When I turned 50 earlier this year, I decided to finally give myself the gift of chasing after my Ironman dream — something I’d been carrying with me since I was a teenager. I knew I wanted to be an Ironman in 1982 after watching Wide World of Sports on a Saturday afternoon and being bowled over by Julie Moss’ awe-inspiring race in Kona and her legendary crawl across the finish line.
It took me 34 years to build up my nerve, carve out the time, and mentally prepare for a year of training in my single-minded pursuit of becoming an Ironman, but it’s truly one of the best things I’ve ever done.
My way of showing gratitude for the gift of this journey and all the people who helped me along the way is not only to thank each of them, but to pay it forward and share what I’ve learned with others who might be contemplating their first Ironman.
Because you learn A LOT in the course of a year of training, I’m going to break it down into a series of blog posts covering the journey, the swim, the bike, run, nutrition and recovery, mental toughness, race day and the afterglow.
First of all, if you’re reading this, most likely you’ve taken the most difficult step of this entire journey — believing in yourself enough to hit the registration button. Even if you nearly peed yourself in the process, screamed, “Holy Crap, what have I done?” and laughed uncontrollably as you headed for a massive glass of wine and a box of chocolates, YOU DID IT!!! My hat is off to you. You are on your way!!!
If you’re still building up your nerve, but have a burning desire to become an Ironman, don’t ignore it. It’s something you’ll never regret. And if you’ve been putting it on the back burner, waiting for the perfect time to do it, please know there is no perfect time. There never will be. Life always throws challenges our way. That’s one of the many reasons crossing the finish line is so freaking exhilarating and empowering.
Here’s what else I learned while doing my first Ironman…
• It may sound cliche, but Ironman truly is a journey in every sense of the word, as you will travel to the farthest reaches physically, emotionally and spiritually, learning more about yourself than you ever imagined as you train for one of the most demanding endurance events of your life.
• It’s important to surround yourself with people who believe in your dream as much as you do.
• Do your “Ironman thing,” and do it with the passion that fills your heart. Life is short and this is a huge, life-affirming goal, so wear it on your sleeve and enjoy every second.
• Start where you’re at, not where you want to be. Slowly, steadily build and you will get there faster than if you jump in beyond your fitness level and get injured. Remember your number one goal is to get to the starting line healthy.
• Be patient. It may feel like it’s taking forever, but you will suddenly start cranking out mileage you never imagined.
• When you first start, you will likely be exhausted (All. The. Time.), and you will wonder how the hell you will ever do this thing called Ironman. It will pass after a few weeks though, as your body adjusts to the demands you are placing on it. In no time you will forget all about it because you’ll suddenly be on fire, getting stronger with each workout.
• Focus on the journey and not the race. The race itself is just one day, but the journey is made up of hundreds of days and likely thousands of hours. After all, if you’re not enjoying the journey, what’s the point?
• Don’t be afraid to share what you are doing. You never know who you might inspire, and the support and encouragement you receive along the way is immeasurable.
• You will find extraordinary beauty in your pursuit of becoming an Ironman — whether it’s in nature or people, or in simple moments that take your breath away. Don’t forget to stop and appreciate it. These are the moments that make your journey worth it all.
• You do not have to be a certain shape or size to become an Ironman. You will see every kind of person imaginable on race day. Big, small, old, young, ones with naturally functioning legs and arms, some with prosthetics. Some of the biggest people on the race course have some of the strongest glutes and the fiercest hearts.
• Even if you stink at one of the disciplines at first, you WILL get it, and you will never regret the time you spent getting better at it while chasing after your dream.
• There will be days when you simply do not want to train, when you’d give anything to sleep in, then lounge around sipping coffee instead of dragging yourself to a cold pool or spending hours on your bike. Learn this mantra early in your training: “Don’t think. Just Go. Don’t think. Just Go.”
• The other mantra that will help you is “One day, one workout at a time.” Simply focus on what you are doing while you are doing it. If you start thinking too far ahead, you will get overwhelmed by the shear magnitude of what Ironman training requires. When you break it down to one single workout, it’s absolutely doable.
• Ironman does not happen without the help of others. Somebody along the way will give you advice, motivate you, perhaps even train with you. Many people went out of their way to help me reach my goal–from family and friends to my coach and teammates to employees at our local bike shop and running store to complete strangers. You will be floored by others’ enthusiasm for what you are doing–especially those who could never imagine attempting an Ironman.
• Never, I repeat NEVER forget the people around you who are helping you reach your goal. Be grateful. Show your appreciation. Do what you can to keep your family’s life in balance while you train. Your support crew will most likely be pulling yeoman’s duty during your Ironman journey, so it’s important to let them know how much you appreciate them.
• A coach makes a huge difference. Having somebody in your corner who pushes you, inspires you, reels you in when you’re on the verge of overdoing it, who answers every dumb newbie question (there are no dumb questions), and who prepares you mentally, physically and emotionally for the biggest athletic event of your life is worth every penny. If you’re thinking of going it alone, you can, but think again. You won’t regret it, even if you have to skimp somewhere else to pull together the funds to make it happen.
• Finding the RIGHT coach is crucial. Make sure you are on the same page with your expectations, personalities, and styles. If you need a lot of hand-holding and cheerleading, be up front. Most newbies do. I know I did. Find a coach who is accessible and excited to hear from you. Once a week emails may not be enough to stir your motivation when the going gets tough. Being accountable to somebody who’s rooting for you all the way makes you want to get the work done no matter what.
• There will be high “highs” and low “lows” mixed in with a whole slew of ordinary training days during this long journey to the starting line. The lows are what make the highs all the more exhilarating, so keep that in mind as you work your way through them. Look at the lows as a gift because finding the grit to power on in the face of these challenges is also what’s going to make you unstoppable on race day.
• Don’t shy away from “bad weather.” There is no such thing. Wind, rain, cold, heat, humidity…they’re all your friends during training as they will make you stronger and prepare you for the worst. You will know you’ve faced these elements during training so you’ll be able to handle them again if they rear their heads on race day.
• Don’t ignore your core. It’s what will carry you through to the finish line. Strengthen it and the rest of your body will stay healthier and also become more powerful.
• Recovery is king and makes all the difference in staying healthy. Train hard, but recover even harder. That means focusing on the essentials: rest, hydration, nutrition, and restorative stretching, foam rolling, and whatever else makes you feel balanced and whole.
• Documenting your journey lets you appreciate it on a whole other level and live it more than once. Whether it’s simply writing in a journal, snapping photos along the way, or full-on blogging like I did every week, you will always be able to remember the highs and lows and the multitude of memorable moments, even when your rides, runs and swims all start to blur together.
• Your skin will take a beating. Between the sun, sweat, chlorine, wind, salt water and other daily factors, you will look in the mirror and wonder, “Whaahappen?” Take care of your skin, but also recognize that what you are working toward is far greater than any new line on your face. You will also have a beautiful glow that radiates from within because you are so fired up about what you are doing.
• Brace yourself for the laundry. It’s epic. Your shower curtain rod will become a perpetual drying rack as it holds multiple pieces of of tri-related items…kits, swimsuits, sports bras, bike and running shorts…the list goes on. It’s all part of it. Accept it.
• The logistics of training can be time-consuming, especially if you’re disorganized. Most triathletes are Type A, but if you’re not, this might be the time to ramp up your organization and planning skills. Keep your gear in one place, know your pool schedules, have your nutrition and water bottles prepped, make sure your Garmin is charged and your clothes ready. Prepare as much as possible the night before so you don’t waste precious time in the morning digging around for essential items. Training takes enough time in itself. You don’t want to pile on additional hours each week because you’re disorganized.
• You will miss a workout every once in awhile. DON’T FREAK OUT. The journey to Ironman is long. If you’re sick, on the verge of injury, have an important family commitment or an intense day at work that leaves you walloped, it’s okay to skip it once in awhile. Don’t make it a habit, but don’t beat yourself up either. Sometimes the stress of trying to squeeze it in in the midst of chaos makes it worse, and sets your body back. This is another reason a coach is so helpful, especially one who understands your life outside of training.
• Joining a charity team for your first Ironman will make your experience all the more powerful because not only will you be changing your life during your journey, but the lives of others. That, my friends, is an extraordinary feeling. The support and camaraderie of your team will also boost you tenfold on race day. I chose to raise funds for Smile Train, a phenomenal organization providing free cleft surgeries for kids around the world. I can’t recommend Smile Train enough for what they do for children, and also what they do for the team.
• Flexibility will keep you sane. Things come up, and you’ll likely need to switch your training schedule around once in awhile. Being rigid and stressing about it is not only counterproductive, but often unnecessary as you’ll most likely still get in all the work, perhaps just in a different order. Bend like a willow so you don’t break like an oak.
• You will have doubts and fears on occasion, questioning your ability and/or your sanity in training for an Ironman. That’s totally normal. Fear is a fantastic motivator. Use it to fuel your training instead of letting it paralyze you. Remember, as you push beyond your comfort zone, “Don’t think. Just Go.”
• Never forget that it’s pretty freaking awesome that you GET to do this. When you hear yourself say, “Ugh, I HAVE to go for a run or swim,” remind yourself that you are one lucky chica to be able to do this. Changing that one simple word is a powerful way to shift your entire mindset.
• Learn to laugh at yourself. You will undoubtedly make a few rookie mistakes during this long road to the starting line, and when you do, it’s best to find humor in the moment and be grateful you were able to get it out of the way before race day. Also, remember everyone was a rookie once and everyone has a “Rookie Mistake” story.
• Treat this journey as if it’s the only one you will ever be able to do in your lifetime. You will appreciate it all the more. You may fall in love with IM and go on to do twenty more, but for your first one, relish every second, even if it’s a sucky training day, even if you’re cursing at a flat tire, even if your muscles are screaming at you. Remember this is a once-in-a-lifetime, mind-blowing gift you are giving yourself.
As you begin (or continue on) your first Ironman journey, know that I am cheering for you every step of the way, and so are all the others who have come before you. You will never regret your decision to push yourself beyond your perceived boundaries. When you do finally go the distance and cross the finish line, every limitation you ever placed on yourself will suddenly be shattered and you will know deep inside that anything is possible.
Tri on, my friends…
PS: In my next post I will be sharing what I learned about the swim during my first Ironman. For all of you swimmers who are self-described non-swimmers or still “works-in-progress,” know that if I can do it, you absolutely can do it. There’s hope for everyone. 🙂
Fellow Ironmen, what would you add to this list? I’d love to hear your thoughts!