Ironman: Doing It Wrong – Part 2: Those Long Training Hours

Frank Smuts during the 2014 Ironman South Africa

Frank Smuts during the 2014 Ironman South Africa

Ironman asks of you not to think too much. There were only 15 competitors for the first Ironman in 1978. In 2012, the first year the Colour Run was launced in the US, the average amount of participants per race was 12 000. That is because the Colour Run is like a heaped-up container of cheap chocolates at a checkout counter: an impulse buy. The colour run was designed so anyone would do it without thinking. Ironman is right on the other side of the spectrum, in terms of effort, but it is also advisable to take it on without thinking too much. If you did, it would not make sense. The pain and suffering would only make sense if it determined the difference between life and death, like fleeing nuclear fallout, or outrunning snarling Rottweilers.


It has become easier to decide to do Ironman though, courtesy of the first fearless fifteen, and all the thousands of Ironmen since then. They established the faith that it can be done. After all, if they could do it, so can we. But one thing remained as difficult as ever: gétting it done! The first fifteen were from the military, and pain was part of their jobs. Gordon Haller, US Navy Specialist, won the first Ironman in 11:46:58. The runner-up, Dunbar, was a US Navy SEAL. Most of us are not cut from the same fabric. We step out from behind our office desks and sales counters to face the terrifying unknown. For us, the best way to prepare for Ironman is to undergo somewhat of a transformation. You have to become a bit of a monster, so you can conquer the monster. When you’re driven by something you don’t know, you have to do something you’ve never done! And this is where the ungodly long training hours, that transform the meek and mild into the lean and mean, come into effect!


The main objective is to get used to spending between 5 and 7 hours in the saddle for that 180 Km bike ride. On race day, anything shorter won’t happen, and anything longer shouldn’t. The legs have to get used to that deep acid burn you don’t get with short rides. Also, the body must be able to deal with the discomfort of the aero position. After all, it is pointless to show off a top end tri bike and ride it like a road bike. And that expensive pointy aero helmet ends up looking like an over-size suppository stuck to your head. It is not good for speed, and even worse for image.

These long rides are tough, but they offer well deserved spin-offs: legit pre-race bragging rights. Any conversation, anywhere, anytime, with anyone offers a chance to impose bragging rights. For instance, the reverse tactic: sympathize with a fellow worker complaining about an hour in bumper traffic, by considering his misfortune worse than the 6 hour bike ride you did that morning. For the average citizen, a six hour bike ride is unthinkable. Stunned with awe, he will then make light of his hour in traffic, and you’ll be showered with superlatives. It is a total win-win situation: everyone walks away feeling better. The awe-factor really comes alive when you invite already awed bystanders to join you on your next 160 km training ride. Most people only drive those distances by car, hence the standard responses are “that’s why I have a car” and “I get tired just thinking about it”. Both are indicators they perceive you as an above average capable person in terms of executing an activity requiring a repetitive action. It means you get adoration for being a human version of a hamster in a wheel. That offers bragging rights, but the trick is to impose it with as much subtlety as possible. Also, if you need more than five long rides for Ironman to brag about, your urge for admiration might overcook you slightly.


One problem remains: there will always be someone faster than you, no matter how many hours you train. Other than more talented age groupers, the pros will beat you. Many athletes like to tell themselves how good they would have been if they could put in the hours the pros do. It serves as an excuse for not achieving the level of performance they were hoping for. Please do not say the pros are good because they don’t have to take care of children or a day job like you. They are not good becáúse they are professionals. It is the other way round: they are professionals because they are good. No amount of training will make you as good. You will not do a sub-9 Ironman, no matter what your age is, or the amount of training hours you put in. Pros don’t get praise for showing off finishers t-shirts, not even from close family. We are the lucky ones in that respect. Pros get praise for podiums, which are much harder to achieve. If you áre that good, fate will take you there in any case. Simply finishing Ironman is a most rewarding experience. Wear the finisher’s T-shirt with pride.


The running leg is the honest, hard part. No subtle drafting, no lightweight carbon, no deep section rims, just one foot in front of the other. The average person applies 33 000 steps, give or take, to complete a marathon. One very seasoned athlete once remarked: “Marathoners start a marathon with running it. Ironmen swim 3.8 km and cycle 180 to go run that marathon”. So how fresh can you be for this part? As far as the swim and bike is concerned, a substandard performance can be camouflaged. During the swim leg, you disappear for an hour or two into the ocean with 2000-plus other competitors. Heads down in the water, with the same colour swim caps, nobody knows who is who. So swim any way you like, as long as you beach at some point. On the bike, as long as you are flat in the aero position with a focused Lance-look, the average spectator will be impressed. Because you are riding laps, soon enough nobody knows who is on what lap. Not making the bike cut-off time is a bad give-away though. Keep that in mind.

The run however, is where things get up close and personal. You are right in the face of every beer swinging spectator on the pavement. You might turn into something that would look better in the next zombie apocalypse movie. Nothing can be hidden. The pain showing in your eyes can be hidden though, so get some mirror-lens sunglasses. Your bottom lip might even start flapping up and down with occasional drool to follow, and every bone in your body will scream: “pain!” Spectators will be shouting your name (only courtesy of it being on your race number), followed by “looking good!”. That is the biggest lie other than “beetroot is natural EPO”. (No one has ever won the TdeF on beetroot) And knowing that you do nót look good, whether it is well meant, or just sadistic sarcasm, might play mind games with you, even to the point of severe irritation. However, long runs are supposed to get you to the initial stages of feeling like all of the above; like the undead. The feeling can be very upsetting, so it is better to get accustomed to it beforehand. Long runs need to be done. But there is good news: if you need to do more than five 2-hour runs to be ready for Ironman, either you are over-cooking it, or you are a pro.


But the long stuff can bite you where the sun don’t shine if you end up doing more than you should. That normally happens because of chasing bragging rights, fear of failure, fear of loosing fitness, fellow Ironman peer pressure, or the endorphine thing (whatever that is). There is a tipping point where it can take away more than it adds. For the average agegrouper, three weeks before Ironman, you can’t get fitter. It’s done. You can only get more tired. Forget all the long stuff. The last two weeks before race day you should feel like you’re losing all your fitness, so easy you should be on yourself. Any training you do should be embarrasingly slow, with occasional bursts of speed, especially when you know someone is looking. The fact is, what needs to be able to endure the most, and be the strongest, is your head. The pain of race day will exceed any training session you’ve done. A 4 hour ride with lots of pain will teach your head to deal with pain when it comes. A 6 hour ride with no pain will leave you scraping the bottom on race day.


When you tell people about the unbelievably long hours you’ve trained, you’ll feel like a superhero on thát day. But if can’t find words to explain the páin you felt during training, it is better: you’ll be a superhero on race day. That’s what counts. If you do it wrong, 24 kilometers into the run, pain will make you wonder if this is the single stupidest thing you’ve ever attempted. If you do it right, you will beat the pain!

Long hours are not entirely the answer: what háppens during those long hours, is what really matters. If the long hours happen to be fun, make it slightly shorter and less fun. Then you might just be doing it right.

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