Byron Johnson - From Sprint to Half Ironman at 70 years young

This past September 7th, I completed my first ½ Ironman equivalent, the Demi-Esprit in Montreal and qualified for the World Championships. This was my seventh triathlon of the summer but only an intermediate goal toward doing a full Ironman in 2020 which is my final goal of a three-year plan.

However, even that three-year plan took a couple of years to develop. I had a strong cycling background and could, even coax my 70-year-old legs to run at a reasonable pace, but swimming was going to the challenge – I didn’t realize how much of a challenge until I tried it.

Four years ago, I signed up for a weekend swim clinic with a local sports club.  At the end of the first day, I joked about buying the arm floats that children wear as I was so bad at swimming.

One day on a trail run I heard about ‘total-emersion’ swimming and found the videos useful but realized I needed instruction so sought out someone in the Ottawa area and eventually a friend suggested Julia Aimers of Team Triumph Triathlon Club. In the Spring of 2018, I signed up for group lessons with Julia and Maggie King.  First, I had to unlearn some bad habits that I had acquired in childhood, then try to learn better techniques.   I did that year’s Early Bird Olympic Triathlon at Carleton University with great effort on the swim – in fact walking most of the shallow ends; the bike and run portions were more successful.   Unfortunately, an old shoulder injury flared up and ended my swim efforts that season.

By this spring, I’d rehabilitated my shoulder, bought a wetsuit and started open water swims.  I struggled a lot with anxiety especially at the start of the swim and had to do backstroke even dog-paddle to try to relax.  I was not able to finish the swim stage of the Guelph triathlon because of anxiety that was aggravated by choppy water.  Julia gave me many suggestions to lower my anxiety during Triumph swims at Meech Lake.  By the Meech Lake triathlon, I had got the situation somewhat under control and didn’t just swim from safety kayak to safety kayak.  I was thrilled to win my age group and have Julia put the medal on my neck.   Slowly, I found a swim forever pace when doing triathlons in Bracebridge, Kingston, and Ottawa.  It is pretty discouraging to be the last out of the water – although it does make it easy to find your bike in T1.

The Montreal Demi-Esprit was my A race for the season.  Coach, Maggie King was also doing the same event and gave me a lot of encouragement as we got ready to start.  The swim of 1.9 km seemed to take forever – although I finished a minute faster than I had thought – 59 minutes and this time wasn’t the last out of the water!   The bike stage was great fun as we did 21 laps of the Grand Prix race track.  The run stage proved a challenge as my legs were in pain almost right from the beginning – I think I need to respect how far they’ve carried me and treat them better if I am to get them to do a full marathon next summer.

Throughout this journey, my wife, Kathleen, has been a constant support although I think neither she nor my two adult sons really understand why I’m doing this.  I also know that without the encouragement of Julia, Maggie and others I wouldn’t have even got this far toward my goal.  

If you have a dream to undertake a real challenge but are hesitant about whether you’ll be able to take it on, I advise you to develop a realistic plan for training, then just do it.

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