Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The hardest part of Ironman

People often ask:

What's the hardest part of an Ironman?
A. The swim?
B. The bike?
C. The run? (Must be the run. How can anyone run a marathon after going 112 miles on the bike?)

The truth is:
D. None of the above.

An Ironman race, or any other triathlon, is hard. You're either pushing yourself to go really fast, or really far, and sometimes both. And you are totally at the mercy of the weather and terrain, which can make it even harder. But pushing yourself in the race is not the hardest part.

Covering the swim distance, whether 500 yards or 2.4 miles, is just swimming. As long as you've put in the training. Covering the bike distance, whether 15 miles or 112, is about pacing yourself and sticking to the hydration and nutrition plan. And the run, well, the run gets tough, especially after 56 or 112 miles on a bike. And running a marathon after 112 miles on the bike, that's just really tough. But it's not the hardest part.

Toeing the line at the swim start can be tough. Knowing you're about to go into the water with as many as 2,000 other people, all following the same line, all making the same turns, all at the same time. Knowing some of them are faster than you, and some are going to swim right over the top of you. Literally. Knowing there are sharks and jellyfish in some of the courses. In others, there are things you can't see because the water is so murky you can't see your fingers at the end of your stroke. Not seeing some of those things is good. But still... Knowing that if this were a public swimming beach, the lifeguards wouldn't let you in past your knees because the waves are too high. That can get tough. But it's not the hardest part.

The hardest part of Ironman isn't in the race at all. It's the time, effort, logistics, trade-offs, dark morning runs, rainy afternoon bike rides, swims in the dead of winter (even when the pool's heated, it still seems cold), indoor bike workouts in the basement, paying attention to nutrition so you don't gain too much weight in the winter. It's 100-mile rides in the heat of July and August. It's the 20-mile runs when there's no breeze to cut the 99% humidity. It's the first three minutes of an ice bath after a long run. Deep tissue massages that loosen muscles and tendons and help prevent injury but hurt so bad. Waking up at 5:00 a.m. to meet friends to run up a hill, again and again. Going to bed at 9:00 to get enough sleep to wake up at 5:00. Figuring out how to balance Ironman, family, work, and community in a schedule that already seemed full before the Ironman virus came along.

The hardest part of Ironman is sticking with the commitment, day after day, week after week, month after month, to do the workouts and keep the goal in sight. It's knowing that no single workout is going to make a difference in your ability to finish, or in your finish time, but also knowing that every workout gets you ready for the next. It's mediating the frequent internal argument: am I tired because I'm too tired to get out of bed for this workout and should skip it to avoid injury...or am I tired because it's still dark outside, and raining, and 42 degrees?

The hardest part of Ironman is consistently honoring the commitment you made to become an Ironman. It's being true to the reason you accepted the Ironman challenge. When everything else stacks up against training - work, family, chores, weather, loss of motivation, injury, illness - and sometimes they all stack up at the same time - that's when the hardest part of Ironman comes a'knocking. And when it does, and you answer by shoving a blackened toenail from last week's long tempo run in it's face, the hardest part of Ironman acquiesces: "Right, you are an Ironman."

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