Saturday, 27 July 2013

Working towards an Ironman. Job, kids, Ironman, how do you do it?

I've read many articles outlining training programs of 20+ hours/ week and I just dismissed them. I can't imagine having that much time to commit to training. Not if I want to stay married and remember the names of the short people running around my house anyway.

Professional triathletes are so amazing. They commit every ounce of food, every step of training, every minute of sleep towards engineering a perfect triathlon body. But I can't relate. I have 3 kids, a full time job teaching and a part time job refereeing hockey all winter so I can pay for my triathlons all summer. I wanted to talk to more people like me. People that see a sub 16 hour Ironman time when they cross the line and weep with tears of joy because they have achieved their goal. The moms and dads that find time before work or after the kids go to bed to crank out a brick workout.

I got to talk to a few of these extraordinary people and summarize what makes them tick. For these athletes it's about the finish, not the time (well maybe a little about the time).

Danny, (AG 40-44) British Columbia is a sales manager for Four Seasons and travels about 6 weeks a year. Danny completed the one and only Ironman NYC and will be in Whistler for Ironman Canada this year.

Pamela, (AG 55-59) California is a consultant who, in addition to having to work full-time, has to travel for work. Oh, and she broke her wrist in a cycling accident but that hasn't stopped her. Pamela completed the Beach 2 Battleship Iron distance race in 15:01 and is keeping 15:00 as her goal for Ironman Canada 2013.

Pamela, heading into T1 at Beach 2 Battleship

Chris, (AG 45-49) Michigan is in business and has 3 adolescent daughters. To top it all off his PR is 10:43:00. Yes, I worship at this man's altar. Ironman Canada 2013 will be his 11th Ironman race and has set his goal at, "just finishing" because, as you can imagine, his family keeps him busy.
Chris, Ironman Lake Placid

Don, (AG 35-39) Texas  works in heavy road construction and has 2 daughters and a son aged 10, 8 and 7. Don has a 70.3 finish under his belt and is training for Ironman Texas. He is shooting for a sub-14:30.
Don finishing Buffalo Springs 70.3. His kids (in the tie-dyed shirts) just high-fived him.

David (AG 45-49) Alberta is a school teacher and father to 3 boys, 12,9 and 7. His personal best is an amazing 11:10 at Ironman Canada 2008 but is shooting for an amazing 10:30 at the new Challenge Penticton (same course) this August.

David and his boys at the Edmonton ITU race.

Dan (AG 40-44) Alberta is a married trauma ICU nurse with two young boys aged 3 1/2 and 12 weeks. Dan's PR is just under 15:00 at Ironman Canada and is training for Challenge Roth in 2014.

Dan, Ironman Canada


In talking with every one of the athletes it became clear that they were very good at time management. David says he "gets up a 5am and gets in a treadmill run or a bike on the trainer. That way [he] can make breakfast for the kids and help with lunches before going to work. [He] also will get a workout in after work if there's time." But he stresses that you have to make sure your family comes first because they sacrifice a lot so you can live out your dream. Pamela travels for work so she got a membership to 24 Hour Fitness. This allows her to get in her workouts wherever she is and whenever she can. This makes discipline such an important factor. It must be so easy to blow off a workout if your only available time is at 11pm, but she says you need to "ignore that tired voice" that wants you to just go to bed.

Everyone expressed at least some concern over the possibility of strained relationships with family during training and there were two camps in how they dealt with this. One was to try and incorporate family into training and the other was to keep it totally separate but emphasize their focus on family time.

Chris wouldn't always work family directly into the workouts but rather would schedule family breaks during a workout. "One of my favorite 'bribes' was to have my wife meet me at a destination on my point to point rides or runs. Usually a park or ice cream shop and I would treat and then also have a ride home. They loved it and it broke up my training monotony." Additionally, he would swim while his 7 year old was doing lessons and during some runs the kids would follow on their bikes.

On the opposite end of the spectrum Dan never includes his family in his training. "[He] knows that [he] would not be able to give 100% while training with family there. Given how limited [his] training time can be [he] needs to give [his] all." He applies this same principle to his family time too. "When it is family time they get me 100%." Don doesn't typically include family in the hardcore training days but does shorter fun runs and charity races with his family. He stresses how important it is to "keep the kids interested in an active lifestyle outside of the world of wii, iPods, and tv."

Danny may have the ultimate in balanced relationships. He and his wife Julie take one year "turns" being the in-season athlete. In Danny's "on" year he trains 6 times/week and in his "off" year it's 3 time/week. They get to choose what they focus on and they go for it full steam. Their children are also quite involved; Sons Tyler, 11, and Jojo, 7, follow along on their bikes while daughter Ava, 3, gets pushed along in the stroller. Tyler is already competing in his own triathlons and Jojo is so excited to join him that he's been taking swimming lessons to catch up.

Really, there is no "right" way to train while ensuring your family is looked after, every situation is unique. However, you need to be open and honest with your family and yourself about how much time you will realistically have to dedicate to your training and whether you're ALL willing to commit to a very involved training schedule. How much training your family can accommodate is something that needs to be discussed and even negotiated in some cases. Also, don't be afraid to change plans mid-stream. Ironman can be one of the greatest achievements of your life, but if it comes at the cost of a happy family it's not worth it.

Don trains 5-6 days a week, usually swimming before work and then either running or cycling in the afternoon. He says, "you have to get your partner on board first and foremost. If they aren’t going to support you or even worse if they are going to blame you for time spent away then it is never going to work."  David echoes this sentiment. "Family comes first. Schedule workouts around them. They are making a sacrifice for you. You NEED a family commitment. It shouldn’t be all consuming."

Dan has a very pragmatic approach to his training/family balance. "Life will always throw a curveball when you are training. It's ok to change your plans…really it is! Missing a day of training will not ruin your Ironman. Do what you can when you can. Be realistic in your expectations with your available time." Chris has family viewings of past Ironman World Championships. This gets the entire family excited about his journey and makes them feel a part of it and even excited about his training.

Race week can bring its own set of pitfalls if you're not careful. Ironman requires you to arrive at the host venue a minimum of two days prior to race day because there are so many things to do before your enter the water. Two days out you need to register; this involves getting to the expo area and signing waivers, collecting your race numbers and bibs and other race accessories. This can take anywhere from about fifteen minutes up to two hours depending on the lineups when you go. If it's raining, GO THEN, the lines are almost non-existent typically. Chris likes to "visit the expo and be around the other athletes, etc. but then shut[s] it down!" He uses family as a welcome distraction to all of the pre-race hype. "At this point you're NOT there to train. After all, you're not going to gain any fitness in the final days leading up to the race. Explore the area with your family and eat and rest with them. Race day is YOUR day, it's all about you. But the other days are about them! 

A perfect pre-race family activity is to take in a movie.  A theater gets you out of the heat and into an air conditioned room where you can be off of your feet and, more importantly, distracted from the pressure and anxiety that the impending race can bring.

That evening there will usually have a pasta "carbo-load" dinner. This dinner is included in the race entry for the athlete but additional tickets can be purchased for family. If your kids are young I would advise against bringing them, it's an amazing experience for the athletes and even their partners but kids will likely get restless and not be very happy to be there. If it's your first race I would definitely attend the dinner, there are usually some special guests and inspirational speakers that really get you pumped for race day. 

If they are into it, volunteering is a great way to give back to the amazing races that are put on and it also gives a much greater appreciation of what the athletes are going through on race day as it gets them up close. Danny's family takes a great deal of pride in collecting their different volunteer shirts from races. This also makes it "their" day to party and celebrate and even say their "goal is to create a memorable experience for the athletes."

David has some advice for the families of the athletes. "Be there for your family member, but be there for everyone, they need it." Many athletes travel to races alone and a kind word here or there can really be a big boost, even if they don't acknowledge you. Many athletes are suffering too much to properly thank you but they are hearing you and they appreciate it. Make sure you enjoy the day too. He suggests watching the swim and then going for breakfast, cheer your loved one past on the bike then hit the beach. Make the day a fun experience and it will be a positive memory for everyone. Pamela adds in, "take a nap, it's a long day." Just being out in the sun for hours can be quite draining and they need to be at the finish for you.

Ironman is hard, really hard. And when you add in a family and a job it can seem an almost impossible challenge. I think that's why I hold these IronParents in such high esteem. Their commitment to their race is so extreme. Pamela quips "don't even think about your social life. You've seen the t-shirt, sleep eat train, repeat. For parents, add in see the kids but that's about it." An ominous reality but you really do need to be honest with yourself and your ability to commit. Don really captured the spirit of Ironman for most of us:
"We’ve all gotten into this sport for our own personal reasons and truth be told most of us won’t even be podium placers within our own age group so a missed workout isn’t the end of the world and truth be told missing one here and there for we, the participatory crowd, is probably beneficial. Involve the family when and where you can, plan extensively to avoid missing important work and family functions, keep your priorities straight, and remember this is supposed to be fun."