What You Should Know About Doing an Ironman

10 things no one tells you before you do an Ironman triathlon

So you’ve decided to do an Ironman triathlon—or are seriously considering it. Well, congrats! You are embarking on a swim-bike-run journey that will test and change you like nothing else. Get prepared—and amped!—with these insights from an Ironman veteran (and former longtime editor of Triathlete magazine) on what you can anticipate.

1. People will question your sanity.

But you know what’s more insane? Never challenging yourself to new goals or pushing the limits of what you can achieve both physically and psychologically. This is the best brand of crazy—the kind that makes you feel alive.

2. You will surprise yourself.

By doing hard things with increasing ease. When it comes to Ironman training, the name of the game is patient progression, and as you steadily increase your training intensity and volume you will see your body respond (both in terms of performance and appearance) in ways that will blow you away.

3. You will become a multitasking machine.

Balancing training for three disciplines with a full-time job, family obligations and some semblance of a social life requires a fair degree of time-management wizardry. You will find hours in the day you never utilized (embrace the sunrise views) and discover just how productive you can be from the seat of a bike trainer.

4. It takes a village to raise an Ironman triathlete.  

This may be an individual sport, but no one gets to the finish line without the support of family, friends, colleagues, training partners, coaches, massage therapists, the guy in your tri club that lends you his NormaTec recovery boots. Acknowledge your tribe and let every person know how much you appreciate their investment in your “crazy” goals.

5. You will feel selfish.

While prepping for an Ironman, it will start to feel like it’s all about you. Because it is. What and when you eat, when and where you can train, how soon until your next massage—these are all ongoing self-centric concerns. Realize that this mindset, which has an expiration date (race day), is necessary for your ultimate success. Think of it as self-care instead of selfish. (And always try to be self-aware and gracious.)

6. It will teach you how to live in the moment.

The most successful Ironman competitors aren’t thinking about the marathon when they’re treading water before the swim start. They are focused on the now, and doing everything they can to set themselves up for success within the next few minutes. It’s very easy to get swallowed up by the enormity of the work ahead, both in your months of preparation and on race day, so it is essential that you stay tuned into the present. Training your brain to live in the moment will serve you on and off the race course.

7. You must get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The Ironman distance is full-on legit hard. You will suffer on race day. But you can suffer better by teaching your body and mind in the preceding months to be OK with sustained discomfort (not pain; that line is admittedly thin, but you should understand the difference). Mile 15 of the marathon is not going to feel good to anyone—the athlete who can endure with composure, focus and fortitude when things get ugly is going to rise to the top (and not want to throw their tri bike into the dumpster post-race).

8. It will be a lesson in gratitude.

You are going to power your body across 140.6 miles in a single day under your own steam. That’s freaking amazing! Tackling an Ironman will continually remind you how strong, capable, resilient and badass you really are. In fact, Ironman finishers take so much pride in this exceptional feat of body and mind, many get a tattoo of the Ironman logo (called the “m-dot”) to show the world just what they’re made of. Whether or not you go that route is up to you, but certainly finishing a single Ironman is a badge of honor never to be forgotten.

9. You don’t have to break the bank.

The sport’s new marketing slogan could be: Triathlon—not just for rich people. Today’s entry-level gear/tech is packed with features that have trickled down from the pricey high-end options. Affordably priced bikes are loaded with high-performance details formerly reserved for pro rigs, and you don’t have to spend a month’s salary to get a top-notch wetsuit. There is also a massive market for used tri gear—check out The Pro’s Closet, eBay, Craigslist and tri club forums for some killer deals. (Now if we could just find a coupon code for the Ironman registration fees!)

10. It will reframe what is “hard.”

After you do an Ironman, your definition of “hard” will be different. Shorter race distances seem like child’s play, but more significantly, challenges in everyday life suddenly aren’t so insurmountable and stressful. This might be the sport’s most compelling selling point: It provides a (hard-earned) perspective shift that lets you handle tough things with grace and grit. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in an uncomfortable situation (i.e. childbirth, root canals, public speaking) and thought, “You’ve done the Ironman—you got this.”

Julia Beeson Polloreno

The former editor-in-chief of Triathlete magazine for a half-dozen years, Julia Polloreno is a freelance writer and endurance sports nut. She lives in Encinitas, Calif, with her husband and two kids.