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What Motivates You?

Now that Ironman Wisconsin is just one month away, it’s a good time to reflect back on what has gotten you to this point.  Nearly all of us first signed up for Ironman because we wanted to do something positive for ourselves.  However, over the past 11 months, it’s probably been something other than your own self-motivation that has inspired you to keep training through the rough patches: the love and support of your family, the special cause that your helping to support by racing, or something (or someone) else that you’re hoping to make proud.

Having a visual reminder of your reason for racing can be a great motivator during the Ironman itself — both in keeping you going through the inevitable rough patches on the bike and in preventing you from doing something dumb like sprinting up Timber Lane hill.  Many athletes have done this by taping a picture of their family or a word they associate with their Ironman journey to their stem or base bar, just so it’s always there in their line of sight to keep them focused on that final goal of Becoming an Ironman.  Others put a picture or the like in their special needs bag on both the bike and run.  For those lucky enough to have family and friends in the area, as most of us do, you might also consider certain parts of the course where you know you’ll be struggling and where you would really love to have your own personal cheering section — even if it’s just one person.  Knowing that someone is waiting for you on one of the lonlier stretches of the course can be a great motivator not only at that location, but also in the few miles before you reach that point because you’ll be anticipating seeing them.

It can also be a big help to talk with your supporters about your Ironman goals, to share with them your motivation for racing and to tell them the special phrases or slogans you’ve told yourself to stay motivated throughout the past year.  Hearing someone else say those words back to you — both prior to Ironman and during the race itself — can both be a great mental boost and also help you stay focused on the task at hand.

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Rules Refresher

Over the course of the season, many of you have had questions regarding the rules that are enforced in Ironman competitions.  There are three categories of rules that you need to be aware of:

1.  No Outside Assistance.  The Ironman was born out of the spirit of the personal challenge in completing the distance unassisted.  For that reason, Ironman athletes are not allowed to receive assistance of any kind from anyone who is not an Ironman official or volunteer.  This is interpreted to include the use of cell phones, iPods, or any other instrument from which you could receive such assistance.  Any competitor who is observed accepting any such assistance — or using any such device — is disqualified on the spot.  Make sure any spectators you might have on the course are aware of this rule so that they don’t inadvertantly try to give you food, clothing, or a push up Old Sauk hill.

2.  No Littering or Abandoned Equipment.  The spirit of Ironman is also about respecting Mother Nature and the communities that support the race.  Intentional littering — even in the form of “abandoned equipment” can either be a penalty or an outright disqualification, depending on the nature of the violation.  This doesn’t include accidentally dropping a water bottle, but it does include intentially discarding a Gu packet or water bottle at a place other than a designated “drop zone” before and after each aid station.  It also includes handing unwanted gear — like a rain jacket or arm warmers — to a spectator, or leaving a discarded tube or CO2 cartridge on the side of the road after changing your tire.  The general rule is, if you started the bike or run with a certain article of clothing or piece of equipment, you’ve got to finish it with that same item.  The only exception is the ability to put things into (and take things out of) your special needs bag located at the half way point of both the bike and run.

3.  Cylcing Penalties.  By far, the most penalties in any Ironman (or any other triathlon) are given out during the bike portion of the race.  North American Sports (the race management company for Ironman) has a flyer describing the various penalties, and they are summarized below as well.  Note that each year, NAS seems to come up with a different strategy for how penalties will be executed.  Right now, it looks like any athlete given a penalty on the bike will be told to report to the next penalty tent on the course (spaced every 15-20 miles), where you will have to sign the penalty register and serve a 4-minute stand-down penalty.  Any combination of 3 penalties is an automatic disqualification.

  • Chin strap / helmet violation.  Any time you’re on your bike — even if it’s just riding to transition before the race — you need to have your helmet on and your chin strap buckled.  This is very strictly enforced, and there’s really no excuse for ever getting a penalty here.
  • Drafting.  You are required to maintain a distance of 7 meters (about 4 bike lengths) behind the rider in front of you.  It is not an excuse that you are staggered (see “blocking” below), or side-by-side so that the drafting effect is minimal.  If you are closer than 7 meters for more than 20 seconds for any reason, it’s a 4-minute stand-down penalty.
  • Failure to Pass.  You must complete any pass of a rider in front of you within 20 seconds from the time you enter his or her draft zone until the time your front wheel is in front of theirs.  When passing larger groups who are illegally drafting, this rule is more loosely interpreted, but it’s still important to maintain the rule’s spirit by passing
  • Failure to Drop.  If you get passed (the passing rider’s front wheel is even with yours), you must drop to a distance of 7 meters behind the passing rider in a reasonable amount of time.  You do not need to hit the brakes or stop pedaling, but you cannot increase your effort to remain in his or her draft zone or otherwise prevent their pass.
  • Blocking.  You are required to ride on the right side of the bike lane at all times except when passing another rider.  Riding on the left without any attempt to pass is interpreted as an attempt to impede other riders.

That may seem like a lot of rules to keep in mind, but if you are riding your own race and don’t concern yourself with what other athletes are doing on the bike, you shouldn’t have any problems staying penalty-free.  Also, you should keep in mind that because the bike course is especially crowded and congested during the first 20 miles or so (since 75% of the athletes are exiting T1 within about 20 minutes of each other), the rules are very loosely enforced until you get onto Hwy G outside of Verona.  Riding in small packs out on the stem is almost unavoidable, so as long as you’re not blatantly trying to draft on that section, you should just ride comfortably without any real concern for being penalized even though there’s a good chance you’ll have no choice but to be riding within 7 meters of the cyclist in front of you.

We will go over these rules again at our seminar prior to Ironman week, and please feel free to contact one of the coaches if you have any questions.

Gear Check

Now is the time when you should be checking over all of your race kit and equipment to make sure that you have everything you need, and that what you do have is going to allow you to perform at your best during the Ironman.  You don’t want to be in a position where you’re picking up new gear during Ironman week without having the opportunity to try it out before race day.

Swim Gear:  Most everyone should be set as far as the swim goes.  The one thing you really want to be confident with for the swim is your goggles.  Because Ironman is a mass, deep-water start, there is inevitable going to be more contact in the early parts of the swim than you’ve experienced in any other triathlon.  That means it’s likely that you’re going to get a few kicks, elbows, or hand-scrapes to the head — that’s just the nature of the Ironman swim.  You’ll be so focused on having a good swim that these won’t really bother you, but you want to make sure that your goggles are well-fitting so that there’s not as great of a chance that they will come off as a result of some of this contact.  One thing you can do that will help minimize this risk is to put your googles un underneath your swim cap — this helps others’ fingers from getting caught under the straps and pulling off your googles.

Bike Gear:  There are only three things that you should have to worry about as far as bike gear goes.  First, make sure you have the right equipment — and the right knowledge — to change a tire if you should get a flat.  There is nothing more frustrating than having to watch dozens of athletes go by while you stand around waiting for the support truck to come by because you don’t have the right tools or know-how to change your own tire.  If you have any questions in this area, ask one of the coaches for help immediately!  Second, you should plan on putting new tires on your bike over Labor Day weekend.  New tires are significantly faster than used tires, and also less prone to structural defects that could result in a flat.  Ideally, you want to have between 50-100 miles on your tires before Ironman — just to make sure they’re not defective.  If you ride about 50 miles over Labor Day weekend and another 25 or 50 during Ironman week, that will be perfect.  Putting new tires on your bike also gives you some extra practice in case you do get a flat out on the course.  Third, for those planning on using the bottles handed out on the course, make sure your bottle cages will hold these smaller-diameter bottles.  Generally, just putting a strip of duct tape or electrical tape across the bottom of the cage will be sufficient to keep the bottles from slipping out, but you may have to experiment with this a little bit just to make sure you don’t lose your nutrition on race day.

Run Gear:  Like the swim, there shouldn’t be much to worry about on the run.  However, you should make sure that you’re completely comfortable with your running shoes, and that they have enough support and cushion to keep your feet in good shape — and blister free — during the run.  Most running shoes tend to break down pretty significantly after around 300 miles, so that means you should be switching out your running shoes about once every 10 weeks if you’re running the mileage associated with our training plan.  If you’re planning on wearing a relatively new pair for Ironman (a pair with about 1-2 weeks of wear on them), make sure that you wear them in the same manner as you plan to use them during Ironman (sockless, or with the same socks, and long enough to have worked up a good sweat so that you can make sure your feet won’t have blister issues).  The staff at Endurance House can make sure you’re squared away.

Ironman Mood Swings

The saying in Wisconsin is that if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes, because it will change.  The same can be true for the roller-coaster of emotions you often go through during an Ironman.  If you don’t like how you’re feeling during an Ironman, wait ten minutes, because it will change.

As you’ve probably discovered by now, racing a triathlon can wreak havoc on your emotions.  On one part of the course, you’re feeling great and the race seems effortless; on another you hit a rough spot and just feel like dropping out.  One of the differences with Ironman racing is that the highs and lows are not only magnified, but also tend to last longer.  It’s a totally natural phenomenon and one that affects experienced pros and novice age-groupers alike.  And the first step to dealing with these mood swings is recognizing that they are inevitable.

Every Ironman competitor has entertained thoughts of quitting at some point during the race.  Every Ironman competitor has also had stretches where they felt indestructible.  The ones who tend to have the most success in the sport are those who can best ignore both of the extremes and try to keep an even emotional keel throughout the entire event.  They never let themselves get too high or too low.  That doesn’t mean that they are immune to those internal voices that say “No one will blame you if you throw in the towel,” or “We’re feeling great, let’s throw down the hammer!”  They just learn not to allow their mind’s mental tricks not to impact their body’s physical performance.

In that way, your emotional approach to racing Ironman is closely related to your physical approach.  Just like you want to maintain a comfortable, even pace throughout each segment of the race, you also want to try to maintain a neutral, even emotional state to the greatest extent possible.  That doesn’t mean you can’t get excited when you exit out of the water or when you see your family as you cruise through Verona or down State Street, and it doesn’t mean that there won’t be places in the race — sometimes 20 minute stretches — where you’ll just want to quit, but you need to recognize that those emotions are not only natural, but temporary, and not to let them affect your overall race strategy.

Remember, there’s nothing you’ll experience on September 7th that you haven’t already experienced to some extent during the last 11 months.  The normal highs and lows associated with endurance training are the same as those you’ll experience while racing.  The only difference is that in an Ironman, your emotional swings tend to be a little more extreme (because you’re already so emotionally invested in the race) and a little more frequent (because there are both more stimuli on race day in the form of other competitors, family, mile markers, race clocks, etc., and because the race as a whole is longer than anything single day you’ve experienced in training).  Just like you made it though all of those workouts despite the tough stretches, you’ll make it to the Ironman finish line as well.  And when you do, that’s when you can all those bottled-up emotions loose! 

And the best part?  Unlike the Wisconsin weather or your race day emotions, the fact that you’ve become an Ironman never changes.

“When it’s easy, ride easy.  And when it’s hard, ride easier.”

During the past two days, we’ve talked about framing our expectations for the race.  The purpose of this post is to help manage those expectations by implementing a smart race strategy.

One of the greatest attributes of any successful Ironman athlete is patience.  Whether you plan on finishing before sunset or not until midnight, it’s a long day.  And it’s a heck of a lot longer if you don’t pace yourself properly.

It’s often said that the real Ironman doesn’t begin until the last 30 miles of the bike.  Given that up until that point, even the top pros have already been racing for nearly 4 hours, that’s a long time to hold yourself back.  Yet that is exactly what’s required to race as well as you are capable of.  Often, this means that you’ll have to let people pass you during the first half of the bike, even though you know you’re just as good — if not better — of a cyclist.  For the whole first one-and-a-half loops, you should feel like you’re going too easy.  You’re not really going easy, of course, but rather just staying well within your aerobic zone (a pace at which it should be easy for you to maintain a casual conversation — with your imaginary racing partner, of course).  Going slower than you think you’re capable of can be frustrating, especially since after our taper, you’ll have fresh, rested legs on race day.  But by taking it easy during the first 80 miles of the bike, you’ll not only have saved your legs for the big hills at the end of the second loop (and the stem back to Madison), but you’ll be able to run a much faster marathon than if you had pushed too hard early on in the bike.  Just as important, you’ll get a huge psychological boost from the fact that you’ll be passing a huge amount of people during the last 2 hours of the bike who went out much too hard and are paying the price just when you’re starting to feel your strongest.

Setting the Bar

Now that we’ve settled the question of whether you’re going to finish, the next issue on your mind is likely to be, but how fast can I finish?  When we began the Becoming an Ironman training program, the vast majority of us had the singular (but not simple) goal of Becoming an Ironman.  But now that we’ve gotten a few good races under our belts and, for many, a “better than expected” half-ironman performance, it’s natural to want to set a time goal above and beyond the midnight cut-off.  In fact, it’s almost impossible not to want to do so, especially after seeing your body, attitude, and overall well-being go through the kinds of transformations that we’ve seen over the past nine months.  However, for those of you doing your first Ironman, you will have a much better Ironman experience if you approach race day without preconceived time goals and simply go out and enjoy the journey.

The reason for this is two-fold.  First, Ironman is a completely different animal from any other triathlon race distance, and therefore it makes it extremely difficult to estimate your “best possible” finish goal if you’ve never done one before.  One general “guesstimate” is to take your half-ironman PR, double it, and add 1 hour, but that is generally only true for a course over the same terrain and with the same weather.  Another slightly more scientific approach is to insert your known times and training distances into this spreadsheet.  But as the spreadsheet states, this is only a rough estimate.

The second and more important reason why you should not put too much weight on your finish time goal is that in attempting to meet the time and pace requirements of your finish time goal, you could easily end up jeopardizing your Ironman finish all together.  Whereas you can gut out an Olympic distance race or even a half-ironman despite poor nutrition and poor pacing, Ironman is not as forgiving.  For that reason, you have to be much more patient and disciplined, and also listen to the signals your body is sending your brain (like “slow down, dummy”).  If you set off on the bike to hit overly-ambitious bike splits at designated mile markers, and if your goal time is even just a little bit too fast, you risk putting your cardiovascular system into a deficit you won’t be able to recover from.  For that reason, a much better strategy is to go out easy and not even start thinking about time goals until the last 30 miles of the bike (the second time through Cross Plains).  At that point, you’ll feel like you can finish strong on the bike (and have the psychological advantage of passing a lot of riders who wish they wouldn’t have gone out so hard) and also know that you’ve set yourself up for a great marathon, which is where you stand to make up (or lose) the most time, anyway.  And if you finish still thinking that you still had a lot left in the tank, there’s always next year!

Yes, You Can Do It!

Each day during the month of August, the Becoming an Ironman Team captains are going to give a “Tip of the Day” covering an aspect of Ironman training and racing that you might be wondering about.  By the end of August, hopefully we’ll have covered every issue, and all you will have to do is put one foot (or one arm) in front of the other and get to that finish line.

Today’s topic is Can I Make It?  The short answer is Yes!  By now, with the training we’ve done you are physically and mentally capable of finishing.  Although it’s good to keep the cut-off times for each event in mind, no one is in jeopardy of missing those cut-offs.  Here are the official cut-off times:

  • Swim Cut-Off:  9:20 am (2:20 after the start – you need to average about 3:15 per 100 yards)
  • Bike Cut-Off:  5:30 pm (8:10 after the swim cut-off – you need to average 13.7 mph on the bike)
  • Run Cut-Off: Midnight (6:30 after the bike cut-off – you need to average just under 15 minutes per mile, which is a brisk walk)

Based on the average speeds you need to maintain to make each cut-off, you really don’t have to stress that you can’t make it, even with mechanical problems on the bike, or your goggles coming off on the swim, or getting a cramp on the run.  You also need to keep in mind that not only will you be more rested at the start of Ironman — and thus more capable of maintaining a higher speed than you can on the “tired” legs that we’ve been training on — but the logistical support throughout the entire course helps increase your average speed significantly over what you can maintain in training due to having to stop to refuel or for stoplights or traffic on the course.  For example, lets say during training, you typically ride the 41-mile IM loop in about 3 hours.  That works out to an average speed of around 13.5 mph.  However, during a typical training loop, you’re going to lose a total of around 4 minutes at stop signs (and other traffic-related causes), and another 5 minutes or so at a refueling or regrouping stop.  Eliminating the need for those sources of lost time alone on a course closed to traffic and with “on the fly” aid stations increases your average speed to 14.4 mph.  So even if you think you might be close to the cut-off times based on your training efforts, chances are you’re going to see a significant increase in your average speed on race day due not only to how you’re feeling physically but also to the fact that you won’t be having to stop at any point during the race.

The bottom line is this:  don’t worry that you’re not in good enough shape to finish.  You are.  And that wouldn’t matter even if the race was this Sunday, and not still five weeks away.  So don’t stress about having to really hammer during the month of August to get into better shape.  That doesn’t mean you should stop training all together, but as long as you’ve been reasonably faithful to the training program, you are going to wake up on September 7th with more than enough fitness to become an Ironman that day.  For that reason, we’re going to focus many of this month’s tips on making sure all of our other ducks are in a row in terms of pacing, nutrition, transitions, etc., as well as addressing some of the mental and emotional challenges every Ironman athlete faces on race day.