TAHOE/TRUCKEE — After they ask me if I'm completely crazy (“Why in the world would you want to do that?!”), the next thing people ask when they find out I do Iron-distance races is, “Just how do you tackle something like that? How do you even approach it?”
Very fair question — 140.6 miles of swimming, biking and running is a long way any way you look at it. But simply put, it all comes down to the good old-fashioned, but incredibly accurate, cliche: One step (or pedal, or stroke) at a time!
Ultimately, Ironman is no different than any other big, daunting task in life that seems like almost too much to tackle at once. The thought is overwhelming. But like that looming task ahead, Ironman is not something anyone just stumbles into. You have to build your way up, through training and racing, starting small and gradually increasing your distance and intensity. There is no “jumping into” an Ironman. That is just crazy.
Once you've got lots of training under you belt, several Olympic-distance triathlon races and probably also a few 70.3s (half-Ironmans), then it's a good time to start thinking about stepping up to this next challenge. Once the decision is made, it takes months of specific preparation to be ready for the big day. So ideally, by the time you get there, you've put in the long workouts, the hard workouts and all the specific work needed to make it a positive experience. When you've hit each rung on the way up the ladder, the top step doesn't seem quite so high up there.
Nonetheless, even if you come in to the race totally prepped and raring to go, an Iron-distance race is a challenge. There's no getting around it. I'm heading into my fourth one Saturday, and I'm still a little nervous. But this is where you must remember to take it one step at a time. I break it down into manageable segments that I can try to focus on exclusively, and then cross each one off my list, commending myself on all I've accomplished, before moving on to the next one.
By the time I'm onto the run, it's literally 1 mile at a time. I tell myself, “Just tackle this mile as best as you can, and then we'll work on the next one.” I focus on staying in the moment. Over the span of 140.6 miles, this can be incredibly hard to do, but I think it is tremendously important. Be in the moment, giving all you can at that time, focused on your task, and soaking in your experience. Don't get lost in the mileage and let your mind be further up the road, or lagging behind. Be present at the given time. Just as in life.
Inevitably, even if you're managing the race like a champ, there are going to be moments where you feel terrible, exhausted and even totally defeated. You may want to give up. This is where you have to dig deep, believe in yourself and have faith that things will turn around. They almost always do. Over such a long span, there are always moments of feeling awful. But they eventually pass and give way to moments of feeling spectacular. So you just have to keep plugging away, one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. Your body will come back around, you will get a second — or third or fourth — wind, and eventually, you'll find yourself at the finish line. So be prepared to hurt, but know that it's OK, and you will get through it.
While the Ironman is often viewed as the epitome of endurance racing, when you think about it this way — when you break it down — it's really no different from any other race. Just a little longer! And ultimately, it's no different from any other of life's “big tasks.” Mile by mile, step by step, you focus on what you're doing, and what you need to do to reach the finish line.
Start small, and build your way up. Don't jump in before you're ready. Then break it down: turn that giant goal into several smaller ones. Pace yourself. But push yourself; test your limits. Ironman is a tough race. Just like life. So take it one step at a time. Never stop believing, even when it hurts. And when you've crossed that line, look back at all you have done, and smile. Savor the moment, the experience, and the reward of the incredible feat you've accomplished. And know that it was worth every little step.
— Kara LaPoint is an elite amateur triathlete competing for LUNA bar, and working up to the pro ranks. She has earned numerous overall amateur podium finishes and age-group wins across distances from Olympic to Ironman, and finished the 2011 season ranked as an All-American nationally among her age group (25-29). Read more about her racing and training at www.karalapoint.wordpress.com. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.