Becoming an Ironman: What the journey taught me
Completing an Ironman triathlon is a monumental achievement that demands unwavering dedication, physical endurance, and mental fortitude. As I reflect on my journey as an Ironman athlete, I am reminded of the countless hours of training, the highs and lows of the race, and the profound lessons learned along the way. In this post, I share my personal reflections and examples of what it truly takes to become an Ironman.
In a dream-like moment, I found myself running on the black and red carpet with the Ironman logo on it. I must have seen that carpet a million times in triathlon videoes from all over the world. Throughout my training, I had visualized how it would feel to be running on that exact carpet, and now I was there. The music was loud, I gave my last round of high-fives to the crowd, and raised my arms to the sky in achievement - hearing the speaker yell the familiar words:
"You are an Ironman!"
Pretty surreal experience. After swimming 3,8 km, biking 180 km, and running 42 km, I had just finished my longest-ever endurance event. The whole thing took me 10 hours and 28 minutes. Enough to earn me a spot amongst the top 20% fastest athletes on the day (and some pretty sore legs the following week).
Half a year post the event, I want to reflect on what my journey in triathlon has taught me.
Let’s start with a simple question…
Why do an Ironman?
My motivation to do an event of this magnitude can be narrowed down to an aggregate of different things.
For one, I am a very result-oriented individual. I am highly motivated by challenging myself, as I generally aim towards being a better version of myself than I was yesterday.
That being said, a large contributor was the covid-19 pandemic. Like so many people globally, lockdown isolated me from things that mattered: Friends, family, colleagues, and culture.
While I did find new joy in walking (like everybody else), I felt empty inside. My motivation to take care of myself physically and mentally was close to zero.
I needed a new challenge. An ambitious goal that I could dedicate myself to, which would require hard work and consistency to achieve. It shouldn't be within my reach, but a lighthouse to aim and train for.
Triathlon training filled out the gap.
However, it started a bit less ambitious than a full distance Ironman. My debut was a short-distance triathlon race in my hometown.
Making all the mistakes in the book
When I signed up for the event, I had done fairly little triathlon-specific training and no competitive racing. To make matters worse, 4 weeks before race day, I was hit by a car.
It was an early morning in July. I was 10 km into a long bike ride when a car oversaw me in a roundabout. I remember breaking like crazy before my front wheel was hit (thank god for quality breaks) and the next second I was laying on cold asphalt.
It took me a few seconds to understand what had just happened. When it sunk in, I lost my temper over the potential damage to the bike (which in retrospect is hilarious, because I had pressed two ribs and would go on to get bad pneumonia as a consequence - laying a week in bed coughing like a madman).
I decided to give the race a try anyway. Maybe not the wisest of decisions, but the race was in my hometown and I thought it would be a valuable experience. I was right.
When the gun went off, I jumped (head first) into the water and my goggles fell off. Like a blind, drowning mole, I adjusted my goggles to navigate the swim course. When I came out of the water, I was bleeding pretty badly from my hand. My best guess is that I cut it on some seagrass. On the bike (with a bleeding hand) my computer ran out of battery, making it hard to adjust the pace, and I hadn't quite anticipated the 20-meter mountain, which we all needed to "climb" as part of the run course.
I finished as part of the 20% slowest athletes on the day, but gained a lot of experience from my mistakes.
Fast-forward 12 months and I was ready for my biggest challenge yet. The major distance within triathlon and the reason I joined it in the first place. I was ready to attempt the Ironman distance.
It was a peaceful morning in late August. Nerves and anticipation were filling the air, as athletes from different backgrounds walked quietly to the transition area. Everyone had their bikes placed and ready from check-ins the day before and now it was just a matter of doing the last few preparations and rituals before the start.
My alarm rang at 4 am that morning. I had adjusted my internal clock (circadian rhythm) and gotten my body used to the early mornings leading up to race day. I knew it was an early start and I needed time to digest breakfast as well as get electrolytes and salt in before the start. Four days prior to the race, I made sure to eat plenty of carbs (often referred to as carb loading) to top up my glycogen stores to have plenty of energy.
The training formula was no different. Waking up before sunrise for 6-hour long bike rides on the weekends, swimming countless laps in the pool (fine-tuning stroke technique, adjusting breathing, and practicing sighting), working your core through strength training in fitness and running a lot of kilometers in between - all while juggling work and personal responsibilities.
Sounds like a lot and it is. I think it goes to show, that becoming an Ironman requires an unparalleled level of commitment. It means sacrificing leisure time, social events, and indulgences in favor of structured training sessions. It demands discipline, but the rewards are immeasurable. I came to love the process and the small incremental advancements that came as part of it.
Further, I think consistency is key to success within endurance sports (and other aspects of life too). Sometimes you don't feel motivated. You want to hit snooze when that alarm clock goes off. You want to find arguments for not taking action. Our brains are designed for comfort, so if we can make it out the door despite the lack of motivation, we are on the path to success. Becoming better through consistency. On race day, it makes all the difference, as we're simply not better than the training we have put into it. In life, I think it's better to be consistently good at something rather than occasionally great.
The speaker reminded me that athletes with blue swimming caps should proceed to the warm-up area.
Somewhere in the dishwasher
Moments after, I stood on the beach getting in line for the start and just like that, we were off. The start is always a bit chaotic. Everyone is anxious to get on to a good start, the water is hard to navigate and people frequently bump into each other as a consequence. Arms and feet are thrown around to get ahead - hence why it's called "the dishwasher".
While physical strength is essential, strategy plays a vital role in the swim leg. My strategy was clear: Start off quickly, find a good pace after 5 minutes, draft behind someone else to conserve energy (which is quite normal), and build from there. It went well.
After a turbulent start, breathing regulates further into the swim (I breathe after every two strokes) and a sense of calm descends. As you are surrounded by the vast expanse of water, you find rhythm in every stroke. One, two, breathe...
The swim leg is also an immersion into a different world. It's dark and quiet. The boundaries between body and water blur, as the body is propelled forward and you find a unique peace and serenity. It is very sensory experience, feeling the coolness of the water against the skin, hearing the splash of each stroke, and tasting the saltiness of the sea.
Although it might even be meditative in training, on the day, it's still a race - and the swim requires awareness, quick decision-making, and adaptability to changing circumstances.
It's like a chess game played in the water. Finding the right time to overtake opponents, discovering the most efficient lanes around the course, navigating in open water through sighting (remember your head is looking down into the dark most of the time) - all while mastering good form.
The long hours of training technique in the pool and in open water had paid off. I made it out with a personal best on the 3,8 km distance. A perfect start. No need for adjusting goggles, no bleeding hand.
The long, silent ride
I ran to shore while unzipping my swimsuit and tore it off, when I reached the transition area (if you have ever had a swimsuit on, you know it's not coming off easily or fast, but this is in fact something I practiced). Underneath my swimsuit, I had my Fusion tri-suit. A slim-fitted one piece designed for aerodynamics on the bike. Minutes after exiting the water, I ran to the mounting area, jumped on my trusty steed (a Cervelo P3) and embarked on the journey that was a 180 km ride.
The long, silent bike ride is a battle against the elements as you face wind resistance, fluctuating temperatures, drops in energy levels and varying terrains. As you pedal kilometer after kilometer in aero position (making yourself smaller to have less wind resistance), the body feels the strain. For me, however, it started way earlier than expected.
One month leading up to the race, I crashed on my gravel bike damaging a nerve in the knee. The crash wasn't severe, and the knee had been ok prior to the race, but after the first 10 minutes on the bike, I felt a sharp pain in my left hip, knee, and foot. I couldn't believe it. After all this training and preparation, was my body giving up on me?
I tried to change focus, but the sharp pain continued and I felt my left foot becoming numb. My only positive was that my numbers were good (at the bike leg, you typically ride with a range of power measured in watts to conserve energy for the entire race), so I kept at it.
Knee pain or not, discomfort and fatigue will sneak in on you at some point. It is in these moments, you find out what you're made of. The premise is that it's going to be hard, so it's about how you handle adversity when it enters. It will come either way.
Mental strategies are crucial. For me, it was about breaking the ride into smaller, manageable segments, setting milestones during the ride, reminding myself of the training invested and focusing on maintaining a consistent rhythm.
Another mental tactic is to engage in positive self-talk. I told myself that I was doing great (keeping up with my watts despite the pain) and it enhanced an overall optimistic mindset throughout.
About 90 km in, my knee pain stopped and I got a huge boost. It allowed me to push harder at the second half of the bike leg, which eventually led to a faster than expected time overall.
The bike leg is a place for solitude and inner reflection. I was surrounded by nature, as thoughts ebbed and flowed, memories surfaced, and my emotions fluctuated.
Visualization was another technique I used to maintain focus along the many hours on the bike: I saw myself wave to my family as I passed them on the route, how I would climb that steep hill with energy or jump off the bike to initiate my run.
It's through these mental strategies that the seemingly insurmountable challenge becomes conquerable.
While physical endurance is vital, mental resilience is equally crucial. The race itself is a mental rollercoaster, demanding focus and determination. Doubts creep in and you question your ability to continue. It is during these critical moments that personal reflections and knowing what you stand for become invaluable.
A marathon to top it off
After 5 hours and 27 minutes, I jumped off the bike. I did a fairly quick change into my running wear in the second transition area and got to it.
My legs felt like they were filled with lead: Stiff and heavy. I caught myself thinking that this could be pretty uphill, but after a few minutes the muscles adapted and I found flow.
In training, I had practiced this specific transition a lot: Running immediately after a bike workout. This type of blog workout helps prepare the body for the challenge it is moving from one sport to the next without compromising on the overall performance.
I knew this going into the race, but in the moment I couldn't help but laugh at the fact that I was about to run 42 km after having just biked 180 km. The voice in my head said "This is crazy... You are crazy!", and I agreed with a smile on my face.
I think it underlines my state of mind going into the run. I felt really good and on top of things. Another mental strategy is this honesty towards yourself: Knowing your strengths and weaknesses. I knew that the run was my strongest discipline and I was confident in how to approach the marathon having completed my first one the same year.
During the marathon, the body is really pushed to its physical extremes. At this point, you have been going on for hours, the muscles are fatigued, and energy reserves are more or less depleted. You have to dig deep.
Luckily, this part of the race is different in the way that the crowds were hugely present along the run course. As I progressed, I felt how cheers from family, friends and random spectators fueled me and gave me a surge of energy and motivation to keep pushing. Giving me just an additional layer of strength allowing the pain to fade into the background.
Towards the end, every step becomes a testament to the hours of training. An overwhelming surge of adrenaline propels you forward, as the finish line is in sight and the Ironman carpet appears as a symbolic representation of imminent achievement. Never have I ever been more excited to see and run on a carpet in my life.
You know the rest...
However, completing an Ironman is not solely about crossing the finish line; it is a transformative journey with process goals along the way. It is the process of pushing beyond self-imposed limitations, discovering untapped potential, and gaining profound insights about oneself.
From the exhilaration of conquering your first long-distance swim to the surge of adrenaline during the final strides of the marathon, every step brings you closer to self-discovery and personal growth.
Becoming an Ironman is an extraordinary endeavor that goes far beyond the realms of physical fitness. It's the ultimate test of physical endurance that demands sacrifice, commitment, and mental resilience.
The training regimen is tough with each discipline pushing the body to its limits. Overcoming exhaustion and pushing through the pain becomes a daily mantra. From enduring muscle cramps during runs to battling fatigue during bike rides, everyone faces their own physical barriers. Yet, it is in these moments that we discover the depths of our strength.
It is in training and on race day that we find the essence of our character and the limits of our capabilities. As an Ironman athlete, I can attest that the journey is arduous, but the sense of accomplishment, and the personal transformation make every step worthwhile.
So, to all those aspiring to become an Ironman: Embrace the challenge, dig deep, and embark on a journey that will shape you in ways you never thought possible.
In the same year, I did The Big Four - entering the hall of fame for completing four of the major endurance events in Denmark. As of now, I am settling into a new training regime. A more explorative space, where I can try out new and fun ways of endurance training. Gravel cycling in the woods, social runs with coworkers, trail running and even ultras. It's been great.
To my family and friends
Thank you for standing behind me through the ups and the downs. I am forever grateful for your support throughout this journey.