Racing

Inside an Ironman

By November 8, 2020No Comments
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An Ironman Triathlon consists of a 3.86km swim, 180km bike ride, and a 42km run.

That’s 152 laps of a 25m pool, biking from Auckland to Hamilton and halfway back, then running a marathon.

Physically, it’s one of the most demanding sporting events in the world.

Mentally, it’s even tougher.

You’ve got to be a little bit crazy to embrace that kind of suffering for more than eight hours and have the desire and will power to push through it.

But that’s what makes an Ironman so special.

THE LEADUP

When you’re racing professionally, you’re looking at around three to four Ironman races a year.

Between those windows, you’ve got a couple of eight-week blocks where you’ll have 100 per cent of your focus and commitment on that one upcoming race.

Obviously, there are certain things as an athlete that will come naturally to you.

For me, my running is something I don’t need to put a heap of volume into early on. It’s only in the latter parts of my training phase that I’ll put more attention into it.


But we work on a model of periodisation as we build towards the race.

On the bike, we look at doing around 10-15 hours a week, aiming for somewhere around the 500km mark.

Those sessions can vary from long endurance sessions to short and hard VO2-max sessions.

Swim training is pretty consistent. We average around five sessions a week and I think 5km is the magic mark for me.

If I can do “five-from-five”, that’s big volume and I tend to hold my best swimming fitness off of that.

“Physically, it’s one of the most demanding sporting events in the world. Mentally, it’s even tougher.”

For running, it varies throughout the eight weeks but we’ll aim to hit anywhere between 60-100km a week.

There’s also a lot of emphasis on strength-based training, so typically we’ll do 2-3 gym sessions a week, and I’ll normally put around an hour a day into recovery – whether that’s in the form of a massage, stretching, or rolling etc.

Training nowadays is a lot more data driven, as opposed to a few years ago where it was just about going out with a group of guys and smashing yourself and whoever gets to the race uninjured will win.

Now, we’re a lot more coached.

Everything is scaled to what each athlete individually can tolerate, whether they need a high load to perform well, or if feeling fresh and having quality is the key.

                                            Photo: Roy Schott (ShotBro)

For me, it’s about being fresh, getting quality out of my sessions and making sure I feel healthy rather than overloading myself.

Obviously when you’re training at that sort of volume though, you’ll eat a lot more.

The science is pretty obvious – the more you put out, the more you need to put in.

A lot of it is eating healthy and eating well – meat, veges, wholefoods, very little processed meat – only using high sugar and high carb foods when you need them.

For example, if I know I’ve got an extremely hard bike session and 20 minutes into that I’m going to start some intervals, then maybe that’s when I try and use those high-energy drinks like a Red Bull, or high-sugar nutrition as I would in the race.

“The science is pretty obvious – the more you put out, the more you need to put in.”

The rest of the time, it’s about having the right fuels for your body.

As the race approaches, I do a lot of visualisation.

In the last week or so, I try to take some time out and try to think about the race, trying to provoke myself to discover what’s going to trigger me in the race and what will make me work hard.

Trying to find those little hankers to hold onto while I’m racing so I can mentally stay in it.

But is the training tough?

Yes. Absolutely.

When you’re going through blocks like that – training 35 hours a week – and you’ve got a lot of other things going on in your life that you’re trying to be supportive for like being a good dad and friend, there’s no denying that load and volume is going to affect you.

There’s no denying that some days you get up and the last thing you want to do is go and get on the bike for five hours.


                                            Photo: Graeme Murray

There’s plenty of moments when you know it’s real. It’s not a fairytale. It’s not the finish line of a big race where everyone is yelling and screaming.

It’s crawling out of bed when it’s dark and cold, and you’re tired because you’ve already done 30 hours of training and you’ve got to curl yourself around another bike ride.

A lot of it is fatiguing and draining, but I have that ultimate belief that I’ll get the value from the work that I put in, as well as the reward, and that will motivate me in what I do.

I think now I tend to enjoy the process more than I ever have.

                                            Photo: Graeme Murray

Two or three years ago, I wasn’t as clinical about what I did and those bigger blocks just felt like they would never end.

Now, I can very much define the difference between me ticking along feeling good, and then that mental change of, “OK this next eight weeks is really critical, and it’s only eight weeks so let’s go for it.”

In some ways, I enjoy that. And I enjoy seeing the gains and the change you get in those eight weeks.

If all goes right, and it all comes together, there’s something satisfying about getting to the start line on race day feeling like you’ve prepared in the best way possible.

THE RACE

Ironman’s generally kickoff around 7am in the morning.

Most people are taking between 12 to 17 hours to finish, so they need to make the most of the day.

For me, it’s a 3.30am wakeup.

It’s a pretty simple routine, I tend to get into a big breakfast – whatever is floating my boat at the time – a smoothie, toast, avocado, marmite, muesli etc.

It’s normally a pretty big feed knowing I won’t be eating for the rest of the day and I’ll need all that fuel.

                                            Photo: Social Focus

After that, it’s a quick shower and prep, getting my race clothes ready, then heading down to transition.

You’re normally down at transition around an hour before the race starts.

You have a few minutes to get your bike set up, get your wetsuit on, get your last few things together, before heading down to the start line around 15-20 minutes before the race starts.

I’ll do a quick warmup of 5-10 minutes, a quick swim, and a small stretch.

Then it’s go time.

I think it’s pretty much impossible not to be nervous.

When you’re looking at what you’re going to race for the next 8-10 hours, you’re going to be smashing yourself, and then you’re competitive so you want the best result possible.

My mindset is that nerves are good at that point in time, it’s how you deal with them that makes a difference. Sometimes if I’ve got a bit of time, I’ll just go off and have a lie down before the race starts.

But once it’s underway, the real fun begins.

THE SWIM

Ironman’s start with a 3.8km swim.

For people who are used to swimming at the local 25m pool, that’s 152 laps. The World Record is around 41 minutes.

With most big races, it’s a pretty hard swim.

It’s a sprint at the start, gets solid in the middle, then just gets harder and harder from there.

Some of the guys you’re up against have been swimming since they were five years old and have been in squad training since they were eight, so they’ve come right through the system.

They are phenomenal swimmers and some of the best in the world.

When it’s not your natural discipline, it’s more about turning the throttle up right from the start and then turning it up some more… and turning it up some more again.

You have to fight for your position.

When there’s 60 of the world’s best on the start line, no one is going to give you any space for anything.

It’s a full on fist-fight for the first 100m, then you start breaking up and the better swimmers start opening up some gaps.

For me, it’s about finding myself in a good space.

I’m normally pretty quick off the start line and tend to be able to get over that first 100m as probably one of the fastest in the sport, but then the real swimmers come into their own after that and hopefully by that time I can tack onto some of their feet.

“When there’s 60 of the world’s best on the start line, no one is going to give you any space for anything.”

They’ll settle into their work, and that’s normally pretty hard for me.

I basically just hope I can hang on for the next hour.

The last 800m is where the bigger guys will try and stretch it out, and that’s when the swim really starts to hurt.

A question I get asked is whether or not you have to go all out right from the beginning, or if you need to pace yourself knowing there is a lot of racing to come.

Honestly, I normally go hell for leather.

I just push myself until I fall off, and if I fall off it’s not because I wanted to fall off.

There are definite races around the world like Kona in Hawaii where you can just go guns blazing for the entire race and still not come close to the front because it’s just that fast.

Other races, it’s probably smarter to pull back because you can blow out too early.

I think racing for me, especially in those bigger ones, you just have to send it from the start. If it works out, it’ll be incredible.

If it doesn’t, then you just have to figure out how to make it work the next year.

THE BIKE

When you get out of the water and pick up your bike, it’s normally pretty hard to get going for that first couple of minutes.

Ahead of you is 180km, and you’re looking at four-plus hours of riding.

After a few minutes, the blood is in the legs and you start to get into a rhythm.

I tend to find if the pace is really heavy from the get go, that does a lot of damage later on in the ride.

If I can find a way to pace myself for those first five minutes and find myself in a good position then I’ll probably be a lot more comfortable a few hours into the ride.

I would say that normally in the big World Champs races, the first half hour is just hammers – you’re just on the rivet going as hard as you can.

It tends to settle out over the first couple of hours, then the pace will get harder and faster for the last hour-and-a-half to two hours.


                                            Photo: Graeme Murray

By that time as well, some of the best bikers in the world are coming through the race so you’re trying to hang onto them or not lose too much time.

But the last 50km of an Ironman ride is one of the most challenging parts of the race.

You’ve raced to your absolute limits for around six hours and you feel like you just want to pull the pin.

You know that you’ve just got to get to that run to keep it happening, but to keep the motivation to push really hard through that last 50km, that’s unbelievably challenging.


                                            Photo: Graeme Murray

I remember my first Ironman, I was probably 140km into the bike.

Terenzo Bozzone had put about seven minutes into me on the bike ride at Ironman New Zealand – I thought my day was over.

We had 40km left and riding into a massive head wind which was just horrible. I was isolated – Terenzo was out in front – but I was getting chased by a few other guys behind me.

I felt like I had blown up and I was crawling, but I think everyone else had blown up too. It felt horrible for about 20km or 30km until I realised when I came into transition, I was only a minute down on Terenzo.

“The last 50km of an Ironman ride is one of the most challenging parts of the race. You’ve raced to your absolute limits for around six hours at that point, and you feel like you just want to pull the pin.”

Some of those times when you’re 120-140km into the bike ride and you get isolated, and you’re not having the best day, it can get very mentally challenging.

I guess now I’ve done it enough, I know where my trigger points are and I’m able to push through it.

THE RUN

Coming off the bike, you enter the final stage of the race – a marathon.

That 42km run doesn’t scare me as much.

I’ve already swam 3.8km, and biked 180km, so at that point running a marathon actually seems like a breeze.

I quite enjoy the challenge at that stage, pushing on through and getting into a rhythm.


                                            Photo: Graeme Murray

Mentally, I look at that as quite a positive time of the race. You’re on the last part of the Ironman, and it’s the one that is going to count, so you just find a rhythm and go for it.

Running has always come pretty natural to me, so it’s always been a strength that allows me to make up a lot of ground on the other racers. I always think it’s easier too because you know the finish is coming up.

When you’re going through those dark phases on the bike ride, you still know you’ve got a hell of a lot of racing to go.

When you’re on the marathon, and you’re halfway through, you can kind of absorb the rest of the race mentally knowing that you’re nearly there and the goal is just to keep pushing.

THE FINISH

Normally, no matter what happens, it’s a really good feeling reaching the finish line.

Even as a professional athlete, when you don’t get the result that you want, it feels rewarding and satisfying to finish an Ironman.

And if you didn’t get the result you wanted, that tends to fuel the fire to want to come back and lay it down again.


                                            Photo: Korupt Vision

But after the race, I am completely smashed.

Two years ago, at Kona, I was on a drip and needed three bags of fluid to bring me back.

Within a day or two of race day, I’m on a plane so my feet, ankles, and legs all swell up. I also get really sunburnt on my lips and end up looking like Bubba Gump for up to a month.

Often it will take me weeks, not days, to feel right again.


                                            Photo: Korupt Vision

Active recovery helps but everything is sore for a long time, and I normally can’t get a massage for at least a few days as it’s too sore.

Rehydration is key, but the whole recovery after an Ironman is a long process and it definitely takes a toll on your body.

MIND OVER BODY

I don’t see myself as having a super-long career.

I’m pretty clear at the moment that I’ve probably got about three more years of racing at this level – the last COVID year maybe extended that by one.

But I’m pretty committed to doing as well as I can and getting the success I want out of the sport, then calling it a day.

I love the sport and I love doing what I do, but I love racing at the front of the race, and if I can’t be at the front then I don’t really want to be there racing.

That competitive side of the sport has always been a really big factor for me, but I also really enjoy the challenge of endurance sport.

The physical challenge, but also the suffering and mental aspect of it.

Getting to the point where you’re so physically exhausted that you just want to give up, but you mentally overcome that physical exhaustion and find ways to push on through it.

I’m a big believer that the mental element of racing is one of the biggest keys to being able to race well and be successful.

It’s so easy when things are tough to make excuses.

We’re all human, and we all look for an easier way out of a challenge.

The funny thing about sport and being an athlete, is we choose to put ourselves into those challenges.

You’ve got to be pretty committed and involved to want to push yourself through a 3.8km swim, a 180km bike, and a 42km run.

For me, that’s probably the part of racing I enjoy the most.

That kind of ability or want to push on through those darker moments, absorb them, and mentally overpower the negative thoughts, is what separates an Ironman athlete from the rest.