Written by: Dr. Jason Braun
How I got into Ironman
This is my first race recap so let me get into the dirty details of it all, including my background as an athlete. This will end up being WAY more information than you ever want to read about my experience, but for those of you who are looking for a comprehensive story… Here we go!
My relationship with fitness has always been centered around team sports. I played baseball for 10 years leading up to high school. I was always the gangly kid on the field who could throw the wrap off the ball, but it was always a toss-up as to where it would go. I developed the nick-name “big wheels” for the way I would run… I guess I was a late bloomer.
Going into high school, the universe came together and it just so happened that a good friend of mine (Christina Lundberg) and my Aunt Lyndy had both suggested to me that I try water polo. I had never been a water based athlete, but I spent my summers swimming in our pool and going water skiing so I at least felt like I wouldn’t drown. I found my love for the sports quickly and it has stayed with me since.
I played water polo for the first half of my college career at the University of the Pacific and found rowing in the second half of college. Water polo was the gateway for me to value strength and power, and rowing taught me patience and the ability to control my stress while giving a 100% effort for an extended time in sport… Something that is invaluable in endurance sport.
After college, I needed inspiration. My buddy Matt Kassel was into triathlons and so he and I began training and doing sorter races together. I eventually got into a number of half ironmans, but the Ironman distance always seemed completely impossible. The distances are too great, the amount of time needed to train for them is prohibitive, and they are incredibly expensive.
In November 2014, my friend Scott Chaney posted online that his triathlon coaching company had one unused early-entry slot for IMAZ 2015. It was a guaranteed entry into the race which is nice because this race is one of the hardest to get into. I waffled back and forth for a couple of days on the idea of asking to use the slot. Ultimately, I determined that because I am self-employed, fresh out of school and don’t have a family to support, now is a great time to make the push. As soon as I clicked send on the entry form, I knew my life would be different. I just didn’t know how much so.
Because I had never done anything to the magnitude of an Ironman, I knew I would need some guidance to help me get there efficiently, effectively, and safely. I tried a couple coaching companies and attended local triathlon weekly workouts last winter. Nothing really stuck with me and most group triathlon meetings are fast and furious and it’s difficult to keep your intensity down when you need to.
In June, my friend Zack J (the same guy who did our awesome highlight reel for Braun Fitness) was telling me about an Ironman training plan he used on a website called Beginner Triathlete. I poked around the website for a bit and pulled the trigger on an “Intermediate Full Ironman” program. While it was a very affordable option, I wouldn’t have been able to make little tweaks necessary to make the program complete had I not had a plethora for sport physiology and endurance coaching knowledge already behind me from my training as a Doctor of Chiropractic.
The program was a 20 week intensive training plan that focuses on alternating long bike and long run weeks. It is difficult and is frequently overtaxing on the body to make a habit of doing both all of the time. I always thought it would take 25 to 30+ hours a week to train for Ironman, I don’t think I ever broke the 20 hrs a week mark in this training plan.
From the start, I knew Ironman training was going to be different. For the first shot at this distance, almost all of the training is long, repetitive, and frustratingly slow (Biking and running in heart/power zones 1 and 2 is hard to do). The program called on heart rate to be the metric of intensity, but with my prior training and understanding of my body, I just switched out the heart rate zones with power zones on my bike and monitored my perceived exertion on my running.
The swim training was tackled for the most part with the Rosebowl masters and VOLT Multisport swim teams. As the training wore on, the swim sets got longer so I also spent time just clicking off yardage by myself. The metric I used to measure my fitness in the pool was a 1000 meter swim (in a 50m long course pool). I first test I averaged 1:38/100m which felt terrible at the time. In the Ironman I paced 1:31/100m for almost 4000m and it felt next to effortless, full body wetsuits help a lot.
The bike training called for frequent low intensity bike rides ranging from 45 mins to 100 mins. I found a few paths between home and BRAUN Fitness that take about an hour by bike, on bike paths, so it was a fairly easy to get those in. I managed 6 4+ hours bike rides in the 20 weeks, but the majority of my volume came from the frequent but shorter rides on week days. There are a number of ways to measure fitness on the bike. I consider myself a “numbers guy” so I decided to use my Qarq power meter as my metric in FTP tests. Biking metrics can be confusing if you don’t have experience with them but a power meter measures how hard you move the pedals (in Watts) and an FTP test is a 20 minute, all-out effort, and an average of the power you can keep. My first FTP test was 204 watts, which for me is low because I weighed 235 pounds at the time. My most recent FTP test was 304 watts at 215 pounds of body weight, which is a better watts/KG body weight.
Lastly, I measured my running fitness by doing a 5Km (3.1 mile) time trial around the Rosebowl. My first effort was 24:38 and my most recent (but kinda old at this point) was 19:30. Not a huge jump in speed but again, the training didn’t call for much “speed work” so I didn’t get a ton faster, only more endurance for longer runs.
For strength training, I got BRAUN at BRAUN Fitness in Pasadena. I have always been a bigger framed guy. Ironman training changed that. Its difficult to hang onto size and strength when you are training heavily for an endurance sport, so instead I tweaked my resistance training to complement my endurance efforts outside. The primary goal with lifting weights as a triathlete is to increase “core strength”. The “core” is not strengthened through ab crutches or planks. Instead, a strong core is gained through maintaining a stabilized spine while you move your upper and lower extremities. For example: Not collapsing forward during a back squat or walking lunges. Both are very specific to the biking/running motions and bad body positon, relative to your legs, is a huge zapper of energy for long distance athletes. For the upper body, a stronger core would prevent an arch of your lower back when you push a heavy object over your head (similar to the swimming motion, especially with a wetsuit on). If you arch your lower back while swimming to compensate for tight shoulders or weak core musculature, your hips fall and you “dredge” you way through the water instead of being more like a sleek torpedo… Whether you are swimming, biking, or running strength in the middle of your body is integral to laying down a fast time, staying balanced and injury free, and having that extra power for your sprint finishes.
I was pretty good at hitting my scheduled workouts over the 20 weeks. I’d say I made about 85% or them but the majority of missed workouts in the last 4 weeks of training. Life happens, your going to miss some, and every day is a new opportunity to get back on the horse. I just had to stay positive.
Days leading up to Race time.
We decided to get to the race middle of the day on Friday, have one full day to acclimate to the scenery, and then race on Sunday. Had I done it again, I feel like getting there in the evening on Thursday would’ve given me more opportunities to relax and take in the experience, but I don’t think my short arrival time had any sort of negative impact on my race.
I had two things I wanted to buy from my first IM expo… A backpack and a hat from the race. At registration I found out they give away back packs to registered athletes and the finishers get hats… I was a happy guy from the start!
Never having done an IM event, I had no idea the level of service they provided in support of the athletes. Everything was really easy to navigate and the confusing bits were sorted out by attending one of the athlete briefing meetings prior to race day.
On Saturday, the day before race day, we where told to drop of our bikes in transition and our bike/run gear bags in order next to the changing tent. I’ve never had to set something like this up before so it added a little pre race anxiety which prompted me to sit through an athlete briefing. In my bike bag, I placed my helmet, bike shoes, socks, arm warmers, fleece gloves, sun glasses, and extra nutritional supplements. In my run bag, I put in my racing shoes, a change of socks, a head wrap and a frozen “thick” gatorade bottle. On the way out, I placed my bike in transition all by itself. My set up was complete and I took some time to come to terms with the fact that all of my IM race gear was going to spend the night outside instead of with me where I can make any last minute changes if I needed to.
On the way out of the expo, I made time to meet up with the Active Release Technique (ART) Doctors who generously volunteer their time to help athletes like me with any last minute body tune ups. Up to race weekend, I had been battling a really uncomfortable lateral ankle pain that was starting to slow me down and make me worry about my health for race day. Within minutes, the Acupuncturist/Functional Medicine specialist/ART Doctor diagnosed me with a dysfunction of the Peroneal muscle group of the lower leg complicated by an entrapment of the Peroneal branch of the sciatic nerve at the lateral calf. I have been ART certified myself now for 5 years and this guy still blew me away with his insight and guided approach to his on-the-spot assessment. I had ZERO pain in my ankle for the entire race after he spent 5 minutes on my leg and ankle. Thank you Doctor!
I met up with friends for a pre-race dinner at “Sweet Tomatoes” which is the Arizona version of Soup Plantation. On the way back to the hotel, I stopped to get a race-day breakfast food including granola, full-fat greek yogurt, bananas, creamy peanut butter, and a large gatorade. Then it was off to bed.
Transition opened for athletes at 5 AM. The race cannon was to go off at 6:45 AM. Wake up call was at 4:15 AM, time to eat. My nutrition was a very close third place MVP for the day behind sherpa/cheering/videography support from Megan and the arm warmers I decided last minute to throw on in transition before the bike (T1). Every athlete has their own “take” on race day nutrition so my habits may not be the best for everyone.
Race Day Nutrition
The goal of my eating leading up to any race start is to have full energy stores and an empty stomach. You can eat all the food you want the day before, but you actually burn a significant number of calories while you sleep at night (Between 500 and 1000 calories depending on your size and metabolic needs). I try to wake up and eat around 700 calories at least 3 hours prior to race start… Yes, at 4:00 AM I forced down a box of granola, Greek yogurt, and two bananas with big scoops of peanut butter on each small bite. Those of you who are not “breakfast people” you’re missing out!
“Fuel for my run”
Going into my race, I was the least confident about my nutrition. I’ve done a number of shorter races and long bike rides that I’ve experienced cramping and a depletion of energy, or “bonking”. Both of these experiences really take the enjoyment out of the experience.
For some perspective.. my Garmin told me I burned almost 12,000 calls and I took 61,000 steps on race day. The human body can only store around 2,500 calories off carbohydrates at a time before it has to switch to the lesser efficient fat and protein stores in the body for energy. That’s a lot of food, Gatorade and supplements while you are exercising. It’s no wonder one of the major stresses in these races is digestion issues.
I followed the advice I received from some local triathlete coaches about “training with what they will have on the course”. The problem I kept having though, especially on long bike rides, was that it felt like the amount of normal concentration Gatorade endurance I would have to take in to get enough energy would get “sloshy” and make me have to pee every hour from all the liquid. In the last few weeks leading up to the race, I purchased a tub of powdered Gatorade endurance and began doubling the concentration in my training (4 scoops instead of 2 scoops in a 24 once bottle). Bingo.
On the bike I had two bottles of “thick” Gatorade I planned to drink for 2 hours each and every 30 mins I took a lick of BASE salt (which killed any cramping or stomach issue I had almost immediately) and a GU (they where passing out salted watermelon flavor which was actually pretty good). In my “special needs bag”, which is an optional bag you can stop and open up at miles 66 or 96, I opted to have a half of a Chipotle chicken burrito just in case I wanted real food. I was was feeling great but as I was coming back into town for the last time I had the thought that the burrito would just make me happy. It took me 3 mins to stop, have a volunteer open the bag and burrito for me, take 3 big bites and continue down the road. Absolute game changer, real food in my stomach headed into the run gave me all the confidence in the world and it took hardly anytime.
On race day morning, we where able to access our bike/run gear bags but the only thing you were allowed to put on your bike where your clipped in bike shoes and any nutrition you wanted to carry. I added my “thick” gatorade bottle to my run gear bag and clipped in my bike shoes to my bike. I was set and ready to go in transitions.
To keep my energy up, I carried with me a normal orange gatorade that I sipped on all morning and one GU packet that I took 10 mins prior to the race start. We where not able to get into the water to warm up so after I got into my wetsuit, gave my backpack with my dry clothes to Megan, and made my way to my “swim corrall” I did some in place plyometrics like swing-jacks, jumping jacks, pushups, and Lat stretches to loosen up for the 63 degree water that was awaiting me. I decided to use my full-body wetsuit on race day for the added warmth and buoyancy to help me be more efficient in my swim. Full-body wetsuits have been known to feel restricting on some people and they add some resistance in the shoulders during the swimming motion so its important to take your time and put as much of the wetsuit material as you can up to your shoulder area before you sneak you arms in and zip up. Otherwise, you are just wasting energy fight the wetsuit for almost 4000 meters.
The swim start was a “rolling start.” We were asked to line up at the water’s edge in order of our expected swim finish times. The pros went off first then the athletes expecting to go under 1 hour and progressively higher from there. I choose to line up in the 1:10 group even though I expected to comfortably go under 1 hour in my swim… In hind sight, even the small gap in time difference got me kicked in the face and unnecessarily slowed down in the start of the swim. Next time I go with the faster kids.
In the days leading up to the race, I did some more research about the mentality of racing Ironman Arizona and one of the gems that really helped me was having a mantra for each of the disciplines. For the swim I decided to focus on “Enjoy the swim”. I am a good swimmer. I am very comfortable in the water, even when surrounded by hundreds of thrashing swimmers, and I have a deep appreciation for a clean and efficient swimming technique. I can also get rattled easily and start over-pulling and stressing out about my performance while I am out there. I decided early on, I would instead look to embrace my abilities and simply enjoy the opportunity to be in the water, practicing the discipline I was relatively best in.
Swim… 00:59 mins
The swim felt really solid. I focused on keeping my hands at shoulder width for entry point and taking long strokes to get my body to rotate fluidly through the water. The name of the game in an IM swim is to be solid and efficient. A few minutes of more speed generally translates to a ton more energy being expended in the leg of the race so I wasn’t concerned about chasing down every person I could reach. The water was so murky that I couldn’t even see my elbow in the water, but the sun wasn’t rising in our faces so sighting was easy enough to stay on track. I pulled a :59 minute swim out of no where, good enough for 5th in my age group (Only 3 minutes behind the first place finisher, again not a huge deal but its still a fun fact.)
The transitions of the race where the really neat part of the race for me. As I exited the water, I was directed to a group of people that told me to lay down on my back while they pull the wetsuit off of me. They where known as the “wetsuit strippers” and it made the transition so much more enjoyable. After the wetsuit was off, I continued down the carpeted area toward the changing tent. They asked for my race number and when I got to the tent, my bike gear bag was already waiting for me! Such service. The volunteers helped me take everything out of my bag that I needed and they even repacked my bag with my swim gear so I didn’t have to, very helpful. This was the pivotal decision of the race for me… Arm warmers and gloves? Or not? I grabbed them anyway and took the extra 2 mins at my bike to put the extra gear on.
Bike time… 5 hrs 29 mins
As a larger triathlete, the most difficult portion of the race has been the bike. Most “faster” triathletes are under 200 pounds and strong. This gives them an advantage in a measure called “power to weight ratio”, simply put they spend less energy than I do to go the same speed.
Another concern I had going into the race was the new bike I had to buy 4 weeks out of my first ironman. I was doing an Olympic distance race in October when My bike frame broke as I was climbing up a hill. Not only was I leading a race for the first times do had to drop out, but my bike frame had to be replaced. The saying “don’t try anything new on race day” clearly wasn’t going to be the case for me.
I took my time and got fit for a bike that would work for me as I continued to progress as an athlete. Thanks to my friend Lynda Neuman, I got connected with Jim Mahon at Ero Sports for a bike fit. The final product was a completely new biking experience for me. Not only was my position completely different, but the bike frame and build felt effortless to power down the trails. To Jim, he finds that the two most important measures for bike fit are 1.) Can you digest food on the bike? And 2.) Can you run off of the bike in a race? Both of which depend on the angle of your spine relative to your hips. I would highly recommend all cycling athletes to check out Ero Sports. They do a great job.
“Race my own race. Fuel my run.”
The bike at IMAZ is a 112 mile steady incline out and steady decline back into town. It was a three loop course that was actually enjoyable. It was nice to have a steady downhill to look forward to each lap.
The bike is most certainly the longest portion of the race. But the run is where the most time is gained or lost. A 5:00 bike ride is much better than a 5:30 bike ride. But :30 in a marathon is easy-ier to make up if you aren’t blown out from going too hard on the bike.
If you read up on any ironman coaching website, they all say “there is no such thing as a good bike time if you exhaust yourself for the run”. Biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles are both long distances by themselves. Putting them together requires a balance and that was to be my focus. Being a fast swimmer and an OK cyclist means I was going be getting passed all afternoon by OK swimmers and fast cyclists. It took some discipline to reel in my ego and drive for competition, but it paid off later when I was staying strong and the guys that blew by me early were fading.
My goal time was 6:00 on the bike, or an 18.7 MPH average speed. I ended up completing the course in 5:29 minutes, or 20.3 MPH. Solid!
A note about conditions: About half way through the bike we got hit with rain that was off and on (mostly on) for the rest of the day and night. Biking in the rain is dangerous but can be done with the right amount of planning and precautions. While I was thankful for my safety, I had friends that ended their days in a crash. Maybe rain played a role and maybe it didn’t, I just want all of you reading this to put your and others safety first when on the trails.
I think my favorite “service” provided by the amazing volunteers at IMAZ was the bike hand-off when entering transition. All I had to do was get off of my bike, hand my bike to someone, and run to the changing tent to put on running shoes and go. The combination of cold toes and tired legs after a bike made for an interesting “jog” to the changing tent. But I adapted and the awkwardness faded quickly.
In transition, I opted for a head wrap, dry socks, my running shoes, and a final splash of thick Gatorade and I was on the course.
“Stay strong. Stay smooth. Get BRAUN!”
I spent a ton of time in my training focusing on a fore-foot to mid-foot strike which makes impact with the ground more smooth. When you take 61,000 steps there’s a natural beat-down of thigh and hip muscle that rapidly destroys running performance. Being smooth and keeping foot position strong helps mitigate a lot of that beat down.
The run course was 2 loops of 13.1 miles of cement side-walk. Some people may disagree with me, but there’s a distinct difference between running on Cement, pavement, and hard dirt. Cement is by far the least forgiving on joints and muscle. Luckily the majority of the course had open dirt paths you could elect to run alongside the cement if you want to so that was nice.
For nutrition, I focused on GUs every 30 mins chased by a small amount of water (I was feeling pretty sloshy without my concentrated drink). I again used BASE salt to control cramping and stomach distress which worked like a charm. I tried cola once and that made me sick. At the half way point, the aid stations brought out warm chicken broth and if you know me, that’s like my daily fuel, I love soup!
My game plan was to finish in 4 hours. I was going to run the first six miles at 9:30 per mile pace and then finish the rest of the race at just under 9min miles. Instead, I pulled a rookie mistake and ran the first 13.1 at 8:30 pace and the second half with whatever pace I could muster. The hardest miles for me where miles 15 to 20 but I kept running and motivated myself by saying, “This is my victory lap!” I knew I had bought myself an extra 30 mins on the bike to finish under 11:00 total so I don’t really feel compelled to make a big push at the end. The number one goal was always just to finish and I was stoked that it was only a matter of time.
I crossed the timing mats at 10:37 race time. 23 minutes faster than I ever thought I would go. My marathon time was 4:00.4 which doesn’t look quite as awesome as 3:59 but I’m ok with it.
Take home messages
- Train with a support team.
- Ironman training is incredibly taxing on the body. There is a necessity to hire coaches for strength, training plans, and health care if you do not already have one. Ironman should be an experience that makes you better, not one that leads you down a path of chronic injury.
- Ironman will make you a better swimmer, biker, and runner
- Doing those three sports for that many hours a week is guaranteed to make you a better athlete. I thought I was already knowledgable about these sports, completing ironman gave me a entirely new perspective.
- On race day, “Just keep moving forward”.
- Ironman is a long day of many emotions. You will be challenged emotionally, cognitively, and physically. Especially those of you doing one for the first time… “Just keep moving forward”.
Get STRONG. Get FIT. Get BRAUN!