Simon ‘Snowy’ Johnson is a well-known Melbourne triathlete who is one of the most talented, nicest and most positive athletes on the triathlon scene. He has competed at the Holy Grail of long course triathlon, the Ironman World Championships three times, a feat most triathletes can only dream of. He has an innate ability to maintain balance while achieving his triathlon goals, and effortlessly juggles training with work – he is responsible for brand co-operations and sponsorship at Mercedes-Benz Australia – and regular catch-ups with those important to him. Describing himself as a “big kid at heart”, he loves chocolate milk, the beach, apple crumble with vanilla ice cream, and playing with his new dog, Frankie. Be inspired by his positivity and athletic success, and find out how he maintains longevity in the sport.
On life before triathlon
I have always been an energy bean! From a young age, I always had a sport on the go – cricket, hockey, football, basketball, and roller-blading (laughs)! Before triathlon days I was right into the gym as well – my ‘beach bod’ has since left me (laughs). As a younster I loved being outdoors, and that has continued into adulthood.
On his introduction to triathlon
My first foray into the sport was the Corporate Triathlon in 1999, 17 years ago. My boss, Danielle was right into the sport and knowing I loved fitness, she encouraged me to have a go. It quickly became a passion.
On his progression in triathlon
I took time progressing through the distances – Sprint, the Olympic Distance circuit for a few seasons, off-road races and Duathlons. I did my first half iron distance event in Shepparton in 2003 and then Ironman Australia in Forster-Tuncurry [now held in Port Macquarie] in 2004, powered by bananas and water. I was so happy to finish and view the race photos in the Kodak shop window the next day.
Despite growing up glued to watching the Hawaiian Ironman on Wide World of Sports, initially, it had not entered my mind. I was a long way off the required times and had little idea of training and racing at that level. After Forster in 2004, I didn’t do another Ironman for seven years when a best friend qualified for Hawaii 2011 [the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii] at Busso [Ironman Western Australia] at the end of 2010.
I become desperate to do the same and to join him on the Big Island, so trained hard for Ironman Korea – one of the last qualifying races if I was going to be able to join him that year . Race day at Korea was a killer hot day, which suited me – I raced well and got my spot.
On the Big Island experience and competing at the Ironman World Championships
The Ironman World Championships have a unique aura and so much nostalgia. The opportunity to race across the storied lava fields, essentially the birthplace of our sport, alongside San Diego, is a privilege. There are so many iconic parts of the course – ‘Dig Me Beach’, the Queen K, Alii drive, the Energy Lab, Pay ‘n’ Save Hill, each has its own war stories, each has played a part in history.
Both my first [in 2011] and most recent [in 2016] races have been memorable and enjoyable. In 2011 the bike course was noticeably quieter, with a smaller field. The swim in that first year was a lot tougher and rougher – lots of smacks to the head. I think you do get smarter at positioning and racing Kona with the benefit of experience. As much as I soaked it up that first year, ensuring I took in the helicopters overhead and huge crowds lining the coast at swim start – I appreciated being a part of the race more in 2016. I was probably more aware and didn’t take it for granted that I’ll get another opportunity to turn up healthy and race there – for whatever reason, you just never know when your last Ironman will be.
Regarding rsults – my 2016 time was just one minute quicker than 2011. I was a smidge disappointed with my run as I felt I’d prepped and was in shape to be 10-15 minutes quicker. But to be pretty much on par five years later and after a fairly big operation 18 months earlier (I had part of my external iliac artery removed which was restricting blood flow to my leg), I was happy.
“Know things will go wrong at some point, but just be calm and smart about getting back on track.”- Simon Johnson
On qualifying for Kona
Each qualification has been different. I chose Korea in 2011 because it was considered hard from a conditions perspective, and it’s an effort to travel there. I hoped that would scare a lot of people off or they just wouldn’t prepare as well as me for the climate. I thought this would give me a good chance of qualifying. It worked! At Ironman Melbourne in 2013, I turned up fit and confident and had a great day. It was an incredible feeling crossing the finish line – my favourite to-date. At Ironman South Africa last year , I had worked hard in the lead-up but was unsure how I’d go off the back of limited running after a small tear in my calf seven weeks out from the event. My main aim for doing the race was to have an experience with the friends I was travelling with. I didn’t expect to qualify, so it was a bonus!
If you want to qualify for Hawaii, choose a race that plays to your strengths. Then make sure you have enough time to get strong to achieve a time that is in the ballpark of past qualifying times. For me, a 16-week build is a minimum I like to work with.
If you work fulltime, planning is essential. If you’re serious about wanting to qualify, make the sacrifices to do that. This might mean missing some social occasions, planning your work hours around your training as much as possible. Be a little bit selfish with your time for a period. Prioritise staying healthy and squeeze in enough sleep and recovery. Work with a coach and training schedule that suit your lifestyle and personality – this will also keep you from overdoing it.
On racing well in Kona
As well as turning up fit and healthy, my tips for Hawaii are:
- Prepare for the climate in the lead-up Alter race pace and nutrition/hydration to suit the day, as needed
- Soak up what is a pretty rare opportunity
There are harder Ironman courses by terrain, but where many come unstuck in Hawaii is the heat and humidity. Coming from winter, it’s important to prepare and get the body used to exercising under heat stress. For me, I do this by gradually adding heat training from about a month out. You can do this easily on an indoor trainer or treadmill session or with extra clothes on your long runs.
Pacing and nutrition are important. Have a plan but be flexible based on how your body’s managing on the day. Know things will go wrong at some point, but just be calm and smart about getting back on track.
Try to keep your core temperature down as much as possible – pour water on your body regularly throughout the ride and run. The matchbox analogy is a good one: you want to avoid spiking your effort and heart. It makes a big difference in the backend of the run. The hotter and more humid it gets, the bigger the blow-up potential.
On motivation and maintaining longevity in the sport
Exercise is a big part of my life. I just love it and the feeling of being fit and healthy, and the experiences it affords. I also love challenging myself. Keeping it fun is key to me. Having goals and progression is essential, but having a laugh and not taking myself too seriously is also important and one of the keys to my longevity in triathlon.
I think the secret to success in triathlon is dedication, hard work and tenacity. I also believe it’s important to have a certain toughness and a winning attitude. Even the most talented athletes work bloody hard!
Maintaining a balanced approach to triathlon training and racing
Firstly, I frame triathlon in my head as an enabler rather than my purpose – this helps me with balance. Triathlon enables me to push myself, feed my competitive spirit, keep fit, laugh, and enjoy banter and adventures with some pretty great people in amazing places – plus, I get to indulge in more than my share of caffeine! It’s a great social outlet.
That said sometimes I’m anything but balanced. In the lead up to a race I’m focused on, it’s largely all training, work and sleep. I know if I want a result I’ll be proud of that level of dedication is sometimes what it takes. I think that’s true for most things in life.
But I believe you can be committed without being obsessed. While setting, training for, and achieving race goals is incredibly rewarding, life will go on if I fall short. My friends will still be my friends and there is always another race around the corner.
“Know things will go wrong at some point, but just be calm and smart about getting back on track.” – Simon Johnson
Knowing what is important in life, how I’m spending my time and where triathlon fits in keeps the scales from tipping to obsession. I like that saying ‘things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least’. A friend taught me a great litmus test for this. List your roles in life (e.g. son, partner, boss, triathlete, etc.), prioritise them based on importance to you (no right or wrong here), and check how the time you’re spending on each matches up with your priorities. If time spent on each is vastly unaligned with your priority rating, it highlights that tweaks may be needed.
Friends are one of my top priorities so even in the busiest times in life I’ll always try and find a moment to catch-up with those that matter. I get bored with the sport unless I have breaks from it. I sometimes get sick of talking about it or being near it. I make a conscious effort to have non-triathlon interests and catch up with people who aren’t interested in triathlon – this is refreshing. I think this has allowed me to enjoy the sport over an extended period.’
On staying positive and dealing with disappointment
I’ve had my share of pear shaped days, and times when I’m a morose donkey! But I think in general my racing is consistent because I’m consistent in training. I also surrounded myself with great people and athletes who always push me. I have a happy disposition, but also have a grimace that looks uncannily similar to my smile.
As for disappointments, I try to learn from them and not to dwell on them. Often they motivate me to work harder or smarter. Having perspective is also important – losing someone special in your life, that’s hard. Having a bad race – well that’s not such a big deal. At the end of the day, I’m lucky to have the means and time to do what is essentially a pretty exotic sport.
What’s next for Snowy?
I have a couple of close friends likely to be racing in Kona this year. It would be brilliant to be toeing the line alongside them if they do. Ironman Cairns is probably the best-timed race for me to try and qualify. I’ve heard great things about that course, so that will be the go.
One thing you can’t live without… Coffee!
If not triathlon…
Trail running, surfing, mountain biking.
When not training…
Café with friends, mischief with my new dog Frankie.
A guilty pleasure…
I have minimal self-control around chocolate, choc milk and baked goods from Elwood Patisserie and Bakery.
Bucket list race…
Challenge Roth, Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon, the New York City Marathon, Coast to Coast.
Support crew… Many of the people I’m lucky to train with – Jordy Wright and Bella Luxford are great, along with Damien Angus, Sam Hume, Mitch Anderson, Brett Urwin and Pete Barker. These are world-beaters – professionally and on the age group scene. I admire each of them for different reasons. I’m also really lucky to have the support of Giant Bikes Australia, Giant South Yarra, Mizuno and Aqua Sphere. They make training a lot easier! And finally Julie Tedde, Robert Butcher, Humey’s Hoppers and Lord Racing always keep it fun.