As many of our readers have probably noticed, our blog posts have been less frequent as of late, and I’m sure some of you are wondering why that is. The fact of the matter is, training for major events, like the Ironman (70.3 or 140.6), a marathon, ultra-marathons, or really anything over the half-marathon mark, can really take over your life! For the past six months, I was in training for and then participated in the Ironman 70.3 in Racine, WI, while Meagan focused on her dissertation. What I learned is that these type of events can be a major undertaking not only for the person racing, but for the entire family (hence, the limited posting). In the end, I was glad that Meagan chose not to participate in the Ironman 70.3 this time around, because it meant that I had someone to lean on during the training. That’s not to say that she didn’t have a heavy load of her own–she’s been knee deep in research and half-marathon training, all while trying to keep our apartment clean to take some of the load off of me during my tougher workouts. Plus, Meagan is an amazing swimmer and was incredibly helpful during the time spent at the pool. She may not have competed in the race with me, but she was my Ironman for the last 6 months. I just hope I can repay the favor next year when she takes this beast on. Point being, it’s great to have a support crew for a big race, but don’t be surprised if it takes over everyone’s life a little bit!
To be honest, I’m still not sure why I signed up for the race. Had you asked me a year ago if I would ever compete in a triathlon I would have laughed in your face and explained that my swimming ability was no better than survival strokes and floating. I think the confidence I had coming off of a full-marathon and my earlier purchase of a Specialized road bike had me sure that the 70.3 miles were in my grasp. (For those of you who don’t know, an Ironman 70.3 or “Half-Ironman” is a triathlon that includes a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and 13.1 mile run, all adding up to 70.3 miles.)
Although most people don’t start training until 5 to 6 months prior to a Half Ironman, I started mine 9 months prior, in November, in order to be sure I had the swimming down. I even invested in a UW-Madison rec center pass and 6 beginner swim lessons to get it all squared away. The early months of my training were spent primarily on swim lessons, swimming with Meagan and, due to the polar-vortex in Wisconsin, biking indoors on my trainer. By the time March rolled around, I was able to swim continuously for about 200 yards, run a half-marathon, and bike well over 30 miles. This was great timing because it was then that the real training program began, which was 6 days a week and included two-a-days and bricks (a fancy name for doing two of the three legs back to back to practice transitions and pace changes). Even though this sounds difficult, it actually didn’t become unbearable until June when it started to add up to over 100 miles worth of workouts per week. That said, I would argue the difficulty was less about the distance and more about the time required. Working 10 hours a day and then coming home to do a 2 to 4 hour long workout on Saturday – Thursday was very difficult. The only solace was knowing that Friday was a rest day, but by the time Friday came around I was so exhausted that doing anything beyond relaxing on the couch and sleeping was out of the question.
The final days leading up to the big race were filled with carbs, packing, checklists, and carbs. Since the big day was Sunday, I spent Friday getting some personal effects in order, going on a 600 yard swim, and had a final checkup for the bike to make sure everything was ready to go. The moment that really unhinged my nerves was when the swim ended with me getting a pinched nerve in my neck, so that night was spent downing ibuprofen and rotating Icy Hot patches. Luckily the bit of doctoring on Friday ended up getting rid of the pain by race day, but my nerves had reached an all time high that no Icy Hot patch was going to cure.
Saturday was spent going through my race gear checklist and then hitting the road to Racine, WI. Upon arriving in Racine, we were welcomed by a seemingly endless line of people waiting to check in for the race. It took two hours to get through the line, get all of my gear, and drop off my bike at the transition area. That said, I can’t complain too much considering how incredible the volunteers were. They were helpful, well-informed, and everyone was extremely personable, which was great because having someone approachable during this time was absolutely necessary.
The day had finally arrived and we greeted it with open arms at 4AM. I immediately got up and started my pre-race eating regimen. One chocolate chip muffin, a Cliff bar, a banana, and a Gatorade later and I was ready to get dressed, visit the restroom and pop two anti-diarrheal pills before hopping in the car to go to the start line. The transition area closed at 6:30, so I wanted to be sure I was there early enough to have plenty of time to prepare my area.
It was a bad news, good news type of morning. The bad news was that the water of Lake Michigan was sitting at a brisk 62 degrees (luckily I was in a wet suit). The good news was that the water was like glass. It couldn’t have been any flatter, which is quite unlike many of the stories I’ve read about this race in previous years when there were big swells rolling across the lake. Despite the flat water, the swim started out a little rocky for me. My nerves (and the temperature) had me shivering and quaking by the time I got to the start line and, as my feet hit the freezing cold water and the gun signaled for us to leave, I began to hyperventilate. This made the first quarter mile of the swim incredibly difficult. Looking back I can only assume it was a mixture of nerves, adrenaline, excitement, and the cold water that was influencing this behavior. By the time I reached the 4th buoy, my nerves had calmed, my body had warmed, and I was able to focus on the only part of the event I was truly nervous about. Once I had collected myself, the swim actually became extremely easy. I swam the rest of the leg without stopping and finished the swim leg 51:01. A little slower than I wanted, but all-in-all, I was happy with the time.
The first transition area was a good quarter- to half-mile away from the swim finish, but it was accompanied by wetsuit-strippers and a sun screen station, both of which I took advantage of. Had I been trying to do more than just finish I probably would have skipped these areas, but my original intent was to take the transitions slowly so I could catch my breath and lower my heart rate.
If I had one word to describe the bike ride it would be bumpy. I’m glad I did some research prior to the race, because one of the tips was to keep my bike tires around 90psi (as opposed to the usual 100 to 110) to soften the blow of the deeper pot holes. The bike ride was the other part of the race I had begun to get less confident about as training finished up. The reason I was nervous was the realization of the massive number of calories I would burn. I’ve encountered a good bonk during a long run before, but nothing is as awful as going calorie negative during a 56 mile bike ride, which I encountered 4 times during training. Since I was never able to get my calorie intake quite figured out during training, I decided to overdo it a bit on the bike to make sure I made it through without any trouble. I rode with an aero-bottle filled with water and a 32 ounce bottle on my lower bar filled to the brim with Gatorade. The Gatorade was great to have because I didn’t want to over-hydrate during the ride and having some liquid calories was nice to counter-balance the amount of power bars I was consuming. I also took advantage of the ride-by pit stops where I was able to snatch bottles from people on the side of the road and pour them into my aero-bottle to stay well-equipped during the ride. In 3 hr:11 min:15 sec, I hit the dismount and pushed my bike into T2.
The 2nd transition was quicker. I don’t wear socks during triathlons, so coming off the bike was as easy as parking the bike, grabbing my handheld water bottle, sliding on my shoes, and spinning my race-belt around so my bib was in front.
Although my pace was very slow, the run still felt great because I knew the finish line was only 13.1 miles away–a distance I’ve completed over a dozen times without falter. The volunteer stations were loaded with completely different items than I’ve ever encountered in a running race. My favorite station was the one with Coca-Cola and pretzels; talk about the perfect snack when you’re sick of the flavor and texture of power bars, jelly beans, and GUs. The run took me 2:31:18, which was much longer than I wanted it to take, but crossing the finish line at 6:46:51 was a great moment for me.
Since the race I’ve been fighting with myself to decide which event was more difficult: the 70.3 half-IRONMAN or the full-marathon we completed in October. If I could give any advice to someone considering taking this race on, I would say the following:
- Have a support crew. Having my wife during the training was pivotal, but she wasn’t the only person holding me up. I had a training partner in my co-worker Jordan (who also participated in the event) and my family and best friend made the trip to Wisconsin to cheer me on. Seeing a familiar face screaming for you to keep going is an adrenaline rush all on its own.
- Do your research. I read three reviews of this specific race prior to the event to make sure I understood the routes and was able to gather tips and tricks to follow. This is extremely necessary if you’re like me and are unable to practice/scout out the routes prior to race day.
- Overpack and follow a checklist. There is a lot of gear that is necessary to successfully complete an event like this. Don’t mess it up by forgetting something silly. Complete a checklist and bring doubles of everything if you can.
- Do a practice triathlon during training. I completed my first triathlon back in May which was just a Sprint but it taught me that people in the water are aggressive and that transition areas are not for the faint at heart.
- Open water swimming is extremely necessary. Pool swimming is completely different than open water swimming in a wet suit. Even though the wet suit provides some extra buoyancy, the water has waves and the race will add in people and boats for wake. This means that breathing patterns will differ largely from what you’re used to in the pool. Plus, if you’re not a strong swimmer (like me), deep water can make you uncomfortable and this is a fear you’ll need to break yourself of prior to the race.
Completing the 2014 IRONMAN 70.3 Racine is one of my proudest accomplishments. It pushed me to the breaking point and forced me to learn a sport that I’ve been afraid of for years. The only question I need to answer now is, what’s next?
Have you completed a big race recently? How’d it go? Tell us in the comments.
Steve is an Executive Recruiter at Robert Half Executive Search in Madison, WI with a business degree in Information Systems and E-Commerce from the University of Toledo. Steve loves spending his time away from work; running, gaming, watching movies, checking out new social networking tools/sites/start-ups and blogging.