Doing an Ironman is a simple two step process:
1. Train like your life depends on it non-stop for 8 to 10 months.
2. Pay attention.
Of these step 2 is the much harder. The training, well that is a left foot - right foot thing. If you're going to do a race that if laid out end to end could put you two states away from the start then there's going to be some serious volume over a very long time. Get up, swim-bike-run, eat, go to sleep. Repeat. And oh yes, say goodbye to your savings.
Now the hard part. Paying attention. One of the fundamental bits of wisdom in marathon is that you cannot get any prettier in the last week prior to the race but you can certainly undo all your training. Over my 20 years training marathoners I've seen this way too many times for it just to be folk wisdom: people who could not get into taper mode, trying new magic potions, partying like its 1999, trying new gear, and one guy who decided to join a bowling league with his new girlfriend and strained not one but both ACLs. There was one lady who decided to do a 20 mile run on treadmill the Friday before the Boston Marathon because her PT thought it best to deplete so she could reload at maximum. But the worst offenses have been in not paying attention to the final week of preparation or the day of the race.
Now think Ironman when the least complicated stage is...the marathon. Now granted that half the fun in 140.6 is that there are so many details there is little room for worry (or overdoing training) yet many try. In a race where you have about 10 places you have to either tape or stick your bib number onto and you have not one finishing time but three to worry about - you are forced to pay attention. When we coached Dt to Ironman Lake Placid, Madison and Florida we had pre-race meetings and bed checks to make sure all was ready. Here are what we consider to be the top items to pay attention to that either athletes overlook or play a critical role on your race day:
- Your 1/2 way bags for the ride and run. At about mile 56 of the ride and 13 of the run Ironman allows you to have support bags with things you want in it. Make sure to stuff fresh shirts into both and your favorite (but benign or well tested) foods to chug or munch on. A change of shirt psychologically can refresh you and some delicious and fun food (again well tested) can re-invigorate you. The number of IM athletes that'll put in cold pizza or chocolate shake (frozen) in their bags are legion. At Ironman Florida I put Funny Bones in my 1/2 way bag for the marathon. Here's where you have to pay attention - don't pin your bib onto anything or guess what you'll be doing at the half-way points of the ride and run: yup, screaming, "f##k!" Wear your race belt. And one last thing: pack butt-butter and be prepared to put it all on.
- It's your race not a sight seeing tour. If you're going with an entourage have a friend/family member be in charge of who will be where and have them brief you. The only time they have to be somewhere is at the finish line when they announce you are an Ironman and to buy you beer at the post race dinner. I'll also add do your bidding the next day although based on experience the athletes are in better shape than the spectators the following day.
- Did your bike get a pro-level tune-up the prior week? Two nights before the race degrease the chain and oil 'er up. Of everything in this nutty thing your machine is the single most important thing. Think about it. You could do both the swim and the run naked. Before you rack the most important relationship of your life (think about that) make sure she/he is in perfect working order.
- During the swim if you need a minute roll onto your back and breath and exhale. During the run take your walking breaks. During the ride you move at all times unless you're peeing. and even then if you have to: you pee on the bike. Those wheels keep rolling unless nature calls. The cycle sets up your run and your race. We cannot stress this enough. At Lake Placid 2014 the Dt coaching staff was forced to wait at T2 and watch it close - we would have preferred to be anywhere else on the planet.
- Are all your electronics charged? Now normally we'd say who cares about them but we know that they're the only entertainment you're going to have (at mile 72 of the ride you'd give your left arm to watch C-Span) and of course...you want to know how your plan is going. Here's a tip: have someone with a spare GPS enabled watch at either a bike or run point for you. If all goes dark on you then fine. You'll be doing IM the way the Good Lord intended - au natural.
- Before you rack the bike do at most 5 to 7 miles of the course depending on the road layout. This ride is meant to check your bike mechanics and get rid of some nervous energy, and that's about it. As has been said before: no one is getting prettier the week before. BUT you can get hurt. At Ironman Lake Placid in 2013 as we prepped our athletes on a last ride there was a pile up crash re-entering town because of a sharp incline where no one could unclip in time. If you're going to get some road rash do it on race day.
- Don't just do the pre-race day swim just because. This is the only time you're going to get your sighting practice in. Pick TWO sighting locations you're going to look for race day. Sure there will be buoys galore but you will naturally look for landmarks. Having a couple will give you some measure of comfort.
- Vomit away! At mile 25 of the cycle of IM Florida I let go of a good chunk of breakfast and felt great the rest of the day. What is wonderful about IM is that you are guaranteed to not feel like you're feeling in short order (we know that goes both ways.) The key is not to panic but have a plan if and when the bottom comes. Plan A: Go to your secondary time goals to allow reduction on stressors to your body. Reduce speed and let your body find its equilibrium - it is usually within an hour of your transitions that these discomforts come. I worked T2 at Lake Placid a few times and I watched a few of the Pros do their vomitorium thing and then run sub three hour marathons. But make sure you have a plan even if it's "Coach Vic said this would happen."
- Take T1 and T2 as you need to. Allow the heart rate to come down. Allow your heart rate to come down. Allow your heart rate to come down. Allow... If you don't see the note above.
Each athlete has their specific thing they have to pay attention to. IM forces you to pay attention. But the great thing is and it truly does require mentioning because no one pays attention here: you are not doing this alone. There are hundreds of race volunteers, bike mechanics, kayakers, people handing out soup, and then there is the entire community that is supporting you: the police, firemen, emergency services, shop keepers, restaurants, everyone. The second your toes touch water there are another 2000 athletes creating a wake for you, looking out for you, pacing you. It is one great moveable assault on our limits. If you've ever been to an IM then you realize it is a 140.6 mile gauntlet of caring. Pay attention to that.