by Kat Hunter
John Trowbridge—or “JT,” as most call him—makes me feel nostalgic for an Austin I never knew. When he started competing in triathlons in the early nineties, Austin’s population was roughly half its current size, you could bike on quiet roads that are now busy freeways, and there was essentially one core training group of triathletes. Among the endurance set, JT says he knew everyone, and everyone knew him.
When JT left Austin to work out of state in 1998, Austin was already growing by leaps and bounds. He discovered even more change when he moved back in 2005. The tri scene had exploded along with the population, with a variety of different, smaller training groups and new faces. Two familiar individuals, however, were now the owners of Austin Tri-Cyclist.
“I knew Donny and Missy before they were Donny and Missy,” JT told me, by way of explaining how long he’d been associated with ATC. He was a participant in the University of Texas study in which the Ruthvens first met. (Missy was a nurse helping to conduct the study on increased blood volume in trained athletes, and Don and JT were among her subjects.) Early on, JT says, the shop was a kind of second home.
I start to do the math—if JT’s first triathlon was in 1993 or 1994 and he’s still competing in 2015, that’s 22 years of racing. Doesn’t he get tired of it, I ask? Has he ever taken an extended break?
JT laughs. He and his wife, Kay, have two girls (twins) about to turn 18 next month, and a son, now 16. Training was very limited for a while, JT says, and he fit in what he could. He reverted to time-efficient, just-stay-in-shape workouts when his kids were young. He never gave it up entirely, however.
“I’m a bit of a hyperactive person,” he says. “When I exercise, I enjoy the endorphins. I enjoy the sensation.” He says he finds he’s more focused when he exercises and sleeps and eats better.
This I understand: for a certain type of person, physical activity is a necessity; without it, we’re packing a picnic lunch for the looney bin. But as a mother and an athlete, I’m always interested in how other parents make it work. How does one strike a balance between the self-interested, absentee workout junky and the obsessively doting, 30-lbs.-overweight couch potato? JT’s philosophy on family life runs between the lines of our whole conversation, something that stands out to me but that JT clearly takes for granted: the kids come first.
Though his kids are older and he’s on the cusp of being an empty nester, JT still limits his workouts to an hour or less, and does most of his training on weekdays. JT works for Austin Energy as an engineer, in an office located about 50 feet from ATC. Commuting by bike from work to home, he rides 26 miles round trip rain or shine (with the exception of lightning) nearly every day of the year. This, he admits, is 99 percent of his saddle time. He bikes to work, runs at lunch, and swims in the mornings. His daughter Kaitlyn wanted to become a soccer referee, so he got his certification as well and for the past five years has been refereeing club soccer games at three Austin-area facilities.
Because his training time is short, JT keeps his races short: typically sprint- or Olympic-distance tris. That’s also simply what he prefers. “I like the speed,” he says. “I like the intensity.” He often signs up for the open/elite wave; after racing for so many years, he says he has no problem entering a wave in which he has no chance of going home with “hardware.”
At his first race, the New Braunfels Tri, JT was one of the first out of the water. He’d been a swimmer growing up in California and had long been a runner for fun; biking was new. On the bike he was drifting back like a rocket. Not knowing any better, he pulled in behind another competitor, and a race moto drove by. He remembers the official looking at him very suspiciously. JT didn’t know that you weren’t allowed to draft.
“I got penalized in my first triathlon,” he says, “and I went from being like top three out of the water to middle of the pack, or middle of the back of the pack.”
Since that somewhat inauspicious start, he’s won or podiumed at many races and was on the cover of Runner Triathlete News in 1997. One goal JT set for himself recently was winning a race overall post 50th birthday—he accomplished that in July at the Tri for Old Glory Olympic-distance race in San Marcos. Adding a touch of modesty, he says a win really just depends on who shows up at an event in a given year, and you never know who that’s going to be.
When his kids leave home, JT wants to focus more on training and see what he can do at the Olympic-distance national championships in his age group (currently 50-54). He says he’s often asked whether he’ll set his sights on something longer, maybe a half Ironman or Ironman, but his answer is always no. “I did my last marathon in 2006, and I really prefer to get up in the morning and be functional as opposed to just beating yourself into the ground like that,” he says.
Maybe only other athletes will understand what two decades of elite-level competition in a sport means, and maybe only the parents among them will appreciate the difficulty of balancing race fitness with family and a full-time job. I don’t think JT does it for the applause, though. During my interview with him, he refers to triathlon as a “bug” and a compulsion and an obsession, but again, between the lines, I can read the truth: it’s love, in all its complexity and its equal measures of pain and joy.