Sunday, August 9th was a day where you learned if you were made of iron.
It was that night that I just got back from Verona with the Well Fit Ironman Wisconsin group. The day took place on the meat of the Ironman Wisconsin course – the loop out of Verona. Verona is about a 160 mile drive from my home. In the car by 4:50 am, a quick stop for coffee and then drove up to meet the team.
If you’ve never ridden the Verona loop you really should. It’s actually quite a beautiful loop filled with red barns, green fields and pastoral settings you only find in mid-America. What you don’t expect to see, though, are the hills. Someone was asking me if it had short steep hills or long grinders. I said both. It’s not what you would expect to find in the Midwest but then again I think that’s what makes it so intriguing. It’s a true challenge beyond the monotonous stretches of flat and wind that we have around here.
Everyone meets up at Fireman’s Park. I can’t imagine the city of Verona ever expected that their 2 dollar showers at Fireman’s Park would be one of the city’s biggest revenue generators but you put a large parking lot with showers, facilities and an small pond right off the Ironman course and you’re gonna make money. If they aren’t selling Gatorade by now they probably should. Add to that chammy butter, salt tabs and Nutella for big time profit capacity.
We rolled out around 7:30 am and I was in charge of the fast group. Whatever fast means. Fast in Ironman could mean a lot of things. Especially in Wisconsin. You could easily blow through the first loop in 20 mph and find yourself scraping long at 16 the second time around. This course is all about pacing. It’s actually one of those courses that favors brain over brawn. So if smarts are your thing and if you feel like you can think your way through a race rather than muscle through it – head to Wisconsin. You’ll surely beat half the field that leaves half their race on the first loop.
I heard the human carnage on the second loop of Ironman is awesome.
I was only riding one loop today and I was grateful for that. It was already 80 degrees with over 80 percent humidity and the winds were kicking up to 20 mph. It was not even 8 am. Surely the weather would make this an epic day but the team was prepared. I had given them fair warning and told them days before that if you look at the spelling, there is no DNF in Ironman. In other words, there would be no DNFing on this ride today.
It was hot. I mean – honest to god dripping in beads of sweat so hot you think you might implode kind of hot. The kind of hot you find in August in the Midwest. Nothing else like it. Except Hawaii. Which is more like open your oven, stand in front of it while wearing your full wetsuit kind of hot. It wasn’t that bad today but it was close.
The loop is always beautiful - especially on a sunny day. It’s the contrast of colors that always amazes me. The blue skies, the red barns, the green fields. It just looks right. The course was in mostly good condition except for a stretch of gravel that you hit while going over 40 mph (perfect timing) and a small stretch of road that was chunky gravel. Other than that, a great ride.
Back at the park I took over at the aid station and went for a quick run. Took my two dollar shower and then waited. Watched the team roll in and out of the park between loops. I believe it was somewhere around mile 70 that an athlete pulled into the park and told me they were done.
Haven't you heard? There is no DNF in Ironman. You are finishing this ride today!
Maybe that's harsh or maybe it's just serious. When you take an athlete’s success seriously, they take it seriously too. Not just that but you are dealing with adults. Adults are smart. Give an adult an inch and they take 140.6 miles. What I mean is that an adult will go out on a 6 hour ride with a bottle of water and a saltine and come back and tell you why they are a better person for surviving a ride like that. No, you were an idiot for doing that. And you need to fix that for next time. But no adult sees it like that initially. Adults will rationalize why their poor decision was the right one. You cannot rationalize your way through Ironman. So, cut and dry, I tell them what went wrong, how to fix it and that you expect them to get it right next time. After all they are adults. They have the capacity to get it right – they just need someone to keep them honest and hold them accountable. To show them that it is worth taking seriously. When you are serious, you pay attention to details, you invest in it, you make sure that it will go right. When things go right they feel good and they are, in turn, more fun. Success breeds more success and boom you have someone that gets through Ironman having a pretty good time.
I told athlete to sit down for 20 minutes, eat some food and find their way through it. Find whatever it takes to bounce back. Maybe it’s a short nap, a bottle of water, a banana, a pretzel, a bar. Whatever it is find it, work through it and get back out there.
Know what? They did. And when they came back into the parking at 98 miles know what I said? Ride around the parking lot until you hit 100. Trust me on that. You don’t remember the 98 mile ride. You remember the full 100. Especially on an epic day like today.
Another athlete rolled in and said they were feeling shaky. First a few questions – tell me about your fluid, salt, fuel intake. Tell me if your daily nutrition recently. Have you lost weight. What did you do yesterday. What else is going on. Questions like this give you the full picture of what is happening. Often I find that it’s not what the athlete is doing that particular day that is having an impact on their workout – it’s what they did the days leading up to that session. Low fueling, dehydration, life stress, work stress, lack of sleep – it all adds up.
The answer to that athlete – take 20 minutes, eat something, go back out for 10 miles and then reassess. You owe it to yourself and your commitment to at least try. Know why? Giving up is a mental f*ck. Those are not my words but something I overheard today and found it so appropriate. When you quit a workout for Ironman, especially on an epic day, it becomes a mental f*ck. Should the conditions be the same in Ironman or should things start to spiral downhill you will find yourself going back to this failure and no other workout. Here’s the deal – in Ironman you don’t remember the day you went out and cruised through 100 miles at 20 mph on a 65 degree day with a tailwind. No. You remember the days where you find yourself pedaling up a 10 mile hill into the headwind going 10 mph while you’ve broken out in heat rash because it’s 90 degrees and your left foot feels like it’s going to fall off and you know that all you can do is keep pedaling to get through it because the time will pass, it always does. And eventually it passed even though you rode the final 10 miles fighting your tears – and a screaming foot. On race day you go back to that. You go back to the workout where you completely unraveled. You think to yourself I made it through that so I can make it through this. But if you never force yourself to make it through – all you have is a memory of giving up and when you are stripped of all defense, sanity and logic at mile 19 of the run – you will go to that memory and it will f*ck with you.
*do not give anything up*
Athletes continued to roll into the park to refuel or rest before going out for their last 40 miles. Today most of them set out to cover 112 to 120 miles. For some the full race distance, for others the very important overdistance ride. Last week when one of my athletes saw “ride 8 hours” on their schedule they said they had to call their spouse in to restart their heart. In my opinion, the overdistance ride is important to teach yourself that you can not only get through the bike course but you can go further. It’s more for mental survival than anything physical. There are no heart rate or wattage goals in that ride – just fueling, survival and battle the demons. I find that athletes come back from that ride changed – it’s a feeling of confidence and empowerment. An overdistance ride faces you with through the ups and downs that you often experience in Ironman – the highs, the lows and all of the unraveling in between. It’s important to put yourself in situations like that so you learn how to deal. And success at Ironman is largely the ability to deal – for 140.6 miles.
When everyone was out on the course again, I went to pick up some sandwiches for lunch. When I returned around 1 pm, I found some of my team in carnage. SB was laying on the ground. MK was in the grass. DT looked like he had the shit scared out of him about 20 long rides ago. RP was shaking his moppy-head. EE was smiling (he sells Lexapro – does this surprise us? No.) And ST was proud that of all the guys he was the only one who had urinated. (I have a rule, you pee every 2 – 2.5 hours in Ironman). I put MK and SB on lockdown from leaving the park until they urinated. It was a proud moment when SB emerged from the bathroom victorious. I told the others to restock, refocus and get rolling again. Only 40 miles to go.
A short while later SA rode into the park. Clearly in a foul mood. Ah, someone has reached mile 80 of the long ride. It’s usually at this point that I find the honeymoon is over and you start to realize that you’ve just plain had enough. Up to mile 60 it’s a joy ride, energy is buzzing and mentally you are satisfied. Somewhere around the 70 – 80 mile mark things go south and a sense of fatalism kicks in. I may never get off this bike. The last thing I want right now is another gel. I cannot believe I have another 30 to 40 miles to go. SA lets a few cuss words roll off his tongue and vents frustration that he just wasn’t feeling that great. It’s the weather, it’s the wind…know what - it’s not about setting a personal best today it’s about getting through it just because you can. I remind all of them today that they are at the end of a 3-week build. Ironman training is not about going out and smashing your personal speed records. It’s about endurance, both mentally and physically, especially for the first one (and all but two are doing their first Ironman). This is the good stuff. This is the training that counts. Get back out and finish the job.
I realize at this point that I’m having a good time. I think back to my last career, my corner office where the 25 instructors would pop in and out of my office throughout each day. Some to vent, some to chat, some to ask questions. I feel like a manager again. A coach is a manager. They plan, they direct, often they redirect, they motivate, they have the door open and sometimes just knowing they are there is all that matters. I realize I am in my element here and I’m not even out there on the ride. What I’ve realized, like I did with teaching, sometimes teaching others to do what you once did well is more gratifying than doing it yourself because it has impact beyond your personal space.
About this time it starts raining. A deluge of raindrops, thunder rumbles through the sky. The long ride in the heat, humidity, wind just became…epic. Excellent. They will go through it all out there. It is about 90 miles into the ride and not only are they fatigued but they will now go through it all. They will be faced with yet another challenge when they are least wanting or expecting it. What you learn about yourself in these moments is more valuable than any training session. The thought processes, how you deal, how you reconcile with yourself – this is separates those that make adversity their advantage and those are content to just walk away.
Athletes begin to roll in at different intervals. Most agreed that the rain was a refreshing finish to the slow cooker they rode for most of the day. Eventually we were just waiting on one more athlete, MK. SB reported that while he cut the loop short after the lightning invoked a 100 cow stampede in the field he was riding by, MK was going for the full 120+ miles. In the pouring rain. MK is just that kind of guy. He’ll gut it out and destroy himself just to follow through and get it done.
About an hour later, MK rolls in. The rain is pouring in heavy, steady drops and he rolls up to the car.
“That was hard.”
I asked him how many miles he covered and he admitted that his computer pooped out after a few minutes in the rain. He didn’t look all that tired and I could tell this one was his victory. And he wasn’t done yet. His next comment was as he turned to EE and said “ready to go for that run?”
After some clean up, we pulled out of the parking lot just to see EE and MK returning from their run. It was still raining and at this point the 2 dollar shower had closed down. Plus they had a 3+ hour drive back to the city.
I hear this a lot from athletes after they do the race: Ironman is hard. Yes, it is. It is possibly harder than anything you’ve ever done unless you’ve pushed out a baby. Or been a marine. Or whatever else has rocked your physical or emotional world. It is hard but if you put yourself in situations that are harder or make yourself face the challenge then on race day all you have to do is everything you’ve already done in training. Sure, you might have to run a little farther than you did in training but after 130-some-odd-miles do you really think the last 10 are going to be that much harder than where you have already been? The answer, if you have done your preparation right, is usually…no.
I don’t make many promises as a coach. But when I coach someone for Ironman I promise them one thing. This will be hard. It will shake you, it will scare you and at times you will want to give up. But that’s what makes it so great. You learn things about yourself and you are faced with so many things for the first time. Today many of the adults on the team rode farther than they ever have in their entire life. How awesome is it that at age 30, 40, 50 you can say that you did something for the first time? New experiences make us uncomfortable and require us to adapt and react. That is learning. You end the day in a different place than you started. You find that happens a lot when training for Ironman.
Commitment comes in so many different styles and variations when you are dealing with adults. Each has their own psychology and experience that compels them to do what they do, how they do it. I saw so many ways of expressing commitment today that I drove home feeling inspired. No, I have no desire to do an Ironman but I do like guiding people for it. I see them learning. I hear them growing more confident. I helped them take something so seemingly big into something smaller and more manageable. Every workout you gain fitness, confidence and add it all up and you’ll cross that line.
Tomorrow is the group’s final big workout. We’re calling it Epic Saturday. It will be irontastic, irontacular, irontabulous, ironific and by the end of it they should be all ironed out. A 1 hour swim, 6 hour ride and 45 minute run. After that, the work is done and their work becomes more and more rest.
It’s almost taper time.
Plans are being made for the Ironman Wisconsin 2010 Well Fit training group. And, this just in, we’re looking to start one in November for Ironman Coeur d’Alene. Ifyou’re interested in a quality training program with two coached workouts a week in a dynamic group setting, inquire within. Now, it’s time for me to get ready for Epic Saturday. As Coach Keith would say: IRONWARD!