While English ultimately coaches O’Donnell because of his will, desire and mental fortitude, English has stressed that O’Donnell needs to develop his mental toughness on a different level if he wants to succeed in the sport’s most competitive long-course race.
“The type of athletes who do well at Kona are very mentally tough, very stoic, very psychologically self-sufficient,” said English. “I remember Peter Reid was incredibly happy going out to train for eight or nine hours by himself. He was not afraid to be alone.”
That’s why O’Donnell made it a point during his winter training camp in Tucson to go out alone on his longest-ever 23-mile run the day after a fast, draining and solo 102-mile bike with 2,500 feet of climbing.
“It is important to do without external stimuli, to go out there and go through those ups and downs you will face when you are alone on the lava fields getting depressed and stressed,” English said. “You need to train yourself to work it out on your own.”
While he concedes that anything can happen during an Ironman, he doesn’t put any limits on O’Donnell’s potential at the iron distance.
“All champions fight through in that same realm,” English said. “When you get off the bike, you have to begin the new leg and put all that behind. Tim has what I believe is a physical and psychological arsenal and skill set to run whatever he needs on the day. I truly believe that.”
O’Donnell understands that the Kona gods are fickle, and any number of issues could disrupt his admittedly long-shot bid at the title this year.
Case in point: his first three races of 2011. After a dominating win at Ironman 70.3 San Juan, he suffered some gastrointestinal woes that led to some vomiting during the last half of the run at Ironman 70.3 Texas. The very next week, O’Donnell was taking antibiotics to stem a fever but opted to tee it up at the New Orleans 70.3 anyway. He slogged through the run and ran 10 minutes slower than he should have.
At press time, O’Donnell has had five weeks to rest and recover, and he should do well at Ironman Texas. But if not, English says O’Donnell will focus on the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas and put off Kona for another year. That way, he won’t wear himself out chasing Ironman points.
But O’Donnell has faith in his preparation—and his ability to bounce back however things play out. And he is willing to keep trying, however many years it takes.
“I think my skill set in terms of dedication and focus and not giving up in the face of obstacles was a process that took a long time to get to where I am,” O’Donnell said. “Those intrinsic qualities are the ones that make you succeed at the longer distance.”