Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Coaching 1st Time Ironman Athletes

I've had the privilege of coaching multiple athletes through their first ironman, and it is absolutely one of my favorite things to do as a coach. What I've noticed, is that it doesn't matter what level the athlete is at, what their goals are for the race, how long they've been in the sport, etc. They all go through a very similar mental process, complete with emotional highs, lows, wanting to quit, feeling on top of the world, feeling not good enough, feeling tired, scared, overwhelmed, fat, tired, wondering why they still have to go to work while they're ironman training, being pretty sure they could qualify for Kona, pretty sure they're never going to finish, and again, tired. I'm almost at the point that I can predict how our phone calls are going to go based on where they are in training. One of the things that I always want them to know though, is that all of those feelings are universal and "normal" (normal for ironman athletes), even when it feels like they're going insane inside their own head. So this is blog post outlines a little bit about what that journey looks like, and what you should expect if you're thinking about signing up for your first ironman.

(The pictures interspersed throughout this post are random pictures of my athletes participating in Ironman Boulder 2018. Not all of them were first timers, but all of them are awesome. Photo credit to my sister: Gina Eichert.)

The first step is exciting: emptying your bank account on a race entry fee. The minute you press that button, you're committed to a journey that is going to change your life. Let's be honest, who actually buys the insurance for your entry fee? The subsequent thought process changes quickly to, "What the fuck did I get myself into," along with a mild stomach ache. Sometimes I'm already coaching athletes at this point, but sometimes this is when they realize they need a coach.

Hopefully you've signed up more than a few months out from the race, which gives us plenty of time to gradually build fitness. I also use these beginning weeks to figure out what makes them tick, what they really want out of this journey (whether they consciously know what that is or not), and how to keep them motivated. Usually the first few weeks are relatively easy so that they can start to figure out how ironman training is going to fit into their lives, and also so that I can trick them into thinking that it's not going to be that bad. Managing emotions starts early. Soul crushing is for later on.

Then we start to build. Remember when you used to have friends and spent your time relaxing on the weekends? Me neither. Now your bike is your friend, so hopefully you've named it and gotten a comfortable saddle.

Building aerobic fitness is priority #1, so we build to 3-4 hour rides on the weekends pretty quickly. Usually around this point, I start getting phone calls from athletes trying to figure out how they're going to be able to go to their friend's wedding or their family reunion, and still fit in their training. Those things didn't seem like a big deal a few months ago, but now you're training for an ironman and everything is overwhelming. Should you skip the wedding? Should you take off work? Personally, my favorite choice for myself is taking off work to do more training, but then you also have to consider how you're going to afford your next ironman. So many decisions to be made on so little brain power.


8 weeks out to 6 weeks out: "Overwhelmed:"
The ironman is approaching faster than you're comfortable with, and even though your body feels like it's falling apart, and you can't keep your eyes open at work, it seems like you're not doing enough. But also too much. It's confusing. All you know is you're tired, and you might want to cry a little bit.

One of the cool things that starts to happen around this time, is that there are always a few workouts where you get to really learn how tough you are. They go something like this: you're going into a workout thinking something like, "I can barely stand up straight. I don't know how my stupid coach thinks I'm going to be able to run." But you do it anyway, because it's on Training Peaks, and you always do what's on Training Peaks because a few weeks back, you stopped having the ability to think for yourself. And then something magical happens. Your legs have taken on this life of their own and they're actually running! And they're running kind of fast! You're not really sure what to do about this, so you just try not to question it, and let your legs do their thing. The lesson you need to hold onto from these workouts is that your body is incredibly strong, and usually it's stronger than your mind gives it credit for.

Don't give up, even when it feels impossible, because that is when the biggest breakthroughs happen.


6 weeks out to 4 weeks out, aka- peak weeks: "Doubt:"
This is the most mentally challenging block, not surprisingly, because it is also the most physically challenging block. This is when you have to know your "why." Remember back in the beginning, when I was asking you all those nosey questions about your life, and your family, and what you've been through? This is where that comes in handy. Your body is capable of incredible things if you are mentally prepared to take it there. Most of us have at least considered this idea, in order to have signed up for an ironman and gotten this far into training for it, but this is where you have to dig deep.

The phone calls that I get in this block are typically filled with insecurity and fear. Your training has gotten to such a level that you are getting a taste of exactly how hard it is to do an ironman, and what you've come to realize, is that it's really fucking hard. It's scary because you've never done anything this difficult before and it's natural to doubt your ability to reach new limits. For me, this right here is the best part about being a coach. If I can give you even a little bit of confidence, I get to sit back and watch you do amazing things. I know that you, along with the small percentage of batty people on this planet (myself included) who at some point thought it was a good idea to do an ironman, have an underlying desire to prove to yourself that you are limitless. Figuring out why you want this is part of my journey with each individual athlete, but regardless of why, I know that it's there. It's what unites us as a community of ironmen (or insane people, whatever you want to call it). It is my responsibility and privilege to remind my athletes exactly how capable they are, and it is my hope that my belief in them will inspire them to believe in themselves and persevere.

They key workouts to log away for your race-day memory bank from this block are the opposite of what happened in the "overwhelmed" block. You have a big workout on your schedule, and you're determined to do it, but halfway through, your body has just had enough. You hurt, you're probably a little dehydrated, and you've just been going so hard for so long. There might be a brief period where you stop and feel bad for yourself, and maybe shed a few tears, but you've already learned how resilient your body is, so you are going to drag yourself through this thing, kicking and screaming, because you have an ironman to do, and nothing is going to get in your way. I don't have to tell you what a big deal this is. You know.

2-3 weeks out: "Re-awakened:"
We're starting to taper and you're beginning to feel like your old self again. I don't have kids but I can imagine it's similar to when your baby first starts sleeping through the night. You almost forgot what it's like to have full use of your brain, have time to clean your house, and show up for work with clean hair. It feels pretty damn good. But with this new brain capacity, comes space for realizing that your ironman is right around the corner, and you are just about out of time to build fitness for it. Everything that has to be done in order to become an ironman, has to have been done by now, and you have a whole lot of extra time on your hands to think about that. Which leads us to our next phase: "insanity."

RACE WEEK: "Insanity:"
Race week is here, whether you're ready or not. If I'm your coach, you're ready. You've trained, you've figured out what a special needs bag is, you've made your race plan, and nailed down your nutrition strategy. Now you're experiencing your first ironman taper, which feels a lot like schizophrenia, except that you're fully aware of your insanity. If you've never experienced this before, "taper," can be described as a state of mind comprised of the following thoughts and feelings: hungry, cranky, moody, happy, sad, nervous, tired, anxious, fat, injured, excited, constipated, and manic.

Race week is my last chance, as your coach, to let you know how awesome you are and how far you've come. You have one really hard day ahead of you, but you've endured months of hard days, and you've persevered. Your resilience is what will get you to the finish line. Race day is a celebration of your hard work, but that doesn't mean it's going to be any less difficult. The celebration is about the fact that you have had the strength and courage to get yourself to the start line, and that you're ready to experience all of the ensuing pain and suffering, without letting it stop you. You're about to be an IRONMAN.

If you're still wondering if it will be worth it, these finish line pictures should convince you:

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