At 39, Timothy O’Donnell still rises

Since his breakthrough win at the 2009 ITU Long Distance World Championship, Naval Academy grad Timothy O’Donnell has attacked the Ironman World Championship in a hard fought, gradual quest.

In 2012 he was 8th. In 2013 he was 5th. In 2015 he was 3rd. In 2016 he was 6th. In 2018 he was 4th. But this year he faced a bad break that threatened to cause him to miss the start.

“It was definitely a tough year,” said O’Donnell after his best finish yet at Kona. “I crashed my bike in Noosa in March. Then late this summer I had a kind of a weird deal. I broke my foot last year and it turned out that injury started making scar tissue instead of calcifying. A few weeks ago, I rolled my ankle and basically rebroke it so I could not run on the roads.”

Taking in inspiration from Sebastian Kienle’s experience, O’Donnell started a similar regimen. “I just kept remembering. In 2014, he recovered with aqua jogging and he won. So I might as well give it a shot. I started aqua jogging and Ultra G. Took a lot of pressure off. And it was great. It took a while to get back into it. Honestly it gave me a chance to really work on my cycling. Then I had just five runs on the road before race day.”

O’Donnell said he related to what Jan [Frodeno] said about when he missed this race last year with an injury that followed his win at Ironman 70.3 Worlds. “It is a horrible feeling to watch from the sideline,” said O’Donnell. “I had been thinking I wasn’t going to be able to race. You get some perspective about how fortunate we are to be able to race here.”

On race day, O’Donnell started with the super swimmers including Alistair Brownlee, just 7 seconds behind Frodeno’s 47:31 split and a gap ahead of dangerous rivals like Kienle, Ben Hoffman and Cameron Wurf who would have to work hard to catch the breakaway. Thanks to his surge on the downhill from Hawi, O’Donnell arrived at T2 within range of Frodeno.

Slowtwitch When did you start with coach Julie Dibens and cycling guru Matt Bottrill?

Timothy O’Donnell: I just started working with Julie last year and before I had a chance to work much with Matt, I broke my foot. This year we scheduled work with Matt well ahead of time.

ST: What helped you the most?

Timothy: My power has always been really good. I just have not been in the best position. It really takes a lot of discipline to work on your bike position. And a different type of training. I have always been really bad at the short, hard stuff. That can make you faster and be a stronger athlete.

Slowtwitch: The downhill from Hawi is tricky. It turns out you have to ride even harder to stay with the leaders?

Timothy O’Donnell: That is something I worked on a few years ago. Honestly. Just have to power down instead of just coasting. You might think it is a break going downhill. But it’s not. Honestly I think it was a chance for Jan to make a break. He had been doing a lot of work. He was so strong. He was like "Let’s you just take a break and let me be at the front for a little while.”

ST: Given your increased bike strength, how did it affect your run? After T2, you established yourself in second place, albeit Jan continued to stretch further ahead. Did you have moments of doubt?

Timothy: I was a little nervous the back half of the run because I haven’t done much run volume. That really made me nervous. But all in all I have never felt so consistent all day. I never fell off the pace. Usually you run Alii a little harder and you pay for it later. I didn’t do that this year.

ST: Was it hard to make yourself holdback on Alii Drive?

Timothy: It was. But I felt so much better when I hit the Queen K [about 11 miles into the run].

ST: It must have felt good that you weren’t coming unglued. In fact, you were gradually pressing harder toward the end?

Timothy: Actually, it all makes sense now. Sebi started close the gap on me late. And it turns out Ben [Hoffman] was on his heels. But yeah I picked up my pace and it all went pretty good. So I think there is still a lot for me to learn. I think I can have a better run here.

After a 2:49:44 marathon – 7 minutes slower than Frodeno – O’Donnell held off Kienle (2:49:57 run) by 2:24 for second place. Ben Hoffman, who lost 8 or 9 minutes on the bike leg, made up a lot of ground with a second-best 2:43:08 run, but fell 48 seconds short of catching Kienle.

ST: After this performance, have you reached your limit?

Timothy: I think it went 8th, 5th, 3rd, 6th, 4th and now 2nd - my progress has been consistent. Honestly I’ve felt I had to reinvent myself. The game changes. A race like this wasn’t happening in 2011 when I started Ironman. It is definitely a different game. I am really proud of myself that I have been able to adapt and still be relevant.

ST: You are more than relevant. You are among the best in the Ironman game. But do you believe you can win this race?

Timothy: Yeah! If someone like Jan has a performance like that, there is nothing anyone can do about it. It is like Daniela’s [record-setting] race last year. But, If Jan screwed up something I was right there. A lot of people have great races. And sometimes things get away.

ST: You are married to one of the greatest triathletes in history. A lot of times you have had bad days, she has stood atop the Kona podium three times. Now when she had a bad day and did not finish, you had your best day ever?

Timothy: Both my podiums here were on her two bad days. She got hit by a car in 2015 when I was third. Then, obviously, today she DNF.

ST: Your key advantage is how supportive you are of each other?

Timothy: Obviously. Together we have so much energy and sometimes one of us gets it all. As it happened today.

ST: Your daughter Izzy is quite an inspiration. Does she realize what a big day this was for you?

Timothy: Nah. She is only two. I don’t know what she will remember. If she sees the pictures she will remember. But she gets excited for sure. I think she thinks people are excited about her.

ST: They seem to be.

Timothy: It is just so great having her out there. Jan [Frodeno] alluded to it. Things are different when you are a parent. This whole week, before Izzy, usually you are training and doing a couple appearances. And spend a lot of time on the couch. You focus on yourself.

ST: How does parenthood affect you?

Timothy: It changes the way you rest for a race. Your child is a good distraction. But mentally and physically it is probably not as great when she wants daddy to pick her up. And honestly Rinny takes the brunt of that more than I do. She definitely needs her mom more than she needs her dad. So I don’t know how Rinny does it. She has had some great races this year. She is such a great mom. I am so proud of her.