Racing at Night, Your First Ironman. Yep, Easily Could be You.

Regardless of your abilities or expectations, you may find your first attempt at the 140.6 mile distance a really big bite, more than you'd ever planned or imagined.  It's not uncommon for the sun to cross the horizon at sunset before you cross the line an Ironman.

Ironman South Africa
Each of us has some idea of what to expect when we strap on those swim goggles, follow a whole herd of nervous newbies just like us, each with some idea of what's right around the corner of our first IM.  But most are wrong, underestimating the effort required by, in some cases, a fantastic amount.  It's like the practice of medicine in this way.  When, as a first year medical student taking Physical Diagnosis, you are learning to be an investigator, a pathfinder, what's wrong with the patient in front of me and how can I ask the best questions to help figure this out?

Part of the questioning frequently comes to alcohol, a touchy subject for many, where the student inquires as to the amount this patient consumes.  Before writing the response down and entering it in the medical record, the student is advised by the crusty mentor to think if that answer fits the situation or if it's considerably less than the truth.  While this is the exception rather than the rule, suffice it to say that there are misperceptions in both the newbie triathlete's expecations of the first IM as well as for some of us when revealing our alcohol consumption.*

So regardless of prior marathon experience, distance swims performed, local Labor Day century bikes rides in the logbook, most underestimate the effort that will be expended that day or the time to expend it.  They also fail to appreciate that the weatherman has a big influence here and the effect a warm day will have to knock the wind out of their sails.  And their legs.  One example would be local athlete Emily, a skilled competitor and Ironman finisher, who finished a recent 70.3 effort where the temperature reached the high 80's, and a half mary course where the only shade provided are the occasional telephone wires across the road.  It was hot!  "That may have been the hardest thing I've ever done!  Maybe harder than the full distance under cooler conditions," she observed.

All of the above leads us to the object of this piece that while you may not finish during daylight hours, you will finish!  Honest.  It's just going to take a different kind of effort than you may have planned while putting in laps at the fitness center.  First off, you'll have plenty of company.  There's a really good chance that you'll have to walk during the run.  Some of us nearly all of it. And there will be at least one racer if not more who will be there right with you.  With the same ultimate goal, finishing before the ultimate time cut off.  It's a pretty simple calculation to determine the required pace.  But be forewarned. Ironman is nothing if not a rule following organization. (A local VA race billed itself a "Double Ironman" until a cease and desist order was received from WTC instructing them not to.)  I have seen athletes who are mere seconds past the swim, bike and finish time cut off who are DQ'd.  Don't be surprised, they really have to draw the line somewhere, no pun intended, so do your pace calculation with room to spare just in case.

If your run course has aid stations "approximately every mile" and you can maintain just under a 15 minute per mile walking pace, you'll hit four miles per hour with a few seconds at each aid station to stock up. (Remember this though, that with decreased effort - not running - you'll have different fluid and electrolyte needs.  Less obviously, over-drinking can lead to hyponatremia, a serious medical condition that you need to be aware of for both you and you new walking friends.  As the sun sets, you will probably be given a light stick to hang from your clothing or some do well as a necklace that can be seen from front and back.  This could be important as the entirety of the course may not be closed both ways to vehicular traffic and you don't want to get squashed.

Lastly, when you finally do make it to the finish line chute, unlike the 7 hour marathon finisher, IM race fans do hang around to cheer you on those final yards. From experience, you feel a little sheepish, you've been at this a long time.  You're a little embarrassed, like maybe you should be carrying a spear and shield or something, but the second you cross that line, it all goes away.  Mission accomplished!  You're an Ironman with a big medal around your neck to prove it.  A month from now, a year from now, no one is going to ask about your pace at the nineteen mile mark, they'll just be in awe that you're an Ironman finisher.  Like Judy and John Collins, the ones who thought up this crazy thing say, "Swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, run a marathon, and brag for the rest of your life."

And don't forget to shake the hands of your new found walking buddies.  They're Ironman finishers too.  But do it humbly.

Sunset on the Big Island, earlier than most people think!
*We just finished no-alcohol January 3.0 where a big group of triathletes went alcohol-free for the month.  Easy for some, quite the challenge for a few!  But huge grins on that latter group who showed that with a little help from your triathlon peers, you can accomplish most anything!

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