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Last Sunday at the inaugural Ironman Boulder, local triathlete Justin Daerr earned the first major race victory of his professional career–a win he’s been working toward since he first stepped up to an Ironman start line 13 years ago. I caught up with Daerr post-race to learn about his career rise to the top of the podium, the support crew that helped him reach his goal and his tips and run training advice–including an endurance-focused fartlek session–for anyone planning to race Ironman Boulder 2015.
Triathlete.com: In your Ironman Boulder finish interview you talked about needing an emotional connection to a race, and you certainly had that here in Boulder. But you’ve also had that at Ironman Texas [Daerr grew up in Houston] where you’ve posted amazing performances and finished second (2012), third (2014) and fourth (2012), yet never won. What else made the difference in getting you to that finish line first on Sunday?
JD: For one thing, the race being a little later in the year is helpful. Trying to get fit in May from Boulder is OK, but I always feel like I’m a little behind. Not having to travel is also helpful. And because it’s a first year event, the fact that I’ve really been able to understand the course and create a game plan based on what I’ve seen in training has been beneficial. I mean Richie [Cunningham, also a local pro and the other main contender for the win] and I rode within seconds of each other, so we both had a pretty good idea of how to hit the bike correctly.
Triathlete.com: During the 13 years since your first Ironman and especially since turning pro in 2006, have you ever doubted your commitment to keep plugging away towards the top podium step? How have you found the motivation to keep moving forward?
JD: I think it’s always been a little bit of a moving target. Usually when I made some progression, so did the sport, so what might have been good enough a year or two prior wasn’t good enough when I was doing it. Trying to predict where a race and the sport is going to go, rather than where it’s been, has been helpful–sort of saying to myself, “Here’s what I think it’s going to take to win here, regardless of what’s happened.” I mean I wrote down times that got all the way down to 8:10 on this course, in terms of what I thought might be possible in the most ideal conditions. Not necessarily what I thought I could do, but more what I thought it would take to win, and then trying to develop a plan to try to achieve that. And even if I didn’t hit those times, I still had those targets in mind in terms of what it would take and what I needed to be prepared for. Although the transitions turned out to be a little bit longer than what I thought, by about a minute.
Triathlete.com: Do you mean your transitions in particular?
JD: No, I mean they’re literally long–the distances of the runs. I normally never allocate more than four minutes total for T1 and T2 in an Ironman, but this was more like a five and a half minute T1 and T2 combo.
Triathlete.com: You analyze the race down to that level of detail in terms of what you think it will take to win?
JD: Oh yeah! I’ll look at my times after a race and ask myself, “Why did I lose 10 seconds in the transition?” It’s come down to that level of racing, needing to pay attention to where you can get a 10 or 20-second gap. I mean I know it’s an eight-plus hour race, but that’s what you need to be thinking about, because guys are just too good. So if you can figure out some way to just be a few seconds faster, then why not? I think about all that stuff.
Triathlete.com: I wonder, do you think it’s potentially beneficial to have a long transition run, just in terms of allowing your body more time to transition from one discipline to the next?
JD: Maybe from the swim to the bike, but I don’t really want any extra time from the bike to the run! Whenever I have to run out of the transition tent to a line where the run actually starts, I think that they should move the line closer to the tent. The marathon should start the second we start running. I don’t want to have to run one extra step!
Triathlete.com: You definitely seem to be on the low-key end of the spectrum in terms of not courting the celebrity triathlete spotlight; humble is a word that could certainly be used to describe you. What’s your philosophy on avoiding tooting your own horn?
JD: For one, I’m always thinking about trying to get better, and sometimes in order for me to do that I need fewer distractions. So maybe that’s why I’m a little more under the radar, because there’s a lot going on to get distracted by. But also I don’t know how you can be anything but humble in this town! It’s not like we’re in the middle of nowhere. There are world champions here, and there are tiers of Olympic athletes–those that went to the Olympics, and then those that won medals, and then those that won gold medals. Maybe one or two people in the whole town can really pull off a legit ego, because there’s always somebody faster and better around. I’ve always kind of been a small fish in this big pond, because I’ve been here a long time–actually as a college intern for Velonews and Inside Triathlon in 2002, then for a few summers and then full-time since the start of 2007. Trying to get better around people that are the best in the sport at all times is always humbling. You just look over and think, “Man, am I ever going to get there?” These other guys and girls are just so quick.
Triathlete.com: You shared some poignant moments with your wife Brooke and with your father at the Ironman Boulder finish line. Tell me about the key family and friends that comprise your team, and what that support means to you.
JD: I had only done one Ironman as a professional before I met my wife. So I’ve had 25 starts after that and 22 finishes [Daerr has started 29 Ironman races in total, finishing 26]. She’s seen me progress from the goal of finishing top 10 in a race to trying to finish top five, to trying to podium, and then trying to win. And you know, it’s pretty difficult–at least it was for me. The first time I thought I had a chance to win a race was in 2009, and now five years later I actually got it done, so these opportunities don’t come around very often. She has put so much into making that happen–not just the emotional side of believing in her spouse and supporting me, but literally working with me in sessions, going through all the travel, being at races, getting splits and being a Sherpa. She’s just as much a part of the process, not just as a pat on the back but from a literal support standpoint. And then with my dad, he’s seen me progress from the very beginning. My dad has some pretty severe injuries from Vietnam, so he has a physical disability and one of the few exercise mediums he can do is riding a bike. When I was in high school we started riding bikes together, which was one of the beginnings of the endurance side of things for me. As a sophomore in college I signed up for this Ironman thing and said to my dad, “Come out and watch!” It was my goal to break 13 hours and I did. Both my parents have been at a lot of the Ironman races I’ve done, and they’ve always been optimistic–sometimes annoyingly so. I would always be hard on myself after a race, saying, “I just can’t get it done.” But they would always say, “You’re going to do it. You just have to keep at it.” My dad told me, “If you believe that you can get better, then you have to keep going.” My mom and two of my aunts were here this weekend as well. My Aunt Sherry has been a big part of my racing because I stayed with her for a few months while I was getting ready for a race maybe 10 years ago, so she saw the whole process of what went into it. Ever since then she’s gone to a ton of races and she’s usually the photographer. She’s a professional photographer and painter, amongst other things, so she’s taken a million shots of my racing over the years.
Triathlete.com: In addition to your own racing, you coach athletes through Endurance Corner. What’s a lesson learned from your Boulder race that you might impart to the athletes you coach?
JD: Know the course well. This is sort of a back end loaded course where the difficulty grows through the race, so being patient early on is really important, as well as knowing when to apply more effort on the bike course in order to get a better return on your effort. The run is definitely the kind of course where I wouldn’t get too caught up in your pace, because the pace that you’re running is not very reflective of the effort it might be taking you to do it. It just doesn’t run very quickly, with all the changes in rhythm and ups and downs and the concrete surface. I had it in my head that it was probably going to be a marathon that was on the slower side of things, with a combination of the long gradual uphill stretches and the altitude, but it was even a bit more difficult than I expected once I actually got to race it. I think if you’re overly ambitious with your expectations you might set yourself up for a bit of a disaster.
Triathlete.com: It certainly was not one of the fastest Ironman marathons on record, however yours was impressive as the fastest of the day at 2:56:34 and the only sub three-hour split. Will you share one of your favorite run sessions for our readers, particularly one that helped you prepare for this race?
JD: I like doing fartlek sessions that have a variance of pace and duration. The basic idea is to take a distance or an amount of time, cut it in half and then repeat it over and over, for example:
4x (1-mile on, 2-minutes off, 1/2-mile on, 2-minutes off)
4x (6-minutes on, 2-minutes off, 3-minutes on, 2-minutes off)
The shorter efforts should be 15-20 seconds per mile faster than the pace of the longer efforts.
You’re training two different types of distance pace within this session and you have to shift between different speeds over and over again. I like it because when you go to run the faster efforts you can’t go crazy, because you have to be able to go back to the moderate pace fairly soon after. Let’s say you’re doing mile and half-mile efforts and you do the mile in six minutes, you might do the half-mile at a 5:45 pace. You don’t want to do it at a 5:20 pace, because then when you go back to the mile you’re going to blow up. It helps you to shift gears but forces you to avoid overdoing it because of the fact that the session continues on. Sometimes when your efforts just get shorter and shorter in duration you can just go harder and harder without any problems.
The other thing I like doing with these sessions is to run them over a variety of terrain. Instead of a perfectly flat road or trail, I like some variation because triathlon isn’t like road racing in running where they shut down a five-lane road and give you the whole road to run down. They put us in these little bitty areas, like bike paths with lots of turns, so if you practice running all over the place, then you learn how to deal with things that constantly break your rhythm without overdoing it. When you’re making sharp turns you have to slow way down and you don’t necessarily want to blow out of the gate once you get through the turn. You can’t just lock in a pace–you have to learn to deal with varying paces yet trying to maintain a pretty constant effort. Think of it as the demands of cross-country running vs. running on the track–triathlon is somewhere in the middle. We’re dealing with more than just a straight line, but at the same time we’re not jumping fences. You want a context that mimics the race. If you’re doing mile repeats on terrain that’s not very fast, you might get mile times that are not as quick as they would be on the track, but that can be OK. You can recognize that it’s a pretty fast time considering what you’re running on, so that when you get into a race and there are sharp turns and ups and downs and you’re running 20 seconds slower per mile, that’s probably right where you should be.