I did it!
The face of a person at the finish line of their first Ironman:
I found the Ironman different from all the races I’ve done before. After ~20 major races and more than 50 races in total, I thought a race experience would not be a surprise for me. But Ironman is different. It is Ironman is a full-day affair, sunrise to sundown, and past that (I started at 8 AM and finished just short of 10:30 PM). And more than a handful of moments in the race made me feel downright certifiable. I’d never imagine saying to myself “no worries, I only have about two hours of cycling left” and “all seems to be going well, right? I’m almost done, now I only need to run a marathon.” An experience like few others.
- The race: 2015 Ironman Maryland. A well-organized endeavor, rural and stunningly gorgeous. Beautiful swim course, smooth roads, wide road shoulders perfect for the bike leg of the race. I loved the race and would highly recommend it.
- My preparation: I trained specifically for the Ironman for approximately a year, following a self-developed program based on guidance to first-time Ironman athletes in The Triathlete’s Training Bible. Throughout this year, I completed four preparatory races: a small local Olympic triathlon, Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, NYC Triathlon, and a 1/2 Ironman Timberman Triathlon. Doing the Timberman was crucial for finishing the full Ironman. In the Timberman, I went out too fast, overheated and dehydrated, and ended up in the medical tent post-race. This made me understand the fundamental differences between what you can get away with in a 2-hour race (where a bit of a dehydration is fine, just makes you feel a bit more beaten up after the race) and in a 6+ hour one (where dehydration stops people from finishing the race). Aside from Timberman, the key training sessions that helped me finish were the so-called “big days”, described in the Triathlete’s Training Bible. They are designed to simulate the race day experience, and they indeed do — the race felt just like the “big days”, only harder.
- Finding the time to train for the race: I work tons, and, when I do not work, I oftentimes still work: review papers, participate in panels, read up on technology and management issues, take classes, listen to Coursera lectures, go to meetups, and so on and so forth. Finding the time to train was a major challenge, and, being a professional first and an athlete second, I’d never sacrifice my professional ambition for my sports ambition – I’d never do this race if I did not think I could do it without sacrificing anything career-related. So the first decision I made was to train to finish, rather than to train to be fast, as training to finish requires considerably less of a time investment. But even just to finish, the training time investment is major. To find the time to train for this race, I ended up temporarily sacrificing other ways of having fun. Social life was one — over the last 6 months, I barely went out. The evenings that I did not spend working or doing work-related things, I spent training or resting. That sacrifice was not new to me as I’ve done it for several major races before. Travel was the other sacrifice, and that was new. Ironman training requires multiple long training sessions, which a person with a day job can only do on weekends. To make it to the finish line of an Ironman requires giving up almost all weekend trips, for many months at a time. That was a new sacrifice to make, and for travel addicts like myself this is a major sacrifice indeed. The experience was totally worth it, but now I am of course very much looking forward to catching up on all the travel I’ve postponed to make this race.
- Would I do it again: Right away, no. I need the time to recover my social life and catch up on my travel! Longer-term — in some number of years, say — quite possibly, and even likely. I liked the experience, and would of course want to be faster the next time around — but there is a whole lot to getting faster that should probably be decoupled from long race training. For the next one to three years, I’ll prioritize learning to be faster, starting with running and swimming. And then — we shall see. Crossing the Ironman finish line is an experience that I would surely not mind repeating.