How many Ironmans are too many?

August 17, 2000 (

Seems to be a lot of Ironman distance racing going on these days and I'm all for it. Racing hard and long -- and not on someone's wheel -- is what this sport is about. People are better prepared, too, because you have to qualify to get into many of them. The average guy’s perception of what finish-time is attainable has changed as well. With so many people finishing in a reasonable time it’s not surprising to see more people expecting, and then extracting, a bit more from themselves.

Race experience certainly helps when picking a time to shoot for. What that experience should be teaching people (in my humble opinion) is that you don't need -- and shouldn't want -- to do too many of these things. How many Ironman races are enough? When does the fear of the distance and the pain start to diminish? All of a sudden it seems there's a race to see how many of these you can do in a year, or in a lifetime.

There seems to be less of an awe of a race, and a distance, in which you are going to smash yourself and take weeks to recover. It seems to me that for some, at least, the Ironman distance is less a race for which there has been great anticipation than a long day out with kindred spirits. I did the Hawaii Ironman in '98 with the stated goal that I wanted to enjoy it for a change. I wanted to enjoy the whole week -- look around, eat and drink with friends -- and I did. After three Kona finishes, and 3 DNFs, I felt I needed to have a more positive experience. I hardly prepared for it and was very casual about the details I usually think about for weeks.

Afterwards, and ever since, I have been glad to have that experience because I was missing out on something by always going there for my peak performance. Now that I've had that experience I know that if I ever do another one I'll be going to race again. I'll be going all out and hoping to come as close to a heart attack as I can without actually having one. The challenge of the distance has been met.

Just this past week-end about 1,000 people took on the EmbrunMan in France. I did the race once in around 10:30, and still consider it one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. The swim sets off in the pitch black and you follow a canoe with a big torch on the back. The bike ride is actually 188km (an Ironman is 180km) and contains 11,330 ft. of climbing, including an ascent of the Col d’Izoard, which tops out at 8,500 ft. It’s a toughie in anyone's book.

Preparing for it in Boulder that summer I set new records for all the climbs I usually do. I was climbing with purpose. After the race I had such a sense of accomplishment I felt like I could never do it again. It felt so special that I just wanted to remember it just like it was at that moment.

The following week I was at Ironman Canada -- DNFing -- and wondering what in the hell I was doing there. Had I lost my mind?! It wasn't so much that I was physically wrecked -- I was -- but mostly that I hadn't any time to get "up" again. I was emotionally flatter than a pancake. I never developed the anticipation for that particular Ironman in the first place, since it was too close to Embrun. I'm sure doing even two or three Ironmans in a year has that affect for many people.

I often have long days out with friends training nowadays. The majority of what I enjoy about being a triathlete comes from these workouts. Many have an element of adventure and challenge, but usually they are just steps along the way. For many years I couldn't distinguish whether I raced to justify spending so much time training like this, or whether I trained so much to attain my best in races. Now I'm pretty sure its 50/50!

I'm also a creature who thrives on delayed gratification. I love the long build-up. Even if I know the result might be anticlimactic I operate best, day-to-day, when I know I'm working toward something big in the distance. Racing too many Ironmans takes a bit away from that process. Not a lot, but just taints it enough to rub some of the shine off. Even though I've been quite depressed about my DNF's there, and about not having achieved my goals at times, I always learned something from all of my Ironman attempts, especially the build-ups to them. Its exactly because of my high expectations that arose each day knowing that day was a part of attempting something courageous. That generates an energy from which I can feed.

Even now I always need some type of event to get me going and I try to vary the events to keep me on edge. Now I can understand why so many folks are taking up the challenge of adventure racing. Many who’ve done a lot of Ironman races are looking for another challenge. I coach some athletes who've done more than a few Ironmans and are looking for ways to reach a new level. One of the things I find most effective is to take a break from them for a while. If you do I'll bet you come back to them with renewed enthusiasm.