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Tyler Butterfield capped off his first year of fully focused long-course racing with a seventh-place finish at the Ironman World Championship in Kona and a second at Ironman Cozumel, just seven weeks later. Prior to 2013, Butterfield kept busy as an ITU athlete, representing his native Bermuda in two Olympics (2004, 2012), and even took a turn on the European professional cycling circuit.
I caught up with Butterfield to talk about how he handled the time between those two Ironman races and what the future holds for him, both professionally and personally.
First of all, congratulations on your race in Cozumel. You said afterward that you really didn’t do the training you would normally demand of yourself in the lead up to an Ironman — which makes sense since you were coming off of Kona. Still, you ran a personal best Ironman marathon in Cozumel (2:49:48). You strike me as someone with a normally heavy training load, so I’m curious how you approached the seven weeks in between Ironmans, specifically in your run training.
I’m not sure who you talked to that made you think I’m normally a heavy load trainer. The rumors do sometimes get out — and I did run a marathon four weeks before Kona. So that was 42km on a Sunday, but I think my run volume for that entire week was 65km. People hear about the one-off sessions I do, but over the whole year I would almost bet money that my weekly volumes would be in the lower 10 percent of anyone racing Kona. I only rode my bike four days a week before Kona. Before Abu Dhabi I only rode three days a week. I had success there, so that gave me confidence.
Before Kona I did a good 10-week training block, but over the whole year I did more key sessions and more quality at volume per day, while keeping my weekly and monthly volumes very low, if that makes sense. Between Kona and Cozumel my longest run was 1:20, which was a half marathon. There was one happening in Bermuda so I just did it. And I did two other 10-milers which were basically just social long runs with friends that happened to take 1:20. I also did two track sessions.
There’s a group of maybe 100 local Bermudians that run on Wednesday nights at the track with a coach who coached me when I was a teenager. The first week we did six 800s and the next week 16 400s. Other than that I did a few 10km jogs and that was pretty much it. So I guess to answer the question I just had fun with it.
In terms of Kona prep this year, I did run two marathons — one 10 weeks out and one four weeks out from the race. I went mostly on low weekly volume and key sessions, and I said to myself if I want to run a good marathon off the bike I should be able to run a straight marathon quite easily in training. A lot of people said I was silly. My first one was three hours and I went out the next day and did five hours of training. And then the other one was just under 2:40 on the course in Kona. I thought if I could run that alone in training I should be able to run 15 minutes slower off the bike — a 2:55 — and I ended up running 2:58.
My whole theory this year was to push the bike as hard as I could and know that I could run under three hours, even if I looked like a total wreck! And it was pretty much spot on. I was hoping to run more like 2:55, or 2:50 if I felt good, but I hadn’t trained my run to be one of the best runners. I was hoping to be one of the better runners off the front of the bike. That sort of happened, but the guys that I think did really train their runs caught me — Tim [O’Donnell], James [Cunnama] and Ivan [Rana]. Still, I was pretty happy.
Then in Cozumel, it’s a fast course. The last time I raced there  I ran a 2:52 and this time I ran 2:49. It’s only three minutes difference, but last time I did it I rode almost five hours [4:56] and this time I rode 4:35. So to run fast when I biked faster was great and a surprise. The bike in Cozumel is easier than in Kona — I mean you can make it as hard as you want, but I knew I hadn’t done the training to ride my bike like in Kona and then expect to run well. But even though we were holding back a little on the bike, my run was a surprise to me. I thought I might walk!
Sometimes when you don’t have high expectations the best things happen, right?
Exactly. I mean I was over the moon with second. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. I thought on a good day I might be fourth or fifth, and I thought there was also a good chance I might not even get a paycheck. And that’s a hard one, when you’re sitting there two days before the race. I wasn’t taking it as seriously as Kona, but I wasn’t exactly on holiday — I still knew I had a long day ahead of me. Two days before the race I said I’d never do a validation Ironman again, but now I’d go back there in a heartbeat. It’s just nice to have 2014 wrapped up — it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’m qualified for Kona now.
You’ll turn 31 in February, which is still quite young in triathlon terms. You’ve already had a successful and varied athletic career, but on the heels of 2013 it does seem that Ironman is proving to be your best distance. Do you feel that way? Is the best yet to come from Ty Butterfield?
I hope! But I never want to get too ahead of myself. The best I’ve done is seventh in Kona, and in 10 years if that’s the best that ever happens I’ll still walk away with a smile and say I enjoyed it. I do hope to move up — especially having been a little higher up than that during the marathon. I’m not used to going backward in races — normally I’m sort of doing what Ivan or Tim did and catching people in the last few miles. So that was interesting for me because I’m not used to that, but at the same time I was over the moon with seventh. If someone had said before the race that I was going to get seventh I would have been very happy with that. It does seem that Ironman suits me, and I think there’s still room for me to improve in Ironman, so that’s the goal.
What’s on your schedule for 2014?
I’ll do Abu Dhabi — it’s a great race and hopefully I’ll have another good one there. Then I have a few races in Bermuda for fun and for sponsors — and I just love being back there. And then Ironman Nice has said that they’ll help me out, and I’m big on doing the races that offer to help. I also have the Commonwealth Games next year, and Rio 2016 is on my race calendar. I have fully committed training-wise to Ironman for now, but in 2015 and 2016 I might have to do a fair amount of ITU races to get there. A lot of people think it’s silly to try to go to Rio, but it is the Olympics. Bermuda wants me there and they’ll fund me to go. They don’t expect a medal — I mean they’d love one but that’s not realistic. I’ve said I’ll be there if I make it, and that’s all they want. So they’ll support me for the next four years — we have an agreement that I’ll do Ironman for the next two years and then go back and do more ITU.
You’re in a fairly unique situation to be able to represent Bermuda that way.
Yeah — it’s possible, whereas for any other country it wouldn’t be possible. There are too many other young athletes that, as soon as you step up to long course, take your spot in ITU. But right now there’s no one following behind in ITU in Bermuda. They miss that and they get a kick out of the fact that I can do both. They know I’ll always do better place-wise in long course, and there is a possibility I won’t make it to Rio — I don’t want to give anyone false hope. But if you do well in Kona I think it really frees you up to do whatever distance you want. You’re never going to get 100 percent out of yourself in the shorter races when you’re also training for long course, but there’s still a huge cross over effect. I felt that even when I went to the track in Bermuda. It felt really awkward and uncomfortable, but my times weren’t that far off my ITU training times.
In terms of racing the 2014 Commonwealth Games, is that also more about your pride in flying the Bermudian flag?
Yeah, definitely. I’m not there to get a medal, and people understand that. I’m still going to try and do my best, but there’s no pressure, whereas in Kona there was a lot of pressure. I’ve pre-qualified for the Commonwealth Games and there’s no reason not to go. Bermuda gets a real kick out of it, I get to race in a Bermuda singlet and it’s just a special event and a chance to represent Bermuda. I mean it’s a country of 70,000 people, and I get to race countries like Australia, which have maybe 21-22 million. I’m proud to be able to do that. It’s the underdog story a little bit — like I’m going to try to raise my flag as high as theirs. It never happens, but it’s fun trying! And because of that it does take the pressure off me. Nobody expects a little country to do well, so it’s sort of a win-win. If I don’t do well it’s like: At least I performed reasonably. And if I do well it’s like: Wow — nobody expected that! It’s like racing when you’re a junior — without sponsors and without racing for a paycheck, but just for fun. And if you happen to beat some of the older guys they say, “Wow, you’re only 15 and you beat us!” And you can see that they’re excited for you. So it’s at a top level, a major games, but it’s also about taking it back to the roots of why you do it — for fun.
Speaking of fun, your second child, a boy named Walker, is due on Feb. 1. is Walker a family name?
No, not at all! It was just the tamer of all my choices. I wanted Ocean, but Nikki said, “No.” Then I suggested Ocean Walker. “Definitely not!” But I’m excited. I think I get more excited when the baby actually arrives, whereas Nikki and probably any mother gets excited early on because they can feel the baby growing in their belly. She’s been painting the room and nesting. And she’s excited to have a momma’s boy because Savana is a bit of a daddy’s girl. I think I’ll probably have a little more responsibility with a boy, though, which isn’t a bad thing for me. Like as far as taking Savana to the bathroom goes — that’s been more Nikki’s thing. When Savana was maybe two, one day she said, “Mummy, bathroom!” And she stood up and kind of leaned back. We realized then it needed to be more Nikki’s department, because she was imitating me! But I’ll be the one to teach Walker.
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