Ironman mistakes — 9 lessons learned the hard way

In my last post, I gave suggestions to help prepare for tackling for your first Ironman. Another part of preparation is to learn from the mistakes of others. This post summarizes things I learned the hard way — what went wrong and what I took out of these as lessons.

Swimming

1. Don’t get mowed down — learn defensive swimming

  • What happened: At my first Olympic triathlon, at the first buoy to turn around and come back I was mowed and beaten up down by faster swimmers. Picture a small group of guys ploughing through me with elbows, heels and fists. It was a real shock. I’ve since learned this is part of the course, it can be avoided and is not personal.
  • Lesson: The best way to practice defensive swimming is to swim with one or two others in very close proximity in a pool. In the race itself, I start a bit wider out and have a wider arc around the buoys. In mass swim starts (like the Ironman event I did which had 2000 competitors start at the same time!) be sure to surround yourself with swimmers that look like they’ll go your pace. Feel free to pull out to the side especially when approaching turns.

2. Don’t go all out — pacing is critical

  • What happened: My first Half Ironman. Nerves, adrenaline, and thumping dance music had me pumped up at the start line. I went out hard on the swim, but emerged from the water badly out of breath and pretty exhausted. It was a struggle to get going on the bike. I felt dehydrated and out of rhythm. The rest of the race I felt thrown off and it was only for a very small gain on the swim leg.
  • Lesson: Just cruise through the swim and enjoy it, rather then go all out. Remember the swim is the shortest and least important leg. It is also the leg when your adrenaline will be thumping and your anxiety could be at its peak. I’ve found take it easy here only costs a couple of minutes and I’m in a much better shape to tackle the bike leg.

3. Swim straight

  • What happened: After several rounds of strokes I raised my head and realize I’ve veered off course. This has happened more then once. Swimming in murky, choppy water is an entirely different experience to knocking out laps in the local pool.
  • Lesson: Learn how to ‘sight’ a landmark efficiently without losing much pace. When swimming laps, try half a lap every now and then with your eyes closed. During events, one tactic I learned was to find a good swimmers and ‘trail’ them, swimming in the bubbles behind them, or off to the side and tracking them underwater… of course this will only work if they are swimming straight themselves!

Biking

4. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

  • What happened: At an event in Boulder my left leg started locking up towards the end of the bike ride. When I got off the bike, I couldn’t run or even walk. After medical assistance, I was told I was badly dehydrated. The medic wanted me to pull out of the race but that wasn’t going to happen. I drank 2 bottles of water and a gatorade almost immediately then hobbled the next mile. After that my body was able to get going again…
  • Lesson: Force yourself to drink even if you aren’t feeling thirsty. It can be deceptive if you are wet from the swim on the bike, especially as it is often cold in the early morning. However, inside your body your muscles are working hard and your body needs to hydrate. On the bike I now give myself a reminder to take a big sip every 15 mins or 5 kms regardless of how I feel. It is much harder to drink too much than not enough.

5. When climbing steep hills — cadence is key

  • Experience: My first Half Ironman, on the bike leg hitting the first hill, I tried to power my way over it in a moderate gear standing up. By the time I got to the top, both my legs felt like they were going to explode. The rest of the ride and the run were torture, and had this cost me.
  • Lesson: When tackling steep long hills drop your gears and avoid standing in the saddle for long period of time. Its ok to drop to your lowest gear and spin your way up the hill. You need to protect your quads as much as possible for the run.

6. Don’t give up without trying this

  • Experience: The Ironman I did was at Whistler, Canada — it has four fairly tough bike climbs. On the third climb my knee gave out, a ligament was swelling up under the kneecap. I had to start walking and to cut a long story short — I wanted to quit. Fortunately, a mechanic made a quick seat adjustment which made a world of difference.
  • Lesson: If a joint/muscle is giving extreme pain — adjust the seat before throwing in the towel. Also double check you aren’t dehydrated. I’m so thankful to the medics on the course at Whistler — they got me back on track and helped me finish.

Running

7. Learn a decent running technique — avoid unnecessary pain

  • Experience: 3 months before my first Marathon I suffered from severe pain in my shins and the fronts of my knees during my practice runs which was getting progressively worse. It got so painful I couldn’t run without around 5 days rest. I couldn’t continue without making some big changes. After talking to some other runners, reading the book “Born to Run” I learnt how to run with a different, much safer and efficient technique. After 6 weeks of adjustment (mostly to my calves), the pain in the shins faded ad I could much longer distances.
  • Lesson: Have your running form checked by an experienced runner. Try to lead with the knees rather than the feet, have the mid foot hitting the ground rather than the heels. Use shoes with minimal heel to toe drop. Look at what the professionals use in marathons, and in Ironman events — you won’t see many thick heels, arch supports or other gimmicks in their footwear.

8. Fueling basics — learn abut your body

  • Experience: During full Ironman, my legs started to cramp about halfway in. I realized I was probably lacking salts. Wasn’t a total surprise and I could adjust on race day. At the rest stations they provided crisps and coke — a perfect combination at that time.
  • Lesson: Keep salts and potassium high. Understand and learn about your own body — as every body is different.

Others

9. Stubborn fixated mental focus

  • Experience: failure at Canberra Ironman. A number of things went wrong. I was jet lagged, on a bike I’d never ridden before, and had a bad day fever attack the day before. I woke up late and arrived after the transition area had been closed, I couldn’t find my goggles, wet suit etc! The race started rough, and got worse, my hay fever was taking a heavy toll. Despite all of this this I could’ve finished the race had I pushed myself. I had completed more than 50% of the race when I pulled out. However, as soon as I let all these reasons (excuses) to not finish the race enter my mind — I was finished. Getting a DNF here is still one of my biggest regrets.
  • Lesson: Don’t let any reasons or excuses creep into your mind. Maintain a mental stubbornness and focus on your goal and achieve it!

What did I miss on this list? Do you have other race day lessons that would be good to share? Please share in the comments!