I seldom talk about triathlons and Ironman on this blog, but today is different.
Today, October 13 2012, in Kona, Hawaii the Ironman World Championship will take place, and I’m just too excited not to talk about Ironman. Let me do it, I promise it will be for this one time only.
Have you ever thought about what it takes to be an Ironman? And more specifically, who are those guys? A bunch of individuals that push their bodies beyond human limits, becoming part of an elite group that goes where no athlete has gone before and that masters of 3 out of the 4 elements: water, air and earth.
An Ironman competition entails swimming in open waters for 2.4 miles (3.86k), then jump on a bike and pedal for 112 miles (180.25k) and finally get off the bike and run a full marathon (i.e., 26.2 miles or 42.2 k). One discipline after the other, with just a couple of minutes in the transitions between the different segments.
Think about it: it’s almost a whole day of your life where all you’re doing is swimming, riding a bike and running.
Activities that most of us can do since we were little kids. So what’s the big deal about it?
I’ve been doing Olympic distance triathlons since I was a teenager. Olympic distance triathlons are equal to an Ironman but for a much shorter distance (1.5k swim, 40k bike and 10k run) and that’s precisely what makes a whole lot of difference. You can complete a triathlon in as little as 2 hours or as much even 5 maybe 6 hours, but almost everybody, under normal circumstances and absent any extraordinary event (e.g, injuries), will cross the finish line, that’s the general rule.
When it comes to the Ironman, let’s put it this way: when you start you just have a glimmer of hope to cross the finish line (at some point in the future). In fact, elite athletes complete a race in around 8 to 9 hours. Average people from as little as 11 hours to a maximum of 17 hours.
The “journey” is so long that the variables in between are, often, beyond one’s control. Unless, of course, you’re one of those professional elite athletes that are racing against the clock, but that’s a whole different story. The vast majority of participants aim simply to cut the finish line or at the most to set a new personal record if they have completed a race before.
I didn’t used the term “journey” loosely: completing an Ironman is indeed a 142 miles (230k) trip where you can just rely on your body, arms and legs specifically.
But don’t think that an Ironman is only about physical power and endurance, there are others factors that come into play such as mental strength and an efficient metabolism.
Actually you’ll be surprised that the strongest Ironman competitors are not necessarily the best athletes but those with a “bullet proof” metabolism.
The race is so long that not only you have to hydrate your body continuously but you need to also feed it. There’s just no way that before the start you can store in your body enough energy to fuel your body through all that mileage. You need to eat and digest while you’re engaging in a strenuous physical activity. Novices tend to underestimate this aspect, which is crucial.
During the long training period that precedes a race you’ll prepare your body not only to swim, bike and run for as far as you can remember, but you must also transform your metabolism.
Some trainers like to use the image of a car engine. A triathlete body is comparable to a Formula 1 turbo engine: producing explosive energy for a “short” period of time. An Ironman body is more of is a diesel engine: efficiently delivering constant energy for a prolonged period of time. An engine that is also capable of taking-in raw energy and converting it into burnable one, while still operating.
Building a plan for getting “fuel” into yourself will help you get to the finish line. You’ve got to know: how much to take in, when to take it in, what to take and in which form it should be taken.
Another key factor for success is mental strength. An Ironman competition is so enduring that during it you’ll eventually have to deal with all sort feelings: pain, happiness, struggle, defeat and/or glory.
To get the finish line you have to learn to cope with whatever comes up and master it, if not the race becomes an ordeal.
I found that one of the most rewarding aspects of an Ironman derives from the sport emphasis on self-reliance and self-responsibility: making critical decisions during the race and have to deal with the consequences.
Despite the importance of your trainer and of your teammates (if you have any), during the race you soon come to the realization that you’re there by yourself. No one will be able to help you to get to the finish line. Trusting yourself is all you’re left with. But self-reliance is not per se enough, also drive and dedication are essential key aspects for prevailing the stress that one undergoes during the race. The physical demand is so great that if it’s not accompanied with an ardent drive, most of the time, you would give up before crossing the finish line.
When your muscles begin to hurt, your brain starts telling you that the pain will go away if you suddenly stop, and unless you have that fire inside, you’ll eventually stop.
However, the same drive can cause making erroneous decisions during the race and, ultimately, jeopardize the chances of completing it.
That is why, in order to complete an Ironman, one must exercise willpower also to tame his drive. So many participants are so consumed by what I like to call the “finish-fever”: they lose clear judgment and get lost along the way.
So yes, drive is a necessary characteristic, but if left unchecked it may often results in poor-decision making and that will eventually lead to a “disaster”.
The correct balance actually comes with maturity: you learn how to make sound decisions under critical circumstances that will get you to the finish line.
Yes, the finish line, that small line that separates a “regular Joe” from an Ironman.
When you cross it the sensation is just unbelievable. Your body might be a mess but all you can think about is “I made it, I made it, I made it!”.
You have completed an Ironman, you’re one of the fews that did it. You have pushed your body to the limit through water, air and earth and you have mastered them.
You might be lying on a stretcher with painful cramps while a stranger is trying to help you cope with the pain, but you’re on top of the world and that’s final. No one will ever take away that sensation, because you’ve made, you’re no longer a man, now you’re an Ironman.
The Iron You
If you’re interested you can follow the live coverage of the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii at this link