By Jeremy Berger
on 9.20.12
Photo by Paul Berger

Editor’s Note: This series was predicated on the idea that Ironman has become a thing guys aspire to do — so we decided to dispatch our correspondent Jeremy Berger to do just that. Along the way we learned about avoiding injuries, eating right, training effectively, bonking, and the importance of appropriate gear. Hopefully you have as well. Now summer is over, the public pools in New York have closed, and Ironman Louisville has come and gone. Read on to find out how it went, and whether it was worth all the trouble. We think it was.

Well this is it, the beginning of the end, Friday, two days before race day. I’m on my hands and knees in a room I’m sharing with my parents in the Comfort Inn and Suites in Louisville, Kentucky. I’m filling 12 plastic snack baggies with exactly 300 grams of Carbo Pro, pure complex carbohydrates, a white powdery substance that could easily be mistaken for a substance banned by virtually every governing body, least of all the World Triathlon Corporation, stacked up and neatly portioned out like this. This powder will be the backbone of my diet on Sunday. The mood in the room is somewhere between tense and unhinged, like we’ve all gathered to discuss some very bad news. Mom is pretty stressed out, mainly because I’ve never swum 2.4 miles. Dad’s helping me make a checklist of everything I need to pack in my gear bags. I’m getting bent out of shape about anything that’s new or unexpected about my routine leading up to the race: restaurant food that isn’t healthy enough, the temperature of the room, sharing a room, a noise coming from the wall, the lack of pools and parks.

And that’s what this whole thing is all about on one level: being in control.

Continues after the jump.

Road to Ironman
Part 1: Introduction | Part 2: Conversation with Phillip Bauman, MD | Part 3: Swim, Bike, Run, Eat | Part 4: Training with a USA Triathlon Amateur Athlete of the Year | Part 5: Welcome to Midterms | Part 6: Essential Triathlon Gear | Part 7: Last Exit, Louisville

The Enigma of Control

I’ve ruled the last three months, the Road to Ironman, with an iron fist. No alcohol, five healthy meals per day, no socializing past midnight, no dating, yoga almost every day, workouts six days per week, brick workouts four days per week. Triathletes train an average of seven months for Ironman; if I was going to finish an Ironman with three months training and very little experience swimming and cycling, I needed to be in complete control.

Control doesn’t exist. Control is counterintuitive. Only one thing about control is certain: If you’re holding on too tight, you’ll lose your edge.

The difficult thing about control is that it’s not a static condition, like owning all the orange properties in Monopoly; it’s the way we interact with a changing set of circumstances that makes us in control or out of control. Control is a state of mind. Developing the situation is the closest thing to being in control. What you don’t want heading into an Ironman is what I’ll call ponzi-style control, where a confidence man is in complete control right up until the scam is revealed and his control turns from subject of to object of. Control doesn’t exist. Control is counterintuitive. Only one thing about control is certain: If you’re holding on too tight, you’ll lose your edge.

The Great Lawn

I estimate the total value of the bicycles on the Great Lawn at $10 million, minimum. It’s a sea of 2,900 bikes covering the plot of Louisville’s Waterfront Park between Clark Memorial Bridge and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Expressway, bridges that run north across the Ohio River into Indiana. The Great Lawn is the transition area, where the swim ends and the bike begins (T1), and where the bike ends and the run begins (T2). It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m here to rack my bike and drop off my gear bags. Tires are exploding because people have juiced them to 120psi and then left them in a field under Kentucky’s afternoon sun in the heart of summer. The temperature is in the mid 90s. I walk past a woman whose tire explodes while she inflates it. She’s very tall and lean and tan and doesn’t even flinch. She’s in control. Fad-wise, the thing at this year’s Ironman Louisville seems to be compression socks. Everyone is wearing them. I bump into a woman I recognize from Mascoma Man; she and her daughter are both wearing them, though only one of them is competing. Compression socks, whose efficacy for recovery I can neither confirm nor deny, seem to be both a literal and metaphorical symbol of control.

The Shiv hangs by its saddle from the rack, purring.

I let some air out of my tires and a volunteer walks me through the transition area and explains how it will work. 40% of participants in this Ironman are first-timers, he says. The volunteers at Ironman are exceptionally helpful. One thing the volunteer does not prepare me for is the sight of middle-aged men applying lubricant to their inner buttucks in the transition tent. The Shiv hangs by its saddle from the rack, purring. The back hub’s been overhauled, the chain lubricated, the carbon frame wiped down and stickered with number 1014. The bike doesn’t look nervous.

Off to the Races

We’re up at 3:30 a.m. on Sunday so I can get to the transition area at 4:45 a.m., put air in my tires, and then walk the mile or so east to get bodymarkings and line up for the swim. There’s something about the bodymarking that puts me in the zone. Number 1014. Age 28. That’s who I am until I cross the finish line. The line for the swim is endless. The line for the porta potties is almost as long, and more than one of us are doing the pee dance while we wait. One guy is really getting his knees up in the air. I’m having a conversation with a group of people in line and one woman says that her butt hair gets tangled while she’s on the bike. Other people pee in the woods or, as becomes clear when daylight breaks and the line starts to move, just piss themselves right there in line.

Take Note:

DIET OF AN IRONMAN

Breakfast-Swim

  • PB&J, Banana Sandwich on Wheat: 500 calories
    Carbo Pro and Water: 300 cal
  • 2nd Surge Ultra Energy Gel: 90 cal

Swim-Bike (in transition)

  • Gold Standard Whey Protein Shake: 130 cal

Bike

  • 6 bottles of 3 ounce Carbo Pro solution in water: 2,016 cal
  • 6 Bonk Breaker bars: 1,440 cal
  • Banana: 100 cal
  • 4 8-fluid ounce servings of Ironman Perform: 280 cal

Run

  • 2 3oz bottles of Carbo Pro solution in water: 672 cal
  • Misc. chips, pretzels, bananas, Coke, chicken broth = roughly 500 cal

Post-Run

  • 2 slices of Little Caesars Pepperoni Pizza: 460 cal

Total: 6,488 calories

I’m within earshot of the National Anthem followed by “My Old Kentucky Home” on the bugle and then the starting gun that sends the pros off and begins our march toward the dock. The Ironman swim is the closest approximation to being a fish swimming in a school of other fish. The sun hangs on the horizon of the Ohio River for most of the first leg of the swim out around Towhead Island. There’s a leg by my ear, a hand sliding over my calf, a mouth gasping for air next time my face. Two-thirds of the 2.4 mile swim is coming back on the other side of the island, roughly in the middle of the river, and into the transition area. I climb out of the water and jog toward the transition, looking for my parents in the crowd of spectators. Ironman is a bit like “Legends of the Fall,” a series of homecomings for Tristan Ludlow, Brad Pitt’s character, who goes out on adventures while his family worries and awaits his glorious return.

I see my parents just as I mount my bike and head out for the 112 mile ride. This is important for them and for me. Having support makes this whole thing possible. Few, if any, Ironman competitors come to the race alone. They’ve got friends and loved ones carrying their stuff and pacing around out while they’re out on the course. This is very selfless act. They get satisfaction only vicariously, and surely bear a disproportionate amount of the sorrow if the day doesn’t work out as planned.

The beauty of the bike course — mansions along River Road, horse farms, the historic and very wealthy Oldham County–is offset only by the sound of ambulances. On the course’s one significant downhill, maybe 20 miles in, a woman is braced in a stretcher awaiting an ambulance and potentially a helicopter that’s flying above. The main obstacle on the bike is monotony, broken up by the large crowds in La Grange and by the aid stations every ten miles. Between the bottles of Carbo Pro solution and the Bonk Breaker bars I eat at every aid station, I’m taking in close to 500 calories per hour. I feel like a bear preparing for hibernation, which becomes a thing in itself: I’ll show you how much I can eat. I’m talking to myself here. The plan was to stay in control, taking it slow and avoiding bonking above all else. The race will ultimately have a 14% DNS (did not start) rate and a 14% DNF (did not finish) rate, which is very high for Ironman. I don’t want to be in that crowd.

The best part about the run is the snacks at the aid stations: chips, pretzels, fruit, Coke, energy bars, gels, chicken broth. It’s a good spread. The worst part is the porta potties, which contents is equally diverse. Spectators say nice things. “Good pace, blue shoes, keep it up!” “1014 looking strong!” High fives from a guy dressed as Superman. Old man on hands and knees puking. I want to hit on an attractive woman but I realize now is not the time. It strikes me as something of a life lesson that while Coca Cola is much-maligned for being unhealthy, and in my home city is banned from restaurants in sizes larger than 16 ounces, it is available at aid stations at Ironman and virtually all other ultra-distance races.

People are reaching their limits. Some of them walk with legs and arms bowed out like crabs. More than a few bodies are strewn in lawns receiving attention from paramedics.

On my second loop around the run course there’s an ambulance carting somebody off underneath a train bridge on the way out of town. It’s starting to get dark. I’ve got some wear and tear for sure, but at this point there’s no way I won’t finish unless something catastrophic happens; for all the effort and anxiety I put into being in control, I managed the course successfully; I wonder if I should push it and try to run the second half fast, but it doesn’t seem worth the risk. I can go for speed next year in Lake Placid. A sign reads, “If Ironman were easy, it would be your mom!” At this point things get pretty grisly. People are reaching their limits. Some of them walk with legs and arms bowed out like crabs. More than a few bodies are strewn in lawns receiving attention from paramedics. A bigger guy receiving said attention says, “I may not finish, but I’m staying out until midnight.”

The finish line in Louisville is like a miniature Times Square, packed with spectators, music booming loudly, lights bright. There are catchers whose job it is to make sure finishers are of sound body and mind. Mine has a good look at me, sees that I’m just fine, and points out my parents in the crowd, whom despite their screaming I couldn’t find while I was running down the chute. She gives me the medal, a finishers shirt, a chocolate milk, lines me up for a photo, and that’s it. The end of the Road to Ironman.

Conquering Iron

As humans we like to exert our will on the environment around us — even better when we can use tools and machines to do it more efficiently or in grander style. This is our history, if you’ll allow me to paraphrase. The thrill of Ironman comes from exercising the will to complete a manmade challenge that seems unlikely or very difficult: the simple pleasure of doing something because it’s hard and because other people can’t do it. Conquering. But, academically, there’s a type of control that’s ultimately more important in endurance sports. What happens when training doesn’t go as planned, when you get a flat during a race, when you bonk with a few miles to go? Then control means letting go, getting so close to the pain or doubt that you’re almost embracing it, accepting it, and then continuing anyway. That’s a more useful life skill. But then, I’m an Ironman — so easy for me to say.

Special Thanks

We’re especially thankful to the following people and brands for making this series possible: Paul and Susan Berger, Jasmine Gardiner, Christopher Thomas, Dr. Phillip Bauman, Johnny Kuckens, Timex, Specialized, Aqua Sphere, Zoot, New Balance, Skora, Smith Optics, Light & Motion.

Road to Ironman
Part 1: Introduction | Part 2: Conversation with Phillip Bauman, MD | Part 3: Swim, Bike, Run, Eat | Part 4: Training with a USA Triathlon Amateur Athlete of the Year | Part 5: Welcome to Midterms | Part 6: Essential Triathlon Gear | Part 7: Last Exit, Louisville

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