Being an Ironman from One Perspective

Ironman triathlons, the world round, have become the pinnacle of mainstream endurance athleticism. The race consists of a 2.4 mile open water swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, and finished with a marathon (26.2 miles) all in one continuous motion for a total of 140.6 miles, with an 17 hour cutoff. I have completed three full Ironman triathlons. I say that with a sense of pride, but also a growing knowledge of brotherhood. To date, there are over three dozen full Ironman races, across six continents, with an estimated number of 2000,000 competitors who have completed this feat (or 0.00002% of the population). Yet, regardless of all these numbers, the Ironman leaves me most predominantly with a sense of humility.

For those that cross the finish line in the allotted time, you are greeted with the cheer of the crowd and an official announcement over the loudspeaker by renowned race commentator Mike Reilly, “Scott McDonald (insert your name), You Are An Ironman!” With the combination of severe physical depletion, manic emotional state, and the overwhelming support of throngs of people around you, this can be one of the most exhilarating moments in an athlete’s career. The motto is “Swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, run 26.2 miles- BRAG FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. "

Mike Rieilly, "The Voice of Ironman"

However, with all the fanfare, accolades and big numbers, it is good to be able to put this accomplishment into some new perspective. One of the first things that most any Ironman will tell you is that you become an Ironman long before you ever cross the finish line. That’s because one doesn’t just show up to the start line on race morning and go for it. Most participants will spend a year if not more preparing for this day. Admittedly, Ironman competition is a very selfish endeavor. It becomes a second job, spending up to 40 hours a week training at times. And not to count the financial commitment. Race entry fees, travel and lodging, gym memberships, specialized bikes, countless pairs of shoes, specific nutritional items, and the list goes on.

The days before, and leading up to the starting gun, is a mixed bag of emotions.Excitement, nervousness, thrill, doubt and questioning if you really did enough all cross your mind. From talking with other competitors, that is the same for race 1 or race number 50. (side note: in the 40 years of race history, many people have completed into the hundreds of races!) The butterflies as you wait side by side with a thousand plus other people in skintight wetsuits, caps and goggles is exhilarating. But race morning doesn’t start there. Typically you’ve got a 4:30 am alarm set (which is pointless because you can’t sleep anyway) so you can get your last real fuel in your system. That is followed by checking your gear, rechecking your gear, and once more for good measure despite the fact that you laid it all out the night before and you’ve meticulously planned it for weeks on end.

Then it’s off to the race venue for “body marking.” This is a time honored tradition where the race coordinators write your race number and category in big black sharpie on your arm and calf. It’s like the right of passage that says “I’m doin’ this!” Following this you head to the first transition area (T1) to go over the fine details of everything on your bike. Tire pressure, check. Rack location, check. Fuel and hydration, check. Helmet, shoes, glasses, race number bib, check. Now to check your transition bag for the run (T2). Shoes, socks, fuel, visor, body lube; check! Did I mention that race start time is usually around 7 am and we aren’t even there yet. It’s now your last chance to get a bit more nutrition in you and use the porta potty for the last time, which is likely the 8th time this morning. Race time is approaching and it’s time to put on the wetsuit, head to the water and get warmed up with a dip and a few strokes (as if that isn’t going to happen over the next several hours) and then gather anxiously with everyone else as you compulsively adjust your swim cap, then goggles, check your watch, readjust your goggles, and then check again that your watch is working.

If you are not spent already, just ready this, then is when the canon goes off. The race has begun. In a cattle like movement, everyone shuffles down and out into the water peacefully. Well, it could be described more as a Water Battle Royal of competitive non-drowning. There is no sanity at this point and for the first several minutes people are swimming over you, you’re taking elbows and feet to the face and occasionally you pass the person having a panic attack that just threw up in the water you’re swimming through. Don’t worry though, it’s 7:05 am and it will all be over by midnight if you finish. Eventually everyone gets into a flow and hour or two are a repetition of swim, sight the next buoy, swim, sight, swim. If you complete the 2.4 miles in 2 hours and 20 minutes you get to keep going.

On to T1 and the bike portion. As you come out of the water they direct you to the strippers. That’s right, strippers; the volunteers who help you to your back on the ground, strip off your wetsuit and help you back up and off to your bike. As you cram your wet feet into riding shoes, gear up, unrack your bike and head off wearing a still wet tri-suit, it is a bit awkward to get your body moving in this new motion. Not to worry though because you’ve got a 112 miles to figure it out. On the flip side, if you finish this section in the allotted 8 hours and 10 minutes, you will never be so ready to ditch a bike saddle and start running a marathon.

At T2 someone takes your bike from you, which takes little coaxing, and you switch into your Forest Gump mode. If it wasn’t awkward enough going from swimming to biking, you can’t imagine the transition from bike to run. Despite a year of training and half a day of constant motion, you can’t seem to make your body move in any normal fashion. But again, don’t worry because you’ve got 26.2 miles to figure it out and they send you off with complete strangers rubbing you down in sunscreen. At this point it is needless to say that you are physically tired. The real competition becomes mental now. Every journey of a thousand miles starts with one step and putting one foot in front of the other and continuing forward is the mindset.The upside is that this is the time and part of the course where the most spectators come to watch. By this point you’ve given up on any vanity of looking good and the crusted salt sweat and shuffling form are lost to the high fives and “lookin’ great” of the supporters.

And this brings me back to the beginning. You can keep going and your legs might hurt for a week or you can quit and your mind will hurt for a lifetime. You can quit if you want, and no one will care. But you will know the rest of your life. Thats what you tell yourself and that’s what will be referenced in conversations for time to come. But every finisher of an Ironman triathlon knows that despite the long grueling day, you became an Ironman long before that starting gun went off. There is a great time of revelry following the race and a wonderful sense of accomplishment that rests with you for some time. That part is easy to understand for athletes and onlookers alike, but what about when the race has passed. There is an internal struggle that all of us have to face, and that is to keep going, to get back on your bike or to hang up the shoes and be content with the experience you will take with you for the rest of your life. I believe it is at that point that all Ironman finishers reach a point of humility, in understanding that what we did was pretty darn phenomenal, but it’s just an event. Big or small in comparison to our life experiences or what others have conquered and overcome, they are just a conversation piece in our back pocket.

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