Is There an Ironman Distance Race in Your Future?

As the summer is winding down the eyes of many people in the world of triathlon become focused on the Ironman World Championship held in Kailua-Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii every October. There are many other triathlon “world” championship events held around the world, in each of the different triathlon lengths, but Ironman Hawaii (as it is more commonly known), has been seen as the pinnacle of the sport for long distance triathletes for decades. The road to this championship runs through the current 24 race World Triathlon Corp (WTC) Ironman race series held across the globe, so if Ironman Hawaii is something you aspire to, then preparing for an Ironman distance race is on your agenda.dumbass ironman tattooos

And of  course not everyone is looking to go race Ironman Hawaii, acknowledging that maybe that’s just a road too far and they’re just interested in participating in a long course triathlon to challenge themselves and see what they can do, at least as a start.  And what I mean by “long course” is any triathlon greater than a 70.3 mile race, including those promoted by the WTC (Ironman), Challenge, Rev3 (140.6 mile races), or by the ITU (Long Course, basically a triple Olympic distance race), overseas. So what does it take to move up to a long course triathlon?

For a start, you should have the understanding that doing an Ironman is more about the journey to get to the start line than the finish line and hearing the voice of Ironman, Mike Reilly call out your name and announce that “You, Insert Your Name Here, are an Ironman!!!” Yeah finishing is the ultimate goal, but when the journey takes a year or more to complete, you need to have a lot of short-term goals to get you there.

What I really think you need to have in your bag before signing up for an Ironman distance race is this, three to five years in the sport of triathlon with:

  • at least one half Ironman distance race under your belt, preferably more
  • at least one marathon (or multiple half marathons that you “raced” versus just tried to or barely finished), under your belt and maybe a couple of century bike rides to your credit
  • a background in long distance cycling

Remember, this is just the starting point, to which you will be adding the pieces of the puzzle that you don’t already have, like swimming non-stop for over an hour, running a marathon without stopping or walking a lot of it, or riding 100+ miles again and again, etc.

And then I believe that the following reasons for wanting to do an Ironman distance race, without the above in your bag, are wrong:

  • My friend signed up for one so I wanted to support them
  • I want to do an Ironman so I can check it off my bucket list and get the tattoo on my calf
  • I’m really slow at the short distance races but I think I can ride and run a really long time
  • When I tell people I race triathlons they always ask me if I’ve done an Ironman, and when I say no they seem disappointed, like I’m not a “real” triathlete

I threw that last reason up there because more than a few athletes have mentioned this, that until recently triathlon really wasn’t well understood by a lot of mainstream people, and really still isn’t, but they do know that there is something out there called Ironman, so they associate triathletes with Ironman and if you haven’t done an Ironman then you really can’t be a triathlete. I hope that you can convince them otherwise, and if not, well then it’s okay to not worry about what other people think.

I think the reasoning behind the other three is self-explanatory, being short-sighted and done without a lot of thought. I don’t think planning on doing a race that will likely take you between 9 and 17 hours to complete is something that you should just jump into; what happens to our bodies (and mind) as we evolve in the sport of triathlon just takes time. As we move from doing relays or shorter distance races to longer distance training, the physical adaptation to deal with the stress of moving for longer and longer periods of time, breaking down the body and then rebuilding it, is not something that you can rush.

In endurance racing it’s not so much the speed and intensity we experience in a short course race that hurts, it’s the overall muscular fatigue that settles in. You’ve heard of the Ironman shuffle? It’s real and it takes the best and fittest athletes, with all the best intentions and training, and reduces even them to taking these short little strides on the run, while our minds are still thinking we’re clipping along pretty good!. But suddenly we’re not running 7:00/mile, or 8:00/mile, or anything near our “hoped for pace”, but instead we’re out in the 10-15 minute/mile pace and just hoping we can keep moving until the finish line. But what about the mental side of finishing an Ironman?

The long training hours in the pool, on the bike, and out on those at times seemingly interminably long runs, help strengthen our minds to the task, so that we can keep moving forward, staying in the moment, and adjusting our plan accordingly. Without a strong mind to go along with our strengthened bodies, no number of friends and relatives on the course, or crowds of people telling you that “You’re almost there!”, can make a difference if our minds have given up and our bodies are crying out for us to stop, and this too takes time and practice.

That is why most coaches and athletes acknowledge that short course racing:

  • does not prepare you for this kind of challenge
  • does not teach you how to hydrate and fuel your bodies for the better part of a day while you’re busy burning through all the readily available calories that you’ve already stored on board
  • does not build the muscular endurance you need to complete an Ironman distance race

That is why I do not recommend athletes move too quickly into long course racing. For anyone that has done, or thinks it’s okay to do, a sprint and Olympic tri one year and then sign up for a half Ironman early the next season an Ironman later in the year, or worse, does one as their first race or in their season (it has been done, and it’s usually not pretty), I ask why, what’s the rush?

I won’t even discuss the amount and types of injuries that many athletes have to deal with when they’re in a rush to add huge amounts of training volume to a short course training regime. Maybe you do train really long and only race short, so it won’t be so bad, but I would still suggest you race a season of half Ironman distance tris and train for a marathon, to really learn what works and doesn’t work in your training. I promote triathlon as a sport we can do through the course of our lives and not just as another fad.

I’ll go back to the journey that leads us to the Ironman starting line, and if you ask people what the highlights were of everything they’ve gone through after they reached the finish line and had some time to reflect on it all, everyone will tell you it was the people they trained with on the cold and wet rides, or that joined them for a long run in the dark, when everyone was home having dinner, that made it all the sweeter. Don’t shortcut this process and think it’s okay, you’ll only be short-changing the chance to learn more about yourself and what your body and mind can really accomplish when you give it time to grow and develop.

Do your homework, learn how to race shorter distance triathlons and build over several seasons to longer distances. Learn how to drink and eat to fuel your body on longer bike rides and runs. Learn how far you can push your body, learn how fast you can go that far, and practice at the half Ironman distance until you feel confident that you have the time in your life, the support of your family, friends, and workplace, before you sign up for what will be a long journey before you cross the finish line.

Mike Reilly will be there for you when you’re done, or someone like him, so what’s your hurry?





2 thoughts on “Is There an Ironman Distance Race in Your Future?

  1. Interesting that this popped up in my reader when it did. I just completed my first full (IM Wisconsin) in 15:42. Looks like I did everything wrong. I started running for the first time in my life 2.5 years ago. I was planning on a 5k and nothing more. Every weekend run just went longer (never planned, I just felt good and wanted to keep going). Ran my first full marathon 18 weeks after buying my running shoes. Finished in 4:26 and was still smiling at the end. I bought a bike to cross train and ended up signing up for a duathlon and a triathlon. By the end of the season, I ran my first 70.3 and really enjoyed it (but I was at the back of the pack at 7:20 or so). The following year saw 3 more 70.3’s and several Full Marathons. After the final hilly 70.3, I signed up for the full. I did a 30 week training program and did another 70.3…crushing my old PR by over 52 minutes. I felt ready. I ran into stomach issues very early, which completely derailed my hydration and nutrition. This happened so early that it would have had the same effect at an Olympic Tri. I just swallowed a lot of air on the swim (happens to me sometimes, maybe once out of every 10 swims). My training and fitness helped push thru it. My legs were never sore. I was finally able to get caught up on fluids during the run. I finished with a smile on my face. I think I would have easily finished one hour faster (maybe two) without the stomach issues, but I regret nothing. I plan on continuing triathlon for many years, but the 140.6 is a “one and done”. I wanted to do it since my first 70.3, and it loomed over me until now. Now, I think I can strike a home/work/life balance, but I needed to experience the full to decide where that balance was for me…

    • To say that you “did everything wrong.”, your words, isn’t really fair to yourself. Obviously if you could run a marathon 4.5 months after starting running in around 4.5 hours you have some kind of endurance background or the ability to train and race at an easy pace for longer periods of time. Doing a half IM the end of your first year, while a 7+ hour time, didn’t seem to stop you from moving on the next year, while adding more marathons, as a pre-cursor to jumping up to an Ironman distance triathlon. My issue would be that you didn’t spend any time learning how to “race” a triathlon, the actual race craft involved, versus your natural ability to just swim, bike, and run slowly for a long time. If that’s what you enjoyed doing, then don’t let something you read on the internet disuade you.

      But if you had read my article beforehand, would you have followed the same plan? Or would you have stepped back a bit and tried a few shorter races first, building some race knowledge, before moving up? Since you’re one-and-done with IM distance races, would my plan had led you to compete in more longer races if you had waited before you did one?

      I’ll leave you and everyone with one final thought, something I read a few years back. The Race Director for an old and well established half Ironman on the east coast said he had seen a disturbing trend with regards to the athletes doing his race. At the pre-race meeting he would ask how many people were doing their first half Ironman, and over the past 5+ years he said that he kept seeing more and more hands, which he didn’t mind as it helped his bottom dollar, but he was suprised that his race was their first.

      Then he would ask if anyone was doing their first triathon and this is what disturbed him, as each year he saw more and more hands raised. His concern was that these athletes were not completely prepared for the events of the following day and that he, his staff, the volunteers on the course, might not be prepared to deal with this many athletes if conditions got hot or lots of people started to have trouble on the course. He wondered if it wasn’t time to start requiring that people have done some number greater than zero of other distance races before doing a half Ironman, and then proposed that the same should be true for athletes signing up for their first Ironman distance race. He was concerned about the safety of the athletes on the course, and their general lack of knowledge about what can happen to our bodies during the stress of competing in a half or full Ironman distance race.

      When I train athletes for longer distance races, one thing they learn to do is push their limits, and on some days train-to-fail. Only when we go beyond what we think we can do, do we learn what we’re capable of doing. Nobody runs 26.2 miles contiguously before running their first marathon, but the sum of the weeks and months of training, at varying speeds and intensities, trains our body so that on race day we can in fact run 26.2 miles. I belive the same philosophy applies to long distance triathlons, and that it just takes time.

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