Why I Waited 15 Years to do an Ironman

July 19, 2017

I did my first triathlon in 2002 when I was just 12 years old. I remember many details of that first race distinctly, but what I remember most was how in love with the sport I fell that day. From that moment on I was a triathlete and I threw myself into the sport with the same fervor I threw myself at a large pepperoni pizza after a 100 mile bike ride. I read every article of Triathlete Magazine, scrolled through endless Slowtwitch forums online, and sat in front of the computer watching hours of grainy coverage of the Kona Ironman every October. Ironman WAS triathlon to me. I couldn't wait until the day I turned 18 so I could sign up for one. I became a student of the sport, reading every book I could find (there aren't many now and there were even less then) on triathlon. I found old videos on youtube of Julie Moss, the IronWar of 1989, and the inspirational Dick and Ricky Hoyt. As my passion for the sport of triathlon grew so did my burning desire to do longer and longer races. I wanted to test the limits of what my body could do and find what was there deep within myself.

 

By the time I was in high school I considered myself a pretty good "up and coming" local triathlete in Dallas, Tx. I usually won my age group or placed 2nd at local races. I could place top 10 or 20 overall in a sprint triathlon and had done my first Olympic distance race. In 2006 I traveled out to Connecticut for the USAT Junior Elite National Championships. Junior Nationals is a draft-legal race designed to give young American triathletes the experience of racing in a draft-legal format that is the same as the Olympic games. It was, and still is, the most  competitive junior race in the country. I may have beat one or two people at that race but I was basically last and nearly got caught by the top junior girls who started 5 minutes after me. I was totally blown away by the intensity of that style of racing. Even for a sprint distance race, I was used to pacing myself and trying to meter out my effort correctly throughout the duration of the event. Not so at Nationals! The race plan for these kids was basically- sprint the swim, sprint T1, attack the bike, blast T2, and sprint the run. It was a humbling experience and showed me that I desperately needed some sort of guidance or direction if I ever wanted to go anywhere in the sport.

 

The next summer, I traveled to San Antonio for the first time to attend a Junior triathlon camp. After that week I started working with the camp director, Shelly O'Brien, as my coach. She totally revolutionized my training and my perspective of the sport. That year, I finished in the 30's at Junior Nationals. The next year, in 2008, after one full year of working with Shelly, I finished top 10 at Junior Nationals AND the Age Group Sprint World Championships in Vancouver, Canada. Shelly taught me the importance of intensity in training and that race results weren't about putting in big weekly numbers. Her training sessions were intense, too intense at times, but it taught me to take my easy days REALLY easy. I fell in love with short-course racing, the super high heart rate, the attacks and counter-surges, the tactics and lack of room for mistakes. There's a scintillating mental component to the split-second decision making required in a tactical race that is much more mentally stimulating than staring at your hands for 5 hours could ever be. You can also race a lot more frequently which is great if you love racing! I realized that the best athletes (in the long run) weren't the ones who started out racing long-course at a young age, it was the ones who learned how to go really fast at a young age, then moved up to longer, slower racing as they got older. It's easy to slow down and go for longer, it's much harder to get fast. The idea of doing an Ironman was very much put on the back burner.

 

When I took my pro card in 2012 the next logical step was to start racing the Ironman 70.3 circuit. I did try ONE professional ITU race and quickly got lapped out on the bike because of my lack of swimming prowess. In a 70.3, the swim is a much shorter percentage of the race and the range of swimming talent much wider so I found that I could come out in a 2nd or 3rd pack in most 70.3 races. But man, did those races seem long! I never really got to the point where I felt like I was racing a half ironman distance event; I just felt like I was trying to slow down less than other people were slowing down. My favorite times while racing pro were traveling around to local events in Texas and Arkansas racing sprints and Olympics for $300-$1500 of prize money on a given weekend. That stuff was fast, painful, and FUN.

 

 

When I "retired" from racing pro at the end of 2015, my desire to do an Ironman continued to wane. I had always told people that I'd do one when I was 30 but at 27 years old that didn't seem too far away so I was bumping it up to 35. I used to laugh when people would ask me if I had done an Ironman, or better yet, if I had done a "real" triathlon. It almost became a point of pride to me. I'd raced nearly 200 triathlons all over the world and NO, I hadn't done an Ironman. I love the sport of triathlon, I make my living from the sport of triathlon, I've been a triathlete for over half my life, but I didn't need to do an Ironman to feel like a real triathlete. At this time last year I would probably have told you that I'd do one at some point in my life, maybe in my 40's, but had pretty much zero desire to do one anytime soon.

 

So what changed? I'm signed up for my first Ironman in less than six weeks so obviously something happened. Mostly it was that an athlete I'm coaching for Coeur D'Alene kept pestering me relentlessly until I finally broke down. If he would only put as much energy into his training as he does convincing people to sign up for the Ironman, then this guy would be a world champion! Anyways, it worked and I've got a plane ticket so I'm all in. If signing up for an Ironman doesn't scare you back into some consistent training, then I don't know what will. The last few weeks have seen me doing some of my longest rides and runs I've ever done. I've got to admit, it's been kind of fun having a new challenge that intimidates me a little bit but also excites me and motivates me to do some hard training again. Initially, I was mostly scared and dreading the thought of exercising for 140.6 miles in one day. I'm still scared but now I'm actually pretty pumped up about it. 

 

More than anything, I think the last 15 years of training and racing has taught me that a race is just that- it's a race. Whether it's an Ironman, a 5k, a time trial, or a 100m dash, it's something we do because we choose to and we want to; it's a privilege. Racing is hard and that's the way it should be. I definitely don't underestimate the difficulty of doing an Ironman. I'm going in with the primary goal of making sure I cross that finish line come hell, high water, or fire ants. I don't know if I'll do another Ironman after August 27 but regardless, at least I'll be able to call myself a real triathlete.

Follow my training on strava | mark@paragontraining.org  |  HUUB  |  First Endurance  |  State Wheels | On

 

 

 

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