Ironman: the journey is the destination

From 2002 – 2007 I was “all in.” I ate, slept, and breathed Ironman training. I studied the science of nutrition, metabolism, and psychology. I used myself as an n=1 study. I trained hard. I raced hard. I basically gave five years of my life trying to get the most from my body.  As I wrapped up my final Ironman, I reflected on the journey and realized that the benefits I received from those five years transcended training and racing. Here is my perspective on my Ironman journey…

Note:  This post was written in 2007, my last season racing as a professional.

I got hooked on Ironman shortly after I became hooked on triathlon.  I viewed Ironman as the pinnacle of triathlon, the ultimate test of endurance.  I was intrigued by the complexity of the event and the amount of training involved.  Ironman athletes were in control of their bodies, physically able to go the distance and mentally able to stay strong.

I remember when I was in elementary school, my mom told me how impressed she was with how well marathoners knew their bodies; she said that marathoners’ bodies were so fine-tuned that they knew exactly what to eat and when to eat it in order to perform a certain way.  Now, I’m not sure how she knew this because she wasn’t a marathoner, but nevertheless, it made a huge impact on me.  I wanted to be one of those folks who had a fine-tuned body, able to discern even the slightest changes.

In 2002, I set my sights on trying to become the best Ironman athlete I could be. Now, was this a good idea?  Yes and No.  If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have made many of the same decisions, and I probably wouldn’t have focused on Ironman.  But I don’t regret the choice I made. I thoroughly enjoyed the Ironman journey.

Two quotes motivated my early Ironman training.  One quote was from Dan Empfield (founder of Quintana Roo and Slowtwitch) who wrote that “it takes three years of training to be able to do the three years of training needed to race Ironman.”  The other quote was from Greg LeMond who said something like:  no matter how good you get, racing doesn’t hurt less, you just get to the finish line faster.  Take home message: it takes a long time to get good, and it never feels easy, you just get done quicker.  With these two things in mind, I set out to transform myself into an Ironman athlete.

I was a do-it-yourselfer.  I didn’t want a coach telling me what to do (I had a couple of bad experiences with coaches, which is another story in itself).  I was a track and cross-country coach, so I felt that I had enough sense to train myself for an Ironman.  I read a bit about Ironman training and tried to incorporate what I learned during my life as a track athlete.

Sometimes ignorance is a good thing, but for me, most of the time, ignorance was a bad thing. I tackled many challenges that I probably shouldn’t have.  I did some crazy training that, at the time, seemed like a good idea.  It probably helped me in some way, but was not optimal.  I kept the Dan Empfield quote in mind and had faith that I was putting in the necessary basework so I could race Ironman.

I often looked at what the top folks did that led to their success and tried to incorporate it into my training.  Looking back, I think I wasted over 50% of my training by doing things that were not optimal to my performance enhancement.  This included intensity, volume, nutrition, and being too anal about getting training in.

I remember taking my own food to family get-togethers.  My wife’s family didn’t know how to cook when I visited; I would sit at the dinner table and eat my own food while the rest of the family ate normally.  I brought my indoor bike trainer to Christmas and did rides while the rest of the family was spending time together.  I scrutinized my training and the hours I spent each week. If I didn’t hit my weekly mileage or time goal, I wasn’t a happy person.  Looking back, I cringe…  I am very grateful that everyone in my family was so understanding and put up with my obsessive behavior.

A huge breakthrough came during my off-season in 2004.  Up till then, I had identified myself as an elite athlete.  This title carried over from my track career and my early success in triathlon.  This title was both an honor and a curse.  I loved being thought of as a top athlete, but I also felt like I had to continue training to keep up that reputation.  It was what was expected.

After my last 2004 Ironman in November, I took my normal month-long break in December, but instead of starting up training in January, I decided to take a few more weeks off.  My one-month break turned into a three-month break. My body eventually switched back to “normal person” body, where I wasn’t hungry all of the time, and I could survive on 3 meals a day.  I didn’t have the obsession to train two or three (or four) times a day.  I finally realized that I was completely content not being an athlete.  This was probably my greatest moment of enlightenment in my life. In February of 2005, I began training again because I wanted to, not because I felt like I had to.  What a huge shift!

2005 was my best triathlon season yet.  I stopped reading triathlon magazines, stopped browsing the internet triathlon sites, and had fun.  I trained wisely, almost care-free, stopped identifying myself as a triathlete, and had a lot more success.

2006 saw some breakthroughs in the amount of volume I could handle. I knew that I almost taken my body to the place where I was able to train like I needed to in order to race Ironman.  2007 was the season that I finally was physically ready to train specifically to race Ironman.  Floyd Landis said that there is no such thing as being overtrained- if you fry yourself in training it is because you were actually undertrained; you did not prepare yourself enough beforehand to handle the training!  I felt like I had finally trained enough to handle my training plan.

The 2007 season was structured around being in peak form for one Ironman – Ironman Canada in August. Expanding on Dan Empfield’s quote and incorporating a quote from Gordo Byrne, I spend 8 months preparing for 8 weeks of training for 8 hours of racing. That was my focus last season.  Get the body ready for the Ironman preparation by spending 8 months (November – June) “doing the time,” 8 weeks (mid-June – mid-August) actually getting ready for Ironman, and (hopefully) 8 hours in late August, racing.

It took almost six years of training for me to be able to handle that schedule.  But, along with that schedule came many sacrifices.  When you train for Ironman, and want to peak for that one Ironman race, all other races become fodder for the Ironman.  Each race I competed in outside of Ironman served as some piece of the Ironman training puzzle. It was frustrating not being able to perform better in mid-season races, but I had faith that it was all for Ironman.  I could handle under-achieving in a short triathlon because I was training for Ironman.

The 9-week Ironman prep period was very enlightening.  I learned what I could do and what I was capable of.  It was very tough because I had to do most of the tough workouts solo.  I doubt many other pros trained harder (or better).  They probably trained as hard (or as good), but not harder (or better).  If I were to focus on Ironman again, I would employ a similar schedule.  Maybe I needed two years of that kind of work to have a breakout.  I’m not going to find out.

I feel like I succeeded in Ironman.  I didn’t have the breakout race I was hoping for.  My PR is not as fast as I wanted.  But I know myself much more intimately.  I have three reasons for hanging up Ironman:

  1. Too much training for one chance.  If you don’t perform well on    race day, you have to wait a long time to try again.  I was fortunate this year.  I was able to enter Ironman Florida and give it another go this year.  Most people don’t have that option.
  2. I’m fast.  What am I thinking, trying to do Ironman?  I worked with Chuckie V (pro triathlete and the guy in the 1990’s Gatorade commercials with the huge mohawk) for about a year.  He told me that I was the fastest Ironman guy he knew; nobody he knew could run the 800m in 1:51. But that doesn’t really help Ironman. He was right, I need to take advantage of my physiology, not fight it.
  3. Training time.  I love training, but am looking forward to riding 6 hours because I want to, not because I need to.

If I could have read this blog in 2002, I wouldn’t have believed most of what it said, and I still would have done my own thing.  I don’t want you to take my experiences as your own.  Follow your own path, listen to other people’s advice, but don’t take it as Truth.  You are the only one who can determine your Truth.  I followed my passion down the Ironman path and happened to find Truth along the way.  I discovered what I already knew was true: I wasn’t doing this to be fit, I was doing it to find myself, to find deeper meaning. I think I am lucky; there’s a lot more to success than your PR.