Lessons From a Retired Finisher

In 2018, I did my 5th and last Ironman in Santa Rosa. After about ten years in the sport of triathlon, I decided to retire for a variety of reasons most notably having 2 teenage kids who needed me on weekends. A few months ago, the wife of a good friend called me to tell me she had just signed up for her first Ironman – IM Arizona. She new I had done a few including IM AZ and wanted to pick my brain ‘for a few minutes.’ Our conversation lasted about 2 hours. Frankly, I was surprised that I had so much to offer that I had learned over the years. A familiar ‘aha’ occurred that all retirees feel – I am leaving the sport I love when I know the most. I then asked myself why I would keep all that I had learned to myself? Why not share it and help a first-time ironman or whomever reach their goals. Thus, this oped.

Full disclosure, I am not a triathlon coach, never have been one and have no plans to be one. I am, at best, an average triathlete having done over 40 triathlons that included 10 Half Ironmans (HIM) and 5 Full Ironmans. My first HIM was at age 42 and first full ironman at age 43. I had no background to speak of in any discipline. There were 2 HIMs that I did not finish, but I did finish all the rest with a HIM PR of 5:24 hours and a full IM PR of 11:46 hours. All this so you have a better context of my learnings below. In addition, I went to several different triathlon camps hosted by professional triathletes or elite triathletes/coaches over the years. I have used several coaches for my own training. I have trained with novices and podium finishers. I have learned a great deal from all these experiences and people. What I will share is my opinion based on these experiences. You may disagree with me, and that’s ok. I’m not selling anything or trying to convince anyone of anything. This is simply my top 10 key learnings.

  1. Hire a coach if you are new or not having initial success. Triathlon is a sport where in addition to the obvious swim, bike, and run, many key variables have to be tried, tested and tested again. Most notably, your nutrition, hydration, and recovery plans. The latter is very unique to you, your body, your experience, your goals, your gender and your age. A good coach who understands ALL these variables, is key to your success.
  2. The uncontrollable variables on race-day will have a larger impact on your performance than you think or can plan for. If the temperature is even 10 degrees warmer than you trained or planned for, the impact on your nutrition, hydration, pace, watts, strategy will be huge. If the wind blows harder or from one side, if the water is choppier, if the hills were steeper than you thought and have to burn higher watts than planned, if you get bit by a jelly fish on the swim …. All kinds of adjustments have to be made in real time with the clock ticking against a plan you spent 8-10 months preparing for that did not include these mishaps. Making the right adjustments should therefore be a big part of your training and race-day strategy. You must have a plan B, C, and D for each leg. Going into a race thinking all your training will result in a perfect day simply does not happen, at least not for us average triathletes.
  3. Swimming in the pool and swimming in open water are not the same. Obvious right? My best race swims were when I did the bulk of my swims in open water. Races are all in OW. Conditions of OW, direction, turns, current, sighting, etc cannot be simulated in the pool. Get a group together, find a safe ow area and swim as much as possible in OW. Use the pool for fine tuning your stroke, drills and speed work, but 2 of your 3 swims per week should be in OW. Be less worried about speed and more worried about efficiency. The swim is the warmup for us average athletes. Finishing 1.2 or 2.4 miles of OW having used the least amount of energy is key. I’m not suggesting be slow, not at all. I’m saying focus more on efficiency than speed. Whatever speed comes from your efficiency is the right speed for you. Chasing speed in the swim, unless you plan to podium, is a very low ROI. That time is better spend chasing speed on the run, where it really matters most.
  4. You are literally wasting money buying an expensive bike. All you need is an average bike that is custom fit. It is easy to spend $1000s on bike. You are better off getting a bike that fits your body and using money to get adjustments on your initial fit 1-2 times per season, a good aero helmet and tires (not necessary wheels). Whatever aerodynamic savings an expensive bike will promise, you will lose when on the course when you sit up for periods of time which us average athletes will do a lot of. Long rides in Zone 2 are also key, as opposed to long rides at race watts. Minimize your breaks on long rides to simulate race day rides. Riding long rides in zones with other people that are too high or too low for you is not going to help you.
  5. Never ride outside alone. Period. No matter your skill level. One of the reasons for my retirement is the explosion of car/bike accidents. It really is not safe outside anymore and has little to do with you. Ride in packs, wear bright colors, use rear flashing lights, and never challenge a driver or a small space in the road. It is not worth it. You are a human being with loved ones first, not a triathlete, and no race is worth your injury or life. If you are slower rider in the race, then the same safety measures should apply to you as races are all done on actual roads with actual cars and the fewer fellow bikers around you, the higher the risk of an accident.
  6. You will know if you tapered correctly in the 1st 20 miles of the bike. If the same watts that you trained for feel easy, then you did it right. If it feels harder, then you did it wrong and need to adjust not just on the bike but also the run. A tapered body feels amazing and the mistake is to interpret this as “oh, it’s easy, I can go harder” – and that’s when you will pay for it later in the bike or for sure on the run. Ride the bike at the watts range you trained for, and if you still feel good when you get off the bike in T2, then the run is the only place where you should push it. I have had bad swims, bad bikes and bad runs. Nothing feels worse than a bad run. I’ve had a poor swim and poor bike but great run and it actually feels great to cross the finish line with a smile. As a friend told me: A triathlon is a running sport with a strange warmup of swimming and biking. It’s my opinion that efficient running is the least trained part of Triathlon. Taking run lessons to figure out the best gait for your body can have the biggest impact on your performance.
  7. About 1-3 weeks prior to your race, do a dry run of about 25% of your race distance but at race pace. Set up transitions exactly as in race (whether at bike set up or in bags) and rehearse the whole sequence wearing your race kit and equipment. You will be shocked at the little things that you will pick up on what to do on race day. I did one for all 15 HIM/IM races and was happy to be reminded of things I otherwise overlooked.
  8. Always drive the bike course and bike the run course the day or two before race. You will notice little things that on race day will look familiar and not surprise you. You want to minimize race day surprises as there are too many decisions to make. I once asked a pro triathlete to make a list of decisions she made on race day starting from the time she woke up. She stopped the list at swim start because it was already several pages. Race day is about 1000s of decisions … and the ones you forget to make or make incorrectly will be what will bother you most after the race. So make a list of decisions from moment you wake up till about 2 hours after race. The latter should include post race attire and nutrition, logistics for pick up, etc.
  9. Thank volunteers and encourage your fellow athletes. In my first HIM, B2B in NC, I told myself I wanted to have the unofficial world record of saying “Thank You” in a race. I believe I did it that day and all my races since. 9/10 folks that I said “Thank You” to, I got a positive response back from the volunteer – be it a smile or a “you look great!’ and I soaked up their responses until I got to the next volunteer. It kept me from thinking about many negative thoughts inherent in any endurance event .
  10. Finally, there is no feeling quite like the finish line whether it’s a HIM or hearing Mike Reilly call out your name as an Ironman. It is a feeling that is indescribable when it happens but much better felt and understood the weeks and months after. Life feels easier as a subconscious self belief takes over. If I can do an ironman, I can handle my job stress or whatever is happening. I am done, but I wish all my fellow triathletes and future finishers a great race. You are my tribe and I will always smile when I see you with your finisher gear!

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