Seven hours and 36 minutes. That is how long it took me to complete the Branson Half-Ironman. Apparently I enjoy slowly torturing myself (I am talking very slowly) for most of what should have been a nice day in the homey tourist town that is Branson. Throughout this entire process I have learned several invaluable lessons…most of them the hard way. I hope to share these with you, especially since you do not have to swim, cycle and run 70.3 miles to be able to apply these to your everyday life. I will give you five lessons today and five later this week since I tend to get long-winded.
1. I can’t swim in a straight line.
The first leg of the Half Ironman was a 1.2 mile swim in beautiful Table Rock Lake. We started in heat waves by age, and my heat was one of the last ones to start. We waited our turn as we huddled up in waist deep water and watched the professional and elite athletes dominate the swim course. The course was easy enough – 1.2 miles along a course that looked like an upside-down Doritos Chip. Swim by the buoys on the course, and you finish with no problems. I was pumped up and ready to go when the starting gun was fired, and jumped head-first into the course. These athletes were way better than me, and I found this out as they hit, punched and kicked past me. I moved outside of the pack so that I would avoid black eyes and a broken nose. I was feeling good for the first 300-400 meters until I heard a guy shouting. I popped my head out of the water and saw a guy on a kayak yelling at me to turn around. I looked to my right and saw that I was about 100 meters (you know…about a football field) away from everyone else. I was way, way off course. Not only can I not swim in a straight line, I didn’t even know I couldn’t swim in a straight line. The worst part about this was that I swam off course twice…making a 1.2 mile swim about 1.5 miles in total!!
While I was swimming I had a ton of time to think about my actions. I wondered what had happened to allow me to veer off course so badly. Here is what I came up with during that long swim:
- Lack of experience: This was not my first time to swim 2000m, but it was my first time to complete an open-water swim. I think in life we often will jump head first into the deep end without knowing how to finish the race. I think there is something to be said for taking initiative and starting your race, but proper experience always helps us succeed.
- Lack of accountability: When someone is swimming a distance event, they are supposed to practice spotting…the ability to see where they are going without losing the efficiency of their swimming form. An easy spotting technique is to swim next to someone who is a good spotter so you can focus solely on swimming. If they stay near you, chances are good you won’t stray too far. I started the swim portion with my buddy Jake, but he is a much faster and stronger swimmer than me, and left me in his dust. When I moved to the outside of the course to avoid being pummeled, I lost sight of all my accountability partners…the other swimmers. It is always smart to keep your accountability partners close so you don’t drift away, making it harder to get back on course.
2. Lake water doubles as a hydration option.
Along the swim portion I drank quite a bit of Table Rock Lake water. I think drinking the lake is inevitable if you choose to swim open-water. You have to get comfortable with water getting in your mouth…even so much so that you have to skip a breath as you spit all the water out. I think many inexperienced swimmers freak out when they miss a breath, which causes you to splash and kick and jump out of the water. Swimming is all about efficiency while gliding through the water, and every time you stop, it takes a considerable amount of energy to start back swimming. Long story short, every once in a while you must drink a little water if you want to finish the race.
Everyone experiences setbacks (see lesson #1) on the road to success, but those who have their mind focused on the long-term goal most effectively and efficiently finish their race.
3. Proper set up is invaluable.
After the swim and bike portion of the Ironman each competitor has to transition to the subsequent event. Each participant sets up their transition area the day before the race. At Transition 1, the transition between swimming and cycling, we placed our bike, helmet, shoes, gloves, sunglasses, etc. in our particular spot so that we would be ready to roll once we finished the grueling swim. You also include fuel, water, towels, or anything else you will need for the next portion.
As a first-time competitor, I really had no idea how to set up my area. For the average competitor, transitions are all about making sure you don’t leave anything behind that you might need on the course. For the professional athletes, transitions can be the difference between first or second place. The winner of the race transitioned in less than two minutes…that means he took off his wetsuit, cap, and goggles and changed into his bike gear in a hurry. He had everything prepared and ready to achieve excellence.
We must always prepare for excellence. Although I had absolutely no chance of winning this race, I wanted to prepare my transition area just like the pros. They are obviously doing something right, and I want to learn from their success. Find those who are competing at a level you aspire to, and learn as much as you can.
4. Going downhill doesn’t last near as long as going uphill.
I don’t know if you know this, but Branson is hilly. It is certainly not the Rockies, but it is also not Kansas. The cycling portion of the Half Ironman is 56 miles, and in Branson we rode a loop three times before we could finish. According to my Garmin, I made 5,868 feet in elevation gains. That is as if I rode a mile straight up!
Look at those hills…I know hills go both ways, and certainly on a bike you get some rest going downhill. There were several times that I was going fast enough that I couldn’t pedal hard enough to keep pace, so resting was my only option. The fastest I went on a downhill portion of the course was 48 mph. On a bicycle! You better believe that I was nervous as my bike shook from going that fast.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there were many times when I was going uphill at 5-6 mph. I literally think an old-man in a walker could have walked past me. I averaged 13.8 mph for the entire 56 miles, so you know that there was way more time spent riding uphill than downhill. The downhill rides were exhilarating, and it made getting to the top of that hill that much sweeter, but they never lasted as long as I wanted before I faced another hill.
There have been many times in my life which I have enjoyed “downhill rides.” The times when all the hard work, determination, and effort culminate in a huge payoff. My college graduations, marathons, seeing my students succeed…these all were brought on by years of work and dedication. As soon as they were over, however, I needed to climb back on the saddle and conquer my next adventure. It’s those hard, monotonous times that provide you with the downhill parts of life, and it is worth every minute of it.
5. When the going gets hard, keep pedaling.
There were many times when I was slowly going uphill that I wanted to quit. The continuous grind of the Ozarks took its toll on me, both physically and mentally. I was in the middle of nowhere, basically by myself (the professionals and even the average riders were already running), and had no music or conversation. I have been in this position before in several of my marathons…the point where I can either give up or push through the wall and make it to the end. I kept telling myself to “just keep pedaling!” One revolution at a time, and slowly but surely I would make it to the end.
I knew that the last 6-8 miles of the cycling portion of the race would be relatively downhill, so if I could make it to mile 48 I would be in the clear. Mile 47 was tough. I remember hurting in almost every part of my body, and knowing that I had to just keep pedaling.
Sometimes life is hard, and it would just be easier to give up. I encourage you to just keep pedaling. That hill will be overcome, your journey will continue, you will get that downhill portion of your ride soon. Just keep pedaling.
Part 2 of the “Top 10 Lessons I Learned at the Branson Half Ironman” will be posted soon…
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