Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why finishing an Ironman is a Big Deal...

First Ironman (Canada) - 1987 - 19 years old
This is a post for those that have never done an Ironman or don’t truly understand what it’s all about. It's about the stuff that is beyond knowing it’s a triathlon that includes a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run all done in a single day. 

So here we go….best to pour yourself a cup of coffee...its' a bit of a read...

Ironman Cozumel 2013 is officially over, but it’s not yet over in my mind. Finishing an Ironman lingers with you mentally beyond race day. As it should.

It’s not like a marathon. You can walk a marathon, there is no time limit. If you train you’ll finish.

When you sign up for an Ironman you are not signing up for a race, you are signing up for a lifestyle.

For those that do marathons or have done a marathon please don’t be offended by my comparison of an Ironman to a marathon. Completing a marathon is still a major accomplishment, hard and life changing. In my opinion it’s just not comparable to an Ironman finish. I’ve been lucky enough to do both.

With Ironman’s it’s different. You can’t mail in an Ironman, you have to train and you have to have luck on your side. So much can go wrong, physically, mentally, environmentally and mechanically.

After you’re done an Ironman you still need time to absorb what you accomplished. It doesn’t matter if you’ve finished your first Ironman or your 11th, there is an incredible sense of humbled accomplishment. Everyone on some level overcomes adversity to get to the start line and or finish an Ironman.

It starts with personal sacrifice with the time commitment required. You will miss out on a lot of stuff you may not have in the past to train or recover. It could be family or friend time, relaxation time and or sleep time. Many get up at 4:30 - 5 am to get training in before work in order to juggle family and work commitments.

You need to mentally stay focused, have a plan and work that plan. There will be days the last thing you want to do is train. It could have been a bad day at work, your spouse or kids need you or your just plain exhausted.

Physically it’s demanding training mileage. Doing long rides of 5 to 7 hours and runs of 2 to hours plus on weekends, week after week along with the regular weekday training and coming home tired is not easy. You don’t want to do much other than nothing.

Mentally it’s tough. A minimum training commitment is 12 weeks, although 20 weeks is ideal. Typically 15 – 22 hours a week. That’s a lot of time to stay focused in the light of moments that you want to quit training, or you get burnt out or you have other temptations you need to pass up.

Financially it’s expensive. Really expensive. Race fees are only the tip of the iceberg.

You have to pay to get into the pool to swim, or to join a masters swim club or take private coaching lessons if you don’t know how to swim well. That’s the cheap part, and then it gets to the bike.

In the good old days there wasn’t much choice in bikes. In 1987 when I did my first Ironman, a basic 10 or 12 speed was all you needed, no special handlebars or pedals, just a regular bike. Nowadays it’s much more complex with a variety of choices and lots of perceived peer pressure.

What type of bike do you want? Carbon maybe for a minimum of $2,000 up to $10,000 plus. What type of wheels do you want? Zipps maybe for almost $1000 per wheel. What type of clip less pedal system? Do you want a power meter? There’s another $1000.  Do you want tubular tires? There’s another $70 - $100 for every wheel and if you get a flat tire you have to buy a new tire. Then you need to figure out speedometer, triathlon water bottle cages, a pump and rear bike bags, extra tires, tool set, water bottles and maybe even a paid for bike fit. You add all that up and it could easily cost you $5000 plus to get an average bike set up.

Then if you’re training in the winter on your bike you need an indoor trainer or rollers to ride your bike on and maybe some indoor wind trainer tires so you don’t wear out your outdoor tires.  Maybe you want to make it easier mentally riding indoors to you buy yourself a $2000 computrainer that is really a video game that allows you to ride your bike through different Ironman courses and makes the time go by faster. Then there is the regular bike maintenance that seems to cost at least $200 each time you visit the bike shop along with buying the other stuff you don’t need but think is cool to buy.

There is clothing. You need a triathlon clothes. Swim, bike and run. Starts with swim trunks and goggles, then you need cycling clothes and shoes, sunglasses, and cooler outdoors training gear, same with running clothes and shoes and more shoes as they wear out. Don’t forget your triathlon bag for hauling stuff to the gym and races.

Next stop, coaching. There is a lot to know and nowadays everyone seems to have a coach to help him or her with the physical and mental program. Some coaching is inexpensive at $30 per week, others can be over $400 per month. You’re going to be training at different intensity levels so you have to get a heart rate monitor and you need to know your distance run so you definitely need a GPS, there’s a total of $500 easy.

It doesn’t stop there. You need proper nutrition. In the old days it was a banana or baked potato for those long rides. Now it’s much more scientific. You need to have enough carbs, proteins and fats depending on what you are doing whether it’s training, racing or recovering. There are electrolyte drinks, energy bars, gels and a variety of training nutrition. Expect to pay a minimum of $10 for every long bike ride you go on, if you’re lucky. If you stop at a convenience store on those long rides, expect to pay another $10.

When you get home you need your vitamins, proteins, shakes and all sorts of supplements that are too long to list. If you’re really committed you’re also buying the organic fruits, vegetables and meats. They don’t come cheap.

Now we get to the race. The race fees for an Ironman are one thing, close to $700. Yes you pay a lot to show up and suffer. But that’s the cheap part of racing. There is the travel and accommodation expenses, and if you bring your family to cheer you on it can get real expensive, could be in the thousands and thousands of dollars. Oh, and your probably travelling so your going to need a bike travel bag or box, there at least another $400 and the airlines will charge you extra to get it there each way. Some airlines like U.S. Airways are really expensive to transport bikes, they should be wearing a mask when they charge your credit card.

I could go on and on about the financial commitment, it’s a lot. One year I did 4 Ironman’s and I kept track of my expenses, it cost me $38,000 after tax dollars. Which ended up working out to almost $4.50 per mile trained for that season.

Overcoming physical adversity to complete an Ironman is another challenge. You need to be careful. It’s easy to over train and get sick or injured. If you get injured now you are incurring more expenses on therapy or healing aids. If you’re sick you’re missing valuable training days and you can lose your fitness.  To help with this many go for regular massages…more cha ching. Oh, and getting hit by a car on your bike is a real possibility. It near happened to me when a truck mirror hit me on the back on one of my rides. Scary stuff. Takes a while for you to feel comfortable “back on that horse”.

Along the way you need to learn a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. Everything to do with swimming, biking, running, nutrition, recovery, equipment and the list goes on and on and on.

Setting the goal to become an Ironman is a HUGE commitment on SO MANY levels. Getting to the start line is an Ironman unto itself. I often tell others that after doing everything you need to do to get to the start line the race is really the victory lap. The real Ironman happens the months and weeks leading up to it.

So now you’re at your Ironman event. Again, whether it’s your first or your 11th, you are nervous, anything can go wrong and you are just plain nervous. You’ve put in a ton of effort, made a ton of sacrifice and now you have the daunting task of finishing a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run. You know it’s not going to be an easy day and you are NOT guaranteed a finish.

Anything can happen, and as my coach the great Mark Allen says, “expect the unexpected during the Ironman”.

From personal experience I’ve been kicked in the swim so hard it bruised my ribs for 6-weeks, I’ve been punched, I’ve panicked and near drowned, I’ve crammed my calf and that was just in some of my swims. Others aren’t good swimmers and may not be good enough to make the swim cutoff time or come down with seasickness. Sometimes the waves are so large it’s impossible to see over them and incredible that people even are prepared to swim them. BUT this is Ironman. You don’t get to the start line to let bad water conditions end your day before it starts.

Last year at Ironman Cozumel about 400 people didn’t make the swim cutoff because of a freak uphill current from earlier storms. No exceptions on the cutoff times.

Heck even getting to the start line could be a challenge. You could get food poisoning. Don’t laugh, it happened to me and 36 other competitors at the 2010 Ironman China. I started, didn’t finish. Others couldn’t even manage to get to the start line. Your race is over before it even starts. Perhaps the airline loses your bike? Again, happened to me. Or you can’t make it to the registration cutoff in time? Yup, that one happened to me as well, cut it too close with my travel schedule.

Ironman’s are not like marathons where you can show up take as much time as you need to finish. In Ironman races if you miss the cutoff you are done for the day. All that training, expense, sacrifice and adversity leading up to it and you could be out of the race in the first 2.5 hours if you don’t finish the swim.

If you’re lucky enough to get to the start line and out of the swim, you now have the bike to complete, all 112 miles of it. Lots can go wrong on the bike. You could go out to hard and blow up, you’re bike could break or your chain snap (happened to me), you could get a flat or multiple (at IMCZ one guy got 6), you could get GI issues which is a nice word for stomach and bum problems, you could “bonk” which means you don’t have the energy stores to finish and could get delirious. Bonking just doesn’t happen on the bike it can happen on the run too. There’s a reason there is medical people and a medical tent with lots of IV’s at every Ironman race.

Or you could wipe out and maybe break something like a collarbone, or be so scraped up you can’t go any longer. And of course there is the bike cut off time. If you don’t finish the bike in time they pull you off the course and your race is over.

So you got to the start line, you got through the swim, you got through the bike and maybe you had some of the above issues above along the way but preserved, now comes the run.

The run is where I think the Ironman really begins. If you’ve never run a marathon after doing a 2.4 mile swim and 112-mile bike it’s hard to explain fully. It starts physically, can you even run. The first little bit your legs are like rubber until you settle in. Then you find out if you can even run or not. If not, it could be a long walk.

If you can run, how long are you going to be able to run for? Is your body physically able? It might be at the start but then you don’t take in the proper fluids or nutrition and all of a sudden you start bonking and it goes from a run to a “death march”.

Blisters, think blisters, easy to get especially if your feet get wet and it’s easy for them to get wet when it’s hot out and your splashing water or sponging your body with water to fight the heat and the water seeps into your shoes and your running with “squish, squish, squish” sounds.

Then there is the cramping. With all the sweating you’ve done on the swim and bike you may be low on salt and electrolytes, which causes cramping. Sometimes so sever you can’t even walk. You hobble. It could be your calf, it could be your thighs, and if you’re unlucky it could be both.

Maybe you crashed on the bike and broke your collarbone and you decided to tough it up and get it strapped up and walk the run? Don’t laugh I’ve seen it many times, I’m not kidding. It’s a 26.2 mile walk in incredible pain and the pressure to finish before the run / race cut off of 17 hours. There has cases where people finish less than 10 seconds after the 17 hour cut off and they DO NOT get a medal or finishers shirt. What they do get is a DNF, which means Did Not Finish.

Again, it’s not like a marathon. Not everyone gets a medal if they finish. In Ironman you need to finish within the time limit.

Now lets talk mental fatigue. Until you’ve participated in an Ironman there is no way to truly appreciate what I’m going to describe.

You might be lucky enough to get to the run and are on the run and don’t have any GI or real physical aliments other than exhaustion and fatigue. Don’t underestimate the power of exhaustion and fatigue on the mind. All you want to do is quit. Every step is painful. You start having come to Jesus talks with yourself, conversations like “WTF was I thinking when I signed up for this?” or in my case one of them was “there has to be an easier way to lose weight”. Mostly you just keep thinking how much further you have to go and wish it were over with every step. You start thinking of your nice it would be to relax in the comfort of your bed or sofa.

There is times that every step you take you want to quit. In tears type of wanting to quit, and sometimes you do. I've had that happen to me. I've quit with 13.1 miles of the run left. I could have walked it or crawled it, but that day I didn't have the mental fortitude to push through that day. Other times you want to quit right from the start and the entire day is talking yourself out of quitting. Getting to the finish line is no where near as glamorous at the finish line shot that your friends and family see.

If you’re walking at this point it’s even worse. The miles go by slower. Other strategies include trying to run from aid station to aid station and walk through each of the aid stations. Or you play games to run 100 yards, then walk 100 yard. Normally if you’re walking or struggling, by this time it’s now dark outside.

When it’s dark outside it gets darker in your mind. You start thinking about emotional stuff. This race I ran by a guy sobbing loudly as I ran by, obviously he was going through something very emotional.

Some people make the best of it. Find another person walking or struggling and partner with them. Talking through it and getting to know each other, it’s a bonding experience. You really get to know each other. I’ve been there. Sometimes I’ve had to latch onto someone to talk to so I could try and get my mind off the pain and suffering.

Weather also plays a big part. There is heat, wind and rain. Ironman Cozumel this year had it all at one point of the day. Not to mention the terrain could be tough like the first year of Ironman Utah, the bike was hilly and the run was super hilly for a run, and hot. It probably had something to do with why they cancelled that race. I heard they did it because it was too tough and not enough people were registering. I’m proud to say I did 2 out of only the 3 they held. I loved that race, tough and beautiful with full Ironman bragging rights amongst Ironman.

Weather doesn’t stop Ironman races. I’ve been in races where it’s been over 110 degrees and every year in Kona it’s hot, hot, hot. Waters can be turbulent. The winds on the bike could be insane. It could be hailing. It could be a lot of things and the race goes on. People worked to hard to get to that start line to be deterred.

Again, it’s not a marathon. A number of years back the Chicago marathon was shut down halfway through because it hit 90 F. The reason is many people who do marathons aren’t properly trained or decided to do it the night before when they lost a bar bet.

In Ironman’s 90 F is a nice day and in a sick way you hope for a strong wind to cool you down. And talking about strong winds, many have been blown off their bikes, I came close one year in Kona. I was so scared I was white knuckling it for 7 miles until the wind gusts stopped. I’ve also near been blown over in training by wind.

I hope the above paints a bit of a picture of what it takes to be recognized as an Ironman. There are reasons why immediately after finishing an Ironman they get a tattoo. It’s become a badge of honor. I have two. Not to mention the Ironman clothing and anything with an Ironman logo that you buy. It is a RARE day that goes by that I do not wear something with an Ironman logo. I even have Ironman underwear.

There is also a reason why Ironman is a brotherhood. I can meet another Ironman and there is an instant bond. Then we start talking shop. If I’m with my wife at this point her eyes glaze over and she thinks we’re talking another language.

So what motivates people to do an Ironman race?

There are as many reasons as there are Ironman finishers. The common thread is to push yourself and overcome adversity. Or perhaps you were never an athlete or accomplished anything physical and want to prove to yourself you could do it. Or you could have lost over 100 lbs with the goal of doing an Ironman to feel better about yourself. Or your doing it in memory of someone or cause that is special? Or you’re doing it just to push your limits.

Whatever the reason, when it comes down to those last 100 yards and you can see the finish line it’s emotional, ESPECIALLY if it’s your first one. Mine I was 19 years old and blubbering like a baby with a tingly sensation. It was the first time in my life I set my mind to doing something without quitting. It was the start of a long line of setting goals and not quitting. Finishing that Ironman changed my life.

Crossing that finish line is MAGIC!!!! You are in the moment like you have never been before. Your not thinking about anything, it’s a feeling of Joy that I’ve never experienced doing anything else.

This post started in my mind on the way to the Cozumel airport and back to my regular, non everything Ironman life. As I was driving in the taxi van I had tingly feelings of pride. I was reflecting on everything it took for me to finish this race. From the adversity I faced with coming down with Blood clots in both lungs earlier in the year, a pelvis injury, a job that has been taking 10 – 17 hours a day of my time and then the race itself and finishing it.

I was beaming and it was the first time since this all began and the race ended that I could truly appreciate and be proud of my accomplishment. Recognizing what I did was a big deal and I deserve to savor the flavor. We tend not to do that enough, I know I don’t. It’s kind of sitting back and enjoying the roses.

I think one reason I continue to do Ironman’s besides having “issues”, is that I would love to one day re-experience what I felt like on that first Ironman, those blubbering tears and tingling body of Joy with my arms raise high and a yell of joy when I crossed that finish line. When I see that finishers picture it reminds me of that moment.

Unfortunately this race I only had a slight one of those moments and I did get tingles when I ran by big crowds of spectators that were cheering and playing loud music. It pumps you up.

So I guess I’m saying the actual race is officially over but it’s not over in my mind. Maybe this week I’ll sit quietly by myself and relieve the race in my mind and let tears of joy start flowing.

That would be awesome!!!

Or maybe it will happen on my next Ironman.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful. Just what I needed after signing up for my first Ironman 70.3!