By their nature all sports are physical. Few sports though are quite so physical as the Ironman. Sustaining the body’s power output over a 3.8km swim, 180km bike race and 42.2km marathon is nothing if not brutally physical.
But the Ironman is also a sport that, if not exactly cerebral, is at least equally mentally demanding.
The decisions you make before the race play a large part in your performance. What heart rate can you realistically maintain on the run? How many calories should you consume on the bike? And what will your rate of fluid loss be? How much do you need to drink? What gear ratio should you use on the bike? Are you a climber or better on the flat? Should you attack on the hills or conserve energy? Do you go with faster tyres or heavier more puncture resistant ones?
And then there’s the mental process of dealing with the pain. Of compartmentalising it and working through it.
These decisions and mental processes can make the difference between a personal best and that awful abbreviation – DNF. Did. Not. Finish.
Everyone goes into a race with their own plan – whether they plan to win or just to finish. Failing to plan is planning to fail – so that awful cliched slogan goes.
Perhaps you plan to go out fast and hard, then try and hold on later in the race when it gets tough – or you start out gingerly to conserve energy and finish strong?
But how long will your plan survive? It’s said that no military plan survives first contact with the enemy. And the Ironman is a battle. The history of the Ironman is littered with broken plans and discarded hopes.
Often in the heated adrenaline-fueled start, you go too fast; burn too much energy; and you pay for it later. Then somewhere after the swim and the bike, things start to go wrong.
Your pace starts to slip, or you’re gripped by nausea, or cramp, or a pain that emanates from nowhere and everywhere – and you’re forced to watch that target time slip out of reach. And your plan goes belly up.
Or you curse that you started too slow and can never make up the lost time and distance you’d planned on banking early in the race.
For my first Ironman my plan was simply to finish the swim. If pushed – really pushed – I might have coyly admitted to wanting to finish in under 13-hours. And perhaps pride would dictate a sub-four-hour marathon.
The joy I experienced after dragging myself out of the water during that first Ironman, relatively unscathed, an hour and 17 minutes after starting, almost made me forget I had a cycle race and marathon to complete.
Six-and-a-half hours later, I’d finished on the bike and set out on the marathon. Starting out I held a decent pace.
But each lap of the course saw my pace gradually slip and that target time went with it.
My first Ironman time stood at 12 hours 12 minutes. As I slumped over the line I was both delighted with my performance and relieved that it was all over. But I also knew that it wasn’t all over. It was only just beginning.
As the aches and pains wore off in the intervening weeks, a thought began to crystalise: I could do better. 11 hours 59 minutes would be possible. I deserved an 11-hour-something Ironman. I would have to go back and do it again.
So I entered the same race again the following year. I fitted Aerobars on the bike. I did more sprint training. I trained at altitude. Improved my swim.
One year later I went back to Nice with one plan, one goal – 11 hours 59 minutes – or bust.
And then, in the race, something quite unexpected happened. The swim went well. Then I slashed 30 minutes off my previous year’s bike time.
As I set out on the run, I worried that the extra speed on the bike would take its toll on my legs. But somehow I was running comfortably. It began to dawn on me that I wouldn’t just comfortably beat my target time – I would obliterate it. My plan had gone haywire. So I had to mentally scrabble around and change my plan on the fly.
The heat in Nice that day was stifling. The nausea set in during the second half of the marathon. I was sick. Twice. But still the marathon pace kept strong. I endured – there is no other word for it – a 3 hour 54 marathon, going on to finish my second ironman in 11 hours 34 minutes.
As I finished I was genuinely shocked and surprised at my time. I had taken over 40 minutes off my previous time. I revelled in the finish. I knew that such a stark improvement would never happen again. I had more than achieved my plan. I thought that would be my last Ironman.
I sat the next year out. Ironman training is, after all, quite disruptive to a normal social life. Perhaps I thought my time was a fluke. I didn’t want to go through all that training again only to get a worse time. And I couldn’t figure out how I could possibly beat it.
But gradually I became less and less satisfied with my new time. I met more and more people with faster times. I began to want a time that was nearer 11 hours than 12. That would be more respectable..
During that year out I realised there were faster and flatter bike courses. Why was I punishing myself in the mountains above Nice? There were also were swim courses that were in pancake-flat lakes rather than choppy-jellyfish-infested seas. If I didn’t fancy my chances at going quicker in Nice I’d have to go elsewhere.
The fastest Ironman course in Europe is reckoned to be Klagenfurt in eastern Austria. But it sells out almost immediately after entries open – a whole year in advance of the race. This would take some planning.
And so at midnight on 1st July 2013 I waited in front of my computer for online registration to open. So did some 3,000 other athletes. Just a few hours later the race was full. And I was in.
So over the intervening year plans were made. And revised. And made again
Which brings me to now in Klagenfurt – some four years after I first dreamed of doing my first Ironman. I’ve got a plan finish in 11 hours 29 minutes. A plan that has been honed and refined over years. All that stands between me and it is some 140.8 miles of racing.
Once the starting gun goes off, how long with that plan survive? That’s the real test of the Ironman – how you change your plans on the fly. For better. Or worse.