John Howard, founder and finisher of the 1978 inaugural Ironman, claims that finishing an Ironman gives you bragging rights for the rest of your life. Is it lifetime bragging rights that inspire the tens of thousands each year to endure 140.6 miles?
What about multiple finishers? Do we prevail year after year simply for the right to say, “Yeah, I did it” when we publicly display the Ironman logo – the “M-dot”? Even this right was “diluted” with the advent of the Ironman 70.3 races: Go half the distance and still get the almighty M-dot.
To be sure, that M-dot is reverently respected world-wide; yet it is also one of the most lucrative trademarks of all times. The success of that trademark may stem in part from savvy marketing and vigorous protection; but there is something far beyond the desire to be affiliated with a brand name that drives us to devote so much time and money, so much physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy to making the full-iron journey.
What makes the iron-distance race such a powerful, highly respected and globally recognized rites of passage in our modern world?
Just for Glory?
Some regard iron-distance triathlon as a devastating, life-threatening abuse. Others hail it as the greatest single-day endurance event – a transforming, empowering life experience. Is iron-distance training and racing good for us or bad for us? Life-long bragging rights and showers of adoration may be good medicine for one’s self-esteem. After all, lots of people feel more reverence for an Ironman than, say, a Doctor or a General.
Our egos relish any accomplishment that distinguishes and elevates us, that associates us with an elite echelon. Glory can be coveted even more than money. Some are drawn to glory like moths to a flame. But there’s a lot more to it than the glory that comes with crossing the finish line.
Let’s backtrack 140.6 miles – to the start.
140.6-Mile… Death March?
As attracted (how about obsessed?) as some of us are to the iron experience, when we show up at the shoreline for our very first Ironman, we are showing up for a death march. Never in our lives have we covered 140.6 consecutive miles in a single day – apportioned as they are to swim, bike and run. We are venturing into unknown territory, diving into a vast sea of uncertainty. Most of us are trembling with fear. The part of us that cannot fathom going the distance will die that day.
Why the fear? Fear is our conditioned response to uncertainty. Like virginity and death, we have no idea what lies between the starting line and the finish line. (Or the other side of the finish line.) We can hear it from countless others beforehand – and even learn much about how to train and prepare – but we are still drawn to the flame. We thirst for the iron experience first-hand; no one else can traverse those 140.6 miles for us.
The Iron Distinction
The difference between iron and half-iron tri’s is more than just another 70.3 miles. Iron distance introduces us to a whole new level of uncertainty. As we train to complete our first races at shorter distances, we can appease much of this fear of uncertainty with workouts that are at least as long in time and/or distance as the race we are training for.
Even at half-iron distance, we can placate fear and uncertainty by over-distance training each of the disciplines individually – even collectively, for those of us who are really compulsive. However, that nagging uncertainty of “Can I go the 140-point-6 distance?” will not be resolved before that first Iron.
After months or even years of training, the question remains unanswered at the shoreline, early on race morning.
Pump Up the Volume
Motivated by our fear of uncertainty, the focus of training for the first Iron – and often for the second, third or fourth – is to appease that fear, to keep the intimidation at bay. We work to smother that vast gulf of fear with thousands of miles, hundreds of hours, millions of calories. In this process of fending off self-doubt, we may even jettison much of our lives as healthy human beings. At the very least, we may take to managing time with a scalpel, a microscope and a crowbar – cramming as much as we can into 24.00 hours.
According to World Triathlon Corporation (owners of the “M-Dot”), the average Ironman triathlete swims 12,000 yards, bikes 230 miles and runs 48 miles in a typical training week. This weekly output endures 7 months. Iron overdose doesn’t necessarily come from racing too many iron-distance tri’s.
It often stems from our obsession with appeasing the fear of uncertainty through excessive training.
Riding 112 miles every Saturday morning – rain or shine, fatigue-be-damned – for months on end just to assure oneself, “Yeah, I can still do it” is not an efficient and effective way to train for the iron-distance. (I speak from experience!) This kind of obsession leads to long-term burnout, family and occupational neglect and overall misery – not to mention a slow bike split on race day. (I repeat: I speak from experience.)
Don’t get me wrong – an aerobic base is essential. Assuming reasonable physical health, the first crucial tool for iron-endurance is strong metabolic capacity – a body that is efficient at burning fat and conserving glycogen for long duration at an appropriate intensity. It takes patience and persistence to build capillary and mitochondrial density and strengthen the heart and lungs. Aerobic base should absolutely be the focus for novices.
Nutrition is a vital part of developing that metabolic efficiency and endurance too. It can also be the easiest part! Hammer Nutrition has already figured that one out for us ahead of time. I follow the guidelines in “Fueling For Success”.
Simplicity is key: For the bike: Two 3+ hour bottles of Perpetuem, with Endurolytes Powder mixed in, according to the heat. One is on the bike at the start, the second bottle is in my special needs bag. (I duct-tape the tops on these, so I won’t lose my precious fuel if I drop one.) I carry extra Endurolytes Caps on the bike, as well as Anti Fatigue Caps at one per hour, and a few Hammer Gels.
I begin with 10-12ounces of water in my flask (separate from my fuel) and replenish at each aid station with just enough to get me to the next. (Why spend thousands on a high-end lightweight bike and then carry pounds of water?)
On the run: Again I keep it light and simple. I fuel on Hammer Gels, carrying 4-5 out of transition, then stocking more in my special needs bag. I also carry a pill flask with Endurolytes Caps and Anti Fatigue Caps. Just water at the aid stations, thanks. And always, Recoverite at the finish!
Volume, Nutrition… What Else?
Once we have honed our bodies into lean, mean, fat-burning machines, we can shift the focus from the expansive foundation of base training and nutrition strategy. Doubling base miles will not double our speed or even our metabolic endurance. More likely it will damage our joints, ligaments and tendons and chronically fatigue our endocrine system – that potent chemical arsenal that we draw on for great performances.
Where do we go from here? Sure, we can dutifully swim, bike and run the quantities WTC has deemed average for the successful finisher to help satisfy our uncertainty. However, to truly master the iron athlete lifestyle, we must train intelligently, creatively and intuitively. Train brilliantly, and we transform the quality of our workouts – be they breakthrough, base, or recovery – so that we train less with better race results.
Paramount to our iron athlete lifestyle, our training must enhance the quality of our lives as whole human beings. There is no mastery if we enslave ourselves to triathlon training just to placate our fear of uncertainty.
The key component to “iron mastery” is transforming our relationship with uncertainty. Instead of responding with fear, we must welcome uncertainty as the sweet nectar that sparks our aliveness – both in athletic performance and in our mundane everyday lives.
Here in the U.S. – more than anywhere else – we invest lots of money, energy and time attempting to eliminate uncertainty from our lives, grasping for security. Ultimately all of these attempts will fail. Pension plans, diverse financial portfolios and health insurance will never insulate us from uncertainty in our lives.
Change is inevitable. Everything is impermanent – including our human lives. Without the “kick in the ass” that uncertainty, mystery and change bring to our lives, we stagnate. If we know ahead of time exactly how the race will turn out, or how our lives will progress and end, would we bother training – let alone get out of bed each day?
Without uncertainty, we’re as good as dead.
Fortifying With Iron
Iron distance training and racing empowers us to embrace and welcome uncertainty, rather than recoil and retreat from it. This empowerment can extend beyond athletics to the vast arena of our lives as whole, healthy human beings.
The true mark of a seasoned iron-distance athlete – one who can sustain this as a healthy, balanced lifestyle, regardless of how fast or slow the finish time – is the ability to remain calm, patient and present with fear, doubt and uncertainty.
On the exterior, iron training may appear as excessive amounts of swimming, biking, running and strength work. But the real training is happening inside, as we cultivate and strengthen a calm-still-silent, open-empty-infinite, deep-serene-and-intimate space of awareness and presence during those long tedious hours of swimming, biking and running
How do we conduct this inner training? As we are training our bodies to function efficiently and gracefully for the iron distance, we can simultaneously train our minds to function efficiently and gracefully in the presence of uncertainty and to curb our fear response. In training (and in life), we do experience fears, doubts and anxieties. It’s no use trying to conquer or eliminate them either. The most effective way to deal with them is to befriend them.
We can regard fears, doubts and anxieties simply as byproducts of mental fitness training – just as lactic acid is a byproduct of physical training. Mentally and physically, we strengthen our ability to process these byproducts at progressively higher levels of intensity. During interval training, we push our limits then pause for recovery. Similarly, when we recognize our fear response, we can pause, breathe deeply, disengage and relax – reminding ourselves that uncertainty is a wonderful asset in our lives that stimulates our curiosity and heightens our sensitivity and awareness. Uncertainty is precious fuel for brilliance!
Breathe: It’s That Simple
It’s worth repeating: The real training happens inside, as we cultivate and strengthen a calm-still-silent, open-empty-infinite, deep-serene-and-intimate space of awareness and presence during the long tedious hours of swimming, biking and running. The most effective way to focus on this inner training, to cultivate and strengthen this inner space, is through conscious breath. As we abide in this mental, physical, emotional and spiritual space, we are capable of embracing and enduring all of life’s challenges. This is what I call spiritual fitness.
As Ironmen and Ironwomen, we are distinguished in our ability to go the 140.6, but we are by no means elite in our spiritual fitness. Every single human being experiences the three conditions of human existence: suffering, impermanence and selflessness. Every human being – regardless of physical prowess – has the infinite potential to develop spiritual fitness, to embrace and transform these conditions into triumph.
In comparison to those who live in war-torn countries, under oppressive governments, or face poverty, starvation or torture, our lives are easy cake walks – regardless of how many Ironman finishes, or how fast. Those who refuse to feel victimized by strenuous conditions are the true spiritual heroes.
All humans are equal in our capacity for spiritual fitness, regardless of genetics or education. Each of us must make the choice day-by-day, minute-by-minute to train our spiritual fitness. However, unlike completing an Ironman, in our day-to-day ordinary lives we are not guaranteed glory, recognition, medals and finisher’s swag for our progress. True happiness and satisfaction arises in our hearts.
The Iron lifestyle can be destructive and self-absorbed or it can be empowering and magnificent. To discern the fine line between these two requires absolute integrity, self-honesty and clear choice in each and every moment of our lives.
Are you up to the challenge?
Originally published in Hammer Nutrition Endurance News, Issue 65, September 2009