What it’s really like to do an Ironman

One thing about an Ironman: It’s profoundly terrifying. Another thing about an Ironman: it’s very long and takes ages, this fright spans more than 140 miles that can last up to 17 hours. And the last thing that doesn’t make much sense even to me: It was one of the happiest experiences of my life.

The path to the Ironman probably began four years ago, in the summer of 2019, when I decided to do a sprint triathlon with two weeks of training. I enjoyed it so much that a few months later I ran a marathon with seven weeks of training. It was beginning to dawn on me that I actually quite enjoy doing these things, but that it might be nice to really prepare for it.

Then a few months later came the pandemic and lockdown. Being stuck in one place made me realize how much I really loved to exercise, and I spent those early days of the pandemic exercising. Something about those first forays into endurance sports stuck with me, and I’d run another marathon and become obsessed with cycling in the meantime. And so I decided to prepare for what is probably the biggest long-distance event there is: the Ironman.

An Ironman is a very different beast than the previous events I’ve competed in: The bike ride is nine times longer than a sprint triathlon, and you don’t run a marathon until you’ve swum 2.4 miles and run 180 miles are. I have decided to train for it in a completely different way – namely through training.

And so, eight and a half months of training began with 300 hours of swimming, cycling and running, covering 3,500 miles. It was a long trek of early morning bike rides, runs in the cold and dark of winter, and tedious walks to and from the pools. And I loved it.

The last day came in July in Bolton, which I chose because it was relatively close and meant avoiding air travel. What I didn’t realize was that the event I had come to was an infamous Ironman that had a reputation for being particularly difficult (even for an Ironman that’s reputed to be one of the toughest one-day sporting events in existence ). The day was marked by driving rain and fatigue – but the tireless kindness of the people of Bolton and the support of friends and family meant nothing ever hurt too much.

I was deeply touched by the fact that someone was standing on top of a hill wearing very little clothing just to cheer on some strangers

(Nigel Roddis, Getty Images for IRONMAN)

About 14.5 hours after diving into a cold lake in Greater Manchester, terrified I wouldn’t be able to swim, I fished myself out of the water and jumped on a bike as I was being buffeted by the wind on the top of the Lancashire Moors and then did what was supposed to be a “run” (but ended up more like a trot), it was all over. A man read my name and said the four words every triathlete supposedly wanted to hear: “You’re an Ironman.”

Everyone’s talking about how great that finish line feels. And it does. But at least in the beginning it’s more of a very deep relief than anything like joy. I wish I could tell you that in that moment I understood a great wisdom; that the suffering had brought new knowledge with it. But I was almost too tired to think, let alone think deeply. “Now it’s time to stop running,” I tell myself, using up all the energy I have left in my brain. I’m wrapped in foil and given a slice of pizza that I mindlessly chew and then hobble into the arms of my partner and family.

It’s tempting to be disappointed that the finish line didn’t bring a big revelation. But then I realize I’ve already been blessed with it. The training and the insight it brings are very similar: they don’t happen all at once, but almost imperceptibly slowly, one percent at a time, like water cutting through stone.

I could be in there somewhere, having a little panic attack, convinced I dragged all my loved ones all the way to Bolton to watch me fall at the first hurdle

(Huw Fairclough for IRONMAN)

During that training period of swimming, riding, and running, each day was a small change—too small to even notice. This was happening in my body, which was gradually getting fitter. But it also happened in my head, which gradually grew stronger as well.

Some of the things I realized were physical and niche. My knowledge of electrolytes, calorie burn, energy systems, and triathlon gear is more detailed than I ever thought possible. But a lot more of what I learned through the process of an Ironman were things that sound mundane until you really have to understand them.

Ironman had taught me to trust myself like a friend: when my mind thought about what I was doing, it would panic. But I learned that it was completely separate from the actual parts of my body and brain that would do the thing and that I should just put in the work and let it take care of itself.

I realized that difficult challenges are often just things you are not ready for and all you can do to deal with them is try to prepare as best you can. I have learned that my family and friends are remarkably tolerant of me causing unnecessary suffering to them and myself; I realized how grateful I am that this is the case. And I’ve learned that fighting is often a blessing: as difficult as the Ironman and its training was, being able to work that hard is a joy.

The truth is, crossing that finish line didn’t teach me anything. But getting there changed everything.


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