This month’s D3 Athlete is Onyanga Dean, a Californian who has overcome the odds to succeed in the sport he loves. From a misdiagnosed heart condition to a cramping issue that just won’t quit, Dean has the dedication and determination to meet and exceed his goals. After four years of using various training plans from D3, in 2017 he began working with Coach Alison Freeman with great success, setting new P.R.’s at the Ironman and marathon. Read more about his journey to finding how to get the most from his body and pushing his limits.

D3: You had an interesting shift in your commitment to training last year. Can you describe where you found the inspiration or motivation to re-commit?

Onyanga Dean: During the 2016 Ironman Santa Cruz 70.3, I experienced my first DNF where I intentionally pulled the plug (the only other was during 2013 Escape from Alcatraz, where I ended up in the hospital with a separated shoulder after a nasty spill on the bike). During Santa Cruz, I noticed I wasn’t able to produce much power on the bike and by the time I got to the run, had to shut it down a mile into it. I knew something wasn’t right. After a tread mill test and a cat scan, I was immediately placed on a statin and aspirin, due to an abnormal reading. The cardiologist also instructed me to discontinue participating in endurance events and scheduled an angiogram a month out. As you can probably imagine, I was in total disbelief thinking, “how could this happen to me at 49 years old?”

The angiogram was performed by different cardiologist in San Francisco (described as the gold standard), who, while looking at my heart on a flat screen monitor with me, told me my arteries looked, “nice and plump” and in his opinion, my issue may have been an anomaly. The next day, I went on a four mile walk around Lake Merritt and back thinking the entire time of how grateful I was to be horizontal and healthy and decided at that point to never take my health for granted.

Ironically, D3 Coach Alison Freeman reached out shortly afterwards and we decided to give it a go. Prior to Alison, I may have “Face Timed” twice in my life and they may have been accidental, but I have to tell you, there is something to be said about facing someone and coming up with excuses as to why you missed workouts. Alison has a way of giving you that motherly, “I’m disappointed” look that makes you feel like a loser! I was training for IM Santa Rosa and couldn’t seem to put together consistent efforts in training based on my work schedule and trepidation from the aforementioned heart scare. After a long, realistic discussion with Alison regarding IM Santa Rosa and her concern about me completing it based on what I’d put into training, I decided to step my game up commit to the program. Oh, and remember the “look”. No one wants to be a loser!

D3: You had three key races where you saw the fruits of your labor play out. Walk us through the success of those races. 

OD: My first key race of the season was IM Santa Rosa 70.3. Going into this race, Alison made sure I stuck to the plan, particularly my running pace, which was frustrating at times because I wanted to go faster (probably a Strava thing). It paid off, as it ended up being a PR at that distance and more important, I didn’t walk and nailed our execution. I was also able hang out with fellow D3ers for a BBQ (all of whom are blazing fast) afterwards. That was very inspiring, especially the part where we shared stories about Mike’s (Ricci) intensity and some of the hard core workouts. Made me proud to be a part of D3 and pumped me up to commit even more to my training.

Second up was Ironman Santa Rosa. This was my second IM, my first was IM Lake Tahoe in 2015. Being a bigger triathlete and having epic failures due to cramping when it comes to racing in the heat, the plan was to swim at a comfortable pace to avoid blowing up later. Execution went as planned and I had an awesome bike despite dropping my chain and stopping for a pit stop (note to self: gonna finally give peeing on the bike a try next IM). On the run, my old friend “cramps” showed up at mile 15 and I held on from there. This was still a major accomplishment based on the cramps kicking in much earlier in previous races of shorter distances. I set a PR on the bike, PR on the run and bested my previous IM time by well over an hour, although it was relative given the different courses.

My third key race for 2017, was the Sacramento International Marathon (CIM). Going into this race I figured I’d set the bar high and go for a BQ. Alison was on board and gave me an aggressive training plan. My previous PR for a marathon was 4:18 on this course and took place seven years ago (I left that detail out when I set the BQ goal with Alison for obvious reasons). Training went well and on race day I was ready. My previous marathon strategy was to walk through each aid station and try to maintain my pace. For this race, Alison basically told me I couldn’t afford to walk through the aid stations if I wanted to stick to our race day execution. Things went well until mile 22, when the cramps kicked in. I decided to back off the pace to avoid walking and ended up finishing five minutes shy of a BQ. Although I didn’t hit the mark, it was a huge break through and I bested my previous PR by 43 minutes!

D3: What were you most proud of as you wrapped up the 2017 race season?

OD: Going into the 2017 season I didn’t know what to expect, especially with the heart scare. I was also starting the season with a new coach. Although the season started slow, it was my best season to date and I turned 50 years old in June! So I am most proud of seeing the results of consistency, sticking with the plan and trusting my coach.

D3: Tell us a little bit about yourself … outside of triathlon what fills your time, what do you like to do with a training day off, etc.?

OD: Professionally, I am a State Parole Agent Supervisor and triathlon provides me the opportunity to keep balance in my life after long days at work or monitoring registered sex offenders and gang members via GPS. I completed my first triathlon in 2005, the Bakersfield Triathlon. I’m pretty sure I was dead last out of the lake that day. I stuck with it and still enjoy it.

I joined D3 in 2012 after having a conversation with Coach Mike and coming to the realization that I didn’t know what the heck I was doing out there! At first, I was skeptical about having a coach in Colorado, living in California. Since then, I’ve found myself on the race course with D3 athletes at nearly every race I’ve participated in or volunteered at. Mental Skills Coach, Will Murray and I have trained on the Escape from Alcatraz course and it’s always cool to get a congrats out of the blue.

When I’m not swimming, biking or running, or introducing someone to the sport, I like to spend time attending sporting events, concerts or plays with my girlfriend, Elaine, who’s also a triathlete. I also enjoy spending time with family and friends as well as mentoring at risk youth. I also love kicking my feet up and enjoying a good movie, even though I often end up falling asleep if it’s after a hard training day.

D3: What is one (or a couple) of your favorite workouts from Coach Alison?

OD: My favorite workouts from Coach Alison are the ones I execute as planned, whether it be a swim, bike or run. Alison gives the best feedback and she lets me know why we are doing a particular training block and how it will benefit me come race day.

D3: What is your favorite piece of gear, equipment?

OD: My favorite piece of gear is the latest D3 kit. Not only is it comfortable to race in, it looks good and stands out!

D3: What are you most looking forward to as the 2018 race season approaches and what races are you planning to do?

OD: Going into the 2018 race season I look forward to more consistency and breakthroughs and to seeing what I have left in the basement! My A race is Ironman Santa Rosa. It’s in May this year, which gives me the opportunity to complete this race twice as a 50 year old. I plan on racing Napa HITS 70.3 in April. I’m also tempted to head to Wild Flower since so many D3ers will be racing – it’s a week before IM Santa Rosa. I’ll head back to CIM in December to get that BQ and in between probably have fun with a couple sprints and olympics.

D3: Is there anything else you would like to add about yourself?

OD: Joining D3 is one of the best investments I’ve made. I tried training plans from various books and they were adequate at the time, however, my triathlon IQ and my overall health has improved considerably since that conversation Mike Ricci and I had in 2012. I’m also getting faster!

Plan, execute and succeed

with a D3 Coach