Have you asked yourself if you should do your first full Ironman triathlon, even though you are age 50 or over? Juha Makitalo did and decided to go for it. This post contains his story, including the main lessons he learned along the way.
During the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, Juha Makitalo and I worked in a multinational manufacturing company. We learned of our mutual love for triathlon and continued to share our progress after my retirement from the company.
Recently, Juha wrote to tell me he had completed Ironman Tallinn in Estonia as part of his 50th birthday challenge. I asked him to share his story and the lessons he had learned from the experience with the Senior Triathletes’ community.
Juha graciously agreed. However, since there is an eight hour time difference between our homes and Juha is working as CEO of the Finnish automation manufacturer Pemamek, we decided to conduct the interview by e-mail. This post is based on our exchanges.
How did you get started in triathlon?
Juha – When I was young, I used to race in middle and longer distance running and in cross-country skiing. In 1986, I did my first triathlon, a small village race. This race was a little shorter than an Olympic distance. Like many first time triathletes, I used a normal every-day bike, not a racing bike.
Between 1986 and 1994, I participated in 5 to 10 sprint and Olympic distance races each year for a total of 40 to 50 races. My best year was 1991 when I set a personal record of 2 hours 3 minutes in an Olympic distance. race.
What motivated you to complete an Ironman race?
Juha –When I was younger and racing shorter distances, I remember having admired guys like Mark Allen and Pauli Kiuru from Finland who raced the Ironman Kona. I remember thinking that one day I wanted to do an Ironman and also maybe to go to Kona for a race.
In the mid-1990s, I met my wife, finished the university, and started working. My training was reduced, to almost zero.
After a few years, I started to train again, mostly to lose some weight I had gained. In 2016 and 2017, I ran a marathon in Stockholm, finishing in a little over 4 hours.
In 2017, a manager of one of our company’s suppliers challenged me to participate in the first Ironman event in Finland, Lahti Ironman 70.3 at the end June 2018.
That race went well for me; I finished in about 5 hours 30 minutes. The next June, I participated again in the Lahti Ironman 70.3. In August, I completed Challenge Turku 70.3. Lahti took 5 hours 40 minutes this time and Turku took 5 hours 20 minutes. I also completed two sprint distance races.
Several people encouraged me to go for a full Ironman (Ironman 140.6). I initially felt it was too much for me. However, I finally decided to try. For a 50th birthday present, I gave myself a registration in Ironman Copenhagen 2020.
Why the Tallinn, Estonia triathlon?
Juha – I had registered and paid for Ironman Copenhagen in August. However, because of COVID-19, the Copenhagen race was postponed to 2021.
I had trained quite intensively and felt disappointed that I would not have the opportunity to test my condition. The only remaining major full distance race close to Finland was Ironman Tallinn. After long consideration, I decided to compete in the Tallin race.
How did COVID-19 impact your triathlon plans?
Juha – As I mentioned previously, I had originally planned to compete in Ironman Copenhagen. The race was postponed by one year so I chose the Tallinn race instead. That was the negative part.
However, I must admit that COVID-19 had a positive effect on my training.
During a normal year, I travel quite a lot for work. Now, with COVID-19, travel was minimized. That helped me to have more time for training.
Also, travelling normally means shorter nights and less sleep. With less travelling, I was able to get more rest. Recovery from the increased training was clearly better.
How did you train for the 70.3 distance?
Juha – For the first two years for Lahti Ironman 70.3 races, I trained without a coach. I had already been training for running, so I just added some swimming and biking. I continued also to go to ice hockey training one to two times per week. During the winter, I also did some cross-country skiing.
My target was to train about 6 to 7 hours per week with at least one swim and one bike session per week during winter. Then, in the spring, I planned to add more hours of training per week.
Actually, my average week involved about 5 hours total training. During the winter, it was a little less. In the summertime, I trained a little more.
How about training to complete your first full Ironman at age 50?
Juha – After deciding to compete in the full Ironman, I was convinced that I would not be prepared to complete the full distance without a coach. I was sure I needed both higher quantity and quality training. Initially, I looked for online training programs since I live in a small town where it would not be possible to participate in training groups.
One of my friends recommended Kai Söderdahl who owns and runs Aqua Plus Triathlon sports club. He creates different level training programs for his triathletes.
Söderdahl is a long-term, successful triathlete with two podium finishes at the Kona world championship. In 2019, he was also North American Champion in his age group. Since I also knew him from the early nineties, it was easy to choose him.
Coach Kai makes training programs available online through the TrainingPeaks application. I would sync my actual data from my Polar sports watch to the application. This was easy from a technical point of view.
After planning, it was time to train
Juha – The actual training was not as easy, however. Coach Kai’s plan on TrainingPeaks called for 10 to 12 hours of training per week. I was only able to commit to 7 to 10 hours or 20 to 25% less than what the plan called for.
Autumn did not start too well. At the end of October, I had a long work trip to the US with a lot of local travel. After returning back to Finland, I had the flu followed by a bout with bronchitis. I missed all of the November training, finally starting at the beginning of December.
With this delay, the focus was purely on swimming, biking, and running and some strength training at the gym. I trained between 8 and 10 hours per week during the wintertime.
Soon, I started to feel quite tired from training. The early part of year involved a constant balancing of training and resting. Of course, these were also balanced with work.
Finally, during the spring, my training started to feel better. I was able to do more than the 7 to 10 hours. Eventually, I worked up to the 10 to 12 hours of the on-line program. By late spring/early summer, I felt that my condition had improved a lot.
I owe a lot of this progress to Coach Kai Söderdahl’s experience. He knows how to balance training. He included a mix of low- and high-intensity training within a week. Over the long term, he mixed heavier and lighter weeks.
My training included much more swimming and intervals than I had done before. I spent a lot more hours with low heart rate training balanced with some very intense short sprints or intervals.
What did you find most memorable during the race?
Juha – First, considering the location of Tallinn, an early September race day made for questionable weather. While it was quite windy on race day, the temperature at the beginning of the race was comfortable at 15 °C (59 °F). Only later in the day did it begin to rain and cool down, becoming chilly.
While Tallinn is located on the Baltic Sea, the swim was in Lake Harku, a small freshwater lake in the city. This was better for me since I am not used to swimming in saltwater. The wind created some small waves, though these had little effect.
I started the swim in the last group. I had decided before the race to swim a relaxed pace to save energy for the bike and run.
The only problem during the swim occurred when a fellow competitor swam on my legs, hitting my calf. This caused my calf to cramp. I stopped for a moment to stretch the muscle. Fortunately, the cramp left and never reappeared.
The bike leg consisted of two laps of a mostly flat course with a few small rolling hills. This course was good for me since it is much like that around my home. Since the area near my home is also flat, I never had opportunity to get much climb training.
I managed to keep good control of my power output. I felt good throughout the bike leg which was also the first time I rode a full 180 km (112 miles).
The trickiest part of the course was at the end of the first loop and beginning of the second which went through the center of Tallinn. Here, there were many turns and crossroads. There was also about 1 km on a wooden bridge.
The transition from the bike to run went well. (In case you are interested, it was also the only time I visited the toilet during the race.)
The run consisted of four loops of a course between Seaplane Harbor and Old Town Tallinn. On this course, there were many corners and small jumps from the road onto a sidewalk and back down to the road. Initially, this was not a problem, but these became uncomfortable as I became more tired.
Overall, the run started well. I managed to keep my pace a little under my target. The first two laps felt rather easy; my half marathon time was under 2 hours.
When starting the third loop, I remember thinking ‘OK, I can become an Ironman today’. I was certain that I could manage the two remaining loops even if walking was necessary.
The final half marathon – in the rain
Unfortunately, on 3rd loop, the rain became heavier and running started to feel difficult as I started to run out of energy. While my speed reduced, I tried to keep it as constant as possible.
By the fourth and final loop, my legs felt heavy. I was very tired. With the rain coming down harder, I felt pretty cold.
I started to walk through the aid stations in order to drink and eat more. While I had envisioned sprinting the last few kilometers, I did not have it in me. I was happy to just maintain a decent speed.
Throughout the last two loops of the run, I was grateful for my wife and the good number of spectators who continued cheering on the racers even in the rain. The support of these kind people helped a lot.
Running to the red carpet and over the finish line was one of the best feelings ever. Very emotional. Just like that, I no longer felt tired!
What lessons did you learn from your first full Ironman?
Juha – First, I learned the benefit of having a professional coach. The full Ironman is a long distance race and requires a long preparation period. Besides, I was not satisfied just to complete the race; I wanted to finish with a decent time. For this, systematic training with a coach was even more important.
Good training allowed me to complete the full Ironman distance with a pretty good time! On my own, I would never have trained as much as needed. And even if I had, the balance of types of training and of training intensity would have been wrong.
For example, on my own, I would have always run and biked with more or less the same speed. However, Coach Kai’s plan included a mix of intervals and some hard training sessions with others done at a slower pace. The on-line training program included instructions on speed, distance, and/or duration for each.
It helped that I did not start my training from nothing. I managed to complete the race with one year of focused training. But actually, I had been doing a variety of training for over 40 years.
Because of this basic fitness, I could increase the weekly training hours in a rather short period to average over 10 hours per week. I was pleasantly surprised how much my physical condition improved, despite being a bit older.
What changes to your training would you make next time?
Juha – There are two improvements I would make next time.
First, I would practice fueling during training throughout the year. It is not possible to complete an Ironman without frequent energy filling. However, I did not practice enough taking energy gels and bars over the year during normal training.
During the last main practices when I needed to fuel, I noticed it was difficult for me to consume enough energy. It is better to teach your digestive system to use energy gels or bars throughout the year of training.
This is the one area in which I was not well enough prepared.
I would also make all equipment changes earlier in the season. I changed some equipment, such as biking shoes and swimming goggles, in the last weeks of training. Adding new equipment shortly before the race made me nervous; I was afraid it might create problems during the race. Luckily, I managed well with the new stuff. However, for sure making these late changes created some extra butterflies.
Any final words for those who want to do their first full Ironman at age 50 or over?
Juha – First, you can do it! I think many of us have had feelings similar to me. We tell ourselves “It is impossible to go through an Ironman race at my age”. It was a big step mentally to register for my first full Ironman race and start systematic training. But, I am happy that I did it.
It is also important to manage the training process. It is not easy to find time for training in addition to normal daily activities. I found it best to plan the week well before.
Also, you need to be gentle on yourself. One missed training session will not kill the plan for the race. On the other hand, you can’t miss training all the time.
Involve your family
Finally, discuss your race and training plan with your family. Triathlon as a sport takes a lot of time. To avoid unnecessary problems, it is best to agree about the time commitment and targets with your spouse up front.
By the way, I must really thank my wife. For her patience during the time I have spent training and racing. I would typically leave home almost every evening after work for 2 to 3 hours to do the training. She has given tremendous support, being quick to prepare food (I am always hungry during training!), wash clothes, and do many other things.
Thank you Kati!
Special thanks to Juha for sharing his story with us, especially given his demanding work schedule.
Leave any questions and comments for Juha in the section below.