Pro Q&A With Bermuda’s Tyler Butterfield
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Tyler Butterfield is one of a new breed of long distance triathletes who got their start in short course draft racing. However, his similarities with his former ITU colleagues ends there. Hailing from Bermuda, the well-known island 650-miles off the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Tyler was the youngest triathlete on the 50-person start line at the 2004 Athens Olympics before jumping into the European cycling peloton. His experience cycling in Europe put him on the same starting line with the big names of the professional peloton, but also motivated him to return for unfinished business in the triathlon world. Tyler’s top finishes in 2009 and 2010 included 2nd place Boulder 70.3, 3rd place Monaco 70.3, 4th place Ironman Cozumel, 2nd place Philadelphia Triathlon and 3rd place St. Croix 70.3.
Triathlete Magazine: How did you spend your recent time in Kona?
Tyler Butterfield: The first day I got there I rode the whole 180k (of the Ironman Hawaii bike course). It’s interesting because people always say the wind changes but to me coming from the island of Bermuda the wind doesn’t change. It is the road that turns slightly to the left and then slightly to the right. Throughout the ride down the (Queen K) highway, you are zigzagging across the path of the wind, so although it feels like the wind is constantly changing, it is only your own position on the road. Knowing this is a big advantage riding on the course. I wanted to experience it before race day because everyone talks about the wind, the hills and the humidity. With all that said, there is a big difference between March and October.
TM: Was this course scouting always part of your plan once you qualified (Tyler finished 4th at IM Cozumel)?
TB: I wanted to go last year but I didn’t qualify in New Zealand and I didn’t want to try to do one in the summer and then do Kona. I think Kona is one of those races where if you get it right your first time you will want to come back. For me, this whole year is about preparing myself to do well in Kona. You can watch the videos (of the race) but you don’t completely understand it until you go there.
TM: What was the biggest thing you learned?
TB: After the first day of doing the 180k, I ran the next day. I actually did a double run and did the whole run course. I did the 10 miles out and back first thing in the morning and then the 16 miles out to the Energy Lab and back in the afternoon. What really hit me, having done the bike course the day before and the travel to the island, was the undulations. I didn’t see one thing in the course where I thought, ‘wow, this is hard’, but the undulating hills on the bike and run add up and make it hard. There were also a lot of false flat uphills and false flat downhills. You have to be very strong mentally to run like that.
TM: What is your perception on why some of triathlon’s superstars do not do well on this course?
TB: A lot of it is mental. The biggest problem that is physical is that too many athletes are too fit, too early in the year. They are also too excited. One of my friends is Jason Shortis who has won a lot of races in hot climates, like Malaysia and Australia, but has never nailed Hawaii. You have to look at the time of year it happens. Lance didn’t race in both the Giro and the Tour when he was winning his seven Tour titles. He had a schedule and he stuck to it. Some of these guys who are used to racing well in January and March really struggle come October.
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TM: Do you believe a Kona winner has to focus solely on that race now in order to succeed?
TB: Yes. Currently I consider myself to be a tier two athlete. To become a tier one athlete I would say I have to win at least four 70.3’s in the span of 18 months or get top 10 in Hawaii. Within the pro ranks, we all know who the tier one and tier two athletes are . The tier ones being Chris McCormack, Craig Alexander, Normann Stadler, Tim Deboom, and really anyone who has one or podiumed in Hawaii. They all schedule their seasons around October.
TM: Talk a little bit about your background. Do athletics run in your family?
TB: My family has been a huge influence in my life. I was born and raised in Bermuda and my dad was born and raised there too. He went to the 1981 Hawaiian Ironman and was 7th and got the run record. That is a huge goal in my life, to get top ten and get the run record. He ran 3:05 and the next fastest that year was 3:19 by Scott Tinley. The next year Dave Scott got the record with 3 hours flat but my dad was the fastest for his year and also lowered the run times in that race significantly. When I was little I saw him ride his bike and running in only a speedo and he also told me they used to be weighed throughout the course to make sure they weren’t losing too much weight.
My parents started the triathlon and road running associations in Bermuda. My mom (Tyler prounces it ‘MUM’) finished 4th in the Boston Marathon which was the only trophy of theirs I admired when I was young. I found it when I moved up into the attic when I was a teenager and told her I thought it was a cool trophy. I looked it up online and found her result. It was the year they didn’t pay professionals prize money so quite a few of them boycotted the race, but her personal best at the marathon was a 2:38.
TM: Did your dad share much insight from his racing when you were a kid?
TB: The most memorable thing he ever told me was, ‘when you lose say little, when you win say less’. I try not to be the kind of person who when I lose I come up with excuses as to what went wrong during the race. My parents raised me urging me to enjoy everything I was doing which has keep me in the sport.
I grew up with a lot of kids in Bermuda who were winners at a young age, but suddenly you start traveling to the US and Europe and you get anhilated and you get frustrated and quit. My parents always pushed for participation and enjoyment. We all see kids who are pushed into winning and as soon as they meet a bump in the road and are challenged then they quit.
As a professional you need to win for your sponsors though so it is a difficult balance. You are not paid to be content with a 10th place finish, you are paid to get your sponsors names out there by winning. But you still need to have enough perspective when you finish off the podium you need to look at the positives.
TM: What was your athletic background?
TB: I did the Ironkids when I was seven. I have an older brother who is more talented than me. Every running race I won, he had run, and won, a few years before. I could win a race and he would tell me I was still slower than his times were and that kept me humble and didn’t let my head swell. I realized at a young age that even though you might win a race, it doesn’t mean you are the best.
When I was 17 I moved to Australia and did a year in school. Chris McCormack stayed at my house when I was a 14 year-old kid and said if I ever wanted to race against the best I should come down to Australia and stay with him and that he would help me out. I ended up going to the Gold Coast, instead of to Sydney where he was, and the reason was you could pay $20 and race world champions in sprint and super sprint races on the same course, and in the open category in the same race, and you could see where exactly how you compared to them.
TM: How long did you live in Australia?
TB: I went to school in Australia in 2001 and stayed there in 2002 and became good friends with Brad Kahldefeldt. I did Junior Worlds and got a bronze medal there in a race in 2002 where Terenzo Bozzone won. He was a year or two younger than me and we all knew going into the race he was the guy to beat. Since I had been training in Australia, and he was from New Zealand, I knew of him. I had been training with the Australian national coach and he told me before the race there was only one person capable of running faster than me and that was Terenzo, and sure enough we ran shoulder to shoulder until 100 meters to go and there was a U-turn that turned into the finish stadium and we knew whoever made that turn first would win the race. The finishing carpet covered an area where the road turned to grass, and after Terenzo sprinted ahead, I decided to turn my head and look over my shoulder and I tripped and the French athlete, Dave House, overtook me and I finished third.
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TM: Was that a turning point in your career?
TB: The lesson I learned was to learn from the advice passed down from other pro athletes. Chris McCormack told me that even in drafting races I should not look over my shoulder and count on others to work. In that race, I came out of the water one minute behind the leaders but I rode up to them and Terenzo and I entered T2 in first and second place. He was wearing his running shoes on the bike so he had a very fast transition. Terenzo is still the most talented athlete I have seen. He could have dominated in the ITU as well but he didn’t get enough support from his national federation so he went to non drafting. He can swim. He can bike. He can run. He has no weakness. Even Macca didn’t have a great swim last year (in Kona). I wouldn’t be surprised if Terenzo is the next guy to win it (Kona) two or three times in a row.
TM: Do you ever think you might relive that sprint from the Junior World Champs with Terenzo in Kona someday?
TB: No. For me that was one of my best days. I was in the race. In the Athens Olympics, I was 21 and the youngest male competitor, and was nervous as anything and was never in the race. There is a photo I have from the Cancun World Champs and with 800 meters to go it is me and Terenzo in the front and there are two more people behind us. It looks like a track race and for me that was the greatest sensation, to be running neck and neck at the end, deciding the outcome of the race.
TM: What was your Olympic experience like?
TB: My friends and family said not to put too much pressure on myself. They knew I hadn’t been training well and was not in my top shape but I went to the starting line just ready to give it my best. I was never nervous on the start line because I generally knew where I was going to come. I was going to be in the last 20%. I was 35th there.
TM: What was your progression in the sport going into the Athens Olympics?
TB: In 2002, I did a few World Cups and even though I was off the back in the swim, I still had competitive run splits. I left Cancun and told myself I wanted to make it racing against the big boys. Sure enough, in 2003, after only a few months I was overtrained and didn’t want to hear the word triathlon. I went home and worked construction until I got an email from the ITU saying they wanted to give me the wild card for the Athens Olympics but I hadn’t been racing. They said if I could get myself back into some World Cups and have a few good performances, I could get that spot, so that carried me through the Olympics.
While I was back working in Bermuda I met a UCI cycling coach, who was French and now works with the Cervelo TestTeam, and happened to be in Bermuda working a six-month stint on the island. He saw me riding my mountain bike into work and I did well in the island bike races, and when he found out I was doing this while attending parties the night before these races, he intervened and told me I was wasting my talent. He told me he could put me on a cycling team in 2005, and it ended up being one of the top amateur teams in France. It was Vendee U which is the amateur team for BBox Telecom, previously La Boulangre, who’s biggest claim to fame was when Thomas Voeckler had the Yellow Jersey for 10 days at the Tour. For me to hear I was going to the amateur team of Thomas Voeckler, who had just had the Yellow Jersey the year before, I said ‘sign me up’.
After the Olympics, I looked at the expenses it took for me to get to the starting line, and it was considerable, about $50,000 from my federation, sponsors and family. There was not much support, not like in other countries, and if it wasn’t for my father supporting me (financially) it wouldn’t have happened.
TM: Did your dad do that because he knew the importance of participating in the Olympics?
TB: My dad went to Munich Olympics in 1972 for rowing, where he was a single oarsman, so he knew how much it meant to him. Sports was always a big thing in my family and it has been the thing that has kept my life on an honest path.There are 12 hours in the day and if you are not spending them productively, you are finding other things to do.
TM: What led to your decision to give cycling a go?
TB: When I was about to leave to France for cycling I asked if I needed to bring anything and they said no. They told me I would be provided a helmet, shoes, and a bike so to only bring a few extra sets of casual clothes. They lined me up to stay in a team house so I only had to show up. I showed up and they provided everything else.
The first year I was there they had a Gore Tex ski jacket for before and after the races, podium hats and even a few sets of casual clothes. I was suprised it was an amateur team because it was the most professional organization I had been a part of. Later I found out a few of the other boys on the amateur team were even on a salary. It was a learning experience and I definately didn’t like the bunches of 100 up to 200 riders in a peloton so I started racing more aggressively in order to get into smaller groups of ten in breakaways.
The amateur cycling suited me since I wasn’t a great time trialist, I lacked power, I couldn’t sprint, but especially in France, if you were persistant and never gave up, you were going to be in the end group of between ten and twelve riders. And because I was on a strong team we would generally have three of those twelve riders from our team. You have good odds on winning the race when the numbers are stacked like that. It worked a lot and our team won a lot of races as I would usually throw in an attack a few kilometers from the finish and the other riders would be forced to chase me down. Then we could counter an attack and our strongest remaining rider would have a good chance of winning. We worked really well together, and even though we had radios in our ears, we rarely had to use them.
In 2006, after two years of amateur racing, I knew I wasn’t going to make a living at it. I said to my girlfriend, Nikki, who is now my wife, that I was going to go back to triathlon. I kept running in the off-season and would enter a few races in Bermuda and knew I was a better runner than a cyclist. In the two years I raced on the cycling team, I got to do the U-23 Paris-Roubaix, U-23 Tour of Flanders, and U-23 Liege Bastogne Liege. I also got to do two 10-day stage races at the Tour of Guadalaupe, but I still knew it wasn’t going to be a career path.
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TM: When did you get picked up by Team Slipstream?
TB: I wrote one Pro Team, Jonathan Vaughters and Slipstream (at the time it was TIAFF CREFF) but it was the only team I reached out to. In my mind, I told myself if they say yes I would be a professional cyclist but if they say no then I am going to go back and do long course triathlon. Vaughters said yes and gave me more of a salary than I ever made in triathlon and more than I made on the amateur team.
TM: Looking back now, why do you think he selected you?
TB: I met him at Interbike and he told me racing in French amateur bike races was not an easy lifestyle. My second year I got third in a race he did when he was an amateur and I wore the yellow jersey at Tour of Guadalaupe and actually sent him the letter while I was in the yellow jersey, which is a 2.2 UCI race, where a few older professional racers go and race. He had raced the amateur races and knew them.
I did cycling for two more years with Slipstream, went to Australia for a winter of training, but I came over from one of the most structured amateur team, onto a first year Continental team in their first year over in Europe. They had a bunch of young guys, had just switched over from TIAFF Cref to Slipstream, and worst of all I wasn’t riding well. Because Continental American teams could only do amateur races in the US and not in Europe, we would sometime go six weeks without racing. My first pro race was a French Cup race and next was Circuit de Sarthe. We were blood tested everyday as part of the passport program, and I told them I felt something was wrong, but they just said that maybe my white blood cell count was a little high, but to not worry that I was likely tired from training. I think a lot of my teammates thought I wasn’t very good.
Eventually I flew back to the US for my brother’s wedding and got blood tested and found out I had giardhea. The first half of the year I raced with giardhea, took a bit of medication, it killed everything in my stomach, and then I was back to normal. I went to Switzerland, where Nikki was racing, and was hit by a car and broke my collarbone, so it was just a bad year for me.
It was my first year in Europe and me and my roomate, an Australian, were the only two on the team who stayed in Europe all year long. Most of the others went back to the US and got some more racing in their legs. It was a bad combination. I would never change it thought because I got experience and was even able to race in the Tour of Belgium next to Tom Boonen. That was comforting to be able to hang with the bunch.
TM: At what point did you figure out that cycling was not the sport for you?
TB: In triathlon there was no one running 27 minutes off the bike and I knew I was capable of running the 1:10 you needed to run in a half marathon. If you could swim and bike with the rest of the guys and then do that then you can win races. It is very rare now that you find someone who is a dominant swimmer and biker and capable of holding on during the run.
TM: Have you lost any motivation on the bike after your years of only cycling?
TB: Not at all. From day one I knew if I stopped racing my bike I would try to ride just as much because I loved riding. Even though I raced as a professional biker, cycling was still my weakest sport in a triathlon. My first two long course races in 2009 I had the fastest run in one of them and, in the second race, only Craig outran me.
TM: Did you miss running while you were cycling?
TB: My last year in cycling, some days if I didn’t feel like getting on the bike, I would go for a run.
TM: Did your coaches get mad at you?
TB: They didn’t know. They would not have been impressed and would have said it was better to do double rides.
TM: What are your goals in triathlon?
TB: I want to get a top ten in Hawaii within the next ten years at least once. If I can get the level of my bike up to standards, I think I can run with the best of them.
TM: You finished Ironman Cozumel with a 2:52 finishing marathon last November but really opened some eyes with your 1:07 finishing half-marathon at US Pros in April.
TB: I wanted to do the race in Texas because I have family down there and I wanted to do one or two halves that Lieto was in. He is a tier one triathlete, and he has to race with a target on his back. I wanted to see how I compared to him in a race situation on the bike. Even though I ran a 1:07 and got seven and a half minutes back on him, he put ten minutes into me on the bike.
TM: Had you been putting in bike miles or was your goal only to run fast?
TB: That is a hard question and one of the reasons I don’t work well with coaches. All winter I worked on my swim and bike and only did two key runs each week. When I got off the bike in that race and Nikki said I was ten minutes behind Lieto, I was shocked. She was laughing at me because I told her I wanted to move up from a tier two to a tier one athlete as my goal this season. I knew I wasn’t biking great eventhough I had been riding a lot I didn’t feel great on the bike.
I got off the bike and I took off as fast as I could right up to my threshold pace. I went out hard and caught a few guys who had passed me out on the bike course and I kept running hard. Because it was a windy day, there were people out there I kept catching and it was those people in front that gave me something to keep chasing all race. The last person I caught was Paul Amey and he was running a quick time himself. I couldn’t believe I was actually catching him because I remember thinking he looked like he was really running fast.
In the end I was pleased because the guys in front of me were all good athletes. I’m an American citizen (Tyler’s Dad is from Bermuda, his Mom is from Denver, Colorado) so I wanted to do well since it was the US Pro Championships. Having only an average bike really gave me the fuel and fire to run fast. I knew I was running well so I thought I ran a 1:11 half, but when I saw the time I thought ‘WOW’.
TM: Do you think the course was short, and if so, how fast would you have run on an accurately measured course?
TB: I think I would have run a 1:10 because I remember last year in Clearwater when I thought I was running a 1:15 and finished with a 1:13.
TM: What is coming up for you the rest of the year?
TB: Everything from now on is directed towards Kona. This year I will do five blocks of three weeks, two weeks on and one week off and also try a bigger volume block. I want to try it early after nine weeks so I can build my power in the final six eight weeks if I need it.
I raced Philadelphia the other week (Tyler finished third in the run-bike-run format in the June 26th Toyota Cup Series Race) because I like doing the short races in order to keep some of the top end speed. I think one of the reasons I did well in Texas was because I raced an ITU race in Mexico the week before, so the running almost felt like it was in slow motion by comparison. There is a place for these speed races because if I am running a 32 minute 10k in a short race, then to run 30 seconds slower per mile in a longer race doesn’t feel that fast. I’d like to stay sharp, but also Philadelphia Insurance Companies is a sponsor of mine. There is a race in Bermuda that is put on by my main sponsor Tokio Re-Insurance and those two companies are affiliated so it was a great one as a hit out and for my sponsors too.