Most of us aspire to some level of professional success. But for Tommy Johnson, achieving career-oriented goals was an all-consuming way of life – one that got in the way of his health for several years.
Once an avid cyclist, Johnson, 46, had stayed in shape during his 20s and 30s by logging as many as 4,000 miles on his bike every year. But by the time he hit 40, he was hardly riding at all: Instead, he was climbing the corporate ladder as a senior account manager with a Houston-based oil-field-services company.
In 2000, the company transferred Johnson to Scotland, where he lived with his wife, Michele, when he wasn’t traveling. His work regularly took him all around Europe, as well as to North and West Africa – sometimes for up to a month at a time. When he was back in Scotland, he worked long hours at the office and spent evenings and weekends studying for his MBA, a “personal goal” he pursued at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.
Though he ate a relatively healthy diet of fruits, veggies and whole grains, he seldom found time for physical activity. So by the time he completed his MBA in June 2004, two years after returning to the States, Johnson had packed an extra 20 pounds onto his 5-foot 7-inch frame. At 165 pounds, he got winded after climbing a couple of flights of stairs.
“I didn’t like the way I felt,” he says. “I wanted my energy back.” So he decided to get into shape.
Johnson, who now lives in Dallas, knew he needed a fitness challenge and a clear fitness goal to get motivated, so when he stumbled upon some information about triathlon, he decided to follow up. He did some research and discovered www.beginnertriathlete.com, an online resource for triathletes of all abilities.
“I hadn’t realized that regular people did triathlons,” he says. “But after I did some digging, I thought, ‘I can do this.'”
True to form, Johnson promptly set a goal: to complete an Olympic-distance triathlon (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run) in May 2005. First, though, he had to get back into shape and begin sport-specific training.
These were no easy tasks. Johnson hadn’t swum since high school, and he’d never been a runner. “The first time I went running, I ran 100 yards and stopped,” he remembers. “I’d walk, and then I’d run another 100 yards.”
Johnson quickly realized he wouldn’t be able to go all out in every workout like he had as a cyclist years before. It also dawned on him that it was going to take a lot of training to get to the starting line of his first triathlon.
So with the help of workout information he found online, Johnson started slowly – training three days a week and focusing on one sport each day (though he typically cycled more often). After about four months, he was able to consistently run or swim for more than 20 minutes. A couple of months later, he had progressed to three workouts in each sport every week.
Johnson says he occasionally wondered whether he was training properly and sometimes grew impatient with how long it was taking to see fitness improvements, but his commitment never wavered. With so many online resources at his fingertips, he had access to information about training techniques such as periodization and heart-rate training, and he was able to read about how other people had overcome similar struggles.
His triathlon “studying,” his wife, Michele, notes, seemed to have replaced his MBA studying.
He also grew savvier about nutrition. He began reading product labels, cut refined sugars from his diet, and continued to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, which helped fuel his workouts.
Within a year, Johnson trimmed his weight to 143 pounds and dropped his body fat from 21 to 14 percent.
In April 2005, a month before his goal race, Johnson entered a sprint triathlon to test his fitness level – and finished with energy to spare.
The Olympic-distance event a month later proved a bit more challenging: “The run almost killed me,” he recalls.
Johnson crossed the finish line “pretty wiped out,” but loved the feeling of accomplishment. A few days later, he signed up for a half-Ironman (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run) in July.
“My only goal was to finish,” he says, though he admits he had dreams of completing the course in six hours. “I was pretty sure that I could finish, as long as I didn’t break a leg or something. But I was definitely nervous.”
Despite an anxiety attack that forced him to float on his back during the open-water swim, and a half-marathon that truly tested his endurance, Johnson finished the race in 6:03.
Bit by the Bug
By the end of the 2005 season, Johnson was hooked on triathlon, already pondering the classic triathlon challenge: the Ironman’s 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.
“When I started all this, I thought there was no way I could ever do an Ironman,” he says. “But the more I read about it, the more I thought I could probably do it. The biking I knew I could handle. I just couldn’t fathom what it would take to run 26.2 miles.” Still, he signed up for the Ironman Florida 2006 and immediately set about preparing for the challenge.
“His motivation and dedication set him apart from other masters swimmers,” says Kristen Warner, Johnson’s swim coach at the North Dallas Life Time Fitness where he trained. “Even if the times I set are fast with no rest, he still pursues them with the greatest conviction.”
It was no surprise, then, that on Ironman race day, Johnson finished in 11:52 – well ahead of his goal of 12:30. “I saw him running down the street ahead of schedule,” Michele recalls, “and I said, ‘You look great,’ and he said, ‘I feel great!’ I was so tickled.”
So was Johnson: “It was an unbelievable experience.”
These days, Johnson spends his early-morning hours running and cycling. In his spare time, he fine-tunes his training plans, mentors other triathletes and keeps up with his daily core-strength routines. He saves his nights for swimming and spending time with his wife.
“He’s so dedicated,” Michele says. “Every now and then I have to remind him not to go overboard.”
In addition to two half-Ironman races this season, Johnson is gearing up for the Redman Triathlon, an Ironman-distance event in Oklahoma City in September.
Regardless of his results, Johnson says he’s found a lifetime passion. “I look at it as a lifestyle,” he says. “It’s not just something to do on the weekends or only in the summer. It’s a life value: Swim, bike, run, eat, sleep, repeat. Hopefully, I’ll be doing that until I’m 80.”