I have just finished packing my bags and my bike is standing in my living room waiting to be disassembled into a bike box. I am almost ready to leave for South Africa! Before the last few months disappear into a blur and my mind moves on to focus entirely on next Sunday’s race, I thought it would be useful to put down some of the memories from my IRONMAN preparation as they may be helpful to me and other members of Hampstead Triathlon Club in the future. So thank you Dan for giving me some space on the club’s website to do this. I am using a Q&A format to make this more readable; also, given that I am guessing nobody will ever care to interview me about my race (I am unlikely to finish anywhere near the front!), then I have decided I will just interview myself so I get to feel like a real athlete for a few minutes at least.
So why did you decide to do an Ironman?
Of course that is always the first question! I have struggled with this myself. Firstly, I obviously love endurance sports. When I was a teenager, I competed internationally as a cyclist, racing against guys who eventually turned pro and raced (and in some cases, won!), the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. At that age, I never dreamt of ending up spending my days in front of a spreadsheet, and was motivated purely by the passion for competing and pushing myself, for many hours a day and for several days in a row. In the end, I did not race the Tour and here I am investing money for a living – which interestingly I found is very similar to elite level sports, in terms of the necessary mental strength and discipline (and the big amounts of data you have to analyse after sessions!). But the endurance bug that bit me as a teenager has never gone away and, as I discovered triathlon in the last few years, the thought of entering what is known as the “toughest race in sport” was always lingering somewhere in my mind. As I completed Olympic and 70.3 distances in the last two years, I could just not shake off the secret aspiration that at some point I would race “the real thing”. Many friends and family members simply profess disbelief as to why I would want to enter such an extreme challenge given how busy my life is, and I have had to search for the answer myself. In the end, I came to the conclusion that the reason was already provided by the famous British mountaineer George Mallory, who led the first expeditions to Everest (his bio is fascinating and I recommend that everybody read it!). When people asked him in disbelief: “why do you want to climb Mont Everest?” he simply used to reply: “because it is there.” In short, it is human nature, and I can’t help it – bring it on!
How hard was it to get ready?
Make no mistake, it was bloody hard. As I started tapering over the last two weeks, I stopped and checked all the training I have uploaded on Strava since I started preparing for the race in August. In total, I have cycled over 3,600 kilometres, which is longer than last year’s Tour de France; I have run 1,000 kilometres, which is like running from Land’s End to John O’Groat; and I swam over 120 km, which is like swimming the English Channel – 4 times! I trained a total of 315 hours, which is like having completed 26 Ironman races in training (assuming 12 hours per race). All of this, over the winter and while trying not to disrupt family life and work, which has meant several 430am wake up calls on Saturday mornings. Have I trained too much? I am sure some people have finished it on less training than this; but I am also 100% sure that the faster guys who will try to qualify for Kona have likely trained more – much more than me. In the end, what works for one person may not work for another so it is important to get some advice, start from a realistic assessment of one’s initial fitness levels, his goals, and his availability of time. I am now confident that I have addressed my starting weaknesses and I can (slowly) finish the race but, make no mistake, I am pretty sure it will be a long and difficult day – especially because the weather in Port Elizabeth is likely to be hot, and I have trained here in London over the winter.
I found a few things were very helpful over the last few months:
- Hampstead Triathlon Club, of course! When I joined the club a couple of years ago, I could barely swim. The sessions with Richard in Kentish Town on Wednesday mornings have been incredibly helpful, as well as the video sessions with Swimsmooth. At the beginning, I was also completely paralysed with fear about swimming in open water, but the many club sessions we had at Parliament Hill Lido and the West Reservoir have certainly helped me discover a whole new world! I am still a relatively slow swimmer, but I can say I now really enjoy swimming, especially in open waters. Dan’s ability to find cycling Sportives over the winter was also an absolute lifesaver. Last but not least, how can I not mention my chatlap buddies, Shaan, Hannah, Fed, Tashia, Emma, John, among others? Our Thursday 605am sessions, whatever the weather, have become legendary – I still remember several mornings in December and January when everything around us was frozen and we just kept going
- Living in London. Of course, I idiotically chose an April Ironman (that is a story for another time, but involves a friend from Chile I will meet in South Africa), which required training through the British winter. Well I guess people always complain about the weather but I concluded we should consider ourselves extremely fortunate about our city. Firstly, even in the depths of winter the weather is (almost) never too cold or too hot or too rainy to run outside or cycle for up to a couple of hours. Second, we have fantastic infrastructure, with plenty of world-class swimming pools, and also several outdoor heated swimming venues (I have used Oasis and London Fields, for example). Finally, we are just incredibly lucky to have Hampstead Heath and Regents Park on our doorsteps – where I basically met cyclists at any hours of the day and night, whatever the temperature. I learnt there are also plenty of five star hotels within a short run of Regents Park where one can simply walk in and use the toilets when in dire need! I bet you don’t get those in Boulder, Colorado.
- A coach. Following suggestions from my more experienced friend Ashley, whom I consider my personal triathlon guru, I hired a coach who uploaded my sessions weekly on Training Peaks and tracked my progress. This was the best money I have spent. While I have trained for marathons simply following plans from books or the internet, I have learnt that an IRONMAN is a completely different level of endeavour, and people’s strengths and weaknesses are so specific that a one-size-fit-all approach is unlikely to work. In my case I could basically train only until 730am on weekdays and on Saturday mornings; and could not really do many very long outdoor bike rides basically until March due to temperatures, so needed a plan to address those constraints, as any standard plans would not fit my requirements. It was also helpful to have somebody to review my heart rate and power output, and simply chat through issues when they arose.
- Zwift. Given the very few hours of daylight over the winter; and the fact that I have two kids that demand my attention at weekends once the day starts (thinks football and ballet classes, birthday parties, etc) it was obviously very difficult to ride outside. Simply put, without Zwift I would not have been able to prepare for an IRONMAN. The software, paired with a smart turbo trainer, is incredibly realistic and the hours spent racing random strangers simply fly past. I once cycled 70 miles in my living room, before any family member would even wake up.
- Virgin Active. In September, I upgraded my Virgin Active membership so that I could use all of the central London clubs. Most likely, I did use all of them! Before work, after work, in between meetings (and sometimes instead of meetings!), after dropping my kids off at parties, I tried to squeeze in quick swims, Watt Bike & weight sessions, etc. I often swam with my friend and colleague Florent, whose swimming skills are an inspiration to me! That was super helpful, although I wish health clubs and Starbucks shops in London would open – like in Manhattan – at 530am rather than 6am.
What was most difficult?
The most obvious problem is that, of course, on several days, I felt quite tired! I did my best to go to bed early and cut back on the plan when I felt very tired but, at times, it was just impossible: kids get sick, there are problems at work, and of course I had to travel – I had to find ways to run in New York, Mumbai and Riyadh among others! It is amazing how Central Park gets busy with runners at 530am in December!
The other issue is that, interestingly, doing an Ironman tends to polarise the people you come in contact with. When I trained for marathons before, people would typically comment things like “ah yes nice! Well done!” and generally move on to the next topic. Somehow an IRONMAN elicits different reactions, a mixture of admiration and condemnation, but rarely neutrality. Generally, the further away the people from you, the more likely they will feel admiration, and vice versa. For example I work on a trading floor, and over time more and more colleagues have started stopping to ask me how my training is going and even ask for suggestions on their nutrition and fitness regimes! On the other hand other people I met would simply judge such an attempt “crazy” as they just cannot comprehend the need for such a challenge – what else do you need in life after a nice job, a family, a car and a movie on Saturday night? And close family members have become more likely “worriers” than supporters: my dad recently asked me “how is your little knee pain? I hope it gets worse so you don’t get to do your crazy race!” My wife told me she felt I was “losing myself” with all the training I was doing. My sisters simply branded me “an idiot” for trying. The thing is, it is important to keep in mind that the road to becoming an IRONMAN is not just lined with people clapping you all the way to the finish line. The people who love you are certainly likely to worry more than be excited. In a way, the whole endeavour challenges some social conventions to the point that you need to develop lots of mental – on top of physical – strength as some of the negative talk you get sticks to your mind and obviously pops up when you are having a bad training session or feel particularly tired, for example.
Will you do it again?
Ask me after the race, not now! Seriously, the last 6 months have been a fantastic period and I have learnt a lot about myself. I love the fact that all the training has rubbed off my kids and my 7 year old now has his own Strava account, routinely rides on Zwift, and now wants a Garmin watch for his birthday! I definitely look forward to next Sunday as one of my most memorable days ever, and I hope nothing goes wrong. I will definitely want to do a full IRONMAN again, but maybe I will wait until the kids are a older and my life is slightly easier before I try again. Meanwhile, I plan to focus on 70.3 races and, of course, continue to have fun with all my HTC friends!