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How to Survive the Mental Mindf*&! of a Half Ironman

 

Here's the thing about a Half Ironman, or 70.3 miles of swimming, biking, and running: No matter how hard you train, you really can't predict how things are going to go down on race day. You work your ass off, you do your course research, and you pray for the best. But you can't control the weather, the terrain, or the other athletes. Once that starting gun goes off, a triathlon becomes so much less about what you're doing with your body than what you're doing with your brain

I signed up for the Austin Ironman 70.3 because I was told it was a great course for beginners: a freshwater swim through Lake Walter E. Long, a bike route through "rolling Texas flatlands," and a three-loop lakeside run. Bonus: The November weather in Texas would be calm and balmy. Easy breezy, right?

That was all too good to be true: Two nights before the race, Austin was hit by major storms and flash flooding. By the time we got in the water Sunday morning, that peaceful lake looked more like a churning ocean. As I tried to follow my breathe-every-third-freestyle-stroke plan, I realized that a) I couldn't take a breath because of the chop, b) I couldn't see six inches in front of my face because of the murky water, and c) I was getting kicked and hit from athletes on all sides. To say it was a far cry from the pool at Equinox where I trained would be the understatement of the century. 

Not gonna lie: I had a full-on panic attack two hundred meters in. My confidence was shot, as was my game plan. I grabbed on to a safety kayak to stop hyperventilating and seriously thought about bailing on the 1,800 meters left. (Know the feeling? We've got 8 Ways to Override the Urge to Quit.) But as I took giant heaving breaths, I realized I couldn't bail. I can thank social media for that—I had posted too much and too confidently about how I was going to crush this race. There was no way I was going to 'fess up to failing. And the only way to get through the whole thing was to just keep moving forward. 

I flipped over to backstroke (and breathe), and the next 56 minutes became a total mind game—between counting strokes, I chanted "just keep swimming, just keep swimming" in my head and occasionally out loud. At every bouy, I told myself, "just one more." Slowly but surely, I made my way back to the shore and finally felt the sweet relief of firm ground under my feet. 

The self-talk didn't stop there though. In fact, it became my secret weapon throughout the race. I was way more comfortable on the bike than in the water (thanks, Flywheel!), but 56 miles is a looong time to be exercising by yourself—even if you're riding a bike through bucolic Texas farmland. Oh, and headphones? They're prohibited in Ironman races. As I settled into the ride, I actually started talking to myself, out loud, totally subconciously. A common refrain: "You are killing this right now!" Ten miles in, I had a delightful conversation with myself about all the food I was going to order at dinner that night. Once I hit the halfway point, I started singing out the number of miles left each time I clocked another one.

And while I was initally anxious about all the serious cyclists passing me, I eventually stopped trying to pace myself with them and started reminding myself that this was my race, no one else's. (Cutting Yourself Some Slack Can Actually Lower Your Risk of Injuries.) As for the quad-burning hills—of which there were entirely too many—I found a well-timed "f!&*" with each pedal stroke went a long way in powering to the top. Just saying.

Getting to the run almost seemed like catching a break, until I turned on my GPS watch and remembered I still had a half marathon ahead of me—sans music, in case you forgot. At least on the bike, my mind was partially focused on avoiding potholes and other bikes; these 13.1 miles would be just me and my thoughts. Fun!

I tried to keep my self-talk to myself on the course (my number one thought? Long Runs Hurt Like a B*tch), but, luckily, I didn't have to keep my mouth shut for long. Out of the water, freed from our bikes, the majority of the athletes seemed ready to engage. As people passed by, they'd ask what lap I was on, commiserating if we were in the same place and encouraging me if I was a lap behind.

By lap three, I found myself on equal footing with another woman and we made a pact to finish together. A former collegiate triathlete and Half Ironman finisher, she had had mechanical issues on her bike and was a half hour behind her goal time. Despite being the race newbie, I found myself spewing all my "you can do it!" platitudes at her. They were all truths she had undoubtably heard before, but things we can all benefit from being reminded of on an off day. (P.S. Check out the Best Marathon Signs from Spectators.)    

Without even mentioning it, we both sped up as we came around the Travis County Exposition Center and into the arena to cross the finish line—and we did it together. Before I even grabbed my medal, I thanked her for her company. It wasn't just that she helped me pace myself. Having someone else to cheer on during the race motivated me to push harder too. After all, you have to practice what you preach. 

The race took me seven hours, 32 minutes, and 35 seconds. And yeah, I was exhausted physically. But I think my brain got even more of a workout that day—and like all the best workouts, I wasn't left dying or regretting showing up; I was fired up for more. (But don't hold me to that right now—I see a month of yoga in my future!)

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