Dispatch: Fit, Fast And 40-Something – The Fabulous Karen Tamson

Meet age grouper Karen Tamson, who toed her first triathlon start line at the age of 44.

Photo: Javier Sep??lveda

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Karen Tamson, an age-group triathlete living in Naples, Fla. balances her time between her family (her husband, 11-year-old daughter, 20-year-old son and 31-year-old stepson), training and racing and sharing her multi-sport passion as a Certified USAT Coach. She’ll race Ironman Texas and Ironman Lake Tahoe in 2013 in hopes of earning an elusive Kona qualification. But Tamson has already notched a notable set of competitive credentials. In addition to scoring numerous age division podium spots, she was the first-place overall female at two HITS half iron-distance races (HITS Naples 2012 and HITS Ocala 2012, where she clocked her personal best time of 5:04:13) and the 2012 Marco Island Triathlon. These are impressive results for any athlete, yet even more so given that Tamson, who toed her first triathlon start line at the age of 44, earned the overall wins at age 49.

Triathlete.com: How did you become involved in triathlon?

KT: I raced my first triathlon was when I was 44 years old. I did have a swimming background from high school and college, but after college I pretty much gave up swimming for 20 or 25 years. Then I picked up running in my 30’s. I wasn’t really running to race or anything; I just wanted to keep in shape. When I was 39 I decide to run a marathon, and then I continued with running races from 5k’s to marathons, completing eight full marathons before deciding to do my first triathlon in 2007. That’s when I decided I had better buy a bike! It must have been four weeks or even less before my first race that I bought my first road bike. But I fell in love with the sport of cycling. I just absolutely loved it, and I picked up on it fast. At that point it became my favorite sport of all three. And when I did my first triathlon – it was a sprint tri on South Padre Island – I actually won the Masters division! So that really sparked my interest. I thought if I could do my first triathlon and win, maybe this was something I wanted to pursue.

Triathlete.com: How did your friends react when you took up this new sport? Were there any naysayers?

KT: A lot of my friends were runners and marathoners and they always thought you couldn’t get that runner’s high from cycling. A lot of people said, “I’ve tried cycling but I just didn’t get that same high as from running.” I had to try to convince those people that they were not pushing hard enough on the bike. You can definitely get that high from cycling if you do it correctly. So I was able to convert a lot of my running friends into cycling, but then the hardest thing was to try and convert them to swimming, especially if they did not have a swimming background. I would say for a majority of age group athletes the toughest thing is swimming, because if they didn’t grow up as a swimmer it’s really hard to learn as an adult. But I was able to convert many of my friends to triathlon. They were getting injured from running so I kept saying, “You need to try something new!” That’s one of the reasons I wanted to try triathlon, because running was breaking my body down more than I would have liked. I was doing marathons and I thought if I continued running and only running, it wasn’t going to be good for my body.

Triathlete.com: I’m also in my 40’s, and I have to admit that I get injured more often these days than I did in my 20’s and 30’s. What’s your best advice for staying injury-free?

KT: I do strength training twice a week and I think that’s a big part of it. The other big part – that I’m not as good at and I know I need to be better at – is stretching. Stretching and massage. I know I need to be more diligent about the recovery process. A lot of us, we just get impatient and think we have to train right through an injury. But if you try to train through it then most likely it’s not going to go away. It’s hard to say, “OK, I need to rest.” I’m not really the resting type!

Triathlete.com: Did you make any embarrassing rookie mistakes in your first race?

KT: Oh gosh! When I think about that particular race! I had a bike pump that was attached to my bike and it fell off when I was doing the U-turn – and I almost stopped to pick it up. Now I would never, ever – I mean if something drops you just let it drop! Unless of course you’re in an Ironman and all your food drops. And I wore bike gloves and forgot to take them off before the run. Why did I even need gloves? It’s funny how we do these things. There are a lot of things when you’re first beginning that you think are a big deal and really they’re not. Really, you can just simplify everything.

Triathlete.com: You’ve been the first overall female at several races. Is it gratifying to be topping the podium in your 40’s?

KT: Oh it is! The HITS Naples half-iron was the first time that I was the overall female winner, so that was a big deal to me. I think that distance has become my favorite. Because as you get older you lose a little bit of your speed, but if you have the time to train then you can have as much endurance as you train for. You won’t ever lose that as long as you have the hours to train. Since I do have the time to train I thought that would be the best distance for me. When I won the Marco Island Tri I was really surprised because that’s a sprint. I thought: Wow! I didn’t know I still had the speed to be able to win a sprint tri!

Triathlete.com: What is your schedule like?

KT: I’ve had the luxury of being able to be a stay-at-home mom all these years, and now that my daughter is in sixth grade it’s allowed me more time. When we used to live in Texas we lived on South Padre Island, which was a beautiful spot but I had to commute Ashley 45 minutes each way to school. That took a big chunk of my time – three hours every day. That was part of the reason we moved to Florida last year – the schools are great here, my husband loves to fly fish and I love to do triathlons and train. This is the perfect place that we can all do our things that we love. I decided that since I do have that extra three hours each day and I love the sport so much it might be a good idea to get my coaching certification. I just recently got that in April. Since then I’ve had anywhere between five and 10 clients, which has been great for me. It’s mainly been through word of mouth – I wanted to start slowly and get a feel for what it’s like to coach, and I do like to keep my clientele fairly small so that I can spend more time with them. And then I still have enough time to train and enough time to be with my family. It’s worked out really nice.

Triathlete.com: As a coach, what are some of the lessons you try to share with your athletes?

KT: One of the biggest training mistakes that I see people make is that they don’t change their pacing much. You have athletes that are the Type A personality that just want to go full force every time they workout. They don’t realize that you can do that some of the time, but you don’t want to do that all of the time. Some athletes need to be held back a little bit and some need to be pushed a little bit more. But the way that I like to coach, I really like to encourage them and give them positive feedback. I’m not the kind that will yell at them for not doing their workout. I try to make them want to do it. So I try to set a good example. I like to compete and try to do well to set a good example for my athletes, to show them what I’m doing and that it works. The other thing I try to do is make sure they have balance in their lives, so they don’t put one hundred percent of their lives into triathlon and then everything else falls apart. It’s all about balance really, because if you do really well in the sport and everything else falls apart then it wasn’t really worth it.

TM: Your next big goal is to get to Kona. This year in Kona, Natascha Badmann finished sixth at the age of 45. Also, Julie Moss and Kathleen McCartney returned to Kona to race at age 53, 30 years after finishing first and second. Are you particularly inspired by those women? Where else do you find your inspiration?

Triathlete.com: Definitely I find my inspiration in those women! I remember getting a book from the library before I did my first triathlon. It was an old book – I think the copyright was 1989 – and it was about four women triathletes that were competing in the Ironman race in Kona. One was the legendary Paula Newby-Fraser and another was Julie Moss. I was so intrigued by how well they were doing in the sport with the little technology and knowledge of training back then. Still, they were coming within very close times to the men, including the legendary Dave Scott and Mark Allen. I could not put the book down and read it cover to cover. Then I decided to read it again – cover to cover! I knew this was going to be a sport that I would love – and I do!

I’m just now finishing reading “Iron War” about Mark Allen and Dave Scott. I’m so interested in those athletes that started in the very beginning, because they didn’t have all the technology that we have now. Dave Scott didn’t even run with a watch. In fact, in the book it says that Timex wanted to sponsor him but he wouldn’t take the sponsorship because he didn’t want to wear a watch. And look at how good he was! He didn’t have all that stuff – he didn’t have a power meter. I think it’s really cool to know that it doesn’t take all that technology to be good. It takes something more than that. It takes a drive and what you have inside to be good at the sport. It’s much more than just having your carbon wheels and all that stuff. Those athletes from the 80’s inspire me a lot, probably more so than the newer athletes.

Triathlete.com: Do you have any desire to tackle other types of endurance challenges?

KT: You know, I have not even really though about that. Yet. [Laughing.] If I do qualify for Kona it will be like: OK, I checked that one off my list. But it’s so hard to qualify. I mean I was all-American last year, all-American this year and the races that I focus on are the long distances, but still I have such a hard time qualifying. I’ve only done two fulls so far – both at Ironman Texas, and my best time so far is 11:23. If I ever get to Kona – and I hope that I will – then I guess at that point I’ll start thinking of the next thing I want to do!

Anyone interested in contacting Tamson regarding coaching is welcome to email her at ktamson@pdisurvey.com.

“Dispatch” is an online column from Triathlete Editor-at-Large Holly Bennett that will feature pro updates, industry news, happenings afield and otherwise random reports related to multi-sport. Look for “Dispatch” every Thursday on Triathlete.com.

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