By Coach Tony: There are many questions about Ironman and its preparation but the most popular question seems to be “what’s it like.” What is it like to be out there 10, 12, 14+ hours and how do you survive? What do you go through and what can I expect? Why do you do it? For those of you who have completed an Ironman, you know the reward is grand; something difficult to explain in words yet radiates in your smile and demeanor from the time you cross the finish line and for the rest of your life. And so this article is a futile attempt to explain a day in the life of becoming Ironman. Futile because Ironman is a personal journey and achievement; something you need to experience to understand the glow behind the smile.
Ironman day is a day where you get to be a kid again and have fun all day doing the things you love best. It is a day for overindulgence. It is epic in every way. I think its best described as a journey filled with emotional highs and lows. A memorable day of adventure you will never forget. Easy? Not by far and there lies the attraction (at least for us A types). And so as you read this article, keep in mind it is a wonderful experience. But what makes it wonderful is not the swim, the bike, or the run alone.
The morning begins with anxiety due to a lack of sleep and the weight of your thoughts regarding the day ahead of you. If you were smart, you banked sleep (overslept the past few days) to make up for the sleeplessness experienced race day eve. Just like storing carbs, it’s a good idea to store up of few zzzz’s days leading up to the event. One final look into the special need bags and off you go to race central. In an eerie like fashion, people (an estimated 2500) come out from the dark to the same location with the same purpose; all with varying degrees of doubt. My experience is that even if you have trained well, you will be nervous. This is normal, even healthy because when the gun goes off and racing begins, the settling of nerves makes it that much more relaxing. If you are not nervous, you are either experienced or have underestimated the pain that awaits. You are going into war and when done will be exhausted beyond belief, dirty, physically broken, and potentially sick. It is your mind that prevails you to the finish line. Nervousness feelings are a sign of respect for the unknown. If your mind doesn’t respect what you are about to go through, I wouldn’t want to be you on race day.
The gun goes off for the pros and you are now within 10 minutes of starting your day of becoming an Ironman. Funny because suddenly your nerves are gone. There’s short period here where a peaceful silence takes over and all racers point their gun at the first target; a 2.4 mile swim. It is a time to open your mind and invite everything the day will bring; good or bad. A second gun goes off and like a school of piranha the first buoy is under fire. You swim, then you swim some more, and then you swim even more. From your view, you can probably see the next buoy but you make the mental mistake of looking for the one thereafter, and the one after that. It’s a common mistake. We all want to know (see) the end. Get use to disappointment because with each buoy passed, another shows up on the horizon. It is the first test of the day. Put your head down and swim. Swimming is time well spent, looking for buoys is not. Exercise patience and sight the buoys as part of your swim stoke. You have 2:20 to finish the swim, Chop Chop!
As a first time Ironman, you may have doubted your ability to swim the 2.4 miles. The nice thing about finishing the swim is overcoming the doubt. Now that you’re finished, there’s a sense of relief, pride, and reassurance this day’s goal is in fact achievable. That’s the good news. The bad news? The swim is less than 2% of the course distance and if you thought that was long, you’re in for a rude awakening. Buoy after buoy is hard. Mile after mile on the bike? Relentless!!! Torturous!!! My best advice, disconnect and remove your bike computer and leave it at home. You don’t want to know how many miles are left. It may play with your head, artificially fatigue you, or weaken your mind. Just ride. The bike on Ironman day is 80% of the mileage and the major cause of taking you from racer or participant to survivor. The miles on the bike peel you like an onion and leave you with a raw core which you will get to know very well. You better hope you like yourself because you will spend 5-7 hours inside your own head during the bike. You have time to think about everything and everyone; your family, your job, why you’re out there, the awesome rash you’re building up between your legs, how your stomach is revolting, the cramp in your leg, the bail of hay you feel on your back, and the Kevlar like callus you’re building up on your sore ass. If you finish the bike, you won’t come back the same person as when you left. Congratulations for getting this far. Many don’t.
Only 26.2 miles left to complete the transformation to hero. Decisions made on the bike will directly impact your ability to run well. There is a direct fatigue correlation here. If you push a big gear and hammer the bike, don’t expect to have a stellar run. In fact, plan for a 26 mile walk. Your nutrition and hydration while on the bike are key! It can set you up well for the run or make your 26 mile a nightmare. Seldom will you put your stomach through the same torture as on Ironman day. In my opinion, it’s not if but when will you get sick. If things go south before you finish, it could get ugly. Motivations could change and you’re not only racing to the finish because it will be over, you also want to reach the finish before your bowels generate a mind of their own. Many new Ironman over compensate nutrition and/or try something new on race day because they believe race day requires “more” than training day. NO! Big Emphatic NO! View race day as a long training day and eat the same things in the same quantities and the same time intervals you do during training. Sway from your plan and be prepared to play Russian Roulette with your butt the rest of the way. Porta-poties are 1 mile apart on the run. Will you make the next one?
There’s 26.2 miles between you and bragging rights for the rest of your life. In 15 Ironman events, the stars have been aligned maybe 5 times where I was able to run the marathon start to finish. Run well, maybe 3. Just to start running is difficult. The first 1000 steps are decisions not to quit or walk. But if you stick with it, 2, maybe 3 miles into the run you will cross a mental barrier and your shuffle begins to resemble a run. The run is where you earn your medal. It is the most difficult of the 3 event because you start tired and there is no coasting. Running cost you more calories and fatigues you faster. There is more temptation to quit during the run than the swim or bike. Other than the distance, there are no similarities between a regular marathon and an Ironman marathon.
When the Ironman started at 7 AM, everyone was racing. Watch the Ironman run and you will find that less than 5% are still racing. It’s more like Night of the Living Dead. They are surviving. As a spectator you may ask yourself “Why in the world would anyone do this?” Everyone who puts down $600 or more to do this has their own personal reasons. But…there is one common affect they all seek….that glow behind the smile when you say” I am an Ironman.” Ironman is a test in perseverance requiring dedication, preparation, mental toughness, determination, adaptability, and a little bit of luck. Don’t think of Ironman as a race. Think of it as a journey through the most difficult part of your mind.
It takes courage to sign up and show up. The enormity of the day is both the challenge and the reward. Placing yourself in a position to fail miserably and prevailing through all doubts and discomforts to finish an Ironman is an accomplishment few undertake or understand. It is amazing how all pain and suffering stops (temporarily of course) once you cross the finish line. You then hear Mike call your name followed by “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!” And so what makes this grueling event so wonderful? Ironman strips away all masks, assumptions, stereotypes, colors, and artificial flavors reducing you to your basic elements (the core you) forcing a look into your sole. Only there will you find answers. To what you may ask. Answers to questions you didn’t even know you had and that no one except you will know. You get to know yourself better than you ever did before and walk away knowing there is nothing you can’t do. And for the rest of your life you can say…I am an Ironman.
Tony Troccoli has been a certified USA Triathlon and USA cycling since 2001. Tony has competed in nearly 20 Ironman events including Kona and coaches locally in the Southern California area and on-line nationwide. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Tony’s pre-built, easy-to-follow training programs. Tony is also a F.I.S.T certified bike fitter and soon to be Certified Total Immersion instructor. Contact Tony at firstname.lastname@example.org.