Ironman Champion...Inventor...Business Owner

TJ Tollakson is the Swiss Army Knife of People...A true Renaissance Man. He is an Ironman Champion, Mad Scientist Inventor, and Owner of Rüster Sports and Dimond Bikes.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Millimeters of Gain…and Millimeters of Pain

Life as a professional triathlete is all about incremental and compounding gains. Often viewed as millimeters of gain, compounded over time, these gains are like bricks stacked on top of each other. While small and insignificant is each lonely brick, together they build the most brilliant and sturdy structures. I’ve been busy stacking bricks over my career as a professional triathlete for the past 10 years, and while the bricks of an athlete are never permanent and you must constantly stack more bricks to replace the ones that disappear over time, you become more proficient at stacking bricks each year. I have a huge base (pile) of bricks and the knowledge and experience to quickly and intelligently stack them. Even the best laid plans can result in one brick being just a millimeter off and causing the entire stack to come crashing down.

The Dimond on the Rocks in Kona
Saturday, October 11, 2014 was the Ironman World Championship and I was entering the race with a full stack of bricks ready to race. I knew I was fit and had the confidence of winning my last Ironman race, the North American Championship event, by a large margin of victory. The 8 weeks between events was far from ideal, and with all the crazy things I have going on in my life, sometimes the far from ideal is a bit too much to surmount. My workouts the past few weeks were all on target and I was feeling fresh and ready to go. I made the difficult choice to travel with my employees, family, and a nanny. Since I have two young children under the age of two, having a nanny with us was important if I was going to even attempt to have my children with me. Looking back, I loved having my children there, but it was probably a bit too much for me. Just as the positive bricks of fitness and improvement benefit the athlete, the bricks of stress and distraction deter the athlete. I was a bit too over confident in my ability to deal with the stress and distractions. On Friday morning before the race, I was bent over my bike adjusting my rear derailleur when I had a sharp and sudden back spasm causing me to collapse on the ground. I've dealt with back problems for a very long time and have two bulging discs in my back. I’m no stranger to this type of pain or occurrence I was forced to retire from an Ironman in Los Cabos in March for the same reason, with numbness and tingling down the back of my leg. I know how to treat the pain, and I work very diligently to make sure my back is strong and healthy so it never happens at an inopportune time. Having a back spasm with nerve pain the day before the Ironman World Championship is definitely an inopportune time. Immediately I was pissed, but then told myself, I've dealt with this so many times before that I knew just how to deal with it. I stretched on the floor, the sat with my Compex activating my back for the next hour. I went for a short 30 min ride and felt awesome, so I had little to be concerned about. I repeated my Compex session and the stretching at night and I was ready to go. 
Dimond Group Ride in Kona, 19 Dimonds all together

The morning of the race, I never even thought about my back. It felt fine, so I had no reason for concern. I went through my normal morning routine and made sure to stretch my back as normal and felt nothing out of the ordinary. The swim start was chaotic as usual but I was on Freddie VanLierde’s feet for a while and felt great. Soon my back started to ache and I could feel myself not pulling as hard on my right side (where my back was hurting). I was instantly distracted from the task at hand and found myself swimming all over the place. Trying not to panic, I told myself to stay calm. I’m still in a great position and swimming well. Soon there was a fracture in the main group just ahead of me, but I wasn't even cognizant of the break until it was too late. I just wasn't paying enough attention. I sat in my little group of swimmers and it was very easy. Towards the end of the swim, the pace slowed so much I decided I needed to charge to the front and minimize the loss to those in the lead and pulled the group to shore. Not ideal, but not the end of the day. I was still out of the water with a large group of great cyclists.

Signing Cards at the Compex Booth
I was the first in our group through transition and on my bike, but immediately my back and glute were a problem. Within the first mile, I was all of sudden last in the group then dangling off the back. I was trying to push hard, but just could not muster the power. Seems odd for how low the power requirements are for an Ironman. My HR was never in a danger zone, but I just couldn't keep up. I was soon dropped and riding solo. I gradually started picking off riders who were falling off the pace in front. At the turn around I was passed by Bart Aernauts and one other guy. I couldn't stay with them. I was passed by Michi Weiss about mile 88 and stayed close enough to see him all the way into town (even though he was a ways up the road). My back was causing so much pain, I was only able to stay in my aerobars for about 10 minutes at a time before standing up to stretch. Not ideal, but I tried to be smart about my efforts and make the most of them. I found myself riding on the left side of my saddle unintentionally trying to produce more power from my good side while easing off my right side and the nerve pain. I was dreaming of the finish of the bike so I could start my run and end the nerve pain in my back and leg.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Richard Melik of Tri 24/7
on the flight to Kona!
Once off the bike, it was apparent (especially to anyone watching me run in transition) that I was in a whole lot of pain, but I had a lot of confidence in my run training and was thinking with a very easy 112 mile bike ride, I could possibly have one of my best runs ever. The nerve pain was more severe on the run and sent shooting pain down my right leg with each right foot strike. I told myself in a few miles I probably wouldn't even notice the pain so just continue. Much to my dismay the pain just got worse and at the run turn around I decided to call it quits. I stopped and chatted to my support crew. Told them I would jog back to transition and turn in my chip. I had a few miles to debate the decision in my head and walk and ran my way back towards Ashley. When I got there the decision was made. I was retiring from the race. I was in enough pain that it hurt to walk and had I been in the lead of the race or even having a good race, I probably would have pushed on, knowing it would cause more damage and pain, but having a bad day and causing my body more pain and possibly more problems by continuing, just doesn't make sense. 8 weeks ago, I felt invincible and my body felt amazing as I won the North American Championship.

What a difference 8 weeks can make and one small millimeter of a difference and my sciatic nerve is impinged, sending shooting pain down the back of my leg. One millimeter of a shift is all it takes, and as professional athletes we are always on the verge of pushing that limit just one millimeter too far and disaster strikes.
Ethan Davidson, COO of Ruster Sports with
my son, Theo in Kona!

I had an amazing time in Kona and there were some great takeaways including these highlights.
  • ·         Being with my family in Kona
  • ·         Catching up with friends, athletes, and sponsors
  • ·         Two of my best friends since childhood were at the race
  • ·         I was certified by Clean Protocol
  • ·         I had a blast re-enacting an entrance from my favorite movie
  • ·         21 Dimonds raced in Kona placing us 16th in 2014 Lava Magazine Kona Bike Count
  • ·         Maik Twelsiek led the race while riding a Dimond bike
  • ·         Celebrating another successful season of racing with a finale in Kona

  • ·         Getting to know all 21 athletes who raced a Dimond in Kona

  • A special thanks to all my sponsors and supporters for making this all possible!
  • TYR Sport and TYR Endurance Sport

The North American Ironman Champ, checking in his Bike!

1 comment:

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