‘Ironman’ had been on my mind since the last few years. Touted to be ‘The hardest single day event in the world’ with a tagline of ‘Anything is possible’ – this was definitely one event on my life’s bucket-list. A long read ahead about my journey to the finish line!
For people who don’t know, ‘Ironman’ is a long distance ‘endurance’ triathlon, wherein a participant has to cover 3.8kms of swimming, followed by 180kms of cycling followed by a full marathon (42.2kms of running), one after the other. All this has to be done within a certain time – (usually 17 hours!) depending on the location. Ironman events are organised in different places all over the world throughout the year.
For most people, it’s not an event where you compete against others, but one where you compete against yourself. The first timers usually just try to finish the race and don’t worry about the timing.
With many Indians participating in Ironman events in recent years (Milind Soman bringing the event into limelight), the general awareness about triathlons has been increasing, just like running. Anirban Mukherji had formed a Whatsapp group ‘Recreational Triathletes’ to connect like-minded people from Pune with an aim to share information and train together. This group taught me a lot over the last couple of years and inspired me to take up this challenge.
After my half Ironman event (70.3) in Vichy in 2016, my mind was quite made up that I won’t be participating in a full Ironman event ever, mainly because of the agony I faced in the event (read here).
I continued training after I returned from France and joined Kaustubh Radkar (20 time Ironman finisher from Pune) with an aim to get some company for training. I wanted to get a better timing at the half iron distance again before I could even think of attempting the full.
And that happened successfully at Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz (half) where I cruised without any injury in a time of 5:46 (with a reduced swim route due to fog). The very next day, I registered for the full in New Zealand. I had a good 5 months to train to double my endurance. And these 5 months have changed me immensely as a person and taught me a lot. The journey and destination were equally enriching!
The beauty of this sport is, there are no short-cuts to achieve this distance. Your natural physique does play a bit of role in giving you a head-start, but your performance is pretty much based on how much you train. Discipline, consistency and structured training are the key, no two-ways about it. This is something which you achieve by your own efforts, no amount of money can buy it, and that’s what makes the achievement so sweet! A very interesting article written by Anirban on what makes the Ironman challenge so interesting (read here).
I left Radstrong coaching in October due to time constraints. The recreational triathletes community really helped me in the training. Charzal, Ram, Anirban, Ozgur, Aditya, Prajakt, Omkar and so many others with whom I spent many Saturday and Sunday mornings, running and cycling.
Sleeping early on Friday and Saturday nights became a habit, long bike rides became longer, half-marathons became practice runs and my social life pretty much evaporated. Sacrifices are a big part of the training, and that’s what makes you tough. Managing all these things, while working full time is the biggest challenge.
Just an example of what needs to be done sometimes and how things need to be managed: My new years’ was spent like this: I cycled 120kms to Panchgani on the 31st, spent time with friends till midnight. Woke up at 7am and cycled back to Pune, another 120kms. Training was at the peak at that time, and I couldn’t afford to lose a weekend since that’s the only time you get to cover long distances. My friends Akkash, Kruttika, Tanya, Kamlesh all understood what it took to get those kilometers under me and supported me quite a lot. My family was really supportive as well – accompanied me to my swim sessions, fed me whatever I needed and kept encouraging me whenever I was fatigued.
I ran my first full marathon in Mumbai with a good timing (3:49). This was one of the practice runs to gauge my running endurance. I set myself a target of 14 hours for the Ironman (1:40 swim, 20 minutes total transitions, 7:00 for the bike and 5:00 for the run). As the event drew closer, a few things didn’t go as per plan. I had a major neck sprain during my final weeks of training due to which I couldn’t run, bike or swim. I got a slight stress fracture/sprain on my foot after the Mumbai Marathon which restricted my running practice.
Aai-baba and a couple of our family friends – the Alurkars – accompanied me to New Zealand. We spent 9 days before the event to get acclimatized to the time-zone (7:30 ahead of India!). We did some sight-seeing and I trained on alternate days to keep my muscles active and ready.
Suddenly race-day was upon me. The welcome ceremony was amazing, with Maori performances, inspiring videos and a super-carb-loaded dinner. The athlete briefing for first-timers was hilarious and encouraging at the same time and boosted my confidence of finishing the event. The town was full of athletes, full of energy! This event is known for its amazing hospitality and volunteer support, and it lived up to the expectations.
When I went to deposit my bike on the previous day, I found the rear tire a little deflated. I replaced the tube and found a steel wire in the tire – which probably got stuck during one of the practice rides. Removed the wire, replaced the tube and deposited my bike. Strangely there wasn’t a lot of anxiety. I felt relaxed, had a good night’s sleep.
On Race-day, I went into the transition area to keep my helmet, only to find the rear tire completely deflated! Panic mode ON! Quickly went to the bike service guys, replaced the tube and double checked the tire again. Didn’t find anything in the tire this time. Probably a pinch-flat? I prayed that it was, and hoped that the new tube would remain intact by the time I finished the swim!
The swim was in the beautiful ‘Lake Taupo’. The water was so clear, I could see the bottom of the lake while swimming. The last part of the swim was in the river flowing out of the lake, with beautiful caverns and aquatic plants at the river bed. Finished the swim in 1:37, a bit faster than planned!
Went into transition, and the rear tire was intact! Phew! The bike route was a 2-loop course through the countryside. The road was surprisingly super rough. The first loop went as planned, a decent 27kmph. The sun came out during the second loop and I faced some crazy headwinds for 30 odd kilometres heading out into the country. Looking at my speed (22kmph), I thought something was wrong with me, but nobody was overtaking me, so I figured everyone is facing the same thing – headwinds! I remembered Aditya Kelkar’s advice for headwinds – ‘Keep your head down, and peddle on’. Those 30kms sapped the energy from my legs. The return was slightly better. Finished the bike in an overall 7:13 – not very off from my target.
The sun was strong now, and my legs were very tired already. A marathon now meant I needed every bit of energy and had to manage my muscles properly. I decided to run at a comfortable 6:15 pace from aid-station to aid-station (2.5kms). Do a little stretching at each station, have some water and a gel and resume the run. The route was a 3-loop course – 14kms each. The first two loops went pretty much as planned.
I started the third loop well and reached the first aid station. When I resumed the run, a very unwelcome pain returned. My left ITB was strained and my left knee started hurting, just like it did during my 70.3 in Vichy. Every step was agony, and I knew with 10kms still to go, running won’t be possible. My 14-hour target was beyond achievable now, and completion became the priority. Walking was the only option and I had enough time. 7:30pm on the clock and it started getting dark and windy. I had had an enormous number of gels through the day, my mouth was probably stinking of the ‘Razz’ flavour. This was the toughest part of the whole event, walking alone for 10kms in the dark, windy conditions, with a throbbing knee and nauseating taste of gels.
5kms to go and I started limping with the pain. To keep my spirits up, my family kept cheering me from different spots, clicking pictures. Every time I saw them, I got a shot of energy in me, lifting me physically and mentally. As the finish line came closer, the pain kept increasing, but my spirit kept rising. The last 500 meters was the most memorable part of the race. My father shouted out to me and told me to run with him. I saw him and burst into a jog and then a run. He was on the other side of the barrier, camera in one-hand, a bag in the other, but he was so happy and excited and paced me to the finish line.
I was among the last 10% to finish, so I had no other participant near me during the finish. I had the whole finish line to myself for photos! Sprinted the last 100m and jumped high up when the words fell on my ears – ‘Anuj Karkare from India – you are an IRONMAN’. A two-year old dream – complete. The joy was boundless!
A short 5 minute of how the event looked like:
A time of 15:16:35 is definitely not something I am proud of, especially the 6-hour marathon. The worst run in my life for sure! But I guess the timing reflected the amount of training I did. I didn’t train enough, and that showed in the run. The max I had trained before the event was a 120km bike + 15km run. Or a standalone 180km bike ride. Never went beyond it, and that showed in the muscle fatigue I had in the race.
I think in a long distance endurance event, there are four major factors which determine your performance:
- Cardio-vascular endurance
- Energy and nutrition intake
- Mental endurance
- Muscular endurance
And all of them are inter-related to some extent. I was sorted in the first three, and clearly lacked in the fourth. I know where to improve now!
Two days post the race, I was firmly of the opinion that this was the last long distance event I would do for a long time. On the third day post the event, something changed and now I feel like doing another Ironman in the near future, maybe a couple of years down the line, with better preparation this time. A sub 13 hour target? Maybe…
The journey taught me a lot of things about my body, about nutrition, about what is really good for your health and what isn’t. Long distance events are obviously a challenge and that’s what drives people to take them up, but they may not be the best thing for your health. There are several other things which can be done without spending a hell lot of time, but can be a lot better for your fitness, and a lot more fun too! And these are the things which I plan to do in the next couple of year – 5k, 10k runs, Olympic distance triathlons, treks, rock-climbing, calisthenics, football…..the list goes on! Another IRONMAN event will happen (maybe Arizona), but only when I am truly ready to nail it 🙂