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Living on the edge -- and bringing the family along for the run

Mickleborough runs

Timothy Mickleborough competing in the Ironman U.K.

Print-Quality Photo

Timothy Mickleborough doesn't come across as a man living on any sort of precipice.

A soft-spoken father of two sons, Mickleborough sounds every bit like an engaged family man. He speaks enthusiastically about his research as an exercise physiologist at Indiana University Bloomington's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (see:

This summer, however, Mickleborough resumed an interest that has taken many an athlete, including himself, to "the edge," a place where a competitive nature and the obsessive-compulsive inclinations common to athletes can wreak social havoc and push them to the point where they have to just stop training and competing. Mickleborough decided to compete in a triathlon.

"I tell my students that as an Ironman athlete, you're very much on the edge, you're on the precipice," Mickleborough said. "If you push it, you'll go over. If you go over, you'll have to take time off."

Triathlons come in different forms, but the four most common range from sprints, which combine a half-mile swim, 13-mile bike ride and 5K run, to Ironman contests, which involve a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon, which is 26.2 miles. In a previous life, Mickleborough was a professional triathlete (he finished 18th overall at the World Ironman Triathlon Championship in Hawaii), but that stopped 12 years ago when the former mining engineer decided to focus on a career in exercise physiology. He decided to "ease" back into the sport by competing in the Ironman U.K., a qualifying contest for the World Championships, and a course considered to be the most difficult cool-weather Ironman in the World.

Mickleborough bikes

Timothy Mickleborough competing in the Ironman U.K.

Print-Quality Photo

"It was a feeler race," said Mickleborough, who has maintained his fitness base over the years by regularly swimming, cycling and running big-city marathons. "I had absolutely no idea what to expect."

Mickleborough finished 118th overall (out of 1,200 triathletes) and seventh in his age group, with an overall time of 10 hours and 47 minutes. He swam and ran very well, swimming his fastest 2.4 miles in an Ironman, but triggered an old injury that hampered his ride. Overall, he was extremely pleased and is working toward qualifying for the 2007 Ironman World Championships at his next Ironman contest in Arizona in April.

"Everything bodes well for Ironman Arizona," he said.

Mickleborough said balance is key to keeping him and other athletes on the right side of "the edge." Training for triathlons, particularly Ironman contests, can be all-consuming. Long weekends prior to a contest, for example, can require a 100-plus bike ride on a Saturday morning followed by a 3,000-yard swim and then a three-hour run on Sunday morning followed by another bike ride in the afternoon. As a professional, he saw the passion (some might call this obsession) to train ruin relationships and sink athletes into what is called overtraining, a condition that causes athletes to lose their competitiveness. Athletes suffering from overtraining feel sluggish and can be depressed and more susceptible to colds and other illnesses because of their suppressed immune system. The harder they train in this condition, the worse it gets, so the only cure is good nutrition and to stop training and competing until it passes.

Mickleborough said he has suffered from overtraining more than once and has no desire to experience it again. He said the support of his wife, Tina, is key to his balancing act. He minimizes the impact of his training on his family by fitting in workouts in the morning or during his workday or by including his kids in his workout.

His whole family is active, with Tina running and the boys enjoying swimming and biking. Mickleborough said his sons, Joel, 11, and Toby, 9, bike along with him on some of his runs.

"They love it, they go bombing ahead and then they wait at intersections for me," he said.

Mickleborough, who has written a monthly Q&A column for Triathlete magazine since 1998, offers some tips for achieving balance:

  • Don't do too much, too soon.
  • Keep everything in perspective -- you are competing in triathlons because they are fun.
  • If you feel tired or unmotivated, take a break until you are either over an injury or motivated again. Mickleborough said it is hard to recognize if you suffer from overtraining unless you have been through it before. Common signs are lack of motivation, lethargy, insomnia, poor performance, irritability and mood swings.
  • Consider working with a coach. Coaching has become more affordable with the growth of online coaches.
  • Think seriously about time management, particularly if you have a family.
  • More on perspective: "The trick is to not become boring around your friends and spouse. There is a life outside of triathlons -- some people aren't interested that you just ran 20 minutes and rode 50 miles."

To learn more about overtraining, follow this link to an item about HPER professor John Raglin's research into the condition: