I've done seven Ironmans now, but it has only been for the last two that I have felt that I understand what it takes to put all the pieces together and give yourself as much chance as possible of achieving your goals.
So that others can avoid floundering around making the same mistakes as I did for their first few races, I’ve put down below a few things I have learned over the past 12 months that will hopefully help make others’ experiences a little more rewarding.
1. Listen to your coach.
If you are paying to be coached, why would you not do exactly what your coach says? If you think you can do better elsewhere then go find another coach, but if not then cut your head off and just do what he or she says. And I mean do exactly what they say. If you have a 3.5k swim on the plan meeting certain times, then don’t stop after 3.2k or give yourself longer breaks between sets. If you do you will develop an “it doesn’t matter” attitude which will mean it is much easier to back off or give up on race day.
2. Train hard.
There are no short cuts or magic pills. I used to think that I was missing something, why were others who I could beat in sprint races smashing my times at Ironman? Well, the bald truth is that they were training harder. It’s an Ironman so you have to get used to swimming 3.8k, biking 180k and running long distances. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the harder and longer I have trained this year, the quicker I have gone.
3. Speed up transitions.
I just don’t understand those people who say Ironman is a long day so relax in transition. You wouldn’t stop your bike and hang around for a few minutes halfway through your 180k, so why would you do this in transition? Get in and get out as fast as possible. That means practicing it lots and finding as many ways as possible to make things easy for yourself when the heat is on during the race. Don’t put any clothes on in T1, it’s impossible when wet. Put your shoes on the bike, it’s much quicker to run through transition in bare feet. Tape your food to your bike. Who wouldn’t want to knock 5-10 minutes off their finishing time for no effort whatsoever? And while we’re talking about free time, learn to pee on the bike.
4. Nail your nutrition.
Everyone is different and there is no fail-safe nutrition strategy. But if you ignore this part of the race then I guarantee you will spend a lot of time in the portaloos. I have been there and it is no fun to train for six months only to blow 30 minutes of race time in the toilets.
If you are going to rely on the food and drink the race organisers provide at the aid stations, then find out beforehand what you will be getting and use it every time in training. And I mean every time. Most people eat too much. 200-300 calories per hour should be more than enough for most people. Find out what the easiest way of getting this energy into your body is and stick with it.
And keep things simple - on race day your muscles will need the blood and your stomach will not be able to digest as much as it normally does, so don’t make things hard for it by having too complex a diet.
5. How much pain do you want?
This is Ironman. It will hurt halfway through the marathon, no matter how fit you are. Prepare yourself mentally for this by putting yourself in the hurt box in training. Obviously you cannot replicate the unique and charming experience of running a marathon off a 180k bike, but you can put your body in an uncomfortable place through shorter and more intense efforts.
Learn to love the pain. It’s why we do it. When we talk about the race afterwards we don’t talk about the part where we were feeling super comfortable on the bike. We talk about when we were close to breaking point on the run. We know the pain will come at some point, so find a way of dealing with it and look forward to that point coming.
6. Never Give Up
Never. Ever. No matter how horrible things seem at the time, I can guarantee that a DNF will feel much worse for much longer afterwards. I walked the whole of the second half of the marathon on one of my previous races and made 11 unscheduled toilet stops. I came very close to quitting but now looking back I see finishing that race as one of my greater Ironman achievements. Goal number one for the day should always be to finish the race. Anything else is a bonus.
This is a hobby for the vast majority of us so we may as well enjoy it. Some of us lose sight of this at times. We are fit and healthy and doing something that 99% of the population can only dream of. It is difficult to believe but we are an inspiration to others so we should always do it with a smile on our faces. No matter how much it is hurting at the time.