John Withrow rode a Salsa fat bike at the 2015 Ironman Wisconsin to raise money for ReserveAid, and he cranked out a very respectable 6:06:24 bike split on the way to an 11:55:48 total time. As it turned out, he was not the only participant that day on a fat mountain bike, but we sat down with the former All-American wrestler who now resides in Minnesota.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time John.
John Withrow: Thank you for the opportunity.
ST: Have your legs recovered from the Ironman Wisconsin day?
John: It took my legs 4-5 days to feel okay. The bigger problem this time is that because I was sitting upright on my fat bike for 112 miles, my back was in complete spasm for the first 3 days after the race, which is totally new for me.
ST: What did you do to get rid of the back problems?
John: It was a slow process because it was also a really busy and stressful week at work. I iced my back every morning and evening and switched to heat mid-day. I also have a TENS stimulation machine which seemed to help loosen it up. The funny part is, the people who work around me didn’t even blink when they looked over and I had a bunch of wires running up into the back of my shirt – by now they’re used to seeing me doing something out of the ordinary at work! I didn’t take any NSAIDs or other anti-inflammatories until Friday. At that point I felt like I’d let my body handle the inflammation as naturally as possible, and I took three Advil. Ultimately, time seemed to heal it and now that the spasm is gone, I plan to see my chiro/ART guy next week.
ST: When did the idea come up to ride a fat mountain bike in that long distance race?
John: I moved from the New York City area to Minnesota this winter, so I figured it was appropriate to buy a Fat Bike to ride in the snow. I wanted to do another Ironman this year, but also wanted to paint myself into a box and force myself not to take the training so seriously in order to spend more time with my family. I figured doing the race on my Fat Bike was a great way to throw away any time goals and just try to finish. I've also been raising money for ReserveAid over the last 4 years through Ironman racing, and my regular supporters were getting a little tired of the same old “Withrow finishes an Ironman, make a donation” song and dance, so making the Ironman even harder than it already is by doing it on a Fat Bike was a great new angle for fundraising. When it comes down to it, I love a challenge, and it seemed like a fun challenge for this year and a great way to get support for ReserveAid.
ST: What were some of the comments you heard when you checked your bike into transition?
John: I got a lot of strange looks for sure. Many people said things like, "Are you really doing this race on that bike?" The volunteers were great and they were going nuts when I checked my bike in. They gathered around and people were taking pictures of my bike. It was actually a lot of fun!
ST: Were you aware that there was another guy who checked in a fat bike too?
John: I wasn't aware until I saw Mike Reilly tweeted out a picture of the other guy's bike on Saturday. I was partly disappointed because I thought I had come up with such a crazy idea, and no one else would ever even conceive of attempting something so nuts. But I also thought it was super cool that there was another guy that wanted a new challenge as well. I'm not going to lie, I checked out his bike when I went back to transition. It was a sweet fat bike and he was running studdable nobby tires, which made me feel like a bit of a wimp.
ST: Did you manage to meet him after?
John: Unfortunately, I didn’t. Pushups and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s were calling my name. And after I got to my hotel room, a couple bottles of Fat Tire beer encouraged me to stay put.
ST: Do you consider yourself a beer connoisseur?
John: I wouldn't say connoisseur, but I certainly enjoy a good beer. A Fat Tire Amber was certainly appropriate after Ironman Wisconsin. I generally like all darker and amber beers, and it's rare that I'll pass up a cold pint of Guinness. I can't figure out why they only sell Sam Adams Octoberfest for 1 month a year as this is actually my all-time favorite beer!
ST: You ended up with a very fast 6:06:24. Was that about what you thought would be possible?
John: Based on my longer training rides, I thought I would be in the 6:15-6:30 range, so I was definitely happy with the 6:06! When I originally decided to ride my fat bike, I was just hoping to finish, and just before the race, most of my friends thought it would be a miracle if I broke 7 hours.
ST: Were folks trying to pass you back as soon as you caught them?
John: Only near the beginning of the ride. When I was a few hours into the ride, the people around me were taking me a lot more seriously. I got a lot of great comments from the other competitors and almost all of them were super positive.
ST: Did anyone say anything?
John: My favorite comment was from a super fit and fast looking woman. As I passed her, she said "Now I know what guys feel like when they get chicked." I also went down hills a lot faster than I expected, with a top speed of 45mph. After passing one guy on a downhill, when he passed me again on the next uphill he said to me "How are your bike shorts big enough to hold those balls?" I also got a lot of other comments like "Man, you're making me feel bad about my ride". For the record, I wasn't trying to make anybody feel bad, I was just out there having fun and trying to hammer my bike ride. The spectator support was simply amazing during this race and there was an eruption every time I climbed one of the big hills.
ST: What kind of bike do you typically race in a triathlon?
John: I normally ride a Cervelo P5, which is a heck of a lot faster and way more comfortable than riding my Salsa Beargrease for over 6 hours!
ST: In the end you managed to finish in 11:55:48. What did that mean for ReserveAid?
John: Prior to the race I asked all of my friends and co-workers to come up with challenges to me for my race. People offered scaled donations based on things like my bike split, my overall time, and if I would eat a pint of Ben & Jerry's after the race. Someone also pledged more money if I did 50 push-ups within an hour after the race. All in, my race raised over $25,000 for the worthy men and women of our military through ReserveAid.
ST: When and how did you get started with that organization?
John: I was a founding member of ReserveAid in 2004 and have been on the Board of Directors ever since. I have never been in the military myself, but I have a profound respect for the men and women who are. Our mission is to help members of every branch of the military (primarily Reservists and National Guard) and their families who are suffering financial hardships resulting from their service.
ST: Talk about your day job.
John: I run High Yield Trading at CarVal Investors. I moved to to the Minneapolis area this winter to join CarVal after spending the last 14 years in New York City in similar roles at Macquarie Bank, Old Lane, and Morgan Stanley prior to that.
ST: How much training do you get in each week?
John: This year I actually did almost all of my training around my commute. I live 12.5 miles from the office so I rode my Fat Bike bike to work a lot and actually ran to and from work one day a week. Until the last month or so before the race I took all Sundays completely off and was finished by 9am from my Saturday workouts. The last big 3-4 weeks I stretched these Saturday workouts to 10am. I didn't start swimming until about 6 weeks before the race, and I generally swam 1-2x/week in the lake behind my house under the morning moonlight and stars. All in, my total weekly training time was around 10-12 hours.
ST: When was your first triathlon and what inspired you then?
John: I signed up for my first triathlon in 2010, the New York City Olympic. I almost didn't sign up for it because I thought it might actually be impossible for me to run 6 miles. I suffered through it and did my first Ironman a year later after I created Team ReserveAid. We raised over $140,000 that 1st year.
ST: In 2014 you raced in Kona. Was that not a goal this year?
John: Nope. It was an absolutely awesome experience and I would love to get back there some day, but training hard enough to try to qualify for Kona took me away from my family too much last year, and that coupled with all of our life changes we had as a family this year, I needed a bit of a break. I have an “all on” or “all off” personality, which I would guess is similar to a lot of Slowtwitch members... Doing Ironman Wisconsin on my Fat Bike was my way to force a little training moderation into my life, and it turned out to be a really fun experience.
ST: Do you still follow wrestling?
John: I was recently asked to join the board of the Pittsburgh Wrestling Club, and have gotten involved as a coach in my sons’ school district’s youth program. But time constraints make it difficult to follow College and US World team wrestling as closely as I used to.
ST: When was the last time you wrestled?
John: It’s been a long time, unless you count being on the mat trying to teach K-5th graders the basics of wrestling. It’s fun that my kids are showing an interest in my original athletic passion. The last time I actually competed was on the U.S. team in Russia in 2001.
ST: I think you wrestled 3 years as an All American for Pitt. What was the highlight and how did that last competition in Russia work out?
John: I actually wrestled for 5 years at Pitt. An injury cut my freshman year short and I redshirted after my true sophomore year. I was fortunate enough to be a 3 time All-American in three different weight classes as I continued to grow, culminating in my 3rd place finish as a senior. Wrestling was a really big part of my identity for so many years. It's such a great sport that really helps to build focus and determination. I never had the best technique, but I managed to find ways to beat guys that were better, stronger, and faster than I was. Ironman's slogan is "Anything is Possible." I believed that long before I even knew what a triathlon was. I traveled on different overseas trips to wrestle in Italy, South Korea, Macedonia, and Russia. All of them were great experiences, but I knew I wasn't going to make a career out of wrestling. But to answer your question specifically about the Russia trip, my final match was in a packed gym out in the middle of Siberia. I wrestled one of the largest men I have ever seen who felt like he outweighed me by 25lbs. I came back from behind for the win, and like a scene out of Rocky, the Russian crowd actually rallied behind me to cheer me on. It was awesome.
ST: So what is next?
John: I turn 40 this year. I'm not such a strong runner run and I especially dislike running uphill, but I am so thankful that I am able to do cool things with my fitness. So, to celebrate my 40th birthday I plan to run 40 for 40 by going to the Grand Canyon with a few friends and running from Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, five weeks from now.
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
John: I'm fortunate enough to be healthy, have a good job, and a great family. I think racing for a cause gives me something to think about and call on when I get to that dark place in every race. I would encourage people to find a cause they are passionate about - any cause - and race for something bigger than themselves. Ironman might seem hard (it's even harder on a fat bike) but it's not nearly as hard as the issues the men and women of our military are facing when they are away from their families and directly in harm's way for months at a time. I'm almost recovered a week after my race, but their physical and psychological struggles often live with them for years after they return. If anybody reading this would like to learn more about ReserveAid or feels inspired to donate, you can learn more at ReserveAid.
The first image is courtesy of ST forum member Brian Comiskey.