Friday, September 22, 2006

Why Am I Doing an Ironman?

This is a question that will undoubtedly come up sometime during everyone's ironman race and I remember Paula Newby-Fraser telling us at the IMFL Training Camp that we had better be able to answer it. There is no right or wrong. All that matters is that you have an answer.

Well, I certainly can't say that an ironman something that I've been working towards for a long time. With less than a year of training and only two tris completed to date, I know I haven't paid my dues to the sport. OTOH, it's not like I just got off a couch one day and decided I'd like to do an ironman. Training 15-25 hours a week for physically and mentally grueling endurance events is nothing new to me. I'd seen IMFL 2004 and 2005 in person and knew pretty much what to expect.

The truth of the matter is I chose to do an ironman because I know I LOVE doing activities at an (easy) aerobic pace for very long periods of time. Though I had no significant swimming experience since I was a small child, deep down, I WANTED something to motivate me to become a strong swimmer, not necessarily fast but able to go long. I WANTED to go on long bike rides with my husband who loves cycling and had done centuries. I WANTED to keep running marathons and also do more triathlons. To me, training for an ironman seemed logical.

So being that IMFL 2006 is a few days before my 45th birthday, I've made it my 45th birthday present to myself. It's a chance to celebrate my health and be thankful for all the things I can do. It's NOT a test of my limits but rather a test to see how far I've come. Whatever the race day brings, I will do my best. I have never felt completely ready for any karate test I've taken because each one could vary so much from a previous test. So it is with ironman.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Yellow Belt

If there were a belt ranking system in triathlons, I would say that I am now a Yellow Belt. That is, I've learned and had a chance to practice, not master, most of the basic triathlon skills.

In May 2006, I completed my second triathlon, a half ironman. The conditions were relatively good (calm water, low wind) except for 90+ degree temperatures late in the race and the fact that I was ill on race day. My only real goal was to finish, which I did in 6:39:51, though it wasn't pretty (I was coming down with the flu during race week, unable to carbo load properly or eat/drink much during the bike, hit the wall early on during the run). Like my Yellow Belt karate test, it gave me some confidence in my abilities but it also humbled me, revealing many areas that needed much further work, not to mention my inexperience.

So now I'm in my second phase of ironman training and things are much more serious. Unlike a half ironman, an ironman is significantly longer than any other event I've ever done before. I cannot rely simply on my endurance and determination to get through it.

No. I've gone back to working on some fundamentals, spending more time on my swimming and cycling form to hopefully become more efficient at doing both. I'm only running 25-30 MPW now (quite low compared to when I'm training for marathons) and doing short, relatively easy "transition runs" after my long bike rides as opposed to bricks which usually involve much harder effort running after riding. I'm also continuing to work on refining my race day nutrition plan.

I have 6.5 weeks left until IMFL ...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Ironman Florida Training Camp

What a great weekend! I can't articulate all the benefits I got from training on the actual Ironman Florida (IMFL) race course, mingling with others who are doing the race, and receiving personal coaching from some experts in the sport (Paula Newby-Fraser, Paul Huddle, Roch Frey, Jimmy Riccitello and others). I will try though to pass on the main points I took home from the camp. They may be nothing new to ironman veterans but perhaps they will help others newbies like myself.

  • The hard part about ironman triathlons is mastering the nutrition and mental aspects of the race. The physical training requirements are relatively straight forward. Ironman workouts and guidelines for tapering can be found in various sources (samples given). It is better to be 10% under-trained than 1% over-trained. Those who focus only on swimming, biking and running will find themselves unprepared for ironman.

  • You need to have a well-defined nutrition plan that is an integral part of your race plan. Nutrition needs are highly individual but as a starting point, an average a 150# male can absorb in the neighborhood of 250-275 cal/hr (scale down/up if you are smaller/bigger). Many are able to train their body to absorb more calories but beware of the fine line between consuming too much and consuming too little. In order to fuel and hydrate yourself properly, you need to know your fluid loss and calorie absorbancy rates and also what form (liquid, solid, gel) and specific types of fuel will work for you. These will vary according to weather conditions, level of exertion and the activity. Take in some nutrition (75-150 cal) after the swim ASAP; this may be shortly after getting on the bike if you've ingested much water during the swim. If feeling nauseous, do not try to suppress vomiting; better to go ahead and try to get back on track. Absorption while running tends to be only 50% of that while cycling so strive to consume the majority of calories in the first 3/4 of the bike and in small, steady increments (say, every 15-20 minutes). Consider trying CarboPro, a tasteless powder that can be mixed with water to provide a large number of calories in liquid form. Loss of salt due to sweat can be substantial for some athletes, ranging from 1 gm/hr to 4-5 gm/hr, and some may find the need to take salt supplements in addition to consuming sports drinks and foods containing salt. Experiment and practice during your training but be prepared to make changes on race day in case your tried-and-true favorites don't work. Put extra types of food/drink in your special needs bag and make salt tablets available to you in the transitions, on your bike and during your run (not provided at aid stations).

  • You need to know how to stay "within yourself" during a race. Regardless of Mother Nature or what others do, you need to find and maintain your own pace. Practice keeping your mind focused and occupied for long periods of time ALONE (Mile XX ... How am I feeling? How much have I eaten? Is it time for me to eat? When's the last time I drank? Am I breathing easy? How is my form? Etc.) If you always train with a group, train long by yourself occasionally so you know what it's like. If you usually listen to MP3 players while training, start leaving them at home (they're not allowed during a race). During ironman, you will likely have to fight off anxiety before/early in the race and other various demons later in your race. The key to overcoming them is letting go of your expectations and just doing the best you can under the conditions the day presents.

  • Give up 15 minutes on the bike and gain up to 45 minutes on the run. Many athletes, particularly those who consider cycling to be their strongest sport, ride too fast and then pay for it dearly during the run. Not only do they begin running on more tired legs, they rob themselves of the opportunity to fuel/hydrate more effectively before the run. The bike segment should feel easy throughout. A good strategy is to start out 1-2 mph slower than your goal pace and then hit your goal pace in the second half.

  • Do not let weather be an excuse, especially cold weather. Too much time/money has been invested not to consider simply packing extra things in one's T-bag or special needs bags. Don't fixate on having to wear a specific race outfit. Arm warmers during a cold, wet race day are virtually useless; wear a shell instead. A large plastic garbage bag worn over your running gear is a great way to stay warm/dry and easily discarded if not needed later. Check the forecast but be prepared for worse.

  • The IMFL course can be deceptively difficult. The water temperature is usually between 75-78 degrees so wetsuits are usually allowed, but the swim is in open ocean (Gulf of Mexico) so surf and currents can be an issue, and minor jellyfish stings are not uncommon. The bike course is very flat, except for a causeway early/late in the course, and pretty boring after turning inland from the beach. Get used to riding in the aero-position (if available) and pedaling at constant effort for very long stretches. There is about a 10-mile stretch of rough road around mile 90 that will require extra focus. A headwind on the final stretch back to T2 is common as are flat tires within first and last 6-7 miles due to all the construction zones. The double loop run course is also very flat and very tedious, winding through quiet residential areas and a state park. Spectator support can be sparse except at aid stations, the start/finish/halfway and turnaround points. Make sure to pick up your feet when going over the residential area speed humps.

More details about the training camp can be found at http://www.multisports.com/camp_im_fla.shtml, if interested. There are weekend camps for IM Arizona, IM Coeur d'Alene, IM USA-Lake Placid, IM Wisconsin as well as other non-race-specific camps. IMO, the camp was well worth the time and money.

White Belt

In triathlons, I'm a beginner. My marathoning and martial arts (MA) background help me with the physical and mental side of training but they do NOT make me a triathlete. A triathlete needs to be able to swim, bike and THEN run. An ironman triathlete needs to be able to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and THEN run a full marathon (26.2 miles). What good am I if I cannot do the first two?

I remember the times when new students who had earned black belts from other schools joined our dojo. They were given a choice: stand in the front wearing their black belt or stand in the back with the other white belts wearing a new white belt. The best new students were usually the ones who traded their hard-earned black belts for a new white belt.

So around the start of 2006, I emptied my cup. I took swimming lessons, bought a tri bike and began my ironman training in earnest. Swimming has been very difficult for me, but at least I no longer worry as much about drowning. Cycling has been easier, except I sometimes fall because I can't snap my bike shoes out of the pedals, but at least I'm no longer terrified of riding on the roads with cars whizzing by me.

The training has been pretty challenging so far but I've been able to apply many of the same principles I learned from my MA training (courage, perseverance, balance, patience, respect, indomitable spirit, etc.). Indeed, it seems that this road is very similar to the one I was on 9 years ago when I was a White Belt.