The Ironman is an event that consists of a 2.4-mile (3.86km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25km) bike ride and a marathon run (26.2 mile/42.20 km), to be finished in 17 hours. The race starts at 7am, with the mandatory swim cutoff at 9.20am, the bike cutoff at 5.30pm and the marathon cutoff at midnight. There is a fourth discipline that is not advertised—nutrition. The average calorie burn is between 7,000 and 10,000 kcals, and you can be the best athlete in the world, but you will not complete if you don’t get your nutrition straight.
If you were to ask me a year ago, the swim would have been my weak link. I started swimming with the Tri crew in March of last year, training for a climb to Mount Rainier. After a month I asked them if they thought I was ready for the ocean. There was a unanimous “yes”, and assurances that they would watch for me. The Ormond Beach Triathlon Club is a group of ragtag, eccentric, non-conforming, highly motivated, and super-fit individuals from all walks of life. The first ocean swim was a humiliating experience. The ocean was rough on that day, and I panicked as she dragged me under. When I came up, everyone was so ahead, which led to more panic and caused me to swallow air, pushing my diaphragm up, and making it impossible to breathe. I was about to head back to shore when I heard a voice say “you got this”. It wasn’t God; it was Steve, though at that point he seemed like God. I calmed down seeing him and was able to complete about 800 yards, before coming in.
Over the next year, I began getting comfortable with the ocean. Like any relationship, I began to feel her rhythm and moods. I knew when to walk away, and when to put up a fight and, of course, when to relax and have fun. I have stopped looking for fins. We are the shark capital of the world. The ocean and the sunrises became my stress release, in an otherwise stressful career. I was slow, and making the two-hour-twenty-minute cutoff was an issue. A month ago, there was an open water challenge. My coach told me to do 1.2 miles. The 2.4 mile was a double loop. The morning of the swim, I changed my registration to the 2.4 mile. I looked up at the clock at mile 1.2 (45 mins). The second loop was tough and I came in last, but clocked in at 1.45. I was pretty exhausted, and didn’t have a clue on how I was supposed to get on a bike for seven hours, and run a marathon later, but I was chuffed and had a stupid smile on my face.
The bike is my weak link. I am up to 80 miles and have figured out my nutrition, but every mile after 65 is exponentially more painful and every part of my body starts hurting. I am able to hold a pace of 16.2kmph to mile 80. Assuming I can hold the pace for another two hours, I would clock in at seven hours. The problem, though, is I am pretty wiped at the end of the 80-mile ride at this point.
The run is supposed to be my comfort zone, but a marathon after all the above shenanigans would be interesting for sure.
Which brings me to nutrition. There are three separate aspects—calories, electrolytes and fluids. As you start exercising, the blood flow to your muscles increases. The body looks at ways to divert blood, and one of the areas it takes blood from is the gut. The digestive process slows down, and solids are particularly tough to digest. The maximum absorption per hour is 350 kcals, and about 60gm to 80gm of carbs. Anything more sets you up for gut upset-called “rot gut” in athlete terminology. As you can’t take in nutrition on the swim, and it is difficult to keep pace with nutrition on the run, the bike is your main fuelling option. Unfortunately, you have to try out different options to find out what works for you. I settled for a foul-smelling liquid called Perpetuem, which has 270 kcals per hour, plus gels to reach 350.
With regard to electrolytes, the average athlete can lose up to 1,000mg of sodium an hour depending on temperature and humidity. Most professional athletes do a sweat test to determine sodium loss for accurate replacement. The electrolyte pills also have magnesium and phosphate.
Now to fluids. Too much equals over-hydration and a drop in sodium levels, not to mention sloshing in the stomach. Too little equals dehydration. The body can absorb between 600ml to 1,000ml per hour.
The last bit is mental, dealing with life while training. Waking up at 4am to get to the workout at 5am and to work by 7.30am makes for a long day. I am definitely irritable, which I can conveniently blame on training. There are notices at work warning of my moods. My family, friends and patients are in with me and cut me slack for the most part. The body is holding up, though I have a few spots I have to keep an eye on. At the end, it’s like any relationship—the expectations, the disappointments, heartbreak, frustration, love and hate all rolled together. Still waiting on ecstasy. I may fail, but at least I know that I gave it my all... and then some.