Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Road to the Ironman

Over the past 10 years, I have completed many distances, but all by way of foot. It wasn't long after completing my first 100 mile race in 2007 that the notion of moving onto other sports came to mind. After all, I had just completed a 100 mile run, and though there were certainly longer and tougher races, I had basically decided it was the most I'd ever want to do. My bucket list for running feats up to that point was fairly slim. Within my lifetime I had wanted to complete a marathon, a 50 miler, a 100 miler, and run 100 miles in under 24 hours. While none of these individual tasks is terribly difficult on their own, for a middle of the pack runner, they still stood as decently imposing challenges. Thus, in 2007, my third year as a runner, I had checked off my entire short list of running goals. The big question then was what was next?

Before I was ever a runner, I had set goals for a multitude of other sports and wanted to revisit that. I became a tae kwon do black belt at age 9, bowled my first 200 game at age 12, climbed my first 5.10 at age 24, and threw a baseball from home plate over the outfield fence of my old high school baseball field (308 feet). It seems that setting and achieving goals has always been a part of my nature, hence after my first 100 miler, I decided that the Ironman was the next big fish to catch in my sports life. I was Captain Ahab and the Ironman was my Moby Dick.

However, the years shuffled by and it never happened. I never caught the big fish, or even cast a net. Much of this was due to the fact that the lure of trail ultras kept calling me back, and the fact the cost for training for an Ironman was extremely high. Even after I finished the Western States 100 in 2011, my all time bucket list race, I continued to postpone my Ironman aspirations. Understandable since, in the sport of running the only major cost is shoes, which can be bought for very cheap, and race entry fees, which compared to the $625 for an Ironman looked much more wallet friendly. The third major drawback of pursuing the Ironman was knowing how much work lay ahead. It was a road I knew would be paved with more dedication and focus than any of my ultramrathons. Consider I had only marginal experience in one of the three athletic disciplines needed for just a general triathlon, no less the full Iron distance, one could empathize the monumental task at hand.

In February 2014, after seven years of procrastinating and making excuses, I finally made the leap and signed up for Ironman Louisville. With only a handful of spring races on the calendar, and nothing beyond April, I knew that 2014 looked to be the ideal year to make my attempt at the elusive Ironman. Louisville was the best fit for event since it did not require air travel, was not until August, and the climate would be the most similar to the Virginia climate I would be training in (ie hot, humid, not in the mountains, or at altitude). It was logistically also the easiest way for my dad to join in the adventure, which will be very special for the both of us. Lastly, the timeframe also gave me six months to prepare for the event, though I did not intend to begin triathlon training until the end of my spring races, which gave me a full 16 weeks to train. The big question remained, would 16 weeks be enough for an experienced runner who had essentially no experience in swimming, or biking? I suppose, that will be answered in two months.

So, going into the Ironman my only "strength" was in the running discipline.....but, I had never run 26.2 miles after swimming 2.4 miles and riding a bike for 112 miles. Then there was the fact that I hadn't swam in nearly five years, and nothing longer than 500-750 meters in a pool compared to the Ironman's 3,840 meter open water swim. The funny thing is, I had always regarded myself as a decent swimmer. I mean I did lifeguard (cough, paid to twirl a whistle and tan) for 7 years, so I had to be a good swimmer, right? Um, no. In my 7 years of lifeguarding I never had to swim more than 50 feet to rescue anyone, and in most cases I was saving small kids who were drowning in shallow water I could easily stand up in. So, in reality was I a good swimmer? Not by a long shot. Oh, and then we have the sport of cycling that I have to learn. Yeeaaahh. Bikes probably make up 90% of the cost to participate in triathlons. There were literally so many things I had no clue I had to buy in order to use a bike for a triathlon and to not look like a total idiot on a bike. The latter is still up for debate.

So, how would I describe my biking experience? A tad more than zero sounds accurate. I did have a bike in college that I road maybe 2-3 miles per week to class, and I also remember going on an epic long bike ride with a couple friends which turned out to only be 7 miles when we finally measured the route in our cars. Yup, 7 miles was my longest ride ever from 2001 until 2011 when a friend dared me to do a century ride with him. A week before the century ride, on a my friend's borrowed bike, we did practice rides of 8 and 14 miles so I would be familiar with the bike and gears. Then I rode 100 miles to PR my distance ridden on a bike by 86 miles. It also took me over 7 and a half hours, and I definitely can't afford to be that slow for 112 miles. In reality it wasn't much different than how my first ultra went, and it's very similar to how I'm going into the Ironman. Go big, or go home, then figure out proper training later. Motto of my athletic life. However, now 3 years later, I have not been on a bike since.

Well, it's now been over five months since I signed up for Louisville and I am 10 weeks into my training with 6 weeks to go. I had decided early on that despite being a beginner cyclist and swimmer that I wanted to train the best I could and go into the event somewhat prepared. My respect for triathletes has grown tremendously and especially for Iron distance triathletes. The time it takes to learn three skill sets, no less master them with any speed, is an immense undertaking. As a novice, I am not only learning two new sports, but also having to build up endurance at the same time so I can conquer the full distance.

Thus far, it's been trial by fire, but well worth it and humbling. I finally bought a bike, a wetsuit, tri gear, and pretty much exhausted whatever money I had set aside for upcoming running events for the sake of the triathlon. The total cost for the Ironman including entry fee, bike, bike accessories, tri gear, motel, and travel has been exactly $2,000. The cost could have been $1,000 more had I not bought most of my items on ebay (ie. $899 bike for $479, $100 aerobar for $50, $250 wetsuit for $35, $150 tri suit for $75 and so on). I also learned that triathlons are significantly less forgiving for the ill equipped and unprepared. More so than in ultras where, as long as you keep moving forward, you can be untrained and even out of shape and still finish well within the cut offs. Training schedules are also much more demanding, whereas potential rest days are often replaced with works outs for swimming and cycling, since each sport requires several days of training any given week. With running your off days are off days, but in triathlons an off day of running means you are either on the bike, in the pool, and vice versa. Interestingly though, while my overall training routine is more structured and stricter than running alone, I find that I don't feel nearly as worn out as when all my mileage is solely running. I suppose switching up the muscle groups really does lessen the singular impact of just doing one sport all the time. That being said, I am trying to get used to the fact that my weekly running mileage may only hit 30-40 miles per week, low by my standards, but that the addition of 100+ miles of biking and several miles of swimming takes up about the same amount of time as a 75-85 mile running week would.

In the remaining six weeks the plan is to refine my race strategy and to gain some speed. I have mostly been training to become more efficient in the water and on the bike, and often focusing a lot on technique versus trying to go fast. Trust me when I say my first swimming and biking workouts were rough. I was stopping every couple of laps in the pool to catch my breath and I couldn't ride a bike for more than 30 minutes before my neck, back, hips, butt, and legs got sore. But, I sought sound advice, was patient, and tried to improve just a little bit more every time I got in the water, or hopped on my bike. I had also intentionally made workouts harder by swimming in non streamlined gear and waiting to use clip in shoes on the bike. I figured if I increased my efforts without any performance aids, then it would make me stronger, albeit slower in the early stages of training. Now that I can confidently knock out a 2 mile swim and a 70 mile ride any given day, though not fast, I think the time is right to start using cycling shoes and a wetsuit to see what speed I can gain from here on out. If I had relied on these things from the beginning of my training, I would have worried that they may have become a security blanket and I would rely on them too much. I still have a lot to learn, but gains are gains.

Finally, I decided to set some goals, which was something I was hesitant to do early on. Obviously, the primary objective is just to finish. Given that it is my FIRST triathlon, and it just so happens to be Iron distance, I am not putting a ton of pressure for a particular time. Realistically, even if I improved a good bit on the swim and the bike, I probably would not cut more than 30 minutes off my total time at this juncture in my triathlon life. I do think I can break 13 hours, probably 12:30, and on a good day perhaps go under 12 hours. But, like any long distance event, there is a lot can happen in the 140.6 miles that we will cover. As long as I can cross that finish in under 17 hours, I will be an Ironman.

(Ironman Louisville finish line)