One of my favorite days of the year is getting closer.
I’ve watched a few different Ironmans but none compare to the overwhelming energy and support at Ironman Wisconsin. Set against the backdrop of rolling Midwestern hills and red barns, it’s a beautiful course, honest with a good dose of hills and anything goes Midwest weather. It truly is one of my favorite races to spectate.
Recall if you will my experience last year (click here). I watched the inaugural Well-Fit Ironman Wisconsin training program take on the day. This year, we have another group ready to chase their iron dreams. Months of training, practicing fuel plans, mental preparations – all of this culminates across 140.6 miles on the second Sunday in September.
The other day, I asked athletes to send me their favorite tip for Ironman. Tips came in from all different athletes, everyone from Kona finishers to those crossing the line right before midnight. Whether you cross the line in 9:56 or 16:58, you’re still an Ironman. You can learn something from everyone who’s ever done the race, no matter how they did it, how much they walked or their age group placing.
So here it is; a list of Ironman tips. Some are about training, some about the race itself. But the common thread that runs through all of them is the sense that to make it through 140.6 miles - whether it’s your first time or your tenth time - you need these four things: (1) Respect the distance by arriving with (and following!) a well-rehearsed plan (pacing, fueling), (2) let go of the outcome if it’s your first race (you are there to finish not race), (3) expect to overcome obstacles (always take action) and, (4) take it one step at a time every step of the way.
To all who contributed to this list – thank you! If you also have a tip, add it as a comment.
Someone told me no matter how I felt when standing at the water's edge that once the cannon went off everything I did in training would kick in. It did. Also, take the course one leg, one buoy, one mile marker, one aid station at a time, whatever it takes. When swimming, there is no sense in thinking about the bike or the run.
My focus was to just FINISH. Forget about racing the first one! I had a smile on my face at around mile 12 and one of the volunteers said "Keep on smiling, your body will know what to do with it".
Keep moving forward.
For those of us who are 14+ hr ironmen the things that have really helped me are:
1) Hire a good coach and believe in the plan.
2) You need to put in the training to get to the finish line, but in the end it is your nutrition plan that really determines what kind of day you have out there. Find a simple plan that works in training and stick to it.
3) "Forward progress" is always a good mantra!
Expect a huge range of emotions & physical sensations, both good and bad, during your Ironamn. Remember, whatever you're feeling in the moment, it too shall pass.
My very wise coach told me to ask myself all day "What will it take to get to mile 18 on the run? What do I need right now to get me there?" That singular focus kept my head in the game when it became almost overwhelming. The answer was almost always: I need to eat, I need to drink, or I need to get out of my head. Stick to the plan. The plan is what got you to the starting gun and it will get you to the finish line.
I saw a friend about halfway through the run when i was really starting to hurt. She told me something like, "Dig deep, it will all be worth it, even though it sucks right now." Those words stuck with me and helped me get through it!
Ironman is like a contest to see who can whistle the loudest. A smart, smooth and steady effort will get you across the finish line whereas a hard or reckless effort will run out long before the finish.
Take in everything and every moment. Prepare for the worst and pray the best.
Smile! The day of Ironman is so amazing! Remember to enjoy the fact that you are able to be out there!
Know that you will have good moments and bad moments throughout the day. When you're in a bad moment, know that a good moment is coming. Just keep putting one foot in front of another.
Stay in the moment. Don't think ahead at all (or behind). Think, what do I need to do right now; eat, drink?
The only goal should be to finish. If you're having an "off day" or something isn't going right, you can't be down on yourself for being 30 minutes or 2 hours slower than you'd hope. The only goal is the finish line.
Ironman is all about crisis control. How well you handle and rebound from each one that arises on race day determines how well you can do.
When one thing goes wrong you don't have time to sit and complain about it - get over it and move on! Check in with yourself and if something is wrong nutritionally or emotionally ask how you can fix it. And lastly don't be an idiot; don't wear new shorts shoes or socks on race day unless you've specifically worn that brand before!
Before I raced my first in Florida in 2006, I asked an older gentleman who had done 20 IRONMANS what his advice was; I still remember it word for word: "Don't just savor the finish line, savor every minute"
Here is a mantra (that I got from a complete stranger on race day): On Ironman Wisconsin race course in 2008, a guy passed me on one of the 3 sisters hills....I jokingly... said, "Ha, ha I didn't think my legs were supposed to hurt this much yet" and he said, "well your legs are a long way from your heart."
You need to be MENTALLY plugged in to the training, racing, the grind of Ironman. It's not just the race, but the months of preparation leading up to it. So mental preparation for the race, but also during training is key. And, support from friends and family because it really is a full commitment.
Learn, in training, the difference between feeling sorry for yourself and just needing to HTFU. You won't regret it on race day.
Expect 5 things to happen that you weren't planning on. That way when your goggles get kicked off your face, or something gets caught in your chain, you can "check it off" and it won't get you off course mentally!
1. Expect to race like you train. If you spend your long training rides and runs lollygagging and chatting with friends, don't expect to miraculously be transformed into Speedy Suzy just cause its race day.
2. Consistency in training is the #1 contributor to race day success.
3. Understand that the faster folks are not necessarily working harder on race day than you are. They just are faster at aerobic intensity and most likely work harder in training.
4. K-I-S-S: it ain't that hard. You swim, you bike, you run and you pay attention to what you are doing.
5. Race day swim and bike legs should be the easiest of the entire training cycle.
6. Walking the final 6 miles or so of your IM will totally obliterate any good feelings you had while over-riding the bike.
An ultra running friend once told me that the key to getting through long events was to "be here, now". Keep your "box" manageable and stay the heck in your "box".
Ask yourself while racing, is what I'm doing right now going to help (or hurt) my run?
Practice your nutrition on every long ride. Be anal. Write down what you ate, what you drank, how much of it, weather conditions and how you felt. Change only one variable at a time until you nail it.
Stay with what you are doing - do not ruminate about what just happened, whether it was a kick in the head from another swimmer or a bad gear choice on a hill. Stay PRESENT, think about your swim strokes -- follow your foot around the pedal stroke -- feel your foot hit the ground as you run -- you will stay present and fully tuned into what is happening - this gives you all of the current information that you need to sustain as you go. If a change needs to be made you are poised, ready and fully informed to make the change on the fly which is needed often in Ironman. As the day happens you are fully engaged, present and hopefully having fun!
Have a mantra. And a plan B and plan C. Reassess and use them.
The race itself does not define you. The efforts you put in to training and preparing yourself for the race will say more about you as a person than the race itself. Training needs to be a priority, but it does not need to consume you. Inevitably, life will happen. Road blocks will cause you to stumble in training, and the same is true on race day. Deal with the hurdle, make adjustments then move on. Today may not be your day. But it's just one day in your great life. Learn from it. Grow from it. And apply your new found wisdom to tomorrow.
When you get down (which is inevitable over the course of such a long day), focus why you signed up in the first place. Concentrating on that carrot can help you successfully navigate.
Believe in your training and everything you learned during that time. Things rarely go accordingly as planned and all of that knowledge will come in handy when you have to adjust to the unknown.
#1 - Practice practice practice the nutrition plan in every long training day. Have it nailed down and part of the routine well in advance of race day. Kinda frightening how many people I saw asking in the 2 weeks before the race "so, um, what do you guys think I should do for my race nutrition?"
#2 - Pacing. Hold back, don't get caught up in the excitement so much that you blow your pacing plan because it's easy to do. Because mile 20 of the marathon looks like utter carnage from all the people who blew their legs out on the bike.
The day before Ironman Canada, Lisa Bentley spoke and said something very that stuck with me. Come away with one thing you are proud of. Whether it's a swim PR, bike, or just how you handled the rough water. That stuck with me and I think it’s good triathlon advice but especially in an Ironman where the urge to dissect how every detail could have been better can overshadow the positives you achieved personally or otherwise. It would be a shame to come away with only negatives on such a long day.
With the length of an Ironman there is time to change things around if something gets off. I thought my body was doing great until I jumped off my bike in T2 and the stomach cramps started. After trying to fuel and run with an angry stomach I decided to stop fueling and take in only water and salt tablets in an effort to get my stomach happy again. This unfortunately led to a little bit of walking and some slower miles towards the middle of the marathon, but saved the rest of my race. Once my stomach calmed down and I started fueling again, I continued to feel stronger and stronger and ran the last 10 miles of the marathon continuously with each mile getting faster. So if something gets off, try to figure out a way to fix it, and do it.
Take the training one day at a time and the race one mile at a time. It's easy to get overwhelmed with the magnitude, but this helped me manage things with smaller 'bite' sized pieces.
The race is really only 140.1 miles. The last 1/2 mile doesn't hurt.
Make sure you have spare sunscreen, Vaseline, salt tabs, and nutrition in your special needs bags. Throw in some band-aids too in case you chafe. And, if all else fails, don’t be afraid to take a short nap - around mile 21, I was curled up like a baby next to a traffic cone on the Queen K Highway. Can’t say that it helped but it sure sounded like a good idea at the time.
The ultimate goal is to finish your first one no matter what your fitness level is. In the end it is a mental game to get to the finish line and you would rather have your mind more “fit and prepared” than your body.
I liked watching You Tube videos of Ironman and becoming an Ironman to get my mind more prepared. I love the one about the athlete who passes out in the middle of the run and gets revived and they ask him if he wants to go on. He stands up and says yes sir to the woman and keeps on going; that in my mind is a true Ironwill, the will to never give up.
Accept that your day will have some high emotions and some low emotions, that way when you start to get frustrated and down on the day, you can say 'duh, this is normal and will pass'.
Change a flat(s) during long rides, even if you never get any in training, still go through changing your tire on the side of the road with the tools you will have on race day. Then you can feel confident if you get a flat during the race, you've done it before.
Enjoy the race and remember why you're there.
Do your 110 mile ride solo and pack all your edible calories on you, a buffet on wheels if you will. Make minimal fast stop(s) (simulate special needs) and replenish your bottles. Pass your bike off, and hit the run with your gels ASAP. If something doesn't feel right, fix it and redo the exercise. Once you’re satisfied, write everything down you ate and drank and record the temperature as well. Analyze race day temps, modify hydration accordingly and then repeat your training day success with flexibility based on course terrain and weather.
Don’t underestimate how badly it hurts – make peace with it and know that everyone else, no matter how fast or slow, feels pain. How you deal with it is what sets apart those who finish and those who give up along the way.
Pack your shovel. Because at some point during Ironman, you are going to have to dig deep to get yourself out of a hole. It also doesn’t hurt to pack your big boy/girl pants.
For all racing this weekend, the best of preparation and luck to you. Yes, it requires a little bit of luck to finish Ironman. Luck with the weather, your equipment and your body. But the other 99.9 percent is in your hands. So, plan your race and then race your plan. Be flexible and connected enough to change your plan as you encounter obstacles. And when all else fails, one foot in front of the other all the way to the finish line.
If you’re going to be at the race, please say hi! You can’t miss me: I’ll be on Midtown hill with an infant or a bullhorn in my hands. Both are very loud.