Rubber Side Down: Tips for Your First Ironman

The sport of triathlon has completely transformed me over the last several years. If you told 18-year-old me that in six years I’d be completing my first Ironman, I’d probably spit what was left of my third chocolate snack pack right in your face.

You see, I didn’t always look like the perfect male specimen that I am today (see picture above). Har har. For all of high school and a good portion of college I was, how do you say, a chubby bunny. Don’t get me wrong, I was a perfectly happy portly high schooler and I never let it hold me back. However, if someone wanted to take some of that weight off my shoulders… and my stomach… and my face, I would have gladly obliged them. Here are a few pics from my senior year for a bit of reference.

High school graduation party (I’m on the right)

That’s me on the right, in the red. I weighed about 270 pounds.

Joining a college club may not seem like a potentially life changing decision to many of you but becoming a part of the Cal Poly Triathlon Team was by far the best decision I made in those four crazy years. It wasn’t long after completing my very first triathlon as a mustang, 70 pounds lighter mind you, that I began to dream of the big kahuna. The Ironman.

Ironman athletes are their own brand of insane. These inspirational men and women who swim 2.4 miles, bike 112, and then go out and run a whole freaking marathon seemed otherworldly to me. Whether they managed to tackle 15 of these races or just one, I thought these people must be superhuman or, at the very least, utterly and irreparably deranged. I just couldn’t get what they’d accomplished out of my head. They deeply inspired the very foolish and hard-headed part of me that thought I might be capable of doing the same. I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up for Ironman Florida last year, but I was excited to see if I had the massive cojones and/or lack of brains required to train for and survive the distance. I have never questioned my own sanity more.

Instead of an awfully long and drawn out race report that is sure to bore everyone to tears, I want to share with you some of the lessons I learned leading up to and during my first Ironman.

      1. Train with a group. Or at least make a point to train with friends. Having someone that notices when you don’t show up for a track practice or a long group ride makes a huge difference. Having someone that shows up to your house fully kitted up and physically pulls you out of bed is helpful as well, but not pleasant.
      2. Training is the hardest part. The actual Ironman is just another day at the office. The discipline it takes to train day after day, month after month is what counts. If you have put in the time and effort (and only you will know if you have), finishing is never a question.
      3. Treat race weekend like a vacation. You are probably going to be traveling hundreds of miles to a location you’ve never been before. Your job is to relax every other day except for race day so kick back and put your feet up. After all, it’s just a vacation with a “little” triathlon thrown in.
      4. The mass swim start is 100% as bad as everyone says it is. I got kicked in the head, scratched, punched and near drowned. I am also guilty of doing the same to other people. Unfortunately it is unavoidable, you cannot find an open spot to swim to save your life. Also you will be fine, you will make it to transition in mostly one piece.

        It was a bit choppy race morning, which only added to the “fun.”

      5. Enjoy the race. Dwell on those little moments when you realize what you are about to accomplish. Sunrises are still gorgeous, even during an Ironman… even after a kick to the head. Especially after a kick to the head.
      6. Transitions are obnoxiously long. That being said, they are rather fun and the people watching is top notch. I saw everything from a lady enjoying a cup of coffee and what looked like a breakfast pastry to a gentlemen who ripped his wetsuit while attempting to get it off… oh wait that was me. I did that.
      7. The Shiv is mine but I borrowed the wheels and my aero helmet. I have nice friends.

        Buy, borrow or rent the proper gear. I firmly believe that with proper training you can complete an Ironman on pretty much any road bike. However, money spent on your bike is never wasted. Whether it just makes you feel faster or actually does save you precious watts, gear actually does go a long way. The advantages of an aero helmet and a good set of wheels add up quickly over 112 miles. My bike setup helped me average almost 22 miles an hour without killing myself in the slightest. This is very helpful when it comes time to run.

      8. Get used to group riding. This was especially hard for me because short course and olympic races are policed very strictly, either you ride alone or you take the penalties. In an Ironman, unless you are a pro, you will most likely (and unfortunately) be forced to ride in a group for a portion of the bike. Luckily the judges can usually tell a blatant rule violation from being trapped. Try your best to escape but don’t be discouraged if the roaming hoards of age group triathletes hunt you down and eat you up. They can only survive on bonkbreakers for so long.

        This is at about mile 98 when my mobile cheer crew tracked me down.

      9. Be alert! At one extremely bumpy section the road was littered with bottles, Co2 cartridges, saddlebags and even complete rear hydration assemblies. Secure your gear down for the love of all that is good and holy and watch out for people that don’t.
      10. Be extra alert! Channel your inner ninja while riding through aid stations to dodge accidentally dropped bottles and the ever present random braking and/or swerving from other competitors. It is a minefield, I swear to you.
      11. Your support crew is worth their weight in gold. An energetic and prepared cheering squad is essential. Hilarious signs are a plus.

        My parents and my girlfriend are master sign creators.

      12. The marathon is brutal. It was my first marathon ever and it was on legs that were in good shape but they were not fresh. Your legs will feel different and you must accept this into your life.

        The best cheerleader ever.

      13. An Ironman marathon can be your first marathon. Marathons suck regardless.
      14. Swearing is an extremely important racing technique. Just remember to look out for small children. I’m pretty sure you can hear me swearing in the finish line video coverage.
      15. Have a plan for the run. Whether it is to run for a certain amount and then walk or change up your pacing at mile markers, having something to occupy your mind is pivotal. It keeps you from dwelling on how stupid this decision was.
      16. The crowds are amazing.Thank you random neighborhood band at mile 12 and sexy female village people at mile 20. You helped me more than you could ever know.

        Supposedly they love the taste of Ironman contenders.

      17. Gators are a legitimate concern at Ironman Florida. Just a heads up if you’re shopping around for your next race. I never saw an alligator but they did change the run course this year because of safety concerns. Yikes.
      18. It’s going to hurt… period. (Ok I stole this one from Chris McCormack but I took a picture with him once so it’s ok).  It’s about pushing past that pain and continuing on. That lesson can teach you a lot in life too.
      19. Thank every volunteer you see. They are all there to help you and the race wouldn’t be half as amazing without them.
      20. Smile. Smile when your quads are on fire, your stomach is cramping and your calves have long since ejected themselves from your body. You are about to become an Ironman.
      21. Soak up the finish line. I was absolutely ecstatic, high-fiving anyone and everyone I possibly could. I worked toward this moment for an entire year and crossing that finish line is one of my proudest achievements. Try to create a gap between yourself and the other athletes. Cross that finish line alone for the best possible photo op because this is your moment. Live. It. Up.

        Oh the finishing shoot. Adrenaline is a very real and amazing thing.

      22. Go back to the finish line at midnight. It takes guts to finish an Ironman in 11 hours but it takes real heart to finish one in 17 hours. If you want to be inspired, watch the athletes that finish right before the cut off. That is pure unadulterated jubilation.

Ironman athletes, and triathletes in general, are severely unbalanced individuals, but they are also some of the best people I know. They are my friends and they inspired me to do something I once believed was impossible. I am proud to be an Ironman (and about 95 pounds lighter) and I think I might even be thick-headed enough to race another one… someday.

Jerald grew up riding bikes on and off road but never competitively before college. He raced his first triathlon soon after joining the Cal Poly Triathlon Team and has yet to show signs of stopping. Jerald has a degree in Political Science from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and when he’s not swimming, biking or running, he either has his face in a good book or in his pillow.