Ever since Tim DeBoom won Kona in 2001 and 2002, U.S. triathlon fans have been wondering who might be the next to carry the red, white and blue to a victory at the Ironman World Championship. While all true competitors have some disdain for the minor honor of being the top finisher from their country if it isn’t the overall win, there is always a certain pride in the feat.
Ben Hoffman came closest last year with his stirring 2nd place finish, given added resonance because he finished ahead of this year’s winner Jan Frodeno. Over the past 8 years, Andy Potts has been the most consistent U.S. threat with an 8th in 2008, 9th in 2009, 7th in 2012, and 4th in 2014 and 2015. More recently, Timothy O’Donnell has entered the fray at Kona, taking 8th place and 2nd American to Potts in 2012, 5th overall and top American in 2013 and, after a disastrous race last year, came in strong in 2015 with a 3rd overall and top American by one place over Potts at Kona.
O’Donnell’s joy at his personal milestone was mixed with empathetic dismay that his supremely talented wife Mirinda Carfrae could not overcome injuries suffered days before the race, when she was hit by a car on a training ride. Last year O’Donnell was beset with searing abdominal pain on the run and faded out of contention while Rinny won her 3rd Kona title. So O’Donnell’s greatest post-race wish is that he and Mirinda can come to Kona in 2016 and both be at their best.
Slowtwitch: What was different in your prep this year and in your attitude to go for it?
Timothy O’Donnell: I was in it to win. It is work in progress. I have been working with Mark Allen for two seasons. Last year was I was in great shape and I had issues with my body [sharp abdominal pain on the run] and that performance wasn’t indicative of who I was and what I was capable of doing. So Mark and I didn't freak out; we worked on the same things. We worked on my aerobic strength and we incorporated more speed work with motor pacing. Remembering that I got dropped every year at Hawi, I was trying to be ready for that. But more than anything, it was just a mental thing and being hungry.
ST: What changed in your mindset from last year to this year?
Timothy: Mark and I talked a lot about it. First you have to believe in yourself that you belong in that elite group. And then you kind of have to let the other guys know that too. Then you can worry about winning.
ST: Was there anything you absorbed from Rinny? An attitude that ‘I belong at the front’?
Timothy: Rinny is extremely humble. And Rinny knows that you can have a bad day and you can’t control it. But going in, you just expect to be at the top. So what I've really gotten from her is her belief in me. Maybe sometimes her belief in me was more than I believe in myself. She has been frustrated with me before, because she knows my capability. So for me to kind of make the leap and prove her right is nice. Well, nice for me on this day. For her, the day was bittersweet. [Carfrae was unable to fully recover from a pre-race bike crash injury and dropped out on the run].
ST: What led you to ride aggressively and take the lead, if briefly, on the bike? Was that smart or just brave?
Timothy: I thought about it after the race - whether it was a stupid thing or not. But honestly I never went out of my comfort zone. I just got in my own rhythm. Once I stopped looking back to see where the guys were, I said, ‘All right. Ride your race and see what happens.’
ST: Why did your bike go so well this year [3rd best 4:26:13 split]?
Timothy: I've been working a lot on my riding. Both long rides and speed workouts. Also I really dialed in some of my aerodynamics with Trek. We took the bottles off my frame. At Ironman Brazil I had two bottles on the frame. And I didn't have my Caselli Stealth Long Sleeve Tri Top on. That probably cost me 12 watts or something. Not today. This year I have been a much better student of the game. I have always been fit coming into this race. I have learned this year that that isn’t everything. You have to dot all your i’s and cross your t’s.
ST: How did your race develop?
Timothy: I stayed in the top 10 guys on the way out [O’Donnell was tied for 9th out of the water]. And I started to pass guys on the climb up to Hawi. On the last mile before the turnaround, I went to the front. Ben [Hoffman] had been off the front and I led the chase group up to him. Once we caught up to Ben, I went off the front. I honestly had no prior intention about grabbing the lead. I just wanted to not get dropped as I was last year. In a race like this, there are so many scenarios that can happen. Sometimes you just have to take the bull by the horns and say, ‘I feel all right. Let’s just see what happens.’
ST: Why did you feel comfortable at the front?
Timothy: Working with Mark has been really good for me. I realized a lot of stuff about myself and how I need to approach this race. And I was rested going into this race. Obviously Mark is really connected to this island. And he said, ‘You need to talk to the island.’ At first I thought, ‘I don’t really know what that means.’ Then I thought some more about it. Two days later, I was out on a long ride by myself. I was thinking, ‘I think I know what I need to do.’ Working with Mark last year I had some physical issues [before Kona]. My body was just off. I am usually a podium kind of guy at races in Chicago and Racine, but I was something like 6th at those races. So my body was off. Also, I didn't really know how to connect with the island like Mark said. I think in some way I expected the island to help me out. So what I learned - it was about giving it all I have and then you might get something back.
ST: We you surprised at yourself? Or did you feel that this aggression, making the race at the front, was something that was always in you?
Timothy: I always felt this is where I should be. I just haven't connected the dots until now. But honestly I was more surprised that I was by myself at the front halfway through the bike. I didn't think I was doing anything special. Honestly I thought I was just out there riding and I took advantage of it.
ST: Some observers on the course said that coming down from Hawi it looked like you had some words with a marshal?
Timothy: JOKING that I just needed some Snickers. Actually, I talked to the marshals at the pro meeting and they told me the men have two main draft marshals. One with the leader and the other is with the main group of guys. But when I was out there by myself, there was no one. I was thinking: ‘Now I have to wait for the main group of guys to catch back up?’
ST: You took the lead heading back to Kona. Then Jan Frodeno and Sebastian Kienle broke out from the chase pack and joined you. At the end of the bike leg, Jan surged and led into T2.
Timothy: Coming back on the bike, there used to be an aid station at the airport and this year there wasn't one. So I was out of water for seven miles. That was where Jan opened the gap on me on the bike.
ST: On the run, you started poorly, then reduced the gap to Frodeno to 1:05 approaching the Energy Lab. What happened?
Timothy: Missing water at the airport left me going into the run in no great shape. Starting the run I was one minute down. To make matters worse, I lost the cap to my Fuel Belt at the start of the run. I lost my nutrition and so I lost another minute in the first three miles. Then I got some gels on course and that revived me and I hovered around 1:45 to 2:30 down somewhere on the Queen K. Strictly speaking, I didn't really pull Jan back. I believe he had a dark spot probably at 16 miles. That is when I pulled back to within 1:05. But when I was approaching the turnaround in the Energy Lab, Jan looked like he was flying.
ST: What did you think when Andreas Raelert went by you? Some think that at 39, after two struggling years, he has had his day.
Timothy: With the exception of the last two years, Andreas has been one of the most consistent marathon runners ever here in Kona. We started the run together last year and we were on the move. We had the fastest first 5k and Andreas was running at 2:42 pace. Eventually he just blew by me and kept going. Obviously he had issues later on the run in 2014, as I did. [After Raelert and O’Donnell matched 51 minute swims and 4:36 and 4:37 bike legs, O’Donnell faded with a 3:52:30 run to 104th place and Raelert blew up and trotted home with a 5:16:44 marathon.]
ST: Were you surprised when Raelert caught up to you on the run this year?
Timothy: I wasn't surprised at all. I tried to hold him off and I made a move coming out of the Energy Lab and opened up the gap again.
ST: Leaving the Energy Lab is the classic place to make your move?
Timothy: Yeah. With 12k to go, that was my last bullet. Andreas caught me and went by me - probably at a little over 23 miles. I held the gap to 12-15 meters for a little bit, and then he was gone. I had nothing left. I just struggled the last three miles. [Raelert ran 2:50:02 and O’Donnell ran 2:55:46. Raelert beat O’Donnell by 1:07 for second place].
ST: That is where Mark Allen passed Hellriegel in 1995. And that is where Mark left Dave behind in 1989.
Timothy: Yep. That hill has quite the history. And now I'm a victim of the hill, too.
ST: How did it feel trading places from your 2014 performances – this year you were having a Kona career day and Rinny was struggling?
Timothy: I saw her coming up to Hawi as we were going back down the hill. She didn’t look like her normal self. So I started to think, ‘You gotta do this for Rinny. I have to carry the weight today.’ I thought most likely she pulled out or she had the sort of day I had last year. I told myself I had a tough day last year when she won. We share each other’s ups and downs. Next year we will come out both guns blazing.