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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.

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?

Too Stubborn to Quit – Marty Hunter’s Story

Too Stubborn to Quit – Marty Hunter’s Story

Have you thought about doing your first triathlon in your 60s? Marty Hunter did and is now on her way to completing an Ironman 140.6 in her 70s.

Introducing Marty Hunter

Maureen ‘Marty’ Hunter lives in eastern Washington, in a region often referred to as the inland Pacific Northwest. She is “currently experiencing the joys of being 70 years old – or young or whatever 70 means.”

Marty discovered triathlon several years ago through a sprint distance race called The Valley Girl. T-shirts given to the racers were so small she put hers on a teddy bear. After that experience, Marty forgot about triathlon. For a while, that is.

As you read her inspiring story of perseverance, think of ways we can better connect with other Senior Triathletes, share specific needs and experiences, and encourage those in our community along their triathlon journey. Please share your thoughts at the end of this post.

Rediscovering Triathlon

After a not-so-inspiring start in triathlon, Marty was reintroduced to triathlon in June 2016. Two friends entered and completed the Coeur d’Alene (CDA) Ironman 70.3 triathlon. Marty and her husband watched both young women finish “along with many other athletes of all sizes, shapes and ages”. 

Marty told me, “l wondered aloud if I could do a race like this, turning to my husband for confirmation and encouragement.  Understanding what I was asking and what undertaking such a goal would mean, he turned a little green and muttered ‘Sure you can’. While there was not an ounce of sincerity in his voice, there was lots of love. We then went to get a beer.”

Doing your first triathlon in your 60s.  Marty Hunter started to compete in triathlon while in her 60s.
Marty Hunter after an Age Group podium finish at an Olympic distance triathlon.

Even though neither Marty nor her husband realized it, a fire had been lit inside her that day. “I was unable to silence the powerful internal dragon who had awakened inside me.”

Marty Hunter’s Triathlon Journey – A Rough Start . . .

Marty said, “I finally drummed up the courage to sign up for the 2017 Coeur d’Alene 70.3 race. I committed the money and, I thought, the effort to achieve this amazing goal. 

“Mind you, I have never been athletic. I have fought my weight all my life. I was scared to death, with zero confidence and certain that I would fail”, she said.

Marty joined a couple of triathlon clubs, invested in triathlon gear, took swim lessons, and ran and biked. She also entered an Olympic distance triathlon scheduled for a couple of months before the Coeur d’ Alene race.

In this triathlon, meant to be a ‘warm-up’ for the 70.3 Ironman, she ‘DNF’d’ (Did Not Finish).

. . . Though Never Giving Up

Marty says, “I sobbed as I exited the water and accepted a most needed hug from the goddess who is now my coach. I then went home to sulk.  The next day, I finished that tri by completing the bike and run alone.”

In hindsight, she learned much from the DNF experience, lots which she claims to be still harvesting. 

“I pulled out of the Ironman event acknowledging I was not ready. Instead, I volunteered at this race, which relit the triathlon flame as I watched the many athletes finishing this distance.

“I got to work building my base, trying to quiet the demon voices, listening to my coach and discovering strength that truly surprised me.  Then, at the peak of my most confident month, December 2017, I fell on a treadmill while running, breaking my jaw and hand.

“I got through the surgeries and lost weight and did all the required swim strokes, pedal revolutions, and miles of running to finish the race I had failed to complete a year earlier. I never quit, probably because I was really, really mad to have tripped.”

The Payoff For Not Quitting

The focus and perseverance paid off. In June 2018, Marty completed Ironman 70.3 Coeur d’Alene.

“2018 ended up being a wonderful year for my body, heart and soul.” It was also a turning point on her triathlon journey.

Doing your first triathlon in your 60s.  Marty completed her first half Ironman while in her 60s.
In 2018, Marty completed the Coeur d’Alene Half Ironman after having stubbornly pursued this goal.

Despite a shaky start, Marty never gave up. As of today, she has completed an impressive list of endurance sport events including:

  • Triathlon, various distances
    • Super sprint (2)
    • Sprint (2)
    • Olympic (2)
    • Half Ironman 70.3 (1)
  • Rainier Ragnar trail events (2)
  • Several half marathons
  • Full marathons (3)
  • Endurance swims of 1.76 and 2.2 miles, one each

Sights Set on a Full Ironman

Marty has continued persistent and patient training in the distances of each of the legs of the Ironman 140.6. She has also raced in progressively longer distances with an eye to her next challenge, a full Ironman race.

Her ‘Big Dream’ is to compete in the full distance Ironman Arizona in November 2021 “assuming I can snag a slot with so many deferrals from the 2020 races”.  Since first beginning our conversation, Marty officially became registered for the race.

After doing your first triathlon in your 60s, Marty is training for her first Ironman.  This includes running 
full marathons
Marty Hunter after the virtual Marine Corps Marathon completed with friends in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Marty trains and races in the individual legs of Ironman triathlon in preparation for her ‘Big Dream’.

Training Approach

I asked Marty the same question I ask everyone who races long course triathlons – how they train. Do they train with a coach, use a purchased training plan, or train based on their own research and planning?

Marty has done a lot of her own research, searching for information and tips about training. However, the key to her success – Marty will never admit that she is successful but I recognize it – has been her “red head, fierce and terrifying” coach who has pushed her to higher levels of performance and provides the right amount of encouragement.

“I need guidance and love having a week-by-week plan.  I also need the encouragement her experience gives me to expect setbacks and issues.  But she also is quite effective at getting me to work harder than I think I can, so that the event itself will be easier.  Coaching fees are something I just consider necessary for my success.”

Training focus

Marty claims that her weakest leg is the bike.

“With our long winters and my concern for riding in traffic during other parts of the year, most of my rides are on the trainer. I don’t build confidence for screaming down hills or dodging potholes without time on the road.”

“The run is the toughest mentally, probably since it’s the last part. That’s why I am working on strategies to cope with the run and to finish strong.”

However, Marty’s greatest struggle is with nutrition. In the context of triathlon, nutrition refers to consuming liquid and solid calories during the race to stay hydrated and fuel the racer’s muscles. “I must get this dialed in to have any chance of finishing 140.6 miles in the time available.”

Marty’s comments about nutrition are more common that you might expect if you have not done a long course triathlon. Here are links to two Senior Triathletes’ posts about Ironman triathletes who also described their struggles with race nutrition.

Lessons in Ironman Triathlon Racing – Another Senior Triathlete’s Experience

A Special Birthday Present – Juha Makitalo’s Story

Advice for Those Over 50

What advice does Marty have for those of us over age 50 who are thinking about competing in a triathlon, short or long?

“Anyone, truly anyone, can compete in a triathlon.  Proper training in all the legs is, of course, crucial as is rest and care of the body.

“Early on, I experienced severe knee pain which ended up in a meniscus repair. During conversations with the surgeon, I learned that pain is a language. 

“While I’m pretty bad at ‘listening to my body’, I am getting better. My ‘Big Dream’ is making me a better listener to my body.”

An Inspiration For Never Quitting and More

A favorite Bible verse of mine is Hebrews 12:1. It contains the phrase “let’s run with endurance the race that is set before us”. Marty’s story reminded me of it.

Marty says, “I have a truly Big Dream and believe I have the desire to make it come true.  I will scan the finisher stats for race information on athletes my age and older.  It is pretty cool to see the stats and to even consider being part of this very, very special group. 

“I’m frequently told I’m an ‘Inspiration’ which cracks me up. Inspiration! Ha Ha! I’m just too stubborn to quit!”

Best wishes, Marty, for achieving your ‘Big Dream’. I am looking forward to the day I can read your finisher stats.

Let’s Encourage One Another

When I first met Marty, she had already been “looking for this tribe [the Senior Triathletes community] for quite a while”. She wrote, “I feel I have found in this group just exactly what I need to proceed on a journey I started in 2016. Thank you all in advance for your help and guidance.”

As you have just read, Marty has a ‘Big Dream’. Please share your words of encouragement and other advice with her in the Comments section below.

Meanwhile, what are ways all of us can better support one another through the Senior Triathletes community? What is it you need for your ‘triathlon journey’, no matter if you are thinking about the sport or are an experienced Ironman athlete?

Please share your questions and thoughts in the Comments below.

A Special Birthday Present – Juha Makitalo’s Story

A Special Birthday Present – Juha Makitalo’s Story
Juha Makitalo with the rewards of his 50th birthday present.

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.

Introduction

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.

Exiting Lake Harku at the 2020 Tallin, Estonia Ironman Triathlon – with a smile.

Related post: What If I Want to Do An Ironman Triathlon? – Tom Lipp’s Story

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.

Training

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.

Racing

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.

Swim

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.

Bike

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.

Juha Makitalo during the bike leg of his first full Ironman triathlon at age 50.
Juha’s first-ever 180 km (112 mile) bike ride took place during Ironman Tallin.

Run

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!

Juha Makitalo crossing the finish line of his first full Ironman triathlon at age 50.
“I am an Ironman.” Juha Makitalo

Reflection

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.

Related post: Lessons in Ironman Triathlon Racing – Another Senior Triathlete’s Experience

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!

Acknowledgement

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.

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