More Lessons From IM Training: Why Suffer Alone?

I’m currently in the midst of that phase of IRONMAN training where everything hurts, I’m dying, and I never want to see my bike again. In other words, we’re just about right on schedule for the end of a build and about to hit into taper time.

In my last installment on this, I talked about how much time I was spending training indoors. And I still am — my long ride earlier this week was finally checking Zwift’s Uber Pretzel off the route list. I do not recommend doing that as a route, ever. Rolling through four hours of riding and then getting to hit the Alp, and making a novel attempt at trying to climb it in under an hour, is a surefire way to hate everything when you’re done. But it’s also a good way to simulate the final push that the Lake Placid course requires, coming up from Wilmington on a steady climb (and almost always guaranteed to be into the wind).

The thing that made that particular ride so challenging, by comparison to some of the other long rides I have done, was simple — I was on my own for nearly the entirety of the ride. Because the Uber Pretzel features two of the most challenging climbs that Watopia has to offer (the Epic KOM / Radio Tower combination and the Alp), those roads are nearly empty in-game these days with Watopia’s ever-growing expansion. To be honest, I got bored having people minutes up or behind on the road. I got lucky in hours four and five of the ride, finding some wheels to chase through some of the flats, and then having a similarly matched rider to head up the Alp with. (Well, until I exploded.)

It made me miss some of my favorite training sessions I’ve done in prior IM builds. The weekly Tuesday Night World Championship rides; the early morning Masters swim workouts; the progression long runs with friends; the Six Gaps long ride during COVID (where the photos in this article come from). In other words — things that I’ve done with others that were challenging, but not impossible.

That long ride stood in stark contrast of the ride I’d done just the week before — a split ride of 100 miles where I started on Zwift, then rode over to ride check-in at the mid-station for B2VT (a 142 mile ride from just outside Boston to Stratton Mountain in Vermont) in my hometown, and then rode the remainder of the way to Vermont. It started picking up a Zwift event, pedaling along for 90 minutes with a dozen or so virtual friends in a pack. Then I hopped aboard my OBED GVR, taking the hilliest way I knew to get to the local fire station and pick up my packet.

After dropping off my gear bag and topping off bottles, it was time to wait for some of the riders doing the full course to arrive. Eventually, growing tired of waiting, I set off through my town. I knew the first 30 or so miles of the course by heart, as they are roads I’ve used for IM training before (including my 112 mile point to point ride up to Fit Werx in Waitsfield, VT). But a few miles in, and one of those “duh, you didn’t check everything before riding outside” niggles popped up — my seat post was slipping slightly. I pulled over, with two riders passing making sure I was set before continuing on their way, and I was back on the road.

I made one of those in the moment decisions that probably made the rest of my day — “I’m gonna go catch those two guys” — and hurtled down the hills to latch back on. After a couple of minutes, I made contact, we exchanged pleasantries, and I offered to pull. The two guys gladly accepted, and we were off on our way on a soon to be epic adventure. Why? Because, somehow, for the full ride, despite turning in different directions — it was somehow into a gusting to 35 MPH headwind at all times.

I only wound up catching one guy’s name — Ken. He worked construction in northern Massachusetts. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over my years in riding bikes, it’s that people who work construction for their day job and then ride bikes are some of the hardest people you’ll ever meet; they beat the snot out of their body for a living and then decide to add additional hard work on top of it in their spare time. So, my mission for the day became simple: ride with Ken at all costs.

For the first 25 or so miles, that was an easy task; Ken and I took turns pulling whereas the third guy just hung on to our respective wheels. I sat on the front longer, simply because I knew the roads more, but it was a fair assessment. After leading the group through the next town on our ride, I flicked the elbow for someone to come through, and Ken once again answered the call. And he turned the screws. Turns out I wasn’t the only one frustrated by a third wheel not coming to break the wind for a bit. So we put the bit between our teeth, took shorter pulls, and built up a sizable gap before the next aid station.

At the aid station, we refilled; B2VT does a phenomenal job at giving you a nearly fully catered experience at each aid station, with the biggest hit being ice cold pickle chips with pickle juice in cups to go. Ken and I forged onward, rolling past farmland, fields, cheesemakers, sugarhouses, and more, all with fewer than five cars passing us on this ten mile stretch of road. We talked about our respective training, life, work, and more. I acted like a six year old and took every town line “sprint.” And we faced more brutal wind heading to the last aid station.

After refilling, we tackled our final nine miles of the day that were straight uphill to reach the village at Stratton. This climb featured gravel sections, crossing over a river multiple times, and the steepest slopes in the final mile of the climb. Strava labels it a Category 2 climb, and I’m inclined to agree with that assessment. Luckily for us, this climb also overlapped with the gravel event courses, so midway through the leading 101 mile riders came up behind us.

You can probably guess, based on this article, what we did: we latched on for dear life, getting spit out the back of the group on the final steep slope before hitting the finish line.

We crossed the finish line. We racked our bikes. We hugged. We grabbed our free beers. And we went our separate ways.

It’s one of the most fun days I’ve had on a bike in a very, very long time. Was it what I should do from a perfect IRONMAN build perspective? Probably not. But it lifted my spirits; relit my joy of riding bikes. And a less than perfect ride is a lot better than not doing it at all.

So, I implore you — don’t make training needlessly more difficult to accomplish. If you have the option to swim, bike, run, adventure with others, take that option when you can. You might just find yourself having a bit more fun.

Photos: Doug MacLean