Five Lessons From Five IRONMAN Triathlons

Good morning, Reno! It’s August already – whaaaaat!?

It’s been a wild ride this race season. In the past 14 days, I have raced twice. The first was the Donner Lake triathlon, still one of the most beautiful races around, and it served as a warm-up for IRONMAN Santa Rosa on July 29th. Both races went incredibly well, placed 3rd overall at Donner (w/ a staggering 8 minute PR and time of 2:26), behind one man with a metal body and a V8 engine, and the other who is one of the fastest runners in Reno. I then cruised through the 140.6 miles at Santa Rosa in record time (30 minutes faster than my personal best set wayyy back in 2013).

Both were successes in their own right, and such a great end to a chapter in my race life: no more full length triathlons. They consume time, they hurt, and I always lose unhealthy amounts of weight preparing for them… so I’ll be sticking with a few 70.3s a year, and bringing the heat on the Sprint and Olympics when I can.

Ever since completing my first IRONMAN in 2013, I have been frantically pursuing a better, faster, more efficient race time. It was mind-numbingly elusive, and frustrating to boot. What’s tough about those races/distances is that they typically only come once a year, require 20-30 weeks of very, VERY specific training, and have so many variables throughout the day, that it’s almost impossible to even account for or control. Not a great recipe for setting personal bests. Nutrition not on point? You’re done. Didn’t get enough long runs in? You’re toast. And so on and so on…

Looking back, I am very grateful, one, to have been able to compete in these kinds of events from a financial and physical perspective. It obviously takes a ton of time and resources, and it was a blessing in its own rite, and two, that I was never injured or involved in any accidents, etc. Most of these races have a crash or two, and last year at Boulder there was even one death :( Very disheartening that poor decisions are made in pursuit of shaving 30 seconds or so. I’m grateful that my wife has supported these endeavors as well – she’s as much a part of the racing as I am.

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I remember, very clearly, registering on June 23rd, 2012 for IRONMAN Coeur d’Alene, which would take place exactly 365 days days later. That started a chain of events that eventually led me to Santa Rosa. One of the largest hurdles I experienced was that the first race went so well and the bar was set at an almost unreachable height! Weather was perfect, it was a super fun two day road trip with parents and friends, and the race (with lots of ups and downs) turned out wonderfully in the end. Little did I know that I would be unable to replicate the awesomeness of that day – it was truly a one time deal – and yet I was chasing after the wind trying to recreate it. Often in the past four years, I have looked back and thought that I should have just stopped after my first. I’m glad I didn’t, but I had plenty of compelling reasons to…

Between canceled races, icy rain, and an overwhelming amount of bee stings, I have had races go well and then come crashing down poorly in the last 26.2 miles (~40% from a time perspective) of the race. While I don’t always expect vast, monumental improvements across the three disciplines yearly, it would be fairly typical to see improvements from a time or efficiency standpoint as year after year of endurance training accumulated. Sadly, those gains never really manifested in the full distance in 2014, 2015, or 2016, save for my cycling time, which was a 14ish minute improvement at Boulder last year. It all felt like a rut even though I was training more (quantity) and seemingly better (quality). Olympic and 70.3 times improved nicely, but never the über long stuff.

That all changed this season, and and was manifested at Santa Rosa. A few important, critical changes took place this season, which combined with a solid training plan and 11 years of triathlon fitness, really contributed to near-perfect race days. 

  1. Consistent long runs – almost every Monday since February, I have gone on a long run (10 miles+). That made a HUUUUGE difference, especially since running was not (and is not) my strength. I even managed to do a single, 20 mile run, a career first for me in training. 
  2. Consistent speed work – for 75% of my season, I participated in speed work with a bunch of barbarian runners here in Reno, resulting in higher run fitness and a new PR in the 13.1. Focusing on the most challenging of the sports not only improves the weakest link, but actually makes you stronger in the other two. This was especially true since ever single one of them was exponential faster than I was… talk about having to work hard!

“Consistency is key!”

The swim at Santa Rosa was a piece of cake, b5c5378a-1.jpgalthough the water was practically boiling. I was upset that wetsuits were allowed, considering that the water was above wetsuit legal temps the day before. I think there would have been a huge advantage for the top 10% of swimmers if it was non-wetsuit… oh well! The bike ride was also awesome, and averaging nearly 21mph I wrapped that up in 5:20. No cramps, no stomach problems, just solid cycling. Even on the marathon I felt great until mile 21 or so. I had to fend off some Charlie horses in the belly of the calf, but it was mostly smooth sailing once I settled into a sustainable pace (not something I had ever been able to do in ANY IRONMAN races before).

I crossed the line in 10:38, almost a full half hour ahead of my 11:07 from CDA (12.8 seconds/mile faster).

[Note: This is pretty much in line with the 8 minute drop at Donner, since a full IRONMAN is ~4x longer than an Olympic]

It was such a great feeling, and as my wife asked later in the day yeah, I knew I was going to crush it, but only after 75% of the day had passed. I knew it at mile 10 on the run (based on pace, how much energy I had, etc.) and used those 16 miles to stay focused on the end goal of finally, FINALLY setting a new PR. It was a sweet victory and one which made my experience racing IRONMAN that much better. It also helped seeing her at mile 17, where we both agreed I was on pace – she is always my coach on race day ;-) I have never gone to an IRONMAN as a spectator, but major props to her for tolerating and always finding ways to enjoy and continue supporting. It probably helps they give us free food coupons for our friends/family :D

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Enough with the narrative…here are five critical lessons I took away from my five races!

1. Pursue with Persistence But Practice Patience – I remember the first time one of my friends mentioned that they volunteered at a 70.3 race. I thought that was absolutely THE MOST PREPOSTEROUS THING I’d ever heard. 56 miles on a bike sounded like an eternity, and why the HECK would someone want to run a 13.1 after doing that?? Yea, no thanks…

Years and years later, I feel confident I could do one of those races off the couch and still finish in one piece. How the times have changed. I also fondly remember the summer of 2011 when I trained for my first IRONMAN 70.3. Boy, did I have to earn it, but I loved the experience and thrill of that first race in Lake Stevens. Just a few years later (2014), I doubled up on the 70.3 distance and did quite well. It’s re-iterated in training books everywhere, but I have to emphasize that consistency, having a plan (while still listening to your body), and not being afraid to take a true off-season to get out of shape and recover mentally and emotionally are the keys to long-term success.

Endurance, in its truest form is a mental battle. One of patience, discipline, and playing the “long” game. You do that by practicing, practicing, practicing. You train the sports, the nutrition, the short days and the brutal days, and especially honing in your mental resoluteness to get you through the dark and trying times. At Santa Rosa, my entire marathon was a mental race. As my resolve began to crack, it was simply a matter of settling into the pace I should run, not the pace I could run, and finding a way to go another mile, another half mile, another quarter mile, even just another 50 feet. By my estimation, I ran 40-50 races that Saturday. Sections of the bike course broken into 20 and 30 mile segments, and then 3-4 subdivisions for each of the 26.2 miles that waited for me after. The body, if properly trained, will find a way (my mantra for the year is “every day I will find a way”). It’s getting the gray matter into trucking shape that takes the time. I executed my plan best I could, trusted my training, and gutted it out. Paydirt!

2. Be Brave. Visualize. – Risk taking is a very natural part of triathlon. Whether learning to swim, going for a run longer than you ever thought possible, or even just committing to yourself to learn to ride a bike confidently around traffic, there is always something to keep the mind engaged. You need to be brave to engage in triathlon. Brave enough to admit when you’re anxious or scared, but also brave enough to tell yourself you can do it, you WILL do it, and then to follow through.

Making a commitment takes bravery, as does de-prioritizing things in your life that may be toxic or of negative influence. One of the most powerful tools in a triathlete’s arsenal is the ability to visualize. To recreate in your head the step by step process as you go throughout the day. What you’re going to look like coming out of the water, how efficiently you’ll flow through your transitions, and even something as silly as your finish line victory celebration. It’s not a matter of painting a picture just for the sake of seeing it, but it gives you a clear drive and purpose, almost as if you’re acting the events before it happens.

As soon as I hit the marathon, with over 4.5 hours of time available to break my PR, I immediately began picturing myself throughout the entire run course, grabbing nutrition, breathing properly, running tall, and crossing the finish and breaking the 11 hour mark. As the marathon carried on, my visualization changed from “just barely finish under 11:07” to “absolutely destroy my previous record!” There was a bit of hesitation on my part, fully expecting a major blowout, but before mile 12 I knew that I had it in the bag because to break 10:50, I only need to run a 12 mile pace for the remaining 14 miles. Piece of cake. The fitness drove the feet, but the mind drove the body on that one.

3. Work Hard and Get Back Up – I’ve been fortunate to have very few injuries during my 11 years of triathlon, although that isn’t to say there haven’t been disappointments. During the summer of 2012, I had a very difficult time running at all, due to incredible shin pain. Not a great recipe for completing a race that involves a half marathon, but I at least finished. 

I’ve also had to deal with an IRONMAN being canceled due to fire, and then icy rains which caught everyone unprepared. It would be very easy to roll over and throw your hands up and insist on quitting, but I always used the off-season to find renewed interest in the sport and returned to it because of the fun and excitement that it offers. Yeah, there are a lot of times when you feel crappy during a race, but you should always press on (unless it is causing physical pain), and at that point in your athletic career you should know the difference between muscle fatigue and damaging physical pain.

4. Do The Right Things – Diligence and perseverance are their own reward, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain steps that should be followed when preparing for a major sporting event. You have to lay the groundwork (your base fitness), practice your sports disciplines, sleep more than enough, eat quality foods, find a support network, train with athletes who are faster and more experienced than you are, and finally, bust your butt on the hard days but take the easy days too!

To succeed in an event with three sports, you have to do the swims, you have to go on the long bike rides but also spend the time building power, and lastly, you’ve got to run. Run long, run short, run hard, and run easy. The body has an incredible ability to adapt, but it can’t adapt if you don’t regularly engage it in new and challenging activities.

5. Eat All the Foods! – One of the largest changes that occurred in my life when I first began pursuing the sport was my approach to nutrition. I began focusing on whole foods, foods with an ingredient list I could understand, plenty of fruits and veggies, and creating my own portable snacks for when I’m out adventuring. Resized_20170729_182509It doesn’t do you any good to be great at swim, bike, and run if your body isn’t healthy, ticking away smoothly, and full of life. Garbage in garbage out is just as prevalent for athletes as it is everyone else.

Pick quality, and your body will thank you. I also regularly use XR Nutrition’s Enzyme Essentials, Inflammation Relief, and Pure Performance to keep everything ticking at a high level. One word of caution – with that much exercise you have to FUEL and energize your body, not just eat three meals a day. You’ve gotta keep the gas tank full and you do this by snacking frequently, getting a healthy mix of your fats, carbs, and proteins, and by emphasizing quantity of high quality foods. Yeah, it sucks meal-prepping, but you’re not going to make it very far if you don’t have a plethora of delicious food to fuel your journey!

I’m not going to lie – it’s a HUGE relief to be done with the 140.6 race distances. The swim and bike aren’t bad in terms of training and body impact, but that marathon at the end is just absolutely soul-crushing. That, and being on a bike for 4-6 hours isn’t exactly a thrill all the time either… The icing on the cake is going out with an epic bang, breaking the 11 hour wall that so long eluded me. Secretly/not so secretly, the back of my mind wonders if I can break 10:30, or even 10:00 hours for the IRONMAN distance, but I am quite content to leave that on the back-burner and get back to living my life for the time being.

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Five IRONMAN races. Five finisher medals.

Triathlon will still be a huge part of my day-to-day, just in shorter distances and chunks. 2018 awaits! Embrace it.

Hope you have a wonderful week! If you like this post, please share and subscribe. I can be found on Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and the planet Earth.

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