As Timothy O’Donnell tackles the iron distance, he steps into the role as an American with a legitimate shot at ending the U.S. drought.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
There are countless reasons for Timothy “T.O.” O’Donnell to doubt that he could be the top American, much less a factor, in the men’s race at the 2011 Ironman World Championship this October if and when he qualifies. Odds are he will not be a contender for the win—this year.
First, he must qualify by placing high in his debut Ironman this May in The Woodlands, Texas, against a tough field, and then he must score points with wins on the 70.3 circuit.
Then there is history. Certified all-time greats with world championship titles such as Mark Allen, Greg Welch and Chris McCormack endured six or seven years of frustration before finally breaking through at Kona. Other multiple world champions such as Simon Lessing and Spencer Smith crashed and burned on the lava fields. And Mark Allen’s American inheritor, Tim DeBoom, spent six years working his way up before he became a true Kona contender, taking third in 1999 and second in 2000 before his wins in 2001 and 2002. And then there are the current, proven Americans with better résumés and more experience than O’Donnell: Chris Lieto took second at Kona in 2009 after years of struggle and has the best bike in the Ironman game. Andy Potts has an Ironman 70.3 world title, two Ironman wins, victories at ITU World Cups and a bushel of wins at the 70.3 distance—and a seventh and ninth at Kona.
But betting against the tenacious O’Donnell, U.S. Naval Academy graduate, has never been a smart long-term play.
And it is never too early to dream—to hold the glimmer of belief that drives all triathletes who have set Kona as an ultimate goal. O’Donnell holds this belief in himself, one that is bolstered by a well-executed training program devised by a coach with valuable experience at the iron distance. Indeed, when Cliff English took full charge of O’Donnell’s training and racing in 2009, he helped transform the frustrated top-tier swim-biker into one of the swiftest runners in the 70.3 game.
So with Kona in mind, O’Donnell found himself in the middle of a nine-week base training phase in February in Tucson, Ariz., that featured greater-than-ever volume, intensity and distance.
On one particular Thursday, O’Donnell and superb triathlon cyclist T.J. Tollakson whipped through a 25-mile Mount Lemmon time trial, climbing 5,500 feet from the desert floor up through alpine climate zones to Summerhaven. Dancing on the pedals, not breathing heavily, O’Donnell and Tollakson made it look easy in one hour and 42 minutes. The next day, after a 90-minute workout at the University of Arizona pool, O’Donnell ran 7 miles at an effortless 6:30 pace then warmed down with a light session on the wind trainer to prep for a long weekend that would include a solo 102-mile bike ride up Madera Canyon and back with 2,500 feet of climbing and three hours of heavy head- and cross-winds followed by a moderate cool-down run. On Sunday, O’Donnell topped things off with a longest-ever 23-mile run in 2 hours and 30 minutes—a 2:50 marathon pace.
While the sheer numbers of the workouts through the arid desert were encouraging but not earth-shattering, it was O’Donnell’s metronomic form, his soft impact, his rapid footfall, the stillness of his upper body, his quick recovery and the calmness of his demeanor that made an impression on me. When English quietly explained that all of O’Donnell’s training benchmarks had improved markedly in the past few months, I asked what he thought his athlete might do at the iron distance, and what might happen if Kona is on the table this year.
People didn’t give too much credence to English when he said his athlete and former wife, Samantha McGlone, had trained to run three hours flat in her 2007 Kona debut. But she ran almost exactly that while finishing second to Britain’s Chrissie Wellington, who was the surprise winner that year and who thereafter came to dominate the women’s Ironman game.
English therefore has established credibility for his evaluations, never giving in to hyperbole or inflated claims about his charges. This is why he got my attention when he said, “If everything is going right, Tim can swim with the lead pack, and he can ride with the serious chase group in Kona. And when it comes to the run, he can run whatever is required to stay with the best runners. Depending on the day and the weather, that means anything from 2:48 to 2:42.”
If English’s evaluation of O’Donnell is as spot-on for him as it was for McGlone, it means O’Donnell may be on his way to stepping in to the role of the American heir apparent—the one who has the best shot at winning a title in Kona, however long that takes.