build on. What checks the most boxes for me is skydiving. Endless opportunities to learn and grow, but also because it requires such mental energy, it quiets my brain. It breaks down seconds into the ‘instant’ and time actually slows down when I’m flying. It’s truly my yoga served with adrenaline. It’s empowering to overcome your fears and to contemplate what it means to be alive. To free yourself from the constraints of gravity (and a plane) and to fly your body freely. And to share this experience with others who share the same experience and awareness of flight is intoxicatingly magical. Add the ability to compete at a very high level and truly, nothing beats it.
What does a typical week of training look like for you Monday to Sunday?
I usually train 7 days a week, with a mix of cycling and swimming. Every week I say I’ll add some weight training, but it seems to get squeezed out on most weeks. But I’m not giving up on it. I’m a mom and work fulltime, so there’s only so much time in a week. At a max, I usually find 10-12 hours a week, in the early morning hours, before the sun comes up. Exercise has always been a coping strategy for me. As I say to my kids, “Mommy needs to get her wiggles out”.
What keeps you going in races and training when it gets tough?
I use a lot of visualization techniques. I imagine how good it will feel to stop (but only when I cross the finish line). As much as I love the ‘finish line feels’ they are small compared to having a big ‘why’ to anchor your goals. When it gets tough, I find I always question “Why on earth am I ____[Fill in the blank]?” And I need a solid answer to keep going. It often feels like time is running out for me to do all the things I want to do. So I try to keep my calendar full of things to train for – the bucket list stuff. I just don’t want to wait until I’m too old/fragile.
In each moment, especially the dark ones, I remind myself of how lucky I am to have my health and the mobility to do some really cool stuff. I think about my mom and other people I love who didn’t/don’t have the same luxury of occupying a healthy mobile body. I also have a mantra that I repeat as well: “Right here, right now – my personal best”. It keeps me in the moment and reminds me to bring whatever I have in the moment. And I don’t need to compare myself to others. I own the effort and the moment. It is mine, and it is my best.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
I love sunglasses but I lose them frequently. And though I am not very girlie there is nothing like a great gel manicure a few days before the race. I’ve made it a bit of my taper routine, otherwise I don’t have the time or patience to sit still to get glossy. But for some silly reason I just love painted nails on race day. I also love my Velocity Vixen trisuit. The logo was designed by a teammate and the kit design is courtesy Jakroo. The material perfect and the fit is like skin on a grape. It makes me feel fast.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I’m personally not sponsored. My skydiving team is partly sponsored by Skydive New England and my cycling team, Velocity Vixen/Fox, is building toward getting more sponsors. Velocity is made up of all volunteers and though we are organized, haven’t made a big push to seek them. Our amazing kits are sponsored by Jakroo, and we also have the chamois cream Pedal Power. Some of our riders do have their own relationships as ambassadors/brand reps.
What’s on the horizon for you this autumn?
I’ll be racing and commenting on a new virtual cycling game called CVRCade. It’s a very gamified cycling ‘platform’ that has engineered a game where riders of all abilities can race/ride together. I like that I could race my kids and they can race each other. I like that men and women can race together. Esports just opens up so many opportunities. I’m also looking forward the Skydiving World Cup this weekend. I still pinch myself that we qualified and am so proud.