During the triathlon off-season, I started to do more running races. I ran the Tobacco Road Marathon in 2011 to qualify for Boston in 2012, where temperatures in the high 80’s forced me to walk most of the last 10 miles (with lots of company) in my slowest marathon (4:53). I returned to Ohio to run my 11th Columbus marathon in 2013 along with my daughter, son, and son-in-law. Around mile 20, I was slowing and my quads were screaming when this young woman flies by, pony tail flopping, and looking like she had just started. “Dad, you look great” was her excusable lie and a true passing of the torch moment. While cold, wet, and windy, 2015 was probably my favorite Boston as I got to run it with Jennifer. Not really “with”, as she was in an earlier wave and finished in a great time of 3:17, just off her PR and 22 minutes in front of me.  As a coach, I’ve had the privilege to work with talented runners aiming to qualify for Boston, and since 2018, I’ve started to try to run it annually to share the experience. Covid and my first and only DNF at a qualifying marathon in 2021 created a gap from 2020 to 2022, but I’ve been back in 2023 and 2024 with fast enough times to get in next year.  

While I can’t find records of my training from 1989 to 1991, I’ve kept pretty meticulous training records starting in 1992 - initially on paper then transitioning to Excel and now on Training Peaks. The table below shows my training miles in each discipline since 1992 totaling 160,823, sufficient to circumnavigate the globe more than six times. Perhaps surprisingly, the greatest year was 2020, the pandemic year which included only two real races (Tobacco Road Half Marathon & IRONMAN Florida) but included lots of virtual races and challenges including Virtual Boston which I ran with one of my athletes who was also registered for the actual race before it was cancelled.

The final tables are a listing of what I consider key milestones in Running and Triathlon races, including lifetime PR’s at key distances. I set those PR’s over a 24 year period – from age 40 to 65. I’ve been blessed to remain healthy, mostly injury free, and enjoy the support of my wife over these many years. While this article has focused on races and training, it’s the people I’ve met and the opportunity to experience new places and events that have truly changed my life. Hopefully, I’ll provide an update at the 40th anniversary in May 2029.

What have I learned over 35 years?

Consistency is key – just as six weeks of consistency was necessary to establish a habit, I believe it’s the biggest contributor to my success and longevity. Except for a handful of minor sicknesses and injuries, I don’t think I’ve taken off more than two or three days in a row. Even then I miss doing something. Some days are short and easy for rest and recovery; others are long and hard. As we age, it becomes increasingly hard to get back in shape, and fear of having to that, helps get me out the door.
Know your priorities but be flexible and creative – Unless you’re a professional athlete, training isn’t your first priority and falls down the list behind things like family, work, and health. Often, real creativity is required to fit in workouts. With business travel, I’ve fit in runs around the world and at all times of day. I’ve run to, before, and from kids’ soccer games, gymnastic meets, and cross county meets. Combine races in new locations with family vacation.  Assign a high priority to getting workouts done but a much lower priority to when and how they actually get done.   
Put it in writing - For years, I’ve created written training plans for myself, sometimes months ahead for a major race and sometimes just week to week. An exception was the two times that I’ve used a coach, but that was even better as I was paying for the plan. When plans need to revised, more often than not, try to maintain the critical elements of the original. Include the plan in your weekly TO DO LIST to help keep priorities straight and check off progress. Things that get written down almost always get done even when unpleasant.
Stay Positive – Expect to have bad days and bad races; expect eventually to slow down with age. Set challenging but realistic goals. Celebrate the good days and races. Be ever thankful for the support of family and friends and the opportunity and capability to follow your passion whatever it may be.

John Austin
May 22, 2024

Running and Triathlon – 6 Weeks to 35 Years

This month marks 35 years since I started running consistently. Growing up, I was active in sports but never attracted to endurance sports, competing in diving, wrestling, and gymnastics. As an adult, I had tried running to get in shape on several occasions even running a couple 10K’s. I didn’t particularly like running, knew nothing about training, and had never been able to stick with it. But in May of 1989, badly out of shape and putting on weight, I promised myself that I would force myself to run regularly for 6 weeks.  Beginning with a two mile course in our neighborhood in Circleville, Ohio, I recall it took about 2 weeks to be able to run it without having to stop or walk. But  six weeks was enough to establish a habit. I still didn’t love running, but I did love getting faster. I ran my first race, a 5 miler, in September, and while the race was painful, I felt great afterwards and really enjoyed the competition. I wanted to do more.

The early 90’s were one of the marathon crazes, so while racing 5 milers and 10K’s, I set my sights on running longer and bought some books on training that I still occasionally consult to this day. Late In 1990, I ran my first half marathon, the Dayton River Corridor Run, going out way too hard and fading in the latter miles finishing just under 1:30. 1991 was my marathon debut at Columbus. With gels yet to be invented, I suffered my first experience of “hitting the wall”. Around mile 25 with both legs fully cramped I found myself standing still just trying to maintain my balance. I was happy to finish but disappointed in my time of 3:07. But it was sufficient to qualify for the 1992 Boston Marathon 5 months later as a 39 year old. I was familiar with the Boston race as my college fraternity was located only one block from Kenmore Square, the 25 mile point. On the Patriot’s Day holiday, we would watch the leaders race through the Square and usually stay long enough to watch slower runners struggling to complete the final mile. It didn’t look like much fun. Nonetheless, I was psyched to race it myself and told Donna and the kids to watch me coming down Boylston Street in a little under 3 hours. However, I was woefully unprepared for the bus ride and multi-hour wait in Hopkinton for the noon start having brought only water and finding nothing available at the high school.  The first half went pretty much as planned. But as soon as I took the right hand turn at mile 17, I found myself having to walk up Braeburn Hill. Donna and the kids were back at the hotel when I finally made it down Boylston in what to me was a devastating time of 3:44.

While focused on running up to 4 marathons per year, I had my fastest 5K, 10K, and 15K times in 1993. Interestingly, I ran my first 5K (not that popular a distance back then) a couple weeks before the 1993 Boston, finishing in 17:12, a PR which I never bested. While I had broken the 3 hour mark with a 2:51 at Columbus in 1992, I cramped up in Boston at mile 21 - struggling again to the finish – at least with an improved time of 3:21. Finally in the perfect weather of 1994 when all records fell, I finished in 2:57.

Now a Masters runner in my early 40’s and a lot smarter about training and nutrition, I was able to stay in peak form for half a dozen years setting my half marathon PR at the Philadelphia Distance Run in 1997 and my marathon PR at Columbus in 1998. I also had my only overall win at a small 10K in Cedarville, Ohio.  While I continued running marathons under 3 hours through age 50, there was no question my race times at all distances were slowing with the unpleasant discovery that I was not immune to the inevitable effects of aging. 

I was a big fan of cycling watching Lance Armstrong’s string of wins at the Tour de France and I had grown up around a swimming pool, diving competitively and lifeguarding for many years. I figured triathlon would be a great sport to take up once my running PR’s became history. Triathlon was becoming increasing popular with NBC’s annual coverage of the Hawaii IRONMAN in Kona and the sport’s debut at the Sydney Olympics. So early in 2002 about to turn 50, I bought a tri-bike (an aluminum Cervelo P2K) and started swimming at the local YMCA. My first race was a Sprint race at Deer Creek Park in Ohio – it was early June, the water was cold, and I had yet to invest in a wetsuit. I was in the last or near last wave and not wanting to stand around wet and cold, I didn’t do a swim warmup. When I hit the cold water, my chest contracted, I could hardly catch my breath, and I was headed the wrong way from shore. As the next to last athlete to exit the ½ mile swim, I had no problem finding my bike.  But the 20 mile bike and 4 mile run were a blast as I passed athlete after athlete. I was hooked.

The triathlon season in Ohio is short (June to mid-September) so I was mostly doing running races with little to no swimming or cycling training in the colder months. Over the first 3 years, I raced 13 triathlons, all in Ohio, working my way up to Olympic distance and securing a few age group wins in the process. I had a couple friends do full IRONMAN races during this period, and I began seriously considering that distance - even researching what it might take to get a Kona qualification slot. But the training requirements looked beyond onerous for someone with a very busy job requiring lots of travel. I had also discovered that my countless hours of watching swim practice from a lifeguard stand didn’t translate to being a fast swimmer. Rather I was a challenged swimmer; my calves would tighten and cramp even at my longer swim workouts of only 2000 yards.

I continued to run a Spring and a Fall marathon. My times still qualified for Boston but after a 3:18 in 2003, I didn’t run it again until 2012.  In November of 2004, we moved to North Carolina and with its longer triathlon season and extensive NC series, my year-round focus shifted to triathlon. I raced six triathlons in 2005 including my first half iron distance race, the Duke Liver Half.  Predictably, my calves cramped with about 300 yards left in the swim. I had to signal for help and stand up on a jet ski to work out the cramps. I did get back in the water and finish the race, but any thoughts of doing a full IRONMAN were put on the back burner. For several years, my work place we fielded a team for a Corporate 5K series. I ran eleven sub-20 minute 5K’s over the years of 2005 to 2008 but only two marathons from 2005 through 2010 (Richmond and City of Oaks).

With a fair amount of triathlon success in NC triathlons, I became interested in the opportunity to race National and World Championships.  My first USAT Nationals (Olympic Distance) was in 2008 at Hagg Lake, OR, where I secured the final 55-59 slot for Team USA and the 2009 ITU World Championships at Gold Coast in Australia – my first race outside the USA. The 2009 USAT Duathlon Nationals were conveniently held in Richmond where I qualified for ITU Duathlon Worlds, located even more conveniently in Charlotte just two weeks after the Gold Coast race. One month later at the Longhorn 70.3 in Austin, TX, I placed second in my age group and took a slot for the 2010 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships – only the third year since its debut and the final year in Clearwater, FL.  I hadn’t forgotten about Kona. Eagleman (70.3), with its Kona-like heat and wind, was one of the few 70.3’s with Kona slots and a favorite race for professionals and age groupers alike. I raced it for the first time in 2008 but finished well out of the money. While the Kona slots have long been gone, I will return there in a few weeks for the 5th time. Also with Kona slots and even higher heat and humidity, I raced St Croix 70.3 in 2013 with similar results. 

Within moments of registration going on on-line a full year before the race, I signed up for the 2011 IRONMAN Florida. It sold out minutes later. Recognizing that 140.6 miles would require a huge commitment to training and not wanting to risk getting it wrong, I signed up with Mark Allen On-line Coaching mid-year and somehow managed to do nearly every single workout in a 20 week program, peaking at more than 20 hours per week. Turning 59 a couple months before the race, I had no illusions of qualifying for Kona in the 55-59 age group but desperately wanted to finish my first IRONMAN. I raced very conservatively – particularly on the bike – finishing in 11:46 which placed 11th out of 85 in the age group. A few weeks later, with one IRONMAN under my belt, I signed up for 2012 IRONMAN Arizona. Now in the 60-64 age group, Kona qualification was perhaps within the realm of possibility and I pushed harder than I had in Florida. My 11:18 finish was second in the age group and 11 minutes behind the winner who took the single Kona slot. My 3:50 run ate 18 minutes into his lead but couldn’t make up my swimming and cycling deficits. I did no full IRONMAN’s in 2013 but did race the 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas and USAT Nationals in Vermont where I qualified for 2014 ITU Worlds. IRONMAN training started early in 2014 in preparation for IRONMAN Lake Placid in July. Thunderstorms moved in during the swim, and while I finished the swim, athletes behind me were directed out of the lake to the nearest shore resulting in the second swim lap and T1 not being included in the official times. My watch had a total time right at 12 hours – a good result given the difficulty of the course. My official time of 11:11 placed me in 4th out of 51. But there were two Kona slots for men 60-64 and of the three men in front of me, one had already qualified and one didn’t take a slot. Finally, I was going to race Kona; now only 11 weeks away. ITU Worlds in Edmonton was a good tune-up, but I was very apprehensive about finishing Kona – particularly getting through the ocean swim without a wetsuit. As fate would have it, I finished the swim OK but then had a tire blow out about 30 miles into the bike. Having fretted all week about the swim, I now found myself stranded on the Queen K Highway watching athletes fly by me.  Fortunately, a mechanical van soon stopped, assessed the situation, simply replaced my front wheel, and sent me on my way. The heat and the winds on the bike course were horrific, but I finished in 13:06 having happily accomplished what I had dreamed about so many years before.  It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since Lake Placid and the first Kona. I’ll be returning to Lake Placid for its 25th addition in July hoping just to finish. I retired early in 2015 and started coaching later that year. With additional time to train, I ‘ve since raced 11 IRONMAN’s including 5 age group wins and 4 Kona World Championships. I also raced 14 fourteen 70.3’s including World Championships in Chattanooga, Nice, and Lahti, Finland.  I did only one Duathlon, but it was a special one. With the Kerr Lake Triathlon changed to a short duathlon due to flooding, I drove to the 2017 USAT Long Course Duathlon Championships in Cary and signed up on race morning. With a strong final run, I passed two athletes from the mid-west and won my one and only National Championship.