Most of the questions centered around his training and how he felt on race day and, as I think you’ll be able to tell from his answers, the whole experience was incredible but also a learning experience for him since it was his first foray into a Half Ironman.
I’ll let Ryan take it from here!
First Half Ironman: Q&A
Did you hit any mental blocks during the race and how did you push through them?
My biggest mental block came during the bike portion of the race. In hindsight, I highly, highly undertrained on the bike. I did not own a road bike going into the race and borrowed a bike three weeks prior to the race. I only did two “real” rides on the road with Julie’s dad during a visit to Jax Beach. The majority of my training occurred on a stationary air bike (a Concept2 bike erg) and I averaged a little less than 2 hours on a “long” bike training day. Not good.
During the race I felt so energetic to start the bike. My goal was to average 20mph. Based on a great swim, I started with some very fast bikers and hung with them for the first 10 miles. Then the doubt started to set it. I slowed back to ‘my pace’ but never felt comfortable. At 30 miles I could no longer hold an aero position as my hamstrings got tight. More hindsight: I didn’t train the aero position at all. Also, not good.
At 35 miles I started to wonder if I was going to finish. I couldn’t stay down in aero. I was approaching 2 hours and my legs felt a bit spent. I was a long, long way from being done on the bike. And, maybe the worst for me as a competitive person, I was getting passed by bikers every second.
It was then that I re-committed myself to my original goal: Just finish. Coming off a good swim, I had visions of grandeur and re-setting my mental goal was huge for me. I committed to simply grind. Slow down to a manageable pace. Don’t worry about getting passed.
This sounds simple. It wasn’t. I believe I was passed by 700 people on the bike. 700. Yep, 700. But I rode my pace and focused on what I could do. One subplot — and likely a big piece of the Ironman culture that I didn’t expect — nearly 500 of the 700 people who passed me said something encouraging. Nothing over the top. Simple statements like, “Keep pushing. You got this. Almost there.” Those simple positive words helped re-enforce my desire to grind it out.
Fast forward 22 more miles and you’ve never met someone so happy to get off that dang bike.
Can you share more about your personal fitness goals and what inspired you to do a Half Ironman?
As weird as this may sound, I was really driven to do the Half Ironman after Sadie passed. Walking for me is a happy place where I do lots of thinking. I went from taking Sadie on walks for years and enjoying her playful nature to instantly nothing. After she passed, I found myself feeling increasingly emotional during our typical walk times. I even tried to walk by myself and was overwhelmed by sadness. I didn’t want to be on that walk alone and missed my friend. I missed my exploring buddy. I missed her joy. I wanted to be off that walk, so I started to jog home. It was then that I discovered that if I ran just hard enough, I couldn’t think of anything other than my pace and breathing. My mind couldn’t wander. I was closed off to the world around me. No sadness, no thoughts for the day ahead, only breathing and pace.
That’s how I started to build back a running base. For the record, running feels awful, too. Haha. There is nothing joyful about how heavy I feel when I run but I liked the challenge. I wanted to be outside and wanted to quiet my mind.
Pair this with a visit from a friend who described to me his pursuit of a full Ironman and my mind started to wonder if I could finish. Give me a chance to explore a new thing and I’ll jump in head first.
I went for a swim and realized I could make a mile without drowning (plus I liked how my body felt post-swim) and all of the sudden I got the itch. I signed up for a race towards the end of the season to give time for training and began constructing a training plan. That’s how it started.
Do you have any plans to do a full Ironman?
People told me that doing a half would make me want to do a full. After finishing, Julie asked me that exact question on the drive back to our rental house. My response: “Never has a full felt so far away.” I meant it, too. Doing the half gave me perspective and huge respect for anyone accomplishing a full.
Would I like to do one? Sure. Am I ready to commit the time (taking away from family time) to train? No.
So, maybe one day, but not yet. For now, I’ve signed up for another half in the fall and will be attempting to get a sub-5 hour time.
How did you fuel yourself during the race? What did you eat afterwards?
This is not my expertise so take this answer for the uninformed and learning perspective it is. I didn’t eat much during the race. I trained before dawn in mostly a fasted state and felt that I didn’t want to wildly adjust this during the race. This is something I will definitely look to improve in the future.
I burned somewhere around 3,000 calories during the race, and there is a better strategy for giving my body fuel during race. I’d add calories and use fuel like Cliff Blocks with calories. Stuff like that. Still likely no proper “real” food until the finish.
Did you follow a specific training plan? How many months did you train for? Can you share more about your training plan/schedule?
I made up my own training plan after a couple weeks of research. I maintained my existing strength training (but dialed it back a bit) and added about an hour each day focused on a single discipline. Then each Saturday I did all three elements. My total training time was just under two months. My focus was to start small and add on each session. I didn’t focus on pace and really just let my body tell me the pace based off maintaining a 6/7 out of 10 level of effort.
I had a base of running and biking (stationary biking intervals) but no swimming. I found that I really enjoyed swimming and, in hindsight, began to dedicate a little too much time to the swim. For swimming I always did one mile and simply got comfortable with the distance and technique. Each time got a little faster. Eventually I got a wetsuit and saw a big time improvement. Come race day I pretended I was getting chased by a shark (kidding but not kidding) and had my best time ever. My running and biking training both focused on building time on each discipline. Running started at 20 minutes then I added 5 minutes to each session. Biking started at 30 minutes and then I added 5 minutes to each session. Again, as stated above, I highly undertrained the bike so do not do what I did! Each Saturday was a swim, bike, run where I added additional time. No forced pace, just building comfort with time in motion.
How did you juggle work, family and training?
I woke up mad early! And, in retrospect, I undertrained. My goal was to be done before the kids woke up most days if possible. I typically work out each morning around 5 a.m. In Half Ironman training, I started around 4:30 a.m. and dialed back my usual strength training to accommodate.
Saturdays were my longer training days and when the distances got longer later in my training, I continued to wake up very early so the latest I finished was around 9 a.m.
This training commitment allowed me to finish my first, but will need to evolve if I commit to a time-specific goal. Specifically I’d bump up my bike time. Realistically the additional bike commitment would come on the Saturdays when I’m not working and I would start my base bike distance higher (with a slower pace) then work to get comfortable increasing my pace but always with a higher distance taking priority.
How much of your training did you dedicate to improving your swimming?
I swam three days a week for six weeks. I ended up really enjoying swimming. It’s one of my favorite feelings post-activity. My focus was on my effort level and technique. I watched some YouTube tutorials that really helped me with my technique. I’m sure my technique still has a ways to go, but I got comfortable in the water. Swimming is an area I was surprised to find myself enjoy so much — so much so that I’ll incorporate it into any fitness plans go forward.
Did you do any cross training that you feel helped you?
Absolutely. My typical training is full body resistance with weights and cardio mixed in. Specifically, I believe the continuation of my cardio intervals really helped accelerate my foundation as I worked to build the steady state distances. Most of my Half Ironman training was done after 30 minutes of resistance training. I was never fresh to start an Ironman training session with the exception of Saturdays. Whether mental and/or physical, training this way prepared me to be comfortable in motion during exhaustion.
What would you say your base level of fitness was going into training? How did you feel physically after the race?
I was sore and exhausted but not injured. While I believe I undertrained overall, I also believe I built a base of time in motion at a slightly uncomfortable pace to where I was able to finish uninjured. For me, pace was the key. I didn’t worry about time or splits. I moved to the pace my body felt was a 6/7 out of 10 effort. I feel fortunate I managed through without event or injury. I think this was partly preparation, partly sheer luck. Don’t get me wrong, I was sore for a while. I’d estimate I was at 70% after 1 week, 85% after 2 weeks and back to feeling 100% after 3 weeks.
Did you use a coach to help you train?
No. I think there’s value here though. For me, I am highly accountable to train on my own, but saw potential in a coach bringing insights and tips. My training was through the pandemic so folks were not really meeting in person and therefore coaching would have been virtual only. I couldn’t stomach paying for a virtual coach when my goal was just to finish. There are a ton of articles, message boards, etc. out there that helped me. Would a coach have made a difference? Absolutely. Would I go back in time and do it differently? Not for this race.
Do you feel like fitness/living an active lifestyle contributes positively to your marriage/family goals?
100%. Fitness is more a mental thing than a physical thing to me. It starts my day with focus, gives me the opportunity to explore each day, block out the world and push myself towards a challenge. I enjoy the fitness journey and the challenge of pushing my boundaries. At this stage I fail more mornings than I succeed in my goals but I’m always happy when I’m done. Fitness centers me for the day. It puts me in a mindset of opportunity and a mindset to focus on what matters and what matters to me is my family.
How did you feel about the open water swim and swimming with so many people around you?
It was a different experience for sure. I trained exclusively in open water at the lake near our house. We are fortunate to live only a five minute drive from the lake which made it so much easier for me to keep the time I dedicated to training down (no long drive to a pool — only time in the water!). Training in open water helped me a ton. Most swims were done before 6 a.m. so I was very alone and it was often rather dark. That said, I loved the free nature of open water swimming and learned to spot where I was going in the dark. Even with goggles on, I saw nothing in the water but darkness which left me with nothing else to focus my mind on other than my breathing and pace. After four weeks of lake swimming, I did one training session in a pool and hated it. I felt so choppy — lots of turns, pushing off the wall, following a line — so choppy. That said, I was able to train in the lake during the summer and if a pool was the only option I’m sure I would have found a grove there, too.
Come race day, I’d describe the swimming portion as sensory overload; Near craziness with excitement, start of the race buzz, lots of people splashing, a course I didn’t know, saltwater I’d never swam in, etc. I was advised to swim out and around and position myself outside of the pack even if it meant it would take me a little longer. This was hugely helpful advice and it kept me out of the fray of arms and legs. My wetsuit and the saltwater made me float nice and high (typically I sink like a rock). Then, I told myself to swim my ass off. There is minimal upper body effort after the swim so I put my head down and pulled hard. The result was the fastest swim of my training.
Do you have any tips to share for the transitions?
Three! First, there’s a ton going on in a transition area and the first thing you need is a plan. Practice your plan in sequence ahead of time. Second, I knew I’d feel excited and rushed so I kept telling myself, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” Did I bungle the pack bag? Sure, everyone does, but I slowed down and didn’t rush my movements which ultimately got me out of the transition without frustration. Third, I learned there’s a whole lot of aid/nutrition on the race course and I wouldn’t have wasted anytime forcing nutrition during the transition.
What clothing did you wear during the race? Were you happy with your clothing choices or is there something you would’ve done differently?
I was happy. Throughout the race I wore an Under Armour 5” compression base-layer with a Tri Suit 7” pant from TYR. Then I wore a sleeveless Roka wetsuit on the swim, put on a bike top I bought on Amazon for the ride and left it on for the run. Two accessories helped me: One, I wore Injinji toe socks. These take a little longer to get on, though not too long, and really help me not get blisters from having my toes crammed together. Two, I wore a buff bandana. No sunglasses or hats. Just the bandana. Put it on under my helmet an left it on for the run. This helped keep any sweat out of the eyes.
If you could swap out the swim, bike or run for a different exercise of choice, which one would you swap out and for what other exercise?
I’d trade biking for rowing any day! Sign me up for that race. Although a triathlon without a bike is blasphemy. I’ve heard an Ironman described as a bike race with a swim and run on each side. This didn’t really make sense to me until I did the half. Now I very much agree. Biking is the worst, but it’s the core of the race. If you want to be good at tris you must be good on the bike.