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My introduction to the Ironman Triathlon came on my very first day as a certified Paramedic. Arizona hosts a yearly Ironman in Tempe, and from long before the sun rose I found myself stationed at different points on the bike course in case racers became injured or incapacitated. Although I had completed half a dozen marathons, I’d never seen (or even heard of) a race this long and intense. As the day wore on, I treated multiple injuries, started countless IVs, and even found a biker unconscious in the street. The day kept me very busy, but even after seeing the possible negative effects of such a challenging race I was intrigued. Could I ever complete a 17 hour race?

I finally left for home around 2am and the intensity of the racers must have given me an emotional contact high, because by the next evening I had shelled out $600 to secure my spot in the following year’s race. Of course, the realization quickly came that I had less than a year to be able to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run 26.2 miles in less than 17 hours — what had I gotten myself into? I hadn’t swam in years, my biking skills were dismal at best, and my marathon times had barely beaten six hours. I had a lot of work to do…

I started by shelling out some more money — a bargain road bike, aerobars, a secondhand wetsuit, bike cleats, a used indoor bike trainer, a heart rate monitor, professionally fitted running shoes, a two piece tri-suit, and countless other little items other racers (and the internet) told me I couldn’t race without. I’m actually surprised I had the time to train at all with how much overtime I worked to cover the equipment…the Ironman is a seriously expensive proposition!

Having lost some weight, mostly in my wallet, I started training. Although I was a certified personal trainer, I had no experience with triathlons or super long distance training, so I hit the library and google to help me out. I found a ton of contradictory information alongside training plans that were so complicated I needed Einstein to figure them out, so I decided to just get out there and not worry about anything expect slowly increasing distance and speed in all three sports. Arizona summers feel pretty close to being boiled alive so most of my training was done on treadmills and indoor bikes, but I was regularly doing bike/run bricks lasting 5-6 hours and swimming at least once a week. I also attempted to read Going Long: Training for Triathlon’s Ultimate Challenge, an absolute necessity if you’re new at Ironman distance triathlons (even if it is a bit of a hard read).

Despite my valiant attempt at preparation, when I stepped to the starting line I felt completely unprepared. I’ll never know if my nervousness got the better of me or if I just wasn’t prepared enough, but I missed the deadline to get off the swim course by 2 minutes, and I wasn’t allowed to finish the race. I was completely devastated, especially because I actually felt great. If they had let me I would have accepted a disqualification and kept going without any recognition. Of course, now finishing was a matter of pride, and when registration opened the next morning I was at the front of the line for the next year’s race.

Although I think my preparation was far better that year, I never even made it to the race course. I spent race day in bed with the flu, cursing myself for wasting so much money on a race I wound up missing. Not long after that I met my husband, got married, had kids, and realized finding time to train for a 5K was enough of a drain on my time and money. With too many bills and 3 kiddos under 6, finding enough time to train and enough money for equipment and entry fees for an Ironman seems so completely impossible that I rarely think about it — I’ve given up on the idea of finishing such a long race, at least for now. Although that makes me a little bit sad, some days I wonder — is sticking to shorter distance races really such a bad thing?

I read a blog post a few weeks ago that suggested that some people’s bodies just aren’t meant to go long distances, and even appropriate training volumes will not prevent injuries in these people. Just about everyone I’ve ever met that races triathlons would disagree with this idea, but something about the theory gave me pause. Although I’m currently out of shape, when I ran my marathons I was eating well, running regularly, cross training constantly, and I had a pretty intense weight lifting regimen. I took adequate rest time, drank enough water, took branch chain amino acids and other post workout recovery products. Despite all of this, every time I completed a marathon I was completely incapacitated the next day. I always had one day of ridiculously intense joint pain afterwards, and only ice and rest would fix things.

Until I read this blog post (which I can no longer find or I’d link to it), I’d never really thought about the fact that my experience might not be normal, but after thinking about it I have to wonder — if someone is injury free, adequately trained, has adequate nutrition, and has a good race day, why would his/her body react so poorly to the race? Could it be possible that some people are just built for 5Ks or sprint triathlons, and no amount of training can change that, or is this type of reaction always linked to a hole in training or nutrition?

What do you think? Do you have experience with longer races, and if so have you experienced anything like this?