Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How to Do Your First Ironman

Or more accurately, "Things I Hope Will Be Helpful to Other People Who Are Doing Their First Ironman." This list isn't about training but about the details leading up to and including race day. Some of it applies to all triathlons, some of it applies to all Iron-athletes, but a lot of it is meant for us mid-packers who are just out there to finish our first Ironman race. This advice is distilled from dozens of wonderful people, articles and books that I was fortunate to benefit from in the year leading up to my race. It is also the LONGEST thing I have ever written on this blog, but I hope it will help someone out there!

3 - 4 weeks before the race: 

* Make a checklist of all the nutrition/supplements/gear you need for race day that you don't have in your house at the moment. Be as specific as possible. Buy things very early to avoid finding something out-of-stock when it is too late.
* If you're planning to use the course drink and/or gels and haven't already, be sure to try the exact flavor ahead of time. Order some online if you have to. Disliking the taste of something does become a big issue in a 10 - 17 hour event and can jeopardize your race day plans. 
* Have your bike tuned. This gives you plenty of time to readjust or fix anything that isn't right when it comes back from the shop. If you're shipping your bike, double check your reservations/appointments/airline rules etc.
* Practice changing a flat, especially on your rear wheel. The more times you do it, the lower your "flat-anxiety" on race day.
* As your taper starts, dedicate 15 - 30 minutes each day to reading something that will help you at your Ironman. The most helpful thing to read is advice from athletes who have been through what you are about to experience. I recommend searching the internet for race reports from last year's race, gear checklists, and advice on how to stay calm and pace yourself through your day. As you notice themes or recurring pieces of advice in this reading, write them down.
*Start making a list of the gear you will need in each of your main gear bags. (Bike gear and run gear.) Write down seemingly obvious items such as "running shoes". Your brain will turn to jello during race week and you may actually forget something obvious. Start a gear list for your special needs bags only if you are sure there are items you will want. If you're not, don't force yourself to think of things at this point. 

Race Week: 
* Travel early if you're doing a destination race. Keep in mind ariline regulations for items such as CO2 canisters, gels, liquids, etc. Some things might have to be checked, shipped ahead, or just bought on site.
* Register (sign-in) and shop on the first day of the Ironman Village if at all possible. It will be more crowded on the second day and you'll have less time to recover for race day. Also, visit the store once, and promise yourself you won't go back until the day after the race. You need your rest and that place is a zoo of anxious people.
* Practice changing a flat, again. 
* Do not be intimidated. Someone once told me that everyone at his first Ironman looked like a Greek god and owned a $5,000 bike. That is definitely what it will feel like at times, but if you ask those people how they are doing you will find out they are just as nervous as you are. In any Ironman event you can expect more than one third of the participants to be first timers, and you just can't judge a book by its cover. You are not alone.
* Check out the swim course. Look for landforms you can sight, where you'll want to start, etc.
* Ride and/or drive as much of the bike and run course as you can without tiring yourself. Make a note of significant portions (a group of hills, a long straight away, a landmark, etc.) to help you break the course into pieces in your head and give you milestones to work for on race day.
* Pack your gear bags at least two days before the event. Lay out everything you will put in them from clothes to shoes to sunglasses to gels. Now, put everything on in the same order you as you will need to do in the transition tent. Include things that will go in your pockets, and anything you need for your hair. As you do this, write a list, in order. This list will help you and/or your volunteers get it right on race day when you brain turns to mush.  When you pack your transition bag, put everything into the bag in reverse order and lay your list on top. (Don't forget a small towel for T1 if you're changing clothes or want to dry your feet.) Tie the bag shut with one easy to remove knot.
* In special needs bags, less is more. If you can plan to not use the bag, that is best. These bags do get lost. Put in a few items for worst case scenarios, such as inclement weather, injury, bike malfunction, etc. A different snack or some extra lube can be a lifesaver if you've had a rough first ~50 miles.
* Even though there is no bag for it, be sure to lay out your swim gear as well.  If you're going to do a test swim before the race, plan what you'll wear so you don't have to put on anything cold and wet race morning. Don't forget extra goggles.
* Tie or stick something easy to recognize on the top/front of each of your bags. This will help you find them both during and after the race. You can tie ribbons, fabric, etc. to the top of the bag or put colored duct tape around the front and sides. I tied pink property-marking plastic ribbon to the drawstrings. A woman in my row had a red boa on the top of her bag. Just be sure whatever you do to your bag doesn't interfere with getting the bag opened.
* Go to the welcome dinner if you want to, but go to the mandatory athlete meeting and take notes. It may sound silly, but you will forget details such as "which mile is special needs at?" as soon as you leave the meeting. Pay attention to intermediate cut-off times, such as those for a first loop of the bike or run. If you're driving to the race, ask where you should park on race morning to avoid road closures. Listen for details about race morning and where you'll find body marking, morning-clothes and special needs bag drop off, etc. The area will be crowded when you arrive on race day and having a sense of where to go will help you stay calm.
* If you have to think about the race, do it with focus. Get somewhere quiet, breathe deeply and visualize race-day in as much real-time detail as you can. If you're worried about something (flat tire, rough swim, etc.) visualize yourself dealing with that issue in the most perfect way possible. Visualize a perfect tire change. Visualize yourself not panicking when you make contact with other swimmers. This is a huge anxiety-buster.

The Day Before the Race:
* Sleep late. You may not get any sleep the night before the race, so think of this as your last chance. Don't panic if it doesn't work, but at least try.
* Take your bike out for a 10 - 20 minute ride. Test the brakes, the gear shifting, etc. 
* Get to gear check-in early to avoid the lines. Typically you just need to bring your bike, bike gear bag and run gear bag. You will have access to this stuff again on race morning if you forget anything. Leave your special needs bags, bike nutrition, etc. at home/hotel. If you put everything in a big backpack you will probably feel more comfortable than carrying those drawstring bags while wheeling your bike.
* When you place your bike, make note of land marks you can watch for on race day. They should be really big, obvious ones. Your bike row will be labeled with your number, so you just need to get to the general area and then you can start reading signs.
* After placing your bike on the rack, spin each of your bike tires to check that they are moving freely, that the brakes are engaged, and that there are no issues with your tires. Reset your bike computer now.
* When you place your gear bags, make a note of where they are, especially in relation to all the other bags. Are you running down the middle of a lot of aisles of bags? Are you closer to one side?
* With everything in place, walk your T1 and T2 route. This is especially important for T1, because you WILL have an incredible combination of excitement and swim brain when you leave the water and you don't want to run into the wrong changing tent. Walk the route from wetsuit peelers, through gear bags, into the tent (or at least next to it) and then out and to your bike. Ask volunteers if you're not sure, because some barricades will get moved around for race morning.
* If you have family with you, show them where your bike is in the transition area so they can run there while you are changing after the swim.
* Now go home or back to your hotel. Check your special needs bags one more time. Figure out what clothes you will wear in the morning, and what (warm) clothes you want for after the fact. Don't forget underwear if you're going to change after the race. Bring one more layer than you think you need, just to ensure you will be comfortable.
* Pack your swim gear and bike nutrition (bottles, fluids, etc.) in your morning clothes bag.
* Plan what time to get up in the morning, leave your home/hotel, etc. Leave plenty of time. Race morning flies by.  Make a pile of things going with you in the morning: your special needs bags and morning clothes bags, as well as any water/sport drink you'll be sipping on pre-race.
* Eat a normal, healthy meal just like you have done through all your training. On race morning you might be too nervous to eat and you don't want to start the race hungry.
* Watch a movie or do something relaxing AND distracting before bed. If you are really nervous, take a warm bath and spend the time in it with your eyes closed, breathing deeply and visualizing each step of your day tomorrow.
* Go to sleep when you think you might actually sleep... and set 17 different alarm clocks so you won't worry about getting up.You probably won't need them, but it can't hurt.

Race Morning
* Wake-up!!! Early. Eat according to your training plan and practice. If you can't eat, at least sip some sports drink.
* Go to the race site and do the following, in no particular order, as they apply to you: Put your special needs bags where they told you to on race morning. Have your numbers marked on your arms/legs. Load your bike with nutrition. Pump up your tires and recheck that wheels are spinning smoothly. Recheck bike computer. Apply sunscreen. If your sunglasses are going on your bike, be sure they are very well attached. I prefer to put them in my helmet in my gear bag. If you have time to kill, find each of your gear bags and ensure that the ribbons/markings are easy to see. I zip my wedding rings into my bike tube bag so I don't have to worry about them in the swim. I put them on when I get to my bike.
* Change into your wetsuit with plenty of time before the start. Don't forget to lube. If you are warm you can always leave your arms out until later. Grab your cap(s), goggles, etc.  Throw everything not going with you in your morning clothes bag and take it to the drop off location. Do this early because things get very crowded as the start nears.
* Cross the timing mats on the way to the start and then seed yourself appropriately. Spend the last few minutes standing/treading quietly and breathing deeply. Check around you to be sure you are still where you want to be for the start. Avoid anyone who looks like they are about to have a panic attack.

The Swim: 
* Remember to start your watch!
* Don't panic and keep breathing no matter what happens. Remember to stick to your race plan, but it's okay to swim wide, change your stroke, or do whatever you need to do to be comfortable. If you get frazzled, remember that you have plenty of time to get your rhythm back.
* Do try to draft.
* If someone is invading your space (trying to swim over you or repeatedly hitting you) kick harder to move ahead of them and discourage their actions. This will happen at some point, but it will not happen for the whole 2.4 miles.
* As you near the last few minutes of the swim, kick harder. This moves the blood into your legs to get you ready for transition.

* When you hit the shore, keep moving. Jog if you feel comfortable, but walk if you don't.
* Try to remember to stop/split your watch if you're doing that for this race.
* Let the volunteers help you find your zipper pull if you can't on your own. As you pull down the top of your wetsuit, head directly to the wetsuit peelers and use them!
* Make your way to your gear bag and be ready to state your bib number if asked. The volunteers will help you get it, but often it's faster to pick it up yourself. If you have a distinguishing mark on your bag, be sure to say that as well, such as 2-2-8, with PINK RIBBONS.
* Get into the changing tent quickly, and find a chair and volunteer. If no one offers to help you, it's okay to shout "Volunteer Please!" until someone does. Tell your volunteer what to do to help. If you don't, he/she is going to start taking things out of your bag and asking you "do you want this?" over and over. The easiest thing to do is say, "I HAVE A LIST" and let them go through it in order. A good volunteer will work like your brain when you wrote that list.
*The transition tent can be warm and comfortable, but your goal is to get out smoothly. Don't rush, but move with purpose. Hopefully your list will remind you to put food in your jersey, put on sunglasses, etc.
* When you leave the tent, get sunscreened by volunteers. Be sure to get it on your face, ears and under anything you might take off later (such as arm warmers). You are going to have a miserable marathon later if you have been sunburned during the bike.
* Move to your bike (don't trip in your cleats!) and take it off the rack. Keep moving to the mount line, be sure no one is in front of you, then get on and go! Watch out for other riders; people will run in front of your with their bikes just as you start to move forward, so keep your head up.

* Stick to your race and nutrition plan. Do not go too fast. Do not forget to eat/drink. Set a repeating countdown timer on your watch if you have a tendency to lose track of time and forget to fuel.
* At aid stations, shout what you want as you approach. This allows volunteers to step out with the correct item. Try to get the item as early as possible at the station in case you miss and need to try again.
* It is better to stop at an aid station than to keep moving without fuel because you missed a hand-off. Just watch for other riders when stopping.
* Be sure to discard empty bottles in the drop zone before the start of the station so you are ready to take on fresh fuel.
* You can pee on the bike, but you don't have to. If you are going to pee on the bike, use some common sense and don't do it on a fast downhill with other riders behind you. Google this topic if you want more advice.
* If you're not sure about peeing on the bike, don't. Your socks may end up very wet by the end of the ride, you might piss off (or on) someone else inadvertently, and stopping to pee at an aid station takes 30 seconds and gives you an opportunity to grab fuel and stretch at the same time.
* If you get a flat, take a deep breath and fix it. Just move calmly and with purpose; you are going to be fine.
* At the special needs area, if you want your bag, shout out your number LOUDLY as you approach. Know what you want from the bag- if you can't think of anything, don't bother stopping for it.
* In many cases you are better off stopping for the bag than trying to grab it and remove your goods while riding. Again, 30 seconds to stop here and get yourself more comfortable might benefit you in minutes over the course of the bike.

* Be careful getting off the bike. You won't know how your legs are going to act until you're on them.
* Same deal as T1... move quickly and calmly, let the volunteers help (you may have to ask in T2 because many people don't want help for this one) and get out of there.
* Have sunscreen reapplied, at least to your face and shoulders. 

The Run
* Stick to your plan. You will be high as a kite when you leave T2 because you're finally off the bike and you can practically smell your Ironman Finisher's Medal. But you have a long way to go, and you need to remember the pace you planned and trained for.
* Know what you want at the aid stations ahead of time. After that long bike you are going to think everything at the aid station looks/taste delicious... fresh fruit, soda, pretzels, etc. But before you get to the station, decide what you want and stick to it.
* Tell the volunteers what you want, because there will be lots of cups of things that are hard to identify. Don't wait for them to tell you what they have. If you want water, say "WATER!" to the first person who looks like they are holding water. They will either hand you water or tell you how far to keep moving to find it.
* The cold, wet, sponges are awesome, but the first thing you should do with them is squeeze them out, AWAY from your body. If you don't do this your shoes will be soaking wet for the whole marathon. Hold them at arms length, squeeze, then place them where you like. A little water in a sponge goes a long way.
* If your plan is to walk the aid stations, then decide how long you'll walk for. Some of those stations extend quite a way. Will you walk from the time you take a cup until you're done drinking? Until the end of the drop zone? Have a plan.
* Keep moving. As long as you are going forward, no matter how slowly, you are getting closer to the finish. Lots of people walk most or all of the marathon, and it can be tempting to slow down to run or walk with others when you are tired. Stick to your race plan.

The Finish and Beyond
* It is your finish, and you should do it how you want. If you want to make it under a time goal, go for it. But if your goal is simply to finish, take time to enjoy your last few hundred meters. There will be a lot of people, a lot of noise, and depending on your time, a lot of bright lights. Soak it in. You are a rock star.
* With 50 meters to go, check to be sure you're not going to get run over by someone storming to a fast finish, and that no one in front of you is going to ruin your finish line photo. Then do it. Listen for your name, throw your arms in the air, and know you just did something that very few people will ever do in their lifetimes.
* When you cross the finish you will be instantly surrounded by volunteers. One or two of them will be appointed as your personal assistant(s) for the next few minutes as you receive finisher goods (medal, hat, shirt, etc.), have your photo taken and start to make your way through the finish area. They are there to be sure you have everything you need. If you feel sick, tell them. If you want medical attention, tell them. If you just want to go to the post-race food tent and pig out on pizza, tell them. They will be sure you get what you need.
* Get a massage. It's free and will help you feel better.
* Take some food with you. It's free, and you need calories.
* Now get the heck out of there and celebrate! You are an IRONMAN!

Also, be warned that the next morning your post-race euphoria will kick in BEFORE most of your pain/muscle stiffness. Be careful. You might feel surprisingly great in the morning (or not) but your body is essentially a gigantic injury and you don't want to make anything permanent. Take it easy as your celebrate for the first day or two.


  1. Great advice!!!! Thank you for this!

  2. Yes - thank you! This is going to be my go to guide for my first Ironman!

  3. I am so glad that this post is becoming a resource for people. Good luck out there, and I'll be rooting for each of you!