Robyn Benincasa is a San Diego City firefighter, a world-champion adventure racer and the president of World Class Teams and Flashover Inc. An adjunct faculty member of the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland, Benincasa earned her bachelor’s degree in marketing at Arizona State University. Benincasa’s athletic interests began with gymnastics at age nine; she adopted diving and cross-country in high school, competing at the state and national levels in all three sports. Eventually, she began competing in triathlons and she has raced in six Ironman triathlons, taking the podium twice in Kona, Hawaii, for placing in her age group. In 1994, she turned her attention to judo and expedition-length adventure racing, where teams of four compete nonstop for seven to 10 days. She’s earned world-champion honors in both the Eco-Challenge (Borneo 2000) and the Raid Gauloises (1998). In this interview, Benincasa explains how determination can lead to fitness success.
Find people to play with, even if it’s just once a week. I call my Saturday mornings most other people’s Friday nights: That’s my social interaction and where I get a lot of my strength. There’s something about being with a group that makes you want to go: You want to see your friends; you want to get out there and tell them what happened at work last week. Even in a 5K race, the energy of getting out there with 1,000 people is so cool. That’s what draws you back for more events.
Go to the local bike shop and ask about easy group runs. Look up local bike clubs. There’s a level for everybody; you just have to find it. Even if you don’t necessarily want to work out, once you start doing it, you’re doing it. It’s just the starting.
The first few weeks need to be fun and interesting. Try to move at least an hour a day, whether it’s taking a walk on the beach, walking your dog a little longer than you usually do, playing volleyball with your friends, joining a pickup basketball game or going to an entry-level aerobics class. Then you’ll find what you love. Wake up in the morning and ask yourself, “When I’m moving around today, what would seem really cool? Do I want to watch the sunset?” From there, if you’re interested in a fitness routine, you probably need to do three days of weight training and three days of cardio for at least 20 minutes at first, working up to an hour. Then you can think about starting a program or training for a race. It’s great to have a goal.
Being an athlete, especially in a sport where the team is key, helps you become a better person. You quickly find out how people respond to you, based on whether you deliver criticism or coaching and whether you point a finger at them or extend your hand to them. When I started adventure racing, it was pretty ego-oriented. We got through our first races, but it was as if there were four people with big egos walking in the same direction, not four people making one another better.
Over the years, I’ve studied my teammates, especially the guys from New Zealand. They’re some of the best people I’ve ever met. They respect one another, they never get riled up and they’ll give away any credit you try to put on them. No blame ever comes out of their mouths. They accept responsibility for success and failure as a team. If one person is stronger at something, he’ll blend into the background and be a good follower. That’s what I’ve learned. I’m a lot calmer and I think I’m a better person for knowing the people in this sport.
It can’t be anybody else’s idea or wish: If it is, it will not last. It cannot be a whim: It must be a desire that’s deeply rooted and has been there for a while. Generally, the best change happens after something you thought about and felt, so the change becomes a part of you before it actually takes place. Are you thinking that you’re an athlete now? What your mind believes, your body will follow. Are you a guy who works in an office, or are you an athlete who works in an office? Start believing before any change is made.
We were winning a race in Tibet and as we came into the final transition, our bikes weren’t there and we didn’t know where our crew was. One of my teammates brainstormed an idea about buying bikes from the villagers—crappy, $15 garage-sale, single-speed bikes. We didn’t win the race, but one of my teammates spouted this wisdom out of nowhere that I remember all the time: “People judge you in your life not by what you achieve, but by your attitude.” You’re not always going to be successful, but you can always have a good attitude toward whatever you’re served.
Realize that you’re human and don’t beat yourself up too much. If you can’t get out of bed today or do your workout today, don’t beat yourself up over it. Tell yourself, “I don’t feel like running today, but I’ll go for a walk.” I find that just walking out the door, even just going to the end of the driveway and back, gives you a different perspective.
I like to think about making the phone call back to my mom and dad or my boyfriend and saying, “We won the race!” When things get really ugly, I picture myself making that phone call. What will I say? Am I going to say we took third place because I couldn’t get off the ground or because I wanted to sleep more? Or am I going to say we won the race? I also like to think about sitting in a coffee shop at sunset and thinking back to the race. Am I going to be the girl who took fifth place or am I going to be the girl who was captain of the winning team? I think about the feeling of having won and draw on that. I think about how excited my mom or dad would be, or about how important it is to the sponsors and how cool it’ll be for the team afterward. The feeling of sitting there with that sense of satisfaction is worth everything.
You always learn something. You either learn, “I don’t want to go that way,” or you learn that the change will benefit you, your family or the people you love in some way. If you keep doing the same thing, you don’t learn anything. You probably learn more from failures than from successes, but if you aren’t moving forward, you have neither.
Getting rid of my pharmaceutical job, my pantyhose and my suits, and working to become a firefighter. Basically, my boss said if I continued to race he’d find a way to get me fired. And he did, even though I was still in the top 10% of the sales force. As they were driving my company car away, I was freaked out for a few hours but then I was kind of excited. That’s another thing you learn from adventure racing: Nothing’s permanent and everything changes. So much of your outlook on life is how you respond to change. You can be winning a race and stuff happens. I’ve learned to endure the roller coaster, in a way.
For more information about Robyn Benincasa, visit www.worldclassteams.com.