Ultrarunning vs ironman. Here's a subject I get asked about a lot as a race director of events for the former.
We have had a lot of iron/ ultra distance triathlon finishers come and race Centurion 100s over the past couple of years, which is great to see. For those who aren't familiar with the terms, ultrarunning commonly refers to any non-stop running event of over 30 miles in length, or multi-day event taking in various stages of which at least one is 30 miles or more. Iron distance triathlons are always the same length and involve three disciplines, a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike and a marathon length run completed consecutively, under the total cut off of 17 hours. Ironman is effectively a brand name, a company with events spanning every corner of the globe. Iron distance tri's exist on a similar scale but cannot use the branding or term 'Ironman'.
So after many years of Ultrarunning this past weekend I raced ironman New Zealand. The reasons for the selection of that event, about as far from home as I could go, are covered in the preceding blog post, here. I went into the race with my eyes wide open, ready to absorb everything I could without judgement or preconceptions. So here are the top things I found, some of which surprised me:
- I'm always blown away by the range of ages, shapes, sizes, colours and creeds on display at the start or finish line of an ultra. It's one of the most inspiring things about the sport. There is absolutely no standard caste. The ironman field matches the variety pound for pound. Here's some examples. In the tent getting changed in to my wet suit, I glanced over to see half a dozen Maori guys with what I can only describe as massive guts prepping for the race. I'm talking huge. I saw almost all of them on the run leg heading to the finish. There were a lot of people out on the course with things like f70 or m75 stencilled on their calves. Ironman rules dictate that each entrant display their age group on their calf/ race number, so in plain English this means a good sized field of women at least 70 years of age and men of at least 75.
- Ironman is expensive, no doubt. Roughly 4 times the price of a standard 100 mile entry. However, the level of organisation on display at ironman New Zealdand was astounding. I couldn't possibly fathom how it was going to add up in the end but somehow it more than definitely did. The amount of logistics going in to marshalling a swim of 1400 people, closing roads for a 180km bike ride and having the necessary officials and aid stations on route, repeated again for the run, is mind blowing. I am acutely aware of how much effort is required to make an event happen, and I can't imagine an Ironman would be possible without at least a handful of full time employees working behind each event. Of course it could be cheaper and you are paying to race an Ironman branded event, but you do get a lot back for what you put in.
- 'Chuck Norris Hasn't Done Ironman' - supporter sign on the run leg.
As for the race....
Preparation is the key to success in endurance events, certainly to reducing the inevitable pain to a manageable level. I trained hard for Rocky Raccoon 100, which fell just 4 weeks before this event. That training had left me in a good place running wise, probably at my second fittest ever. My aim was then to recover from the 100 by cross training on the bike and in the pool, thereby getting some Ironman relevant training in too, killing two birds with one stone. Unfortunately as was predictably the case, I didn't manage to fit in what I'd hoped for, not helped by the fact that I don't actually enjoy road cycling during British winter time, or indeed swimming, period. In the end I managed two swims, one lasting 800 metres and the other 1600 metres. The Ironman swim leg was 3800 metres or 2.4 miles. Bike-wise I pulled the old turbo trainer out of the cellar, stuck the bike on it and jumped on it 6 times, once for 2 hours otherwise an hour or less. This isn't generally considered enough training, in fact my Ironman training book GOING LONG from back in the day, suggests a minimum 18 hours per week. My two racing partners Mickey Campbell and Michael Hull asked for my pre-race predictions. I gave as follows:
2.4 mile Swim: 1:55 (Cut off 2:20)
112 mile Bike: 7:30 (Cut off 8:30)
Marathon: 3:40 (Cut off 6:30)
Total Including transitions: 13 hours 30 (Cut off 17 hours)
Of course I had no idea if a. I could actually swim that far without drowning or being allowed to 'touch the side', whether I could cycle that far without destroying my quads, or how i would feel on the run and i was assured that 3:40 was somewhat ambitious.....
When we got to Lake Taupo, which by the way is a stunning setting for a race, a beautiful blue lake surrounded by hills and volanic peaks, the swim course was already laid out in the water. We would enter at one end of the lake and swim out along the length of the beach staying always about 100 metres off shore. At half way we'd turn around a pair of bouys and return to where we had started. To get to our accomodation, we had to drive up and down the waterfront road along which the swim course travelled. After a good few minutes of driving we'd still be nowhere near the end or half way, of the swim course. This did nothing for my anxiety, nor did hearing Mickey and Hully with 16 Ironman finishes between them, saying things like 'jeeeez that is a long way....'
Swim course start. Course extends way right of camera.
On race morning we got in to transition early, checked over our bikes which we'd parked up the night before and got in to our wetsuits. Walking down to the lake in the dark there was a weird atmosphere in the air, probably caused by a bunch of people literally peeing their pants (wetsuits). The pro start went off at 6:45am and there was no way to delay things any longer. I climbed in to the water and swam to the very back of the field. The race had approximately 1400 starters and when the gun goes everyone just starts flailing away turning the water in to a washing machine.
Plenty of people get punched or kicked, losing goggles and worse so I decided given my shocking abilities in the water I was probably better off giving myself some room. So there we were at the start, right at the back next to the guys in the safety canoes, me and a guy with one arm. He seemed way more comfortable with the situation than I did..... At 7am the cannon went and everyone went mental. This is what I was racing for though, to experience again that feeling of being totally out of my depth, not knowing what was going to happen or really how to deal with those eventualities either. I gave it about 30 seconds and then commenced my Iron journey. I can't explain why, but instantly I felt great. Drafting helps in swimming, so I sat behind a few people just taking it easy for the first part and trying to completely block the overall distance out of my mind. In what seemed like no time at all I looked up and could see the turn around bouys ahead. I literally couldn't believe it, I didn't dare look at my watch, all I knew was that there were loads of other people around me so I wasn't miles out of the back on my own and i felt good. I had swallowed about 2 litres of water but I figured that would be useful hydration for the bike leg. As we rounded the bouys I tried to avoid getting pounded around the head, and safely made it on to the return leg. Again I relaxed my mind and let it wander a little just plodding along and before I knew it I was looking at the turn and final 300 metres in to the shore. I actually had enough to start working harder in to the swim finish, it was astonishing. I can only really put it down to adrenaline I guess. Anyway I emerged out of the water and looked up at the big timing clock which read..... 1:28.
I pretended like I knew what I was doing and made the 3 or 4 minute run up to transition taking my wetsuit off as I went, of course I had no idea how to do that so ended up running with one arm out and one arm still in, stuck in place by my watch and veering from barrier to barrier confused by the feeling of being upright after being in the water for so long. I dressed in transition making sure I looked like a proper triathlete, one calf guard, plenty of luminous lycra and on to the bike...
112 miles is a fairly long bike ride. Lap 1 started with a climb just a mile in. Instantly I started overtaking people and that did help with confidence. Once we'd crested the climb a few miles in, the course flattened out and the pattern for the day emerged. All the big dudes I'd just cruised past came crunching past me in massive gears, down on their tt bars all aerodynamic and stuff. My tactic was to spin at a very high cadence (turnover) burning a lot of energy but not working my untrained bike legs so much, not a great tactic unless you haven't done any training. The bike course was 45km out and back, times 2. It was hot and undulating and I felt a bit like I was getting cooked. About 30k's in to the ride a Korean guy overtook me going about 0.001mph faster than I was and immediately pulled in front of me. Almost instantanseously a technical official on a motorbike screamed up behind me and started shouting 'drafting, 4 minute penalty'. I asked her if she was joking and that the Korean guy had JUST ovetaken me, but apparently not, so I had to spend 4 minutes in the sin bin for 'my' mistake. You don't often get that happen in ultrarunning!
Anyway I tried not to concentrate on the pain accumulating in my crotch region, ate a bunch of GU energy gels and made the first 45km in 1hr30 dead. On the way back to Taupo we got to see some of the leaders coming past the other way. The sound from their high end Time Trial bikes and disc wheels was something to behold, each in the preying mantis position cranking along up hill and down dale at an average speed of 25mph. Staggering. I satrted to feel a bit crappy as I went through 80kms, but after I'd dipped back through town and the half way mark things turned around and eventually I rounded out a fairly strong finish for a total time of 6:49. Not too bad at all, and with only one major issue, to do with the 'downstairs' department. Although I was a little disheartened too, to hear that with a marathon left to run, Bevan Docherty had already finished the entire race 15 minutes earlier.
My run plan was simple. Take my time in transition, then appear like a bolt out of the deep blue and smash out the fastest possible time I could. That all went to plan and I ran pretty hard on to the first of the 3 x 8.7 mile run loops. Just as I began running I saw Mickey finishing his first lap. So he was 9 miles ahead of me by then. I knew that Hully was about 40 minutes ahead of me on to the run so I ran hard and caught sight of him about 6km up on me at my 5km mark. He was relaxed just enjoying the experience of his 10th Ironman finish so I still hoped to close the gap and in fact managed to do so by the half way point of both of our races.
He urged me on, however I was more interested in enjoying the rest of the race too so we ended up jogging our way to a finish in a little over 13 hours, just before darkness descended on to the end of the race. Hully's finish was his 10th at Ironman, his first since 2005 and in a career that spanned 24 years which included almost losing his life in the Kimberleys bush fire in 2011. It was my great privilege to finish with the ol' wise one. Mickey crushed a 5:50 bike split on route to a 12 hour finish. It's easy when you know how, or when you've cycled across the USA in 12 days....
So what can I say about it overall? I had a far better race than I expected, perhaps the run was disappointing in terms of time but that was a conscious decision rather than a blow up. It goes to show I guess that the most important underlying factor is residual fitness, of which mine was ok going in. The whole Ironman show isn't very in keeping with the type of events I usually enjoy, low key, minimal fuss, minimal kit and certainly the crowd was a different one in terms of outgoing character to that which you typically see at ultra events, perhaps you could even say a little less friendly. But there is no doubting the overall experience is worth all of that extra trouble. From bike check in to registration, on the day logistics, transitions and course management/ aid stations, it's unbelievably well organised. Over 2000 volunteers were out on the day and the course was lined with local people who were obviously totally immersed in the whole race. With a Centurion hat on, it gives me something to aim for in terms of involving the local communities as much as possible in our races.
And I guess to try to answer that age old question of which is harder, a 100 miler? A 50 miler? Ironman? Well obviously a 100 is harder and by quite some way. Ironman is very different to both, but on balance I'd say it'd be somewhere around the 50 mile run kind of level.....
Finally, my good friend and co-rd James Adams produced a video a few years ago on the relationship between ultrarunners and triathletes. Enjoy....