Athlete Profile – Jeff Mitchell

Jeff Mitchell

If you happened to be at the latest C26 Run Retreat, you would find Jeff Mitchell, C26 coached athlete, attacking the hills of Nunnelly, Tennessee. For those of you that were not able to make it to this amazing gathering of like-minded people (sorry to rub it in…) let me fill you in on this kind and reserved guy that was there and eating those hills for breakfast!

I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to sit down with Jeff and dive into his life and journey in triathlon. He is a great example of “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Because even though when I met him he was fit as a fiddle and ready to run, I would have never guessed he came from a place of losing well over 100 pounds and having to make some major decisions that would affect not only his life as an athlete, but his life as a husband, father, and engineer . . . Did I mention this guy is also crazy smart?!

Jeff’s journey in endurance sports started much earlier than a lot of us. At the young age of 14 years old, Jeff gravitated toward cycling, describing that choice coming from a place of being a smaller kid who was not quite built for traditional sports like football, and the allure of cycling after watching the Tour de France on tv as a kid. Although Jeff says he “got creamed” his very first time racing bikes, he also received some words of wisdom from another racer who took pity on him, telling him he actually needed to train for these things! Well, train he did and coming from a family of cyclists, including his Dad and two brothers, Jeff found himself advancing to the point of being part of an elite cycling team and having a decent amount of success in a very competitive sport.

“I accomplished a lot of good stuff, but at the same time, I was killing myself.”

Jeff Mitchell
Jeff Mitchell

Jeff trained solidly up to his mid 30’s in cycling alone. During this time he was also attending Auburn University, honing in on a career in aerospace engineering. After graduating from college in ’91, Jeff found himself starting out with a great job that provided him quick security clearance in the defense industry along with contract jobs that not only afforded him the ability to travel all over for work, but also to race his bike in many different places. For the next 10-12 years Jeff, alongside his brothers who also raced competitively, trained mainly out Colorado and bounced from team to team of elite cyclists.

In 1999, after getting tired of moving around, Jeff settled down in his home state of Alabama, leaving the defense industry that was coming apart at the time, and throwing himself into a new career in software engineering. While working at a software company, Jeff met and eventually married his now-wife, Tiya, and together had a daughter, Zoe. Jeff describes this time in his life as when he first got burnt out on cycling. The problem that occurred next, was that all the time and energy he once put into his career as a cyclist in addition to work and family man, was now completely being poured into this new career, throwing his life very much out of balance.

Jeff Mitchell

While Jeff was living and breathing work…80, 90, 100 hour weeks…he was also gaining a significant amount of weight. Jeff may have been receiving a lot of accolades for the work he was doing and getting patted on the back for getting it done and putting these excruciating hours in, but looking back at it now Jeff says, “I accomplished a lot of good stuff, but at the same time, I was killing myself.”

Once he decided to leave his job and branch into creating his own software company, is also when his stress peaked. Diagnosed with a thyroid disorder, Jeff found himself in the waiting room of his endocrinologist’s office on the phone with his business partner. He was frantically instructing him on how to fix something for a demo (that he had been up all night working on) when he was, of course at the worst moment, called back to see the doctor.

Jeff Mitchell

Jeff had now reached 280 pounds and at 5’4” was considered obese. Back in the exam room, Jeff’s blood pressure was through the roof. The Dr. laid him back on the exam table and told him if they can’t get his blood pressure down, he would have to be admitted to the hospital.

This was a rock bottom moment for Jeff as his Dr. said, “I have watched you over the last 6 years go from elite athlete to whatever the opposite of elite athlete is, and you’re literally not going to be here in 5 years if you keep this up.” The thought of not being around for his daughter was more than Jeff could take.

Jeff left that business partnership and took on a new job as a straight software developer for a west coast company that was incredibly relaxed and stressed the importance of the work-life balance. With work stress in a drastic decline, Jeff decided it was time to get back in the saddle (literally).

Jeff had two bikes he essentially put together as one in order to have enough gears to make it up hills at his current weight. This return to cycling had nothing to do racing and everything to do with saving his life.

Even with a fair amount of embarrassment surrounding the situation, Jeff kept chipping away at the weight loss and eventually began feeling as though he was gaining a bit of fitness. His next stop? The pool.

If an effort to not stress his body too much on the bike and with hopes of increasing his VO2 max, Jeff decided to hit the pool despite nothing but uncomfortable memories of swimming. Afraid to enter the deep end, he would not go as far to swim the full length of the pool. Instead, he would swim halfway down, and turn right back around, swimming half laps so to speak. This was all taking place at Jeff’s local YMCA that was no stranger to some pretty decent (and Kona qualifying) triathletes who looked on horrified as Jeff came back time after time to try to swim. These triathletes eventually became (and currently still are) friends of Jeff.

This is when Jeff came across an ad for a very short sprint triathlon, and a reverse triathlon at that, outlined by a couple of miles of running, about 10 miles on the bike, and concluding with a short pool swim at the aquatic center. So, Jeff tried to run, saying, “Boy, did it hurt!” He started with running 100 yards and walking 100 yards until he was able to do 2 miles of continuous running. Then, after doing his own 10-mile time trial on the bike, Jeff thought to himself, “I just might be able to do this.”

“I had done pretty serious damage to my body… I was constantly up against that ‘repair and damage’ and it was a struggle all the way.”

Jeff Mitchell

Jeff had lost about 20-30 pounds already, and got out there and completed his first sprint triathlon in a tiny town where nobody knew him. He saw triathletes of every shape and size and that was something that was encouraging for him to see.

Jeff loved the experience of it and proceeded on to get a swim coach, also a C26 coached athlete, whom he would work with for the next 4 years. Jeff may not have been at the same place in terms of fitness as he once was, but he already knew the training side of things and thought he could just cut his once 30-35 hours per week cycling training in half and be just fine. Luckily, Jeff had a new coach to tell him that what he was currently doing was not sustainable. He would have to dial it way back and gradually build back up. Jeff didn’t waste any time setting himself some big goals. His first goal was to complete Augusta 70.3 within a year, and then the following year do his first full Ironman. This race plan is exactly what he did, but the damage that he had done, and was currently doing to do his body (even though it was through training and losing a ton of weight, it was still damage), didn’t necessarily make this the healthiest choice as he reflects on it now, saying, “I was constantly up against that ‘repair and damage’, and it was a struggle all the way.”

As you can imagine, the weight was coming off fast with all the training, but losing that much weight so rapidly, while also trying to build your body up and make it stronger, can be a double-edged sword. It was a lot of stress on a body that Jeff felt had already endured quite a bit of damage. Jeff explains that he was really having to push his body in two different directions, but none the less toed the line at Augusta 70.3 weighing in at 138 pounds. Yes you read that right…Jeff lost roughly 140 pounds, but… that came with a toll.

Jeff Mitchell

“I have watched you over the last 6 years go from elite athlete to whatever the opposite of elite athlete is, and you’re literally not going to be here in 5 years if you keep this up.”

Jeff’s doctor
Jeff Mitchell and family

Jeff was starting to break down and things were kind of collapsing around him physically. With the increased training, Jeff started dealing with some injuries requiring physical therapy. He made it through the run of Augusta 70.3, but not without some serious pain, and came in around 7 1/2 hours. Jeff eventually had some success with strength work and getting his injuries under control. Things came together in 2017 and Jeff finished Ironman Chattanooga in around 13 hours. Jeff moved into 2018 with a focus on getting faster and set his sights on Ironman Lake Placid in 2019.

Jeff reached out to C26’s Coach Robbie after feeling like he had gone backward a bit at Ironman Lake Placid. Jeff had always fallen back on his cycling, but he let that fitness go somewhat and began pushing it on the run training. At this point, he felt like he needed someone who had his back and after being introduced to the crushing iron podcast and listening to it for quite some time, Jeff felt confident that Robbie was going to provide some solutions to the problems he was encountering as an aging athlete trying to come back after some major physical and mental changes.

It had now become a time for Jeff to leave what he had done in cycling behind, and to see what he can do now, saying, “It’s really almost like starting over again. I turned 50 last year and it has taken me a while, but I’ve kind of let the old stuff go and looked at cycling again like, let’s see what I can do now.” He had rekindled his love of cycling and more specifically mountain biking, which has also led him back to a lot of fun banter between him, his brothers, and father. They are also racing again together after 15 years, hoping to qualify for the Leadville 100.

Something that can be appreciated about Jeff’s story is that even though he was very successful in losing the weight that was essentially killing him, he also stresses the fact that the way he did it was not necessarily safe. Jeff actually, recommends not doing it the way he did. Looking back he acknowledges that there are ways of achieving the same thing, but not necessarily by the more extreme means by which he did. There is no one recipe to get something done, which can be frustrating to those looking to accomplish the same end goal, whether it be losing weight or getting faster.

“It’s really almost like starting over again. I turned 50 last year and It has taken me a while, but I’ve kind of let the old stuff go and looked at cycling again like, let’s see what I can do now.”

Jeff Mitchell

When Jeff sets his mind on something, that’s it. That approach to training, weight loss and his history in endurance sports gave him the ability to simply suffer more, as being uncomfortable was nothing new for him. The theme, however, remains the same. That is to try to do something a little bit each day to make yourself healthier. He had set a goal that every year, he was going to get a little bit stronger until he can simply hang on to what he’s got for as many years as he can.

One of the biggest lessons, I feel, we can take from Jeff’s story is that a healthy balance in life is essential to our well being. When we get too caught up in one area of life, everything else begins to crumble and before you know it, you are in your Dr.’s office fighting for your life. Even though this destructive path happened over a period of 4 years, Jeff still looks back wondering how he let that happen, and it always boils back down to this “balance thing.”

Now, Jeff is all about getting out there, having fun, and learning more every year. Jeff’s simplicity in his overall goals is what keeps him going. Holding himself to the past is not something he is interested in doing anymore, and he looks forward to the challenges his training brings each week, whether or not he has a race on the schedule. “Every day we get to wake up and train is really a gift,” says Jeff, and being present for his wife and daughter in a healthy way creates a respect for what he is doing that benefits the whole family. His daughter is learning that there is a process to go through to get to where you want to go . . . and as a father, what a great lesson to be able to pass on.

“Every day we get to wake up and train is really a gift.”

Jeff Mitchell

Lindsay Schweiss is a contributing writer for C26 Triathlon.

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