TJ Tollakson Q&A

The full interview with triathlete-come-engineer TJ, as featured in our August issue

Great win at Eagleman recently. How would you say your 2011 season is going so far?
Thank you! I was very pleased with my race at Eagleman, it was a well-executed race against a top notch field.
My 2011 season is going well, and I’m happy, but it got off to a rocky start. I actually blew out a tyre during my first race of the year in New Orleans. I was having a great race and with two miles remaining on the bike I blew my tyre sidewall and crashed riding about 30mph. I couldn’t boot the tyre so I just rode two miles on my Zipp 808 Firecrest Carbon Clincher rim – not ideal. But I wanted to finish since I was fit and having a good day before the crash. I ended up having a great run split but I left with no money, lots of expenses, and some road rash.
My second race was Ironman St. George. I was pleased with another Ironman podium finish (five consecutive non-Kona IM podiums), but struggled on the bike and early portions of the run with a bad stomach. That is part of racing, and I overcame it the best I could and ended up having my fastest Ironman run (and first sub-3hr) to date.
You’ve finished in the 30s twice at Kona. What do you think it will take to make it into the top 20?
The past couple of years I’ve really struggled with injury problems. This winter I had surgery on both hips to repair torn labrums in my hip joints. The surgery was a success and it has allowed me to train with the proper volume and intensity to compete at the top of the sport.
Patience is really key when racing Ironman and even more so in Kona. Last year, I made an early move with some of the top cyclists in the sport (Normann Stadler, Andreas Raelert, Marino Vanhoenacker) but used too much too soon and ended up riding in with the chase pack. I need to be more patient when racing Ironman and let the race unfold a bit more. Kona is very tricky because it’s so much more tactical than any other Ironman event. Every mistake in Kona is amplified 20 times, so you have to minimize errors and capitialise on opportunities.
I’m excited this year only the top 50 men will be racing. The race tactics will change again and I’m looking forward to being a part of that change. My coach, Cliff English, is probably the best Ironman coach in the business so he knows how to best prepare for battle on the lava fields, and I trust in his plan and instincts. Cliff and I have really built a solid coach-athlete relationship over the last couple of years.
We see you’re scheduled to race the Hy-Vee World Cup (on 4 September). What’s the reason behind that?
I started my professional career living at the Olympic Training Centre in Colorado Springs and doing ITU racing. I quickly transitioned to non-drafting and then to Ironman because of my talents and aspirations. But at the core I will always have a love for Olympic-distance racing.
I normally wouldn’t race an Olympic-distance event like Hy-Vee, but because it’s a world-class event in my home town, I’m honored to be a part of it and race in front of my family, friends, and fans. The intensity is certainly on another level so I have to make sure I properly prepare with the right training intensities.
These days the best athletes are forced to specialise and while it’s possible to do some cross-over disciplines, there will be fewer and fewer athletes trying to juggle multiple distances and the champions will train specifically for one distance and sometimes just one race.
We read you once bulked up to 200lbs for a body building competition then went on a 1,200 calorie diet to slim down for tri. Just how tough was that?
I did bulk up to 200lbs in college, but it wasn’t really a body-building contest, it was the Body for Life Challenge which is a 12-week transformation challenge with before and after pictures. I competed in the "gain muscle size and strength" category. I was a finalist in the competition and won some cool prizes, but it wasn’t a typical pose-in-the-trunks-on-a-stage body-building contest.
I decided to start working out aerobically to do a triathlon and went on a 1,200 calorie-a-day diet to trim down to a racing weight. I grew up wrestling so cutting weight was a big part of the sport and dieting to get down to a racing weight was very similar. It’s mentally tough, but since I had an excess of muscle I knew I was going to have to catabolise some muscle for fuel and calorie restriction was the easiest and quickest way to accomplish the goal.
Talk us through that unique aerobar set-up that you showcased in Kona last year…
I tested several aerobar and hydration system positions at the A2 Wind Tunnel [North Carolina, USA] and I came up with a few options. I needed something that was fast, but also comfortable. There are a lot of fast positions that you just can’t comfortably hold for four and a half hours.
I started by going to the sporting goods store and looking for anything to rest my elbows in. I tried heel cups, hockey elbow pads, pvc pipe, and settled on a jock cup (nut cup). I actually used the junior protector because it was a nice snug fit. I used the cups alone for a while before searching out something for my forearms. I found these youth shin guards that are left and right specific so upside down they perfectly mirror the forearm.
I spent some time bolting the contraption to my existing Profile Design Cobra T2+ extensions and the Cobra Wing Base Bar, and I was all dialed. My next step was coming up with a hydration system that I could refill and drink out of with a straw. I did some modifications to a standard water bottle and mounted in a standard Profile Design Karbon Kage. It works brilliantly.
What did you learn from that race in terms of aerodynamics?
I had to change a few aspects of my set-up for this year in terms of aerodynamic lessons learned at Kona. I wanted to optimise my set-up to perform well in a crosswind so I had to lower my hands a touch, especially on my new Zipp 2001 frame since the front cross section is so wide. I needed more weight over the front wheel on my bike to add stability in cross winds. I put the bars a bit further out and dropped my hands lower. It still takes a tremendous amount of core strength to steer the bike.
So what’s cooking at Rüster Sports [TJ’s company] at the mo?
Rüster Sports is cooking up some new brew at the moment. I have several intern students from around the country working with me this summer. We have a new hard case wheel box, and a full-size travel bag for the athlete looking to make the long haul with lots of luggage and use a carry-on wheel bag. We’re going to make a new wheel bag with a slimmer profile (perfect for hand-checked luggage).
We have some wrenches for sale to help with the assembly of your bike when traveling. We also have gel flasks and speed laces.
We plan on offering a couple new hydration system options as well as accessories to help make your racing easier and more efficient. There are some more long-term projects with Rüster Sports, but they are top secret at the moment. You can always expect innovation and design from Rüster Sports!
And what new TJ innovations can we look forward to at this year’s Kona?
You’ll probably see some Rüster Sports carbon integration in my aerobar set-up. I will have the bars more polished and integrated. You will see the same Profile Design Cobra set-up I have now, it will just look meaner and cleaner. I will also be racing in TYR’s new Carbon Collection race kit – it’s the best race kit. The hydrophobic material keeps you dry and the hydrophillic panels wick the water and sweat from your body. It’s a perfect race kit for me because it’s a science geek’s dream!
What do you feel is the greatest innovation in triathlon in recent times?
The wireless power meter. I love my SRM power meter. Wires complicate the hell out of bike electronics and having a wireless power meter and speed and cadence sensor really improves the functionality of a bike and makes it look more aesthetically appealing. The power meter is the single best upgrade to a bike that any athlete can make. Training and racing with power is simply the best way to improve and track you fitness on the bike.
Meet TJ Tollakson
Age 30
Nationality American
Lives Des Moines, USA
Career highlights
2 x Eagleman 70.3 Champion
2 x Ironman Arizona runner-up
5 x Ironman podium finisher
MAIN IMAGE: Montage of TJ’s bike set-up courtesy of Megan Ranegar