What it Takes for Long Course Success
I took my husband, Matt, to watch his first Ironman race. Now, this is a man who has been a coach for over 20 years, up to Olympic trials-level. In addition he has been a national-level athlete himself. So, although this was his first Ironman viewing, he is no stranger to top level athletics in several different arenas (track and field, Olympic lifting and football).
With virgin Ironman eyes, but loaded with educated coaches eyes, I was very curious about what he saw in our event. I asked him, “What do you think of this event from an athletic coach's perspective?”
He replied with an answer I think was very literal and basic — but golden. He said, “You can’t really prepare for this event. What I mean by that is in most sports you can practice the exact event over and over to be ready. You know exactly what you are in for. In this event, you can do everything you think you need to be ready, but ultimately there is no way to duplicate exactly what is going to happen out there. So you can be ready, but you are never exactly rehearsed. It’s not an event you can do every week or even know what will be thrown at you on the day. It would take a lot of mental preparation to cope with going into something you really can’t practice fully 100%.”
This was probably the most intelligent answer I’ve heard out of any coach in regards to long distance triathlon in a long time. We are trying to be 100% ready for a day with a lot of unknown variables. If it was an 800m on the running track, or 2km pursuit cycling, or even a 400 individual medley in the water, we can practice the exact event over and over. We can focus on the starts, pacing, what it will feel like, little adjustments needed, the list goes on. With an event like an Ironman this simply just isn’t an option.
If you have ever sat on the road at an Ironman event and watched those last 12km of the run, from professionals right through to the last people, what do you notice the most? Speed? Or are most people at this point in the race trying to limit the amount they are slowing down?
It’s a very long day. You are preparing for an 8-plus-hour long event, outdoors in the elements, with thousands of other people, and unknown variables. When you think about your training and preparation for this event, you start to weigh what is the most important thing you can prepare for in training sessions. What can you do to give yourself the best chance to be ready for an event so long you cannot actually rehearse it? Ask yourself, “What is the most fundamental backbone of this event?” The answer, without question, is going long! You have to be durable; you have to be able to endure. Even if you are fast, you are still asking yourself to work at a high work rate for a long time, so ultimately you have to be able to go long, not break down, and be that athlete who slows down the least.
If you are new to this sport (or even if you’re old), I’m going to give you a little assignment. Go watch an Ironman. Don’t watch the first 40km of the bike or the first 10km of the run. Sit and watch after the 32km marker on the run through to the finish. Take notes of what you see in people bodies, their faces, their breathing. Most will not look like the 800m runner on a track. Most will look like they are just trying to cope with a massive amount of discomfort and not slow down.
If you want to race long, go long. Be economical at going a long time and be able to adapt to anything thrown you way. Make it your priority to develop the ability to go very long and handle any kind of conditions or circumstance for a long time. Learn to handle a lot of discomfort for a long period of time and stay on task. Make this your number one priority if you want to be a great long course athlete. Someone once said to me, “At some point all athletes crack; everyone has a breaking point. Just be the last one to crack and you win.”
As we walked away from the event late that night, Matt said, “Man alive, these people started this at 6 a.m.! This is as much as a personality test as it is a physical endurance test.”
I chuckled and respond with, “It certainly exposes everything.”