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.
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 1-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.
All along, O’Donnell and Carfrae knew they wanted children. But they also were at the top of their game, with personal goals and sponsorship obligations. And with O’Donnell’s family on the East Coast and Carfrae’s family in her native Australia, it wasn’t as if grandma and grandpa could help out.
Carfrae began to think seriously about having children in 2015, when she arrived in Kona to defend her most recent title. She was sideswiped by a car during one of her final training rides on the big island of Hawaii, and the injuries forced her to drop out on race day. That bitter taste lured her back the next year. She finished second and that was good enough.
“She hugged me,” O’Donnell recalls, “and the first thing she said was, ‘Can we have a baby now?’ Literally the first thing. I was like, ‘Heck yeah!’ I was waiting. We both wanted to start a family, but since it was Rinny that had to hit the pause button her career, it was a decision in her court.”
Pregnancy followed quickly, and there were no complications when Izzy arrived two months before last year’s world championships. O’Donnell competed in the race, finishing in the top 20, and Carfrae was there with their daughter to greet him at the finish line.
Fast-forward a year and Izzy has already seen the world.
She visited her family in Australia for the first time and accompanied O’Donnell and Carfrae to a race in Europe. She’s been all over the U.S., including a recent tuneup in Georgia, where O’Donnell and Carfrae made it a family sweep of a half-Ironman race to show their Kona training was on point.
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.”
Then, across the terminal, they spotted Olympic triathlete Flora Duffy.
“Her jaw just dropped,” O’Donnell says, laughing. “We were like, ‘This could be you, Flora!”
Carfrae always planned to return to Kona, and she began training seriously earlier this year. But the first few days and weeks were tough. She was quite naturally a bit heavier than normal, and some of the fitness she had built up over a decade of racing had disappeared.
Her coach, Siri Lindley, devised a training plan that put her on course to compete Oct. 13, and Carfrae kept hitting every benchmark. And after every tough training session, good or bad, Carfrae knew that Izzy would be waiting for her when she got home.
“The end of the day,” O’Donnell says, “when you’re just really tired, and you want everything to be a little calm, she comes buzzing by and just starts ripping stuff apart.”
“But it’s so fun,” Carfrae adds, “you can’t be upset. She’s so healthy and happy.”
Those quiet nights at home might be where things have changed the most.
“Pre-Izzy, you look at it, ‘What did I do with all my spare time before?'” Carfrae says. “TV is gone. We used to finish training, turn on whatever show and go to bed. Now we finish training, we have dinner, Izzy time and then it’s time to put her to bed. Then it’s kind of like, ‘Time to go to sleep!’
“If I’m lucky,” she says, “I have a few minutes to write a couple emails, get back to a sponsor, but there’s really no extra time. I think recovery has suffered a little bit, but I feel fine.”
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, and that has been reflected in their performances.
O’Donnell won the 70.3 race in Georgia last weekend by more than two minutes, and Carfrae finished the family double when she held off Jeanni Seymour by more than a minute.
Now, they’re off to Kona where two years ago they embraced at the finish line and decided to start a family. And you can bet Izzy will be waiting for them at the finish this year.
“It’s so fun,” Carfrae says. “She’s at all the finish lines, and I mean, most of the race I’m thinking about getting to the finish line so we can see Izzy and hug Izzy, and her face just lights up. She thinks everyone is cheering for her. We’re excited for that moment.”
The Ironman World Championship: http://www.ironman.com