The Ironman Triathlon is a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride, and 26.2-mile run, raced in that order without a break. It's one of the most grueling mental and physical competitions in the world and can take up to 17 hours to complete.
It's a race fit for the pros, yet these two amateur athletes proudly say "I did it," and you can, too.
“I remember thinking when I was young that I wouldn’t ever do something like that,” says Mike Thompson, a 27-years-old Ironman competitor from Austin, Texas. “I didn’t think I was born with the natural ability I thought those athletes possessed.”
Thompson battled Leukemia as a child and has overcome more than 75 reconstructive surgeries. He was told by doctors that he might never walk without pain again, much less run. Now, running is a huge part of his life and he completed his second Ironman competition at Kona, Hawaii with an overall time of 12:53:41. Thompson says that if you have the desire to finish an Ironman, “You can do it.”
Megan Wolfe, a 29-year-old nurse from San Mateo, Calif., completed her first Ironman competition in August 2012 with no professional training or guidance. She followed a training plan she found online and says after she completed the race, in a time of 12:58:21, “[I felt like] I could conquer the world.”
If you've ever considered racing in an Ironman, Ashley DeBoise Brown, a certified Physical Therapist and triathlon training expert says, “It’s never too late in life to start training.” While she believes you can train for an Ironman at any age and fitness level, she recommends those starting with a limited fitness background have a full physical work-up prior to starting a training regimen. And whatever you do, “Have a plan and stick to it as closely as you can,” she says.
For many, the time commitment is the most challenging part of preparing for race day. Brown recommends that athletes begin training at least four to eight months prior to the competition, and plan to perform each element (bike, swim, run) three to four times a week. “It’s important to have the support of your friends and family to reach your goal because there’s a lot of sacrifice involved,” she says.
That advice held true for Wolfe, who says she relied heavily on her husband and sister’s boyfriend, who signed up for the competition with her, for support. Together, they began training nine months prior to the competition date. “If I was training alone, I don’t know if I would have made it,” she says. And while "you can for sure do it with a day job," she says, support from family friends is crucial because, "you won’t be able to do much else besides work, train and sleep.”
For Thompson, who works full-time at a bicycle shop, making time to train wasn't easy even though he already led an active lifestyle. “With a goal like Ironman, I knew I would have to set aside time to accommodate 20 plus hours [a week] of working out,” he says. “I made sure that I would get to bed early and hydrate throughout the day to keep my energy level up so that other obligations weren’t suffering because of training.”
Amateur athletes preparing for an Ironman can expect their eating habits to change, too. “I think most athletes will agree that a benefit of training for an Ironman is that energy demands increase,” says Brown. Depending on body size, most people can expect to consume 150 to 300 calories per hour during training (when workouts last longer than 60 minutes). “I was eating everything in sight!" says Wolfe. "You are burning so many calories that you almost can't keep up.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you can fuel up on burgers, fries and milkshakes. Brown stresses the importance of eating lots of fruits and vegetables in addition to lean meats and complex carbohydrates. Thompson learned first-hand that "the better I ate, the better I would feel before, during and after my workouts.”
While Brown recommends seeking the advice of a trainer and nutritionist, Wolfe says, “If you follow the training plan, you can complete the race.” When asked if she’d do it again she says, “Yes, but not anytime soon.”
Thompson plans to continue racing Ironman as long as he is physically able. “After being told the odds of me competing in sports again were not good, I am proof that anyone can put forth the effort to compete if they have the desire."