In May of 2013, on the so-called Magic Island, and after brushing away the predawn cobwebs with a long swim and sizzling his way around southern Brazil’s Santa Catarina, 138 miles worth on land—clocking 4:22 on his bike and 2:50 for the run—Tim O’Donnell stood tall at the Ironman Brazil finish line, victorious, sunglasses perched on top of his head and a black and green finish tape gripped by his fingers, held aloft and taught, in a remarkably legible manner surely appreciated by the race sponsors, given the newspaper-ready photos that were being snapped on the spot. But what’s striking about the image for the triathlon-knowledgeable crowd was the juxtaposition of two specifics: Specific one, except for his hair having been slightly mussed up, O’Donnell looked remarkably fresh, as if he’d returned from a summertime spin in a convertible. And specific two, in sharp contrast to the fresh-as-a-daisy thing, is how the ultra-bright LED digital race clock four feet above his head flashed 8:01:34. However fair the conditions or amenable a course, an 8:01 Ironman is so fast as to be devastating. The world looks a little different the next day, both for the athlete and for those in the sport watching the athlete. Expectations rise.
These expectations particularly rise for someone hot-wired like O’Donnell, who realized at the age of five—talk about a devastating moment—he had the natural swimming gifts of a toy robot. This is back when he started competing as a swimmer, like his brother who was nearly a year older than him, but Tim was so bad at it that the coach awarded him the job of hauling around lawn chairs. “I was the youngest of four and the worst athlete in the family,â€ he reports. O’Donnell responded in a way that has shaped his years as an honor student, a star at Annapolis and as now as the top USA hope in the men’s race at the Hawaii Ironman: by the slow and steady silencer of coldly, relentlessly outworking everyone in sight.
So even though O’Donnell clawed his way into the top echelon in Kona last year with an 8:22:25 for fifth place, this past January O’Donnell chose to stir things up, parting with long-time coach Cliff English.
“Cliff is a great coach and I’ve had a lot of success working with him,â€ O’Donnell says. “Honestly, I really wasn’t ready to leave him.â€
O’Donnell says that he felt like he just wasn’t putting things together at the level that he needed and that a change was in order. Changing coaches was a gamble, he felt, but a conversation with Australian great, Greg Bennett, put things in perspective.
“Greg told me to think of working with coaches as if you were pursuing different types of educations. You spend a couple of years with a certain coach and get your degree, then move on and pursue a new line of education. The bottom line for me was that after a lot of success with Cliff, I needed a change.â€
O’Donnell, who resides in Boulder, Colo. with his Ironman World Champion wife, Mirinda Carfrae, says that he considered looking up six-time Kona champion Dave Scott. But a self-assessment revealed it wouldn’t offer the change of direction he sensed he needed. Since the 1980s Scott’s legend has been staked in a work ethic known for keeping the foot on the gas right into race week. O’Donnell, who admitted to himself that he may have vectored off into over-training, considered the lore of Dave into his thinking,
“With Dave, I knew I might bury myself,â€ he says. “Finding a coach who is too much like you can be a bad idea.â€
With that, and following up on a series of conversations that began in Brazil, O’Donnell went to work with an other six-time Hawaii Ironman champion, Mark Allen, this past January. Allen has emphasized that for O’Donnell to find whatever staircase within that might lift him to another level of performance, dialing things back a notch might be the right lever to pull.
“With Mark, a guidepost as been about not over-stressing my body in training,â€ O’Donnell says. “If I’m on a run and I need to walk the hills to keep my heart rate low and in the target zone, I walk the hills.â€
The training focus, O’Donnell adds, has been on pumping up his aerobic foundation and keeping the high-end lactate threshold work to ‘just enough.’
This sort of faith in the minimum-dose-maximum-effect theory of training occasionally cuts against the grain of a mindset that O’Donnell first constructed while in the distance-lane as a 5-year-old, and has relied on ever since and gives him the jitters. This has been an especially acute sensation during the build-up to Kona. In his Kona prep, his habitual overdrive wants to kick and yank out every tool box in the drawer. What about motor pacing? What about max VO2 workouts? Two weeks ago, O’Donnell says, he told Allen that he felt he needed some more high-intensity sharpening work. “I have all of this high-end aerobic work logged,â€ he said. “What about some more speed stuff?â€
So Allen gave O’Donnell a sharpening workout, but it wasn’t the sort of lactate-splashing smoker he was hoping for. “It wasn’t what I envisioned,â€ O’Donnell says. “There wasn’t much meat to it.â€
Although Allen is best known for his domination at the Hawaii Ironman, he was also one of the best at the Olympic distance during the 1980s and first half of the 1990s. His understanding of speed endurance in triathlon is largely unmatched. When O’Donnell begged him for a more demanding speed session, Allen calmly replied, “You don’t need it,â€ making the point to O’Donnell that frying the system to hopefully ensure you’ve done everything you possibly can has a way accomplishing one thing: frying the system.
“He told me that in the last 10 weeks before the Hawaii Ironman, there’s way more training than you could actually do, and the thing is to be smart and keep it simple.â€
Simplicity and doing more with less. Under the supervision of inarguably one of the greatest the sport has ever seen, O’Donnell has been impressed, and perhaps most affected by, Allen’s philosophy of integrating more than just logbook numbers.
“What I really appreciate about Mark is that he’s not arrogant at all. He doesn’t force anything on you. He keeps things very simple. He has offered me a lot of insight beyond training. Last time he was in Boulder we had a chat, and I made the comment that I felt selfish with all of this time spent training and being a professional triathlete. Selfish in ignoring the rest of the world.â€
Allen responded by reminding O’Donnell that this feeling was the result of a perception–one that he could choose to expand. Take a step back and look at the big picture, Allen suggested, and training for the Hawaii Ironman is only one small part of a long journey, and it alone doesn’t alone define a person. Let this be just one stroke of the masterpiece.
This is characteristic Mark Allen, of course, who believes his change of fortune in racing the Hawaii Ironman—winning had disastrously eluded him for seven years until his breakthrough in 1989—had a lot to do with the focus of his thoughts. It was then Allen realized the power that thinking patterns and attention can have, when the physical stress of the Ironman started to peak deep in the marathon and signs pointed to physical shutdown. This coupled by the unwavering shadow of Dave Scott haunting his every step, and previously brought on a panic, a series of dark and darker thoughts that took Allen with them into collapse. It was in 1989 Allen chose to think differently and take control of his attention and perception, and he never lost another Hawaii Ironman he contested.
“There’s been something special about having Mark’s support,â€ O’Donnell says. “It’s changing my approach.â€
Along with whatever the new training and tapering strategies will yield for O’Donnell this Saturday, perhaps the most potent change will be an inversion of perception he has for the pressure of being the men’s favorite for the USA.
“Being a top American used to weigh on me pretty heavily,â€ O’Donnell says. “But I’m not worried about it anymore. I’m grateful for it. Mark has helped me see that all of those people cheering for me is a tremendous thing, lots of positive energy I can tap into.â€
The myriad pressures of being a favorite for the U.S., of cashing in whatever an 8:01 Ironman means, and whatever flammable mixture within O’Donnell that first lit up when when he was dragging around lawn chairs for what was inarguably one of the more questionable youth coaches you and I have ever heard of, O’Donnell’s perception has changed.
“I feel nothing but gratitude,â€ he says.
T.J. Murphy is the Digital Editorial Director for LAVA.