Brian Johnston has made a career out of keeping athletes tuned up for success. In his spare time, he’s been doing a little tuning up on himself.
Johnston, East Tennessee State’s assistant athletic director for sports medicine and the clinical director for Buc Sports, will compete in the Lake Placid Ironman Triathlon on July 24. In an extreme test of fitness and will, the 37-year-old Johnston will swim 2.4 miles, bicycle 112 miles and then run a complete marathon, 26.2 miles.
“I’ve kind of made a three-year plan to get to this point,” Johnston said. “It’s been challenging.”
Training has included 20-mile runs at 4 a.m., bike rides to Knoxville and through the North Carolina mountains, and swims in hotel pools while on the road with the ETSU baseball team.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Johnston, who has run five marathons. “I’m ready for it to be over. I’m already nervous.”
Johnston has competed in triathlons of shorter distances in an effort to work up to the big one in upstate New York. First was an “Olympic distance” event in Chattanooga, where he swam .93 miles, biked 24.8 and ran 6.2. Then came a half-distance triathlon in Lenoir City, where he swam 1.2 miles, biked 56 and ran 13.1.
“I stepped up each year,” he said. “I feel much worse after running a marathon than I do after a triathlon. I guess it breaks it up. Just running pounds your legs pretty hard. You use different muscles in the triathlon, so it’s a little easier.”
Of course, “a little easier” is a relative term.
“The Ironman ends at midnight on Sunday and I imagine I’ll be pretty wiped out on Monday,” he said. “But I should be OK on Tuesday.”
Lake Placid was the site of the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice.” The transition areas and start-finish line in the Ironman will be on the speed-skating oval where Eric Heiden won five gold medals in 1980.
“They do it right,” Johnston said. “The Lake Placid community really gets behind it. Everybody talks about the people standing and cheering you on. The marathon course criss-crosses downtown four times. You never get so far out that people can’t cheer for you.
“When people are cheering for you, it’s a lot easier to keep going. It’s a lot different when nobody is around. You can get lonely really fast.”
Johnston has been working on his nutrition in preparation for the event.
“Typically in a marathon, I’ll burn over 5,000 calories,” he said. “For the Ironman, I’m guessing I’ll be eating anywhere from 15,000-20,000 calories that day. The secret there is to replenish what you’re losing.”
In one of his earlier races, Johnston passed a volunteer who was eating pizza. He half-kiddingly asked the volunteer to save a piece for him. On his final lap, the volunteer, a Boy Scout, handed him a slice.
“It was a good,” Johnston said. “People eat weird things. I’ve read stories about people eating roast beef sandwiches, peanut butter sandwiches. You do most of the solid-food eating while you’re on the bike.”
Once he gets past the swim and bike portions of the race, Johnston says he’ll be ready to tackle the grueling prospects of running more than 26 miles to complete the task.
“It’s been pretty consistent in all my marathons ... my calves are ready to go,” he said. “At that point, it’s all between your ears. You’ve got to keep going, have to get to the next mile marker or next aid station. If you stop, it’s very hard to get going again.”
The way Johnston figures, he doesn’t have any time to stop. But he won’t be in too much of a hurry, either. Merely finishing the most intense athletic endeavor of his life will bring complete satisfaction.
“I have no goals for time,” he said. “I just want to finish. You have 17 hours. If you finish in that time, you get your medal. If you finish in 17:02, you don’t get anything. You’re only racing yourself.”