TCSD Conversation: Jim Markwell – January 2013

The ultimate Triathlon Club of San Diego volunteers - Jim Markwell and Dawn Copenhaver.

The ultimate Triathlon Club of San Diego volunteers – Jim Markwell and Dawn Copenhaver.

TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent

I recently talked triathlon with the ultimate TCSD member, Jim Markwell. Jim is a great example of living a healthy triathlon lifestyle with a huge smile on his face. I guarantee you will enjoy getting to know this great guy!

Craig: What was your athletic background before you got involved in triathlon?

Jim: Growing up in the late 50’s and early 60’s we, as kids, were always encouraged to play outside. Climbing trees, hiking in the canyons of south Chula Vista where I grew up, riding our bikes all over the place, were normal activities. I knew how to swim by the age of 3, played and swam in the ocean almost at the same time and learned to surf at age 8. In the summers, when we were off from school, it wasn’t unusual for my mom to drop my friend Steve and me off in Imperial Beach w/our boards on her way to work on North Island and pick us again on her way home. We’d surf, swim, and lay around on the beach all day.

In high school, I was on the cross-country team for Hilltop High and lettered in that sport. I should have known I was cut out for endurance sports back then because, while never fast, I could run for a long time. We were nicknamed ‘canyon bunnies’ by the football team because our normal training run was out through Telegraph Canyon to Southwestern College and back. This was before I-805 even existed. A strange side note to the barefoot running phenomenon these days was that good running shoes like Tigers and Pumas were very expensive and we used to only wear them for races. We used to wrap our ankles and the balls of our feet w/a ton of athletic tape that we had “borrowed” from the football team for our training runs. Shin splints were considered a rite of passage! In the spring, I would run track. I ran the 110 high hurdles, the 440 low hurdles (being 6’4″ I didn’t have to hurdle those – I just ran!), and sometimes would be on the ‘B’ squad for the mile relay. For one season, I was on the swim team. I swam backstroke and freestyle relay. My high school sports career only lasted 2 years as I graduated early at 16 and began college.

At 16 I became a certified scuba diver and dove for a few years and assisted w/classes at of all places, La Jolla Shores, where I’ve led the beginners open water swim for the last 4 years on Monday nights. I used to help w/ the checkout dives when students were completing their courses and getting certified.

After high school and through college, I still surfed, swam, and scuba dove. I’ve always loved the ocean and being in it. In 1976, my VW bus died and I couldn’t afford another car, so I got a bike to get around on. I had ridden a bike a lot as a kid- that was how we got around. For over 5 years, I didn’t have a car and just rode my bikes. Early on, I was encouraged to give racing a try and quickly fell in love with it. Not having a car, I’d ride to a race, race, and then ride home. Sometimes, if the race was far away, I’d buddy up with a fellow racer and hitch a ride. But I remember riding the Tecate-Ensenada ride and then riding back to San Diego after it was over. Again, I should have known that I was destined to be an endurance athlete – I didn’t like criteriums that much but preferred long road races. Bicycle racing back then was a lot like triathlon is today in that it was a relatively small, tight knit community whose members were always willing to pitch in and help each other. I raced through the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. I’ve seen incredible innovation in the sport from real ’10’ speeds to modern fabrics and composites. I still have my leather helmet, wool jersey and shorts, and my handmade, wood soled, Italian leather cycling shoes w/the cleats nailed into place!

Craig: What prompted you to become a triathlete?

Jim: I was always a cyclist and when this new thing called triathlon came along, we naturally ridiculed it. One of my favorite quotes is from Herbert Spencer, which, to paraphrase, is “Ignorance is contempt prior to investigation.” For years, the myth was that, on the bike, triathletes were kooks, couldn’t turn, and could only ride in a straight line! In 2006 I went to see a friend do the Mission Bay Triathlon. When she finished, she looked exhausted. I said sarcastically, “What’s the big deal, you only rode 9 miles!” She said, “Oh yeah, let’s see you out here!” I joined the Tri Club in December of that year and toed it up for my first race (the club race on Fiesta Island) in March of ’07 and have been at it ever since.

Craig: What was that first triathlon like for you?

Jim: As I mentioned above, my first race was the club race in March of ’07. I had always thought I was a pretty good swimmer, so I tried to go w/the lead pack. 250 yards out I was on my back gasping like a grouper! This is no joke – I crawled out of the water in last! I later found out that there were members of the US team at the Olympic Training Center in that lead pack, not to mention the top notch swimmers we have in the club. I also did the classic rookie mistake of making that race be my first swim in a wetsuit and a new one to boot!

Craig: You have worked your way up to the Ironman distance. What were your Ironman experiences like?

Jim: So far, I’ve done Vineman twice and will do it again this year. I love that race and that distance. Remember, I may not be fast but I can go for a long time. Being out there all day (and most of the night!) is great! The first year, I remember just getting awed by the scenery on the bike. I was crossing a bridge over a river watching this raptor dive for fish and heard a car honking. It was one of the locals waiting for me to cross – I’d slowed to a crawl just drinking in the scenery! At that same race, I’d told Dawn to clear out my whole transition once I’d started the run so we could leave quickly. Well, she did as I told her to. One of the items picked up was my run special needs bag which had my light for night running and more importantly, my regular glasses. I started the run with my sunglasses on, came into transition for my night gear and no glasses! So I did the run, in the dark, in my sunglasses! In fact, I have them on in the finish line picture!

Craig: How do you volunteer your time to help out the Tri Club?

Jim: Make no mistake, Dawn is the Food Queen! When she took over that job, I helped her with portion size, food cost, purchasing quantity, and some recipe guidance. Prior to becoming a teacher, I was a cook and later, a chef, for 25 years. On occasion, when Dawn has chosen to race, I’ve helped set up and serve the food at the Coronado beginner’s races. Because we have to be at the race site very early, I often help out with the setup of the bike racks, traffic direction, and whatever else is needed. We’re also there after everyone leaves, so I’ll help with the tear down, cleanup, etc. I am always inspired by everyone that helps out with our races. It’s a big job and it’s pretty amazing that a handful of volunteers put on an event that certainly rivals any paid race I’ve ever done! Dawn is also our Volunteer Coordinator, so I’ll help her with meeting set up, if needed, food set up, etc. I must admit, because I get up so early each morning, that you won’t see me around at the end of a meeting. If we’re serving the food at the aquathlons, you’ll see me putting pizza on your plate.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been in and around the ocean almost my entire life and get great joy from any chance to get in it. When former TCSD President, Thomas Johnson asked for volunteers to help out with the beginner swim 4 years ago, I stepped up and have been at it ever since. I really strive to help people overcome their apprehensions about ocean swimming. Usually the biggest asked (and unasked) question is there anything out there that wants to harm me? I can only speak from my experience – I’ve been in the water for over 50 years and I’ve only seen a shark 3 times and one of those was from a boat. In all my years of scuba and snorkeling, I’ve only seen 1. None of these encounters was a threatening experience. I’ve had far more run ins with jellyfish and stingrays over the years. I try to educate people how to avoid these hazards as best I can but we’re in their environment and we need to respect that. I think for a new person, it’s the dynamic nature of the ocean that comes as the biggest surprise. It’s not the pool! Waves are a big challenge for many, so teaching people how to get out through the surf and back again is high on the list of how-to’s. I know it sounds counter-intuitive but the key is to relax, dive deep, and keep your eyes open. I’ll go play in the surf line if I’ve been out of the water for a while just to get comfortable again. I encourage folks to have some playtime in the water – bodysurfing, boogie boarding, etc are a great way to help get the ‘feel’ of the water.

Craig: What do you do for a living and how have you incorporated triathlon into your job?

Jim: My current career is that of a teacher. I work for Oceanside Unified and my school is located aboard Camp Pendleton. For 17 of the 18 years I’ve been teaching, it’s been mostly Kindergarten. At present I have 31 5 & 6 year olds all day by myself. That’s why I do tri – to stay in shape for work! I incorporate a lot of physical activity into my daily classroom routine. We learn to count to 100 by 10’s by doing push-ups. Count to 100 by 5’s w/sit ups. Planks, squats, jumping jacks, and a lot more are done on a regular basis. Every year around September 25th (the birthdate of triathlon) I try to organize a KinderTri. Now, of course, I can’t let them get in water but we take the tricycles out on the grass and line them up on opposite sides of the dirt infield area. The children run to the trikes, ride across the infield, dismount, and then run and tag the next person on their team to repeat it going the other way. We make race belts out of yarn and index cards, I body mark them with washable magic markers, and put Tri Club temporary tattoos (only with parental permission!) They get a big kick out of racing and doing something their teacher does.

When my boys find out I do triathlon they always say, “We’re faster than you, we can get away from you!” Then I show them that picture of me finishing Vineman in the dark. They go, “So . . .?” and I say, “I can run longer than you can stay awake – I will catch you!” Right now I have my class doing about a 440 a couple of time a week with the goal of getting them able to run a mile non-stop before the end of the year. At Thanksgiving, at the Oceanside Turkey Trot, I ran with one of my former students and his sister, who is in my class this year, when they did their first 5K. That was a great experience!

Craig: A year ago you got hit by a car while biking. What happened there and what tips do you have for safe cycling amongst the cars?

Jim: On January 8, 2012, I was on a training ride from my home in Del Mar out through Escondido, Bonsall, and then Oceanside to the coast and home. At Oceanside Blvd I stopped to make a left onto Coast highway to head for home. I noticed the gentleman driving the very large camper next to me seemed confused about where he was. He was looking around a lot and when we made the turn, he changed lanes numerous times. So I hung back and watched him closely. Finally he stopped in the far left lane and put on his left turn signal. I thought it was ok to pass at that point. As I came parallel to him in the bike lane, he suddenly turned right across 2 lanes and hit me. I had only a split second to react, so I unclipped and tried to throw the bike around the front of the truck. Almost made it! I went airborne (my years of racing had taught to curl into a ball if possible), bounced twice, and hit a curb with my left shoulder. My left scapula was cracked in 2 places, my knees were a bloody mess, and I had major muscle damage to my back muscles. Amazingly, there wasn’t a scratch on my helmet and my uniform was clean!

I attribute my quick recovery to being in such good shape from triathlon. 10 days after the accident I wrapped my left arm as tightly to my chest as I could and started running again. Less than 6 weeks after I was hit, I set a PR in the San Dieguito Half Marathon and by April did the Oceanside 70.3 for the 5th consecutive year.

I’ve been on a bike nearly my whole life and I’ve been on the floor more than a few times in races. I’ve also had a few run ins with autos over the years, too. I always ride with a mirror. Many, if not most, accidents involving cyclists involve them getting hit from behind. Be aware of what’s behind you! My cardinal rule is that I’m invisible to traffic and I need to behave that way. A car will always win in a collision!

Craig: What is your favorite thing about your TCSD membership?

Jim: I really love being a member of TCSD for many reasons. The fellowship, the positive vibe of being around people who are part of a healthy lifestyle, and being around folks who will push themselves to achieve goals that are way out of their comfort zone. I feel like after many years I’ve found my tribe – people who embrace that idea of being outside and active. I really wished that I’d overcome my ignorant prejudice years earlier but I believe everything happens for a reason. Taking up tri after the age of 50 has really given me a great outlook on life. I’ve done things I never thought possible for myself and found that sharing my life experience can be of use to others. I’m so gung-ho that, with the exception of my first club race, I’ve never raced any event in anything but TCSD gear and that includes cyclocross racing this fall and winter. They were pretty surprised to see a tri guy doing cyclocross!

Craig: What was the dumbest thing you have done as a triathlete?

Jim: The second time I did Vineman I had my regular glasses and my light but I was too vain to use the light. It was a moonless night and I thought I knew the course pretty good from the year before. So at one point I said to myself, “That light is the house at the top of the hill. I turn left here.” After a few minutes I became aware of a change in the terrain and heard a crunching sound underfoot. I stopped, turned on the light, and discovered I was in a field a good distance from the road running toward a distant farmhouse.

Craig: What has been the funniest thing you have seen in a race?

Jim: One year at the Encinitas Sprint Triathlon a guy in my age group and I headed out on the run together. After a few strides I noticed he was still wearing his helmet. We ran about a half mile and he still didn’t realize he still had it on his head. So I told him. He stopped and started running back toward transition. I didn’t see him again until we were packing up. I asked him if he just dropped his helmet somewhere along the course after he turned around. He said, “Nope, I ran all the way back and put it with my gear, I didn’t want to get disqualified!”

Craig: What has been the coolest thing you have observed in a race?

Jim: The one scene that truly won me over to tri was at that same Encinitas Tri. At that time Michellie Jones was World Champion and she raced that day. After she finished the race she went back out on the bike course right at Swami’s and cheered on everyone until the last rider went past! It’s this mix of pro/am support for each other that has really drawn me into the sport.

Craig: What have been some of the best benefits you have realized as a triathlete?

Jim: l’ll be 58 this July and I’m in arguably the best shape of my life. I love to train, I love to race, and I love to give back to the sport in any way I can. My kids can tell when it’s race week – I get really excited and happy and can’t wait for it to get here. I probably train way too much – I do 2 workouts a day most days of the week- but I just can’t help myself. I just crave being out there moving. Those early morning runs before the sun comes up are awesome, seeing all the stars. My favorite run in my neighborhood takes me to a place where I can see all the way out to the mountains, the ocean, and hear the surf when the wind is right. I talked Brian Wrona into doing a ride from Del Mar to Julian and back to get pie. He asked how far I thought it was. “Oh 80 miles more or less.” Turned out to be around 120! Last summer, Anita Flagg and I swam headlong into a pod of dolphins on one of the Friday morning swims. Moments like that are priceless. I’ve made some really close friends in the sport and many good acquaintances. My friend and fellow TCSD’er Scott Rice got a job with Cannondale back in Connecticut a year ago. We’ve done races together in places like Rhode Island, Oceanside, and in May, Wildflower. At Rhode Island, Scott qualified for 70.3 Worlds in Vegas in September and Dawn and I were there to support as we were when he raced Long Course Worlds the year before. In December I ran the Vegas Half with the person who challenged me to do a tri as she married a fellow club member in front of New York, New York. Dawn was there as well. Dawn came to a race with me when we first started dating, volunteered, and the rest is history. This sport has opened a new chapter in my life that I’ll be forever grateful for.

Craig: What are your future triathlon goals?

Jim: Of course, I’d like a chance to go to the Big Dance in Kona some year – maybe when I’m 80! I hope to do Ironman Zurich someday. A buddy and I were there on race day and had no idea what was going on. We actually drove onto the bike course by accident and wondered why all these people were yelling at us! So I’d like to go see what all the fuss was about! For now it’s always, “don’t get hurt and finish before dark unless it’s a 140.6 and then it’s get done before the change of seasons!”

Craig: Jim, thank you for all you and Dawn do for the TCSD and our community. We appreciate that you shared your story. Your Kindergarten kids, the TCSD and everyone you interact with is better for having known you. Good luck in 2013!

Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or

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