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Back Page Podium: Paul Tichelaar recalibrates

Edmonton's Paul Tichelaar is moving on.

Edmonton’s Paul Tichelaar is moving on – and looking for a new challenge in long distance triathlon. The Beijing Olympian has left Canada’s national team to pursue the sport from a different distance.

At least for this season, Tichelaar has decided to stop competing in International Triathlon Union events – even though he racked up seven top 10 finishes in 2007 and 2008. He had a world ranking of 16 at the end of 2008, but his 2009 season was spent mostly on the sidelines because of a leg injury. While not able to run much, he was steadily putting more and more time into his bike and thinking about Ironman.

Tish, as he is known by friends, recently won the Oliver, B.C. Half Iron in early June and set a course record in 3:58. He’s now preparing for his first Ironman.  He works full-time as an engineer and has been happily married for two years.

TMC: What was behind the decision to go long?

PT:  I had a few reasons and together they were enough to tip the scales towards long course racing. First,   there was a lot of pressure from the national federation to train full-time, or not at all, and it was finally enough to push me to make a decision. They believe that sport funding requires them to take a win at all costs approach to sport. I try to fit my sport in around my life and not the other way around. With long course racing there is no federation and you can approach it any way you like.

Second,  ITU racing has gotten so fast on the run that I didn’t think I would be competitive. I’m a good runner because I am fit, but I am not a great runner. I didn’t think I could run a sub 30-minute 10km off the bike. There is not much reward for finishing outside of the top five in short course racing and I didn’t see myself in that top five. Long distance racing suits my strengths more and I prefer the style of training.

Third, my (relatively mild) Ulcerative Colitis bothers me when I am running at a very high intensity (HR above 175 bpm). As a result I am often limited to 95 percent of my maximum effort. This kind of limitation doesn’t lend itself well to fast races that almost always end in a sprint finish.

TMC:  Is a start on the Big Island in your near future?

PT:  Yes, I will make it to the start line in Hawaii in the next couple of years. I have wanted to race Ironman Canada and Hawaii since I started in the sport. I think I can win Canada and do very well in Hawaii with a little more experience at the long distance.

TMC:  Has your Olympic objective been achieved?

PT:  My goal, since I was 10, was to compete at the Olympics and that goal has been achieved.  I thought long and hard about whether to set a new goal of winning a medal at the Games and decided I didn’t want it bad enough to make it happen. Participation at a second Games isn’t a high enough priority to dedicate four years of my life to going again.

TMC:  What has been the biggest challenge, or the biggest revelation, in switching distances?

PT: The pacing and nutrition are a lot different from short course racing. I have good instincts and have had good advice about how to race long course, but I don’t know what my limits are anymore. I feel like an old pro because of my years of experience at the Olympic distance, but I have a lot to learn about how my body reacts to longer distance racing. I consulted with a lot of people before racing long this year but since race diet is so personalized you end up doing a lot of trial and error. I won’t know if my full distance Ironman approach will work until I’m done the race.

TMC:  How has the switch been physically?

PT:  I only have to swim three times a week instead of six and get to cycle a lot more. This makes me happy. The only part I find challenging is holding my form together towards the end of a long run, or running after a long bike ride. When my form falls apart with fatigue I get sore quickly and the potential for injury increases exponentially.  I have been struggling with mild Achilles tendenosis since early June.

TMC:  Are you preparing differently, mentally, for races now?

PT:  At the Olympic distance I usually focused on how to avoid mistakes and bad patches in the race. I visualized everything that could go wrong before the race happened so I could immediately react to the situation if it occurred. With long races you are almost guaranteed to have bad patches at some point. The key is to keep the bad patches as short as possible. If you can limit your bad patch to five minutes you will be miles ahead of the guy who struggles through his for 30 minutes.

TMC:  You have returned to your old coach. What do you think are the important qualities a coach should have?

PT:  Corey Torgness has been coaching me since I left the national team. He had coached me when I was 16 to 19 years old. A coach should be able to tailor a training program to an athlete’s lifestyle and priorities. My favorite part of Corey’s program is that he doesn’t schedule days off, he lets life schedule those for me. A program should also be simple and explained well enough that the athlete can understand it and know why they are doing each workout.

Timothy Moore is a triathlete and an editor/journalist based in Squamish, B.C.