How to Have Your Best Ironman Marathon

“A fast Ironman marathon is not about who runs the fastest, but who slows the least”  -Mark Allen

Mark Allen at the 1989 Hawaii Ironman (his first of six titles)

A lot of folks who come into Ironman Triathlon have some open (stand-alone) marathon experience, or at least some open-half marathons or half-marathons off the bike in 70.3 distance triathlons (half-Ironmans). When athletes start their first Ironman marathon and realize the toll that a 2.4mi swim and a 112mi bike has taken, they’re shocked to discover how slow their pace is compared to their open-marathon/half-marathon pace. Therefore, it’s important going into the Ironman marathon having our expectations aligned with the ultra-distance reality. Anticipation is the heart of wisdom.

Ironman comes down to one thing: the run. You can float through the swim, most times in a buoyant and cozy wetsuit, and you can coast when you’re tired on the bike. But, there is absolutely nowhere to hide on that marathon. My athletes remind me of this fact time and again after they complete their first Ironman-distance triathlon. So, naturally, that’s where I always start looking when I embark on a journey with a new athlete targeting the ultra-distance. “Where is your run?” Ideally, I’ll start working with an athlete early enough in the year, to bank some great run fitness, culminating with a spring marathon, like the Napa Valley Marathon, held in early March. Having this spring marathon in the bank serves two purposes: 1. banking some great run training along the way to the very Ironman-specific objective of having a successful open-marathon. And 2., steeling the mind against the rigors of a very demanding distance. When the athlete arrives at the second transition (bike-to-run), he draws confidence from the fact that he has that spring marathon in his legs. He knows, “If I’ve done it [at least] once, well h*ll, I can do it again.” But a strong body and mind running is only a piece of the puzzle. Success in the Ironman marathon is actually predicated upon superior bike fitness.

I remember meeting a very confident guy at an Ironman carbo-dinner once. He was there to do his first Ironman. He wasn’t shy about informing me about his running prowess. He had already run several marathons under 2:30. I told him that was awesome and it bested my marathon personal best by 10min. Having had a poor showing at my first Ironman and at the time of this conversation took place, with some five or six more IMs to my name, I advised the guy to take it easy on the bike. He wouldn’t have it. After the race, scrolling down and down some more on the results page I found him; he had a good swim, a rocking bike, but didn’t manage to break 4hrs on the run, let alone 3 like he wanted. Like me, he had to learn the hard way. Some of us are just knuckleheads. Or, some of us find out early exactly where our limits are and come back and have the race that lives up to our potential.

So the run’s the tough part. It comes at the end, after you’ve been at it for a long while. If you think about the dynamics of the event, on average, a poor swim is only going to set you back some 5-10min. A poor bike ride’s only going to add 10-15min. But, a bad run? If you started your marathon averaging 8min miles, and then started walking, you just dropped to somewhere in the neighborhood of 18min/mi and may end up adding an hour or more to your overall race time. Again, there’s nowhere to hide. This little scenario is what happened to me during my first Ironman in Lake Placid, back in 2001. I came into the sport with 2+ years of marathoning under my belt, like my acquaintance with the 2:30 marathon best. I thought I could push the bike as hard as I wanted and would be able to run a smokin’ marathon. That certainly wasn’t the case; I was walking by mile 9, completely dumbfounded. I walk-jogged my way to a 10:45 Ironman, well below my target race time. And so it goes. We learn. I would come back to Lake Placid a year later, pace the bike better and shave 45min off my overall time and qualify for the big dance in Kona. Redemption feels good.

Chrissie Wellington

The Ironman marathon really isn’t about running fast. It’s about maintaining a “slow” pace, relative to your open run times, while being okay with it in your head. Interestingly enough, Mark Allen’s first marathon actually came in his very first marathon, which was in his first Hawaii Ironman! This is fascinating from a sports psychology perspective since his experience was opposite what most peoples’ is; he immediately internalized what running a marathon under a tropical sun feels like. This certainly paved the way for his future success in Hawaii. After this initial marathon, he raced an Ironman in Europe, where it’s much cooler, and discovered that, Hey!, I can run a whole heck of a lot faster here! That was back in the day when all you had to do to get into Kona was send in your check and registration. Most folks who qualify for Kona these days do so at events that have cooler temps on the run. When they go to Hawaii with expectations to run at the same pace they ran at their qualifier, they quickly become discouraged, if they haven’t anticipated it.

It’s HOT out there on the Queen K!!

Conditions on the day really dictate how fast you’ll cover the 140.6mi. Wind and heat will slow you down. We have to be ready for this. I look to my own Kona times in 2004 and 2007. In 2007, I crossed the finish line 20min faster than in 2004! But, when I saw the results, I was about 50 places down from where I’d been just three years prior. Why? Well, mostly because the conditions were simply tougher in ’04. I took to heart what Paula Newby-Fraser said to us at the carbo-dinner two nights before the race that year: “Expect nothing. Be prepared for anything.” Again, anticipation is the heart of wisdom. That was some great wisdom coming from a great champion. I was sold.

The swim in ’04 threw some big swells at us that day. The winds on the Queen-K and coming down from Hawi were treacherous. I remember getting onto the marathon thinking I must be down by so much, having the swim I did and being considerably slower than my bike ride at my qualifying race in Placid that July. I ran on, wondering still, “How am I doing in this race, anyway?” I finished up the day chasing a buddy I’d met in Placid (who I never caught). I pushed and pushed and pushed to that magical finish line on Alii Drive. Pleased with my modest improvement over my time there in 2002. But, I was even more satisfied with the effort when I saw the results. It was striking. I ended up around 70th overall, and the 11th American (I think I was the 2nd fastest American educator!).

The moral of the story, is that it’s not over ’til it’s over. Like Mark Allen, I was naive about the race. My expectations, at the time, was “this is the hardest race on the planet. It’s going to be tough. Deal with whatever the race throws at you. Don’t fight it. Expect nothing and be prepared for anything. Listen to Newby. She’s knows what she’s talking about.”

Chris McCormack And Andreas Raelert Battle In Kona – Photo John Segasta

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I now want to touch on a few areas that will help you realize your full potential in the Ironman marathon: Training, Refueling, Pacing, and Expectations.

Training

What we’re looking for in training and what I lay out for my athletes is pretty basic:  one long run per week (2-3hrs in duration), one endurance brick (bike/run) per week (7hrs max) and one ironman-specific “speed brick.” I also like to see one endurance swim mixed in there when the local water temp’s up. In training, we’re seeking to improve not only our metabolic endurance but also our mental endurance. We have to ensure our minds are up to the lofty task of dealing with a 140.6mi endurance event!

“Endurance for the Ironman marathon is developed on the bike.”  -Luis Vargas

The brick workouts serve to teach the body that the bike ride is not the end of the workout. I like to refer to this as reality training. If we can muster the mental will to run 30-75min after having ridden for 5-7hrs, then we’ll certainly have an easier time dealing with that reality when we arrive at the second transition, and, maybe even get a little excited to get out there and pound the pavement too! No kidding.

Refueling

It’s been stated exhaustingly, that eating is the fourth leg of the triathlon. This becomes increasingly true the longer the endurance event. I put down some 50-60 gels in last year’s Tahoe Rim Trail 100mi Run. You just need to keep those calories coming in. But, that’s tricky, since as the day wears on, it usually becomes increasingly difficult for our bodies to absorb those calories. Humans really weren’t designed to eat while running. We have to condition ourselves to this little trick, and do so while moving at relatively low aerobic effort levels so that there’s actually some blood flow to the stomach to pick up and use some of those calories we’re gulping down.

So, as you would surmise, we attempt to duplicate in racing the refueling strategy we’ve practiced in training. Sometimes, it actually works too! Unfortunately, all the training and fitness we’ve worked for gets wasted if our refueling plan doesn’t work in the race. It’s certainly a good plan to try and take in about 300-400 liquid calories per hour on the bike ride. I mix up a 1400-1600cal “meal” bottle that I sip (and chase with plenty of water!) over the course of the 5:00-5:15 I’m on the bike. The gulps I take early in the 112mi bike will be bigger than the gulps I take toward the end of the bike, since, it becomes increasingly difficult for the body to keep processing the high maltodextrin based “pancake batter” substance I’m using.

Kevin Buchholz, owner of Echelon Cycle & Multisport once taught me a cool trick to better ration my meal bottle. You take your estimated ride time and break them up into hours. You can then take a magic marker and place, what I’ll call, “consumption lines” on your meal bottle. Imagine, the distance between the lines at the top will be larger than the distance of the lines at the bottom given that you want to ingest more calories early, while you still can. You simply monitor your bottle level over the duration of the ride, ensuring you’re consuming enough. I like to take in calories with water on a 20min interval (time 20, 40, and 60 respectively). This eating interval, or nutrition schedule as it’s called, works like a charm at keeping my energy in balance with no spikes or crashes. And when the engine is well-fueled, it can be most efficient. We want to arrive at the bike-to-run transition in the best shape possible. Sometimes we nail it in our first attempt. Sometimes it takes years of trying, and failing, to dial in a nutrition strategy that works.

In Chris McCormack’s new book, “I’m Here to Win,” he’s written a chapter entitled “Coke, the World’s Best Sports Drink.” He reminded me that mindlessly forcing 400cal per hour into my stomach is usually not the wisest thing to do. Therefore, taking in more maltodextrin based calories early and moving to simple sugars like energy gels on the run, and, as a last resort, Coke. I’ve always held out taking Coke on the marathon until as late as possible. Now, I know when it’s time. That time usually comes for me somewhere around mile 20 of the marathon, when my exertion is the hardest it’s been all day.

Chris “Macca” McCormack

“What [Macca and his coach] decided was that as the heat picked up and my [Macca’s] heart rate climbed, I would take in less fuel as the race went on. So I start at 500 calories per hour, and then go down. At the same time I simplify the sugars, so as the blood leaves my stomach, I’m giving my body very simple sugars to break down; sugars that turn almost instantly to glucose and gives me the energy I need” [i.e., Coke!] (p.174).

Pacing

Great marathon pacing starts on the bike. If you’re a strong cyclist, then you can conserve on the bike ride, leaving you with more to give your marathon. If the bike is a limiter for you, then you want to give extra attention to your refueling on the bike so that you set yourself up for an effective run. Effective meaning, not slowing rather than running fast.

Note: If you are “racing” any portion of the 112mi ride, you are going too fast!!

You must play it smart on the bike, that’s all it comes down too. Know yourself, and execute an well-informed and intelligent race plan.

As you get to within 2mi of “T2,” the bike-to-run transition, be sure to back off the effort. Allow your heart-rate to fall and your legs to flush. Transition smoothly and ease into the run, concentrating only on running easy over at least the first 5k. Then, build it from there.

Run/Walking. There’s nothing wrong with walking during your marathon, if it’s done while consuming calories with fluids through your aid stations, which typically come up every mile on the marathon. If your race-plan incorporates walking then you want to ensure you begin walking your aid stations right off the bat, in those early miles. Walk early when you don’t have to, to ensure you’re still running between aid stations late in the marathon.

Plan your aid stations. Know what you want before you arrive. Keep moving through each station. Typically, at least at WTC races, you’ll have two opportunities to get ice, gels, water, Coke, and sponges, etc.

Finally, if the Gods are smiling down on you, with 10miles to go in your marathon, you can start racing! Until this point, you want to keep the intensity at a strong training day level.

Until this point, you want to keep the intensity at a strong training day level.

Expectations

Keep in mind too, that as we gain experience in racing ultra-events, our perspective changes over time. I remember, vividly, in Kona 2002, sitting in T2, simply bewildered by the daunting task before me:  running 26.2miles in 90deg heat. I had yet to learn how to pre-program my head to break the race down into more manageable pieces. Now, I look at the marathon as 26 little races inside the bigger one. It really helps me to just concentrate on maintaining my pace and form to the next aid station, whether I’m in a marathon or a 100 mile trail run. It’s all about getting to the next aid station, knowing what I’m going to do when I get there, and then re-commiting my body and mind to the next aid station down the road. Coming into the race, the only expectations I have are that I’m going to execute my process-driven race plan to the very best of my ability. I’ll worry about my time after the race.

To recap, if you’re a runner, the Ironman marathon will NEVER feel like you’re going fast. So, expect this and readjust your gauge coming in. We never really know when we’re having the race of our life, as I was in Kona 2004. Sometimes, it just feels like we’re in no man’s land, lost in a sea of foot-strikes and Dixie cups. But, surely, it ain’t over out there ’til it’s over. I’ve once won an open marathon in the final mile. You just never know who’s going to blow up and at what moment. We can only hope it’s not us!!

Let me finish up here by talking about your mental toughness in those late stages of your Ironman marathon. If you’re doing your job, it’s simply going to hurt like hell. But in a good way of course. After all, you’re in control of how much is hurts. You can stop at any moment and relieve your suffering. But that’s that draw for us: overcoming the pain and discomfort, with our minds, so that we can truly see not only our potential, but find out what we’re made of. You don’t want to be a “mental milkshake,” a term the Macca uses to describe athletes that consistently fall apart when the pressure’s on. We can all develop coping strategies, like Macca’s mental “files” to help us keep it together.

“Expect to want to quit 1000 times out there and know this is normal, not a sign that you should quit.”  -Mark Allen

I’ve conditioned myself over the years in endurance racing to narrow my focus internally as the discomfort increases, which has resulted in some wrong turns in pivotal moments of various events. But usually, this focus on the present moment, on a strong positive attitude, my conscious breathing, and my efficient form sees me through, every time. We listen to our bodies and pace and fuel all day, until the point comes where there’s 30-60min remaining. From that point, it’s certainly more about the mind than the body. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more adept at managing the discomfort. Experience has its virtues. And I’m always grateful to simply be out there, dicing it up with 50-2600 other dedicated athletes, who represent something very special to me:  the desire to live life at the top of their powers. That’s cool.

“Give 100% of what you have to give, even if you are in a 10% situation.” -Mark Allen

Coach Bob – Hawaii Ironman Marathon – October 2007

>>>  It ain’t over ’til it’s over. So Point Positive!!!  >>>

😀

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