The Halo Effect of Ironman

It’s fair to say that finishing Ironman Wisconsin changed me.

I know it sounds a bit cliché, but I think it’s actually true. In the first week after the event, I thought it was just the glow of the day illuminating everything else in my life, but now two months later the feeling is still there.

In particular my concept of what’s possible has expanded. An Ironman triathlon is the largest single thing I’ve ever achieved. I awoke at 4:30 AM, and I didn’t go to bed until after midnight the next day. In the meantime I swam, cycled, and ran for more than twelve hours. Just doing it wasn’t enough. I felt the need to race it as fast as I could. For a long time, I didn’t really understand just how enormous an undertaking it was going to be. It was just an abstract “really big thing.” Sure, I knew I would be working out for 50% longer than my typical workday at the office, all while covering a distance longer than the length of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but it took a long time for the enormity to sink in. I had raced five 70.3s before—and I still take a lot of pride in those accomplishments—but I couldn’t really extrapolate from those triathlons to the magnitude of a full Ironman.

Having done it, I know that it’s not impossible at all, though it certainly seemed that way the first time I thought about it. It helped not to think about the whole thing at once . . . ever . . . except in the most abstract, neutral terms. Thinking about 12 hours of anything while in the middle of it, is a bad idea. Instead, I divided the Ironman into its parts, and I divided each leg into smaller chunks, too. I had a cadence for my nutrition and hydration, but other than staying on schedule, I didn’t really look at my watch very often. And, crazy as this sounds, just simply doing something without thinking about it more than I needed to, well that really made the time pass quickly.

Ironman Wisconsin is also the largest single project I’ve ever executed. (I’ve been part of large, on-going projects at work for a long time, but the Ironman was definitely more focused and self-directed than any of those.) I had a six-month plan for this project, which borrowed liberally from Gale Barnhardt’s Training Plans for Multisport Athletes. I modified it to accommodate the other races I wanted to do and to match up with days that I could swim. Overall, the amount of time I spent swimming, biking, running, and recovering was unchanged. The plan was essential. I didn’t have to think about all six months at a time; I knew that I could focus on a single week and that the plan would get me where I needed to be in terms of fitness.

I did my best to follow the plan. Occasionally, my body or schedule just wouldn’t cooperate, and I was okay with that, knowing that extra recovery wouldn’t really derail me. Doing the work was (usually) enjoyable, too. By the fourth month, all of the training did start to wear me out quite a lot, but I knew it was in service of my big goal. Keeping that in mind made it easier to get up early in the morning to swim or to head outside to ride or run in bad weather.

Despite figuring out how to compartmentalize, having a plan, and just doing all the hard work, success still wasn’t guaranteed. There were dozens of things that could have gone wrong: a freak-out in the swim, dehydration, dangerously high or low blood glucose, bike crashes, twisted ankles, cramps, illness, injury, food poisoning, lost timing chips, drafting penalties, missing the time cut-offs, insufficient nutrition, over-hydration, GI issues, bad weather, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, lost bags in transition, mechanical issues on the bike, lost goggles, being too conservative or aggressive on the bike, poor pacing on the run, not sleeping the night before, oversleeping and missing the start, etc., etc., etc. Failure to finish was a real possibility; I just had to trust in all of the training and past race experience.

And everything did go well, probably as well as it possibly could have. That fact is very empowering.

The funny thing is that (objectively) I wasn’t any less capable of achieving that result on the Saturday before the event than I was on that day or as I am now. Nevertheless, I do feel differently about what I think I can do now that I’ve done it. If I had to do it again—and I certainly plan to someday—I still won’t underestimate the effort, but I’ll certainly have more confidence going in.

This feeling has carried over to other things in the last month, especially the big and scary stuff that might have overwhelmed me earlier. Finishing the Duolingo Spanish course before our Patagonia trip next month? Just take the lessons one day at a time. Lots of big unknown things about the re-org at work? Keep focusing on the big picture and trust in the plan. Getting my diabetes where I want it? Treat it like training for an Ironman.

It’s not that I feel invincible, but I definitely feel capable of trying more things and believing in the probability of success.

To be continued . . .

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