Not all heroes wear capes - and not all Ironman finishers cross the line.
The allure of finishing an Ironman is something felt by many athletes in the endurance community. Even if triathlon is not your exercise habit of choice (any other water averse mammals out there?), the respect given to those sweaty, spandex-clad sojourners is universal among athletes. It’s a very small percentage of the population that wants to run a marathon, and an even smaller percentage that wants to START their marathon at 4:00 in the afternoon after they’ve already been exercising for 8 hours.
Finishing an Ironman isn’t for everyone. The toll it takes on your body, your mind, your family, and your work cannot be understated. It’s a big commitment and totally unnecessary. You can have a perfectly happy, successful, fulfilling life without Ironman. So, why do it? Because, for many people, there is some part of them that wants a really big challenge. For those that haven’t done one yet, the question nags- “can I actually finish an Ironman?” It’s the same reason I did a marathon at 16 years old. I knew I could finish a half marathon. But I wasn’t totally sure I could finish a 26.2 mile run, and there was some part of me that needed to find out if I could.
Evan Landez is on a mission to find that out for himself.
Like the majority of triathletes following a training plan or preparing for a race this spring, Evan got the news a week ago that Ironman St. George was postponed until the fall. Many athletes have gotten that email in the last few weeks, just as their fitness was starting to peak and they were completing their last big sessions. It’s a cruel blow for someone that has already devoted so much of their time, energy, and resources for this big day. Yes, there are far greater world issues at stake here and the decision to postpone these events is 100% the right call. Sport is just sport. It’s a hobby for most of us. But it’s a hobby that we care deeply about and it sucks when the opportunity to race is ripped away.
I’ve known Evan for five years now, ever since he walked on to the UTSA Triathlon Team as a cheeky freshman. Like many triathletes, Evan came from a single-sport background. In this case, it was running, so the swim would be his green ogre to overcome.
As head triathlon coach for the UTSA Multisport Club, I write their annual training plan, oversee their workouts, lead weekly practices for them, attend a select number of races, and organize a team training camp every year. It sounds pretty organized, and to some extent it is, but the reality is that this collegiate club is a totally voluntary endeavor. None of these kids HAVE to show up to practice. They don’t HAVE to follow the training plan. They can do whatever they want. I actually have fairly limited control over their triathlon training as they are also at the age where they are exploring things for themselves, testing and trying what works for them, what they like, and what they want.
I watched this struggle with Evan for a few years. Once he started, he was always very consistent. But he’d do extra stuff on his own. He’d run harder than he should sometimes, not bike hard enough, or do certain sessions because he “felt” like it. It’s the same mistake many athletes make. They want a good “workout” every time they go exercise so their easy isn’t easy enough and their hard isn’t hard enough. It’s a lot of "gray zone" training and it works for a while, but eventually you just end up tired and underperforming at races.
After one disappointing year at Collegiate Nationals, I talked to Evan on the way home and told him I was going to write him a custom training plan for the summer. The one rule? He wasn’t allowed to run harder than about 80% of threshold HR, or faster than 8:00 pace for 8 weeks. Period. Regardless of whether he felt good or not. It’s what every driven athlete hates to hear and I could tell he wasn’t excited about it. But he did it.
Over the next few years, I watched Evan slowly figure out how to train for a triathlon. He was trying to juggle a full academic load (4.0 GPA), working part-time, and training. It was a full schedule but just the kind of schedule made for a triathlete. It culminated in the spring of 2019 with his fourth trip to Collegiate Nationals where he raced all three races: the draft-legal sprint, Olympic distance, and mixed-team relay. He had his best performance ever at Nationals and PR’d his Olympic distance time.
If you’re a collegiate triathlete who graduates, the next logical step (other than getting a job) is to finish an Ironman. A half distance race is the normal stepping stone, so Evan raced the Ironman 70.3 Waco in October of 2019. The first time racing over four hours can often be a big learning experience, and I’m sure Evan learned a lot, but overall his performance was just what you want from a long-distance triathlon - consistent. He broke 6 hours by a good margin and placed 7th in his age category.
Next up was going to be Ironman St. George on May 2nd. He would be competing along with some of his UTSA teammates. I watched Evan slowly and intelligently build up his mileage all spring. His long rides steadily got longer. His long runs also got longer and he was able to run a consistent pace. One of the things I like to look at as a coach is not just the average pace an athlete runs, but did they run as fast (or faster) at the end as they did at the beginning? I prefer most long runs to have a slight progression within them, because it shows good pace control. Most of Evan’s runs were… consistent. Just what you want.
He was fit and ready. Just a few more big weekends to go. He needed a couple of 100-mile bike rides and 20-mile runs and then he’d be set. Except, Corona.
Evan won’t be finishing an Ironman this year. He’s deferred to Louisville 2021 where I know he’ll cross the line. But here’s the thing: after reflecting on his progression over the years, watching him ride 85 miles on the indoor trainer, then run 20 miles two days later, I realized that Evan already IS an Ironman.
Ironman isn’t just about finishing a set distance of 140.6 miles under an arbitrary 17 hour cut-off window. Being an Ironman is a daily commitment to excellence. It’s a desire to push your body, to test the unknown of your capabilities, to suffer faster than you ever have before. This world is full of Ironman athletes, whether they’re training for a WTC event or not. Justin Mckenzie is an Ironman. He finished Ironman Boulder in 2018, 32 SECONDS over the cut-off time. He’s listed in the results as a DNF but he’s an Ironman in my books.
All the moms and dads trying to juggle a full-time job while homeschooling their kids right now? Yeah, they’re Ironmen. Doctors, nurses, our local San Antonio Mayor who must be working all hours of the day and night right now? Ironman.
And Evan? Unlike Mckenzie, Evan didn’t even start his race. He hasn't even technically done the distance. But you know what? That’s not the point. He trained as hard as he could. He prepared the way he knows how and he is ready.
Whether he gets to race or not, if you ask me, Evan- YOU ARE AN IRONMAN.
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