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What I wish I would have known before saying yes to the Ironman

Danielle Lewis crossing the finish line Photo provided by Danielle Lewis
Danielle Lewis crossing the finish line Photo provided by Danielle Lewis

Let’s start this blog with a conversation. A convo with present day Dani (NOW) and pre-Ironman Dani (THEN).

NOW: “Hey. Danielle. Let’s chat.”

THEN: “Sure! Make it quick. I just took my AltRed and have a long run to go hit.”

NOW: “Of course. Quick question about your decision to do a full Ironman. I see you sitting there with a great deal of confidence in your ability to execute a sound training plan and your willingness to push your limits beyond what you have ever done. This is highly commendable and will take you far! But I know some things now about your Ironman journey and I want to ask you a question. You will put in more time and effort than any build, but you will not get the result you want. Are you still up for the journey?”

THEN: “Uh. How could I not perform well? If I put in the time and show up on race day, it’s a simple matter of swim, bike, run like I do every day.”

NOW: “There’s things you are not considering.”

THEN: “Ok. Well then tell me what they are! I’m not doing all this just to fail. 

NOW: “I’m not here to tell you those things. I’m here to ask you to reconsider your definition of failing. The lessons you learn and the people you meet in this journey will lead to growth in ways beyond a result. In knowing this, are you willing to continue AND continue with as much strength, confidence, focus and drive as you would have if you believed those traits would lead to a good result?

THEN: “That’s a hard question. I desperately want to perform well and prove myself. I don’t like being told I can’t do something.”

NOW: “I’m not saying can’t. Just, perhaps…..not yet.” 

THEN: “Well, if that’s the case, let’s become the strongest athlete I can be on race day, and what will be will be. Now if you don’t mind, it’s time to run.” 

You know what is interesting in writing this, my NOW self wouldn’t tell my THEN self that I needed to consider my nutrition and sodium plan. I allowed my THEN self to continue on the journey to a sub-par performance because I know that what I learned made me a stronger and more complete athlete. If things were to go perfectly, what would I have learned?  It’s these lessons I hope to impart to you so you don’t, also, have to learn the lessons the hard way!

An easy and logical topic to write about would be training methodology for Ironman racing. However, in my opinion, training is the easy part. First of all, there are countless other articles and books written about the topic. Second, if you follow the instruction of your coach, and ideally a coach that knows what he/she is doing, training is like checking off a to-do list. I swam today. Check. I did my five-hour long ride with my five 30 min high zone 3 intervals. Check. I ran 40 min off the bike. Check. The challenging part of ironman training is understanding, planning, and training your nutrition plan and mental game. So let me tell you what happened to me at IRONMAN Texas.

IRONMAN Texas was my first full distance triathlon. I did a great job with training and showed up stronger than ever. Yet, at mile 60 on the bike, my hips started cramping. Easily the most pain I’ve ever experienced on a bike. I couldn’t ride in aero because my hips were so locked up. I started chugging Gatorade and this got me to the finish of the bike looking like a salt-lick. I started the run sitting in 3rd, but quickly developed pain in my left hip and glute which suffered damage from trying to push through the cramping. I was able to hang on to 3rd for about half the run before going backwards. The sodium loss and hip pain turned the marathon into a jog, walk, hobble, do-what-it-takes-to-get-to-the-finish-line type of movement. At mile 18 I had a “water-cooler-moment” where I found myself sitting on a cooler at an aid station crying for no reason at all except being overwhelmed with emotion. But there’s something being out on course with hundreds of other athletes who are committed to getting to the finish line. So, in that moment, I resolved to get to the finish.

If you ask my husband, he will tell you I “unknowingly, self-sabotaged” my race because I changed my nutrition strategy a couple weeks before the race. BUT I did so because at the finish line of IM70.3 Oceanside two weeks before Texas, I barfed all over the red carpet and was convinced something was wrong with the fuel I was taking in during the race. I was more focused on getting the right amount of carbohydrates during the full, that I failed to consider my sodium strategy. Up until IM Texas, I didn’t have any issues related to a lack of sodium. Mainly because I trained in milder environments and had satisfactory sodium in my original nutrition strategy that I had been using in training.

If you are planning to attempt your first full IM, here are a few take-aways regarding nutrition:

Practice your nutrition strategy.

I get it. Everyone tells you this. It seems to be a no brainer. But seriously………practice. If you go out for your long rides and stop at a coffee shop, eat a pastry, then nibble on whatever candy you picked up at the gas station, you will be in for a long day on race day if you then decide to eat what is on course. When it comes to nutrition, you want to consume what will keep you hydrated and electrolytes up, keep your glucose stores stable and full and will not cause GI issues. The only way to know this is to practice. Practice the breakfast you plan to eat, the timing of taking your AltRed before and during long workouts, and the type and timing of hydration and fuel. Practice. Practice. Practice.

Don’t wait until race day to learn you have an issue/deficiency.

If you have been training and practicing your nutrition strategy in a mild environment, but your race is in a more challenging environment (i.e. at altitude, hot, humid, etc), it is important to understand how the race environment will affect you. The best way to figure that out is to go to the environment where your race will be to do some race-simulations. But that is not always feasible. If you are going to a warm environment, you can simulate this by riding your trainer with windows closed, no fan and perhaps a space heater. For a humid environment, set your trainer up in the bathroom with the hot water running to create a sort of steam room. Then, in either scenario, do a sweat rate test to measure how much fluid you lose per hour. Compare this to a sweat rate test done in your normal mild environment and compare the difference. You just don’t want to wait until race day to learn that you need more fluids and/or sodium.

Think beyond carbohydrates and consider your sodium needs.

Fueling is more than getting a certain amount of carbohydrates per hour. It also includes hydrating and meeting your sodium needs. Sodium needs are unique for each person. If you have never dealt with cramping, don’t get salt lines on your clothes during exercise, and don’t crave the salty goodness of McDonalds french fries after long hot workouts, it is likely that you don’t lose much sodium in your sweat. If you are like me and it looks like someone dumped a bucket of flour on you after riding 112 miles in the Texas heat, you likely lose a lot of sodium in your sweat and/or you just sweat A LOT. Personally, I needed approximately 12 grams of sodium at IM Texas and consumed maybe 3 grams. OOPS [insert face palm emoji].

It is worth getting an advanced sweat test to determine exactly how much sodium you lose in your sweat. But if you can’t get one of those, there are tools online that help you estimate your sodium loss. Combine this info with your sweat rate and you will get a good idea of how much total sodium you lose per hour.

Unfortunately, I came across these tools after my sodium debacle in Texas. BUT, for my long-term success, this was one of the best things that could have happened because now I know what happens when I miss the mark….which I never intend to miss again.

If you need to make a change to your strategy and do not have adequate time to train with this, employ extreme caution in making a change.

Any change pre-race should be handled delicately. If you have to do it, just make sure you analyze it carefully and make sure you are not overlooking anything 

If you are brave, or dumb, enough to sign up for an Ironman, chances are that you are a mentally strong, or stupid, person…..most definitely a bit of both! I say this jokingly, but it definitely takes a special mix of a person to set out on the unpromising, time consuming, physically demanding, and mentally challenging journey of completing a full distance triathlon! Your mental game needs to be dialed in because it’s impossible to predict every challenge you will face in the journey. Here are a few things I learned in my race experience:

Consider elements of success outside of a result.

If you have ever read about goal setting, you have probably been told to set process goals instead of only outcome goals. For example, instead of saying “My goal is to win my age group” OR “I want to finish in under 12 hours”, set goals related to HOW you will achieve those. “If I start to feel panicky in the swim, I will take a couple breast strokes and a few deep breaths, relax, and get back into my rhythm.” “I will cool my body down with water at every aid station on the bike.” “I will employ a run/walk strategy where I run the marathon, but walk the aid stations.” YES!! Do this! But ALSO, think about when you cross the finish line what are the biggest things you want to have done and want to feel that will allow you to feel successful if you don’t have a fast day or finish where you want. Ironman racing can be heartbreaking….if you allow it to be. All the work you put into being physically and mentally prepared is never for nothing, even if you don’t hit the big goals.

For me, I had some big goals that I felt could happen if I simply put together the swim, bike, run that I was prepared to do. But I also had “back-up-goals”….not sure if that’s a thing. But in case things went south, I wanted to make sure I finished AND finished feeling like I would want to do another full. When I was sitting on the water cooler at mile 18, I reminded myself that I would do whatever it took to finish, no matter how much pain or discomfort I was in. I drew strength from the other athletes around me and their fighting spirit.

Pre-race, do not give much energy or attention to the “what-ifs”.

If you find yourself before a race thinking a lot about what the weather may do, hoping the swim will be shortened, questioning if you will be able to handle a hilly run…STOP. Do you need to be prepared for rain and run a lower PSI in your tires? Yes. Do you need to make sure you know your fueling strategy if your run is taking longer than you may have planned? Yes. But you will wear your mental energy out by focusing on things you cannot control. Allow the day to be what it will be and take it as it comes. Everyone is out there fighting the same battle and you are not alone. Envision yourself successfully completing each discipline, keep breathing, stay relaxed and you will do just fine.

To wrap up the conversation with present day Dani (NOW) and the Melted-Just-Crossed-The-Finish-Line Dani (POST RACE).

NOW: “So…What did you think?”

POST RACE: “That was brutal. When can I do this again?”

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