A Day In The Life with Nathan Killam
Ed. Note—Nathan Killam is a pro triathlete who competes in Ironmans, cyclocross, Xterra, MTB, gravel, and more. In his real life, he is a full-time firefighter for the Delta Fire Department in Delta, British Columbia. The challenge of training for triathlon while waiting for the next alarm is not something most triathletes have to juggle, so we thought it would be interesting to hear how he does it.
We caught up to him in a state best described as ‘cooked’.
“I did the Zwift race today and then it was like, "Okay, I have to eat and I am absolutely destroyed, but I still needed to squeeze in a run before this interview."
We’ll stay on the topic of Zwift for a minute:
“I think the biggest thing I've noticed is that the Zwift fields have gotten bigger and the riders are stronger. It used to always be the same bunch of guys racing, but there's new guys who are big time hammers. Man, they just put the boots to us, putting out serious numbers. So it's quite different than it used to be.”
For you Wattage Cottage residents, here’s a quick glimpse into his power numbers:
“In my last Zwift thing, my 20-minute power was 5w per kilo. And then our 5-min effort, we'll push up to just over 6wpk for five minutes, which for me, I'm like 71 kilos, so I'm probably in the 340s now for threshold.
A couple weeks ago, I rode 8.9w for one minute. So lots of watts. I'm pushing up into the 12w range for 15 second sprints, but I have no chance against the big guys in these big races. They're pushing 14 and15. They're doing 1,300 watt sprints for 15 seconds. At that point, their trainer is starting to make awful sounds.
We’ve never experienced that. We doubt we ever will.
So, our next questions: how hectic is a firefighter’s life? And how do you maintain a training schedule when your work schedule is so jacked?
“A firefighter’s life basically revolves around an 8-day week. It's two 10-hour day shifts followed by two 14-hour night shifts followed by four days off. That’s my normal. It’s crazy.
The day shifts are pretty similar: keep the station clean and ready. Train for every contingency. Repeat.
“First thing we do at 8am is our truck check. We take them out, run all the tools up, make sure everything thing's working. We'll also put the new troops (probies) through training evolutions.
Lately, we’ve been studying how to perform auto extractions on electric vehicles. We have to know where the power lines are in the car should we have to cut into it to rescue the occupants.
We also conduct fire safety inspections in businesses, condos, or other buildings in our area. We check their fire extinguishers, fire safety exits, emergency lighting, etc.
But since we train for every contingency, we have to learn a lot of different things about every physical thing around us. That’s fun but also complicated at the same time.”
The obvious question: Is being a firefighter as dangerous as it sounds?
“I haven't been in too many scenarios where I've actually been worried about dying. We generally don't put ourselves in that level of danger. There’s an old fireman’s saying: "Risk a lot to save a lot. Risk little to save little and risk nothing to save that's which has already been lost." There's a lot of training time spent on protecting ourselves while getting the job done.
Any on-the-job injuries?
“Just once. I tripped on a big limestone rock, fell onto a conveyor belt, and blew out one of the tendons in my ankle. So that kind of sucked. It was pretty rough for a little while trying to rehab my ankle, but I was fine. By the next January, I was running again. So I got lucky.
Having four days off every week seems like it would be a great thing. The hidden challenge in a firefighter’s work week, though, is the disrupted sleep pattern. Alternating back and forth between day and midnight shifts requires a different sense of timing when creating a training program.
“Yeah, you get really good at napping. You get really good at altering when you go to bed and when you wake up and catching naps. Some nights, you get a little more sleep at work, and sometimes you just kind of grind through. But I can also look at this time as recovery. That’s important so that I feel like I’m making good use of my time.”
Most people can predict what kind of day they’ll have when they go to work. A firefighter’s day is unpredictable, and he has to remain fresh for what might come his way when the alarm sounds. This rules out heavy workouts prior to going to work.
“I mean, it depends on what time of year obviously. Usually, you try to gauge when you're going to get up and get to the pool. It’s usually a bike and a run at some point. Zwift has really helped maximize the time on the bike, So some days, it'll just be one workout depending on what the workout is, but usually I’ll do two. I don't usually do the big huge days in between the night shifts.
Most of my strength training has just been around supporting the swim, bike and run. A lot of rehab stuff that I've done for rehab over the years for little things here and there is now part of my regular routine. And it's really helped keep me healthy.
It's really all about being super efficient with time. There's not a lot of farting around. I don't do very well with just sitting. We don't even have a TV set up. I have one for the trainer, but that's it. We've never been TV watchers. It’s a waste of time.
At the pool, they open the door and you have 45 minutes to get in and out. So you’ve got to go in, take all your stuff off, get all ready, get in and swim, so you lose a little bit of time. But you can usually get 22- to 2,400 meters in. We still do a traditional swim workout. It's not just like ‘swim as much as you can for 45 minutes’. I would say three swims in a week, and I'm feeling pretty good.
Some people would need a little bit more than that. I'm sure I couldn't race an Ironman off of this swim, but for the shorter sets, I'm finding the speed is there.”
He’s not alone. He’s a family man with a wife and kids and all the responsibilities of homeownership. But he definitely has help in all of this.
“My wife is a saint by the way. I won the wife lottery. I know too many people for whom this would never work. It would just... I don't know, I just got super lucky. My wife is an athlete, too, so she gets it and she fully supports me. And I try and do my best to support her as well. But yeah, I couldn't possibly be luckier.
Our last question: do you happen know anything about peanut butter?
“You don’t have enough ink in your pen.”
OK, that’s a yes. And a story for another time.