The ups and downs (and ups and downs…) of Ironman training

I’ve written and rewritten at least five introductions to this post and deleted all of them, so I’m just going to go straight for it in the most indelicate language possible.  Here we go:

Ironman training is fucking hard as shit.

Oh, I know, you’re probably like, “Duh, Caitlin, what did you expect? You’re training so you can basically spend half a day working out. Of course that shit is hard.”

I guess I just didn’t expect it to be quite like this.

What does it tell you when I say that I’m eight weeks out, and I’m only just now feeling like I might actually have a shot at completing this thing?  I’m not even talking about meeting some sort of time goal or trying to snag a spot on the podium or qualifying for Kona.  I’m talking about just being able to finish under the seventeen-hour time limit.

I’ll be even more specific – it’s not the run or the swim that has me freaked out.  I’ve already swam 2.4 miles – in the ocean, sans wetsuit – and loved the whole experience.  And I’ve run very long distances before.

If this race was just swim a bunch and then run a bunch and then go swim some more, I’d be like, “YEAH DUDE, LET’S DO THIS!”

No, my issue is that damn bike leg.  On what planet does an hour-plus swim and a four-hour run seem like even remotely equivalent to a six-hour bike ride?  They should let me redesign the Ironman. I’d make it a 5K swim, a metric century on the bike and a marathon. This whole business of riding 112 miles on the bike is just garbage. Total, stinky, baking-on-a-hot-day garbage.

But, because no one died and made me queen of Ironman (yet), I’ve been training my butt off on the bike so I can spend six hours hunched over my aero bars with a skinny saddle wedged against my hoo-ha and hopefully still have enough strength in my legs to shuffle my way to a respectable finishing time.

And that is where the Saga of Self-Doubt, the Spiral of Suck, whatever other S’s of S might apply – this is where I tripped and fell face-first right into their gaping, hateful maws.

My bike training has been pretty standard: two trainer rides during the week (one tempo, one intervals, both powered by my intense dislike of Serena van der Woodsen) and then a long ride on the weekend.  Sometimes I go alone on the roads and trails around my house, and sometimes Brian and I pack up our car and head to the Suncoast Trail about 45 minutes away.

One thing is always certain, though.  As Brian put it, “Caitlin + long ride = meltdown.”  I’ve cried. I’ve dry-heaved. I’ve told Brian to commit obscene acts with himself as I’ve furiously pedaled away from him. No matter how promisingly the day started out, 3+ hours on the bike had a way of turning me into a giant, profane toddler.

And then about four weeks ago, things got even worse.  I’d noticed my right knee felt a little tender while riding, which was tolerable, but when I’d go run, it felt like someone was stabbing me in my kneecap. I adjusted my stride and tried to deal with it, thinking this was just my body doing the standard freakout that it always does when I step up my training volume, and that it would eventually pass.

But it didn’t pass, and finally about two weeks ago, it became so bad that I turned around after about a quarter-mile and tearfully limped home. I was so frustrated that later that day, my oldest cat Sasha jumped up on my bathroom counter and knocked over a bottle of lotion, and I responded by shrieking, “FOR FUCK’S SAKE SASHA, WHYYYYY?” and then burst into tears as my poor cat stared at me in terror.

There was no way in hell I was going to be able to do even a neighborhood 5K in this situation, let alone an entire Ironman, but after I calmed down, I came up with a plan.  I took a full week off from everything – even swimming, as I couldn’t kick without pain and I wasn’t about to do 2800 yards with the pull buoy three times a week – and I iced the crap out of my knee every night and did PT exercises with such focus and dedication, you’d think I was going to clamshell and leg-lift my way across that finish line.

I also talked to Mike at the local bike shop, and we decided that I should move my saddle up a bit.  So that’s what Brian and I did – we cranked it up about 1.5 centimeters.

After that no-training week passed – during which time I cleaned my house in a way it hadn’t seen since the weeks after the Boston Marathon – I eased my way back into training.  I started with short, easy runs and easy spins on the trainer. Everything seemed OK, so I ramped things up a little bit…and a little bit more…and a little bit more…

Everything seemed…fine?  I allowed myself to think that maybe everything was going to be OK, and that this wasn’t going to be the end of my Ironman dream.

But the real test came this past weekend, when I was scheduled for a 4-plus hour bike ride on Saturday and a two-hour run on Sunday.

Before we left for the ride, Brian suggested that I start using these rides to figure out my nutrition on the bike, telling me that I should try to take in as many calories as possible on the bike because I was probably not going to want more than liquids on the run. I agreed, remembering how I spent the last 2+ hours of the Keys 50 not even wanting to drink water and how he had to basically force Mountain Dew and Boost down my throat so I wouldn’t bonk before I made it to Key West.

My Garmin is set to beep with my splits every five miles, so we decided that I was going to eat something every time it beeped: either a gel or a piece of Clif bar.  That’s in addition to the nutrition I have in the Torpedo between my aero bars and on the cages behind my seat.  (For the record, I mix Infinit’s Speed for Women with scoops of Base Nutrition’s Amino Acids and Base Salts – a very…interesting flavor combination that took me a minute to get used to.)

We set off for our ride, and as the hours passed and I kept jamming calories in my face-hole, I realized something – that I actually felt surprisingly OK.  That’s when it occurred to me that my meltdowns were probably 50% due to severe underfueling.  Which makes sense!  You can’t expect your body to do much of anything – let alone perform athletically for a sustained period of time – when your tank is empty.

And because I had the mental clarity provided by adequate caloric replenishment, I realized that the other 50% of my difficulties were due to something that’s a little more out of my control – specifically the fact that it is as hot as the surface of the sun outside these days.  We’d been finishing these rides around 12 or 1, with temperatures in the 90s and feels-like temperatures in the low 100s.

I was trying to do these rides while it was hot as balls and without nearly enough nutrition. No wonder I felt like a mountain of refried crap.

So this last ride, I was basically eating the whole time, and even though it was really hot and most of the last 40 miles was almost directly into a headwind, I actually felt fine, if sweaty and filthy. After we finished, I stripped off my jersey, pulled on my Hokas, and ran-walked with Brian for 30 minutes.  Again, it was stupid hot – hello, midday August in Florida! Might as well be running directly into a blast furnace! –  but I hung in there until the end.

I’m still not sure how I’m supposed to do a marathon after getting off my bike, but I’m optimistic that knocking the temperature down by about 20 degrees might actually help me out here.  I mean, it’s not like it is up in the East Coast – you guys have my sympathies and then some, because that shit looks miserable – but it’s still pretty wretched right now.  Even the mid-70s feels like a welcome break from the otherwise unrelenting summer hat.

(Can I just share one of the most sadistic quirks of summertime training in Florida with you?  You’d think that stopping during a run would be a relief, but no, it’s actually worse.  At least when you run, you have air moving over your sweaty-ass body, but when you stop, it all just stagnates and bakes against your skin. It’s truly better to just keep moving.)

My knee didn’t bug me at all during the ride or the run, and in fact, I was pretty sure the higher saddle was allowing me to pedal with even more power than before.  I experimented with riding in the big chainring on the flats – something I haven’t done since I first started riding a bike – and noticed that my legs actually seemed to be capable of handling it.

So maybe my knee situation – as completely aggravating as it was – did me a favor by forcing me to adopt a stronger bike position. Who knows?  Such is the magic of bike geometry. A centimeter can mean the difference between agonizing pain with every stroke or a full mile-per-hour worth of speed.

The following day, I somehow managed to peel myself out of bed so Brian and I could run-walk for two hours around the trails and parks near our house.   And again, I felt fine.  I mean, I was literally dripping with sweat by the time I finished and I spent the rest of the day alternately wanting to eat and sleep, but physically I felt fine. I actually felt better than fine.  I felt healthy and strong and totally capable of handling anything.

Now, on Monday, I’m actually feeling like I might be OK during the race – like I might actually enjoy the experience.  Here’s hoping I can sustain that feeling of optimism for most of the next eight weeks, because I’m going to need it!


39 responses to “The ups and downs (and ups and downs…) of Ironman training

  1. I so appreciate this post. Because I was wondering how you’re doing, and how you’re managing it all. Because that seems so incredibly tough. Honestly, even knowing that things aren’t always what they seem, I was feeling a little less than because I’m trying to make it through “only” marathon training and it’s hard. Your post reminds me of what real life is. We attempt things and we fail and we cry and get back up and sometimes repeat that several times before we get it right or get on track.
    And the one thing I’ve learned is enjoying the process is the best thing we can do for ourselves. I have faith you’re going to be great!

  2. I love this post! Esp. the part about a workout fueled by the intense dislike of Serena van der Woodsen. The next time I need inspiration…I know where to turn! Thank you. The cycling sounds brutal. Careful with that knee…

  3. I love your posts. I’m just a little old mum-of-4 in the UK who hasn’t ran farther than the end of the road in sometime, so possibly not your usual avid reader, but I love reading your posts and think you’re amazing 🙂

  4. Loved reading this. I am not attempting an iron man, but am about to begin training for a trail marathon, so glad to have the reminder about nutrition!

    • Oh yes, do NOT neglect nutrition – not during your race or your training. Not only is it critical for fueling but it also helps you recover from your workouts – both things I had to learn the hard way. Good luck with your trail marathon! When is it?

      • Not until February. It is in Northumberland along the coast. Supposed to be beautiful. But not even close to a triathlon in terms of athletic requirement

      • In the UK? The Coastal Trail Series?

        I love trail running and wish I could do more of it. I hope you have so much fun at that race!

      • Yes. It looks beautiful doesn’t it? I can’t wait. My first marathon was the Dorking Baachus trail/asphalt run in Surrey. It was pretty, but not nearly so – Thanks so much. I will be coming back here for inspiration!

  5. you are funny….. especially the Gossip Girl comments. lolz.

    In reading the top half of your entry, I immediately knew you weren’t eating enough. I’m usually pretty happy riding my bike and when I want to cry, that’s a HUGE sign that I need more calories. I actually have my garmin set to beep every 15 minutes (instead of miles) because its hilly where I live and sometimes 5 miles can take 45 minutes. I try to get in 300 calories/hour on the bike and that sets me up pretty well.

    And as you hit the final big push of your training, make absolutely sure you implement some recovery tricks between workouts. Recovery drink, ice bath, compression, legs up the wall, whatever. If I did my recovery voodoo after a long ride I was generally good to go the next day.

    And the last month is supposed to suck. Mostly to make race day look easy by comparison 😉

    • OK I will make a huge effort to do all of the recovery stuff. I want to be capable of handling all this monster training, and so far I’ve been doing recovery drinks and legs up the wall, but I know I can do more.

      I feel like underfueling on the bike is such a rookie mistake but that was exactly what I was doing. I mistakenly thought my Infinit/Base aminos blend would be enough, but it’s obvious that it wasn’t and that I need actual food.

      Thanks for the warning about the last month. I’ll try to keep that perspective when I start feeling cranky and tired all the time. 😀

      • my recovery protocol is generally recovery drink in the car on the way home from a bike ride (I keep it in a little cooler), stop by the gas station, buy 2 bags of ice (maybe 3 depending on how warm your tap water is). Shower, then ice bath (the order is important). Ice bath is only 15 minutes and I generally dink around on my phone. Dry off and put on both compression socks AND tights. This sucks in the summer but it helps. And make sure I eat a good dinner the night before. I bet aminos before bed would be a great idea too. I’m mentally tired and a bit physically tired the next day, but always able to complete my workout. I’d usually have big back to back bikes (100 mi then 80 miles) and I’d be ok.

        and eat eat eat!!! avocados are your best friend!!!

        don’t hesitate to whine to me (PM, text, email, whatever) if you need a shoulder or a pep talk. IM training breaks you down but it also sets you up for success 🙂

      • OMG I so appreciate the offer for support – I will most likely be taking you up on that as it gets closer and as my training gets tougher!

        And dang your recovery regimen is something else. I usually have a recovery drink, then I eat something and take a bath and rest with my legs up the rest of the day, but clearly I could be doing more. I should do more in the way of compression, but it’s just so hot, ugh. I know it helps though. I wore compression after my long runs during my last training cycle and it made such a difference. I just get lazy, I guess.

  6. BINGO. You must eat and eat and eat. I think I worked it out that I would eat at least 250 cals/hour on the bike. I counted out my fuel exactly when packing for the race.

    And yes, it’s like they dip you in the water, and say now go ride for seventeen days, then do a little marathon. It’s SO dumb. But keep on keepin’ on. Once you get off that bike during the race you will be like I SO got this.

  7. Your blog is a great way to get a realistic glimpse into the craziness of Ironman training. I’ve always thought the time management part of it seemed challenging enough, but the fear of injury and actually surviving some of the long workouts is a pretty big deal too. I’m so relieved the injury wasn’t something that set you back. The bike part of it all just boggles my mind. The fact that you can totally screw yourself up by your seat being a few centimeters off? Craziness.

    If you ever DO become the queen of Ironman, I’m totally on board with your race plan, haha. I’m with you – swimming, running…I can handle that. It’s the insanity of 6+ hours on the bike that keeps me from even considering an Ironman at this point. One thing that intimidates me is that my balance on the bike is so bad I can’t imagine how I’d eat while riding…let alone eat ENOUGH. I’m jealous of the kids who go riding past me without their hands on the handlebars. Good thing you have Brian to advise you about fueling, and I’m glad to hear that’s helped turn things around.

    I hope the next couple months of training go well. You’ve totally got this thing.

  8. OMG, no wonder you’ve been hating your time on the bike… nothing is worse than being nutritionally drained on the bike! I’m glad you figured it out!

    I totally feel you on the intimidating bike leg thing. Even now, fully trained up with a couple 100+ rides under my belt, I’m more nervous about the bike leg than the run. It seems like how good or crappy the run feels is based on how well you managed your bike leg, and that’s scary. Plus, everything hurts after five hours on the bike.

    (Also, the long distance triathlon you mentioned actually exists with almost those same measurments! It’s only in the UK, though:

  9. Now if only I could figure out some kind of nutrition game plan during a 3 hour roller derby practice. I tried a banana once. Could feel that thing sitting in my tummy. And every time I burped, I tasted banana. Not the worst flavor in the world but still.

  10. The raw intro is really the only intro that makes sense. Why bury the lede? 😉 T and I had a 10k a few weeks back, and decided we would swing over to the nearby OWS beach afterwards so he could get some time in. While I was waiting for him to finish, a family was hanging out in front of me in various stages of sunbathing/swimming. The youngest girl was clearly a swimmer (maybe 9yo?), with a backpack covered in meet tags and such, and her dad had been in and out of a wetsuit for the better part of the morning, so I figured that was their thing (her older, teenage sisters were very much into their phones and sunning). At one point, she was explaining/talking about the fact that she wanted to do a half Ironman, and her sister said, “Why would you want to work out for like 8 hours?! That’s like….. longer than school! That’s like ….. longer than work!” At which point they were all packed up and leaving, and the aspiring Ironman in her giant swimming gear backpack just kind of picked up her wetsuit and seemed pretty nonplussed about it as they shuffled home. 🙂

    • HA! There’s a part of me that relates to each sister. One part of me is like “yes, let’s do ALL THE RACES” and then another part of me is like “’s so long.”

      Also that younger girl sounds cool as hell. Would like to be her when I grow up

    • So that specific bike race is still going on? Man, I’d like to find the dudes who made the bar bet back in the 1970s and beg them to find a different bike race on the island. 😀

      • All 3 events are still in existence. I have to say that the Dick Evans course is probably a little easier than your average IronMan course — the first 30 miles through Honolulu are neutral for rider safety, and while there’s a longish climb after that, the route is for the most part close to the ocean and therefore pretty flat. So pretty. I miss Hawaii!

  11. This is such a great, honest, and relatable post. I mean, I haven’t trained for an Ironman, but the toddler on a bike thing, I’ve so been there.

    • What IS it about the bike? You’d think it wouldn’t be so bad because it’s a piece of equipment doing most of the work for you, but my lord, it is hard as hell.

      • Mine is mostly that I haven’t found that perfect bike fit yet – my lower back and neck hurts like hell and my toes go numb after about 20 minutes. I’m on the lookout for multisport events that don’t involve biking, lol.

      • Aquathon! Or maybe just shorter triathlons.

        Have you tried different shoes? The toes going numb that quickly makes me wonder…

      • There’s a race up here in Michigan that adds in stand-up paddleboarding, maybe I should try that :p

        I haven’t had a chance to try new shoes yet… because shoes are expensive 😦 I need to find time to take my bike in a well-supplied bike shop and have them let me try out a couple of different pairs.

  12. Here’s hoping all goes well!
    My friend from Florida was here on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning and went out for my Wednesday morning run with me. I thought we had it bad here in NC where nighttime lows have been 80s, but she said she felt amazing running here…..less humidity I guess. So, I’ll suck it up and not complain anymore about the temperature of the sun during my runs. Cool thoughts head your way!

    • Yeah, the humidity is kind of bonkers right now! Every time I come back from a run, I look like I’ve just gone for a swim. I even have to wring out my socks. I’m ready for this to be done.

      I’m sure that’s not much in the way of comfort for you though. It’s just hot everywhere right now!

  13. Hi Caitlin,
    I found it hard – it is hard. For me it was the run, but it wasn’t so much the training as just being totally knackered and all consumed by it all.
    6 hour bike ride though? Seriously? I was well chuffed with 7:15!
    I had an emergency bike fit a couple of weeks out due to knee pain. I highly highly recommend it, however, I’ve had one in a bike shop before which was 90 mins or so on a turbo and by video. This was a full 3 hour + session by a qualified physio who looked at my movement, went through exercises where I’m weak, showed me how to use a foam roller and other exercise things, looked at my shoes, put wedges in the shoes and under the cleats and finally had me on and off the bike about 5 times looking at all the different positions. If you can find someone near you I reall recommend it, I couldn’t run 5 miles before and after a week or so of getting used to the bike and doing the exercise I managed 16 miles and then on the day I had no pain whatsoever. That said, on the day you’ll be ok I promise, the day is awesome, enjoy!!

    • I hope the new bike fit helps with the knee pain! I watched a documentary on an unsupported bike race across the US, and the female winner – Juliana Buhring – had some mechanical issues that caused her bike seat to slide down, and she permanently jacked up her knees as a result.

      I’ve had my bike fit professionally about three times, and the suggestion to move the saddle up came from a guy I know who does bike fittings. I did a century on Sunday – my first! woo hoo! – and I didn’t have any issues at all. I think that literally was all I needed to do.

      Thanks for the reassurance that this will all be worth it on the day of the race! I’m finally starting to feel excited again about this, and it’s because of people like you reminding me that the race itself is actually really fun. 🙂

  14. When training for my first (and only so far) IM, I sent a pathetic text about riding the hills of WI to my coach. Her response, “it’s not Ironman training until you’re crying in the shower after six hours on the bike.” So…you’re right on track. : ) Nutrition is key and the bike is the easiest place to get it done. It sucks because you’re making up for not eating during the swim, trying to fuel your ride, and somewhat front-load your calories for the run. But my rule of thumb was, anytime something didn’t feel right- eat. Headache? Eat. Weepy? Eat. Confused, cranky, sore, etc.? Eat, eat, eat, and eat. After that, give yourself 5-10 mins and reasses. There’s very little that calories can’t fix during a long bike ride. And to the commenter that talked about the month prior to the race – #holla. You will peak and taper in that period. It sucks SO HARD, but just ride it out. You’ll get through it, and crossing that finish line will likely be one of the best moments of your life.

    • Thank you for the advice! And also I totally laughed at your coach’s response. I guess I truly am in the thick of this shit, aren’t I. The good news is that after this last weekend’s long bike ride – a post about which is in the works – I actually feel like I might be OK! But still, gotta eat, eat, eat.

  15. Caitlin, you nailed it! Nutrition! What a eureka moment for me. I have been trying to get “lean” this year and have tried so many different nutrition combinations. I did a 12 miler yesterday and finally broke down and had “real” carbs – like a burrito carbs – the day before, and I got through those 12 miles with no screaming. It’s a weird lightbulb moment, but you just confirmed the nutrition “magic”. THANK YOU so much for sharing this post. I’ve been gearing up for a few years to start IM training in 2017. I’m scared to death. I’ll start checking in more frequently so I can virtually cheer you across that finish line in a few weeks. You’ll be great! 🙂 AND, thanks for being honest about how hard this is.

  16. Hi Caitlin,

    You’re at the stage I had in ironman training where it is the actual worst thing in the whole world. But you’ll come out the other side, I promise. Think big picture, and just get through it. I suck at cycling, and knew that my time on the bike was going to be awful and I’d be really slow, but I just kept plugging away and going with my only strength on the bike which is getting up hills (and even then I’m terrible compared to most people!). It’s so demoralising when you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, but in a couple of weeks you’ll come round again, and feel like a different athlete.
    I use the exact strategy for fueling on the bike as you’re using now. Bit of energy bar or a jelly baby (do you have them in The States?!) and then a whole gel every 15. Much as you need to stay fueled (obvz) make sure you don’t overeat and f*ck your guts up for the run. I had no tummy troubles at all in the run, and I think it’s down to this little and often strategy. That being said, I bonked a bit about 10 miles in.

    Anyway. You’ll get through this horrible stage and come out the other side SO excited to get going, I promise.

    Keep smiling.


    • Thanks so much for this! I’m getting through it and tapering is, like, less than a week away at this point. It does me so much good to hear you say you’ve gone through this and that it all came out OK in the end. 🙂

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