IRONMAN: More Than Just a Race

This weekend I had the pleasure of experiencing my very first Ironman, as a spectator and cheerleader that is! Exactly a year ago, my boyfriend Jeff signed up (without much hesitation) for the Lake Placid Ironman! One of the most well-known and challenging Ironman races there is. Jeff, like me, has been competing in triathlons for the past 6 years, completing many Sprint, Olympic and Half Ironman distances, but this would be his very first attempt at “The King” of Triathlons, The Ironman. Not only did he finish, but he ended up with a very competitive time at that. He finished in 11 hours 23 minutes, 12th in his age group of 25-29 and 177th out of 2800 competitors overall!!!

Click link for details on his times: http://www.ironman.com/triathlon/events/americas/ironman/lakeplacid/results.aspx#axzz3hIC3AD4z

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A little background: As a triathlete, it is very common to tell someone you compete in triathlons, and for them to just assume that means you do ironman races…which when you then say “oh, no, I do the ones that are about a ¼ of the distance”… they often look at you like you’ve suddenly let them down. Fact is, there are four distances you can race in triathlons, which you can see below. Each one can be is just as difficult as the other (if you are doing it rightJ).  The Ironman however, is its own beast, it requires a huge time commitment for training, a lot of compromise in having a balanced lifestyle and a lot of mental toughness to complete.  

Sprint (1/2 mile swim, 10-18mile bike depending on course, 3.1 mile run)

Olympic (.9 mile swim, 20-25mile bike depending on course, 6.2 mile run)

Half-Ironman (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run)

Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run!)

Triathlons are one sport in which the professionals and age groupers are out on the same course, on the same day, going through the same amount of pain. Only difference is, they do it as a living, often finishing minutes to hours in front of you, whereas most age groupers juggle a full time job and families on top of it all! Top times for all the distances listed above, vary depending on the course (ocean swim vs. lake, hilly vs. flat) and of course unpredictable factors like weather.

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For today, we will focus on the Ironman. The cut off time for an Ironman is 17 hours, which seems like a lot, but many finish within seconds of 17hrs, and some unfortunately don’t make it at all. Most races start at 630/7am, so you are talking about racing until midnight for some! Talk about a long day. Finishing times however can range from 8-9hrs for (mostly pros), 10-13hrs (most, more serious age groupers) to 14-17hrs (still AWESOME!). There are many factors that play a part in completing an Ironman. Unlike Sprints, Olympics, and Half- Ironman distances, you can often get away with a slight minimalistic approach to training…if you miss a weekend of training to go out with your friends, skip a few long bike or run workouts, you can still get away with it, but not in Ironman training.

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Think back to those days when you leave your 45min spin class feeling like you just conquered the world,  or the days you dread going to the gym for just an hour, get caught up in a 12hr work day and decide to bag your workout for a few beers and burgers with your friends. This is where time commitment and compromise come in. Your workouts become crucial meetings you cannot miss.  Now, I have the luxury of being a personal trainer and living a somewhat flexible and generous lifestyle when it comes to working out…but for Jeff, working in Finance did not allow for such a luxury. Your workouts become a part time job, or more like another full time job when you add up the hours. Setting your alarm for 4 or 5am, and sandwiching your workday with back to back workouts is typical for Monday –Friday, but then there is the weekend!  Weekends are often the pinnacle of the week’s training for many triathletes racing any distance, as you now have AMPLE time to go for those long bike rides, runs and swims….but weekends have a whole new meaning as an Ironman in training.  Don’t think “great, now I have the time to sleep in and make up for all those early weekday morning workouts” because you will be waking up JUST as early to set out for another workday on the bike, riding often up to 6 hours, and usually with a 1-2 hour run tacked on to that…don’t even think of sleeping in. Then on the luxurious occasion that you only have a 2-3 hour RUN, then maybe you can hit snooze a few times. Soon riding just 50 miles seems like nothing, and running just 2 hours is a somewhat easy day for you. Now, I say this like I was the one out there doing this, but I wasn’t, I only experienced it second hand. I often tagged along with Jeff on those “short” 50 mile rides, 1 hour runs, and of course swims, but the closest thing I got to a 100 mile ride or 20 mile run was the breakfast or lunch I made him before or after! Even though I love to swim and could do 2.4 miles in a breeze, I have never had the desire to ride 112 miles or run 26.2…ALONE, let alone back to back! Knowing how much training you must do to complete this feat…I give a lot of credit to anyone crossing an Ironman finish line, first or last!  

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Lucky for Jeff, my good friend coaches many athletes for this distance, so I was quick to ask her if she would take him on as I knew he would need structured training. Now Jeff would not only have her checking in on him and his workouts daily, but me too! Since he is no newbie to the sport and already had a good base of endurance, Jeff took the winter months to keep up with his own swim, biking and running, and come March 1st was when he took on his first month of coaching. This left 5 months of strict training ahead of him before the big day on July 26.

Having known Jeff for 3 years now, I’ve learned how driven and talented he is in every aspect of his life. His ability to set goals and accomplish them is something that has certainly had a positive impact in my life, and is in many ways the reason I have experienced what I have to this day.  There was never a doubt in my mind that he would be able to finish an Ironman. I actually knew he would exceed any expectation he had, and would be capable of a very competitive time (I didn’t let him know that of course!) BUT, the initial goal going into this was just to finish, no obligations to times, and most importantly to stay healthy along the way. There was so much unknown being that this was his first attempt at this distance. Once training got going, it wasn’t long before 5-6 hour bike rides and 20 mile runs were routine weekend “activities”. I even think there was a good month straight of riding 100 miles followed by an hour or so of running every Saturday. My job on our weekends together would be to keep him well fed and to do any laundry I could to keep all those spandex and running shorts in abundant supply! Before you know it I would find Jeff passed out by 8pm on a Saturday night wondering if it were too early to go to bed yet! Nope, part of training is getting in all that sleep you can, and I am pretty sure he had no troubles ever NOT being tired for bed.

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Fast forward to last week. We arrived in Lake Placid on Tuesday, well before the race so that he could get acclimated to the area, ride parts of the course and relax before all the other crazy triathletes would arrive. Since the week before the race is spent tapering, this meant we had time to sleep in and still get in the bits of training that was needed, including a few swims in mirror lake, “easy” hour runs , 2 hour bikes,  and some rest too, all of which I was happy to partake in! Lake Placid is known to be a hilly course, at about 7000ft of climbing over the 112 mile bike ride alone, with one 6-7 mile steep decent in which Jeff was advised to ride down a few times so he would know the curves of the road and get used to getting up to speed of 40-50mph! (This can be huge for making up time on the course). So one of his pre-race training days was to simply ride this hill down 2x, and I think he got up to 48 mph!  Before you know it, it was almost race day and the town was now packed with thousands of type A, fully shaven, Garmin wearing triathletes (and their counterparts which are often in this same category.) You couldn’t turn down a street without seeing someone biking or running, checking their watches to make sure they are in the “proper” heart rate zones or not running too fast or too slow. I know this feeling, you become super tuned in to your body the days before a big race, often thinking “why do I feel so slow!  What is wrong with me! I’m going to do so poorly”! This is typical during a race week taper though. You have cut back your training, taken more than the usual days off, and  your body just eats up all the rest it can take, often making you feel more lethargic than when in full training mode. Come race day, no matter how your week went or how poorly you may have slept the night before, the energy and atmosphere race morning is always sure to get you going. This is one of the main reasons I love to race, being out there with hundreds to sometimes thousands of energetic athletes who have all put in the work you have, and are out there because they love it! It’s truly an exhilarating experience.

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Saturday before the race was spent doing a little tune up swim, bike and run to get the body moving after Friday’s full day of rest. In the afternoon he had to check in his bike and all of his race gear to the transition area, everything from his bike shoes, helmet, running shoes, water bottles, race fuel, sunglasses, socks, race belt, and extra bike tubes (luckily these were not needed). This was the one main difference between Ironman and other triathlons, its usual for you to have to bring you bike the night before, but to also have to leave all of your race equipment and clothing was another. Race morning you were to arrive ready to swim, with just your tri-suit, wetsuit, cap and goggles. So far so good, everything checked in, early dinner and off to bed. 4am arrives quickly and up we go to digest some breakfast (usually a PB and J sandwich, eggs, banana, and some coffee of course) making sure to have plenty of time to use an actual bathroom, and to let our brains wrap around what we are about to do! Jeff’s mom, and extraordinary race photographer, was up before any ironman athlete that morning to get the best spot at the race start! And she certainly got the best pictures all day. 5:15am and we are headed to the race start, slightly rainy, but looks to be clearing up. 3,000 racers and all of their families, friends and volunteers pack the town. 6am now and everyone is crowded around the lake awaiting the 6:30 start. Athletes are corralled into sections based on their predicted swim time (anywhere from 50min-2:20min cut off time). Gun goes off and the first pack dives in, churning the water and fighting for their spot to the first buoy. There is a constant flow of athletes entering the water setting out to what looks like a washing machine of seals rounding the lake.

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The course at Lake Placid is two loops of everything, two 1.2 mile loops in Mirror Lake for the swim, two 56 mile loops on the bike and two 13.1 mile loops on the run. This makes it very spectator friendly as we had more opportunities to see them coming in and out of town for each loop, which is also beneficial to the competitors as it gives them a chance to hear cheers from their family and friends and be encouraged by the loud uplifting music and atmosphere that the crowds give off. Jeff exited the water in an impressive 1:05, and I was able to cheer him on as he ran from the water into the transition area and off on the bike. Transitions are the time it takes going from one discipline to the next, in this case from the time he exits the swim, to the time he actually mounts his bike and is off for 112 miles. As a spectator at an Ironman, you must time out approximately when your athlete will pass certain points so that you don’t miss them!! I found this fun, running to different points on the course and trying to track just about when he would pass by. I was able to see him three times on the bike and almost 6 times on the run! Jeff’s mom continued to find the best places to get pictures of him, and Jeff’s dad and I set off to find the best spots to give him a high five!  Even though he was out there for 11 hours, the day went fast (for me at least!). I have never felt such excitement over a race that I wasn’t participating in, I even felt my eyes tear up a bit as his name was announced coming into the finish! (And I swear I am not that emotional of a gal!). See my favorite picture below. He was officially an IRONMAN, and outperformed even some of the most seasoned Ironman competitors there. Now time for an Ice bath, burger and beer!

After a long and grueling day, pushing through hours of physical and mental exhaustion, I realize how much more there was to this day then the actual race itself. The year of preparation to get here, the sacrifices and obstacles a lot of people had to overcome to cross the finish line. For Jeff, I know there were many weekends he would have preferred his usual summer routine of heading to the beach instead of sitting on a bike staring at the pavement for hours! But, that was part of the challenge, and will make all those beach days ahead even that much more enjoyable! To me, he is the ultimate definition of an IRONMAN, not just someone who completed 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and 26.2 miles of running…but a true a jack of all trades, with extraordinary mental and physical strength. Its moments like this that become so empowering, and make you realize that if you just put your mind to it, you are capable of anything!

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