Ironman Pro and Endurance Sport Coach Jim Lubinski Keeps Pushing His Training to the Max
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Jim Lubinski is a man of passion. He puts 100 percent effort into everything he does and he hates to be second best. That mindset has served him well as a professional triathlete and through sheer will he has become one of the most dedicated and respected men on the Ironman circuit.
“This sport takes such mental perseverance,” he admits. “You can be the fittest guy in the world, but I still say it’s 90 percent mental.”
Lubinski’s competitive nature is a product of his upbringing in Niles (a Chicago suburb), where his childhood dream was to play in the NHL and hoist a Stanley Cup. He showed potential as a runner, winning the Illinois state championship in the mile in 4:59 as a 7th-grader, but he longed to be at the rink.
“My heart was really in ice hockey,” he recalls. “I learned to skate when I was 5 or 6 years old and I had that aggressiveness and attitude you need.”
Lubinski was on many club teams in high school. In Junior A he played for the Bismarck Bobcats in North Dakota and that got him a scholarship to play Division I college hockey in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he played four years and majored in political science. His motor was always running on high: “I had some opportunities to play professionally. I’m right-handed but played left wing since I shoot lefty even though I play golf righty and can’t throw or write with my left hand. I was what they call a grinder, meaning I could score, I could assist and I could fight. I could drop the gloves with the best of them. In fact, I was one of the league’s all-time leaders in PIM (penalty minutes). I wasn’t a goon because I’d play on the power play and penalty kill units too, but sometimes a team needs a fight to change momentum and I’m a guy who wasn’t afraid to mix it up. Back then there was a lot more self-policing in the game.”
Lubinski spent one year in the Central Hockey League—playing in Greenville, South Carolina, then Ft. Worth, Texas, then Winston-Salem, North Carolina—all in the span of 12 months. From the outside looking in it seemed glamorous, but eventually the long bus rides, black eyes, lost teeth and stitches took their toll on his psyche.
“The NHL would’ve been a tough journey,” he says. “A lot of it is luck. Could I have made it? Possibly, but we bounced around so much that my bag was never unpacked. It was constant travel from one city to the next.”
Then, in 2005 at the age of 26, Lubinski made a life-changing decision.
“I loaded up my car and moved to Los Angeles,” he says. “I got a job at Enterprise Rent-A-Car and it was humbling. I went from being a big fish in little towns, signing autographs for kids, to being totally unknown. Still, I liked that so many people here are out running and riding. Some friends eased me into triathlon, so I did a few races to get my feet wet. In 2007 I took a year off and in 2008 I entered the Ironman in Arizona and completed it in 10 hours flat.”
That race lit a fire inside him and Lubinski upped his training to a whole new level. Like a gambler who goes all-in he dedicated himself to the sport and over the next year his efforts yielded positive results. In 2009 he won the Vineman Half Ironman (70.3 miles) in Santa Rosa as an amateur. Shortly after he turned pro to try the full distance of 140.6 miles (a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run).
“USA Triathlon has certain races they select and if you win one of them you can apply for your professional license,” he explains. “For me it was about wanting to test my limits against the best. Not having a big background in running, swimming or biking at the time I started, I had to train my body to adapt. I was about 210 pounds of muscle playing hockey but that doesn’t go uphill fast. My body type has become longer and leaner in triathlon training. Fortunately I never lost the knack for running I had as a kid. When I started that’s the part I was strongest at for sure. On the swim portion I’d come out of the water near the back of the pack, hold my own on the bike, then make up lots of ground on the run.”
Lubinski typically does four to six Ironmans per year with another four to six Half-Ironmans and a few other shorter races mixed in. In 11 years as a pro, the 41-year-old has won events in Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, Santa Rosa and Malibu, in addition to podiums at the Ironman and Half Ironman distances.
At the Nautica Malibu Triathlon in Zuma Beach in September he finished second in the Olympic Distance (a 1.5-K ocean swim, 40K bike and 10K run) in two hours, one minute, 15 seconds, then took first place in the Classic (sprint) race (1/2 mile swim, 17-mile bike, four-mile run) in 1:22:02 the next day—all of that only seven days after he placed seventh at Ironman Wisconsin.
The year before that he was the runner up in both the Olympic and Classic at Nautica—providing all of the motivation he needed to triumph in 2019.
“The proof for me was Vineman in 2009 because I worked hard and I won that race,” he says. “This is a sport where you compete against yourself. It showed me anything is achievable if I put my mind to it.”
Lubinski understands time is of the essence.
“There’s not a very long lifespan in Ironman, but I’ve stayed professional for over 10 years. I’m proud of that. I never looked at money as my driving force. I never thought of it as a way to support my family.”
In 2009, Lubinski became an Endurance Sport Coach and for the last four years he has mentored for Tower 26 Triathlon and Swimming, a workout and training program at Maggie Gilbert Aquatic Center.
“We train out of the pool at Palisades High with partner Gerry Rodrigues and we’ve become one of the biggest coaching groups in the world,” Lubinski says. “We have a triathlon team and our triathlon ‘Be Race Ready’ podcast is listened to in 134 countries around the world. Gerry’s an open water swim expert and I keep it light and moving and funny. I directly coach about 30 athletes but we also have 150 on subscription plans so there are many facets to the business. We’ve used it as an opportunity to expand, to help the company grow and give people something to do. We’ve even instituted virtual training sessions out of my garage. Athletes follow along on Zwift five times a week to train with me. We’ve built a worldwide community.”
When Lubinski decided to become a triathlete he never imagined that he would travel the world racing in places like South Africa, New Zealand and Spain, let alone that he would soon be coaching so many others. Now, he gets as much satisfaction seeing a 65-year-old lose 50 pounds as he does winning a triathlon himself.
“No matter what age you start at you can keep making gains,” says Lubinski, who attributes his “no quit” mentality to his days on the ice. “I could’ve just hung up the skates and gone to college as a regular student. Instead I stuck with it and I got cut from a few teams. If I’d taken that rejection I would’ve lived a normal life, but that taught me to keep moving forward no matter what roadblock got in my way.”
Lubinski met his wife Megan through one of his training partners who worked with her at Disney. They married in 2015 and when their lease was up in Beverly Hills they knew they would be Palisadians.
“On weekends we’d go to lunch at Cafe Vida, or to Vittorios,” he says. “This is the only real suburb of LA and we wanted that family feel.”
Megan hails from a suburb of Portland where she was a high school runner and class valedictorian. She graduated magna cum laude from Western Washington University and for the last three years has served as Vice President of Marketing at Lucasfilm.
“She’s definitely the brains behind the operation,” Jim jokes. “It’s really nice getting to go to the premieres of the Star Wars movies.”
Jim and Megan moved to the Palisades four years ago (Jacon Way in Marquez Knolls) and they have a daughter Madeline, who just turned four months old.
“My neighbors remember the day she was born (March 17) because it was the first day of quarantine,” he says. “Hard to believe it’s been 16 weeks.”
So what hardcore advice does Lubinski have for those who want to be triathletes?
“Less is more,” he says. “So many people go all-out for two weeks and quit. You have to ease into training and take a calculated approach. If you’re a beginner you may want to start off with a 20-minute interval where you run for five minutes, walk for five, run for another five, walk for another five and so forth. By increasing your mileage gradually you decrease your chance of injury. Be realistic about what you can achieve. Everybody’s different. There’s no cookie cutter plan.”
Once someone has built his or her base level of fitness Lubinski enthusiastically encourages them to enter an event in order to use that as their motivation to keep training.
“Pick a race and go for it,” he says. “It’ll be like a carrot dangling in front of you where you say to yourself ‘if I don’t start right now I won’t be ready.’ It’s about building and adapting. If you’re not making that progress your body won’t accept the demand of racing. You have to put it on your calendar so you see ‘I have this many days to prepare for this event’ and that will help you maintain a strict workout schedule.”
Lubinski achieved his personal-record time of eight hours, 41 minutes at Ironman Chattanooga in 2014 and clocked 8:44 at Ironman Arizona in 2017. He hopes the best is yet to come.
“When I’m not able to hold my own I’ll know it,” Lubinski says. “If you do it right, you can do this into your 60s or 70s. Look at me. I’m 41 and I’m performing better now than in my whole career.”
Lubinski won the Palisades Will Rogers 10K in 32:35 in 2011 while training for the Chicago Half-Marathon later that summer. He won his age division in the Palisades Turkey Trot last year and clocked 2:51 in the LA Marathon in March.
“Brian Temple is the only Palisadian who beat me,” he recalls.
Having spent most of his life playing hockey, Lubinski knows what it feels like to fight fatigue.
“In hockey you get on the ice, you do a shift, catch your breath, and 45 seconds later you’re back out there,” he says. “You’re wearing 30 pounds of equipment and pushing your body to hit hard and recover quick. When I came to triathlon I took my training from ice hockey about how to push through the pain.”
Lubinski and his wife are also active members of the community. In the fall of 2018 Jim started a Nextdoor thread following three separate incidents in which cash was removed from greeting cards sent to him—money he surmised was stolen by postal service employees before being delivered to his mailbox, which could only be opened with a key. He even contacted Congressman Ted Lieu’s office and the Office of the Inspector General to bring the issue to their attention.
The couple enjoy the “small-town vibe” of the Palisades and are always running into neighbors or friends, hardly a surprise given that Jim trains a majority of the triathletes in the Palisades.
“We’re at Cafe Vida two or three days a week, we get coffee in the Village most days and go to Vittorios every Friday,” he says.
Lubinski considers himself lucky to live in an area conducive to Ironman training.
“What’s great about the Palisades and Tower 26 is that everything is right here,” he adds. “We have the pool, the ocean and trails. The Santa Monica Mountains are so underrated—you’ve got some of the best riding in the world with 15,000 feet of climbing and that’s not even hitting them all.”
Among the many Palisadians who train under Lubinski is Brian Massey, who has nothing but praise for him.
“He’s a big personality, a total ham,” Massey says. “Jim’s got the biggest heart of any guy I know!”
One of the things that makes Tower 26 so successful, according to Lubinski, is that it cultivates a “community” atmosphere.
“It’s really important to feel like you’re part of this group that supports you along the way,” Lubinski says. “We have lots of husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, friends or co-workers who can train with each other. In a sport that’s very isolated we’ve built a team feel. Whether you’re training for the Ironman or just want to get in shape, everyone’s objective is different. One of my goals was to create that team atmosphere in times they need it.”
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