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By David B. Glover, MS, CSCS
As a triathlon coach and sub-nine hour Ironman-distance athlete, I hear this question all the time: How do I train for and race an Ironman?
With the completion of my 28th Iron-distance race this past year at Vineman, I thought it might be helpful to anyone who has done an Ironman or considering doing an Ironman to share the mistakes I made and lessons I learned along the way.
I began running and strength training in high school and continued with both through college and into the Navy. I never swam competitive and I rode a too large road bike for recreation. I had several friends in college and in the Navy who were triathletes but I was intimidated by the sport. After being diagnosed and treated for cancer in 1995, I bought a $600 Cannondale road bike entered my first sprint-distance a few months later as a way to prove to myself that I had beaten the cancer. I was instantly hooked, but an Ironman seemed impossible at the time.
With two years of training and racing sprint and international distance races, I let my next-door neighbor and training partner, Phil, convince me to sign up for Ironman Canada with him. Phil had done a now defunct Ironman in New Hampshire several years prior so he had experience with the training. We purchased and shared a 6-month Ironman training plan, and in March 2007, our training for Ironman Canada began.
Theres no way around it. If you want to do well in a long distance event, you have to do the long distance training. At the time, I was newly married and working full-time, but I was able to commit the necessary 1-3 hours each day during the week and longer blocks of time on weekends. If you dont like to do the long 4-6 hour bike rides, then Ironman training and racing may not be for you.
Training for an Ironman is a significant investment in time and energy. Following a structured training plan helped me reduce the anxiety of What am I supposed to be doing? Leveraging a credible knowledge source gave me the confidence to know that we were doing the right thing. I was also able to leverage the experience of my training partner who taught me about things like bonking from not consuming enough calories, carrying multiple water bottles for long rides to avoid unnecessary stops and pacing over longer distances.
I competed my first two Ironman races on my $600 Cannondale road bike with cheap clip-on aerobars and regular spoked wheels while wearing separate outfits for each leg of the race. As I would also experience in future races, comfort is just as important as aerodynamics for longer events.
After 112-miles of riding, I was happy be off my bike and because my strength at the time was running, I started running fast. I overheard heard a few comments from spectators like, Slow it down, and Hes going too fast, but I ignored them because I felt good. I ran my first 10km with a big smile on my face, but after that, my smile slowly inverted as my pace drifted downward, and I went from the passer to the passe. In hindsight, it would have been better to start off conservatively and build speed later if I continued to feel good. Still, I crossed the line and was now an Ironman. That feeling of crossing the finish line for the first time is indescribable other than to say that its an incredible high that lasted for weeks. I wanted to relive that experience so I signed up for the Great Floridian Triathlon two months later.
I did not appreciate how much of a difference having a good training partner made until I began training for the Great Floridian by myself as Phil was done with Ironman racing for the year. The long rides and run were lonely and my motivation sagged, resulting in a time 30 minutes slower than at Ironman Canada.
After Great Floridian and the end of my triathlon season, I experienced post-Ironman depression for the first time a feeling of sadness, increased anxiety and aimlessness that persisted for several months. The days were shorter and colder so I was not doing as much outside. I had no athletic goals to focus on for the remainder for the year. I think this is normal for many Ironman-distance athletes that Ive talked to over the years to experience. I think the key to getting through it is first to understand that its only temporary and then to look for alternate activities outside of triathlon that give purpose and direction.
With my first two Ironman-distance races under my belt, I set my eyes on a new goal for the following year: getting faster.
Live strongly and boldly,
Author of Full Time & Sub-Nine: Fitting Iron Distance Training into Everyday Life, David dabbles extensively in endurance sports as a triathlete, coach, writer and race director. He has helped hundreds of individuals through coaching, educational seminars and camps including She Does Tri Camps for Women. As an athlete, his accolades include an 8:51 Ironman PR and being the 2007 inductee into the Vineman Hall of Fame. For more information about how David can help you with your triathlon goals, please visit: enduranceworks.net.