For any athlete, but especially guys like world and Olympic champion speed skater Apolo Ohno, training and exercise are part of everyday life, just like brushing their teeth. If a day is skipped, their body knows it and reminds them. Something is off and that small variation is a distraction all day. That’s part of the thinking that went into the eight-time Olympic medalist’s decision to compete in perhaps the world’s most grueling race, the Ironman World Championship triathlon in Kalilua-Kona, HI in October. The race is a 140.6-mile swim-bike-run.
“This is something I need in my life to kind of reset me, bring me back to who I am,” said Ohno, who will turn 32 in May. “I’m ultimately always an athlete. It’s kind of who I am as a person. I don’t function the same way daily if I don’t get a workout in. I’m becoming more dependent upon that. This to me is the ultimate comeback without coming out of retirement. It’s a chance where, because it’s so grueling and so difficult, it’s a test against myself.”
And the entire process—from the training to race day—will be documented in an eight-episode documentary-style Web series called Mission Apolo: Built with Chocolate Milk.
Now, Ohno’s challenges are similar to nearly any dedicated gym rat: How does he balance work and business ventures with his training?
“It’s not like a CrossFit workout where you walk in, you slam it for 20-30 minutes, and you’re done,” he said. “Great, in 20-30 minutes I haven’t even begun my workout yet. I’m just warming up for the swim. On Saturday, I did a 4.5-hour bike ride and then we had to do a transition run for 2.5 miles. Shit, man, this is totally different. Basically, my social life is out the window. It’s gone.”
Ohno is being coached by eight-time Ironman world champ Paula Newby Fraser, the most recognized triathlete—man or woman—in the sport. He says training through a busy travel schedule has been a challenge. He’s only into his first month of training but is committed to staying consistent, even if he isn’t looking to cross the finish line first. He’s content to inspire others by filming the journey that will be posted on gotchocolatemilk.com.
His post-Olympic career already includes an appearance at the 2011 New York City Marathon, where he finished in 3 hours, 25 minutes. But at the Ironman, those 26.2 miles only constitute a third of the race—after a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike ride. Ohno has been able to get some advice from another retired crossover athlete. Former NFL wide receiver Hines Ward competed in the Ironman World Championships last year, finishing in 13 hours, 8 minutes. Ward said he’ll be there if Ohno needs advice but mostly, “he says, ‘I’m praying for you,’" Ohno said.
Ward, who joined Ohno on a media blitz through New York this week, said that his best advice was that Ohno should only worry about himself and not to get caught up in racing those around him. But when it comes to training, the most important aspect will be nutrition and recovery. Ohno agreed.
“My recovery starts immediately. Within an hour or a half hour after [a training session], I have a real meal—solid foods,” he said. “In terms of overtraining, it’s tough because everybody handles pain differently. You have to kind of dial into your own internal mechanism and body to know when you should back off. You can only hammer and flog yourself for so long before saying, OK, I need to back off.”
There’s no backing off in sight for Ohno now. His Olympic career might be over, but he’s not done challenging himself. Not yet.