Disclaimer: Although Michael is the Co-Founder of Read The Ingredients, the following is Michael’s personal account, and not necessarily the voice of Read The Ingredients. Michael is not a doctor, nor a registered dietitian, so any mentions of nutritional benefit should be treated as anecdotal, even though it may possibly be supported by publicly available scientific evidence.
As a competitive cyclist, my training is very specific to the type of racing I do. These races are generally on the shorter, more intense scale of the spectrum of road bike racing. Therefore, I don’t often have the opportunity to chase pursuits that don’t fit into this training plan (well, I do have the opportunity, but I choose to stay hyper-focused on the racing). With Covid changing my annual racing plans to include nothing after March 19, I started to lose focus. Training hard with no target date in mind felt aimless. Then one day, I saw a fellow cyclist post a video of an “Off The Couch Ironman” and thought to myself ‘that looks miserable’ (“Off The Couch” meaning he didn’t do any running or swimming training). But I couldn’t get the thought out of my head – he set a goal to see if his body and mind could endure what seems like a nearly impossible feat. And he did it. Then I started wondering if I could do it. And the idea started to get legs…
For those that are unfamiliar, an Ironman is a swim of 2.4 miles, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, bookended with a full 26.2 mile marathon (140.6 miles total). All back to back, in the same day. A half Ironman is, well, half of that distance (70.3 miles). Knowing that I would be looking at about 14 total hours for the Full, and about 7 for the Half, I opted for the half Ironman. After all, I have a supportive wife, and great, understanding small children, but I can’t expect them to “sit on the sideline” while I am out there all day, not to mention the days after, when I anticipated that I would be nearly out of commission.
My first hurdle was right in front of me – the swim. I can’t swim! It’s not so much that I can’t swim, but my version is better described as ‘avoiding sinking while cooling off in water.’ The bike didn’t concern me, as 50+ mile rides are not terribly uncommon for our cycling group, and I knew it wouldn’t be a blistering pace. Lastly, there was the half marathon at the end that didn’t worry me because I knew if my body did start shutting down, walking was an option.
After borrowing a wetsuit and talking to a few folks who have trained and participated in sanctioned 70.3 mile events, I felt a little more comfortable about the whole endeavor. But now my concern shifted from finishing the swim, to falling apart on the run. I am not sure where the shift occurred, but I pictured a Paula Newby Fraser moment near the end (you can find it on YouTube). Additionally, nutrition was going to be hugely important, with the need to take in about 300-400 calories every hour, with solids being key for the swim and bike portion, and liquid or softer calories (gels, electrolyte drinks, etc.) being the focus during the run. Lastly, because this was on my own and not a sanctioned event, all aid and route decisions would have to be made before hand. Fortunately, I have an equally driven friend who offered to support me through the day.
We got to the lake at about 7AM with all the gear in the car, and a beautiful day on tap! On the way to the lake, I consumed my breakfast, which consisted of coffee and a ~450 calorie Read The Ingredients Breakfast Loaf. After having a couple of race seasons of evidence to back me up, I knew the Loaf was the right choice for nutrition because bio-availability of the slow burning fats, readily available carbs, and protein, I had the energy that I would need.
Wetsuit on and in the water by about 7:30. Knowing I am a terrible swimmer, it was important that my friend was on a paddleboard next to me in case of emergency. I started for the first 25 yards with a vigorous freestyle only to realize two things; I was going to burn myself out, and freestyle terrified me! I was forced to be face down in the water, with the water winning the battle of range anxiety against me. The strategy turned to backstroke, and breast-stroke with a focus on conservation of energy. I had never swam more than 25 yards in one go, and I had to swim nearly 2200 yards before I was done! After about 25 minutes of swimming, I looked at my watch to realize that it was not tracking the distance as I had hoped. Now we had to do some calculations while I was still swimming to determine what the right “out and back” distance would be to ensure I did at least 1.2 miles of swimming. Fortunately, we got that piece under control and I swam a little more than the necessary distance, but wanted to be sure I didn’t under-deliver on the distance, because I didn’t want to have to do this again.
Getting out of the water after about an hour and 10 minutes was a great feeling. Not only had I overcome the phobia of open water swimming, I had done it in tremendous fashion, conquering 1.2 miles. Now onto the part I was comfortable with – the bike.
After a quick change into my bike clothes I brought a few more Loaves with me on the bike, and off I went. The name of the game here was discipline. My tendency is to go hard on the bike because that is what I normally would do, and let’s face it, my ego was driving that desire. The hardest part of this was staying within a power threshold that would leave me enough energy to not ‘implode’ on the run. After about 35 miles, I was ready to be done and onto the run, but I had more than an hour before I got to the 56 mile marker. While on the bike, I consumed 2 more Loaves over the 3 hours while focusing on the 300-400 calorie/hour guideline. At no point was I hungry, nor did I feel bogged down by food. It was fantastic to not have to worry about the eating part and have the mindset to focus on power conservancy and efficiency.
After 3 hours, we had finally reached the parking lot where my wife and children were waiting with homemade signs and cheers. It was a great surprise and one that lifted my spirits, in combination with knowing that I was roughly 2/3rds finished with what I had set out to do. I changed into my running gear, ate another half of a Loaf and was on my way (for those keeping track, that is about 3.5 Loaves in the first 4.5 hours of the day).
The run started and I felt great! The advice I was given ahead of the triathlon was to run for about 5 minutes, then walk for about 3 to gauge my body’s energy levels - nevermind that - I wanted to get this thing done, or fall-apart trying! The run course I had setup was a 3.5 mile loop that was close to my house. It allowed for disaster mitigation, as well as an “aid-station” every 3.5 miles. I went out running and set an 8:11 first mile, which started the mental math in my head. “If I can keep this pace, I’ll be done in less than 2 hours!” That was a nice thought…quickly my mile split times started to fall, beginning with mile 2, which was about 45 seconds slower than the first. Then came the knee pain, which wasn’t terrible, but nagged enough to remind me to walk for a minute here and there. By the end, I was again bored with the task at hand and just wanted to be finished. At the time I reached 13.1 miles, after about 2.5 hours of running, I was doing little more than shuffling my feet, but was fully coherent and able to hold myself up just fine. This was a surprise. But the real surprise was approaching the 13.1 mile marker and seeing my family there with a homemade finish “ribbon” for me to tear through.
At each 3.5 mile stop, I was greeted with water, electrolyte drink, and salt-covered watermelon (if you’ve never had it, you should!). It has to be said, that without my family and close friend, this would have been a ton more difficult. Their support cannot be overstated!
At the end of it all, I didn’t experience any of what I had anticipated. I didn’t have an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I was still able to walk around, albeit a little sore. I was still very much coherent and lucid. And the next day, I was certainly sore in places, but it didn’t stop me from my daily activities as a husband and father.
What I had set out to do was to test my mind and body. I wanted to see what the human body is capable of. I wanted to see what restrictions I had put on myself and if I could physically break through those restrictions. I wanted to see how important nutrition is to your body’s ability to perform. All of these tests were passed, and pretty well, in my opinion.
Without any scientific data to back this up, I fully chalk up my ability to perform and the energy I had to my nutrition plan. Eating real food that had great bio-availability just made my mind and body operate so much better than a diet of high-sugar and processed food.
In all honesty, I am happy to have completed this effort, but I didn’t have the great sense of accomplishment I had anticipated having. I pictured myself collapsing in tears at the end with a feeling of being on top of the world because I had just cleared so many hurdles in front of me. Nope! I did get a little emotional as I was approaching the end and saw my family waiting there to cheer me on! The support of my close friend and family meant more to me than if I were competing in a sanctioned event with spectators watching and cheering from the sidelines for the entire event. Just 4 in-person fans, and a few virtual fans waiting for updates. That’s it. That’s the perfect crowd size!
My final thoughts would be to go do whatever it is that you think is not possible, but have wanted to do. You’d be very surprised what your mind and body are capable of. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an athletic endeavor. But whatever it is, it would be made a lot easier if you start your day with a Read The Ingredients Breakfast Loaf ;-)