Ironman! Three epic sports all rolled into one…
Swim 2.4 miles, Bike 112 miles, and Run 26.2 miles.
Seems like just yesterday, but 16 years ago on November 6, 1999 I completed my first Ironman triathlon in a time of 11:05 at the inaugural Ironman Florida race in Panama City Beach, Florida. As I write this article, many of my friends are making final preparations to compete in the 2015 edition of this race on 11/7/15. It’s a great race and was a great life experience for me. Who doesn’t want to hear those magical words, “Joe, YOU are an IRONMAN” as you cross the finish line? This article is the first in a series we’ll be doing about finding life balance when a spouse/partner spends a lot of time in the pursuit of athletic / fitness goals.
What’s an Ironman?
Starting as a challenge with 15 participants back on February 18, 1978, Ironman is now one of those life goals many want to accomplish. Over the years, the Ironman mystique has grown to become a world-wide series of races and an internationally recognized marketing brand. I first became aware of the Ironman as a college student back in the 80’s when I used to watch the TV coverage. Who can forget Julie Moss’s crawl to the finish line back in 1982? How about Paula Newby-Fraser’s epic collapse and crawl in the 1995 Ironman? For a goal-driven, challenge-seeking person like me – the Ironman seemed like a great idea!
When Mary Catherine and I got married on September 17, 1994 we were both overweight. We were young, in love with each other and food! I got in shape first. After a slow progression from walking, running, and marathon running (which we’ll detail in a different article) I sought out ever increasing fitness challenges – with Ironman being the ultimate challenge. Like many triathletes, I started with shorter sprint distance triathlons – but my goal all along was to train up to a full Ironman. When I initially considered it, there was only one Ironman – the Hawaii Ironman. As interest in the sport put pressure on the Ironman organizers, the Ironman USA race was started at Lake Placid, NY (now called Ironman Lake Placid) in the summer of 1999 and Ironman Florida in November 1999. The stars seemed to be aligning in favor of my goal. How convenient, an official Ironman race not too far from Atlanta! I set my sights on the 1999 Ironman Florida race.
My Unsophisticated Ironman Training
Having already established a solid base in running, I jumped right into triathlon training by joining a master’s swim team and taking Spinning (indoor cycling) classes at my local YMCA. Back then, triathlon training was more of an art than science. I made sure I logged in at least three swim workouts a week, 3-4 rides (mostly indoors due to practicality), and kept up my running (actually, I overtrained the run). My friends and mentors Don Vargo and Tony Myers introduced me to Sally Edwards’ Heart Zones Training (years later I would meet and work with Ironman Hall-of-Famer Sally Edwards in person). Using heart rate training ensured I was getting in a quality workout.
I can’t say that I followed any specific training program – back then Ironman training was largely an emerging sport without a scientifically valid method of training. Of the few training books that were on the market back then, most catered to shorter-distance races. Drawing upon my marathon running experience, I figured the Ironman would follow a similar endurance training regimen of “going long” every other week. I alternated going long on the bike and run on the weekends. In order to keep cycling interesting, my friend Tony Myers and I signed up for and participated in century (100 mile) bike rides. For the swim workouts, my swimming friends just encouraged me to keep going to swim practice, which I did.
Week of Training (Oct. 10-16, 1999)
- Sun – Off
- Mon – Spinning (45min.), Swim (2,300 yds), Run (10.5 mi)
- Tue – Spinning (2:45), Swim (2,100 yds), Run (8 mi)
- Wed – Spinning (2:40), Swim (2,200 yds), Run (10mi)
- Thu – Indoor trainer (1 hr), Swim (2,400 yds), Run (11mi)
- Fri – Spinning (2 hrs), Run (8 mi)
- Sat – Bike Ride (105 mi.), Run (6 mi)
Food (Day total: ~4,250 Kcal)
(NOTE: I counted calories, not nutritional value. Don’t follow my bad example! Yes, this is really typical of what I ate back then.)
- Breakfast – 6 pop tarts (1,200 cal.)
- Snack – 2 snack bars (280 cal.)
- Lunch – 2 PBJ, Pretzels, Fruit cup, Coke, Cake (1,000 cal.)
- Snack – 2 bananas (180 cal.)
- Dinner – Spaghetti, bread, salad (1,000 cal.)
- Dessert – Apple Pie (550 cal.) – my favorite dessert!
All of the training culminated in a “practice Ironman” which my YMCA friends organized on my behalf in September 1999. The day started with 2.4 miles in the pool. The YMCA opened early for me that day. Next, we hopped on bikes and Tony lead us on a ride all over hilly north Atlanta, ending up 112 miles later at Columns Drive near the Powers Ferry unit of the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area. There, my running buddies Joe Bowman and Dr. Mitchell Hait met me for a full 26.2 mile practice run. We keep the pace slow, but I survived thanks to all of my friends who came out to help. This practice Ironman, while controversial from a training perspective, was a HUGE mental boost as I knew I could do it. The goal now was to taper and stay healthy for race day less than two months away.
The Ironman Experience
We had been to the race venue at Panama City Beach earlier in the year (May 1999) when I competed in the Gulf Coast Triathlon, which is a half-Ironman distance race on most of the same course. The Boardwalk Beach Resort and surrounding area was familiar turf. Even though the area was familiar, the crowd was not. One difference I noted quickly was the large international contingent that wasn’t present earlier in the year. It was also quickly apparent that these triathletes meant business. They just looked like athletes and I didn’t feel worthy to even be there. I didn’t even have a triathlon bike, it was a road bike! My goal was simply to finish and based on my current athletic ability, I set my sights on a sub-12 hour finish.
Ironman Florida 1999 Equipment Used:
Speedo lycra swim suit (the early days before tri-suits)
Quintana Roo Longjohn wetsuit
Speedo Hydrospex goggles
Cannondale R1000 road bike (no aerobar)
Look 396 road cycling shoes
Sugoi cycling jersey and shorts
Specialized bike helmet
Brooks Radius SC shoes
Speedo tri-cut coolmax tank
Nike coolmax. running hat
Race ready coolmax running shorts
My race day strategy: survive the swim, find my groove on the bike, then hammer the run.
– Powerbar (240 KCal)
– Powergel (110 KCal)
– 20oz water
– 16oz water
– 4oz Gatorade
– Clifbar (240 KCal) and Gel (110 KCal)
– 20oz water every 10 miles
– 8oz Gatorade every 5 miles
– Powergels, pretzels, moonpies (380 KCal)
– 6oz Ultrafuel
– Pretzels & 2 Powergels
– 4-8oz water / Gatorade every stop
– Powerful every 3 miles
– Fruit, cookies, pretzels at each stop
The weather was perfect, my family was present (wife, 2 daughters, parents) and my friend Tony drove down to visit and support me. Some new friends of mine from the Peachtree City Running Club also came down to compete in this new Ironman race. Saturday, November 6, 1999 was going to be a great day.
Here’s the numbers:
- 1:17 swim, 2.4 miles in the ocean
- 8:37 T1, transition from swim to bike
- 5:45 bike, 112 miles in a big loop going clockwise out of Panama City Beach (19.5 mph)
- 7:09 T2, transition from bike to run
- 3:46 run, 26.2 mile run on a two-loop, pancake-flat course (8:47 min/mil)
- Total time = 11:05
I won’t bore you with the details of everything going through my mind during the race, but a few thoughts stand out:
- During the swim, I lost sight of the shoreline. That’s a scary feeling.
- During T1, one foreign competitor forgot to wear a swim suit under his wetsuit. I was alerted to this fact when the female volunteer helping him out of the wetsuit screamed.
- The bike portion of the race was a “movable feast” as I could eat and drink again
- Pro-tip, if you put a moonpie in the back of your cycling jersey, the sun will warm it up for you to make it nice and yummy!
- The roads are super flat in Florida, which is very boring
- You either have a tail-wind or a head-wind on the bike course so speed fluctuates accordingly
- The run was my favorite part and I surprised myself at how easy it felt
- The finish line experience is one of those ‘goose bump’ moments – I’ll never forget the feeling
- After the race, I ate an entire pizza!
Although I didn’t win any awards other than my finisher medal, my 11:05 finishing time blew away my expectations and I was ecstatic over the performance. Even though I had “sold” Mary Catherine on the idea this was a bucket list item I was going to cross off my list, I immediately began thinking about what I might be capable of with proper training. In particular, there was lots of room for improvement in my swim and bike times. Those days were pre-Facebook so I sent emails and hand written notes to family and friends thanking them for supporting me. Truly, no aspiring Ironman athlete can be successful without the support and blessing of their family. Getting to that starting line healthy and ready requires the support of many (something we’ll talk about in future articles on this website).
Now that the race was over, I was at a crossroads of sort. The mission was accomplished – so what now? Should I continue to pursue an even deeper commitment to the sport of triathlon and specifically Ironman? Or, should I back away from the sport for a little while and spend more time with my family? Perhaps I could do both by training smarter, not longer? I’ll write a follow-up piece to this article soon and answer those questions.
Let me end this article on a positive note – the Ironman experience ranks right up there with one of the greatest things I’ve ever accomplished. I think the training had an overall positive benefit on my life, teaching me – discipline, mental fortitude, and physical endurance. If you’re a goal-oriented, challenge-seeking, competitive person like me then (with your family’s blessing) consider training for and completing an Ironman triathlon. You won’t regret it.
Here’s the second article in our series – Why I Stopped Competing in Triathlons (MarriedRunners.com)
Dedication – I’d like to dedicate this article to the loving memory of my first Spinning instructor, Don Vargo. Don died 8 years ago on 11/11/2007 at the very young age of 51. He’s one of the first who encouraged me to try out the exciting world of triathlon. Don was a family man first and foremost. He loved the sport, but was also a voice of moderation – advice I should have heeded.