My husband is taking a turn guest blogging for me again, and as someone who has completed a number of triathlons including the Vineman Half Ironman, he knows from experience about the seemingly dauntless task of completing long course triathlon. He has been a valuable resource during my training and preparation for Ironman Boise 70.3, and offers up some of his insights here…
As the old saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant?” Simple. One bite at a time. The same is true for completing a long course triathlon, or any athletic event for that matter. Taken as a whole, 70.3 or 140.6 miles of swimming, biking, and running can seem like an insurmountable task. But when you break down the race, and I don’t just mean break it down into its three main components, that “elephant” becomes a little easier to digest.
I haven’t competed in triathlon for quite some time, but in my experience training for and competing at the Vineman Half Ironman I found that by dividing the race up into a dozen or so mini challenges helped me not only mentally, but physically and emotionally as well. The finish line can seem so far away (in both miles and hours) when you’re standing in the water waiting for the horn to go off and the chaos to begin, but by creating a number of smaller, intermediate “finish lines” throughout the day you might find some extra motivation and a greater sense of accomplishment within the race itself.
Let’s start with the swim.
There’s a reason we are born with lungs and not gills—humans were meant to spend their time on dry land. Which is why for many if not most triathletes, the swim is the most intimidating leg of the race. But it doesn’t have to be. After all, the swim accounts for less than two percent of your total distance for the day (assuming a 70.3 race, which is what I’ll reference from here on out), you benefit from the added buoyancy and resulting speed of a wetsuit, and every other competitor has to complete the exact same distance.
It reminds me a little of the movie Hoosiers, when Gene Hackman takes his team from the small town of Hickory, Indiana, to the state basketball tournament in Indianapolis. The arena they’ll be playing in is enormous compared to the tiny gymnasium they are used to playing in at home. Not unlike the difference between the vastness of an open water swim course compared to the coziness of your local pool. Hackman pulls out a tape measure and has his players measure the dimensions of the court, including the height from the floor to the basket—exactly 10 feet, just like back home. While there are a number of differences between the Hickory gym and the Indianapolis arena, just as there are a number of differences between swimming in a lake and swimming in a pool, the basic principle is the same: the last time I checked, a 1.2 mile open water swim was the exact same distance as a 1.2 mile pool swim.
The point is that when you get to the lake and see just how far away the first buoy is, don’t panic. That first buoy is nothing more than your first finish line of the day. If you swim in a 50m pool, and assuming the course buoys are evenly spaced (often times the first leg might be a little longer than the second and third legs), you’re only about six laps from the first buoy. Piece of cake. Either start to the outside of the pack or let the chaos go before you, and then settle into a groove for the first “six laps.” Before you know it, the first finish line will be in your rear view mirror as you round the buoy and head toward the second buoy and your second finish line. Six more laps, and you’re now through the second finish line, which means only six more laps remain before you exit the swim and give yourself a big pat on the back for reaching the third finish line and completing the swim. That wasn’t so bad after all, was it?
Now on to T-1.
The swim-to-bike transition shouldn’t be much in terms of duration, but it’s one more mini achievement for the day. Hopefully, you’ve practiced your transitions at home and have set up your transition area based on what works best for you. Depending on the transition logistics, exiting the swim and reaching your bike can seem like an eternity but in reality is probably no more than 30 seconds. It’s good to have a mental checklist of what needs to happen before you reach the bike corral, and to play through it in your mind as you’re completing those last few strokes in the water. Goggles up, wetsuit down to your waist, then off with the cap and goggles. Check. Now time to find your bike and put on your shoes, glasses, and helmet. Maybe a quick drink from an extra water bottle at transition, and before you know it you’re off on the bike. Mission accomplished.
Settling in for the bike.
Since you’ll be spending the majority of the race on the bike, it’s good to have a plan and if possible, to drive the course a day or two before the race so you can map out a strategy of when/where to push it, when to recover, and where the hills and descents are. Does the bike course consist of an out-and-back, one big loop, or maybe even multiple laps? Try to identify a few milestones along the course that you can check off the list as you reach them. In the case of Ironman 70.3 Boise, which is Kristen’s race, there are some obvious ones. The first “finish line” on the bike comes just after mile 15 in the form of the first aid station at the bottom of a long, gradual downhill. Aid stations are a great way to break the race into segments, as they are typically pretty evenly spaced on the course and are a good reminder that it’s important to drink plenty of fluids particularly in the early and latter stages of the bike, to rehydrate after the swim and to prepare for the run. Reaching the first aid station should be viewed as the first “finish line” of the bike. The second finish line on the Boise bike course comes around mile 26, where the out-and-back portion of the course doubles back on itself.
At this point, you know you’re no longer heading away from T-2 (generally speaking), and for the next 20 miles you’ll be passing riders heading in the opposite direction which is always a confidence booster to know you’ve already completed the portions of the course they are now tackling.
The third finish line on the bike comes around mile 47, with a left turn onto Warm Springs Avenue that signifies you’re heading down the home stretch. Here, there’s a third and final aid station and it’s a downhill and flat (again, generally speaking) ride into T-2, which should also be a welcome relief.
Depending on your race and course, there might be three or five or even seven little finish lines on your bike leg, but again the idea is to break up the leg into chunks and cross them off of your list one finish line at a time. Regardless of the course, now is the time to celebrate your accomplishment on the bike, take on some fluids and nutrition, go over your T-2 mental checklist, and prepare to transition to the run.
Transitioning to the run.
As with T-1, the bike-to-run transition should be relatively quick but marks another significant milestone. Ditch the bike shoes and helmet in favor of running shoes and a hat, strap on your race belt, take in some fluids, and you’re off onto the run course with another finish line behind you.
Run like you stole something.
It’s easy to hit the run course too hard in the first few adrenaline fueled miles, but it’s much harder to take the first few miles of the run easy. If you’re wearing a Garmin or other monitoring device, make sure you keep your pace and/or heart rate in check early in the run. Personally, I’d rather hit mile nine knowing that I still have plenty of gas in the tank and can push the pace from there, than to reach that point and struggle to try and pick up the pace as my goal time slips slowly away.
In the case of Boise, the two loop relatively flat run course is not only scenic and shaded (which is great for a race that starts at noon and finishes in the heat of the day), the loops also make for great intermediate finish lines. As do the aid stations, and there are usually plenty of those on every run course. Again, depending on your race and course, try to identify a handful of these spots on the course and just focus on leapfrogging your way from one finish line to the next. Before you know it, the only finish line left in front of you will be the one lined with thousands of cheering spectators, friends, and family, and although you may have crossed a dozen or so finish lines in your head throughout the day, the most important one will be staring you in the face. Congratulations!
An elephant no more.
Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu has a famous quote that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” What seemed like a daunting and distant goal hours ago at the swim start is now a reality and a major life accomplishment. Though this journey is much shorter at 70.3 miles, and it begins with a single swim stroke rather than a step, the art of breaking the race down into many small and easily digested “steps” (the finish lines within the race) helps make the impossible possible. And that, in a nutshell, is precisely how you approach eating an elephant.
How do you eat your elephant?