Just a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tim DeBoom did his part to raise American spirits in the sporting realm with his rousing 2-mile winning margin at the 2001 edition of the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. The win came six years after the last of Mark Allen’s six Kona victories, at a time when Europeans and Canadians seemed to take over the race invented by Americans and turned into legend by Dave Scott and Allen.
The win gained resonance because it was obviously no fluke. It came after an inexorable rise from third in 1999, second in 2000, and was followed by another, even tougher shootout win with then two-time Ironman champion Peter Reid in 2002.
Tim DeBoom was a classic three-sport talent who could swim with anyone, ride away from the field if he chose, and closed with a run in the mid 2:40s if he chose.
At that point, the kid from Iowa with Steve McQueen good looks and gunslinger eyes was on top of the Ironman world. He started out 2003 with big wins at Ralphs Half Ironman and Wildflower. His try for a three-peat at Kona, a streak not seen since Allen sixth straight win in 1995, was going according to plan in a rematch duel with Peter Reid until he hit the Queen K about 9 miles into the run.
Then kidney stones hit with ferocity -- like a knife to the bowels while running an Ironman in brutal heat. DeBoom lasted a samurai-style five miles, desperately swigging water hoping the stones would pass, before he dove off the course looking for an ambulance.
Since then, DeBoom’s fortunes have taken a nosedive -- epitomized by his fortunes at Ironman Hawaii. In 2004, he finished 12th, sweeping the Quién es Mas Macho? and Samurai Tri awards for running a 3:05 marathon with stress fractures that would cripple a lesser athlete. In 2005, he decided he had nothing to prove when things went south mid-race and dropped out. In 2006, he fell off the tightrope between saving his legs for the race and doing the minimum needed to avoid injuries and withdrew two weeks before the race.
Even before this string of discouraging injuries, DeBoom had been feeling the stress related to his drive to stay at the top. He retreated from the spotlight and became almost as hard to reach as famed recluses Greta Garbo or Howard Hughes. Much of it was due to DeBoom simply trying to hoard the energy he needed to fight injuries and be at his best.
During this spell, the cheerful, funny, smart observant Tim DeBoom that almost everyone in the sport knew and loved was missing in action. Pushing his chips all-in at Ironman Hawaii left him tip-toeing on the edge of injury – every workout where he’d love to let go and run like the wind around beloved Boulder trails was tension filled like a man on the bomb squad. Nice outings like a third at Ironman Arizona in 2006 were seen as encouraging baby steps forward – given that he could not reliably finish off the miles he needed to win at Hawaii.
By 2007, Tim DeBoom was off the radar at Kona. But during a strong fourth place finish, he had led the main chase pack for much of the bike, ran a 2:48:29 marathon and looked a lot like the man in his prime.
Afterwards, DeBoom looked relaxed as he hadn’t in years. He actually sought out a journalist at Boulder’s Whole Foods a month later and chatted amiably about the race and said calmly that he had a better race in him.
Then, that winter, it happened again. He slipped and fell on a patch of ice during a run and broke his hand. Unable to swim and bike, he made a decision that seemed risky at the time. He decided to take some time off. After years of wife Nicole putting her athletic ambitions second to support her husband, Tim decided to do the same for Nicole’s push to build her Skirt Sports empire.
With no big Ironman events looming, Tim DeBoom decided to run and bike for the sheer fun of it. As the miles piled up on fun trails throughout Colorado, DeBoom decided to run real hard for free and signed up for the famed Leadville 100 miler run at breath-sapping altitude for the better part of twice around the clock.
The fickle finger of fate struck again. DeBoom tweaked his ankle shortly before the race and had to withdraw.
Seen at Interbike, America’s best Ironman bet was nearing the twilight of a great career, but his smile looked more like dawn than sunset and happily, comfortably, confidently sat for a wide ranging interview on some folding chairs next to the Felt booth at the Sands Convention Center.
Slowtwitch: What do you think about the men’s race at Kona this year?
Tim DeBoom: When Faris won, that was one of the coolest races I've seen in a long time. he basically led from start to finish. That's a Dave Scott race right there. But I haven’t seen that kind of race out of him since then. It’ll be interesting to see where he’s at. I think he's gotta be hungry. I think Normann hasn’t raced. He's gotta be hungry. He’s gotta be feeling a little pressure. And McCormack’s just doing everything right. He’s figured it out. He's figured out Ironman racing and he’s gotta be smart.
Slowtwitch: Can Craig Alexander take down McCormack?
Tim DeBoom: It will be interesting to see what Crowie does this year. I think the potential is there for sure. He is just gotta put it together and hopefully he will learn from last year and didn’t go out and crush himself in training thinking he had to do so much more. Because he’s right there.
I’m anxious to sit back and take notes.
Slowtwitch: Are you going to go there?
Tim DeBoom: I don’t know. I might just stay away and keep going. I’ve got a couple of races going. In general I’m going to do my own thing here until next year. I’m building towards Kona next year. I think it’s been the absolute best thing I could do to step away on my own will and do it myself.
Slowtwitch: In some ways it was a good step. You got 4th last year at Kona and as I recall, you didn’t impress yourself. It was a good return to contention, a good, workmanlike 4th.
Tim DeBoom: It was good that I started climbing that ladder again. Which I hadn’t done for a while. I had been stagnant or even taken a couple steps back. (After his DNF with kidney stones in 2003, DeBoom finished 12th with stress fractures in 2004, DNF’d in 2005, and did not start in 2006) Now that I took that step up, I’m stepping back and evaluating and letting the body recover a little bit this year. Let the head get refreshed
Slowtwitch: Maybe the Leadville 100 was another route to improve your late race run fitness for Hawaii?
Tim DeBoom: It had nothing to do to with trying to improve my fitness for triathlon. That came out of it for sure. But it just purely a head thing. I got hurt over the winter. I fell on some ice, and I broke my hand and couldn’t realty swim or ride. I just started running and running and running trails. Really I just enjoyed it and it was good for my head.
Slowtwitch: A few years ago, it might have increased your stress to lose most of a season. What was different this time?
Tim DeBoom: It was no pressure to do certain rides in or to get ready for an April Ironman.
Slowtwitch: Every ride you did because you loved it?
Tim DeBoom: Yeah exactly.
Slowtwitch: With Nicole starting a new sportswear business – a tough industry to crack – that might have been a big stressor on the family with you out of action?
Tim DeBoom: A man came up to me today and say your wife is the hardest working woman in this business. I agree and I think in the short run it’s tough on our relationship. But in the long run, at the same time, I think I got back by giving up something this year. While I miss racing this year, it was good for me mentally and physically. But this switch in roles was great for us – for Nicole and I – for me to step back and support her 100 percent.
Slowtwitch; If you hadn’t been injured, it would have been hard or impossible for you to help and support Nicole in the ways that she has supported you.
Tim DeBoom: It’s very hard to put your support into that when you’re trying to support yourself as pro athlete. But we found a lot of balance this year. I found internal balance. She found balance with her company and that helped us find balance together. And now I feel like I’m moving forward again instead of stagnated. I’m just really excited. And watching the Olympics helped get me fired up again.
Slowtwitch: What caught your attention in Beijing?
Tim DeBoom: First of all, the triathlon races.
Slowtwitch: The men’s race was complex and exciting. But the women’s race was essentially over when Emma Snowsill started her run.
Tim DeBoom: Both men's and women's triathlons. Emma’s performance, considering how dominant (Vanessa) Fernandes has been, was impressive to watch. I knew in the back of my head that Emma was the girl to beat. But the fact that she put it together so completely was phenomenal. And the men’s race. Simon Whitfield is one of my biggest inspirations. Seeing him the past couple years, his work ethic.
Slowtwitch: Whitfield retooled his game like Tiger Woods reengineered his swing. Whitfield crafted a first pack swim and a much stronger bike while maintaining his run. That’s one of the hardest things for a triathlete to do, but necessary to reach the pinnacle of his sport against ever tougher opposition.
Tim DeBoom: Yep. He goes to Life Time and goes off the front. You don’t see that from Simon. He opened my eyes watching that. But there were just so many other inspiring performances Obviously watching Phelps swim and the swimmers like Ryan Lochte and Aaron Piersol get that gold. The relay, the teamwork of it. The Olympics always do that to me. They always inspire. And it was good timing to see that again. And now to see Lance come back. The sporting world is in for treats the next couple years.
Slowtwitch: Lance is the same age as you - 37. People used to say athletes were washed up at 32-33.
Tim DeBoom: That’s no longer true. Look at the Olympics. The women's marathon winner was 38 years old. And look what Dara Torres did at 41. The 50 free is not an older person’s event. Silver medal!
Slowtwitch: And Jeanne Longo placed fourth in the cycling time trial at age 49!
Tim DeBoom: That is a whole ‘nother category. So age is really really not important. It’s a number. I’ve always thought that. But of course it helps when …
Slowtwitch; You don’t over train and over race?
Tim DeBoom: I’ve never been an overracer. I didn’t punish my body that bad. Maybe in training I did. But racing no. I would never do three Ironmans in a year. I’d never do anything like that. So I think I am still pretty fresh. Maybe it was just the mental freshness I needed to get back more than anything.
Slowtwitcgh: Is the feeling of pure running for fun different than a periodized training program?
Tim DeBoom: It is way different. And during this year I was still riding my bike a lot. Mountain biking. That was it. And only doing rides I truly wanted to do. That was nice. I never went on one of those rides where I thought I HAVE to go ride this ride to get ready for Ironman. Running was the same thing. I went out in the morning. I didn’t k now where I was gonna run. But it often ended up being a couple of hours. Even three hours. I just found every new trail that I could. If I saw a trail that shot off I went and explored it. I didn’t care how long it was going to take me.
Slowtwitch: You didn’t care if you ran into a dead end and had to come back?
Tim DeBoom: Nope. I started higher running up in the Continental Divide on a regular basis. You know outside of Boulder the trails are literally limitless. There are a limitless number of runs. I spent some time up in Breckenridge. I spent some time up in Leadville, in the Vail Valley. Up in Aspen. In Snowmass. Every one of those places I’m hooked. If I could have a place up there in Summer-Fall…
Slowtwitch: Did you get into the mindset of those ultra runners?
Tim DeBoom: I met a few of those guys. I met (Anton) Krupicka (age 24, winner of the 2006 and 2007 Leadville 100) and the brothers (Kyle and Erik Skaggs, also in their early 20s) one of whom just won Hard Rock in record time. I did a little reading. I met those guys and they are very interesting characters and great guys. They are in it for the love of it. The competitiveness isn’t there really. I think for me it was a break. But deep in me I have that drive to go fast. That competitive streak.
Slowtwitch: How disappointing was it to have that ankle injury and not compete at Leadville?
Tim DeBoom: I trained for that. But I don't feel that let down by not being able to actually compete it.
Slowtwitch: One of the reasons Chrissie Wellington was ready to become a world class Ironman triathlete at age 30 might be her long treks at altitude in Nepal. Of course she had the genes, but that three week mountain bike trek to the Himalayas I think set her up for the next step to athletic greatness. It set her up with a wide and deep aerobic base.
Tim DeBoom: I think so. I think there are steps that leads champions to where they are gonna be. And Chrissie is another total inspiration to me the way she goes about things and handles things. Her outlook on the sport is healthy and amazing and inspiring. And you know she is one of those people I am rooting for. And that for me this year to have actual triathletes I am rooting for – I haven’t had that forever. I am inspired by performances and stuff. But not actual athletes and people. And that all changed this year.
Slowtwitch: Your setback allowed you to become a fan again?
Tim DeBoom: Absolutely. It was very hard to be fan when yer striving to be the best in the world. That’s not going to change. I am still gonna try to be the best. But I have found athletes that I respect again.
Slowtwitch: Some people thought your career was over. Once you fell off the track of success, they think you can’t climb back again. But you seem enormously happy. Enormously confident no matter what happened.
Tim DeBoom: I hope those people just keep thinking that. Because I am content. Finally. I think the biggest thing I learned this year was to appreciate my past performances. I found an appreciation for winning Kona twice. And everything else I have done in the sport.
Slowtwitch: Does that free you to say: OK, when all the factors are lined up again. No injuries. I can get back on that train of focus and do the work it takes to climb the mountain again?
Tim DeBoom: Yes. And it’s exactly. I think that finding that appreciation n for my performances and has definitely helped me get to that point where I can go into a race. I just don’t have that pressure. I don’t put that pressure on myself, wondering: “Am I gonna embarrass myself out there?”
Slowtwitch: Maybe your best first half season was 2003 before the kidney stones sabotaged you in Kona? Was there no pressure at first?
Tim DeBoom: Yeah I came out of that winter fit early in the season. I was probably too fit. After that I started to falter and I had the kidney stone thing. Who know if it was related or what? I look back at that too. When I won Ralphs and Wildflower and beat some good athletes, I think it was s combination of some of the stuff I was doing. I went back and looked at that winter of training. I’m gonna incorporate a lot of what I've learned, a lot of different stuff.
Slowtwitch: Will you ever get wound into a tight ball of negative energy and dark clouds again?
Tim DeBoom: No that will never happen again. I am addicted to exercise and working out. There is no doubt about it.
Slowtwitch: But are you also addicted to ambition?
Tim DeBoom: Yeah. I mean. But you have to reach a point where the result isn’t the most important part of it. It’s getting to actually compete. It's successfully preparing for getting to that point.
Slowtwitch: How grateful are you for your amazing dear wife rode those dark times through with you?
Tim DeBoom: I am lucky. It’s funny because I see parallels with what she is doing now. I see that in some athletes I work with. I see it even they are not top level athletes. It’s their job or whatever. You’ve got to find that balance in all aspects of your life. You can’t be so one dimensional that everything you think about is racing and training. Because it’s just not healthy.
Slowtwitch: Do you think Luc van Lierde can come back to the top level? After all his injuries. The infection that ate away at his Achilles? Can he put it all back together at 37 after his 8th place finish last year? yhe is your age.
Tim DeBoom: I look at Luc. We smiled at each other on stage last year. We looked at each other and think: ‘Sheesh. We are the veterans up here. We used to be the youngsters.’ I looked at him and it was fun. We got off stage together and people wanted our photo together. Luc and I. You know, that feels good. I think Luc and I and Peter have all been through the same stuff. I was listening to Chris McCormack's speech last year in Kona. I remember being in that position. I was sitting there an talking to Nicole. “I hope he follows a good path.” He is talent and seems to have good head on his shoulders. But everybody and everything pulls at you.
Slowtwitch: Macca still seems like Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy.
Tim DeBoom: Yep. He gets riled up. And Normann is the same way.
Slowtwitch: Can Normann have a great year at Kona without any finishes in other races?
Tim DeBoom: You know, he has won Hawaii twice. You never count out someone who’s done that. Never. Normann races on emotion. If I were to say something negative about him. He’d use it. He’d take it and use it. I like Normann a lot. I think he is a great guy. Honestly, he's got his work cut out for him over there.
Slowtwitch: Did Normann change the paradigm? Is he the only person who can win it on the bike?
Tim DeBoom: I don’t think so. He has put it together on that day in a fantastic way. Twice. It's super Impressive. I think there are other guys who are gonna try to do the same thing and maybe even do it.
Slowtwitch: Have you ever encountered anything in your life as painful as the kidney stone?
Tim DeBoom: Mentally I have. Mentally, the kidney stones are easy compared to -- It was harder to not finish that race than to have a kidney stone. Painwise, I don't know. It’s hard to judge. You’re in the middle of an Ironman and you get a kidney stone. It is kind of relative. I wonder what it would be like if I were just laying around at home. I don’t ever want to go through it again and for a long time I wondered if it was permanently affecting me. That little incident.
Slowtwitch: Did it affect you mentally and compromise your will? Your confidence?
Tim DeBoom: I have very detailed memories of all the little aches I had leading up to that race and my back and stuff. I thought it was travel-related. Nowadays if I am traveling and I feel any little ache, I think: ‘Oooh, is that gonna cause it.?’ But now I am feeling pretty good about everything.
Slowtwitch: Do you still have confidence in terms of your athletic ambitions? You dare to literally envision another win at Kona?
Tim DeBoom: I would not be fired up about Kona nest year if I didn’t think I could win it. So I believe I can win it and I will do everything I can go to go back and win it. The way it will happen will just be different than years before.
Slowtwitch: What would be different about prep and your game? Some people say after Normann left you and Peter 20 minutes down in 2004, Tim will never have enough bike to win Kona again?
Tim DeBoom: That is ridiculous. People just need to look at history a little bit and watch and check out the way I've raced over there. I’ve won it different ways. I think it just shows how versatile an athlete I am. I've won it by being alone and in front off the bike. I’ve won it buy sitting in and running fast. I don’t just have one weapon. I have multiple weapons.
Slowtwitch: How do you feel; about the doubts of the triathlon commentariat?
Tim DeBoom: I love it when people try to pigeonhole me into that group of Aw they are just going to sit and run. It’s a triathlon. I love the bike stuff. I love all the tech stuff. I’m a kid when it comes to getting bikes in the mail and stuff like that. When it comes down to it. It’s triathlon. It's not a bike race. It’s not a swim race. It’s not a run race. It’s a triathlon. That includes transitions. It's running off the bike. You It’s putting that all together.
Slowtwitch: What did you think about the complex strategy that arose during the Olympic men’s race?
Tim DeBoom: I have full respect for those guys. I almost consider it a little different sport than Ironman racing. But no less difficult. It's an amazing race. I’m excited to jump into a couple drafting races next year. I’ve jumped in some bike races, cross races and some mountain bike races. I love that stuff. The ITU stuff is kinda like that. It's rubbing elbows and mixing it up. It's just hard core.
Slowtwitch: A million strategic decisions on the fly.
Tim DeBoom: Yep. It’s fun. It keeps you sharp. Now that the Olympics are over, lot of those guys are going to be moving up. That's exciting for Ironman and 70.3 racing and it’s gonna make it more competitive.
Slowtwitch: Can Andy Potts make an impression in Kona?
Tim DeBoom: Andy Potts? It will be interesting to see what he does in Kona.
Slowtwitch: At the peak of your success, you were left in the lurch when Ralph Lauren Polo RLX dropped out of the sport. But now, even through your difficult years, you seem to have found reliable sponsors who stick with you.
Tim DeBoom: Everybody I am with and will be with next year have stood behind me. I have found the right guys. I’m at that point where I pick the best product that I want. But I only pick the companies that I actually like to hang out with guys that I work with. Absolutely I have great relationships with companies that value me, not just my name and results and value. Felt has been outstanding. Power Bar is the most amazing sponsor. They are friends. I hang out with them. We take trips together. They include my wife and all of that. So Power Bar is great. Red Bull has been great. Oakley has stood by me forever. Beyond any company, they respect you. And Craft Apparel. I started with them and helped them build their US name. Those guys are family. I’ll be with them. They are outstanding. I’ll do anything I can for them. And then I just moved to the best product stuff. Zipp and SRAM. Those guys they are the cutting edge. I don’t have to worry about having the best equipment on race day. That’s what you want. You want to be above the playing field. Nobody is gonna touch me on this stuff. So now it comes down to my legs.
Slowtwitch: And Felt bikes?
Tim DeBoom: And how. You can't beat Felt. They make the most advanced stuff. Felt has been around forever. He started in the motocross and BMX. But when he moved to the road stuff, it was immediately to triathlon. Now you go back and ask Paula Newby and Welchy and ask them: Hey what was your favorite bike? Felt.
Slowtwitch: Remember Paula’s Felt bike with 24 inch wheels and with strange gearing?
Tim DeBoom: Jim Felt is the innovator. He’s exciting.