Tips for your first Ironman or 70.3

It’s hard to believe the tri season is getting underway since it is still snowing here in Colorado, but some friends are tackling their first 70.3 in St. George this weekend and I promised to send them some tips for the big day.  These tips aren’t about pacing or nutrition since those are highly individual and I suspect you have worked those things out already. My tips are about how to navigate race weekend to make it a successful experience, regardless of your actual race results.

Tips for your first Ironman or 70.3

* Be Prepared

I’m going to assume here that you have already done the appropriate training for your event and you are physically prepared to go 70.3 or 140.6 miles. Instead I’m talking about knowing what’s happening on race weekend and the rules of the race. There is an athlete guide for your event. It is on the event website and it was probably also emailed to you. Read it. Better yet, print it out and bring it with you. All of your race weekend questions should be answered in that guide. Know where registration is (check in is called “registration” at Ironman events), what time bike check in is, and whether there are practice swims. Some venues only allow swimming prior to the event at designated times. Know this and everything else about race weekend. I like to make a folder for a big race that has parts of the athlete guide, print outs of the courses, and travel confirmations and other maps. Even if you never open your folder, you will feel organized and in control.

Attend the pre-race dinner or meeting. I know, you don’t like the food at those things and the other racers make you really nervous. They are all so impossibly thin and fit! Eat before or afterwards and go anyway. There is a part of the meeting when they will talk about things specific to the course and you are better off hearing it directly from the race officials. I always attend these meetings and there is almost always one or more pieces of info that I pick up that I would not have otherwise known.

Know the drafting rule for the bike. You might think you are not fast enough to worry about those rules and you are wrong. Most events have designated draft marshals for different parts of the field, including the middle and back of the pack. Don’t risk a penalty because you didn’t know how many bike lengths you need to be from the person in front and how long you have to pass. In case you are wondering, the rule is 4 bike lengths and 20 seconds.  If you are overtaken, you have 20 seconds to fall back to the legal distance.

Use a good ironman packing list. I like the one Soas has on their site.

* Nothing new on race day

This is race day gospel that we have all heard preached to us. Yet, I can’t tell you how often people violate this rule. And – confession – how often I’ve violated it myself.  It is so easy to do, and usually the place it happens is at the expo. You see something you’ve been meaning to try and there it is! Available at an expo discount no less! So you buy it and you can’t resist trying it out for the big day because you are sure it will work perfectly and it might even make you faster.

Back in 2009, I did the Tucson Marathon and my friend who works for Newton was working the expo booth. He gave me a great deal on a full race kit and new racing flats. Although I knew I shouldn’t do it, I wore them all on race day. Needless to say, I regretted that decision.

Don’t make the same mistake.

Resist the urge to try that new drink, kit, shoes, hydration system, whatever it is.  Make sure you have tested everything at home first, preferably while you are training.  This goes for new kits as well. I know it is exciting to wear the new 2013 team kit at the first race of the season, but just be prepared for the fact that the new kit might have fit issues that you didn’t notice in your closet at home. They might not manifest themselves until mile 10 of the marathon, at which point it is too late to change anything. Again, resist.

* Test your equipment

This is another one that seems obvious, but it is surprising how many people show up to a race with equipment that isn’t working properly. I am mostly talking here about your bike. This is especially critical if you have had to pack your bike for airline travel. An important corollary to this rule is making sure you have the time to fix any issues that might have popped up in transit/packing/unpacking/reassembly.

I have often screwed this part up. At IMCoz in 2010 – my second Ironman – we didn’t arrive in Cozumel until late in the afternoon on Friday. Bike check-in was on Saturday. When Mark put my bike together on Saturday and I test rode it, the wheel wasn’t quite in place the way it needed to be and I ended up rubbing the tire so badly that I needed a new tire.  We then had to run around the island looking for a new tire right before bike check-in. A stressful situation. Everything worked out ok, but I certainly wished we had more time to test and address the issue.

In my first Ironman, I also didn’t heed this rule very well. I had ridden my bike in the days leading up to the race, but on the day of bike check in, I was so stressed out about the race, that I rebelled against conventional wisdom and only rode my bike around the hotel parking lot. Because I was on it for a total of 45 seconds, I didn’t notice that Mark had removed the magnet from my wheel that operated my bike computer (a story that I won’t go into here since he still feels badly about it). That led to a stressful situation coming out of T1 when I couldn’t understand why my computer wasn’t working.

Don’t be this person. Check all of your equipment carefully before bike check-in. Go through every gear and make sure everything is running smoothly.  There will be bike mechanics around at check-in if you need help with a last minute issue. Or, if you ride a QR, just take your bike to the QR tent and they will make sure it runs like a top!

One more note: many of us have heard the awful noise of someone’s tube popping when they inflate their tires on race morning. If this happens to you, keep your cool and get it fixed. Leave enough time to address these types of issues on race day! They can and do happen. I have also heard of volunteers walking around the bike racks after the start of the race checking to make sure no one has a flat. I’m not sure if this is an Ironman myth or reality, but I wouldn’t count on it. So check your own gear and leave time to fix any issues.

* Scope out the course

This is the main reason I try to arrive at the race site two days early. I like to drive or ride the bike and the run course and get in the water where the swim will be held. This seems obvious, but I will explain a few reasons for it that you might not have thought of.

For the swim, it’s important to test out your wetsuit or swim skin (always pack both if there’s a question as to whether the race is wetsuit legal). If you have compulsively bought something new for the race for the swim – like goggles or a neoprene cap that you’ve never worn before – test these out in the water before the race. For cold water, swim booties may be legal. If you have never worn these, I don’t recommend trying them out for the first time on race day. I’ve done some cold water swims and find that ear plugs (the special swim type), and double-capping my swim cap works just fine.

The buoys may or may not be up on the swim course before race morning. If they’re not, ask the volunteers about the course so you can get a sense of the swim entrance and exit (which are sometimes different) and the sighting you will need to do during the swim. Pick out some landmarks you will sight off of. You are also going to want to feel the water temperature and see what kind of visibility there is going to be.

Sometimes people say that they don’t like to attend practice swims because all of the people milling around with their nervous race energy freak them out and make them more nervous. This is one of those times that I think you need to put those feelings aside and deal with it. It’s more important to know what you’re in for on race morning.

There’s debate over riding the bike course, how much to ride, and whether you should ride the hard parts in advance. I don’t know if you necessarily have to ride any of the bike course, but I definitely like to see it by car. The race itself will be unpredictable enough without adding course surprises to the mix. Know what you’re in for and go check it out in advance. If time allows, I like to ride some of the harder parts several days in advance just to know that I have already done them and they were no big deal. The same rule applies to the run. If the course is suited to it, I like to practice ride on the run course to see what it’s going to look like. Get out there and do your recon!

* Keep your cool on race morning

This is a matter of discipline. It doesn’t help at all to freak out on race day. You aren’t doing yourself any favors and you are probably stressing out everyone else around you, including your poor family that has woken up at some crazy hour to be your support team.

The key to this is preparation.

Have everything ready to go the night before. Rehearse in your mind exactly what you will do on race morning from the time the alarm goes off until the gun goes off. Allow lots of extra time for the unexpected, like a long walk to drop off special needs or dropping your bags in separate locations (like at Kansas 70.3). If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I screwed up this rule at my most recent Ironman in Arizona. I somehow put my swim gear into my bike special needs bag, which led to some stressful moments as I had to beg strangers for a pair of goggles. Don’t do this. Take your time, check and re-check, and keep your cool, no matter what happens.

* Dealing with the unexpected

Before I did IMCdA, Mark told me that there might be three things during the race that wouldn’t go according to plan. The trick to racing is how you choose to deal with them. During that race, when I realized that my bike computer wasn’t working but I didn’t know why, I told myself “well, this is the first thing that is going wrong” and then I dealt with it and made some adjustments. I was also faced with the unexpected in IMAZ when one of my bottles flew off my bike after going over a bump in the road shortly after transition. Things like this will happen during your race. What will make your day a success is rolling with the changes and adjusting your plan.

Along these lines, you may find during the race that you are not having the day that you expected or that you trained for. If this happens, my first rule is never count yourself out. It can be a long day out there and a lot can happen over the course of 140 or 70 miles. Stay mentally in the moment and just focus on each task as it comes.

* Be appreciative

Last, but not least, enjoy the day and the experience. Many people are too scared to take on the challenge of a half or full-distance Ironman. They don’t think they can do it and are too afraid of failing to even try. Not you. You have trained for the event and shown your commitment. The race is the celebration of all of those things and you should enjoy it. Encourage another racer, slap a kid’s hand in the finish chute, smile for your family who have stood outside all day in the hot sun just for a few glimpses of you. Give everything that you can to the race, but give a little more to your support team too, because without their support, you would have a hard time making it to the start line.

Have a great first race! I look forward to hearing all about it!

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