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As Timothy O’Donnell tackles the iron distance, he steps into the role as an American with a legitimate shot at ending the U.S. drought.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
There are countless reasons for Timothy “T.O.” O’Donnell to doubt that he could be the top American, much less a factor, in the men’s race at the 2011 Ironman World Championship this October if and when he qualifies. Odds are he will not be a contender for the win—this year.
First, he must qualify by placing high in his debut Ironman this May in The Woodlands, Texas, against a tough field, and then he must score points with wins on the 70.3 circuit.
Then there is history. Certified all-time greats with world championship titles such as Mark Allen, Greg Welch and Chris McCormack endured six or seven years of frustration before finally breaking through at Kona. Other multiple world champions such as Simon Lessing and Spencer Smith crashed and burned on the lava fields. And Mark Allen’s American inheritor, Tim DeBoom, spent six years working his way up before he became a true Kona contender, taking third in 1999 and second in 2000 before his wins in 2001 and 2002. And then there are the current, proven Americans with better résumés and more experience than O’Donnell: Chris Lieto took second at Kona in 2009 after years of struggle and has the best bike in the Ironman game. Andy Potts has an Ironman 70.3 world title, two Ironman wins, victories at ITU World Cups and a bushel of wins at the 70.3 distance—and a seventh and ninth at Kona.
But betting against the tenacious O’Donnell, U.S. Naval Academy graduate, has never been a smart long-term play.
And it is never too early to dream—to hold the glimmer of belief that drives all triathletes who have set Kona as an ultimate goal. O’Donnell holds this belief in himself, one that is bolstered by a well-executed training program devised by a coach with valuable experience at the iron distance. Indeed, when Cliff English took full charge of O’Donnell’s training and racing in 2009, he helped transform the frustrated top-tier swim-biker into one of the swiftest runners in the 70.3 game.
So with Kona in mind, O’Donnell found himself in the middle of a nine-week base training phase in February in Tucson, Ariz., that featured greater-than-ever volume, intensity and distance.
On one particular Thursday, O’Donnell and superb triathlon cyclist T.J. Tollakson whipped through a 25-mile Mount Lemmon time trial, climbing 5,500 feet from the desert floor up through alpine climate zones to Summerhaven. Dancing on the pedals, not breathing heavily, O’Donnell and Tollakson made it look easy in one hour and 42 minutes. The next day, after a 90-minute workout at the University of Arizona pool, O’Donnell ran 7 miles at an effortless 6:30 pace then warmed down with a light session on the wind trainer to prep for a long weekend that would include a solo 102-mile bike ride up Madera Canyon and back with 2,500 feet of climbing and three hours of heavy head- and cross-winds followed by a moderate cool-down run. On Sunday, O’Donnell topped things off with a longest-ever 23-mile run in 2 hours and 30 minutes—a 2:50 marathon pace.
While the sheer numbers of the workouts through the arid desert were encouraging but not earth-shattering, it was O’Donnell’s metronomic form, his soft impact, his rapid footfall, the stillness of his upper body, his quick recovery and the calmness of his demeanor that made an impression on me. When English quietly explained that all of O’Donnell’s training benchmarks had improved markedly in the past few months, I asked what he thought his athlete might do at the iron distance, and what might happen if Kona is on the table this year.
People didn’t give too much credence to English when he said his athlete and former wife, Samantha McGlone, had trained to run three hours flat in her 2007 Kona debut. But she ran almost exactly that while finishing second to Britain’s Chrissie Wellington, who was the surprise winner that year and who thereafter came to dominate the women’s Ironman game.
English therefore has established credibility for his evaluations, never giving in to hyperbole or inflated claims about his charges. This is why he got my attention when he said, “If everything is going right, Tim can swim with the lead pack, and he can ride with the serious chase group in Kona. And when it comes to the run, he can run whatever is required to stay with the best runners. Depending on the day and the weather, that means anything from 2:48 to 2:42.”
If English’s evaluation of O’Donnell is as spot-on for him as it was for McGlone, it means O’Donnell may be on his way to stepping in to the role of the American heir apparent—the one who has the best shot at winning a title in Kona, however long that takes.
When you ask English why he works with O’Donnell—a man who started his triathlon career in short course as part of his dream to represent his country in the Olympics—he doesn’t talk about watts on the bike or body fat percentage or any other popular quantification that passes for critical judgment of triathlon talent. And he doesn’t talk about O’Donnell’s 2009 ITU Long Course World title, his six Ironman 70.3 wins, his six U.S. Military Triathlon championships, or his multiple long-course world championship medals.
When he talks about why he coaches O’Donnell, English says the 30-year-old possesses that certain critical quality of a champion.
“It’s a fire,” said English, who observed that quality up close when he coached McGlone. “It’s the quality of staying hungry and the habit of always giving your all. It’s easy to go hard when you are in the hunt. But even if you are running 30th or 40th or 50th, you have to run like you are winning the damn race.”
Back in 2009, O’Donnell roared back from a discouraging 11th off the bike to third at the line with a race-best run of 1:15:45 at the New Orleans 70.3—one of the first demonstrations of his first-rate running ability. But during the very next race, St. Anthony’s Triathlon in St. Petersburg, Fla., O’Donnell got a penalty on the bike he felt was unfair and lost heart.
“I got off the bike in 11th[again],” he recalled, “But when I started the run, I was running with some people on my shoulder I didn’t feel should be there. And boom! I just let them go.”
After the race when English asked, “What the hell was that?’” O’Donnell replied, “Yeah, I gave up.”
“He knew he had wussed out and pouted,” recalled English. “I didn’t raise my voice. We didn’t have bad words. But to be able to do the type of training to win at this level, he needs to be honest with himself and with me. And it turned out OK, because he admitted it, and he remembered it in his next race.”
The St. Anthony’s performance was a rare exception that proved the rule, as O’Donnell is a guy whose entire life is defined by his plunging ahead in the face of all discouragement and embarrassment.
O’Donnell says he was “by far” the slowest swimmer in his family, the child who could not make the B standard on his club swim team while his brothers and sister were champions. He was also the fellow who could only manage a 47-minute 10K in his first try for the Naval Academy Triathlon team, the fledgling pro who once got lapped in the run at the Chicago Triathlon, and the guy whose elite international prospects were initially discounted by most experts because they did not believe the swimmer-turned-triathlete could ever run a 31-minute 10K off the bike.
Yet O’Donnell was never discouraged by his initially lackluster results. By the time he graduated from Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School, he had set multiple school records and achieved Pennsylvania all-state honors in swimming—and his times were good enough to earn a place on the NCAA Division I Naval Academy swim team.
O’Donnell’s quest to become a world-class triathlete—and specifically to master the run—involved a little more struggle, however. Not long after he graduated from the Naval Academy in 2003, he won the USAT Under-23 U.S. National Championship in Kennebunk, Maine. The success was encouraging but the run split wasn’t: 35:03. His split at the 2003 ITU Under-23 World Championships in New Zealand was even slower—43:02—with rigorous study at the University of California, Berkeley’s ocean engineering program partly contributing to his subpar performance.
As he continued his short-course career, the run splits continued to roller-coaster.
By 2008, his 33:55 run split at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Tuscaloosa, Ala.—2 minutes and 48 seconds slower than the top mark, set by Matt Reed—meant he would cross the line in sixth and fail to earn a spot on the Beijing Olympic team.
During this period, he says he was learning how to run efficiently, how to race and how to endure the pain of redlining effort. But due to circumstances involving the Navy and USA Triathlon, he never had enough time to spend five or six months carefully building the aerobic base that is required for a true breakthrough in running. Instead, he was left without the aerobic speed required to mix it up with the true studs of triathlon.
After his failed Olympic bid in 2008, O’Donnell found himself free to spend uninterrupted time with English, focusing on his run. To amp up his run without breaking O’Donnell down, English cut O’Donnell’s swim and bike workloads in half and built his running mileage up to 98 miles per week at the top end of his training cycle.
O’Donnell emerged from six months of this type of training, in the spring of 2009, with a new identity—that of a dangerous runner. While his greatest success came at the half-iron distance, he also proved he had the sheer run speed that could translate to a 2012 London Olympic slot. By the end of 2009, he would place second at the USA Triathlon Elite National Championship with a run split of 29:54 on a slightly short 10K course. And at the 2010 USAT Elite National Championships, O’Donnell found himself with a run split on a slightly long 10K course that was only 14 seconds slower than that of Jarrod Shoemaker, one of the ITU’s most deadly runners. O’Donnell’s run splits, whatever their measurements, were fast enough to earn him the U.S. elite men’s runner-up spot for two years in a row.
While O’Donnell has shown himself to be an athlete who refuses to give up, perhaps the best example of his iron will came in November of 2005—two years after his Annapolis graduation and after finishing his graduate work in ocean engineering at Berkeley—when O’Donnell was assigned to Navy diving school in San Diego as part of his required training for a special operations forces assignment in Explosive Ordnance Disposal.
“I was this kid straight from grad school who had never done any hard-core Navy training, and they were ready for me,” he recalled.
The master chief was a hard-driving former professional football player, and O’Donnell’s first task was to pass a simple physical test by doing seven pull-ups. The skinny Annapolis grad, one of just two officers in the class, did what he thought were seven pull-ups.
“You failed!” the master chief roared.
He had only cleared the bar in proper form two times.
“They gave me five more days to pass the PT test, and I failed again,” O’Donnell said. “I went before a Navy board and they dismissed me from the class. For a guy who hates to fail at anything, this was huge. Shattering. My head was spinning.”
His commander in San Diego assigned O’Donnell to an officer known as Big D, who would help him regain all those upper-body swimming muscles he’d lost when he became a triathlete. In February, he went back and banged out three times as many properly executed pull-ups as required.
But the master chief and his cohorts kept up the pressure. Near the end of his training, O’Donnell faced a test called sharking that prepares Navy divers for combat in open water. The candidates dive to the bottom of a pool and instructors swim down and hit them, pull off their masks and regulators, tie their air hoses in knots and move their oxygen tanks to the other side of the pool. For good measure, the instructors mete out a few shots in the gut. Recovering from these attacks and straightening out air hoses and regaining the oxygen supply might take anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds. While this was bad enough, O’Donnell said he later learned that his instructors wanted to make his test tougher than everyone else’s. A fellow diving school candidate told him that one of his instructors had yelled: “Keep O’Donnell down there. Let everybody have a hit on him.”
Despite the increased pressure during his second go at diving school, O’Donnell made it through his sharking test, and he eventually graduated at the top of his class.
“I ended up winning the Honor Man Award for the top graduate in the class,” O’Donnell said.
One week after his discouraging performance at St. Anthony’s in 2009, when he quit on himself after receiving what he felt was an unfair penalty, O’Donnell raced Ironman 70.3 St. Croix.
It was a turning point in his career.
At the 32-mile mark, he almost crashed when he followed Stuart Hayes of Great Britain off the road and into the grass. Then he spent 20 miles expending energy catching up to the leaders. With 5 miles to go, Kiwi Bryan Rhodes and Dirk Bockel of Luxembourg made a break—and O’Donnell, whose early triathlon identity was as a top-rate swimmer and biker without a first-rate run, could have pushed the panic button.
“I didn’t bite,” said the new O’Donnell. “It was the first strategic race I ever had where I said to myself, ‘I’m going to stay here and set myself a running race. I know I can run.’”
O’Donnell started about 80 seconds down from Igor Amorelli of Brazil, Rhodes and Bockel.
“I started the run with Richie Cunningham, who is a fantastic runner when he is on, and [he] was the guy I was really worried about,” said O’Donnell. “We were running time into the leaders and on the first steep hill on the golf course, Richie popped me. That was the moment I needed mental toughness to stick to my plan. So I held the margin to 20 meters and at the end of the first lap [of two] I started to pull back on him and I thought, ‘All right! I’m not out of this.’”
By the time he was done, O’Donnell passed everyone ahead of him with a race-best 1:17:05 run split.
It was the first time in his career that he had relied on his run to win. To add icing to the cake, he won St. Croix by breaking the course record set by two-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander.
“[At the finish] I let out a scream like a battle cry,” said the normally soft-spoken O’Donnell. “My eyes were on fire, and I let out this roar and thought, ‘Maybe that was a little too much.’ But it was so emotional for me, the culmination of everything I had put into the sport over the years, a realization that what I’d been doing was working and I was on the right course.”
Despite O’Donnell’s newfound success at the 70.3 distance, old dreams die hard, and he couldn’t extinguish his desire to take a second go at qualifying for the Olympics, especially after taking second at the USA Triathlon elite short-course nationals in Tuscaloosa in 2010.
“I felt I had some unfinished business,” O’Donnell said. “I felt that if I had been chasing an Olympic slot with the run I had developed in 2009, the results might have been different.”
Indeed, the Olympics had been a lifelong dream.
“As a kid growing up swimming, the Olympics is the end-all be-all for that sport,” O’Donnell recalled. “Our whole family grew up watching Matt Biondi and Summer Sanders represent the U.S. in the sport we loved. When I got into triathlon, it was a natural desire for me to think of the Olympics. I wasn’t on a level of swimming that could make the Olympics, so triathlon was a way I could be a part of the bigger dream. And being a military guy and a person who devoted his life to serve his country, the opportunity to represent the United States on the biggest athletic stage in the world was something I had a hunger to do.”
But there was someone in O’Donnell’s life who would help him change his perspective, even if she didn’t intend to: Australian triathlete Mirinda Carfrae.
At a dinner the night before St. Croix in 2009, O’Donnell stuffed a few brownies down his hatch, which drew stares from some of the athletes—including defending women’s champion Carfrae. The night after O’Donnell won in St. Croix and Carfrae finished an off-form second, O’Donnell got a laugh from Carfrae when he said, “If you had eaten one of those brownies, it might have helped that last mile and a half.”
Six weeks later, the two triathletes went on their first date together.
“We shut the [restaurant] down,” O’Donnell said. “We were eating and talking outside and time just seemed to disappear. All of a sudden we looked around and all the chairs were stacked up on top of other tables. I think there was a connection there.”
And while O’Donnell followed Carfrae to Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, in 2009 to watch her debut at the Ironman World Championship, where she would finish second to Wellington with a record-breaking marathon split, it wasn’t until Carfrae’s second attempt at Kona, in 2010, that the allure and magic of the Big Island actually set in for O’Donnell.
For one thing, last year O’Donnell found himself in the fortuitous position of having front-row seats to all the action.
“I was lucky enough to be in a control car observing the entire bike course and the men going up to Hawi,” he said. “It taught me to be patient. And to know the players and when to react to certain moves and know which moves not to react to.”
But the biggest impact came simply from watching his girlfriend—a woman whose relationship with him had only strengthened during the year they had been together—accomplish a goal she had sought for years.
“Watching her face when she crossed the line [in first], I could feel the emotions she was expressing,” he said.
The feeling was powerful.
“I felt the energy and the history in Kona and I came away really wanting to experience that for myself,” he said. “There is something in the air that is raw excitement and positive energy.”
After his stay on the Big Island, it didn’t take him long to decide that he was made for the iron distance.
“I wasn’t a superstar ITU racer, but I was on the national team, and at the end of ’08, people were asking me if this was my first year as a professional,” he said. “That shows you just how much off the radar ITU racing is in the States. At the end of the day, it is also about career development and reputation. I feel I am really starting to develop that in long course. I am building a brand that will carry on after my racing career is over in eight years, and I can be a part of the sport after my racing career.”
While English ultimately coaches O’Donnell because of his will, desire and mental fortitude, English has stressed that O’Donnell needs to develop his mental toughness on a different level if he wants to succeed in the sport’s most competitive long-course race.
“The type of athletes who do well at Kona are very mentally tough, very stoic, very psychologically self-sufficient,” said English. “I remember Peter Reid was incredibly happy going out to train for eight or nine hours by himself. He was not afraid to be alone.”
That’s why O’Donnell made it a point during his winter training camp in Tucson to go out alone on his longest-ever 23-mile run the day after a fast, draining and solo 102-mile bike with 2,500 feet of climbing.
“It is important to do without external stimuli, to go out there and go through those ups and downs you will face when you are alone on the lava fields getting depressed and stressed,” English said. “You need to train yourself to work it out on your own.”
While he concedes that anything can happen during an Ironman, he doesn’t put any limits on O’Donnell’s potential at the iron distance.
“All champions fight through in that same realm,” English said. “When you get off the bike, you have to begin the new leg and put all that behind. Tim has what I believe is a physical and psychological arsenal and skill set to run whatever he needs on the day. I truly believe that.”
O’Donnell understands that the Kona gods are fickle, and any number of issues could disrupt his admittedly long-shot bid at the title this year.
Case in point: his first three races of 2011. After a dominating win at Ironman 70.3 San Juan, he suffered some gastrointestinal woes that led to some vomiting during the last half of the run at Ironman 70.3 Texas. The very next week, O’Donnell was taking antibiotics to stem a fever but opted to tee it up at the New Orleans 70.3 anyway. He slogged through the run and ran 10 minutes slower than he should have.
At press time, O’Donnell has had five weeks to rest and recover, and he should do well at Ironman Texas. But if not, English says O’Donnell will focus on the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas and put off Kona for another year. That way, he won’t wear himself out chasing Ironman points.
But O’Donnell has faith in his preparation—and his ability to bounce back however things play out. And he is willing to keep trying, however many years it takes.
“I think my skill set in terms of dedication and focus and not giving up in the face of obstacles was a process that took a long time to get to where I am,” O’Donnell said. “Those intrinsic qualities are the ones that make you succeed at the longer distance.”