Thinking about Your First Ironman? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start

Hi Susan. I read your blog on your fabulous finish at Ironman Wisconsin and I was really inspired! I’ve been googling around about the race for awhile, just finished my first half Ironman, and am flirting with the idea of IMWI 2014.

 I guess I worry about how much investment I need to make–do I have to buy a tri bike, hire a trainer, etc?


About once a week, I get an e-mail like Margaret’s. Every time, I have to exercise restraint.

If it were up to me, I’d register every triathlete for an Ironman. Heck, I’d probably register non-triathletes for an Ironman, too. After all, I’m the one who says Anyone Can Do an Ironman.

And so, with every e-mail like this one, I suppress the urge to respond with an OVERLY ENTHUSIASTIC MESSAGE! BECAUSE! IRONMAN! IS! SO! RAD!!! (I, ahem, use a lot of capital letters and exclamation points to convey said enthusiasm. Also, 90’s-era words like “rad.” Told you I had to exercise restraint.)

If you’re considering taking on an Ironman triathlon, consider these questions first.

1. Do I really want to do an Ironman?

There’s this weird importance placed upon Ironman in the triathlon world. Somehow, folks have gotten it into their head that they have to do an Ironman in order to be a “real” triathlete.

That is a total crock of shit.

Riding your bike for 6 hours might not be your idea of a good time. You may have a need for speed that simply can’t be fulfilled by an 18-mile training run. Or maybe you simply just don’t want to do an Ironman, even though everyone says you should. It’s okay, you can admit it. If you don’t want to do it, don’t. You are not any less of a triathlete because you choose to blast a concentrated dose of your awesomeness on the sprint distance instead of trickle it over 140.6 miles.

2. Can I do an Ironman?

This is much, much different from simply wanting to do an Ironman. If you have any doubt about the health of your body, consult with your doctor to make sure your body is able to handle the demands of a heavy training load, plus racing for 10 to 17 hours. The good news? Most people are physically capable of doing an Ironman in their lifetime. They just say they can’t.

“Can’t” and “won’t” – there’s a big difference between the two words. Use the correct one, please.

3. Do I have the time?

In peak training periods, you may spend 15 hours per week (or, depending on your training plan, more) swimming, cycling, running, lifting weights, doing yoga, stretching … in other words, moving in preparation for race day. That’s a lot of time!

But Ironman is a demanding mistress, and isn’t done eating your time just yet. You also need to consider the time it takes to prepare nutrition, maintain your bike, drive to and from workouts, sit in ice baths, foam-roll, go to doctor appointments, get massages, wash dirty training clothes, read up on training advice and nutrition strategies, and get adequate amounts of sleep. You’ll still have to maintain some semblance of family life, employment, and social engagement, too.

In other words: There are 24 hours in a day. Is that enough time for you to do it all?

4. Am I financially able?

Like Margaret’s letter, above, most of the questions surrounding an Ironman registration are centered around the financial aspect of the race. The good news: You don’t need a ten-thousand dollar triathlon bike and a 900-dollar wetsuit to do an Ironman.

The bad news: You still have to drop quite a few Benjamins.

If you’re already equipped with swim goggles, a road or triathlon bike, helmet, bike shorts, tech tee, and a pair of running shoes, you’ve technically got all the gear you need to finish an Ironman.

The key word here, of course, is “technically.” There are a lot of other costs to include in your Ironman budget.

The race entry fee is sticker shock for a lot of people – it can be anywhere from 500 dollars to over 1,000 dollars. If you travel to the race, you’ll need to consider those costs as well.

Then there’s everything you’ll need over the course of your training: gym or pool memberships, specialized nutrition gels/drinks/bars; bike parts and maintenance, such as spare tire tubes; sunscreen, chamois creams, and first-aid materials; replacement shoes, socks, and goggles; and food – a huge budget category in and of itself.

Slowly but surely, other costs will begin to sneak in: Your bike seat may be fine for a 20-mile ride, but once you hit 75 miles your fun bits might not be so fun anymore…and you’ll find yourself plopping down money for a new bike seat and better cycling shorts. When you learn the water for your Ironman swim will be 55 degrees, renting or purchasing a wetsuit suddenly becomes a necessity for you to survive a 2-hour swim. Doctor’s office co-pays when you get injured, bike trainers to ride indoors during icy winter days, and entry fees to shorter races so you can practice your race-day execution … the list goes on.

I can’t put a dollar amount on it. Everyone is different. Over the last few years, I’ve discovered ways to cut corners and save money in almost all of these areas. But you’ll still have to spend a good chunk of change.

5. What do my family, friends, and employers think?

An Ironman is not a solitary effort. Though you’re the one doing all the training and racing, it directly impacts all elements of your life. It’s important you take into consideration how this decision will impact other areas of your life.

Talk with your spouse or partner, family members, friends, and employers to make sure they’re supportive of the time and energy this process will take. They’re affected, too. Listen to any concerns they might have, and remember that each of them is a valuable member of your team.

“Wait a minute, this is a buzzkill. What happened to the exclamation points? Do you not want me to do an Ironman?”

This is why I say I have to exercise restraint when I talk to people interested in doing an Ironman. It’s easy to get excited, especially if you’ve recently been hanging out at the finish line of an Ironman triathlon – everyone is so happy there! But in actuality, there’s a story behind each of those Ironman finishers. Like marriage, Ironman is not to be entered into lightly.

That said, I’ll let you in on a little secret:

When you arrive at the finish line, sweaty, breathless, and insanely happy … it’s worth every dollar, hour, and sore muscle it took to make it happen.

About the Author: Susan Lacke, No Meat Athlete’s Resident Triathlete and author of the No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap, is headed to New York City this weekend, not to race the Ironman U.S. Championships, but for something equally demanding: Serving as IronSherpa for her partner, Neil, as he takes on his sixth Ironman triathlon.



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  1. That’s an awesome list. I actually think it’s a good list for anyone considering any step-up race or project. Whether it’s 10K to HM or Marathon or Half-Ironman, I think they are good questions to consider.

  2. wow what great, honest advice. sounds like a lifestyle training program! but definitely worth it!

  3. I am like you Susan…..SIGN UP NOW!!!!!! IT IS TOTALLY THE BOMB DOT COM !!!!!!

    But then I reflect on my seasons leading up to Ironman and I revert back to that and tell them to start with a season of Sprint/Olympic distance races where you borrow and rent everything to see if you like it.

    Then from there do a season of Olympic/Half-Ironman to see if you want to be out training for so long and what your family/friends/employees think of the amount of time and really what YOU think of the amount of time.

    If that still works for you then go for it. It is a process and a journey to get to the Ironman finish line and not to be rushed.

    I love the sport and cannot fathom a day when I am not out training for it in some way (even rest days) and yet it it still something that I have to watch my 24 hours in a day with because there is only so much time.

    Excellent points in this article. Thanks for sharing.

    • I’m just worried about training for an ironman because in currently a smoker not heavy but a smoker none the less I really want too train hard but will my heart lungs be OK its only thing preventing me from iron-man

      • Michael Crompton says:

        Hey Darren,

        I smoked 50 a day for 13 years then took up running at age 30. Ran a 3 hour marathon 3 years after I started running and have completed many tris including a half iron man.
        Time has been the only thing stopping from doing a full iron man but i’m about to quit work and embark on that goal soon. I should complete it by age 55.
        Give up the smokes, train, be healthy and you will be fine.

  4. I’d have to agree with all of these and add one of my own. For me, training for Ironman could not only be solitary, but it turned upside down the very nature of who I am. I’m normally a very social person, with a lot of friends, and I do a lot for those friends, including organizing a lot of get-togethers. Ironman left very little time for that. So I ended up feeling very selfish, which is NOT typically who I am. Selfish doesn’t necessarily imply a bad thing – it just means focused on yourself, which can also be good. But for me, I’d recommend that people who want to embark on this journey make a concerted effort to strive for balance. Focusing solely on ME and MY ONE goal for 9 months was not a good thing for me emotionally. I’m now signed up for Ironman Lake Tahoe 2013, and intend to infuse my life with more balance in training for it and realize that at the end of the day, none of my friends or family will love me more or less for finishing or not finishing an Ironman. What’s important is that they’ll be there for me on that journey, so in return I need to be there more for them along the way too.

    • Yes, absolutely. It is possible to get that balance, but it’s up to the athlete to make a conscious effort to do so.

    • I 100% agree I just finished my first ironman in boulder and training consumed my life. I felt bad refusing family get togethers and other commitments to train. then on weeks I did so social activities I would over train the next week to make up for it. I am doing lake placid next years and im going to definitley change my training approach so I dont loose sight of loved ones around me. I love triathlons and will always keep challenging myself but you need to be careful with the emotional tax it can put on yourself and others.

  5. Excellent article. Saw Father in Law & Uncle in Law compete in Lanzarote Iron Man in May. Lots of hard work! They both want to do another though, so must be something in it… Inspired me to take up running!

    • That’s EXACTLY how I got started, too — seeing my best friend Carlos cross the finish line of an Ironman inspired me to take up swimming, then running, then…well, you know how the story ends. 🙂

      • That’s also how I got started. 4 years ago I started bike commuting to work. 1 year after that, I took up running over my lunch break. Then, one day I thought, “here I am biking and running to work….maybe I should learn to swim and do a tri…” 2 years ago I joined a team and learned how to swim. Last year I did my first half iron. It’s a slippery (yet oh so fun) slope!

  6. Thanks Susan!
    About half of the time I want to do an ironman and half of the time I don’t… so articles like this are good because they help give me a realistic view of it.
    But then damit, you go blow it with that last line and now I want to sign up NOW!!!

  7. Great advice! I say similar things when asked about it. I like to add, ‘You have to want to DO IT, not just to have done it.’ Very important difference there.
    Also, you can save lots and lots of money compared to the average triathlete.
    -Check out independent iron-distance races- they tend to cost about half as much as the corporate ones.
    -Slap some aero bars on your road bike. Unless you are trying for a sub-10 hour finish, the difference is minimal.
    -Train smart! Save time and money by training less and getting more.
    Okay, that’s my two cents. Thanks!

    • Matt, that’s an excellent way of putting it – a lot of people get so excited about race day, they forget all the work that needs to be put in prior to the day itself. A good Ironman training plan is at least 5 months long, and that’s AFTER months of base miles.

  8. Half Iron Man or Iron Man next on my race goal agenda, after I complete a 50 mile Ultra. Great to hear it can be done on 15 hours a week too. I was worried it would take more time. So a half is definitely possible for me. Time is the biggest issue for me.

  9. Oh my goodness, can’t wait to try the Indian burgers! Those look incredible!

  10. These are all great questions that each athlete should ask before taking a stab at Ironman. Over the past 4 or 5 years of doing Ironman (Ironman Wisconsin next Sunday will be my 3rd), I have been in awe of how much it manages to suck away money and time. I think there are ways to cut corners, and the initial investment is definitely steep, but I would add a few pointers of places to NOT cut corners:

    (1) Bike fit. Even if you have a road bike with some aerobars slapped on it, you will be on the bike for hours and hours and hours. Invest and get a good, high quality bike fit from someone who understands triathletes (i.e., while I love my store that I go to for mountain bike and cross bikes, I would not go to them for my bike fit on my tribike. Period.). There is no shame in racing on a road bike (I’ve been smoked by plenty of folks on road bikes). But for the investment in time and money you are about to make, do yourself a favor here.

    (2) Nutrition. Get this nailed. For a lot of people, this is the most complicated thing to deal with. I’d suggest even working with a nutritionist if its not “coming to you” – you can really sabotage yourself with a 100 mile ride built around a poor nutrition strategy.

    (3) Run shoes. Replace them. Often. I wouldn’t cut corners here either.

    But to me, really, the best thing I think you could do is to find someone who you can train through this with. A 100 mile bike ride is nice. A 100 mile bike ride with friends is WAY better.

    • Martina Passman says:

      I wouldn’t recommend changing runners often at all,minimalist running shoes are the healthiest for every runner,our feet are designed to support and protect us,runners interfere with this,so the older the runners and thinner the better.

  11. Niki Sprigg says:

    I am signed up to do my first ironman in July next year, having done a half ironman this year.
    Should I pencil in to do another half ironman next year before the full one?
    Any advice greatly appreciated!

  12. Question does age matter? Like 40 something to old?

    • Not at all!!! The only thing I’ve noticed as I’ve aged is that it gets a little harder to build at the same pace as “younger” people. You may want to build slower as our aches and pains stick around a bit longer than theirs. 🙂 But, be happy knowing that absolutely EVERY triathlete, no matter how young or old, is in copious amounts of pain at one point or another. I sometime fell triathlon training is also an exercise in pain management!

  13. Martina Passman says:

    I volunteered to help out at an Iromman 2 years ago in Ireland,I was blown away by the whole thing.I started running around then, and have ran 6 marathons since, including 3 ultras, cycled in two cycle tours of 50miles over mountains. I couldn’t swim though and was terrified of the water, so I took lessons and after persistant going back and facing my awful fear of water,sometimes in tears and frustration I can, just this week swim up to 300 metres, could have kept going but the pool was closing,I soooo want to do an Ironman, I will do one,half first though.thanks for writing about your journey to Ironman

  14. Joe DeVitto says:

    Just registered for my first IM 70.3… 20 weeks away! Just have to get through the swim & I’ll be golden! Thank you for article and every oone’s comments… I’m so pumped!!!

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