Lessons from my Ironman 70.3

Lessons from my Ironman 70.3

In a phone conversation with my Mom in May of this year, I told her that I had just signed up for Ironman 70.3 Arizona. After giving her the cliff notes of the race (swim this, bike that, run this far), her big takeaway was that I would have to cover over 70 miles to get to the finish line. This prompted her to ask the question “Why would anyone want to do that?” Valid question. The short answer was that I just felt like I needed a challenge on the horizon. But why did I want to put that challenge on my calendar? I had just read Michael Easter’s “The Comfort Crisis” (highly recommend). In it, Easter devotes a chapter to the practice of seeking out extremely difficult challenges as an act of spiritual and physical purification of sorts. He outlines the tradition as handed down in Japanese Aikido training (Misogi challenges). It is an act of pushing yourself into uncharted territory physically and mentally. The effort must be difficult enough to present serious doubt as to whether you can complete it. For me Ironman racing is that kind of challenge. It is in this space – that hurt locker that Ironman racing creates, that you learn things that aren’t learned elsewhere. Reading that chapter reminded me that I hadn’t tested myself to that level in years and once I recognized that, I needed that challenge… I needed to return to that hurt locker. The following are four lessons learned from my race that I think extend beyond triathlon.


In my work life I have always been an obsessive planner. But in my triathlon racing, I have traditionally avoided planning.  I would typically just establish a goal (finish time, splits, etc…) and race entirely by feel.   This approach served me well to maximize fun on shorter races. But on longer races like Ironman distances, I found a target finish time to be a poor substitute for a plan. Winging it in longer races led to a variety of not fun experiences including puking (once even on the swim), cramping, and poor finishes. A good plan incorporates strategy and identifies tactics to reach the goal. A good plan also includes tracking and feedback for measuring your progress or performance. This creates agility. For this 70.3 I actually put together a race plan. My plan included wearing a Garmin watch matched up with a Garmin chest heart rate monitor. I used these tools to track my progress, pace, and effort (heart rate). I also had a nutrition and hydration plan (many consider this the fourth discipline in triathlon). This started with hydrating with electrolytes the 48 hours prior to race day and using my LAN P413 pre-workout (shameless plug) as my race morning hydration. I carried my own water bottles on the bike and run with my experimental LAN Endurance formula (final shameless plug) of electrolytes, BCAAs, and quick absorption carbs. And I carried four packages of Jelly Belly Sport Beans for targeted energy boosts. I executed my race plan almost flawlessly and as a result I had a substantially better race than my last 70.3. The old saying “plan your work then work your plan” does in fact work. But remember as Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. And Ironman races just like life will punch you in the mouth at some point. Life, work, and especially Ironman races are messy and unpredictable. This is when you must own the challenge of responding to whatever the day brings, adapt, and overcome. Thunderstorms in Tempe canceled the swim shifting us to a time trial bike start. The bike course included a couple of extremely rough sections of road and my aero bar came loose at mile 30 (which was actually a win compared to my first IM 70.3 in Miami when my crank literally fell off on mile 12).  Finishing the bike with a compromised aero bar was not ideal, but with a few adjustments I was able to keep going and probably lost only minimal time.  


Intermediate goals are critical. Sometimes all that matters is to not quit. If you are doing it right, there comes a point in every Ironman race when your body is screaming at you to quit.  To keep going in that moment becomes the only priority – the entire race depends on winning that battle. And establishing an intermediate, achievable goal is a great way to get through that darkest moment. For me on this day that moment came in mile 7 on the run. I was entering the hardest part of the run course that featured a couple of tough hills.  My heart rate was climbing, my pace was cratering, and my hamstrings and quads were in a who can scream the loudest contest. There was no way I could visualize finishing the race in that moment. But what I could see was holding on until the aid station at mile 9.5. So that became my only thought. Just hang in until that aid station and see how you feel then. I knew that point was beyond the hard stretch and that I might feel better with miles 7 and 8 behind me. So for the next 20 minutes or so, I put quitting out of mind and remained 100% committed to getting to that aid station. Reaching the aid station renewed my strength and confidence. Keeping that small promise to myself – achieving that intermediate goal – changed everything. I was ready to do what it took to get to the finish. 


Focus on others when you need a break from your suffering. Look around and you will see there are lots of folks hurting as much or more than you – especially in the back half of the run. Give some encouraging words, attempt some humor, or just share how you are struggling… you will be amazed at how much focusing on someone else will quiet your own pain. Halfway up a hard climb on the bike, I found myself passing a guy struggling more than I was at the time. I paused beside him for a moment, smiled, and said “Could this suck any more?” He smiled back. As I got back to work, I wrapped up the exchange with “almost there”. One of the things that has kept me coming back to triathlon over the years is the on-course camaraderie and positive vibes. I have benefited many times from an encouraging word during races and try to pay that forward every chance I get.


Posture and demeanor matter. My training partner noticed on my long training runs leading up to this race, I tended to let my posture break down late in the workout. Correcting for that, I found in training that using posture (shoulders back, head up) as a cue improved my pace and mental outlook late in those long runs. Additionally, I noticed that when I would re-establish my posture a smile soon followed. And most importantly, at a time when I was beginning to suffer, this chain of events set me up to draw on positive motivation instead of negative. Negative motivation, especially anger, is powerful. I know this firsthand because when I started endurance sports some 10 years ago, I relied almost entirely on anger to fuel my training and racing. I took up endurance sports in response to a completely preventable health problem that culminated in a serious event that scared both me and my family. To get healthy without turning to medical interventions or reliance on pharmaceuticals, I set about remaking my body through endurance training. I became my own trainer, coach, and therapist. And a cruel one at that. But as effective as negative motivation can be, I have found it to be unsustainable and prone to pulling you into a dark place (Yoda had it right…). Controlling my posture and demeanor enables me to tap into positive motivation drivers like gratitude, optimism, compassion, and confidence. I’m sure both paths can be effective at producing a PR but I like who I am on the course when I race positive (and perhaps not coincidentally I did post a PR in this race).  

 The rush following the completion of a personal Misogi challenge is unlike any other. But what you learn about yourself during the effort is the real get. If you haven’t tested yourself in this way in quite some time or even ever, I highly encourage you to find your challenge and put it on your calendar. One closing thought - by their nature these kinds of challenges demand preparation. Commitment to preparation and training is essential.

Special thank you to the Ironman 70.3 Arizona staff, volunteers, sponsors, and the city of Tempe, AZ. The race was well run and a great experience! Highly recommend.

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