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Catching Up With T.J. Tollakson

The Ironman Mont-Tremblant champion talks injuries, victory, and balancing triathlon, career and two young children.

The Ironman Mont-Tremblant champion talks injuries, victory and balancing triathlon, career and two young children.

Good things come to those who wait. Just ask T.J. Tollakson.

Since notching his first overall win at Ironman Lake Placid in 2011, Tollakson has been riddled with injuries. A fractured sacrum, torn hip labrum, several hip surgeries and back pain left Tollakson unable to train consistently over the years, derailing his attempts at taking a top podium spot yet again.

After dropping out of Ironman Los Cabos in March of this year and racing two 70.3 races on minimal training, Tollakson knew he needed to give his body an appropriate recovery. He removed all races from his calendar except for one: Ironman Mont-Tremblant, which would be his only attempt to gain entry into the 2014 Ironman World Championship. Tollakson was all-in, taking a long, gradual training block to properly prepare for what he hoped would be his next win.

Though some scoffed at Tollakson’s approach, his belief was steadfast: Two days before the race, Tollakson snapped a photo of the trophy for Ironman Mont-Tremblant and posted it on Twitter with the caption, “…Winner takes home this trophy. I have a spot for that.”

As the old saying goes, “pressure bursts pipes, but pressure also makes diamonds.” Tollakson made a diamond at Ironman Mont-Tremblant, taking home the victory, the trophy and a new course record of 8:16:17.

This year, Tollakson will be toeing the line at the Ironman World Championship happy, healthy, and ready to race. We chat with the champion, business owner and new father.

Triathlete.com: What an astounding day at Ironman Mont-Tremblant—a course record 8:16:17! You called your win “a long time coming.” How did it feel for you to cross the finish line that day?

Tollakson: I knew I was fit going into the race, but most importantly I was healthy and ready to race. So when I called my win “a long time coming” I meant it has been a long journey from my first Ironman through my first Ironman win until my second Ironman win. I always believed I was capable of repeating the type of race I had in Lake Placid and finally proved to myself that I was still a threat for a big win. The journey has definitely not been an easy one, but if it was easy, had I won my first Ironman in Louisville [in 2007], I wouldn’t be the same athlete or person I am today. The struggle to stay healthy and manage everything I have going on in life is what makes the victory sweet.

Triathlete.com: This race was your last chance to secure a spot in this year’s Ironman World Championship. Did you feel nervous waiting until the last minute to punch your ticket to Kona?

Tollakson: After dropping out of Ironman Los Cabos in March, I knew I was going to need a 4000-point Ironman race to get into Kona. I decided I was going to lay it all on the line for a Kona spot by racing Mont-Tremblant. I actually prefer putting all of my focus on one race so I can properly prepare. With everything I have going on in my life, I feel it is better to just focus on a few quality races per year. I was a little nervous about punching my ticket. I held off on booking my flight to Kona until after the race, but I already booked my lodging. At the same time I was nervous, I was also quietly confident in my ability to perform.

Triathlete.com: Did you do anything differently in training or nutrition in the days leading up to the race to ensure your victory? During the race?

Tollakson: I didn’t do anything differently in the days leading up to the race. I have a protocol I follow before all of my races, I try to stick to that plan as best as possible. I try to minimize the variables before a race. I don’t always have a stellar race, but I try to make sure the reason for a poor race is not my routine or schedule leading up to the race. My training and nutrition were spot on as in the past.

My race day nutrition and execution went very close to plan, it was everything my coach, Cliff English, and I prepared for in training. My exact plan going into the race, is what I executed. It doesn’t always work out like that, but if you practice your nutrition over and over, there is a higher likelihood of it working just like your practice.

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Triathlete.com: This year has seen your two companies—Dimond Bikes and Rüster Sports, really take off. How have you been able to strike a balance between the demands of work and training?

Tollakson: I founded Rüster Sports in 2009 with a bicycle travel case that I invented to avoid paying excess luggage fees when traveling with my bike. In 2012, I began the process of designing my own triathlon bicycle with the help of a great team of engineers, Dave Morse and Karl Hall from Zipp. We converted our 11,000 square foot warehouse in Des Moines, Iowa into a world-class carbon fiber bicycle manufacturing facility. We do all frame manufacturing right here in our Des Moines facility. We shipped our first production frames of the Dimond in March of this year (2014), and we are on pace to put around 200 bikes on the road by the spring of next year.

Certainly my two executive managers, Ethan Davidson and David Morse, are the ones responsible for keeping the show running on a day-to-day basis and they do an excellent job. As the CEO of Rüster Sports, I am the visionary of the company and try to do the directing from 30,000 feet in the air. I try not to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the company, especially during race season, but is impossible to totally disconnect. I have no separation in my work and life. I am always acting on behalf of my family, my sponsors and my company. I pop into the office a few times per week, but I talk to Ethan about the operations on a daily basis. I only live about two miles from the office, so it makes it pretty convenient to stop by whenever I want, but it is also far enough away I don’t feel like I always need to be there. Training is my number one “work” priority and all of my employees and team members understand. My entire company is very excited and directly tied to my triathlon success.

Triathlete.com: As if you weren’t busy enough, you’ve also got a bustling home life—congratulations on the birth of your daughter! You and your wife, Ashley, have had two babies in two years – how has that changed your approach to training and racing?

Tollakson: Thank you! My daughter, Drew Victoria, was born on June 17. Our son Theodore was born on Jan. 13, 2013, so our children are 17 months apart. Ashley has pretty much been pregnant or nursing for the past two years. Being a father is one of the coolest experiences in life. It is also one of the most challenging things I have done. I have a huge support team (all of our parents and siblings live in the area) to help out, and my wife really is a saint for everything she does for the family. Having children and being responsible for providing for your family is a big task, but also a huge sense of pride.

Ashley watched me finish Mont-Tremblant online via the Finish Line Camera with Theo shouting while on her lap, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” You can’t really put into words that sense of pride when winning a race. Theo also really likes my trophy!

Ashley works full-time as a family law attorney at Hartung and Schroeder in downtown Des Moines (about half a mile from the Rüster Sports office). Ashley is definitely the primary care giver in the family and she runs our household and the household schedule. I try to do all of my training work before 5 PM or after 8 PM when the kids are in bed. She gets the kids ready in the morning, and feeds them breakfast. All summer, I swam at 5:30 in the morning so I would come home in time to see them before she took Theo to daycare. Drew starts daycare this week, as Ashley is just now returning to work after maternity leave.

I feel like I cram a ton of activity into the middle of the day, but often times I find myself just home taking a nap and then fitting in my last workout after the kids go to bed at 8. I do most of the evening cooking at our house, so I typically prepare dinner then every evening we go for a family walk of about 1.5 miles. Ashley pushes both kids in the double stroller while I walk our 4 year-old Shar Pei, Whinnie, on the leash. It is a small, simple activity we do nightly but it really is our great family bonding time. Weekends are pretty hectic at our house as I spend most of the day training, especially when preparing for an Ironman. Ashley has the children by herself most of the day and I come home exhausted and hungry at the end of the day. It is definitely challenging because my job is 7 days a week and never ending, but this is something to which most triathletes can relate.

I say it all the time, but my life only works with a huge amount of help from others, but especially only with the tireless dedication of Ashley. The days of only having to worry about myself and my schedule are long in the past and a very distant memory at this point, but I wouldn’t trade my current life for anything. Balance is my key to being successful and sometimes the balance is a bit out of whack, and Ashley is there to remind me what needs a little more of my time. I have the best support team possible from all my employees at Rüster Sports, my family (and extended family) and friends, my coach, Cliff English, my training partners, and all of my sponsors; TYR Sport, Yurbuds, Rockin’ Refuel, PowerBar, Compex, Foster Grant, Profile Design, Trisports.com, and HMB. Thank you!

RELATED PHOTOS: 2014 Ironman Mont-Tremblant