training and information

Ironman for mere mortals

This article has been submitted by Mark Cartwright and is copyrighted by him

© 1998 All rights reserved by the author.

OK, let's start off with an honest admission. How often have you read reports or seen TV coverage of an Ironman triathlon and pictured yourself striding triumphantly across that finish line to collect your finishers shirt before collapsing tired but very happy into the arms of your supporters?

An Ironman triathlon is the reason many triathletes came into the sport, something we are all going to do some day, perhaps next year. The only trouble is, like tomorrow, next year is always, well, next year!

The aim of this article is to illustrate, I hope, how completing an Ironman triathlon is, with a little commitment and organisation, within the scope of most triathletes and now is really the time to commit yourself to becoming an Ironman in '99. I can't guarantee the hordes of admiring supporters but I can show you that completing an Ironman isn't necessarily the end of the world.

You're probably already asking yourself "Who the hell is this guy telling me I can do an Ironman. What does he know?" so let me introduce myself. I am a very average mid-pack triathlete with a few years experience who for years dreamed of being an Ironman ever since I first heard the word "triathlon". I achieved that ambition at the '94 Longest Day and, to declare my interest, I am currently (in 1999) the Longest Day's Race Director.

With any luck you are now thinking "Can I do this?"; Well, I would say "probably" and what I'll try to do now is outline some tips and strategies I've come across with The Longest Day.

Your first job, at the risk of sounding too PC, is to talk to your family/partner etc. and explain what you're trying to do. You will need their support so don't alienate them from the word go. OK, that's probably the hardest hurdle out of the way!


You need a cunning plan. To devise this cunning plan (CP) you first need to decide which Ironman race you want to do. Your choice will be limited by variables such as date, climate, severity of the course, finances and the availability of entries. I hope you don't accuse me of bias, but it seems sensible to me to pick a race which doesn't have extreme weather or an extreme course profile and doesn't cost a bomb to get to. Talk to people who've done some of the various Iron races and ask their opinion.

Incidentally, you'll notice that talking to existing Ironman athletes is a common theme in this article - I've never met an Ironman who isn't happy to spend an hour or seven talking triathlon and they are usually pretty easy to spot as most still wear their finishers shirt!

Let's assume that we now know which event we are aiming at. Get your entry organised early, a lot of Iron races fill very quickly and there is nothing more soul destroying than working your b**ls off for a race and not being able to get an entry. It is also a great motivator to have that special date ringed in your diary and stuck on the fridge door.

Probably the most important factor in developing YOUR "get you round" programme is to put other triathletes, read all the articles but use your common sense. I'm not going to try and lay down a typical Ironman schedule as I don't think there is a typical Ironman. Rather, I'll pass on a few of my own observations.

Sit down with a diary and count back from the date of your Ironman debut. This will show how many weeks are available to dedicate to our CP, you really need to be reaching your peak distances biking and running (both for individual sessions and weekly totals) about three or four weeks before the race. Ideally, I would suggest a "stairway" approach, as illustrated in the chart, building to perhaps an 80-mile cycle and a 16-mile run. I don't necessarily see much point in going too far above those distances in training - don't forget our enemies of overtraining and injury - better 10% undertrained than 1% overtrained!

In our experience it's the final eight weeks or so of training that is the real make or break period, really the earlier weeks are preparation for this crunch time.

If I would make one final point about setting up your CP, it is to emphasis that it is YOUR plan. Do have regard to the amount of time you have available for training during the week and at weekends - there is little point in setting a programme you cannot possibly meet and then mentally beating yourself up over your perceived failure to follow your plans. Rob Sleamaker's book Serious Training for Endurance Athletes contains some of the best advice we've seen on setting up a sensible training regime.

Oh, and don't forget to use a training diary; next to your pinch of salt it is the most useful tool you have!

The swim

Ok, 2.4 miles is a long way, there's no getting away from that but remember that in terms of time it is less than 15% of an Ironman and it is the only discipline you'll be starting fresh. Our aim is to get round the swim inside the cutoff time (2.5 hours at the Longest Day) having expended as little energy as possible.

If you aren't already used to open water swimming, take the opportunity to talk to experienced competitors but discount any tales of "rough-house" tactics at the swim start. With 2.4 mile to cover there is no need to get your goggles kicked in the first few yards trying to save a few seconds off your time! Take the opportunity to start slowly in clear water.

Make sure you are warm. A couple of hours floating round in a lake will inevitably get a little cool. If you don't have a wetsuit or don't feel yours is up to scratch beg, borrow but don't steal a better one, you may find similarly sized colleagues will be happy to lend theirs. Terrapin always have some suits available for hire at the Longest Day. Also wear at least a couple of swimcaps - a huge amount of heat is lost through your head.

I would suggest you try to get comfortable with swimming a couple of miles as early in your training programme as possible. Swimming pools tend to be nice and warm during the early months of the year when it isn't always possible to bike or run and swimming is excellent base building aerobic exercise with little risk of injury. As the weather picks up I would suggest that you would be better off dedicating more of your time to biking and then running. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest once you feel happy with your ability to cover 2.4 miles inside the cut-off time, ideally in the first 6 - eight weeks, just keep your hand in with a long swim every couple of weeks.

The bike

It seems to me that the bike is the key stage to completing an Ironman if for no other reason that it's the easiest way to get from the swim to the run. Take the time in your programme to build to a couple of long rides of 80 or so miles. Yes, I know you'll have people telling you to do a couple of century rides but I would contend that you risk injury and burnout. I speak from experience, my only 100+ ride ever was during the '94 Longest Day having never ridden more than 80 miles in my life before.

Comfort is crucial on the bike and although Mark Allen looks pretty cool hammering along in his Speedos and vest take the time to put on tried and tested bike specific gear in transition - again a few minutes aren't going to make any difference. Don't go for an extreme aero position, again it isn't worth a bad back for 112 miles to gain a few minutes from a great aerodynamic position. Think about lifting your handlebar stem a little for extra comfort.

The high-tech go-faster toys are great if you can afford them and if they are reliable. Don't get too intimidated by your lack of a Zoot mega-buck bike and wheels, it's the motor that counts. Over half the bikes in the transition at last years Longest Day were stock and only about 40% had trick wheels. Just make sure your bike is comfortable and reliable.

The biggest problem on the bike is boredom. Spending 6, 7 or 8 hours on a bike is mind numbing. Be aware of this, break the course down mentally into manageable sections "I'll just get to the next aid station", take a Walkman or, like one of our competitors last year, sing (I'm not kidding!!). Probably one of the truest things said to me before my Ironman was "At 80 miles you would do anything to get off your bike, even running a marathon seems a good idea!"

The Ironman Shuffle

Make sure you are comfortable. Again I would recommend clean, dry kit and some new batteries for your Walkman.

For most Ironman finishers the "run" is probably a bit of a misnomer, it's usually more of a jog/shuffle/walk. Each year with the Longest Day we ask competitors to estimate their split times and invariably they underestimate the run splits. Most Ironman finishers will take well over four hours for this stage which by pure marathoning isn't that stellar. But don't despair, remember all we want to do is beat the cut off time.

Let's look at the basic mathematics of doing that. Most Ironman races have a cut-off time of, say, 15.5 hours which coincidentally is the Longest Day's time limit. Now let's assume the swim takes 2h 15m - last year 95% of swimmers in the Longest Day were out by then - and that we can cover the bike course in less than 7h 30m (less than 15 mph). This leave us nearly six hours to do the run - easy!

Each year at the Longest Day we see competitors entering the Cuckoo zone. It's that stage on the run where they have worked out that they could even crawl to the finish and beat the cut off. We call it the Cuckoo zone because of the strange "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" grin people develop when they know their Finishers shirt is guaranteed!

Mind and Body

We get asked what is most important to finish an Ironman. Is it a whizzo bike or mega training mileages?

It's neither. It is your head in terms of staying motivated, planning and refusing to get psyched out by the whole deal and it's your mouth in terms of getting your fuel inside you and asking questions.

The head

An Ironman in '99 is a viable proposition. It will be a huge achievement but I hope I've shown that with some forethought it is feasible. Stay motivated by training with people even if they only do part of your session with you - go out cycling on a Sunday earlier than normal then meet up with the lads for another 40 miles. Be inventive, run to your mothers for Saturday tea - please ignore this option if your mother lives more than 20 miles away!! Keep a training diary, stick the race date on the fridge door but above all visualise yourself in your Finishers shirt.

The mouth

Seek other athletes advice, read as many articles as you can, be like a sponge soaking up information and then take the best bits. Remember your pinch of salt!

Get used to using whatever form of race nutrition the event is supplying. Keep drinking both fluids and energy replacement throughout the bike and run. Set your watch to beep every 15 minutes and drink a good gulp of energy replacement at every beep! Make sure to start the race with two drinks bottles on your bike and slow down at every aid-station to restock but also take something nice to chew on every now and again - even High Five gets a bit boring eventually (sorry boys).

The take home message

Don't put it off any longer. Commit to a race and plan your campaign. You can be an Ironman!

The Longest Day is still the UK's only annual Ironman distance event and takes place in August around Wolverhampton in the West Midlands. The course is perfect for first-timers and PR attempts - very fast and well supported. The Longest Day has been awarded UK Race of the Year for an unequalled four consecutive years.

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