In 2009, I made a New Year’s Resolution to run my first 5K.
I assumed I’d run the 5K, cross the accomplishment off my bucket list, and go back to being a couch potato. But that didn’t happen.
Instead, that 5K led to something else: 20 months after making that resolution, I completed my first Ironman triathlon, a race which consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run.
Anyone can do an Ironman
After the Ironman, I wrote a post which was titled with the one statement about Ironman I firmly believe: “Anyone Can Do an Ironman.”
If you sit on the sidelines of an Ironman finisher’s chute long enough, you’ll believe this statement, too. There’s such a wide cross-section of Ironman triathletes, from chiseled studs to 80 year-old nuns. After sitting at enough finish chutes, I decided I didn’t want to be a spectator anymore. I wanted to know what it was like to be on the other side.
The next time I saw an Ironman finisher’s chute, I was running down it.
When I made that resolution to run my first 5K, I had no idea I’d complete an Ironman 20 months later. I was a couch potato who was trying to quit smoking (again). Ironman triathlons were something crazy people did, and though I was happy to spectate with a beer in my hand, I never saw myself as one of those people.
Besides, training for a 5K was hard enough. Training to run 3.1 miles was difficult and time-consuming.
Covering 140.6? No freakin’ way.
The 9 things that helped me do it
It was a series of bold choices, hasty mistakes, happy accidents, and – finally – focused planning which took me from couch potato to Ironman in just 20 months.
Everyone has their own way of doing things when it comes to Ironman, and when you train for one, you’ll discover yours. For now, here are what I found to be the nine most important keys in going from zero to Ironman faster than most people think is possible.
Key #1: Start small
For those people who think “I’d like to do that someday,” don’t make Ironman your first goal. Start small, like with running a 5K, and then gradually build from there.
My initial goal, in 2009, was to run a 5K. The race was so much fun, I wanted to run another one — so I did! I spent an entire summer running 5K races before deciding to make a jump to the half-marathon distance that fall.
As part of my half-marathon training plan, I started doing some cross-training – a little swimming here, a little mountain biking there, a few weights there – and all the while, had fun and enjoyed my new hobby.
Key #2: Commit
If you’re thinking about doing it, stop.
Plenty of people think. They have dreams and ambitions and goals, and they’re beautiful… but you need to become a person who stops thinking and starts doing.
In 2009, a friend of mine minimized his 12th Ironman finish by humbly telling me, “Psssht! It’s nothing! Anyone can do an Ironman.” I wondered aloud if I could be one of those people. He chuckled condescendingly and patted my shoulder: “Sure. Maybe someday.”
I signed up for Ironman Wisconsin 2010 shortly after that, before I had even finished a half marathon. My “someday” was circled on the calendar, 364 days away.
If you want to do an Ironman, the first step is the most important one: Pick a race and commit to it. Nothing lights a fire under your ass like the e-mail confirming your registration for an Ironman… and the 500-plus dollar receipt that comes with it.
Key #3: Find those who know
No one expects you to be an expert in triathlon before beginning your training for Ironman. But what is expected is that you’ll be willing to seek out those experts.
Having never done a real triathlon before, I knew I’d need help preparing for an Ironman. Many of the training plans contradicted each other: some said to do lots of long, slow rides and runs; others said to focus on intense speedwork with a few endurance workouts built in. I had only been active for about 9 months – hardly enough time to understand all that Ironman training entailed.
Instead of trying to decipher tri-speak on my own, I asked for help. I joined a Masters Swim group for training workouts, began doing track workouts with a free group, and enlisted the help of triathlete and cyclist friends to explain training concepts to me and suggest shorter triathlons to do as part of my training calendar.
I became a frequent customer at my local triathlon shop, asking endless newbie questions about gear and race nutrition.
I read every book and article I could on Ironman training, and practically tackled anyone, even strangers in the grocery store, wearing an M-Dot (the Ironman logo) to ask them questions.
I went to every race in my community, and some that weren’t.
I spent just as many, if not more, hours learning about Ironman than I did actually training for the Ironman itself.
Key #4: Build gradually
Focus on the next race, weeks away, not on the Ironman months away.
It took me a while to learn, but when you focus on the training that needs to be done for the sprint, then the Olympic distance, then the Half-Ironman, then the Full, you gradually build your distance in a way that won’t overload you, burn you out, or have you peaking too early.
Over the first few months after registering for the Ironman, I progressed to a full marathon in February of 2010, then did my first sprint triathlon in the early spring of 2010. I did multiple Olympic-distance triathlons and built up to a half-Ironman distance over the summer, before finally racing the full in September.
Ironman is the big picture, but it’s made up of a lot of little brushstrokes. Focus on the brushstrokes.
Key #5: Make mistakes
You will make mistakes. Lots of them. Too many to count.
Anyone who says they didn’t make at least one mistake while training for an Ironman is a liar. Mistakes happen. It’s the people who are willing to admit and learn from those mistakes who truly succeed in moving past them.
I ignored friends who told me I was doing too much, too soon – they warned of burnout, and I certainly experienced it… to the point where one of my friends came over to ride with me one morning, and I was in bed, crying.
“Please don’t make me get on my bike today,” I begged. Finally, I understood what my friends meant by “burnout.”
I would skip rest days, feeling like those were a luxury I couldn’t afford. I only had a short amount of time to prepare, I worried, and every second wasted resting was a second which could have been spent getting stronger.
I was given a mantra to repeat every night: “You get faster when you rest.” It became a meditative phrase, keeping me in check when I felt antsy.
I focused too much on the physical nature of training, and not enough on mental focus. I learned both are equally important.
I made mistakes in refueling after workouts, until I finally realized that good post-workout food made it so much easier to get up the next day for another training day. I made tweaks to my diet, many of them based on Thrive author Brendan Brazier’s advice.
Key #6: Balance, not sacrifice
Triathletes, by nature, are exaggerators. They’ll look at a short rolling course and declare it mountainous. They’ll loudly complain that a bad race was not their fault – it was always something (or someone) else. They’ll brag about sun-up to sun-down workouts and ravenous buffets to refuel. They’ll tell you they spend more time with their bikes than with their spouses.
Such declarations are extreme. (Okay, not the ravenous buffets. That part is actually true.)
Ironman training is time consuming, yes. Depending on the training plan and what phase of training you’re in, you can expect to spend anywhere from 5 to 25 hours per week swimming, biking, and running. There’s also significant time spent maintaining gear (for example, cleaning your bike), preparing nutrition, and, perhaps most importantly, getting adequate food and sleep to fuel the training.
But it doesn’t have to negatively impact your work, family time, or social life.
Most Ironman triathletes have learned that it’s not about sacrificing time with friends and family, it’s about finding the right balance. While training for my first Ironman, I moved from Wisconsin to Arizona; balanced a full-time job, part-time teaching, and part-time writing; did work on my doctoral program; maintained my social ties; and somehow still managed to live a balanced life.
It wasn’t always easy. I’d often wake up at 4 in the morning to get my training done before work, and sometimes I had to skip or cut short a workout so I could meet a deadline instead. I was known for skipping out on happy hour in favor of an 8 PM bedtime, but everyone also knew I’d make it up to them by taking them out for a post-ride brunch on Sunday. I knew my priorities, and constantly sought to maintain balance.
Key #7: Have a support system
Having people to support you goes hand-in-hand with finding balance. A support system will know when to say “Quit being a baby!” and when to say “Oh, you poor baby!” They’ll understand why you fall asleep during the afternoon matinee, and will happily give up their French fries when you ask, “Are you gonna eat all that?” They’ll smile when you have a good training day, and give you a hug when you have a bad one.
And when you finally do run down that finisher’s chute, they will cheer louder than anyone there. In a way, it’s their big day, too!
After finishing my first race, I spent so much time writing thank you notes, giving out hugs, buying people dinner, and letting people know how much I appreciated their support. When I signed up for my second Ironman (Arizona, November 2011), I couldn’t wait to share the journey with my friends, family, and readers again.
Key #8: Blinders on
I hate the word “impossible.” Hate it, hate it, hate it.
Anyone who does an Ironman needs to learn to hate that word, too. You’ll hear it a lot during your training, and it’ll sneak into your thoughts now and then, after a bad run or when you panic during your first open-water swim start.
“Impossible” is your mind’s way of tricking your body into quitting. “Impossible” is what you say when you’re too scared to keep trying. “Impossible” is the easy way out when you begin to doubt yourself.
I won’t lie: I had a lot of “oh, <bleep>” moments, especially in the days before the race. But I also had a lot of really good people who were able to talk me down before I gave up altogether (see #7, above).
Key #9: Enjoy it
Most people sign up for one Ironman, finish it, and then rack their bike in the garage, never to be ridden again.
I’m not that person. I love this sport, and have continued to train and race since last year’s Ironman. If there’s one thing I learned in going from couch potato to Ironman in 20 months, it’s that 20 months can change a lot.
And I enjoyed every single second of it. I still do.
I don’t mean to oversimplify the sport. If I’ve given you that impression, I apologize.
It’s work. It’s dedication and commitment and perseverance. But it’s still fun. I wouldn’t do this sport if it wasn’t. Race day is one day, the culmination of many days of training, each of them bringing their own little victories and joys.
Is it for you?
Many people train for much longer than 20 months before even thinking about registering for their first Ironman. My path just seemed to be a little shorter. It’s not the path for everyone, but it worked for me.
I still stand by my assertion that anyone can do an Ironman. It’s just that most people won’t. Many are content to let it be a fantasy, always on the “maybe someday” list; or worse, they’ll focus on all the reasons why they won’t instead of all the reasons why they can. They stand on the sidelines of the finisher’s chute, watching but never acting.
Don’t get me wrong — the sidelines are pretty cool.
But actually being in the finisher’s chute?
You’ll never understand what it’s like until you find out for yourself.