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written by: Roma Kuznir
posted: 08/08/2005

On July 24th, 2005, I completed my first Ironman-distance triathlon, Ironman USA in Lake Placid, NY. The following will describe the day as I experienced it. My account may be different from others you have read, those describing excitement, beauty, elation, the euphoria of crossing the finish line, and how fabulous it is to be an Ironman. You will not get any of that here. My experience was not a good one and I believe it only fair to write this story down to give equal airtime to the bad experiences. I know I am not the only one, but possibly one of the few to speak out. There is a great deal of pressure to join in with the masses and sing the praises of the Ironman. I must admit that after investing all that time and shelling out the $475 entry fee as well as thousands of dollars for training, coaching, equipment, travel, etc. I feel like I need to convince myself that I had fun. But I did not.

Let me begin by saying that this account is not an appraisal of my performance, but an account of my experience. Compared to most first-timers, I am told I performed respectably at least as far as my finish time, 12:46:10. I finished close to the top third of my age group and in the top half of all competitors, male and female. Though hardly stellar, my performance was better than most. However, finish time is not something I use to define personal success. I don’t do triathlons to win, to qualify for any other races, or to break a certain time. Of course, if I better my previous years’ time or place in my age group, that is nice, but not an end point for me, merely the icing on the cake. If my goal were to win, I would not be doing triathlons. First, I don’t think I am particularly talented in two of the three disciplines, at least compared to my other athletic strengths. Second, I am a sprinter, so any race over 60 seconds (120 seconds max) takes me into a zone where my racing strengths are not tapped into. I do triathlons for other reasons: to experience the endorphin rush of racing, to enjoy the beautiful scenery, to be healthy, and to feel strong. I got very little of this out of my Ironman experience.

Some positive stuff. Before I get too far into the negative, there were some nice things about the day that should be noted, even though my physical state at the time would not allow me to fully appreciate them. The crowds were great and contributed powerful energy. Boston Triathlon Team, my team, had a large cheering section, and that was a boost. On one segment of the bike, BTT-ers were cheering so loudly for me that the people I was riding near commented on how popular I must be. The volunteers were great. There were volunteers for everything: to pull your wetsuit off (the peelers), to help you get into your running shoes, to slather sunscreen on your back, to catch you at the finish line (the catchers), to massage you when the race was over, and much much more. They were helpful, enthusiastic and just plain nice. The best group of volunteers I had ever seen at any race. Everyone says so and boy is it true. Finally, although it was hot and sunny, the humidity was low, so conditions were quite good.

Triathlon 101. For those with limited knowledge of the triathlon, let us take a step back. This is a three-discipline event – swimming, cycling, running, in that order – with the Ironman being the longest of the popular distance races: 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and full marathon (26.2 mile run). When most people think of triathlons they think of the Ironman distance. Ironman, the Corporation, has done an incredible marketing job promoting its product and establishing a powerful brand name. Similar to Kleenex and Hoover, where the brand name has become synonymous with the product, i.e., “Peter hoovered the shredded kleenex from his pink shag carpet.” But there are other distance triathlons, in fact 3 other popular distances, all of which I have raced and had enjoyable experiences. These include the half Ironman, the International or Olympic distance, which is what was raced during the 2000 and 2004 Olympic games (1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run), and the sprint distance (approximately half of the International distance). But, I digress …

Race day morning. Woke up early to a jittery stomach, as always on any race day morning so no big whoop, and stuck to my breakfast plan with no real problems. Got to the transition area (the area where you do all your equipment changes) about 1 ½ hours before the start of the race to put final touches on my stations. There is a lot of planning that goes into the kit at an Ironman, more so than at any other triathlon race. I’ll skip the details because I figure you don’t want to know what I packed in my Bike Special Needs bag and how I planned to retrieve it after my first loop. Suffice it to say that there was a lot of tedious stuff to think through. As a former entrepreneur used to projecting scenarios and preparing contingency plans, I am pretty skilled at this sort of thing. Doesn’t mean I like it. As I checked and rechecked my various stations, I yearned for my swimming days where my biggest equipment worries were “Did I remember to tighten the straps on my goggles?” The Ironman is not for minimalists.

You call that swimming? You’d think with my swim background that the swim leg would have been a fun one. However, there is no swimming in an Ironman, rather one hour of fighting, kicking, punching and struggling to keep from being pulled under. So no, it was not fun. You may have done an open water swim or a shorter distance triathlon where you experienced some turbulence, pushing and shoving at the start of the race as swimmers vied for position. I am no rookie at open water swimming and being a sprinter, particularly adept at sprinting at the start of the race to establish a good position and finding clear water or occasionally a swift pair of feet to draft off. However, when you cram over 2000 athletes in a narrow starting area, no more than 50 meters wide and tell them to swim towards the same point, you are going to have problems. Clear water will be tough, if not impossible (as was my case) to find. I believe the race directors may have anticipated this, as the army of scuba divers will attest.

I think I may have experienced, in total, about 100 meters in my entire race during which I was not in contact with someone else, either hitting or being hit, crawling over or being crawled over, etc. I am not kidding. There were times, more than I can remember counting, that I was forced to use only one arm, because my other was pinned to my side. There were times that I had to stop swimming to subtly notify the gentleman swimming half way up my back that I did not appreciate this – a strong breastroke kick to the jaw proved most effective. There were times that I was forced to grab hold of the people around me to keep afloat while a large hand grabbed my head and propelled its master forward. I can go on … In short, I feel fortunate to have exited the water with only a couple of bruises and as fatigued as if I swum the 8-mile Boston Light Swim. Broken noses are not uncommon in the Ironman.

What could I have done differently in the swim leg? Absolutely nothing I can think of. Mine was a good race compared with others’. I started out in the front row, sprinted out fast, and got ahead of the 1-hour-15-minute swimming pack, where things really get rough. I was one of those people who completed the swim in under an hour, not a particularly good time for me, but still one of the top ten females exiting the water. Mine was one of the swim experiences people aspire to have. I’m sorry, but this is not really my idea of swimming. I personally take no responsibility for my swim time, as I did little to actually propel myself forward. Some advice for those setting out to do one of these and looking for a fast swim leg: regardless of your swimming ability, start up in front with the faster swimmers. You will not be swimming anyway, so put yourself in the middle of swimmers that will push and shove you at a faster pace. Seriously!

I like to ride my bicycle, I like to ride my bike … The bike leg was fairly uneventful and the most enjoyable part of my race. I did not get sick, crash, get a flat tire, get stung by a bee and did not feel particularly bad, though my legs lacked the zip I typically experience during races. The latter due to over training. True the scenery was nice, but if you want to experience the Adirondacks, it’s better to just ride around the area for fun. I enjoyed the scenery much more during my training rides, which incidentally were faster than my race time, again evidence of over training. Still, I cannot complain too much about the bike leg.

You call this eating? Now a few words about Ironman “fueling.” A long race requires a well-thought-out and executed nutrition plan, as those breakfast waffles and previous night’s pasta dinner will only get you through the first 90 minutes or so. For Ironman races, the bike leg is the time when you do most of your eating and drinking, and is a critical time in setting you up for the run. It’s the longest leg of the three and your stomach can handle the food better than during the run. So eat up!

I believe my fueling plan was pretty good. I had experimented with different foods, practiced it during training, and believe I had it down. I drank every 15 minutes, ate every 30, and popped salt tablets every hour. Not being able to handle solid food during races, my fuel of choice consisted of Enervit/CarboPro mix drink, Gatorade, Carboom energy gels, Ensure, Enervit energy gels, cola, plain water, and some chicken broth during the run. Yummy! Approximately 300 calories and 28-32 oz fluids per hour. My stomach felt relatively good on the bike and I believe my energy levels were topped off nicely going into the run, despite the horrors I was to experience later, which in retrospect were more likely a function of my body just not being used to this sort of ultra-distance race, than of the fueling plan.

Stepping back, I can honestly say that Ironman fueling is plain disgusting. It is an abomination to anyone who has any respect for food and eating. Ensure? Energy gels? There is just something fundamentally wrong with shoving all those repulsive calories into your system hour after hour, when your body craves baby back ribs. My husband Robin believes, “There are two types of people, those who eat to live and those who live to eat.” As one of the latter, I reveal yet another incompatibility between the Ironman and me.

The run(s). Contrary to what I expected and to what most experience, the first mile of my run felt relatively good. I thought to myself, “Hmmm! Perhaps the worst is behind me and everything else was so bad to make space for a great run.” I was mistaken. At the one-mile marker, my digestive track rebelled. My stomach cramped and I prayed to reach the port-a-potty in time. I’ll spare you the details, but my run evolved into walking and, at better moments, shuffling from port-a-potty to port-a-potty. Fortunately there was one every mile or so. Needless to say, this did not help my finishing time. Things actually got a bit better by the second loop, where I was able to jog a little. In retrospect, I believe my recovery was brought on by utter disgust of the toilets. 2000 athletes, upset stomachs, baking sun … I won’t say more.

Dog crosses finish line. 2 miles out from the finish, my mood lifted. Robin and dog Nestor, were cheering me on, as were my Boston Triathlon Team teammates and other fellow triathletes. For the first time in 12 hours, a smile actually made it to my face and I grinned all the way to the finish line, thinking … after 20 minutes I can stop … after 15 minutes I can stop … after 10 minutes I can stop … Again, I experienced none of the elation others talk about and that I have had on many occasions at other triathlons. I was glad it was over. I did get a kick out of Robin standing in the finishing oval and handing me Nestor, informing me that I could cross the finish line with him. So Nestor received a huge cheer from the spectators as the announcer declared him the first canine to cross the finish line at this year’s IM USA. Made for a good finish photo.

Was I prepared? You may be thinking that perhaps I was not properly prepared for the day. That I am some kind of weekend warrior who didn’t put in the hours required to pull this off. True that actual race experience prepares you like nothing else, particularly for an endurance event like this. However, I believe I was as prepared as any first-timer could have been. I had been doing shorter-distance tris for several years, had done a couple of half Ironman races, and had gone up to the Adirondacks to watch IM USA in 2004. I had practiced the course several times in the year leading up to the race. I had hired a coach, sacrificed time, money and friends/family, and trained diligently for six months. I was prepared, likely better-prepared than many. I knew what to expect, the course, the heat, the distance, and was psychologically ready to experience the highs and lows that normally come with this sort of thing. But all I ever got were the lows, varying degrees. None of the good race sensations. No tears of joy at the finish line. Just an overall feeling of when is this thing going to be over.

So why was it so bad for me? As I sit here now, one week distanced from the event, I see two reasons. First, for someone who derives inspiration from beauty and finesse in sport, the Ironman is not the place to find these things. I learned this on race day. The Ironman is more about general fitness, machismo and masochism, than about form, grace or beauty. True, things are a bit more graceful when you get up to the elite athletes, but not much and not to the level one finds in the sports I love. Except in a few rare cases (Natasha Badmann is nice to watch), most Ironman performances are not pretty. Many elite Ironman triathletes have horrendous technique, hacking through the respective disciplines. In my opinion, the Ironman is more a celebration in suffering than a display of skill and finesse, neither on the elite level nor most definitely not on the novice level.

The second reason for my bad experience is over training. About 7 weeks before the race, several people mentioned to me that I looked exhausted and that every time they asked me how things were going, I would say, “Fine, but I’m very tired.” One person even pulled me aside and said that I appeared to be over training and should consider revising my training plan. I listened, but did not hear. Being a perfectionist by nature and someone who has never shirked away from hard work, pain, discomfort, it is not easy for me to back off even if it will help my performance. It is tough for me to see that this is what I need. And I was receiving conflicting messages from fellow triathletes that you are supposed to be tired during training and that what I was experiencing was normal. They were mistaken. I wish someone could have helped me figure out that I was beyond tired. Now I possess the experience to make this judgment myself.

I had all the classic signs of over training. I wasn’t able to sleep. I was unable to get my heart rate up during hard sets. I was getting slower and feeling weaker as the weeks went on. I wasn’t recovering from rest days, and I was losing motivation. Instead of getting excited for my upcoming races, I was merely looking forward to having them over. At this point, I began to back off a bit, but was even conflicted about this, as others around me were telling me that these were the most important training weeks and that if I could just get through the next 2 weeks, I could taper. So, I cut back a bit, but in retrospect not enough, but regardless, it was too late. So when it came to tapering, my taper did nothing for me except slow down the negative spiral. This in itself is a bummer. Taper is such a fun part of training; your body recovers and as race day approaches, you feel strong and excited, and during your training sessions, you reveal your new race gears. I love this part of training, but unfortunately, it never kicked in.

Lessons learned: As often is the case with bad experiences, I likely learned more from my Ironman than I would have had I had a good race. I record them for future reference and for the benefit of others.

  • During training take rest weeks, periods where you back off your training a bit to allow the body to absorb training and recover. My training plan did not have any easy weeks. Aside from a weekly rest day on Monday – triathletes don’t consider swimming working out, so they still expect you to do a swim workout, which I was wise to ignore – I took no breaks in the eight weeks leading up to my Ironman taper. This was my single biggest error.
  • Less training is more. Prior to this year, I had completed only two century (100-mile) bike rides and had never run a marathon. My training plan called for five century and century-plus bike rides, 3 of which were performed on consecutive weekends. In retrospect, this was madness. The scale-up was way too aggressive and did more harm than good.
  • Establish a good support network of experienced Ironman athletes to bounce stuff off of and to act as a mirror when your own judgment is cloudy. When selecting these people, make sure to include some who are relatively new to the sport. I found that very experienced Ironman athletes were too far removed from what a first-timer is going through to be able to advise effectively. That said, Maggie O’Toole, Boston Tri Team President and friend, was an incredible help to me. Though hardly inexperienced, she has the unique ability to empathize, encourage, and advise.
  • Don’t compare your plan to that of experienced Ironman triathletes. Rookies require a different training plan. Most training plans come in three flavors: beginner, intermediate, advanced. There is a reason for that. It takes years to build fitness for these things. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that if you are a good athlete to start and you train like an experienced Ironman, you will perform like one. You won’t. I believe that had I done less, I would have felt better, had more fun and gone a lot faster.
  • Respect the distance. As mentioned, it takes years to build up to Ironman racing and much of what happens on race day is out of your control. It is not unheard of for pros to drop out of races. Regardless of your preparation, things on race day are different and experience is your strongest ally but will not help you through all obstacles.
  • The only goals a first timer should have (unless, of course, you are someone like Simon Lessing -- then again even he was victim of the distance/inexperience during his second Ironman in Kona 2004, when he blew up on the bike leg and dropped out of the race) are to (1) not get injured, (2) have fun, and (3) finish. In that order. If you go in with higher expectations, chances are you will be disappointed. All the more reason to surround yourself with relative newbies to the distance, since they will keep you focused on the important things.

    Let me end this string of thought by stating the obvious: over training sucks. At the very least, it ruins the experience for you. At the worst, if can lead to injury. Fortunately, I avoided the latter. And it is a very common mistake many Ironman triathletes make.

    Another one? Now that it is over, I am unlikely to ever do one of these again. Don’t regret having done it, but if I were to do it over again, I would have done it differently, not necessarily the race itself, but the training leading up to it. So, one week out, I am thinking, “Never again!” That said, I don’t want to go on record saying that, since I have been known to gravitate towards challenges regardless of the fun factor and there is something inside me – albeit weak– that wants to set things right and have a good experience. (Robin must be freaking at this point.) But not in the foreseeable future. Anyway, there are so many other things I can be doing with my time, and Ironman training takes away from a season of short-distance triathlons. I think I will just stick to those. At the very least, they are just so much better on the body.

    Just sooooo bad for you. Which brings me to one final thought. The Ironman is just so bad on the body and I would never advise anyone to do one of those for fitness. If you want to be healthy, this is not the event for you. I never deluded myself that this was actually good for me. I considered this year of Ironman training as one of those bad things I do that is better than other bad things I could be doing, like shooting up. As an interesting side-note, many long-term Ironman athletes often speak in terms of “being addicted” to the sport and how they “should stop and give themselves a break” but how they can’t get themselves to do it. As someone who plans to be competing in some sport until I reach the grave, I strongly believe in respecting the body and planning for the long term. The Ironman does not fit this equation.

    That’s my Ironman story.