Racing Ironman

Sometimes it can be tough to remind yourself why you’re racing. Your A Race could be months away, or even years away. But when that day comes, whether you’re racing your first sprint triathlon or your tenth Ironman triathlon, there’s nothing like race day.

Having raced Ironman a couple of times, I thought I’d just put together a nice little post to help you all visualize how it all goes down on race day.  I read something really similar to what I’m about to write before I did my first Ironman, but for the life of me I can’t remember where it was. So grab a coffee and enjoy the story and visualize how your day is going to go down…


The Prologue

The alarm goes off and you look at the red digits on the bedside.  It’s 3:45am and the world around you is completely silent.  You can’t believe that its already time to get up as it feels like you just shut your eyes to lay down.  Thankfully you got a good night’s sleep yesterday.  You knew that the nerves would just keep you awake today.  But there’s no time to think about that, its time to go. Get up, and go.

As you make your way around the house you go through the routine you’ve practiced many times before.  You did a 70.3 last month and it felt similar, but the stakes weren’t as high as they are today.  You have your breakfast, have your coffee, and you sit staring out the window into the darkness for a few moments.  Its a strange sort of calm before the storm and you’re just taking the last few moments of quiet in before you start a race that’s going to take you through almost 4 kilometers of swimming, 180km of biking, and a full marathon.  You tell yourself you’re ready for this, and you are.

You zip up your tri suit, grab your wetsuit, goggles, swim cap, dry goods bag.  You’re set.  Everything else was packed away yesterday and the day before.  There’s nothing left to chance but you still check and recheck whatever remains in your control.  5:30am rolls around and its time to go.

Heading towards the door your loved one gives you a big hug and a few words of encouragement.  In a sweet moment of clarity you just say thank you one more time for the months of sacrifice they’ve made for you.  You know that sport at this level is a selfish gesture, but Ironman is something that’s begged your pursuit and you’ve just got one more day to give it your all.

“I’ll see you on the course”, you tell them, “I can’t wait to see the signs, so cheer loud for me. I love you”.  And like that you’re out the door.

The dawn hasn’t broken yet and you’re already on your way.  Boarding the bus you think that this whole day seems a lot more like some sort of military operation than a race.  The collective energy of almost three thousand athletes boarding an endless line of yellow school buses finally gives you an idea of the scale and scope of this day.

When you arrive at the bike racks you go once more through your routine.  The morning air is chilly and the dew on the grass is even a little too refreshing.  You go through the routine, getting body marking, pumping up the tires, taping the gels onto your toptube, placing the water bottles, exchanging nods with the stranger whose bike sits next to yours.  You run into a few of your training partners and wish them luck.  We’re all here now, the hugs and smiles go around and you all know what’s ahead of you.  Or hope you do anyways.

Zipping up your wetsuit, you know its no turning back now.  You went to the bathroom about a half dozen times.  Its almost comedic how long the lines are and how as soon as you get out of the smelly porta potty you feel you need to get back in it to use it again.

The racers are being called to the water now and the warm up swimmers are being called to shore.  Okay, it just got real.

Just a minute to go now and the national anthem begins to play.  One last moment of reflection.  You think of the hundreds of hours of training you put in.  The early evenings followed by early mornings, saying bye to your loved ones as you head out for six hours of riding, the cold winter mornings, the long lonely hours on the trainer.  It was so many hours, so many days, and its all coming down to one day that’s going to define the work that you’ve done for a year.

Then your mind turns to your friends and family.  They’re all here for you.  They’ve all cheered for you, encouraged you, and acted as sherpas for you.  Through thick and thin your goal has been part of theirs for you.  And today you want nothing more than to make them proud.  If every other day was for you, today is going to be for them.  For a brief moment your eyes start to water and a lump forms in your throat from the emotional gratitude you feel.

But there’s no time for that.  Today you’re going to be a beast and nothing is going to keep you from that finish line, if not you then for everyone who has supported you.

You’re about to become an Ironman. All you’ve got left to do is this.

The Swim

The airhorn goes and the calm misty lake erupts into a epic wave of swimmers.  You run into the water and you get your position.  Its chaos.  Complete and utter chaos.  You swim over people, people swim over you.  Even when you poke your head up to see the buoys all you can make out is the blur of thousands of arms splashing and displacing the water.  Its a hurricane of people.

As you round the first buoy the people have started to thin out and you’ve moved to the outside of the pack to make some space.  Finally some breathing room.  You make a conscious effort to back yourself off the pace that you were frantically setting in the first few minutes.  One buoy at a time now as you find a set of feet to draft off of.

The swim seems endless but eventually you get into the second lap of the swim.  Past halfway.  About bloody time.  You just want to get out of this water.  Sure, the water is nice and warm at all but this isn’t your thing.  Your goal is to survive the swim, set a good pace on the bike, and let ‘er rip on the run.

Every once in a while your mind even begins to wander.  You’ve been at this for a while, you could have watched an entire episode of The Walking Dead at this point. You think, “Huh, the walking dead”, and hope that you’re mind didn’t stray there as some sort of twisted foreshadowing.  No, focus now. One more turn to go.

As you near the shore you start to kick and think about getting on your bike.  Finally you can see the bottom of the lake and you’re relieved that you’ll soon be on dry land.

A few moments later the frantic pace of the swim seems calm in comparison as you stand up out of the water and hear the yells and cheers from spectators and the urgent instructions from volunteers.  Your legs seem to betray you for a couple moments as your stumble into the change tent and get your shoes on.

Everything is wet and hard to manage but the volunteer is telling you just to take care of what you need and he’ll take care of the rest.  “Man, you’re awesome. Thanks!” you tell him.  He smiles back and you’re on your way out.

As you run to your bike you hear your loved one yell your name.  All you can offer back is a quick smile and wave for a moment.

Helmet on, shoes on, Garmin on, now lets go.

The Bike

You do your flying mount on the bike and the air cools you as the water evaporates off your body.  It still feels a little cool but the warmth of the sun is finally starting to do its job.

“Okay, get into a rythm”, you tell yourself.  “Don’t go out too hard”.  Check your heart rate, check your power, check your cadence.  It feels so good to finally be on the bike and using your legs but they still feel sluggish.  You figure over an hour of kicking will do that.  But just dial it in and find your sweet spot on the bike.

Hitting the open road there’s plenty of passing and movement and even a couple of dicey moments as you pass riders as they try and pass other riders.  But no worries, as soon as you start hitting the hills the field will spread thin and passes can be made at a slower, more deliberate pace.  But still, it’s not your favourite moment of the ride.

The first big climb is one of the ones you’ve been warned about.  It’s long and gradual so as you reach it you sit up, gear down, and start the slow, rythmic spin.  As other riders start to pass you, you wonder if you’re going too slow, but a hard learned lesson that you acquired over the past few races is that sometimes when you’re doing the opposite of everyone else, you’re doing the right thing.  You can’t help but wonder if the guy heaving on your left attacking the climb knows that this is a 13-17 hour race for most people, and there is no polka dot jersey to win here.  To each their own.

“Get some nutrition in”, you tell yourself.  In the flurry of the race you missed taking your first gel by about 10 minutes.  You know that you can’t let that happen again.  Even though you feel great and don’t feel hungry yet, time and time again you’ve used a good nutrition plan to your advantage.  You’re smart enough to know that if you let yourself get hungry in the middle of the race, then you’ve already dug yourself into the hole.

As you reach the peak of the climb you tuck, put your hands on the horns, and begin the long and gorgeous descent.  After almost half an hour of gradual climbing, the 60kph winds feel great.  This is about the closest thing to flying that a person can experience, and its amazing.

Coming back through the village you’re welcomed by the crowds but you know you’re just passing through.  The bike course is two out and backs with the village in the middle.  The next time you see these crowds it’ll be as you set out for 42.2km of grind and grit.  Nevertheless, you relish in the fleeting moments of friends, family, and spectators waving signs and wishing you well.  Its these moments that make these races magical.  All these people have come to watch you and those racing with you.  Months of hard work have come down to today and if ever there’s a moment to feel proud of yourself, this is it.

One last wave and you’re back into the ride.

Minutes and hours pass and you’re still in the saddle.  On the one hand it seems like an eternity, on the other time seems to be passing quickly.  You’ve passed riders, chatted with others, had a liquid/gel lunch, thanked volunteers, stopped at a porta-potty, felt bad, felt great, all the while in the saddle of you’re bike.  Five hours in the saddle makes you love and hate that collection of carbon and aluminium.  Your back is getting sore, you’re feeling the pressure in the saddle, your shoulders are tightening.  Right now you’re actually starting to look forward to running a marathon in the middle of the day.  “Ain’t that something?” you ask aloud.

Its the final long climb now.  The one that everyone’s told you about.  Your Garmin tells you you’ve covered 160km on the bike so far.  One last long push.  Steady as she goes as you ascend.  Once again you’re watching as other riders pass you and you want to remind them that if you burn matches on this climb then all you’ve got to look forward to is a marathon death march.  As the fatigue sets in you know its time to hydrate and ease off the gas and get ready for the hardest run of your life.

The Run

Getting off of the bike was a relief.  Coming down the chute into transition, the crowds waiting to greet your breathe new life into you and though your legs feel heavy and wobbly, a new sort of energy takes over.

You’re running out of transition now and smiling with sincerity at the crowds that are cheering you forward as you begin a run that is a feat in and of itself, without the 3.8km swim and 180km bike ride before it.  You see your family and friends that have come out to support you.  Its been hours since you last saw them and just their presence once again lifts your spirits.

“You’re looking awesome!”, some words of encouragement from your friends. “How are you feeling!?”

“Uh, like I just biked 180km!” you say with a grin.  “I’ll see you in a bit”.  And then its off you go.

As the crowds get further away you start to feel like your energy is starting to fade with their cheers disappearing in the distance.  Even then, you’re settling into a good pace and you’re starting to find your legs after that long ride.  In the first couple kilometers your mind felt great but your body was feeling fatigued and you worry that their roles may now be reversing. You don’t know which is worse.

Getting deeper into the run the course gets quieter.  You wouldn’t be able to tell that there are over two thousand people stretched along this course.  Every few minutes you’ll pass someone, or someone will pass you.  You’ll exchange nods, or pleasantries and continue on your way.  There’s a quiet camaraderie to Ironman that everyone talks about and now you’re experiencing it first hand.  With the people you see go by, some are going through their high points, some their low.

As you descend quickly down a hill you see another athlete looking downtrodden and fatigued.  Their head held low, shoulders slumped, skin shining in sweat, and their red jersey that has turned to burgundy from the moisture off their body.  You’ve been there before, so you ease off your pace for a few moments.

“You okay?” you ask.

“Went out too hard on the bike”, he replies with a quick nod and a glance.

“Walk til the next aid station and get some calories in you there”, you have no idea if that’s the right advice but you say it with confidence and it seems to make sense as you say it.  Sometimes people just need a reminder that they can pick themselves up.

“Thanks friend”, that’s all you need to hear back and you’re on your way again.

You’re running spot on your pace and giving someone else those few words of encouragement seemed to have helped your own demeanour.  As you reach the next aid station you wait until the last couple of volunteers, slow your pace to a walk and take in a gel and some drink.  You give yourself 30 seconds of walking at each aid station and then you’re back at it.

Your pacing strategy works and eventually you reach one of the turnarounds that signals the half way point and you’re feeling good.  Your feet are blistered, your back still hurts from the bike, and your joints are aching, and you’re pretty sure your shoulders are getting sun burnt, but your mind is feeling strong now and that’s all that matters.  21km left to go and the reward feels both distant and tantalizingly close.

But as the kilometers slip by slowly does the euphoria that you felt at the halfway mark of the run.  The run course is starting to fill up now and the race seems to be coming to life once again as you see runners coming from the other direction, but you’re losing energy.

An Ironman is a lot of time in your own head.  Even though the day is punctuated by brief exchanges and smiles with acquaintances and training partners, you still spend endless amounts of time on your own.  The sounds of crowds and other athletes is often replaced by a silence that’s only broken by the sound of your own steps and your own breathing and it gives you a lot of time for your mind to wander.  In ten minutes it can go from loving the experience of the race, to questioning why you even signed up to do this.  Sometimes you think about technical things like your pace and your kilometer splits and try and calculate what time you’ll finish in, other times you have some song from two days before stuck in your head.

You felt strong not too long ago, but now the doubt begins to infect your efforts.  At 30km into the run you know how close you are, and the finish couldn’t feel further.  People had warned you about this saying that in a marathon you’re only half way when you hit 35km.  Your body starts to scream warnings at you as your joints feel the acute pain of going further and longer than ever before, your stomach begins to push back the sugar and liquid, and the blisters on your feet start to sting.   Suddenly what hadn’t happened the entire race begins to unfold, both your mind and your body start to feel the weight of endless hours of racing.  What you hadn’t planned or wanted takes place, between aid stations you break with the strategy and start to walk.

You know you’ll reach the finish but now its a question of when.  You look at your watch and calculate what your finish time would be if you just marched into the finish line at a walking pace.  There’s no shame in that but it wasn’t your plan.  Questions of self doubt enter your mind and you’re gripped with emotion.  You were told that one of the signs of dehydration is becoming emotional but you feel that this is your body finally reaching its tipping point.

You won’t even entertain the thought of DNFing because no matter what happens to you today, if you cross that finish line you know you’ll have accomplished something that few are ever blessed to do.  But right now you’re beginning to taste the sour agony of defeat even as you pull yourself forward one step at a time.  Your eyes begin to water as you imagine your loved ones holding the signs they made for you, looking at their watches expecting you to come by, and just looking down the road and waiting a little, or a lot, longer than you had told them.

As you approach the aid station a volunteer, an older one who looks like she’s been there before looks you straight in the eye and asks with genuine concern, “Are you okay?”.

You know you probably don’t look that good but her concern seems to only underscore the sense that you must be visibly fading.  The heat is taking its toll and she hands you a sponge and calls over another volunteer to give you some water.  As the freezing water from the sponge chills you and your heart skips a beat you thank the volunteers knowing they’re godsends for the athletes who are leaving blood, sweat, and tears on the course.

You march forward with a little more confidence in your step.  Some quick math in your head tells you that with 5 miles to go you know you can keep this pace up and finish the race in a little over an hour.

Then something happens.  Something so trivial, but so powerful.

“Get your head up!” you hear from the distance.  You figure they’re just words of encouragement between two team mates and you take some solace from the encouragement as a bystander.

But you look up and its the burgundy jersey from two hours ago and he’s running strong and powerful.

“5 miles to go bud, you’ve got this!  Stay strong!”  The words of encouragement are for you and a smile infectiously grows across your face.

“It’s just a walk in the park now friend”,  he continues. “Everything you’ve got from here to the finish line!”

The onslaught of encouragement forces your eyes to water.  Must be that dehydration again.

Your walk turns to a run again and you stretch out your left hand to high five theirs.

“I’ll see you at the finish!”, you finally reply.

Burgundy is right, you’ve got 5 miles to go.  Its time to leave it all out there and you’re going to ride this high into the finish.  Everything in your body hurts but now its time for your mind to tell your body that you’re in control, not the other way around.

You whisper to yourself, “Everything you’ve got”.

You’re feel like you’re cruising now and your pace is brisk, your body doesn’t feel great but now you’re feeling like a rockstar.  There isn’t much left to do and you know that in about 40 minutes, you’ll be an Ironman.

As the time starts to quickly go by you’re on a natural high and you know you’re going to finish strong.  You remind yourself to take it all in.  Hours of racing, months of training, and years of dreaming, are coming down to these last few minutes.

You reach a fork in the road.  First lap left, finish chute right.  You go right.

You can hear the crowds cheering and the announcer greeting runners as they come in every minute or so.  As you turn the corner you see your friends and family jumping up and down cheering and screaming your name on the other side of the fence.  Their excitement is electric and tears flood your eyes.  You’ve done it.  A course marshal directs you with a grin and you proceed to the last couple hundred meters.

A long blue carpet lines the chute and crowds of strangers who have been waiting hours to greet you clap, scream, and extend their hands to give you five.  It’s a magic moment that you simply want to place in a bottle and hold on to forever.

Looking down the chute are volunteers waiting for you and an announcer looking straight at you.  If smiles were the measure of achievement, you’ve won gold.

You look up at the clock for one last moment of technical indulgence.  You’re going to cross the line a few minutes off of the hour mark that you were shooting for.  You’ll take it.

You take a deep breath step over the timing mat and finally come to a halt.  After so many hours of racing it almost feels unnatural to finally stop moving.  In a single moment you’re overwhelmed with emotion; exhaustion, euphoria, pain, relief, happiness, and even some sadness as a journey that’s taken you years to complete comes to an end.

And then you hear the words you’ve been waiting forever to hear, and in a moment you know that you’d do it all again.

“You are an Ironman”.

Post Race

After dinner and a beer you make your way back down towards the finish area.  You’re limping and your body feels broken, but there’s a smile you won’t leave behind that reaches from ear to ear.  Its dark now and you’ve been done for hours and you know that there are still people out on course so you take a path to the finish line that brings you alongside the run course.

As athletes run and walk by you make sure to share words of encouragement with them letting them know how close they are and how strong they’re looking.  Finishing in ten hours takes strength and determination, but finishing in the dark walking miles on your own takes a different kind of grit and perseverance that you wonder whether or not you have.

Arriving at the finish line you take a spot with your friends on the bleachers to join the crowds in cheering on the last hour of finishers.  The finish line of an Ironman race is a magical place.  Every finisher has their story but as the evening goes on they seem to become more and more endearing.  The finishers are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, friends, and strangers.  Some race to show themselves what they can do, others race to show life that no matter what hardship it throws at them, that they cannot be beaten.

You’re in awe of the collective energy that shines from that finish line at that late hour.  And as the last finisher arrives, the crowd erupts in cheers.  It’s the one place where the cheers for the last person to come across the line may even be louder than the cheers for the first person across the line.  With that, you know that one day you’ll be back.