It started with a phone call.
“Want to do an Olympic Triathlon with me?”
The request from my good friend Greg sounded harmless enough, and since I’m down for any adventure, I immediately agreed. This was the start of my 8 month Ironman journey.
I’ve kept active in my 30s, mostly with Crossfit and the occasional 5k. An Olympic Triathlon consists of a .9 mile swim, 26 mile bike, and a 10k run. I was not a swimmer, and my biking consisted of using the city rideshare bikes to go to Soho House. Also, my running was more like jogging while jamming out to music (Ironman’s don’t allow music on the course). I had a lot of work to do.
I won’t bore you with the Olympic Tri details, only that they cancelled the swim at the last minute, so Greg and I upgraded to the half Ironman distance. It was a duathlon of a 56 mile bike and a 13.1 mile run, but it served as a great wake-up call that I was definitely not Tri-fit.
Anyone can do an Ironman, but not everyone can commit to the training and expenses required. Triathlon is an expensive sport. The Ironman that my friend and I chose was Ironman France. We picked this race at random, with absolutely no due diligence. We liked that it was in France and in early summer. Our rationale was that we wanted to be done with this whole thing in time to eat and drink our summer away. Basically, we were dummies.
Ironman France is absolutely the worst choice for a first long course Triathlon. For starters, the cut-off time to finish is shorter than all other Ironman races. Second, the bike involves going over a mountain in the Alps. Third, Europeans take this sport seriously, and you will not see a single overweight person doing this race. In America, you can always count on a few out of shape people to cushion your overall ranking. And lastly, picking an international race causes your expenses to double. Did I mention this sport is expensive?
Since I was new, I had to buy everything to be able to train and race.
Bicycle - I went for a road bike so that it could have life after the Ironman. Trek Emonda ALR. With all the bells and whistles this set me back $2000.
Running shoes (multiple pairs) - $300
Wetsuit (don’t go cheap, go for a really good one from the start) - $500
Tri Suit (Again, don’t go cheap) - $300
Accessories (sunglasses, hat, performance socks, etc... ) - $400 (these add up)
Race fees (Ironman plus training races) - $1500
Swim Gear (goggles, pull buoy, cap, etc…) - $150 (you go through a lot of goggles)
Food and pills (you eat a lot MORE and you need supplements AKA pills. This figure is an estimate of the extra food I ate) - $2000
Getting to and from an international race with family and some extra time to explore France - $6000
Tri watch (you really need this) - $600
Gym memberships (I needed a pool) - $800
Coaches - $500
$20 that I lost on a long run and wasn't able to get a coffee and muffin - priceless
Total, and this is conservative - $15,070 YIKES (and I know I’m leaving stuff out)
If you are serious about doing an Ironman, you should really invest in a coach. I used two, my friend Chris Mcdonald, a 7 time Ironman winner, and Tim Gerry, a local Triathlete and regular podium finisher for his age group (more below). Both were critical in getting me to the start injury free, and more importantly, to the finish in one piece.
I trained for real for 6 months (for 2 months I told people I was training, but I really just tooled around on a Peloton). At my peak I was doing 12 hours a week, but on average I did 9-10 hours a week. 50% consisted of biking, 30% running and 20% swimming. Swimming was my biggest weakness, and during my first open water swim I had a panic attack. If this sounds like you, I recommend getting into the open water as much as possible. I had panic attacks for my first 4 open water swims, and a near panic attack during my first open water race. But thanks to perseverance and a lot of training, my Ironman swim went without incident, and for me, very quickly.
I also recommend getting a training partner. Professional, and semi-pro Triathletes will typically tell you that they train alone to mimic the mental conditions that you will face in an Ironman. However, I find that while I may be mentally strong enough to finish an Ironman, 6 months of training without a training buddy would have killed me. Greg Schaefer was the guy who asked me to do that first Olympic Triathlon, and the one who would travel with me to France. We had countless laughs, dark days, awesome workouts, and breakthroughs together. Some mornings I would pump him up with a motivational text, and sometimes he would the same for me. If I was lagging behind on my training, he would give me hell. He is the reason I was able to finish an Ironman, and I recommend you find someone to do this journey with you as well.
Also of note, training for an Ironman will put a serious strain on your marriage and/or relationships. Your whole routine is flipped upside down. You need to have a candid talk with your partner about what is to come. They need to understand that early nights and long weekend training sessions will become the norm. Once they sign off on your craziness, make sure to constantly thank them and recognize their sacrifice during your training. Your whole family will be doing that Ironman with you, so don’t forget about them. Luckily my wife has always supported my crazy adventures, and her love and support kept me afloat during many dark training days.
I left for France 4 days before the event. I figured this would allow me to adjust to the time zone, get my bike in a good place, and to find a supermarket so I could purchase my pre-race food. I chose to stay at an AirBnB as opposed to a hotel, so that I could have a kitchen and more space to move around and lay out my stuff. The apartment was located within walking distance of the start line. I recommend this course of action for any overseas race.
My pre race meal consists of a bagel, apple sauce, coffee and a sports drink. I followed the advice of countless pro triathletes and woke up at 3 am race morning to eat my meal, and to give it time to digest.
Typically with Ironman races you set up everything the night before, so race morning I was able to walk with my wife to Greg’s hotel to get a coffee. Surprisingly, I was very calm the morning of the race. Having my family with me gave me a sense of security, and I had a lot of trust in my training. I swam a couple days prior in the Mediterranean without a panic attack, and this helped fuel my confidence.
We were allowed to visit our bikes race morning. I went to the bike corral and saw all the very fit Europeans fiddling with their bikes and making last minute preparations. I didn’t need to do anything, so I just walked over to Greg’s bike and talked his ear off. I typically focus my nervous energy into incessant talking. In turn, Greg funnels his nervous energy into talking shit… He’s from Long Island, and he’s fluent in shit talking. We got more than a few weird looks from the locals. We were in a good state of mind.
The swim had a rolling start. I lined up with the 1:15 crew and said goodbye to Greg as he went ahead to the 1:05 alpha swimmers group. I knew I wouldn’t see Greg again until the marathon, which was 4 loops, so as long as I didn’t really choke I would catch him for a couple laps to hi-five.
The gun went off, and I waited. It took me about 15 minutes to finally get to the water. I hit my watch and jumped in with a European to my left and to my right. The biggest difference between American and European races is that Europeans view the Tri swim as a full contact sport. In the USA, if you accidentally hit someone with your hand or foot, you’d both swim away or maybe even pop your head up and say sorry. Here, it seemed people were seeking out fights. At first, the constant barrage of hands and feet was a bit unnerving, but then I had a revelation that I was bigger than most of the field, so I just started giving it back and asserting my space. People quickly backed off and I swam in the middle of the pack. The benefits of swimming in the middle far outweigh the negatives. Some people like to swim on the outside, so that they have more personal space. I like being right in the middle, because I don’t have to stick my head up to sight. I can just swim with the pack of athletes and trust that they are doing the sighting for me.
The swim was heavenly after the aggressive start. The Mediterranean sea was flat as a lake, and the sun was just coming over the hills. The deep blue of the ocean had streaks of light cutting through it, and I very quickly found a zen-like rhythm. The swim comprises two loops; one big, and one small. About half way through the big loop, and the farthest point from shore, I popped my head out and scanned my surroundings. I saw the long tail of athletes behind me, and the surging crowd of those turning the buoy ahead of me. Far away I could see the shore, and I could hear the muffled sound of the crowd cheering us on. It was a very cool moment, and one I recommend everyone do, as long as a 1 minute break doesn’t concern you or screw up your race plans.
I finished the swim in 1:17. It was by far a PR, and I felt ecstatic as I grabbed a volunteer's hand to pluck me from the sea. The walk to transition was about 400 meters, and I walked deliberately as I brought my heart rate down.
Transitions in Ironman races are great. You get a chair and a volunteer to help you change. I took what I call a Gentleman's transition. 10 minutes of leisurely drying off, changing and eating gels. My coach told me to go very slow for the first ten miles of the bike, which I happily obliged.
So far my Ironman was going according to plan, and I was thinking about how my original race projections and pace would need to be amended to make for a faster time. Then mile 12 hit.
Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”
Mile twelve was the equivalent of a sucker punch to the gut followed by a jab to the mouth. 800 meters of what seemed like a 50 degree incline. Half of the field got off their bikes to walk. Miraculously I muscled my way to the top of the hill, to be greeted by 20 miles of a 4-7 degree incline. That set the stage for the rest of the bike: up, up, up, short flat, small downhill, up, up, up, etc…. This went on for the better part of 8 hours. Even the downhills seemed like uphills near the end. It was painful, and it was soul crushing. The one bright spot of the entire ride was the note I put in my special needs bag from my wife and daughter. That little reminder of why I was doing this race really gave me some much needed drive and strength. Also, the route is the most beautiful and breathtaking bike ride you’ll ever experience.
I cruised into the run transition and took a slightly shorter Gentleman’s transition. Upon exiting, I was greeted by my entire support team. Wife, daughter, mom and a group of close friends. It was a great moment, and one that dissipated any lingering fears I had about completing the marathon after such a hellish bike.
A lot of people complain about the marathon, but next to the swim, it was mentally a lot easier for me. I settled into a good rhythm and just chipped away at the 26.1 miles. I would walk for 15 meters at every aid station, and I would high five anyone from the crowd who stuck their hand out. I also realized every step I took was one closer to the finish, and with every lap my attitude improved (even though the pain grew right along with it). I also had never run a marathon prior, so I didn't know what to expect in terms of aches and pains. I find that I always have an easier time the first time I try something, so me being a marathon novice actually aided my race.
As the sun was setting I jogged into the finisher’s shoot. My buddy Greg, who crushed the course in a 11:22, was the first person I saw. He told me my family was right up ahead. He was worried I might miss them in the rush to get to the finish (he’s a great guy). Seeing My family was a very emotional moment for me. Since I was severely dehydrated, I couldn’t muster tears. I hugged my two year old daughter tightly as she told me I was yucky and wet, and I kissed my wife who was bursting with pride. I high-fived my friends and took in the atmosphere as the announcer yelled, “Michael, you are an Ironman.” Damn straight I am.
My enthusiasm quickly dissipated after the race as my sugar levels were low, and my friends had to go grab me some gummy bears to quickly eat. I tried my best to pose for photos with my friends and family, but you can clearly see in the pictures I was about to collapse. All that was in my mind was getting home, and getting some rest. It had been a long day.
Nutrition during the race
1 gel every 30 minutes and Gatorade every 10 minutes. This worked very well for me.
AnaLiza, Karina and my Mom. You guys got me to the finish.
The Schaefer Clan, especially Mary for being a rockstar before, during and after the race. Don't worry, Greg will only do another 15 of these.
Matt Hilgeman et son, Emily Henderson et crew and all my friends and family who texted me and tracked my progress during the race.
Chris McDonald and Big Sexy Racing for the training. Everybody go and get Ruby's Lube. It's a game changer.
Tim Gerry for his awesome taper and nutrition plan. I also did the same swim workouts as Greg for the entire 6 months. Greg hired Tim early. So Tim really taught me to swim.
Doctor Mancuso and the entire team at Highline Orthopedics and Spear Physical Therapy. A bulging disc wasn't enough to keep my away from this Ironman (thanks to Crossfit).
My trip after the race
My family and I went on an epic trip to Portofino and Lake Como. Post to come soon….