Life Lessons Learned From My First Ironman

Three years ago, today, I became an Ironman. This morning while I drank my coffee in the pre-dawn hours before my run, I spent some time on Facebook and Timehop. All the emotions of that day came roaring back as I looked at friends’ posts on my wall, the comments from friends and family and the amazing photos that my awesome sister uploaded in order to keep everyone updated.

July 28, 2013 was one of the best days of my life – for so many reasons. Obviously being able to call myself an “Ironman” (and have it in my bio :) ) is a pretty sweet reward. But that day was so much more to me. I know I’m three years removed, but I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned from that experience.

Wait for the fire. There was a marked moment when an Ironman went from being something fun to watch on TV to a fire in my stomach and something I wanted to do. For years, I would watch Kona on TV with my husband and talk about how cool it would be to do one one day. But that was it. A couple of days after the Ironman would air, doing one would be out of sight, out of mind. It was one of those “lifetime goals” that didn’t have any weight to it.

There’s nothing wrong with having goals like this. I have a long list of goals that I hope to do one day. But that’s all they are at the moment.

Other goals we may choose are actually for others, not ourselves. They are “for the insta” or to get likes or comments or grow social media presence. Usually those are the goals that last for several weeks but once the opportunity comes up to pick the easier route, the goal goes out the window.

But, after watching the 2011 Kona Ironman, something changed. The goosebumps popped on my arms. I got the chills. My heart was pounding. I could literally feel the fire burning inside of me. The desire did not disappear a week post-Kona. Instead, it started to consume me. I couldn’t read enough about triathlons and the Ironman, in particular. From race recaps, to tracking acquaintances competing in other triathlons to training plans it became part of me.

I’ve learned that waiting for the fire to burn before taking that first step is crucial. If you have the fire burning in your belly, you will be all in and it will only increase the chances of you following through. I had the fire that summer. It got me up at 4am each Saturday to bike 60, 80, 100+ miles alone. It got me up to go to the pool at 5am. Or to run 20 milers in the heat.

For something like an Ironman (or I’d argue a marathon or any other long-distance event or any life event that will consume a good amount of your time and energy), you have to be fully committed. You can’t half-a$$ it and hope to complete it.

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You may need to get creative to get the workout in. In an ideal world, we have huge blocks of time with no commitments to get things done by the book. But that’s often not the case.

While I was training for the Ironman, I was still exclusively breast-feeding. One of the challenges was fitting in the long training days (specifically the long bike rides) with either nursing or pumping. When I started training, I did some of my rides on my trainer in the basement. During a 5-hour ride, I pumped twice – without having to stop riding. After pumping, I’d text or call my husband and he’d come down to grab the milk for our son. I felt silly and weird and like a selfish mom but it saved me about 15-20 min of stopping and pumping (or nursing) while allowing me to get in a continuous ride.

It takes a village. There is zero chance I would have been able to train for or complete the Ironman without the support of my entire family. I am so thankful that my family supported my crazy goal and were willing to drop anything to come over to watch the boys while my husband was out of town.

My husband traveled a lot for work during this window and as race day got closer and closer, I wanted to try to do as many long rides and runs outside as possible. One weekend, in particular, I recall. It was only three weeks before race day and I was scheduled to do a 105 mile bike ride and 18+ mile run. My mom watched the boys all morning on Friday (6+ hours) and my sister came over on Saturday so I could get the workouts in.

Not to mention that having the support and understanding of your family, especially your significant other, makes it easier when you have to miss events or go to bed at 8pm or just be a slog for the rest of the day after your 6+ hours of biking.

I don’t think my family was initially all gung-ho about the undertaking I had signed up for. But after some discussions and especially after seeing the glow in my eyes when I talked about it, they knew and understand how much this meant to me and got onboard.

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There’s no reason to fear the unknown. I was so scared of learning how to clip in that I put it off for weeks after getting my new bike. I had never clipped in before and my husband had to teach me two days before my first triathlon (super hilly Olympic distance).

We fear what is unknown – and most of the time we fear simply because it’s unknown to us. It takes practice to look fear in the eye and continue marching on. Keep practicing it. It gets easier.

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We were all newbies at one point. I was so intimidated when I showed up to my first triathlon. I felt like I had a big sign across my head that said “triathlon newbie”. I felt like everyone could tell – just from looking at me – that I had no clue what I was doing.

Looking back, I didn’t look at any different than anyone else. But I felt I did. And I felt intimidated that they were seasoned, experienced triathletes. You will perform and race better when you feel better. Be confident in yourself. Just remember: at one point, we were all new to the sport (whatever sport, whatever life event – nobody started out as an expert).

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“The summit is such a small piece of the mountain. Most of the beauty and wonders are experienced during the climb.” I read this quote the other day and felt like it hit my soul. Obviously, yes, race day was so amazing and special for a ton of reasons. But the training is what changed me. The training is what made the finish line so special – because of the hard work and time and sweat it took to get there. Looking back now, being able to say that I trained for an Ironman is what gives me goosebumps and makes me proud

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Believe in Yourself: I would argue that this is one of the most important lessons I learned. When I decided to do Ironman Lake Placid, I had never done a single triathlon before. I had never swam more than a length of a pool (straight) and the furthest I had ever ridden my bike was 65 miles (4 years ago). On paper, I probably didn’t look like the ideal person to sign up for an Ironman. But I believed in myself. In my discipline and determination. And in my ability. That is what you need to force you out the door at 4am for a long ride or 5am to get into a chilly pool.  I’m not going to tell you that you have to do X, Y and Z before you sign up for your first. I hadn’t done a single triathlon before I signed up for Placid (I did an Olympic and half during training). I’m sure there are loads of theories and formulas of when you are “ready” but I truly believed I was capable despite my inexperience with the sport. Yes, I could have eased into it and probably finished faster if I would have spent time at shorter distances, but I wanted a challenge and this was it for me. quotes1

There’s no such thing as balance. I’ve learned that (for me) there is no balance in trying to juggle a successful career, family and training. Instead, I have found a balance in the imbalance. I write a whole post on this topic. You can read it here.

And I’ve learned that shifting priorities helps keep the imbalance as balanced as possible. Sometimes training may need to take priority over other aspects of your life. And that is okay. And other times, that run may have to get scraped because it’s not the highest priority. Priorities can and should shift as the season and training cycle progress.

balanceThere will never be the perfect time. If you want to do something, do it. When I decided to sign up for my first Ironman, my oldest son had just turned two and my youngest was four months old. I think the initial reaction from others was that I was nuts. But the way I viewed it, that was my window – it was the best shot I was going to get at it for a while. There will never be a perfect time to train for an Ironman – it’s exceptionally time consuming and there will always be family, commitments and work to make it hard to train.

I felt that it wasn’t the ideal situation but that it would be easier at that point than the point I am at now – working full time out of the house and weekends full of soccer, basketball and fun activities for the boys.

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When things get hard, take a deep breath and find comfort in the discomfort. Ironman training took me out of my comfort zone more than any other activity had ever before. I didn’t understand fatigue or exhaustion until that training cycle and that race.

There will always be hard moments – whether in a marathon, an Ironman or in life. Your path is not going to be smooth sailing the whole time. Accepting the hard moments and learning to get through them are what make your journey a success.

After making it through fairly well on the swim and bike, my stomach began cramping at mile 10 of the marathon. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of 16 more miles in the state I was in.

There was more than one occasion where I took a deep breath and focused on what I could control – which in some moments was simply just putting one foot in front of the other.

The only journey you should worry about is your own. In this day and age, it’s so easy to compare yourself with others. Social media makes it so easy with hashtags to follow along the training of others who are doing the same race.

Don’t get caught up in the comparison game. Not only will it psych you out on race day, but in your mind it will diminish the work that you put in to get there – which is not fair to you.

It’s also not important to look at the path that other people have taken to get to where they are now. Just because they did x, y and z, in that order, doesn’t mean that you even need to concern yourself with them. I had never done a triathlon before – yet I signed up for an Ironman. People probably side eyed me and thought I was being crazy. But just because their path was different or that my path was different from the supposed “correct” path, didn’t mean that I was wrong.

Everyone’s path is different. Be proud of your own. Focus on yours alone. And celebrate reaching the end of your path.

You can read my recap from my Ironman day here!

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    12 thoughts on “Life Lessons Learned From My First Ironman

    1. Just found this article and LOVED it. My story is similar to yours, marathoner with no affiliation to triathlon and then one day it just hit me and I wanted to do an Ironman so bad. A couple of days later I was signed up for an Ironman a year away, I put in the training and the many, many, did I say many, “firsts”, “learn something new every day”s and “scary moments when you show up at one of your firsts and everyone looks like they know what they’re doing” later I became an Ironman last month ( I did a half during IM training, which was my first triathlon ever). And in hindsight it’s so funny how scared I was because while the race wasn’t always a walk in the park, it was great FUN and still so much easier than I had ever thought it would be. That day, I really learned never to underestimate myself, that others’ reality isn’t mine (people think you can’t do something because they think THEY can’t do something) and that turning big and crazy dreams into reality doesn’t take a miracle, just dedicated work and patience. Eating the elephant one bite at a time… I had read your race report before my IM and knew that our stories were similar, so your report gave me a lot of confidence that it was possible! <3 I always thought to myself: "Ok, others' reality isn't mine, but her IM reality, I could live with hers" 😀 Lots of love from Germany!

    2. This post really hit home for me! I’m currently training for my first Olympic tri (Jersey City Triathlon, 3 weeks away!) and the nerves have been hitting me the past few day. It’s so important to believe in yourself – thank you for the encouragement!! I hope to be an iron(wo)man one day too!

    3. Loved this so much – I did a half Ironman a couple years ago, and part of me has wanted to do an Ironman, but I don’t have that fire quite yet. Like you said, it’s something you definitely need to have to commit the time to train, and it’s okay to not be ready for that yet. I think it would be such a different challenge than running, and would be an amazing experience. So impressed you tacked the distance without much swimming or biking experience prior – definitely shows how we can push our limits and succeed. Thanks for sharing!
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    4. I did IMLP in 2009 (forever ago!) when my now husband and I were just dating and it was a super fun way to spend a lot of time together, get to know each other and also train for IM. We committed all our time to IM training, hanging out together and working our jobs… I can not even imagine doing that now with 2 kids, a house, life!
      That’s why I dropped the swim/ bike years ago and focus on running, so much easier and less logistics. Maybe one day I’ll get back on my bike or in the Tri scene, but the more I’m out running, especially on the trails, I feel like it’s more me than the structure and spandex of triathlon 😉 ha!
      But loved to see you train for it, as I was weeks from having my 1st when you did IMLP 3 years ago. I was living vicariously through you!
      And also to re-read about how you handled breastfeeding while training gives me inspiration to keep it up with my now 4 month old and know that other mamas did/do it too! I can train for long distance and still be able to pump/ breastfeed/ etc (I’ve been creative so far!)
      Thanks for continuing to be a refreshing inspiration.
      If you’re ever out on California (or I’m in NYC) let me know! I’ll take you on some epic trail runs!

    5. Did you use a specific training plan or get a coach? I am planning on doing IM Arizona in November 2017. I am trying to figure out which training route I want to take.

      • Hi Kelly! I used a training plan from a book – it was Matt Fitzgerald’s training book. I highly recommend it if you are not looking to spend a ton of $ and use a coach. There are 10 different training plans for each race distance – they range from the bare minimum to finish to an all-out plan where you hope to win/place in AG. I think I used level 6 (out of 10). So it was starting to get into an intensive plan but was still manageable for me. I think I averaged 3 days of swimming, 3 days of biking and 3 days of running with one full rest day!
        Hope that helps!
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    6. Love this! I have been spectating at Lake Placis for several years and saw you compete 3 years ago…such an inspiration :) I’m planning on doing IMLP in two years and this has me so excited to get to the finish line!!

      • Hi Nicole! I will definitely do another one at some point. I really loved everything about it. But it likely won’t happen now until the boys are off to college and I have “free” weekends. I can’t fathom trying to fit it in now – mostly because I’m working full time. I think if I was still at home with the boys it would be manageable b/c I could do all the long training while they were at school (they will both be in full time in Sep).
        Thank you for the sweet words :)
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