Ironman,  Triathlon

10 things you wish you knew for your 1st Ironman

In celebration of the Ironman African Championship and Ironman 70.3 this weekend (which I am not doing), I want to offer some last minute tidbits of info that you might find useful. Some are things I wish I knew before doing Ironman, and some are things that might not be obvious unless you have the experience of the race behind you.

I have done 2 x Ironman 70.3 and 2 x full Ironman races across a span of 6 years. I usually finish towards the back of the pack, so if you are looking to podium in your age-group, then this post is not for you. Listen to your performance coach instead, because I assume you have one if that’s what you are aiming for. Also, I assume seasoned Ironman athletes may not find much value in this either. For anyone else, read on, and share it with a novice who might find value in it.

Most of these tips apply to both 70.3 and full Ironman races. Where it only applies to full, I will indicate that.

And remember… Tip number 0 is to always HAVE FUN and ENJOY THE RACE!

  1. The swim start takes a long time

The swim start is self-seeded and staggered in order to reduce the washing machine effect of old, and to spread swimmers out in the water. They let 10 swimmers go every 10 seconds, on the buzzer. Doing the math on that, it equates to 60 swimmers per minute. For a race of 2,000 people, it will take 30 to 40 minutes or longer between the 1st swimmer and the last swimmer entering the water. Be prepared for that. Use the time in the seeding pen for mental preparation and hydration. Have some electrolytes in your water, because plain water may lead to electrolyte imbalance and possible cramps later (this happened to me at Dubai 70.3).

Often this waiting time is even longer due to conditions at the time. On my first 70.3, we had to wait an additional 30 minutes for a cargo ship to cross the bay before we could start. And on my 2nd full Ironman we waited almost an additional hour to start because they waited for a lightning storm in the distance to clear. Do not get frustrated. Safety is the number 1 priority for the race organisers, and it would be in your own interest to remain calm through the wait.

2. Self-seed appropriately

You are expected to seed yourself by expected swim finish time for the swim. If you are a slow swimmer and you think you belong in the last group, DO NOT start in the last group. Start about 75% in. If you start at the back you may end up with nobody around you halfway through the swim and then it’s much easier to go off course. Although you shouldn’t be using other people to sight, it does help to have other people around. Sometimes when the conditions are very rough, you cannot even see the massive buoys because of the current. If you also see no other swimmers around you, it can be a scary place that leads to a mental spiral and panic in the water.

Unless you are a fast swimmer, don’t start right in front either, because then you will have people swimming over you and you’ll be drinking lots of sea water!

3. Know the rules

Make sure you are familiar with the rules, what you are allowed and not allowed, the course, the cutoffs, and the possible changes to the course and cutoff times if things change (e.g. if the swim is cancelled, shortened, etc). Do not depend on other athletes to ask. You know what they say about the blind leading the blind. I am amazed by how many people do these races and are not aware of critical information. Some don’t even attend the briefing. Attend/watch the briefing! It is so much easier now that it is online. If you’ve signed the #IAmTrue pledge, this is what you are saying anyway. You are pledging to your fellow athletes “I Know the Rules. I Am True”.

You have worked far too hard for this to get disqualified for something silly. For example… did you know that in South African Ironman races, littering is an immediate 5-minute penalty with no warning strikes?

Do you know that you are not allowed any external assistance during the race? As in…none whatsoever! That means no family and friends handing you goodies or giving your painful legs a rub-down at the side of the road. Ignorance of the rules is not an excuse to be forgiven for breaking them, so make sure you know the rules, and your rights and responsibilities.

4. Pee in your wetsuit

NB: Only do this once you are 100% sure the swim is going to take place!

If you’re going to hydrate well for the swim, chances are you will need to go while you’re on the beach before the start. Don’t be shy, just go in your wetsuit. This was an incredibly tough thing for me to do at first. When our coach told us to do it in the days before the race, I thought it was disgusting and swore I never would. But lo and behold, even though I went to the toilet before, I still needed to go on the beach that morning. A friend told me to just do it, and I said I can’t. I was so self conscious. But she talked me through it and made it a non-issue. So I did it and it is now the most liberating thing to do before a race. Trust me, nobody will notice. Nobody is looking at your crotch. And if they are, they are weirder than you who is doing the peeing! And everything will be washed squeaky clean during your swim anyway.

So how do you do it? Just relax your bladder and let it go. Don’t make a big deal about it and don’t make it weird. It is this or you can take your chances getting naked inside a portaloo, and then I wish you the best of luck getting your wetsuit back on properly inside that little dirty square plastic box.

Side note: Men’s bladders are 70% larger than women’s, so if you are a man and judging right now…check your privilege and have some empathy asseblief 🙂. Thank you 🙏🏽

5. Have a nutrition & race plan

This one is pretty obvious and you really should have one by now, but it is so critical that it is worth mentioning. In terms of nutrition, know what you’re going to eat and drink. What is available at the aid stations? What are you going to carry during the bike and run? Will you have a gel or a drink before the swim start. What will you have for breakfast and what time? Take advantage to fuel as much as you can during the bike leg because it is the most efficient leg to do max fueling on. Someone told me once that you should either be chewing, sipping, or swallowing for the entire time on the bike. Have a variety of fuel, not just gels and drinks. What I normally carry are solids like banana muffins, biltong, and other yummies to break up the strategy a bit. I calculate how many calories and carbs I need to take in, and make sure I have that much in my bike bag, and make sure I finish all of it during the bike leg. That way all the mental work is done beforehand. My friend, Aashiek calls my bike leg a buffet, but hey it works for me. I never say no to buffets anyway 😋

During the race… If you’re feeling good, don’t push. The feeling will pass.

– A wise man

Have a rough idea of your realistic expected times for each leg, but be flexible if things don’t go as planned. There are many variables in a triathlon, especially one this long, and you must be able to roll with the punches. Remember that your race plan starts in the days before the race. Get enough rest and sleep. Your training is done, so don’t overdo it on the sessions. Your sessions in race week are limited to testing and social sessions. Some people do a short sharpening run the day before the race, I prefer to do it 2 days before and do nothing except bike racking the day before. If you have a swim, it’s not about distance, but about feeling the water and the conditions. Do what works for you, and/or follow the advice of your coach. Remember, less is more.

6. Special Needs (full IM only)

If you’re doing the full Ironman, you will get a special needs bag for both the run and bike legs. You get the bag halfway through the leg and if you don’t use it, they toss it and whatever is in it. Think carefully about what you want to put in there. And here’s a golden tip: put bottled water in your special needs bag. In 2019 when I did my 1st IM, I was getting severe stomach cramps because the water on the course was ice cold. While that is great on a hot day, when you’re running a marathon at night and the temperatures have plummeted, it’s not ideal at all. I figured out a solution to manage it (more on that later), but I wish I had put water in my special needs bag that I could use to drink. It’s cheap enough to lose if you don’t use it and they toss it. Remember to also pack in an old or cheap warm top for the run in case it gets cold, and a rain poncho if there is rain forecast.

If there is something that you would really savour during the race and is not available at the aid stations or impractical for you to carry, put it in your special needs bag. Is there a special chocolate that you’d like? Do you want a bowl of trifle halfway through the bike leg? (I mean if we are having a buffet, why not include dessert, right?) Anything you want that will mentally make you look forward to getting to that point, pack it in. It’s like a little mini-reward to look forward to before that point, and to activate your reward centers in a day that might otherwise be filled with lots of pain. You can put disposable ice packs in there too if it’s something that should be cold or that can melt.

The Bike special needs stop is also a good place to take a short rest if you’re not racing for time. I usually pack in salted buttery baby potatoes, and an almond butter and banana sandwich to have there. I sat down to eat it on my race, and while it takes a few minutes, I felt so refreshed and ready to tackle the next 90km on the bike after that. The Run special needs is usually a grab-and-go, as you can usually take things out or even eat as you’re running or slowing down to a walk. On the run, it is better to not stop. Your legs want to keep moving at that point, even if it’s a walk.

7. Your greatest asset is a calm mind

You will have a plan, and no matter how great your plan, some things will not go according to plan. I cannot stress enough how important it is to remain calm when things go wrong. It allows you to think clearly about how you can possibly overcome it.

There are 2 examples I want to share here. One was when the water was ice cold and giving me stomach cramps as explained above. I thought about how I could fix it. Eventually I decided to put the water sachets on my pocket and let body heat warm it up until the next water point, where I will drink the warm one and replace it with a cold one and repeat. It solved my cramp issue instantly. Another example was on the same race where, as I came out of the swim and got to my bike bag, I realised my buff (my head covering) had gone missing. It must’ve fallen out of my bag when I was working with it in the morning in the dark, and as it was black…I didn’t see it. It was a disaster. As a hijabi, going onto the course without covering my head was unthinkable. For a moment I thought my race was over because of the stupidest reason. But it can’t be over…I had put in too much! What else could I do?? Then I thought about using my run hijab for the bike too. But that was in my Run bag, and I wasn’t allowed access to it yet. I went to the referees in transition and asked them nicely if I could please access my run bag, and explained the situation. They allowed me to go if I made it quick. I improvised as I had never worn that hijab under a helmet before, but I made it work. If I didn’t have a clear head to think calmly, I would never have been able to think about those solutions.

I have also done races where I was the opposite of calm, sobbed mid-race and didn’t think I would even finish (cue Dubai 2022 when they ran out of water in the desert and leg cramp tried to kill me), and I am thankful that there were people around me to snap me out of that state and get on with racing. Ironman 2023 was an example where I was in the zone for the whole race, but I’ve already written about that and won’t go into it here.

8. Transition

Transition is a fine art, often referred to as the 4th discipline in triathlon. There can be many different approaches to it, but whatever your approach, you should harness the opportunity that it presents. If you’re racing for a fast time or a podium, sharpening your transition can mean the difference between a position or two. I do not ever plan to race an Ironman though, so I use transition to pause and catch my breath between disciplines. Transition is a time where you can really take a few minutes to regulate your system. Don’t sprint through it and spike your heart rate. Relax, do everything you need to do, and then leave. I also use transition to do my afternoon prayers during the full-distance Ironman races, as I come into T2 a little while before sunset. The change tent is the perfect place to pray because it is usually completely empty, and have separate male/female tents.

When you rack your bike the day before the race, mentally trace out your route through transition. See where you will come in, how you will move through the area, and where you will leave. This will save you having to figure it out while you’re pumping a lot of adrenaline the next day and using additional mental capacity. Mental fatigue takes away from physical performance, so you really want to save as much of it as you can.

Bonus tip 8.1 – In T1, reapply sunscreen no matter what the weather. In my 1st 70.3 it was raining and cloudy as I exited the swim, and I didn’t reapply sunscreen. The sun was out less than an hour later and I dealt with hyperpigmentation in my face for months after that due to the sunburn.

Bonus tip 8.2 – In T2 after the bike, rubbing some Arnica Ice or another similar cooling gel on your legs is an absolute game-changer. I feel that it refreshes my legs and draws the tiredness out of it like a magnet. I end up starting the run with what feels like fresh legs that can conquer the distance, whether it be 21km or 42km that lies ahead. Remember to wash your hands with soap after that! And if you’re going to pray, first take wudhu, then do the Arnica Ice (trust me on this one).

9. Nothing new on race day. Test everything!

I’m sure this is another one you already know, but it is so critical that I have to mention it. I know it is really tempting to buy the latest gadget that promises an extra 10 Watts on the bike and use it on race day. Or that drink that will give you endless energy and superhuman running prowess. Or the running shoes that Lucy won Kona in, so obviously it’s going to make you faster also, right? Well, firstly no…equipment does not work that way. And secondly, just do not try anything new on race day, whether it be nutrition or equipment. It is always a bad idea, always. If it doesn’t work like you want it to work, it is going to be a LONG time that you will suffer.

If you really must use something new, then test it out adequately first before the race (e.g. your goggles strap breaks and you need to buy new goggles, then go for a short swim in the ocean to test it first). You can only get away with this for very few things. Most other things (eg. shoes, nutrition, etc) are a definite no-no.

On this point…always test your bike when you get to the race venue/town. Go for a short ride (maybe 10 or 20km) as soon as you can to feel if everything is still working OK after transporting your bike. There is usually a good bike shop at the expo where you can fix any bike niggles. On my 1st Ironman, when I got to PE and went for the test ride, something felt off that I couldn’t quite place. I took it to the bike shop and explained to the mechanics what I felt. They could fix it for a small fee, but for a little bit more they could do a full check which they called an Ironman check – which would check everything and fix anything they find. I decided to go for that, and was so glad I did. The bike rode like a dream after that and on race day, and it was the best pre-race decision I made.

10. The finish

On the other side of the red carpet is everything you have been working for and dreaming of. So, savour the moment. Take it all in. Walk the red carpet or run it very slowly. Feel the cheers of the crowd. Hear the announcer calling your name. If you’re doing the full, carry the weight of the words “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN” with pride.

At the last aid station, pull yourself together and make yourself look decent. Use some water to wash the salt marks off your kit. If you’ve stuck sponges into your trisuit, take them out now. Fix your cap if it’s skew. Practice your smile. And remember to thank the volunteers.

Remember that there are photographers at the finish. Don’t look at your watch. You don’t want your finisher photo being you looking down with your hand on your wrist. Stopping your watch 5 seconds later is really not going to make a difference compared to how long you’ve been out there. Photos are forever, so strike a victory pose instead. Put your fists in the air, jump if you can, dance if you want to. Scream if you feel like it. The music will be playing so loudly that nobody will hear you. This is your moment, and what a moment it will be!

That’s it from me. I hope these tips have been valuable. Let me know if it helped you during your race at all. And if you’ve done an Ironman before, let me know in the comments below if there are any other tips that you feel a novice should know.

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