When the mercury plunges below zero in January, seasoned South Dakota triathletes know that during this time, when everything else creeps to a standstill, they must begin moving. They must find their plan, scratch out their races on the calendar, and start training.
Ironically, South Dakota’s own champion triathlete, Greg Taylor, found his beginning in triathlon during such cold snaps.
Taylor, a Yankton resident, topped the podium for his age group in four major races in 2014: Ironman Boulder in early August, the USAT age-group championships a week later, Ironman 70.3 World Championship, and Ironman World Championship.
It’s hard to believe that for Taylor triathlon began as just a way to train in the off season.
Nordic ski racing actually captured Taylor’s attention and heart before he ever donned a bike helmet or dipped his toes in the water. Triathlon, according to Taylor, was a secondary event to stay in shape during the offseason.
One great triathlon win paired with one disappointing ski race was all Taylor needed to make a decision that changed his personal history and the history of triathlon as a whole. In his early 30s Taylor competed in a nordic ski race where he began the race in second place and then dwindled on the latter half. The results of that race, and seemingly most races, depended on the unscientific process of ski waxing. Taylor likens the frustration to if a triathlete would have three different sets of tires to use, and the decision to use them was hoping that the one picked would work the best. Unlike the simple luck that nordic racing requires for success, in triathlon hard work means success for the most part. The formula is pretty simple.
Shortly after that ski race, Taylor had a good friend who challenged him to compete in The World’s Toughest Triathlon. With minimal training, Taylor finished high enough to earn a spot at Kona, the Ironman World Championship. With a cache of knowledge about the endurance training required for nordic ski racing, Taylor began to train for the big race. Having no prior experience other than World’s Toughest Tri, Taylor finished sixth in his age group by seconds.
And the seed for triathlon was planted.
Since that time, Taylor has qualified for a total of 25 Ironman World Championships, giving him many trips to experience the big island in Hawaii. He has competed in dozens of other triathlons, always with Kona in the back of his head for the year.
Success obviously breeds enjoyment. Had Taylor not succeeded so quickly, one would wonder if he would have continued in the sport. However, with such a strong work ethic, Taylor quickly noted one of his favorite things about the sport: “it felt like the result was a direct correlation to your effort,” he states. Basically, if a person is willing to work hard, according to Taylor, he can achieve just about anything. He has to understand the sacrifice involved and be willing to make that sacrifice to meet his goals. And if he can do that–understand the sacrifice and work hard–he’ll meet them.
Like many triathletes, Taylor also cites the triathlon community as his favorite part of the sport. Because of his success, Taylor has had the opportunity to mentor different individuals, helping three in particular make their way to the same island that holds such allure for him. A trio of athletes have qualified for Kona under Taylor’s wing. Furthermore, he’s had the opportunity to inspire countless other young athletes, two of which ended up going back to school and furthering their careers outside of triathlon because of him. But more than that, Taylor recognizes that spending time with people, training with them and sweating with them, creates a bond and forges friendships different than other activities. And while he notes that this type of bond is not unique to triathlon, he does recognize the uniqueness of triathletes. “This sport just attracts a special kind of people,” he states.
Taylor has racked up some big and little awards in his tenure in the sport. While his performances make him stand out on paper, his personality makes him stand out in person. After all, he has the perspective and wisdom that comes from endurance racing for a couple of decades. He oozes philosophy and wisdom, much of which he has gained from his most challenging and memorable races.
The World Championship in 1995, for example, stands out as one of his most memorable experiences. Winds gusted that year and literally lifted cyclists and their rides off the road. Taylor remembers a good swim and then a challenging ride. He talks in vivid details, as if the race just occurred last week. He recalls a “tiny tailwind” for the first 45-50 minutes and then mean gusts that met the riders head on. “It was blowing dogs off chains,” he states. And while he thought he was moving forward and making some progress, he recalls people passing him in droves. At one point in the race he could see three-quarters of a mile ahead, and all he saw was a line of riders.
Little causes more frustration to a champ than seeing droves of people ahead of you. “I was thoroughly demoralized,” he recalls.
In fact, Taylor remembers watching the pavement go by under the bike as he pedaled and ground his way against the wind, and then thinking that the pavement passed by more quickly when he ran than when fighting these island gales.
Forty-five minutes of mental anguish followed, and then something magically changed. Taylor cannot describe this something, but like with all big, long races, the low passed and a high began that lasted the rest of the race. “For the next six hours,” he states, “it was effortless.”
Taylor went on to run a three-hour marathon. He ended the race 32nd overall (that includes professional triathletes) . He surged to the finish line, collapsed with exhaustion, and then immediately popped up before medical personnel could cart him off. “I was high for two weeks,” he states. Taylor cites no fatigue, no soreness, but just pure elation after that race.
And he has yet to replicate the experience.
At age 60, Taylor has nothing but good things to look forward to in triathlon. He has automatically qualified for Kona again with his age-group win there this past October. Now he has to decide if he wants to go back a 26th time.
What does a champ do in his off season when he’s on the fence? Not what every other 60-year-old does. He goes to the gym, faithfully, and pumps iron. Taylor has spent the last eight weeks strength training, and in short, feeling great as a result.
Who knows where the future will lead Taylor. We just know this: we’ll continue to keep tabs on him. After all, it’s kind of fun to see the “old guy” sprinting up and past the young bucks. Best of luck, Greg Taylor.