Going Long

Robert Popper

Sorry for the long silence. Been away for a while, getting stuck into my big challenge this year: training for my first ironman triathlon (the Forestman).

For those of you who didn’t know (and if you already knew this, then please allow me to try and impress you once more with the sheer numbers), an ironman triathlon involves 3.8 km (2.4 mi) of swimming, 180 km (112 mi) of cycling, and 42.2 km (26.2 mi) of running, all in one continuous event, with the clock running the whole time.  A guy like me (45 years old, been doing triathlon for about 8 years now, training pretty regularly, but not winning any medals in any races) will do about 75-85 minutes of swimming, about 6-6.5 hours of cycling and 4-4.5 hours or running at the end of it all.  The top guys will routinely finish in under 10 hours, bless ’em. But, I’ll probably be looking at something closer to 13 hours (gotta include time in transition between events, since the clock is always running, and it makes sense to take 10-15 min to dry off and put some clean socks on before you set off for a 6-hour cycle ride, rather than rush through it and be uncomfortable or getting blisters for the next 6 hours). Most courses will have about a 17-hour cut-off point after which they have to clear the course of anyone who hasn’t finished by sun-down.

My race is about 2 weeks away now, so I am officially in the “taper” phase of training, which means I am doing fewer and fewer hours of training each week (at my peak, I was doing about 15-20 hours each week, now I am down to about 10-12 hours a week), so that I get to race day feeling fresh and well-rested. But, at the same time, I am trying to keep the intensity of each session quite high, so that I keep my fitness levels and sharpness high for the day of the race. But, it has also given me more time to step back and reflect on what I have been doing this year, think about the training I have done so far, and what factors have contributed to getting me this far.

Milestones and motivation
Some ups, some downs, and some key milestones along the way. It helps to have some carefully targeted events to measure your progress and keep you motivated along the way, such as:

  • Back in early April, I did a 5k Swimathon for charity, which was an excellent exercise in settling into a good steady pace for 102 minutes of non-stop swimming. And it gave me a lot of confidence to know that I could swim way more than the 3.8k I’d need to swim in an Ironman. Of course, at the Swimathon, I swam next to Dan Bullock, one of Britain’s fastest veteran swimmers, which was simultaneously humbling and inspiring. He finished in about 62 minutes, or 40% faster than I did.
  • A few weeks later, I got offered a last-minute spot in the London Marathon, and I managed to get around in 3 hours and 28 minutes, which I was very pleased with.
  • Lots and lots of long cycle rides with fellow triathlon club members, including one super-gorgeous, super-tough day of about 130 miles trying to keep up with some incredibly fast, ridiculously tall guys 10 and 20 years younger than me.  Again, humbling and inspiring seems to be the theme to my training this year.
  • Joined a relay team to swim across the English Channel to raise money for charity, later on in September. That has given me something to look forward to once the Forestman is over (and lots of people tell me about the post-ironman blues, that anticlimactic feeling that sets in after achieving such a big goal as this).

And, I’ve learned a few valuable lessons along the way, about myself and about some of the people in the triathlon community around me…

  • Given half a chance, your typical triathlete who trains for ironman-distance races, will become obsessed.  I mean, if you are an amateur athlete then trying to find 15-20 hours a week in which to do all your training, you kind of have to be obsessed. It helps that I am a triathlon coach and so some of my training gets done in the course of working. But, family, friends, holidays, working schedules, sleeping routines, meal times, and your favorite TV shows will all end up taking a back seat to this all-consuming passion.  There’s no way to sugar-coat it: I have seen my fair share of marital strife, disappointed friends, and unhappy kids this year and some parts of my life are in worse shape than they were before I started this.  Has it been worth it? Ask me in a few weeks.
  • We also can be very boring companions, we iron-distance triathletes.  There are times that the only people who want to be around me are other triathletes, especially those who are also doing iron-distance training. I typically run out of small talk within 15-20 minutes and eventually resort to ironman-related conversation, pretty much wherever I go, whatever I do.  I have been known to recommend to 20-something fashion models that they eat sports gels and drink sports drinks, instead of resorting to their natural diet of coffee and cigarettes, in order to get through their rigorous schedules.  So “bored incomprehension” is the look I am getting used to seeing a lot more these days.
  • And, when we’re not training, we’re recovering from training, or we’re eating everything in sight, or we’re going to bed early to get ready for the next training session.  So, in the other hours of the day that we’re not training, it still is all about the training.
  • Once you give in to the obsession, get used to the unsociable hours, and accept the fact that all of your friends and family have given up on you, it really isn’t so bad. If you’re lucky enough to find some other people to train with, then you can all motivate each other and commiserate with each other. But, the actual training itself is really not that tough. You will go slower than you would normally go for shorter distance training, and you just have to stick it out for a lot longer. Boredom is probably the toughest part of an 8-hour training ride or a 4-hour training run.
  • You can probably eat anything you want while you are training for iron-distance races, and you will still probably lose weight. Not that you should subsist entirely on ice cream and coke, but you probably will have to consume a huge number of calories to get your body back in balance when you get back from an 8-hour training ride. If you choose to consume 2000 kcal of salad and whole grains, that is great! If you choose to consume 2000 kcal of  burgers, fries and ice cream, then that ain’t so bad, either.
  • It’s worth saying one more time that without the support and camaraderie of my friends at Tri London, I would not have made it through that tough, freezing winter with so many useful hours of training under my belt.  Whatever I do at the race on June 27 will be almost entirely due to the support of people like Kev, Roz, Lance, Guido, Andrew and Stephen, dragging me around Southern England at 6am almost every Saturday, and waiting for me at the end of every hilly climb.

Still feels like a long way to go, and maybe longer still once I sign up to do it all over again next year.

Posted by: Robert

1 Comment

  1. Good luck in the race, especially with the new tires!

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