The Do’s and Don’ts of Your First Ironman
On 11 June 2017, I lined up for my first Ironman in sunny Cairns, North Australia. Thankfully, I made it across the finish line but it wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination. Since then, I’ve had time to reflect on the event and thought I’d draw on my own experiences to provide information on what to do and what NOT to do for the first Ironman.
- Practice race day nutrition. This is number one for good reason. An ex-professional triathlete said a first Ironman is 33% physical training, 33% nutrition and 33% mental willpower. I understand this after competing in my first ironman. I suffered on the run when I didn’t fuel properly while trying a new array of electrolyte drinks, energy bars and anything else I could stomach. The body is already in a slight shock due to Ironman’s demands – avoid shocking it with unfamiliar foods. Decide what you’ll eat and drink during training before race day.
- Have a solid reason for entering. Everyone needs a reason to motivate themselves to the finish line. My reason was just enough to get me though when I could’ve easily given in the last few kilometres. A lot of it comes down to mental preparation. In this race, it was sheer will power to keep on going when times get tough. Pick a solid reason to race and stick by it – you may question this reasoning during the race!
- Practice swimming faster to swim faster. I believed that swimming more meters at the same pace translates to a better swim. Mindlessly counting kilometres can be detrimental to helping you swim faster. Two months before my race, I switched my thinking and tried to hold 100m fast efforts instead of long and slow 100m’s. I swam five minutes faster than predicted and felt fresh during the bike transition. Think fast to get faster, not long to get longer!
- Get your bike looked over before race day. It’s a simple but effective advice. Don’t leave anything to chance especially considering the time and money invested into the race.
- Don’t expect it to be relatively easy, just a long way. I trained long and easy sessions. It helped me establish a good endurance base but it wasn’t adequate preparation for what I was hoping to achieve. Training long and easy is good to a point but training needs to push you out of the comfort zone. In this Ironman, I was out of my comfort zone and didn’t experience this feeling during training. Practice a long bike ride with efforts within the ride, avoid the long easy rides with many coffee stops!
- Don’t run with a watch! I didn’t see the benefit of running the marathon with a watch. The race had plenty of kilometer-marker signs. I didn’t get lost on the run without my GPS navigation device. Looking down at your wrist every kilometer is no fun if you feel the pace slipping away. This extra demotivation isn’t needed if it does go wrong. Use metrics for the bike to control intensity (and know how long to go). From my experience, save the run watch for your next 10-kilometre race.
- Don’t forget to put Vaseline around the neck for wetsuit rubs. I still have scars from the swim that lasted a few months later. It’s not the same as mental scars from the run, but they still remain. An easy way to prevent this is to apply a big dollop of Vaseline to the neck area before the swim.
- Don’t forget the people who helped you get there. Completing an Ironman is a great achievement – but it is more so if it’s shared with the people who helped you get there. Traveling to a race with friends and family motivates and spurs you. Don’t go into this alone and remember the ones who helped you get to the start and finish line. My girlfriend was lucky enough to see me moving so slow, I may have been going backward towards the end of the race (and then throw up a few times also). The motivation and support I received from her helped me complete the race.
Overall, I had a mixed experience for my first Ironman. I finished with a time of 12 hours and 27 minutes, which was two hours than anticipated after stomach upsets and general lack of fitness. For first-timers, I recommend anyone who does this ‘race’ to view it as a journey to completion and nothing more than that. Save the racing for the future, which (if it happens) will be many years from now for me!
Tom holds a 1st class honors degree in Sports Science (Human Performance) from Brunel University, England. He also comes from a triathlon background, competing as an age-grouper and holds a level 2 triathlon coaching qualification.