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Elite athletes juggle training, new baby

LAWRENCE, Kan. – Two of the world’s most accomplished endurance athletes, three-time Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae and her husband, Tim O’Donnell, are relaxing on a plush white couch in an otherwise quiet house on a tree-lined street near the University of Kansas campus.

Against one wall are their time-trial bikes, awaiting their next session. A plastic bin full of Hoka One One running shoes sits nearby. Water bottles and energy drinks are scattered about the kitchen.

In the next room? A mountain of baby toys piled in the corner.

In this undated photo, three-time Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae, left, and her husband, elite triathlete Tim ODonnell, put in a training run along the Kansas River in Lawrence, Kan. The couple are preparing for next month’s Ironman world championships in Kona, Hawaii, while also raising a 1-year-old daughter, Isabelle. (Associated Press)

This is hardly the typical training-camp setup for elite athletes, but little about Carfrae and O’Donnell is typical. The fact that they’re married is novel enough, but the fact that they’re juggling the training for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, with changing diapers, feeding and entertaining their year-old daughter, Isabelle, makes them quite possibly one of a kind.

“Being two professionals in a very time-demanding sport like triathlon, we’re kind of used to being loose and going with the flow, and not being too stressed about the little stuff, like who is making dinner and stuff like that,” O’Donnell says. “A lot of our competitors have a spouse that’s dedicated to making sure they can perform – do dishes, the laundry, make a hot meal. We were used to having to juggle that.

“Then when Izzy came along,” O’Donnell says with a smile, “it just made it more of a circus.”

This is a well-tuned circus, though. It has to be.

The Ironman, held Oct. 13 this year, consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run – a full marathon – and that alone takes precise nutrition, training and recovery plans. When you add a rambunctious little girl to the mix, keeping all the balls in the air at once becomes that much more difficult.

“I mean, it’s just nonstop,” Carfrae says. “There’s no break. The days just fly by and it’s amazing – people say as you get older, the days fly by. I think as you have children the days fly by. There’s not a moment we’re not training or entertaining Isabelle, or feeding her or doing what she needs. There’s not really any down time.”

Especially considering Carfrae chose to breastfeed. Those long, six-hour training blocks on the bike? They had to be split into two-hour windows based on Izzy’s feeding schedule.

But it’s not as if O’Donnell and Carfrae didn’t know what they were getting into.

The couple first met in 2008, when they were both getting IV fluids to treat dehydration after a half-Ironman race in Texas. Their first date came when they returned to Colorado, where both lived and trained, and when they married in 2013, they instantly became the first family of Ironman triathlons.

O’Donnell is a long-distance world champion who finished third at Kona in 2015, while Carfrae has appeared on the Kona podium seven times. She held the course record of a hair over 8 hours, 52 minutes until 2016, when it was broken by three-time and reigning world champion Daniela Ryf.

O’Donnell and Carfrae document many of their travels, races and family experiences on social media and their Youtube channel, which they’ve dubbed “The Tim and Rinny + Izzy Show.”

In some ways, traveling is more stressful than even the most grueling training session.

“We were going to Australia in June,” O’Donnell says, “and we rolled into the airport hot and heavy, bags everywhere – Izzy is there and everyone’s carrying bags. We have bike boxes and all this luggage, and everyone is carrying two or three bags.”

Most couples in such an unusual situation would be happy just to qualify for Kona, but O’Donnell and Carfrae have high expectations. Yes, there are more obstacles in the way of their training, and the recovery that is so crucial to their sport may have suffered. But both of them insist they’ve never been happier.

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