Inspired by a little friendly Twitter banter last night with my good friend Ben, I got to thinking during this morning's swim about Ironman training, and, more importantly, how one gets started.
It's a very simple answer, when asked where to start: at the beginning. But sometimes arriving there IS the hardest part. Ben, an accomplished runner, decided to get into triathlon in 2011. I remember the initial conversation going something like this:
Ben: "I'm going to do an Ironman."
Ryan: "Cool! You going to do any races prior to that?"
Ben: "I'll probably do an Olympic."
Now of course, there are plenty of people who have "complete an Ironman" on their to-do list, and many who are the triathlon equivalent of the NCAA Champion Kentucky Basketball team - that is, "one and done" - who may literally train for and do just that one triathlon. Traditionally, you get from it what you put in. Some of us, who have huge chips on their shoulders, get hosed more than others, but in general, work = success.
And as we know, Ben actually did 2.5 triathlons in 2011 - Columbia (great cherry-popper), Luray, and then tried to do the Poconos HIM but the swim got washed out. For Ben, a strong cyclist and very good runner, it shorted him the opportunity to work on the one area he needed the most work: OWS.
He comes into 2012 with IM Wisconsin on the horizon, and the prospect of his first half sometime in June. The reality is Ben will be fine, because he's a competitor, and it's not like he hasn't done long races before (2:32 marathon, crushed JFK 50 Mile). But it made me think about my own progression in the sport. For as much shit I take about my race performances, I actually have been extremely patient in my triathlon career. Ironman was always a goal, but it was never this thing that I had to do to make my life feel complete. In fact, so far from the forefront of my mind was the distance that it took me 8 years of triathlon to even bother to sign up for one. However, my preparation for the day started way in advance, in fact, probably as early as 2006, for a day that wouldn't materialize for a few years.
It was the same thing with the marathon. I really just didn't want to do one until I wanted to do one. I was running 90 miles a week in college and I know I will never be as fast as I was then. I knocked out 20 mile long runs like I was King Hippo. I could wake up at 6am, be out the door at 6:07, and start a 13 mile run at 6:10 pace and finish at 5:20 (#thingsiwillneverdoagain). Had I run a marathon back then, I bet I would have run pretty well, and perhaps would never have done another one, because I would have had nowhere to go but down (or up, as in increased time). Years went by and it wasn't until I ran part of Boston in 2007 (the Nor'easter year) with Andy that I said, yeah, maybe I should do one. And it wasn't until NYC 2008 that I actually ran one. I was 27.
So it would come as no surprise then that I waited 8 years, scratch that, 9, to do an Ironman. I was perfectly fine with competing in Olympics and sprints from 2001 to 2003. Back then, there were not as many HIMs, and IM was really just for the truly insane. I had no faith in my ability to make it through the distance, but more importantly, I just didn't want to do it. Each year I ramped up my volume a little bit, riding longer, riding more, getting my all-important hours per week up. In college, I included my weight training time in my weekly numbers, but most weeks were 15+, and some were in the 21+ range. That was for Olympic distance racing. I'd swim 3-4 times per week, ride 3-4 (130-200 miles), and run 45-55 mpw. That's actually more than most people spend on IM training.
After severe injury #1 in 2003, I didn't compete in 2004 or 2005, and in 2006 made my triumphant return. I started slow, and raced what I knew, and what I enjoyed. By 2007, thanks to riding with OJ, Benda, and the Thurs Night Ride, I knew I had much better riding legs than before, and felt like I could tackle a half. I signed up for Eagleman 2008, and we know how that went - but it wasn't for a lack of fitness or strength. Neither was my Providence failure that year. By late 2008, it was time to sign up for IMAZ, and I believed that I was ready. I had done a number of 100+ mile rides in 2007 and 2008, and 2009 would bring more of that.
And that long winded explanation is what brings me to the crux of my position: volume doesn't hurt. Being prepared doesn't hurt. I've been marginally successful in triathlon, but one thing I've done well for years now is ride fast. And for those who have ridden with me, you know there's no secret to what I'm doing. I ride more. In the winter, when you have a day that lends itself, you ride 4 or 5 hours. It may be months before race day, and you might not even be doing a long race, but that kind of strength sticks with you. In fact, most winters I was able to get away with a couple of long rides to keep my fitness there, and by spring time, I was ready to go.
How else was I able to go from riding 1:10 every year at Columbia to riding in the 1:04s? Or averaging nearly 25mph at EM? It's just riding, man. Riding. I can vividly recall all the shitty days of my life. One was last year, when on a rainy, 38 degree day, Benda/BenW/Pat and myself rode the Lineboro ride from Meadowbrook. It was the last weekend in March, and it was 97 terrible miles. Yeah, it tires you out, but then you have a long ride in your legs, and come July, when the workouts mean a lot more, you're not worried about doing your first long ride.
The layout of a year lends itself to a particular buildup. For me, that means in the winter, I swim and run more, because I can run outside easily enough, day or night, and it's easier to get in the pool than it is to ride. You build your volume up then, so that when you can start riding again, and your body is going to be tired, you don't have to worry about cramming. If I took the approach of a slow, steady buildup, I'd be trying to balance building up swimming, riding, and running volume, as well as increasing intensity, and the two are a recipe for disaster.
Instead, I have gotten my swim to a point where it's relatively automatic. I can handle 20k weeks pretty easily without sacrificing quality, and can still do the work when my legs are shredded from 300 miles of bike miles in 4 days. If you want to do well at Ironman, it's what you have to do. No way around it. I'm disappointed when I don't race well, but ultimately, I still only have one goal. Completing an Ironman is not hard. I've seen the people that come in at midnight. ANYBODY can do it. It's racing it that is the challenge.
For as much as I ride, or run, or swim, most days I'm still hesitant to believe that I've done even enough. I follow the training of my peers and rivals, and I think man, I should be doing more. Are my long rides even long enough? Is 115 miles enough? Should I do 120, 125, 130? In my 115 miles, I don't even spend that much of it at race intensity, should I be? Last year I delicately balanced a pretty high volume. Remember 2010, when I finally got to do the IM? I had done a lot of training, and still thought it wasn't enough. And, ultimately, the amount that I had been able to run post-surgery turned out to be just not enough, and I paid for it on the run.
So I give Ben a hard time, but he is a natural, much moreso than I am. I'm sure he'll do fine at Wisconsin. I just know that if it were me, I would do more now so I could tell how much I can handle. You're supposd to get burned out at some point, it's not easy training. Race day is a freaking godsend when it comes, because you realize it's actually less tiring than a normal training week. Sure, you're beat up afterwards, but as a reward for hard work, it's pretty satisfying.
What I've finally figured out is that I just don't LIKE Ironmans, or marathons, for that matter. It's not how I want to spend my time. I'm not particularly good at them, and it's not enjoyable for me. Oddly enough, I really don't mind the training. I love going out for long rides, even if I have nothing coming up. It's just fun. Take this year - no IM on the calendar yet I'm doing the same workload. And I know that if I had to tomorrow, I could go out and compete at any distance. I want to make it through an ambitious race schedule of 5 races in May and June, including 2 HIMs. That's a lot of racing. In order for me to make it through that, I need to get the rides in early, because pretty soon I won't have the weekends to do them. And even though I'll have nothing in the fall, I'll still get my long rides in during the summer, because if I decide to sign up for an IM for 2013, I'll need to keep getting them in.
I guess the point of all this is that you can never go wrong with a 3 or 4 hour ride, but you'll never see the people competing for Kona spots or AG wins doing 1 hour rides. But you have to build it up early, because otherwise you're caught in June, trying to swim/ride/run more than you ever have before, and when your body shuts down (and it will) you won't have time to recover and build back up before race day.