There came a point in my life where I said, ‘I want to do a triathlon, but I’d never do an Ironman, that’s crazy’. Well…here we are, several Ironman’s in. In my first year attempting an Ironman I signed up not for one, but for two. I thought if I trained for one, training for 2 should be fine. As I began my training journey, I learned about the obsession that is required. I never really took my training that seriously, and during my first Ironman I completed it. My second Ironman I suffered, a lot. I swore to myself after that I would never suffer to that point again.
When my 3rd Ironman came around, it was a lot more enjoyable. I learned a lot about myself, but I also went into it knowing what to expect. People all time say, ‘I could never do that’, that is correct, you can’t. You’ve just mentally limited yourself. Everyone can complete a long course triathlon; it requires some understanding of it at first. For those that don’t know, it’s a 2.4 mile swim (3.8k), 112 mile bike ride (180km) and a 26.2 run (i.e. a marathon)…all under 16 hours (sometimes it’s course dependent and they allow 17 hours)
I thought I would share my wisdom of things that I have learned along the way.
1.It’s an eating game
Your intake is a daily obsession, making sure you eat enough and not too little, or else you end up eating too much from all the training. On race day it’s 100% about getting your intake correct.
You wake up and shovel in breakfast at 4am, not wanting to have anything to do with eating. Then at the start line you’re eating before the swim, taking a gel or other form of sugary snack before the start.
You complete the swim with no intake and then hop onto the bike. The bike is where you plan and then correctly execute your eating plan. Your body is already in deficit, you’re cycling for 112 miles and needs to be ready to run a marathon. Getting your nutrition wrong on the bike will make or break your day.
2. You will get peed on
Ironman is all about bodily functions…. did you go #2 before the race start. Then you hop in the water and pee again…everyone else is doing the same, nervous pee. Which means your swimming behind or next to someone who has peed.
People always ask about going to the toilet on the bike. In all truth, if it’s #1, you just go. I was racing Ironman Copenhagen and I was descending a hill with two guys in front of me. I was off to the side slightly, but one guy was sitting about 20 feet behind the guy in front. I saw the guy in front lift off his saddle and just pee. It was a stream of urine that landed directly on the other guy, in his face. The guy in the back kept his head down and tilted his face to the side to breathe every few seconds. Because we were descending a hill, there is NO WHERE to go safely. Yep, the guy got a golden shower mid race…I was so thankful that wasn’t me.
3. It’s harder to be a spectator than a participant
I’ve supported friends in the past, but I see what my husband goes through. You sit around all day, timing your day for the few seconds you’ll see that person on the course. Standing around hurts, your feet hurt, you’re tired and while you’re at it, you’re cheering on everyone else who’s racing, because why not?
I love supporting friends on course, but I’d much rather be racing than sitting on the side-line. I have a huge amount of respect for those that cheer us on. It gives us a boost and keeps us smiling, sometimes not outwardly, but we love it. I have made sure to thank the marshals that donate their time to these races, they honestly put in the hardest work.
My close friend E.T. was working T2 when I arrived back from my bike, it was a hard transition as so many things went wrong on the bike for me that day. She brightened my mood and kept me going.
4. Mental toughness is key
Undertaking an Ironman is hard, you can prepare yourself physically, but on the day, you need the mental toughness. The day is an absolute emotional roller coaster. You’re swimming on your own keeping to a pace, you exit the water to hear people screaming at you but you really have no idea what is going on. Once you hit the bike it’s 112 lonely miles. You must put your head down and get on with it. I use the timing of my feeding to get me through. Sometimes there’s a bit of conversation between athletes, but you can’t really have a chat due to drafting rules.
The bike is the longest part of your day and it’s when you’re in your own head the most. It’s absolutely an emotional roller coaster. Every single emotion will occur while on that bike, from elation to sadness to frustration. Keeping an even keel mentally is the best way to get through it, but those emotions will creep up proving that Ironman is more mental than physical.
NOTHING goes to plan on race day. Ironman is about handling what gets thrown at you and adapting. Adapt and over come!! Anything from the weather, nutrition, a puncture…will happen on race day. As much as you prepare something will cause you to have to adapt.
In Ironman Louisville I had a well measured plan for my nutrition. I got on the bike and I couldn’t drink. I was using an all liquid drink from Hammer and it wouldn’t come up my straw. I was on mile 2 or 3 of the bike and just thought, how will I get through this? Firstly, I failed to sip my drink while getting my bike ready in transition before the race start. Then I started to panic. I calmed down and thought, ‘just get to the first feed station’. Finally, whatever was going on I was able to sort out, phew! I could finally drink, I think my drink coagulated in my Speedfil, never used it after that race again…lol. The fun wasn’t over though…When I arrive at ‘special needs’, you are supposed to be handed a bag that you dropped off that morning with your own nutrition in it. We’re at about the 60-mile point on the bike and I was looking forward to my bag. They couldn’t find it. Absolute panic at this point. I was watching the guys next to me inhale PB&J sandwiches, one guy was even eating a chicken sandwich. I cried a bit at this point. I got back on the bike without any nutrition at mile 60. I started thinking through my head, what did I have packed on my bike that I could eat…I had a few hydration tabs and a Clif Bar. I got to about 70-75 miles where the cheering section was and found my mom, my friend Scott and my now husband and just cried. The entire crowd screamed at me ‘KEEP GOING’…that was the only thing that got me back on the bike, with no nutrition. Mentally, this is where I broke down that race. I ended up stopping at all of the feed stations, I wanted to quit. I didn’t have the right nutrition and I was tired. Mental toughness disappeared. I ended up making to the end of the bike, waving to my family at mile 100 just before getting back to T2. I had to focus on just getting through the bike, nothing else. By pushing thoughts about the run out of my head, I clung on to finish the bike.
I ended up getting through the run, but I didn’t have much left mentally. It was a tough day, but I crossed that finish line.
5. Take it one sport at a time
Yes, there is a massive physical element to racing an Ironman, but where I highlighted it being a mental game. Thinking about all 3 sports is overwhelming more mentally than physically. You train in all three sports regularly, but you have to put it together on race day. Instead of thinking ‘I have an Ironman to do’…I break it down to, it’s race day. Let’s have fun.
I start with let’s do the swim. On the swim I only think about the swim. ‘How’s my stroke?’ ‘Oh look, a jellyfish!’
When I exit the water onto the bike I focus on the bike, I keep the legs pedalling. My pace will vary, but I keep the legs going. I focus on my eating schedule and only what is happening on the bike course. If I start to think about the run, my head will slip.
I don’t think about the run until the run. I execute.
You go into race day with a plan for each segment, focusing on that sport and your plan is key to race day success.
6. Say goodbye to your social life
You will be too tired to think about going out. You’re constantly thinking about ‘I have a 5 am session tomorrow’ and seeing people doesn’t happen. 9pm becomes your new bedtime and you don’t get to train with people unless their session matches yours.
I’ve made a huge effort to try to see more people, encourage them to go out as well. I will move sessions around occasionally so that I can cycle with a friend or go for a run with them. Finding ways to enjoy the training and ensure it’s not all business.
Realistically, you won’t be going out as much AND making your training sessions.
7. Embrace the pain
Yes, an Ironman hurts. Your body is tired. If you go out too hard at the start you will pay for it later. The only thing I take comfort in is knowing that everyone else is hurting too. Ironman is about your pain threshold and being able to ignore it.
I always remind myself ‘Pain is temporary’…and it also let’s you know you’re not dead yet.
8. It’s an expensive sport
I read an article a few years back that researched and found the average cost of an Ironman is $10,000 USD. I don’t want to know what I spend, but in ways that isn’t far off.
I already own most of the kit I need, but then you always need additional things. I already own the bike, but things people don’t consider are:
Fees to swim in a pool, lake etc. Club fees. Nutrition for training. Spare parts for the bike. Run shoes. Races to get you ready for your Ironman. Travel costs. Cost of time away from your family. Paying to train while you’re away with work or holiday. Physio. – that’s a pretty basic list. You can spend as much or as little as you want going into an Ironman. All in though, there is a cost of time and money when undertaking these events.
I didn’t realize how much of a privileged sport it is until I was in Port Elizabeth, South Africa for the Ironman 70.3 World Champs and realizing that one of any competitors race bikes was 2 years salary for a local resident. It was very humbling to realize. For as long as I can afford to take on these races I will. I love traveling with these races and the places that it takes me.
9. It will test your personal relationships
Most of us have full time jobs, responsibilities at home and on top of it, need to fit in training. An average training week could be anywhere from 9-18 hours depending on which cycle of your training that you’re in. To make that tangible for people I’ll give you an example of a typical day right now in my training schedule:
5am – Wake up
5:30am -7am Swim
7:15 – Shower, eat and get to work
Work all day.
6pm – next training session, either a bike or a run for 1-1.5 hours
Eat dinner at some point. Clean the house and try to spend time with my husband. Or finish up work that I didn’t get done during the day.
9pm – bed
The weekends are filled with the longer sessions, so sleeping in isn’t a regular thing. You also have the expectation to spend time with your family and be present at events. It’s tough. I try to train at lunch time if possible, freeing up the evenings. I ensure we set aside a date night and that night is respected. If I am racing on a weekend, I try to make it fun by enjoying the local area and exploring. It makes for early mornings and long days. For me, it’s all about being time efficient and prioritising things. It’s key to take some time off when training and just focus on the what’s important. Triathlon isn’t going away, but your partner will if they are always seeing you in lycra.
10. Less than 10% run the entire marathon
Before my first Ironman I was so scared about running the entire marathon. When I read that stat that only 10% run the whole thing, I was relieved. There are different tactics out there: run 2km, walk 1km. Run 5 mins, walk 2 min. I tend to walk the water stations depending on how I feel. Most people do have a walk/run tactic to minimize wear and tear on your body. The reality is on race day it will probably be warm, so walking allows you get in your nutrition and take a second to cool your body down with sponges or water.
I always had it in my head that you had to have some kind of superpower to complete an Ironman. You don’t. Just mental toughness and a lot of grit and determination.