TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I recently sat down and talked triathlon with John Mitchell, the TCSD Beginner Bike Coach. John has a huge heart and he is as good as they come at paying his many blessings forward. John is a great example of how many wonderful people we have in our club. I know you will enjoy getting to know John.
Craig: What sports did you do when you were a kid and young adult?
John: Sports started for me when I was 16 years old and a freshman at Linton High School when I took up TaeKwon-Do, a Korean Martial Art of self-defense. I asked a friend, John Weatherwax who was also a freshman already a black belt to teach me at my home in Schenectady which is in upstate New York. At that time, I was a very shy and introverted kid that was afraid of his own shadow. I was bullied, teased and picked on because of this so I asked John to teach me Taekwon-Do to help give me some self-esteem and confidence. During the same time, I joined the wrestling team for the same reason, plus the high school girls seemed to really be into wrestlers at that time! I continued to practice Taekwon-Do and wrestle for Linton high School at the same time. I eventually joined Northeast Taekwon-Do, the local martial arts school. Over the years, staying active in both sports gave me the confidence I needed to stand up for myself.
I continued being active in sports through my college years when I was asked to be a member of the Schenectady County Community College track team. I resisted quite a bit because even at an early age I have never been a fan of running, but due to peer pressure from friends already on the team I succumbed and became a member to the team. What I didn’t know was that the team was so small that I would be participating in 4 events in every track meet. I did the 100-yard dash, the 400-yard dash, the 400-yard relay and the long jump. I was not a happy camper! After a few events I said I wanted to quit, but I was told if I quit there would not be enough members to keep it a legitimate team so I stayed, reluctantly!
When I transferred to SUNY (State University New York) New Paltz to continue my 4-year Bachelor’s degree, I became involved in gymnastics and joined the team. I always was very impressed by the combination of grace and strength that gymnasts have and this gave me the opportunity to give gymnastics a try. I only did the floor exercise, but got proficient enough to be able to do round off back handsprings, summersaults, L sits and other movements. I had a lot of fun doing this while at SUNY New Paltz.
While wrestling and gymnastics eventually fell off my radar, I religiously continued to practice Taekwon-Do and obtained the level of black belt. I was so passionate of the sport at the time that all I wanted to do was to own my own martial arts school, but I developed osteo arthritis in my left hip a few years later and had to have 2 total hip replacement surgeries. One in 1997 and the second in 2000. This pretty much ended my martial arts career.
Craig: What led you to move to California?
John: The way I got to California to be living the dream from upstate New York is totally due to my parents. They decided they had enough of the cold and brutal winters of New York and decided to retire to a warmer, more moderate climate. This was back in 1983-1984. They decided on Escondido, California. Me, my brother and one of our best friends Greg Bowler decided to visit my parents about a year later. We were there for about a week or 10 days and my parents took us all over SoCal. I absolutely fell in love and knew before I left to go back to Schenectady that this is where I was meant to be. I told my parents before I left that I would be back and follow them to out here to California. Since I had no significant other, no mortgage and didn’t really care for my job as a manager of a toy/garden store called Toys R Joy (which is no longer in existence) I had nothing holding me back from packing up and joining my parents. I quit my job and joined my parents in Escondido in November 1986. I moved to Mira Mesa in 1990 and have been there ever since. The rest as they say is history.
Craig: What inspired you to start doing triathlons?
John: The way my triathlon career got started was back in 2004 when I was employed at Wawanesa Insurance and a received a call from a friend of mine Rob Hudiburg asking me if I wanted to join him in doing a triathlon. I thought he was nuts because the only thing I knew about triathlons was Kona and I told him “are you crazy? There’s no way we can do something like that”. At the time I was just cycling 10-15 miles with a good friend, Michael Jackson, once a week, going to the gym and jumping rope. I also participated in the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) 56-mile bicycle ride a few times, but that was it. Rob went on to explain that we’d only be doing a sprint distance. I then calmed down and said I would do it with him.
The branch manager and TCSD member, David Fitzgibbons, heard about this and invited me to swim with him and a couple of others one Friday evening after work at La Jolla Cove. David and the other were all Ironman finishers. When we all began to swim, they took off and left me behind as they were good swimmers. Well, my ego said “no way” so I went all out. About a football field away from shore I was done and thought I was going to lose my lunch! I yelled to David several times and he came back for me. I told David I can’t do this and he swam me back to shore. I was so embarrassed, humiliated and mortified. I swore that would not happen the following week. The following Friday I just swam at my own pace, still not knowing how to breathe, but made it to the quarter mile buoy and back under my own power.
Although I love open water swimming it is definitely not my strongest discipline. Probably because I never had any real swimming lessons or supervision starting out. I just went to the Cove and swam. I just figured the best training was swimming in the ocean. WRONG!!! Although I am a better swimmer now because I’ve participated in master’s swims, I still can’t go in the ocean without a wetsuit as I have no buoyancy and I get cold really easy. Everyone tells me I’m too lean at 7% body fat and they say I can take some of their fat!
Craig: How did your first triathlon go?
John: The first sprint triathlon I did was the Solana Beach Triathlon. I was so nervous and downright scared. I kept seeing all these fancy bikes and kits so I was feeling pretty intimidated. This was my very first beach start. I had been swimming at the Cove for several weeks but never faced any real waves. I had no idea you were supposed to swim under the waves instead of going over them. If my Ironman friends told me this, I don’t remember. I was getting thrashed. On the way back into shore, I don’t recall being told to look behind you for waves. I got sucked under a wave and it seemed like forever I was under water and started to panic because I really needed to take a breath. When the wave finally let me come up for air I was totally disorientated and it took me several seconds to even site the shore. Once I got to shore and the transition area, I couldn’t locate my bike, even though there were few bikes left as most everybody already finished the swim. I was literally running up and down the transition area looking for my bike when a volunteer pointed and yelled “is that your bike?” I said “yes” thanked him and got on my bike.
As I was riding on PCH there was a teenager yelling the words “see me twice”. I said to myself “see you twice? Dude, you don’t look that good”. I had no clue that he meant to do 2 loops of PCH. The run was uneventful. Later that night Rob called and said we were both disqualified because we didn’t do 2 loops of the bike course. I was disappointed, but was so excited from the experience. The challenge of doing 3 sports one right after the other just seemed so awesome. Plus, I wanted to redeem and prove to myself that I could do better the next triathlon. From that moment I was hooked and knew that this was the sport I wanted to do.
Craig: Ironman New York City was only offered once, but you did it. What was that experience like?
John: My full first Ironman was Ironman New York City 2012. This was important for me for a few reasons. I was still employed at Wawanesa Insurance at the time and many of my friends there know I was training for this. Also, it was the first full Ironman in New York City, the state where I’m from and it was a goal to finish a full Ironman before age 50 and I would be 51 on August 19th, the Ironman was August 12th. It was hot, muggy, humid weather. Just the type of weather for my body type. I perform better in much warmer weather conditions. I was prepared for the swim as I did a lot of 2-mile swims at La Jolla Cove and did many masters swim workouts. For me the swim went well. The bicycle ride was more challenging than I thought it would be. As soon as we got on the bike, we had to climb a 15% grade for a quarter mile. the rest of the bike ride was on Palisades Pkwy which is kind of like Rancho Santa Fe on steroids. Long rolling hills. No flats areas, either up or down.
The run was brutal, but not because the course was that challenging. First, several hundred run special needs bags were missing from the course including mine so I had to do the rest of the run without my gels and energy bars I had been training with for months. The main reason the run was so brutal was because I heard another athlete say that Mike Reilly would only be allowed to make his famous “you are an Ironman” announcement up to 10:00pm because the Ironman ended in a suburban neighborhood. We had to cross the George Washington bridge back into New York from Palisades Park in New Jersey. We had to climb up the metal stairs all the way to the top, run across the bridge and climb down the other side after about 20 miles of running. I remember looking up and seeing the bridge and saying to myself “no f***king way”!
My brother had flown in from Denver, Colorado to support me and 2 of my best friends were driving down from Schenectady the next day after the triathlon. There was no way I was going to tell them that I did not hear Mike Reilly announce my name because I wasn’t fast enough. I didn’t have any kind of watch so I wasn’t sure how much time I had to get to the finish line so I started to run as much as my body would let me. I started to run more than I walked. I was like a little kid because I kept asking runners “are we there yet?” It paid off in the end because I got to hear Mike Reilly say “John Mitchell, you are an Ironman”.
Craig: Over the years, what have been your favorite races?
John: As far as my favorite triathlons or races that’s easy. Any triathlon or event I do is my favorite. Each means as much to me as the other. I say this because for me, it’s all about seeing my friends, the positiveness, the happiness, joy. It’s so cool to see a friend you haven’t seen in a while and being able to catch up with them. It’s almost like a reunion. It’s about being with hundreds or thousands of likeminded people all committed toward the same goal, to do the best they can. It’s about being able to take selfies, all of us supporting each other, telling each other “you got this”. I’ve participated in events that I really wasn’t that interested in doing simply because for me, it’s not so much about the event as who I get to do the event with. Just being able to experience any event with the people I love makes it all worth while
If we talk about race logistics, my favorite races would be the San Diego International Triathlon and San Diego Tri Classic. I love the downtown, Liberty Station and Point Loma areas to swim, bike and run in. My father’s remains are at the cemetery off Catalina Blvd. Each time I ride San Diego Tri Classic, I go off the bike course to visit him for a few seconds and safely enter back on. This always gives me a surge of energy for the 2nd loop.
There are 2 other events very near and dear to my heart. One is the CAF Best Day in Tri. CAF provides special prosthesis for men, women and children that have lost a limb or limbs so they can participate in sports in whatever form. I have been participating in the CAF tri now for about 12 years now. I love Operation Rebound which is geared toward our brave men and women that have lost a limb/limbs and served in the military. I love being out on the course with the challenged athletes, watching them give their all and being able to say “good job, keep it up”. It truly is the Best Day in Tri.
The other event very near and dear to my heart is the 5K Race for Autism. Both of my children are afflicted with autism and we all participate in the race every year. I have been running in this race every year for the past 15 years and have not missed a single race. When my kids were old enough, I started having them participate with me. My daughter Rene actually trains at the gym for this race and runs in the 5K. My son has no interest in running so I run the 5K with him while he is on his rollerblades. We are a staple/icon of the race. As far as I know, this is the only race that raises money and awareness of autism in San Diego. My dream goal is to have a TCSD team participate and show support for this event one year.
Craig: How did the guy who is not that fond of running find himself starting a running club?
John: While employed at Wawanesa Insurance I started a running club. I know this is kind of strange given the fact that I really don’t care for running at all. It happened because I was running 3-4 miles during lunchtime on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I did this because I knew if I waited until after work to run, I would talk myself out of it by then! One day I heard another employee, Damion Cormier talking to another employee, Curtis Kelly about running outside my office. I walked over and asked if they would run with me and they said yes. At least this way I wouldn’t have to run by myself. After a few weeks, employees started to come to my office asking questions about our runs and if they could join us. Of course, I said yes, “the more the merrier”. As time went on more and more employees joined us at lunchtime, sometimes as many as 15-20.
A couple of months later many of us were involved in a group chat regarding the lunchtime run instead of working, and we decided to form our own club and give it a name. We decided on “The Crew, Run with us or behind us”. Curtis Kelly had the machinery to print the shirts. All we had to do is agree on the type of shirt and buy them. After that, we started participating in races as a group, Carlsbad Half Marathon, La Jolla Half Marathon, AFC Half Marathon, Silver Strand Half Marathon, Tough Mudders.
Also during this time, I sent a proposal to the Wawanesa Marketing department requesting they become an annual sponsor of the 5K Race for Autism. Not only did they agree, I also got them to sponsor the first 50 employees that registered for the race and pay for special Wawanesa team T-shirts separate from the Race for Autism T-shirts. they consistently did this for over 10 years. During this time, I still continued to swim and bicycle and participate in triathlons.
Craig: You are the Beginner Bike Coach for TCSD. What can people expect who show up for those workouts?
John: Earlier this year the Tri Club was looking for volunteers to help out and start beginner classes for those interested in triathlons. I wanted to give back to the sport that has given me so much so I attended the volunteer meeting and agreed to volunteer at the 6:00pm beginner bicycling workouts Wednesday nights at Fiesta Island along with Chip Slack, April Guerieri and Liz (don’t know her last name) since cycling is my strongest discipline. We rate beginning cyclists into 1 of 2 groups, C or D. The C group is for someone that has some knowledge of riding, has ridden in some group rides for 20-30 miles or so. The D group is for someone that virtually has no riding experience whatsoever. Based on the level of experience of the beginner cyclist that shows up and it changes nightly, we have to quickly access their skills and adjust the workout accordingly.
Since I was a cyclist before I stated doing triathlons, my strength is bicycling. That being said, I concentrate on the basics of bike handling skills. I explain that there’s much more to cycling than just getting on a bike and riding. I focus on simple bike maintenance like checking your tire psi (pounds per square inch), your brakes, make sure your seat and handlebars are tight and don’t move. Know and understand basic hand signals and common bicycling terminology. The proper way to clip into your pedals and move forward from a stopped position. How to use your gears, become comfortable with cyclists being within their proximity, reaching for their water bottle without taking their eyes off the road. How to safely make left turns at intersections with a group of cyclists with traffic and become accustomed to and avoiding pavement with potholes and defects. Basically, it’s our job to help prepare D cyclists to prepare for their first triathlon, usually a sprint and the C cyclist to their next level of triathlon whether it be an international triathlon or longer distance.
Craig: What are your favorite benefits of your TCSD membership?
John: My favorite benefit about being a member of TCSD is the monthly meetings at Function Smart. So many show up and I get to see so many happy, smiling faces of so many friends. Plus, they feed us pretty good too! The added benefit as a TCSD member is that Bob Babbitt interviews famous athletes from around the world and we get to do a Q&A with them after the interview is over. If they have a book, they will have a book signing and a photo op. One of the last interviews Bob did was with Mike Reilly. I got a chance to speak with him briefly about Ironman NYC and recalled the 10:00pm cut off time. That was great! And I got a selfie with him!
Craig: What does your family think of you being a triathlete?
John: Many of my friends not involved in triathlons seem to be pretty impressed with me. They seem to think that I train a lot and still have time to work and spend quality time with my family. I tell them that I am nothing special because there are many, many more dedicated and superior triathletes than me out there and not to use me as a standard for that reason. But it is humbling that there are some that see me that way.
My kids just see me as their dad that just does triathlons. Before I leave the house on Saturdays and say “dad’s going on a 80 mile bike ride with friends, I’ll be back later”, their response is just a casual “ok dad, have fun, be safe”. When my daughter Rene introduces me to one of her friends, lots of times she says “this is my dad, he does triathlons all the time!” It’s kind of like being the son or daughter of a celebrity. They don’t see their dad as a celebrity. To them, it’s just their dad.
My mom on the other hand thinks that we are all NUTS!!! I’m not joking, she thinks we are all crazy and doesn’t understand why we do this to our bodies. Last year I took my mom and the kids with me to Big Bear for the weekend for the Tour de Big Bear. As we were walking I saw some of my friends from San Diego who were also there for the event and introduced them to my family. I asked my mom to tell them what she thinks of the sport we do, she told them, “we’re all nuts, we’re all crazy”. She said it while smiling and in a funny way, but she means it. She thinks we’re all crazy nuts for doing this sport. sometimes I wonder if she’s kind of right!
Craig: What have you learned from your kids?
John: Both of my children are afflicted with autism. My daughter Rene has high functioning autism or Asperger’s and my son John is moderately Autistic. In a nutshell, an individual with autism does not have the same filters in regard to their senses as we do. Also, Autism is known as the “the segregated affliction” or “social disorder” because those with autism do not develop emotionally or intellectually at the same rate as individuals that do not have autism. This being the case, many times children with autism are segregated and ostracized from their peers as they grow up. They are even more prone to being made fun of, teased and bullied as my children have been over the years. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to leave work and come to their school or have them come home in tears because their peers made fun of and teased them. In fact, there have been a few times in the past where me and my children have been politely asked to leave social settings because they did not act as typical children. I did not get upset or make a fuss. In those cases, I was happy to leave. I just never associated with “those” individuals again. If you cannot accept my children for who they are, then you do not accept me.
In spite of all the adversities they have faced time and time again, each morning they wake up with a smile on their face ready to face a new day just as if yesterday never happened. No matter how many times they have been teased, made fun of or bullied they never give up. Whenever I train or am in a race and feel like I just want to quit and keep going, I remember my children. If they can keep going and never give up after everything they have faced throughout their lives, I should be able to keep going too. This is what my children continue to teach me each and every day. Each day is a new day and to never give up! Because of their perseverance, my daughter Rene is taking classes at Miramar college and employed part time at Barons Market. The manager always tells me how much he loves her being there and she is one of her best employees. My son John takes piano lessons and has played in several recitals. He also works part time at Soapy Joes car wash. I couldn’t be prouder of my children!
Craig: Who have been the most influential people in your life?
John: I know this might be a cliché, but my father, God rest his soul, would be the most influential person in my life. I choose my father because he has molded a lifelong attitude that helps to make my life drama free. Growing up with my father, he was never an emotional, touchy feely type of man. He was not a hugger and I cannot really recall when he said “I love You”. It was just not his way. Growing up, I thought there was something a little off with our relationship because I would see other fathers being so affectionate with their children. As I grew up and matured, I learned that my father showed his love for us not by his words or emotion, but by his actions, by his deeds. He dropped off and picked up me and my siblings at every sporting and social event. He worked 2 jobs and 12 hours days to provide for us, put food on the table, buy us clothes and take us to theme parks during summer break from school while growing up in upstate New York.
My father was not much for small talk. He meant what he said and said what he meant. I would even say he did not have much use for most people. One of the few times I was having a heart to heart with my father was when I was telling him how upset I was when I found out a person was talking behind my back. I was in my mid 30’s at this time. He looked at me with a puzzled look and I said “What?” My father said “do you respect this person that’s talking about you?” I said “No, he’s not a real friend, I don’t know him that well”. He said “If you don’t respect him then why do you care? What are you getting upset about?”. He then went back to watching TV and said nothing else. This is the lifelong lesson my father taught me. Now I consider it a blessing or silver lining if a person speaks less of me behind my back because you will learn who your real friends are as they will be the ones that will support and come to your defense. Rather than confront a person that speak ill of me, I tend to just keep my distance from people like this and keep my true friends even closer to me.
Craig: What are your future goals in triathlon?
John: My future goals have actually been molded, in part, by my mother. I promised her that no matter what happens after IMAZ 2018 I would never participate in another full Ironman again. I just wanted to be able to say that I am 2-time Ironman finisher. Long story short, I was not able to complete the marathon run. Because of this I am limited to participating in half Ironman distances.
I was pretty disappointed after my lack of performance at IMAZ 2018. I did no training until January 2019. I needed time to look back and reassess myself. From 2016 to 2018 I participated and finished over 40 events. Yet in each event, I only finished. I felt kind of stale. I was not excelling in any of them. It occurred it me that I was racing way more than I was training. So, I decided to give my body and mind a break and did not do any training until 2019. When I did, I only did the discipline I love that keeps me sane, cycling. I decided I needed to start all over from scratch, establish a solid base and build from there. I did not start to swim or run until April this year. It’s a humbling experience to basically start all over again, but I always remember what my children have taught me.
Also, I wanted to give back to the sport that has given me so much, so my goal is to volunteer more which is why I am one of the volunteers at the TCSD Beginner Bicycle workout on Wednesday nights. I also want to volunteer at other races, especially the ones that benefit not-for-profit organizations. This is just my way of trying to pay it forward.
Craig: John, thank you for all you do for our club. Martial arts’ loss is triathlon’s gain. I’m going to give you plenty of personal space just in case you have 1 more flying side kick left in you. You are an awesome father, loyal son and so much more. I wish you the very best!
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.