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.

family supporters of Paul Zellner's triathlon journey
From left to right: Paul’s wife, Carol; (left) Paul’s granddaughter (center); and Paul’s nephew, daughter-in-law, Paul, son-in-law and daughter at the Ohio half Ironman (right).

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.

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Lance Rhoades

Paul is an amazing guy! Always wants to hear your story. I am very proud and happy to call him my friend!!

Marty Hunter

FABULOUS! If you just slightly adjust your wetsuit the wrinkles don’t even show😃😃😃…and….I’m pretty sure no one even notices as the start panic sets in😎
Well done …. very very well done 🏅

John Schwander

Mr. Zellner. Thank you for sharing your story. It was very inspirational and glad you caught the “Bug.” It’s good to read that you had the presence of mind to listen to your daughter, change, and implement a logical plan for amazing achievements while keeping your sense of humor. Life is a journey and I’m glad you’re enjoying it with your family. Good luck in your future events.