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Terry VanderWert

Christmas in October – Paul Zellner’s Story

Christmas in October – Paul Zellner’s Story

One way to picture Paul Zellner’s triathlon story is of a dad who became a runner, then followed his daughter into becoming a triathlete. This is an impressive story when you consider his accomplishments in endurance sports over the past 30 years.

However, his triathlon journey is much more than about the sport. As you will see, his fondest memories of running and triathlon are from the family connections he has enjoyed.

From the Desk to the Track

I’ll jump into Paul Zellner’s triathlon story a few years ago, when he was in his mid-30s.

Walking into his home office one afternoon, Paul received a wake-up call compliments of his then 7-year-old daughter, Maggie. She had drawn a picture of a cigarette with the word ‘No’ written across it. Determined to make certain her father got the message, Maggie put the picture on his desk.

Even though Paul was a self-described “passive smoker of mostly cigars”, he realized that his smoking was setting a bad example. This was certainly not what he wanted to teach his daughter.

He committed to stopping smoking. However, realizing that to be successful, he needed to replace his bad habit with a good one.

Paul never considered himself to be athletic. He had never participated in team sports. However, he had been gifted a tall, lean frame. In other words, a runner’s body.

So, Paul decided to build his new, healthier habit around fitness.

He bought a pair of running shoes and joined a small fitness center located in a basement near where he worked as an executive recruiter in Chicago. Eighteen times around the small track was one mile.

Realizing that he could easily add one or two laps, he gradually increased his mileage. Soon, he began running outside.

In September, at age 38, Paul ran his first 5k in Downers Grove, a western Chicago suburb near his home.

From 5k to Marathon

One month later, still filled with the sense of accomplishment and enthusiasm that followed completing this race, Paul packed up the entire family – his wife, three sons, and daughter – into their wood grain-sided station wagon.

Their destination? Downtown to cheer on participants of the Chicago Marathon.

From their Mile 2 position, Paul and family saw the happy, smiling, and hopeful faces of the roughly 4,000 racers. This was enough for Paul to catch ‘the bug’. Shortly thereafter, he signed up for next year’s Chicago Marathon.

He admitted that, in hindsight, he is not sure how things would have turned out had they parked at mile 24. In any case, Paul Zellner was among the finishers of the 1993 Chicago Marathon, his first of around 30 of these events he has now completed.

Paul was officially hooked on endurance sports.

To Runner and Triathlete

By now, Paul’s daughter, Maggie – the one who as a seven-year old led to Paul starting to run – was a Doctor of Physical Therapy and multiple Ironman finisher. She started trying to convince her father to do a triathlon.

Paul’s first triathlon was a sprint distance race in Naperville, Illinois. Paul doesn’t remember many details from this race. However, he remembers the swim held in a public reservoir. He described the swim as “a challenge”.

Like so many triathletes, Paul had come to the sport with a competence in one of the legs. In this case, the sport was running. On the other hand, he had never learned to swim.

“I remember stopping to hang onto something about halfway through swim. After that experience, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do another.”

Maggie convinced Paul to do a second triathlon. This one, a half Ironman in Benton Harbor, Michigan, included a swim in the icy cold water of Lake Michigan.

“I knew I needed a wetsuit because of the water temperature. However, that day, I learned how good a friend a wetsuit is. The wetsuit adds a remarkable amount of buoyancy.”

Paul Zellner and daughter Maggie in runner and triathlete
Paul Zellner and his daughter Maggie after his first half Ironman triathlon.

That swim was better. He completed the race and would from here on be a much more confident triathlete.

In fact, since then he has completed two more half Ironman triathlons and is registered for two more. Of course, he is also planning to complete the Chicago Marathon again this October.

Triathlon Training for a Senior Triathlete

Coming to the sport as a runner, Paul thought that training would simply mean “adding a few more miles”.

However, this changed when he saw triathletes exiting the swim to learn that they had missed the cut-off time.

“There is nothing sadder than seeing people coming out of the water after the swim only to be told they are finished for the day.”

Paul calls missing a cut-off ‘my boogey man’. It is a primary reason he follows a training plan that addresses all three legs of the sport.

The training plan he has settled on is “one simple enough to be able to stick with”.

Paul said “After looking over all the training programs, I found that many are focused on younger people and are very complex. My current program builds time and distance over 16 weeks.”

A typical week of training while preparing for an Ironman distance race involves workouts on six days. The routine, the results of which are recorded in a notebook, include:

  • Two days of biking followed by a run, typically 50 minutes each.
  • Two days of swimming.
  • One day of a long run.
  • One day a long bike ride.    

Paul added, “I also try to fit in one weight workout with my wife. By the way, she can curl as much as I do. So much for my male ego.”

While on the treadmill or stationary bike during the winter months, he often watches videos about other triathletes, such as ‘The Last Mile’, to keep him motivated and on task. “Sometimes I pretend that I look like the guys in their 30’s.”

Paul has noticed that as he has aged, he needs to push harder, not just complete the time or cover the distance.

A Family of Runners and Triathletes and Their Supporters

Paul has enjoyed the support of his wife Carol throughout his running and triathlon journey. He also credits his daughter Maggie and, more recently, her husband for encouraging him to pursue new goals in triathlon.

He has done many of his over 30 marathons and triathlons with family, including his daughter as well as nieces and nephews. The Chicago Marathon has become a family tradition, an annual event. For the Zellner family, gathering together for fun and festivity each October is like getting together around Christmas.

His love for endurance sports and for a granddaughter with spina bifada has moved him to fundraise for Great Lakes Adaptive Sports (GLASA) as well as serve on their board.

Paul’s family has made his journey in running and triathlon special. The pictures below are those who have contributed: (left) Paul’s wife, Carol; (center) Paul’s granddaughter; and (right) nephew, daughter-in-law, Paul, son-in-law and daughter at the Ohio half Ironman.

Related post: The Road to Ironman Triathlon – Laurent Labbe’s Story

Lessons from a Senior Runner and Triathlete

What has Paul Zellner learned from his 30-plus years of competing in endurance sports? Here are his top four.

1. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

“It is funny to see how putting a wetsuit and swim cap on people our age can accentuate the wrinkles.” Enjoy the journey wherever you are in it.

2. Don’t overthink your training or punish yourself when your plans change.

“Get your workout clothes out, put them on, and do something. Even if it’s only part of the planned workout.”

3. Give yourself time to heal. Balance rest and keeping up with your training plan.

Paul is thankful for his ‘in-house counsel’, in this case a daughter who is a professional in physical therapy as well as a triathlete. “She is a tremendous resource for healing.”

4. Maintain gratitude.

We ought to be thankful for an upbringing and life that has given us courage to try something new, like triathlon. And, we should be grateful for the health to compete in triathlons.

On a lighter note, Paul also admits being grateful for – and having a bit of gleeful pleasure when – being able to represent the “wrinkly face club” in passing a younger guy during a race.

What Does Triathlon Mean to You?

How did you get started in triathlon? What are the lessons you have learned?

Leave your comments below.

Bright Spots in Triathlon From COVID Restrictions

Bright Spots in Triathlon From COVID Restrictions

I will confess that I have done my share of complaining about changes over the past year. After all, the COVID restrictions turned my triathlon schedule for 2020 upside down.

Of course, that this is one of my biggest complaints means I have nothing serious about which to grumble. This doesn’t stop me from trying, however.

Knowing that I should learn to accept what I cannot change and not complain, I started thinking of the good that has arisen from these changes.

In this post, I have listed the three I see most clearly. You probably have others. Please add them to the comments at the end.

‘Do all things without complaining or arguments.’

Philippians 2:14

Running on Different Surfaces

Running on uneven surfaces is beneficial for strengthening a wider range of muscles in the feet, ankles, legs, and core. It is also good for improving balance. According to one source, off-road running lowers the risk of injury compared to road running.

Related post: Better Balance Makes for a Stronger Triathlete

During recent restrictions, some governments required a mask to be worn when within 6 feet of another person not from within your household. In these situations, I found it simpler to run on trails and grassy park areas away from the sidewalks where pedestrians and leisure walkers travel.

Training without a mask may mean avoiding people. The solution? Run where the people are not.

Training More Aerobically

If you are like most of us, you train differently when people are watching compared to when you are alone. At least one study has shown the power of training with others. Group classes and training partners tend to drive us to train harder.

This can be good.

However, if our goal is to train slowly, then training with a group can cause us to train harder than we ought.

On the other hand, when no one is watching, we are comfortable training more slowly, more aerobically. We can also train with lower weights and more repetitions when no one is watching.

Having the freedom to train aerobically and with lighter weights is good because it protects us from injury.

Shunning the Mass Swim Start

Ask most triathletes and they will tell you that one of the least pleasant parts of triathlon is the mass swim start. You can feel as if you are being attacked by other swimmers as each jockey for position. It is only in the triathlon mass start that swimming can become a contact sport.

One way race directors are creating more space between triathletes is through the time-trial swim start. With this type start, swimmers enter the water at 5 to 10-second intervals. This extends space between racers in the swim which carries over to each of the other legs.

Related post: Triathlon Across the USA: State #42 – Arkansas with time trial swim start.

What Are Positive Changes Over the Past Year?

Are there changes to triathlon from COVID restrictions over the past year that you see as positive? I would appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Leave your comments below.

Four Symptoms of Impatience In Triathlon Training

by Terry VanderWert 0 Comments
Four Symptoms of Impatience In Triathlon Training

Triathletes are a motivated, driven group. However, we can often be guilty of impatience when training for a triathlon as we strive to become faster or go longer distances.

Younger athletes can get by with more impatience and carelessness in their triathlon training. However, older athletes are less tolerant to training errors. Recovery from training related injuries is longer. Some injuries may even be career ending.

Patience Is A Virtue Especially in Training

When I hear of patience, I am often reminded of the phrase ‘patience is a virtue’.

There are various thoughts on the origin of this phrase. Some attribute it to the early fifth century poem by Prudentius titled Psychomachia. Others credit William Langford in his 14th century poem Piers Plowman.

Students of the Bible can also make a case for this truth being taught in the Old Testament (BC) and the first century church. Old and New Testament verses, including Proverbs 16:32, Ecclesiastes 7:8-9, Isaiah 30:18, and Galatians 5:22-23, teach that patience is not only good, but a source of blessing.

That ‘patience is a virtue’ is timeless. This idea has been passed down through the ages because it is true, including for triathlon training.

What Does Impatience In Triathlon Training Look Like?

You know the feeling during a game of Taboo when the hourglass timer is running out of sand and your partner is contemplating a clue for the challenge word?

That’s the feeling of impatience. But it has nothing to do with triathlon.

However, the following thoughts, mostly based on experience, do apply to triathlon training. They are examples of how impatience can rear its ugly head in training.

1. Going Too Hard Too Soon

My run training has suffered over the past few winter months. Gyms require masks throughout the visit, something I cannot and will not do while running. On top of this, it’s too cold for me to run outside.

So, when I traveled to a warm climate for a few weeks this winter, I was ready to run.

I have lost count of the number of times I have strained a muscle or been too sore the next day to run. On this trip, however, I pledged to exercise patience.

During the first two weeks, I resisted running too fast, instead sticking to aerobic base building described in a recent post.

Sure enough, I saw the results I had hoped for. After two weeks of aerobic training, I was ready to introduce some intervals and long runs.

Patience is important because the quickest path to injury is to do too much too quickly.

2. Buying the Latest Gadget, Supplement, Or Gear To Make You Faster

Our sport has caught the attention of some brilliant marketers. Many promise that the latest supplement, pair of shoes, bike wheels, or gadget will make us faster.

During the earlier days of my triathlon journey, I succumbed to these messages. I still have some of these items in my closet, which I no longer use.

Of course, we need some basic gear to be competitive. For example, a heart rate monitor has made my training more effective by forcing me to ‘go slow’ while I build aerobic fitness.

Also, swapping my 18-speed Giant hybrid bike, which I used in my first triathlon, for a properly fitted, entry level triathlon specific bike (tri-bike) has made a tremendous difference in my bike times. Most of the improvement from the bike came from the difference in gearing between the two bikes.

After this, I quickly experience the law of diminishing returns. Gear that will help a younger, professional athlete shave seconds from his/her time is unnecessary for me, an amateur triathlete who is solely competing in the sport for fun and as a focus for staying physically fit.

For most of beginner triathletes, spending a week’s wages to shave weight from the bike will have less impact on our bike times than strengthening the relevant muscles or losing a few pounds.

That’s not just my idea. While writing this post, I received an email with a link to a TrainingPeaks article titled You Need a Stronger Body, Not a Better Bike.

The article summed up my sentiments. Most of us will get the greatest gains in performance from increasing our strength and endurance, not from spending on the latest fad or buying more expensive equipment.

Patience in spending on supplements, sensors, and equipment is valuable. There are no shortcuts in triathlon training. Consistency and discipline win the race.

 

3. Not Resting Properly or Enough

In a post on a rest and recovery for senior triathletes, Jim Chapman shared the benefits he has seen from increasing the amount of rest he gets. The patience to listen to your body or, in Jim’s case to his coach, is rewarded in the long run.

Driving ourselves too hard without proper rest can quickly lead to injury or, at a minimum, poorer results from the training.

Rest does not have to mean sitting on the couch watching movies. Cross-training that allows hard-worked muscles to repair can provide rest without sacrificing fitness.

Patience leads to a well recovered, adaptable body.

4. Not Sticking With Your Plan

If you are self-coached, like me, you may relate to this one. There are many free (e.g. library books, blog posts) or inexpensive resources for developing a triathlon training plan.

However, when improvement is slow, there is a tendency to change the plan frequently, even in small ways.

Then, if you are training alone, without a partner or as part of a group, the pressure to tweak the plan can be overwhelming.

There can be legitimate reasons to change a plan, especially if it is not working. However, we don’t want to be the proverbial dog who jumps when he hears the word ‘squirrel’.

Patience gives a solid plan a chance to produce results.

Patience Truly Is A Virtue In Triathlon Training

If you are beginning, patience is vital to improving your performance and gaining confidence while minimizing the risk of injury.

If you are an experienced triathlete, patience is a vital ingredient to training that leads to stronger performance. Patience leads to a strong finish.

Finishing is better than starting. Patience is better than pride.

Ecclesiastes 7:8

How Does Impatience Appear In Your Training?

What have you learned about patience during training?

Are there parts of your training with which you struggle in your training?

 

Triathlon Across the USA: State #42 – Arkansas

Triathlon Across the USA: State #42 – Arkansas
DeGray Lake near Arkadelphis, Arkansas

Arkadelphia-Caddo Valley, Arkansas; September 13, 2020—DeGray Lake Sprint Triathlon.

The DeGray Lake Triathlon was the only race I would take part in during 2020. The government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in others in Kansas and Oklahoma I had registered for being canceled.

I had originally registered for a spring race, the Ozark Valley Triathlon in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Organizers delayed this triathlon until the fall and eventually made it a virtual-only race.

I had – and still have – no interest in a virtual race. One of my reasons for doing a triathlon in every state is to visit each one. I want to experience each state from the perspective of triathlon by swimming, biking, and running in it.

Meanwhile, the DeGray Lake Triathlon had always been scheduled for later in the year. Thanks to a relaxing of restrictions by the State of Arkansas, organizers could hold a live event.

Traveling to the DeGray Lake Triathlon in Arkansas

Our ultimate destination for this trip was a little south of Little Rock, Arkansas. Through a couple of slight detours, we visited our son and his family and our son’s in laws.

Our initial route took us through central Iowa. Here, we saw hundreds of acres of flattened corn stalks. These were reminders of the hurricane level winds which had passed through the area in mid-August. Three hours later and we were at our son’s home near Omaha, Nebraska.

That evening, Joy and I prepared for the six of us Alaskan halibut that I had caught about a month earlier. We finished the evening watching “Frozen” for the umpteenth time with our granddaughters.

The destination for the second day was our son’s in laws in a pastoral area of central Missouri. This was the second visit to their home, as we had stayed with them before the Missouri triathlon. They are the greatest hosts.

Before departing for Arkansas the next morning, Joan loaded us up with canned goods. The box she sent us off with included jars of salsa, relish, tomato sauce, and elderberry juice all from the produce of her garden.

Last Minute Preparations for the Arkansas Triathlon

By mid-afternoon, we had arrived in Arkadelphia. After checking into our hotel, we drove the few miles to the race venue for packet pickup. Here, I had my first experience with a triathlon being run under COVID-19 restrictions.

masked triathletes waiting for packet pickup during the COVID-19 pandemic
Masked triathletes awaiting packet pickup for the 2020 DeGray Lake Triathlon.

Part of the protocol for complying with state requirements was to allow triathletes to set up their transition area during packet pickup and leave their bike overnight.

A group from Teen Challenge, a faith-based nonprofit organization, secured the area. Others from this group provided support throughout the race the next day.

Next we completed our pre-race ritual of driving the course, or most of it. Joy drove while I observed the road conditions and took a few pictures. It was then time to sample the local cuisine at the Fish Net Family Restaurant.

22nd Annual DeGray Lake Triathlon

The weather on race morning was as near perfect for a triathlon as one can imagine. A light breeze created a satiny feeling to the humid, 73°F air.

While the sun was shining, it did so through a thick haze. We attributed this to smoke from forest fires still burning in California and the Pacific Northwest.

The advertised distances for the individual legs of this USAT-sanctioned sprint triathlon were:

  • Swim: 820 yards (0.75 km) – Actual: 645 yards or 0.59 km
  • Bike: 12.4 miles (20 km) – Actual: 14.1 miles or 22,7 km
  • Run: 3.1 miles (5 km) – Actual: 3.8 miles or 6.1 km

(The actual distances shown above are from my Garmin Forerunner 920XT.)

Before the start, race director Bruce Dunn of All Sports Productions led with a prayer that was both thoughtful and relevant to the time. Following the playing of a recorded version of the National Anthem, the triathlon began.

Swim

The temperature of the Lake DeGray water was over 78°F. To comply with USAT rules, anyone competing for an award could not wear a wetsuit.

The swim leg began using a ‘time-trial start’. This was another part of the COVID-19 protocol for this race. About every 5 seconds, a swimmer crossed the first timing mat, starting the timer for their race, and entered the water.

One benefit of the hazy sky was a muted sun. Had the sun been shining through an unfiltered sky, we would have looked nearly directly into it when sighting during the last part of the swim. Today, however, the haze made it much easier to locate the exit and swim on course.

The swim course for the DeGray Lake triathlon started from the boat launch at the DeGray Lake Spillway Area.
The swim course for the DeGray Lake triathlon started from the boat launch at the Spillway Area.

Bike

Lake DeGray was the only flat part of this course. Both the bike and run courses involved a continuous series of rolling hills.

After a short ride from the ‘Bike Mount’ location outside the transition area, we turned onto the road within the park. The bike course stayed on this road during both the out and back portions.

The initial ride involved a climb that felt much steeper than the picture below indicates.

I made it through the first hill, though my heart was pounding. I caught my breath while on the flatter section across the dam.

As I started to climb the second hill a little past the dam, I downshifted and the chain came off. It became jammed between the frame and sprocket. The bike stopped almost instantly.

Unable to unclip my shoes from the pedals, I promptly fell over to my left. I scuffed my left knee and jammed my left ring finger.

Another casualty was my pride. As typical, several racers paused as they passed to ask if I needed help. I didn’t but was grateful for the support.

Limping through the bike leg

I got the chain back on. However, being on a modest hill, I could not mount my bike and clip my shoes into the pedals. I have never practiced this.

I walked the bike up the hill until reaching a flat enough section on which I could get on the bike and clip my shoes into the pedals.

Immediately, I noticed the chain would jump back or ahead one gear every one to two revolutions of the pedal. I was at a loss for what to do. Finding no solution, I kept riding, though slower than I should have. The clicking sound distracted me. I was also concerned the chain would come off again.

On the other hand, I was grateful for being able to finish the race.

pictures from along the bike course of the DeGray Lake Arkansas triathlon
Scenes from along the bike course of the DeGray Lake Triathlon in Arkansas. Clockwise from the upper left: (1) The first part of the course was a modest hill that got our hearts pumping, (2) followed by a short flat stretch before crossing the DeGray Lake Dam. (3) Woods provided the scenery for much of the rest of the course. (4) However, in the last mile, we again crossed over the dam, this time looking onto the hydroelectric power plant.

After the race, I learned that both the chain and derailleur were damaged, presumably in the crash. A few days after returning home, a technician at Maple Grove Cycling repaired the derailleur and installed a new chain.

Run

By the time I got to the run leg, the temperature had risen ten degrees to 81°F. It was still humid, though not different from conditions I had been training in over the summer.

Scene from the run course on the road from AR-7 to the Lake DeGray Spillway Dam Area
The T-shaped out and-back run course for the DeGray Lake Triathlon was on the road between the DeGray Lake Spillway Area and AR-7, the highway that travels along the eastern edge of DeGray Lake.

The T-shaped out-and-back course took place on roads within the DeGray Lake Recreation Area. With the time trial start, maintaining physical distance between racers was easy.

Or was it because I was near the rear of the pack?

A Variation on a Basic Triathlon Axiom

Most beginner triathletes know you should never put into practice anything for the first time on race day.

I learned an important corollary to this truth in the Arkansas triathlon: “Do nothing on race day that you have not done during the final weeks of training for the race”.

I had not ridden my triathlon bike on hills similar to those of the race course during the last several months before this race. Even though the bike had been recently tuned and ridden on the trainer, it was not race-ready.

After the DeGray Lake Triathlon

After the race, Joy and I visited historic Hot Springs. From there, we headed north through the Ozark Mountains. We continued through Kansas City and Des Moines back to Minneapolis.

Race Firsts

  • First triathlon race during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • This was the first triathlon with a new Trek SpeedConcept frame.
  • First triathlon for which I body marked myself using tattoos provided by the race organizer and a felt-tip marker. This was yet another part of the COVID protocol for this race.
  • Because of government restrictions, this was the first of my triathlons that Joy did not attend as a spectator. However, she visited the race venue with me during packet pickup the day before the race. (Truthfully, I think she enjoyed sleeping in.)

Have You Had a Bike Malfunction During a Triathlon?

Has your bike malfunctioned during a triathlon?

Have you done any triathlons in Arkansas? Which? What was your experience?

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