What’s that, you say? Ironman Texas isn’t for three weeks and you’re already writing a race report?
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks shuttling between an emotion salad of ‘excited’ and ‘sheer panic’ thinking about this race. But this weekend, I seem to have moved passed the ‘panic’ phase with a realization: I’ve been training for seven months for my first full-distance triathlon, while the race itself is one day. Just one day! So in essence, my ‘Ironman’ has been 99% training for an Ironman. The race itself, at this point to me, is almost an afterthought (well no — but you see my point).
So that’s why this race report is Part 1. The training is way, way, way more than the race itself. I’m also hoping to demystify this a bit — while women’s participation in triathlon at the sprint and Olympic distances has soared, and in many races has reached parity with men, women still lag far behind men on long courses. Last year at IMTX, for example, there were 130 female participants in my 45-49 age group while there were 391 men in the same age category. Why? It’s certainly not that women aren’t capable of the distance. I wonder if it could partly be the lack of female examples: men with friends that sign up for Ironman races are probably more likely to get sucked into the mania. Personally, I know about 6 women that have completed a full distance race–and that’s over the course of my seven seasons in triathlon–while I can name 40 or more male friends who have done one.
Why an IM, why now?
I admit–I was never obsessed with doing a full distance race. I love triathlon as a sport. I have met the most wonderful people and friends. I’ve found a competitive side I didn’t even know I had. I got fitter, and stronger. I have enjoyed the support and camaraderie of the tri community, and have equally enjoyed lending that support to others, mainly through my leadership in the Brooklyn Tri Club, but also through Prospect Park Track Club, South Bay Triathletes, and SMOG. But I felt no burning desire to do a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, plus a full marathon, all back to back.
BUT… I have been in triathlon seven years, completing all the other distances, and at least 50 triathlons overall. I’m 48 years old, and have had no major injuries, while many at my age struggle with back problems, knee trouble, chronic Plantar’s fasciitis. While you can find longer triathlons, the “full” is the iconic distance in my sport. I was beginning to feel that I needed to attempt it. Maybe it would be my first and only full distance race, but that would be okay.
I was pretty sure that if I chose a race, it would be a spring race. In the bitter northeast winters, motivation to keep up with workouts in the off season is low. Running involves a whole laundry load of layers, the pools are crowded, and you’re stuck on your bike trainer indoors. Last year, I signed up for a 70.3 in Cuba in February, and it was great to have an early season race to help me stay focused in the long winter. That’s primarily why I chose Ironman Texas on April 28 — an early race I could get out of the way and plan on more ‘fun’ races during the main season (June – September in the northeast).
Let me just say here–I have never considered myself an athlete. To me, an “athlete” is someone who grew up with sports, continued through college, and still trains, even recreationally. I was an overweight nerd in school. I did pretty much nothing athletic save for lackluster softball and about a month of the track team before I got a part time job and quit. I only started running when I was 30, and have never been more than a middle-packer. And even now, to me, an athlete “looks” like an athlete. I know, I know — my brain tells me to the contrary, but that stereotype is stuck in my head for good.
Time and a plan, and maybe a coach, but lots of time
No one talks about this! Magazines and online articles all say “you can do it” but they tend to gloss over the nuts and bolts.
The main things you need: Time, and a plan. If you have good base fitness and workout maybe an hour a day between running, cycling, and swimming, you’re going to need a good seven months to work up to the distances you’ll need to accomplish for the race. If you’re starting from zero (not recommended–please do some shorter triathlons first), you’d better plan on a year.
How much time per week should you plan to commit? My coach started me with about 7-8 hours per week of training, ramping up to peak weeks of about 16 hours (for the last month or so). That’s a chunk of time, sure, but it’s not crazy — you’d commit the same time to taking a class at a university, learning a new skill, or a new language.
You are also going to need more sleep. If you’re used to getting by with five or six hours a night, that’s not going to cut it. Your body needs rest between workouts. So in addition to carving out time for training, don’t forget about budgeting extra time for sleep, and for all the logistics–getting to the pool, all the extra showers you’ll be taking, and time for stretching/foam rolling.
For most people, that kind of time commitment means something has to go. For me, it was going out and watching TV, and it meant going to bed between 9:00 and 10:00 (sometimes 8:00) to have energy for morning workouts. You just need to know that going in.
I also hired a coach–the amazing Ben Kessel of Priority Fitness, a USAT-certified coach and an Ironman finisher himself–since I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve trained fine on my own for shorter distances, but this is a new beast. If I was going to do one of these, I knew I would need help. But you can easily find Ironman training plans online, and whole books about it. I know lots of people that have done it without a coach.
Many people also plan on a warm up race. Since I was training in the northeast in winter, but chose a race that would potentially be 90 degrees in late April, I chose a half-distance race in Puerto Rico in mid-March. It was really hot, and the run was very hilly, but the dealing with the heat and practicing nutrition was good for my brain.
Plan for setbacks
It’s going to happen. When was the last time you had ANY seven month period with no drama, no illness, no injury, no surprise financial woes, and no unexpected family stuff come up? Exactly. It ain’t happening.
Here was my stuff:
- Broke 2 ribs in a race at the end of October: Had to modify workouts, and no swimming for three weeks
- Got the flu in December–the nasty stuff that killed 100 people this year. Out entirely for three weeks, and slow coming back after that
- Lost my job at the end of October. More time to train, but also LOADS of stress and panic
- No massages, acupuncture, or new gear because of the job situation; bought secondhand when necessary
- Trapped nerve in shoulder in January-February–had to reduce swimming and weight training
- On the verge of cold/viruses for the last month
Weird and cool shit will happen to you while training, nonetheless
Here’s the thing: I am pretty mixed about actually doing this race, but I have LOVED the training. I’ve found that I can work a lot harder than I thought I could. It’s been cool to see my training numbers going up. And my body has changed. At the beginning, I’d hoped to lose about 30 pounds to get down to 125-127 pounds (I’m 5’4″), but let’s face it–I have not weighed that little since high school. But I did drop about 20 pounds, very, very slowly (and honestly about 5 pounds of that was having the flu).
I also got a lot stronger. I’ve toned up. My shoulders look beautiful. My legs are leaner and stronger. I have quads of steel. My calves look amazing–super cut and gorgeous in a pair of heels. I still have cellulite and junk in the trunk, but I’ve always had those. It’s nice to be able to get back into some smaller clothes, but some things actually don’t fit because my biceps are too big.
Your hormones might go nuts. I’m perimenopausal, so my periods have dwindled to nonexistent (don’t miss them), but I have talked to other women who say that in the month or two prior to their race, they felt their hormones were in overdrive. I go from really, really horny, to panic, to major feelings of inadequacy and self doubt.
For younger women with low body fat (mine isn’t low), you might experience amenorrhea–where your periods stop or get very erratic. Be super diligent with birth control because you aren’t going to know when you’re ovulating.
The training has been awesome
I’ve enjoyed so much about this training. I signed up for TX with two friends, Megan Tobin and Kim Hollingdale, so we’ll all be there together, and I’ll be borrowing their spouses and kids for support. We are on different coasts, with different training, but we’ve enjoyed sharing the trials and tribulations, and pictures of massive quantities of post-workout food.
The training gives you good stuff to talk about with other triathletes, and a reason to talk to others about how they trained. You’ll discover you can do lots of stuff you might not have thought you could — like cycling for four hours indoors on a trainer, or even better–cycling for fours hours on a trainer on Saturday, then running 18 miles on Sunday. Even before you race, you’ve joined a very small group of weirdos that will do an Ironman.
It’s been great having a plan that I don’t even have to think about — it’s just there and I do it. The routine has been helpful while my job situation has been a mess.
The training has kept me sane, and made the whole race seem manageable — still crazy, but it seems do-able. I feel confident I’ll finish it (assuming I get to the starting line healthy). I have not a clue how “well” I will do — and everyone wants to know how “fast” I will be. I was hung up on daydreaming about that for a while, but now I feel kind of Zen about it. I’ll do my best, and it will be what it will be. I plan to leave it all out there.
Stay tuned for Part 2!