What They Don’t Tell You when Deciding on Doing your First Ironman.

by Marcel Ewals  (twitter@marcelewals), guest contributor
Once you have been bitten by the endurance bug, some of us decide to go for the holy grail in Triathlons; the Full Ironman distance of 3,8km swim, the 180km on a bike followed by the full marathon.  Most people will never experience anything like this and many of us are attracted by the dream that is presented by the marketing guru’s of IronMan and Challenge alike.  After realizing it will take a good 6 months of training – and clearing that with those around you such as your family that won’t see you most weekends anymore as you will be out training somewhere – you decide to go for it.
The average Full Ironman distance registration fee is just under US$ 1,000.  This gives your between 9 to 17 hours of suffering on race day and about 400  lonely training hours which will cost you another US$ 1,000 or more in coaching fees. Throw in your travel at US$ 500 – 2,000 (domestic or international travel) and your physio due to some injuries, bike maintenance, outfits, wetsuits, new shoes and you are on a roll financially. And since we are already digging deep lets make sure we have top bike gear for at least another US$ 5,000 to get us over the finish line. Yes, triathlons can be one of the most expensive sports i know that does not involve engines or live animals (although sometime the athletes are difficult to distinguish)  For this  investment,  you get the satisfaction knowing that you have an “Iron Will” (TM) according to IronMan promo video’s, are a focussed achiever in life, get a trinket medal and bragging rights for life.  In other words, you can set your mind to ZERO and just keep going and going like the Energizer Bunny only to prove that you can be part of the “elite” finishers. The entire dream has been pre-created and is echoed by many triathletes, especially those who have never done a full Ironman.
Ironman is indeed all in the mind. and the less you use your mind the easier it becomes because the more your grey cells start wondering if that strange feeling in your calf could become the end of your race, the more likely it will happen.  Unlike in the game of golf where your mind is like a roller coaster because you earn instant satisfaction of a great shot and depression after a flunked one, Ironman has not much to offer along the way.  Somehow it is boring as you are not really racing but controlling mind and body to keep the pace at max.  Its easy to slack off as your mind wonders off and lowers the pace. A simple pass of a biker or runner  might bring you back to your senses, but you know that at some point that person is likely to do the same to you as we all vary in pace at different times. Ironman is the ultimate race not against yourself, but against your mind and of course your training.
Sign of a triathlete in training. My lonely bike at a coffee stop. Get used to many many hours alone on the road wether running or cycling ..
What is interesting is how the mind works on long distances.  I am sure the body fuels some of the thought but in the end, I noticed that the things around me, or rather distracting me, are the ones that keep me going.  I find myself riding and worrying about my knee when it started feeling tight and since my muscles are getting sore, the next thought is about how to even start the run and complete that full marathon. Suddenly my attention is grabbed by a pothole I need to avoid, then I notice the scenery which I vividly enjoy and promptly I am back in good shape.  This – in various forms – happens numerous times.   Aside from that, we are being bombarded with quotes like “this too, will pass”, “just get this over with” and “just take it as another training day”  But we know that once we are in those final kilometers everything will be forgotten and emotion with “I did this” will draw us past the finish line for a few seconds of fame as they call our name as we approach the famous red carpet.  Yes, me too i have dreamed many times of hearing the words, “Marcel; you are an Ironman”. Or so I thought.
But let’s backtrack a little to discuss the months before the race, and start with the training plan.  First, the excitement fuels the first phase your training, where you have to relearn the way you run and bike.  This is where you start to go long and easy, doing things differently and of course enjoy waking up at 6am every day to get that part out of the way. It was fun seeking my hotels during my many business trips and qualify them as “training Hotels”  Who has the right pool size, or a park where we can run.  I even blogged about it in Trip Advisor and rated some hotels purely on Triathlon training capabilities.    The next stage that follows about 3 months inwards was that of fatigue.  The training gets boring, your body is getting tired and your mind is looking for excuses. It was getting harder  to wake up and getting sleep was deemed a higher priority leaving the trainings to the evening with work distractions on your mind and finding every shortcut along the way.  It was getting truly tough.  This is also the period where suddenly minor injuries creeped up such as rotor cuff pains making swimming a real struggle for me.  What followed was logical; depression.  the “I am not ready” phase slowly overtakes and you wonder why no progress what made for weeks  until something makes you realize you are really full of shit and gets you out of that cycle.  My great friend and triathlete Daniel Schwalb, who actually got me on a bicycle 8 years ago that started this madness, and dragged me to my first sprint, reminded me during my whining and ranting about the famous Rule#5 of the Velominati ; “Harden the F@&* up!”. (http://www.velominati.com/the-rules/comment-page-8/)
From there on you are just 6-8 weeks out and you are getting excited again.  This is where you do you long (and super boring) bricks, runs and rides and realize that after each training you have plenty of energy left.  Recovery feels like a breeze and the 70.3 distance feels like a run in the park.  Its an amazing feeling of fitness strength.  At this point you are cautious to avoid any kind of injury as you have come this far already, then in the Taper weeks you wonder if this is the right thing to do and why you should’t push for that last bit… but I believed in my Coach Tabitha Bond and she was just spot on on what would work for me.
On race day i had no clue if I was going the complete this and the only thing I had going for me was to believed Tabitha that I was ready.  My conservative estimates came out to 16 hours so i would have an hour to spare before cut off.  I had never ran a marathon before the IM, not even during the training where it stopped at 35km.  I had no clue what to expect next.  The horn sounded, and the familiar swim battle, took place.  It would be a 1,9km swim around the 1,8 km long Jetty and back.  I took an easy pace with long strokes, focussed on my rotations and lightly added my legs to pivot.  I made sure I stayed the course (straight) which did not always work as planned, but it was good enough, and the “with sighting” drills paid off.  after the u-turn around the jetty the adrenaline kicked in again that made me care less about the chafing caused by the wetsuit.  I got close, hit the beach and started making my way to transition… A guy next to me asked for the time (I had decided beforehand not to care as it is what it is) and saw 1:15. I was amazed and happy and dashed to T1… I was on a roll and felt great!.  Once on the bike I knew I had decided on a conservative safe pace (28kmph) and just kept it for 6:30 hours making sure I focused on my nutrition above all.  I ate, I drank, stopped to pee and I peddled. There is really little excitement in this part of the race at all (and I love cycling!). Arrived in T2, I seriously start worrying about the bike-to-run which has caused me and others great trouble in the past for many kilometers. Again a glimpse on the watch and it showed a flat 8:00 total time whilst dashing out of the transition. That would leave me a whopping 9 hours to finish the run.  OMG!  The smile continued and the run was smooth from the beginning short of some minor pains in the lower abdomen, nothing i couldn’t manage. After 10k of mainly conservative running with some short brisk walks I checked for the first time my Heart Rate which to my amazement was 112!  I cursed myself for being conservative and had limitations in my mind and picked up the pace from there.  I stopped for a Red Bull after 20km I had stored in my asset bag and kept increasing the pace.  I was going to be early!  It was getting dark and cold now. At 40km a pain hit my knee and despite all efforts, running was over.  but who cared! Yes this added 20-30 minutes to my time but I was well within my race targets and only this joint, not the rest of the body, was giving me a sign of struggle.  Now here in the story I will add that I weighed 104kg at the start of the race (IM wights you upon check-in to record and major weight loss in case of a medical emergency).  As a heavy set and overweight (and medically borderline obese with a BMI of 36) athlete my knees are obviously suffering.  Moving close to the finish the familiar thought of making sure you look good for the photo started coming and once the carpet was in sight, I high five’d my way to the finish line.  The victory was bitter sweet despite arriving 2 hours ahead of my expected scenario.
100km north of starting point to make sure I ride my distances
What happened next you don’t hear about either.  I read in an article that during an Ironman, an Age Grouper research has shown that many of the organs age by about 40years in comparison during the race.  It recovers in just a few weeks but it takes a hit.  For me I could no longer read my phone text without glasses which thankfully restored within a day.  I also had bladder issues where I could not hold my pee for a long time – Ithis recovered as well but took about a week.  Wether that was because of the salt intake or a combo of others I will leave to the scientists.  my knee recovered in just days and after a week I started some simple training again.
As today I am an Ironman and for that I feel proud,  However, I don’t feel as gratified as I would expect myself to be.  I felt like going for a super long walk, not a race of any kind.  Maybe unless you are in a higher league of racing, but a 70.3 offers all the right excitement for a triathlon. the Full only offers your the right to show you are physically awesome, at a huge cost on your body, family and finance.  When asked, would i do it again…… Yeah sure, but then race at your peak all the way.
About the Author:
Marcel Ewals is a Bangkok based 47 year old business executive that started Triathlons in 2012. He has written articles in several online publication and blogs about the other side of triathlons.  At 100+kg he finishes in the top 30% in most Tri’s and enjoys writing about those experiences.  You can follow him on Strava  and find him at races in Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and where ever work and passion takes him.
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