Devon Palmer and I sat down and hashed through some dialogue mostly about him. He’s sort of selfish like that. Truth is, Devon isn’t selfish, he loves to share his knowledge and opinion with just about anyone who might listen. We think he learned to share at a young age. The second truth is that we didn’t actually sit down, well, together…I was sitting at my computer writing questions for the interview, and eventually Devon sat down at his laptop and answered them. He did this much later in the day, but we were both sitting; at some point. So, here ya go! A little look into Devon Palmer’s life.
Gear West Bike (GWB): Give us a little background on you…Where did you grow up and what types of sports did you do as a kid?
Devon Palmer (DP): I grew up in St Paul. I was an underachieving club swimmer growing up and also did fencing through junior high.
GWB: We know that cycling is a highlight for you as a triathlete, but did you come from more of a swimming, bikiing or running background?
DP: I started swimming young and then got into running in high school. I didn’t pick up cycling until I started triathlon after my first year of college.
GWB: Why triathlon? You could have been a great cyclist in its own right, but you chose to go after all 3 sports. What was the initial draw?
DP: My parents did the Lifetime Minneapolis race as a relay and that planted the seed of triathlon in my brain. Starting college I had lots of ambition to be a great athlete but I wasn’t fast enough to swim or run for the University of Minnesota so I needed another outlet. Triathlon was a good match.
GWB: Talk with us about some of your early highlights as a top elite amateur in the sport. What were some of the hurdles racing in MN, and who were some of your top competitors?
DP: I got progressively better my first three seasons in 06, 07, 08 racing both short and half distance races. In 2009 I got my best amateur results with a win at the Lifetime Elite Amateur race and third at USAT nationals with the best bike split. One of the hurdles racing around here is the depth of talent. Even during a hot season like 2009 if I was off my game I could be fifth at a local race! Really though Minnesota has been a great place to come up in the sport. We have great athletes and tons of great races.
When I started Brian Bich was the man. He won all the competitive races in Minnesota. The guy who was on the rise was Sam Hauck. He got good a year before me and was burning it up in 08 when I was just starting to be fast. I believe Sam went off to Med school to become an employable adult.
GWB: Why do you think going pro (getting your pro card) was the right decision for you, and do you feel, looking back, that it was the correct decision/timing?
DP: After my solid 2009 season I was considering going pro. I got varying input from a few different folks but ultimately went for it. It was a fine decision since I was able to do some races I wouldn’t have otherwise done and have had some pretty cool experiences, like swapping the lead at Racine 70.3 with Craig Alexander. I’ve raced Crowie head to head. I’ve beaten Ironman Wisconsin champion Daniel Bretscher twice. I got to be passed by Chrissie Wellington when she set a world record at Ironman Arizona! I set a bike course record in a pro race. There have definitely been some special moments.
The timing was great as things have gotten much worse for pros over the course of my career. I’m glad I got in a few good years when I did.
Paying short course races are drying up. Look at the Lifetime series. It used to be so competitive, so prestigious, and paid SO MUCH MONEY. It has been in freefall over the last few years. Almost no money. No prestige. No one cares. The Rev3 series, which was a nice option, eliminated their pro events though they are returning in 2015 in partnership with Challenge. We’ll see how that develops. The Ironman circuit is changing dramatically in 2015 with fewer pro races. My place to shine as a pro would have been a smaller Ironman. Going forward there ALWAYS be a huge field at Ironman pro races. A certain set of pros who could do alright under the old system will now be out of the job.
Even locally, there are fewer opportunities. When I started in 2010 triathlon was expanding and lots of races wanted to put up a little cash to draw a fast field. Since the sport has now stabilized a bit, many of these races can’t afford to spend the money so the prize purse is reduced or cut altogether. There might be a pro field of half a dozen guys at a local race that pays. The landscape has changed so dramatically that going pro today seems crazy unless you’re ready to jump in and race at the top level.
GWB: Let’s do some comparing! You have runners, bikers, and swimmers. Each within their own sport are unique. What makes triathletes different as a whole (doing all 3 sports) in comparison to those doing only one of the aforementioned sports singly.
DP: We aren’t very good compared to real single sport athletes. Andy Potts. Everyone worships his swimming in triathlon. He was fourth in his event at the Olympic Trials. So he’s top caliber national talent but not really an international level athlete. When the University of Minnesota hosted the NCAA swim meet I watched Peter Vanderkaay take out the 500 free in 47 and proceed to break 4:10 in the 500. He averaged under fifty seconds per 100. I watched a guy go under 19 seconds in the 50 free. Last year our top triathlon runner did a 10k on the track and went a 28. The world record is under 26:20. I consider myself a good rider. I can go 40k under an hour no problem. Pro tour guys are trying to get under an hour for 50k time trials. I know enough to know how deeply mediocre I am at swimming, biking and running relative to real swimmers, cyclists and runners. For that reason it brings me so much joy when they come do a triathlon and I absolutely demolish them. The best is when I see guys who swam for the Gophers when I was at the U of M. Blasting them is super satisfying. Sometimes I even beat them in the water if they’ve let their swim game slip.
GWB: You’ve been racing pro for a few years now, and have picked up some local sponsors along the way. How has this helped you as a professional athlete and specifically in the sport of triathlon where money is not easy to come home with.
DP: Travel costs money. Without some cash sponsors there is no way I could have done travel races over the years. Currently I’m racing for The Gold Guys and that has been a fun brand to represent.
Sponsorship is tricky in triathlon. I look at pro running or pro cycling and think that triathlon is the Wild Wild West. You just get whatever you can. It is easy to become a pro in triathlon since the bar is quite low but it is hard to make any money as a pro. In sports like running or cycling it is more competitive to become a real pro but there are more structures in place once you’ve made it. Hopefully as triathlon develops this changes and it becomes more meaningful to be ‘professional’ and there are more sponsorship opportunities.
My best sponsorships have mostly been local businesses. I can create opportunities to represent local companies on my own with homemade promotions. Local companies are more likely to be able to actually pay me. Over the last couple years doing new things to represent my sponsors has been the best part of the job. I looked around at my peers and saw lots of guys just putting a name on a shirt and sending out a lame, generic plug via twitter. That’s ‘sponsorship’ for many pros. That doesn’t do anything. I constantly think of new promotions for my sponsors. My personal hero on this front is Bill Veeck. Bill Veeck used promotion to bring a little fun into the sport of baseball. I try to use my silly promotions to mix it up here in triathlon.
To anyone trying to get actual US currency out of an industry sponsor, good luck. There just isn’t that much money in the bike industry. You have to be a true top tier athlete to really get paid.
GWB: Break down your 2014 season for us. You did race a lot but we didn’t see, or hear, much aftermath on many of your events. Why
DP: 2014 was an odd year. It started off fine with a few small local events, 2nd at Falls Du, 1st and Cinco Du Mayo, 1st at the Blaine tri. Then at Pigman Sprint I fell dismounting going into t2. It was weird but I got back on my feet and finished. The only thing I managed to hurt was my heel. I bruised it pretty badly and was off running for about a month.
Unfortunately I was doing Ironman Canada at the end of July and the travel plans were already booked! This meant I made a whole trip for a race knowing I wouldn’t finish since I had no run training. To add insult to injury I even got a flat tire around 100k at Canada and dropped out. Lame. From there I built my running back and prepared for Ironman Chattanooga in QR’s hometown. My prep was good but not great and unfortunately my execution on race day was poor. I let myself run low on fuel on and paid dearly, dragging in to the finish in my slowest Ironman time yet. Again, lame.
I was hoping to close out the year with a quick time at IM Arizona. That race was even more lame than the others. A slow swim and a flat tire combined to essentially put me in the women’s race not the men’s race. I was completely out of it mentally and stepped off the course. Looking back, I need to be much stronger and more focused going into an iron distance. I’m aiming to rectify the errors I made this year and make 2015 a more rewarding season.
GWB: 2015 needs a boost in the world of triathlon. Locally we have upwards, or more, of 100 multisport races in MN and western WI along with Iowa…what thoughts do you have that may motivate individuals to race more, choose races, and excel?
DP: Racing is the best way to test yourself. For me, I know I need to race on a consistent basis. I can’t race every weekend and still train hard for an Ironman but I shouldn’t go long stretches without racing. If you are building towards a big goal, be it Age Group Nationals, a half, or an Ironman, use local events to sharpen up along the way. No matter how good my training has been I’m always nervous for my first race of the year. You have to get out there and race! If that’s once a month, once every three weeks, once every two weeks, figure out what works for you and go with it. Racing is the only real way to see where you stand.
GWB: As an athlete and a coach, where do we see you, personally, within the sport over the next 5 years? Do you plan on expanding yourself in any way. Adding sponsors, clients, races, etc.?
DP: I am in transition right now. Basically I’m moving away from “the dream” of being a full time pro and coach. Going forward I want to: work a part time job where I can learn more about marketing, train and race to a good level, coach fun athletes who want to do reasonable training, and be a magnificent spokesmodel for a few worthy sponsors.
GWB: Explain Devon, you, in 20 words or less…as an individual aside from the athlete.
DP: Vivacious spokesmodel, vibrant comedic mind, alliteration activist, proud puppy father, frequent coffee imbiber, social media magician.
Well, there you have it!