When you bite off something like training for a full Ironman, you tend to have this fantasy in your head about how hard you're going to train and how strong and fast you'll be. You picture hearing the words, “You Are An IRONMAN!!” as you cross through the finish with this magical feeling of euphoria passing over you.
The reality, however, is much less glamorous and fantastical. I can't even remember hearing those words at my first Ironman; I was in such state of exhaustion.
You'll often hear that Ironman is about the journey, not the race. Being a triathlete is challenging in and of itself, but to push yourself to an extreme amount of conditioning can bring out the truth in your desires and commitments.
Most of us can't hop into an Ironman event without training for months, if not a year before. I have yet to meet an age grouper who hasn't been dealt his/her hand of setbacks along the way. In just the last 4 months, I've personally crashed my bike, broke my pinky, dealt with two sick kids which brought training to a halt, pulled my hamstring, experienced my own show-stopping sickness and battled that necessary element called fatigue.
So many triathletes watch in awe at Ironman competitors, viewing the full distance as the mecca of triathlon. It's held on a shiny, heroic pedestal. They see others training and posting pictures of 100+ miles rides, 15+ mile runs and 3+ mile swims, and while it's a feat to be proud of, most don't see the other side of the curtain.
The sport of triathlon is not a sport of comfort zones, ease or beauty. It's challenging. It's more tear-stained, sweat-filled, blistered and sore than any other sport I've encountered. Having trained now for my second Ironman, I have thought that maybe it hasn't been worth the sacrifice at times. I will have earned my badge passing that finish line, and proud of the work I've poured in, but I will also reflect more on those effects before signing up again.
It's so easy to get wrapped up in the hype of Ironman. The environment is addicting, the buzz in the air, the adrenaline... it's all so very enchanting. There's a huge sense of pride and accomplishment when you cross the finish line, whether sprint triathlon or full.
As a coach and competitor, I often have to work to help athletes see between the lines of reality and expectation. My own coach said it best:
“....not every challenge is right for everybody. I have had to, after a long conversation, encourage some people to stay with shorter distances. [Full] Ironman is life changing, and you MUST love the process because it is so long and arduous. There is a desire and a drive necessary for an athlete that cannot be coming from an outside source. Many people make the choice because so many others made it, but the test of character is less in the race and more in the training. Someone has to love volume... I mean LOVE IT.... or they won't make it. They need a support network that won't let them down. They need a certain financial solvency. Ironman is not cheap... and they need a certain ballsiness. Ironman is not for people who are afraid to push themselves or scared to go to that dark place in their minds. It's for the person who knows how to put their head down and keep moving forward when things get dark and nasty inside their own head. This is a thing that some people thrive on, the demon conquering self, so to speak.
I hate reading/hearing 'rah rah rah, you can do it' being chanted at someone who maybe should not. There is no shortfall of character in realizing that you enjoy a different distance, or that a shorter race fits into your life better, or that your talents lend you to be competitive at shorter distances over longer ones and that is what you prefer. To the contrary, making choices purely because they are right for you is the embodiment of character. Listening to that inner voice is a big step on the road to happiness.”
While I wish I could say Ironman training is wonderful and should be on the bucket list of every triathlete, this is what I'd rather say:
Take time to really look at how an Ironman athlete trains. Ask them about their schedule. Are they up at 4:00 AM getting in one of the two workouts they need to do that day, and still sacrificing dinner at the table with their family? Is their work suffering because they're tired from heavy weeks of training? Have they been able to stay healthy? Intense training stresses the immune system, and injuries happen. Did they have to give up certain financial luxuries to pay for nutrition, coaching or race fees? How much did they spend on one Ironman alone? (The entrance fees alone average in the $700 range). Are they wanting to do well or just wanting to finish at the midnight hour? (Do you want to spend 12 hours or 16 hours on the course?)
It's not that hard to click a few buttons and pay a race fee. It's not all that hard to travel and find accommodations and show up on race day.
The training is the test. Your 'why', your motivation, has to be there, day in and day out, when you want to give up – because trust me, you will want to skip that ride, sleep in late and miss the pool set. You'll want to go to that party or skip a few days to spend vacation with your family. And yes, sometimes there are legitimate reasons. But, if you're going to bite off that commitment, realize that it's far from butterflies and rainbows. It's tumultuous and stormy.
The victory comes when you finally see what you're made of. That can happen two months into training or the moment you cross that finish line. The victory comes when your children see what it truly means to push yourself to accomplish a dream. They see delayed gratification in real time. The win is seeing the strength in your determination, finding the grit and drive to go further than you ever have before.
Success becomes more about what you overcome then what you accomplish. You find out that rearranging your priorities is easier than you thought.
You realize that you are redefining yourself by redefining your limits.
These are not lessons learned in the safety and warmth of a comfort zone. These lessons can only be learned when you take a chance and take on the challenge of doing something you've never done before. It's hard to put a price tag on self-actualization.
Not many of us will sit on a podium at an Ironman event. It's not about winning on that platform; it's about finishing what you started, no matter what gets thrown at you.
Am I saying it's not worth it?
I'm saying it HAS to be worth it.
Food for thought, 12 days out from my 2nd Ironman...