|Welcome to the Ironman Death March|
Strategies to get through the pain
By Ray Fauteux
In the back of your mind you were always pretty sure that making it to the Ironman finish line was going to somehow involve a certain amount of pain. After all, it’s a long, long day out there.
Even so, you were simply not prepared for just how bad you were going to feel on race day.
The pain and fatigue began its relentless creep into your muscles about halfway through the bike course. At first it was easy to ignore, but as the miles passed beneath the whirring wheels a voice deep in your subconscious began to whisper “slow down, slow down.” Just a few miles into the marathon the pain came in earnest and it happened with the subtlety of a house being dropped on top of you about 5K into the marathon. Sure, you felt a stiffness when you finally climbed off your bike at the end of 180K, but didn’t you run at a pretty brisk pace as you passed the crush of spectators cheering you on as you left transition?
So why did that brisk run become a slow trot, a walk-run, and then a slow agonizing shuffle? You ask yourself how this could possibly have happened because you did plenty of long bike and run training sessions and it never hurt this much.What could you possibly have done differently in order to avoid becoming a participant in the Ironman Death March?
Perhaps two of the greatest Ironman Hawaii Champions can shed some light on the subject.
When Dave Scott and Mark Allen hooked up in Ironman Hawaii 1989 in what would become known as the Iron War, they re-defined the meaning of no pain, no gain. It was probably one of the greatest performances in the face of pain in the history of endurance sports. They did the 3.8K swim and 180K bike in tandem and neither was willing to give in and let the other break away. Despite being in pain at the beginning of the marathon, they ran virtually side-by-side for more than two hours and 30 minutes at their maximum possible speed. They took turns surging and trying to break the other, but each time they were drawn back together. At one point near the turnaround of the marathon course there was a surge by Scott that computed to a 5:40 mile timed by race officials. Yet at the end, it was like he was tied to Allen with a shoelace. Ultimately, Allen won when he pulled away at an aid station as they entered Kona and neared the finish of the race. To this day they recorded the two fastest marathon times in Ironman triathlon history with their sub 2:40 times, and by the end of the race they were 5K ahead of the third place finisher.
Even 2011 Kona champion Craig Alexander felt the pain along the way to his third Hawaiian win, this one in a record 8 hours 03.56. But Alexander struggled through the final 6K. “There’s always a part when you start cramping. I ran out of salt tablets,” he told Kevin MacKinnon at Ironman.com. “At 22 miles I was feeling them in my hamstrings and calves.” But winning eases a lot of the pain. “Last year (2010) hurt a lot,” Alexander says. “Mostly because I had a good race and got beat.”
For Allen it was using mind-power to deal with the pain. It took many attempts before he was finally able to win the Hawaii Ironman because he would mentally give in to the pain. It wasn’t until learning to master the pain on a mental level that he was able to perform through it and become a true champion.
Scott dealt with pain in a far different way. Scott would train until it hurt because he knew he was going to feel that same pain on race day and he had to get his body used to it. Ultimately he mastered pain on a more physical level. It was this training method that propelled him to six Ironman Hawaii Championships. He didn’t necessarily train more than the other top pros of the day, but instead trained his body to perform through pain.
So how does today’s triathlete approach the pain factor and avoid the Death March?
First, most novice Ironmen get caught up in the emotion of the day and race beyond their limits. From the moment the start gun sounds they are off like a shot and don’t slow down until they run right into the wall of pain that awaits those who simply run out of gas. Often they still have part of the bike and the entire marathon to go, and through their enthusiasm have set themselves up to be a major player in the Ironman Death March. The best way to avoid this is to temper your enthusiasm and concentrate on maintaining a pace that can be sustained through the entire day. It is extremely important this begins in the swim as soon as the start gun sounds and emotions are at a fever pitch. Energy wasted in the swim is unrecoverable for the rest of the day and is gone for good.
The second way to avoid the Death March is to train outside your comfort zone. There can only be one outcome if most of your training sessions are relatively easy and comfortable, then suddenly you push your body to its limit on race day. If you plan on racing until it hurts then it would be in your best interest to take a page from Dave Scott’s book and practice training out of your comfort zone so you can experience some of that pain ahead of time. At least that way it won’t be such a shock to your system.
By approaching an Ironman triathlon in a manner that best suits your ability and preparation, you will avoid the death march and have your best possible outcome.
Ray Fauteux is a Calgary triathlete, author of three triathlon books and founder of ironstruck.com.