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Imagine jumping into the ocean at the crack of dawn and swimming nearly two-and-a-half miles alongside hundreds of other athletes thrashing through the strong Pacific currents. Then, instead of toweling off and relaxing the rest of the day away on the beautiful Hawaiian beach, you hop on a bike, where over the next four hours you’ll grind out 112 hilly, arduous miles.
Feeling the burn yet? Too bad, because after you peel your sore, chafed thighs from your seat, you’re still 26.2 miles away from the finish line: It’s marathon time.
Since 2011, the United States’ hopes for a champion in this legendary race have been pinned on Tim O’Donnell, who on Oct. 12, 2019, clocked the best finish ever for an American at the Ironman: 7 hours, 59 minutes and 40 seconds, just 8:28 behind winner Jan Frodeno’s Ironman record time. “I was with a good group of swimmers who got away from the pack, and that made the race,” says the former collegiate swim competitor and Navy lieutenant, who legged out the race on a broken foot he had suffered just seven weeks earlier. “We never looked back.”
It was the latest achievement in a career spanning 16 years and more than 50 podium finishes, including 22 major-event wins, among them the 2009 ITU Long Distance World Champion title, nine Ironman 70.3 victories, and six Armed Forces National Championships.
Since 2011, Tim O’Donnell has competed in the Ironman World Championship triathlon in Kona, Hawaii, nine times, with six top-10 finishes, including 4th in 2018, 6th in 2016, 3rd in 2015, 5th in 2013, and 8th in 2012. But in his runner-up performance in 2019, he experienced something he never had before. “This is the first year that I never had that meltdown moment during the run, where I had to regain (my composure) and try to salvage and make up time,” he says. “This is the first year I ran strong through the entire marathon.”
The 39-year-old UCAN-sponsored athlete’s secret to success? Good, old-fashioned hard work in the gym, the pool and the great outdoors around his home base in Boulder, Colorado, as he dutifully logs an average of 20 hours riding, 10 hours running, eight hours of swimming, and up to three hours of weight training per week.
For this, he gives some of the credit to UCAN—specifically the company’s signature food product, SuperStarch. “SuperStarch is like a slow-drip IV, giving a constant, steady release of carbohydrates,” he says. O’Donnell also uses it during his training, especially on “Terrible Tuesdays.” “When you’re finishing up running and hitting the water 35-45 minutes later, you need something quick in between that’s not going to give you that spike…it has to be energy that can get you through to the end of the session.”
And O’Donnell will need all the energy he can when it comes to what he calls “Terrible Tuesday,” a hyperintensive mash-up of each triathlon discipline and a lifting session for good measure. “To prepare for an eight-hour race like the Ironman, you have to put your body in overload sometimes in training,” O’Donnell explains. “Honestly, I’ve found it’s better to do it all on one day like this, because when you do your intense biking, swimming and running sessions on different days, it becomes harder to recover and bounce back for the next one.”
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