My immediate goal was a triathlon, but what I was really after was all-around fitness that would keep me healthy and productive regardless of sport or setting. To this end, I enlisted the help of Utah Jazz strength-and-conditioning coach Mark McKown, 51, who holds a master's in sports science from the United States Sports Academy, in Daphne, Alabama, and has trained everyone from NBA power forwards to featherweight NCAA cross-country runners.
"I feel that most folks who participate in triathlons are in the midst of a self-competition," he told me during our first meeting. "They have a primary goal of self-improvement—emotional as well as physical. So I designed the training approach with the idea of helping you prepare for a triathlon while developing a body that will meet other physical demands—running to catch the subway, climbing the stairs in your apartment building, boxing, bullfighting."
While McKown, author of Complete Body Development with Dumbbells, can easily riff on everything from fartlek workouts to creatine-phosphate systems, it is his ability to motivate that makes him special. Six foot seven with a shaved, ruddy head and South Carolina twang, he reminds me slightly of Slim Pickens. He quotes from Mark Twain and Homer Simpson, tells stories about Milo of Kroton (the legendary Greek wrestler) and his own 17-year-old, football-playing son. Whatever it takes. (A night of beer and pizza got me back on track.) "As a trainer, you have to understand conditioning, the athletic demands of sport, and the athlete's mind," says McKown. "Then it's up to the athlete's own confidence, competitive nature, and genetic programming—mixed with a healthy fear of failure."