Taking on the challenge of an Ironman distance triathlon is a thrilling adventure. When it’s your first, the build up to race day leaves many unknowns.
There is no doubt that during your training you have covered the distances. You will have built your physical strength to its peak. Your mental strength will be the strongest it has ever been. But that still leaves room for nerves as race day approaches. You may still be asking yourself that question? How will I string together the swim, bike and Ironman run.
My first Ironman was Ironman Frankfurt in 2015. A race that takes place in early July. Whilst it is a mid-summer race, temperatures are rarely as brutal as they were on this particular race day. With northern Europe basking in a heatwave and temperatures hitting 38 degrees Celsius the weather was more suited for a day at the beach than an Ironman Triathlon.
On the day before the race I bumped into a fellow Belgian and somewhat faster and more experienced athlete Frederik Van Lierde. When I asked if he had any tips for a race in this weather his only advice was ‘take on all the food and drink you can’ and a sarcastic ‘you got lucky with the weather for your first race’. Something that was clearly also on the minds of the pro athletes.
The Frankfurt Ironman race is the European Championship race, this means all the big names are there. The course is known to be fast, but in this weather anything was possible.
In this 3 part series I will break down how I approached and managed the swim, the bike and the Ironman run. These tips from my race day may come in handy if you are considering your first Ironman triathlon.
The Ironman Run Course
In Frankfurt the Ironman run course is a stunning route which makes four loops through the heart of Frankfurt. It takes the athletes along the river Main with two river crossings per lap. The river Main is in the centre of the Ironman run at all times.
Even with a last minute route change to incorporate some additional shade, the course is hot with much of it in direct sun. The course is great from a support perspective. The many stretches of grass and cafes bring out the people for picnics and drinks by the river but also to cheer. This makes for a great motivation boost.
On lap four the path to the finish line takes a small right turn. This departure from the main route, up a slim red carpeted path opens up to the Romer Platz. The Romer Platz welcomes the athletes with its grandstands, cheering crowds and the much dreamed of Finish line.
1.Transition Fast & Start Running
As mentioned in my previous post, try to transition fast from bike to run. It is tempting to sit down for too long, especially on a hot day. The longer you sit the harder it will be to get going again, so keep it short.
I made a move out of the transition tent and got back on my feet as fast as I could. I had some cramps settling in from the bike which made it mentally tough to imagine running so I took it slow, but at least walking out of the transition tent meant I was moving forward.
If you have previously run marathons it can be tempting to think this will be familiar, it is not. Someone once told me ‘there is no shame in walking in the Ironman run’. Mentally I chose to approach this differently than previous regular marathons where I did not have 180k of cycling in the legs. I chose to accept that it would take some time to settle into this run.
2.Set Short Achievable Goals
I walked the first few 100 meters as I let my legs get used to the new movement taking advantage of the first water station to hydrate and cool down with the ice.
The walk gave me a chance to set out my new Ironman run plan. Run from aid station to aid station and walk the aid stations. In the aid stations I prioritised taking on all the nutrition and hydration I needed. I sweat a lot on a regular day, so I sweat an enormous amount when running at 38 degrees celsius. Hydration is therefore key to my race. Whilst I started my run with my own fuel belt with water bottles, I soon found that there were more than enough very well stocked aid stations. I ditched the belt in favour of the additional comfort of running without the belt.
I maintained the run to the next aid station strategy throughout the race. Whilst each lap was a 10km lap, 10km felt like too far a distance to think of in the early part of the run. I focused on short sections of the course instead. This worked out very well for me.
This was key to my Ironman run, as it should be to everyone. I have previously suffered from cramping, most likely triggered by my high sweat rate and not taking on enough of the right fluids. Over the years I have tried to adjust my hydration to manage this better.
With the added heat in Frankfurt this became even more critical.
I avoid drinking water during the race with a focus on consuming energy drinks with electrolytes to replenish what I lose in my sweat.
As always, with endurance sports, the focus is on staying ahead of the game. Once you lose energy or get hungry, it’s too late. I took my time at every aid station to ensure I took on everything I needed.
My typical stop started with a energy drink followed by banana, orange, in some cases some salty snacks and another sip of energy drink. At some aid stations I would add pure salt mixed in some water. Whilst it’s not tasty, somethings just need to be done.
From a cooling perspective, I would pour water over my head at the start of the station (some had water hoses) and at the end of the station take some ice for the inside of my cap and in my shirt and a cold water sponge on each shoulder.
As the ice from my hat melted (quickly) the cool water ran down my face and body. This was enough to keep going to the next fuelling station to repeat the same process again.
4.Run In The Now
Whilst I had a goal time in mind I was not running for any qualifying time. Primarily, I was running to finish. As the hours of the race ticked by I lost track of time of day. Whilst I had a watch that was tracking my pace, I chose not to look at the time of day.
At this point in the race, with the heat hitting down on the Ironman run, my main focus was to keep on running. I avoided trying to compute my total race time instead keeping my focus on running my race.
Trying to compute times now would only put additional pressure on my run time. I checked what time it was after I crossed the finish line to discover that I was back in time for a real dinner. Nice!
5.Use The Atmosphere
Race day offers something that no training run will ever offer. Amazing spectators!
If you have ever been to watch an Ironman or a marathon you will know that spectating is not an easy job. Watching so many athletes running past (often on the lookout for a particular person) and always clapping and cheering. A big shout out to my wife and parents who spent all day cheering me on! It makes all the difference.
I have always felt that interacting with the spectators, smiling, acknowledging their support and giving high fives is all a part of respecting the role they play. From a selfish perspective it also serves as a phenomenal way to take my mind off the pain.
This atmosphere is strong enough to carry you through a few kilometres taking your mind off your Ironman run. Make the most of this race day vibe.
6.Accept Some Pain
Completing an Ironman is an all body experience. There comes a point when your body will ache. Much of this pain will be normal based on what you are asking of your body.
There is however an important side note here. Listen to your body! Know what is ‘regular’ pain and know when you are pushing too hard and need to hold off. What you are trying to accomplish is an immense effort which should not be taken lightly. Use the facilities and medics onsite if things are not going well.
You will almost certainly be playing a mental game. As I mentioned in my article on running a marathon, I like to avoid thinking about running altogether. Even thinking ‘oh.. I’m feeling good’ can trigger a reversal on how you feel and throw you into a dip.
Using the crowd is a great distraction, visualising positive moments of previous race finishes can also help bring back the positive but if the going gets real tough incorporate some walk-run into your Ironman run.
One thing is clear, it is unlikely that you will get through the Ironman without any discomfort or pain. Accepting that is important in order to be able to deal with it.
8.Final Lap (last 10k) Energy Boost
Before you know it you will start your final lap (or last 10k). This is the time when the remaining distance became mentally manageable for me and it gave me an additional motivation boost. This last lap is a combination of pain and joy but force yourself to focus on the joy.
My last 10k were my fastest 10km of my Ironman run.
With my renewed enthusiasm and finish line ‘in sight’ I took the time to thank the amazing volunteers at all the aid stations. They were all so positive and full of energy even when athletes were in their worst shape. The last lap became a personal celebratory lap as the smile on my face began to grow and with every aid station passed. The remaining road to the finish line became easier with every step.
As the kilometres ticked by the motivation grew bigger. I collected my final lap armband which was at about 5km from the finish and that is when I entered the real home stretch. This time it was my turn to take that little right turn up to the finish!
8.Savour Your Finish Line Moment
Once you take your turn onto the red carpet to the finish, slow down… savour it! (Unless you are sprinting for the final Kona spot, in which case go, go, go!)
It is a truly amazing moment, but that moment you have been working so hard towards passes so fast. Make sure you lift your head and look around, enjoy the cheers and listen out for those infamous words ‘YOU ARE AN IRONMAN’.
You’ve done it. Congratulations.
Jeroen is a keen runner and triathlete. With over 10 years of experience training and participating in races, simply for the joy of sport he has turned to sharing his experience through the articles he writes. As a founder at Loop Social Sport Jeroen has focused his passion on creating a community of like minded individuals who not only train together but also motivate newcomers to take up sport, whether in person or via this blog.