Completing an Ironman, virtually

At more than 140 miles spread among three events, the Ironman race is a huge feat to pull off all at once. But what if you could spread out the pain over a week?
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Virtual Ironman competitor Himanee Gupta-Carlson biking home from work on Martin Luther King Way South

At more than 140 miles spread among three events, the Ironman race is a huge feat to pull off all at once. But what if you could spread out the pain over a week?

The Ironman is the Ph.D. of triathlons: 2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles bicycling, 26.2 miles running. More than 25,000 people compete annually in the 22 official Ironman events that take place around the world. The fastest competitors finish in eight to nine hours. The slower ones take 15 to 16 hours, and earn the right to call themselves Ironman finishers.

I started dreaming about competing in one of these super-endurance contests 15 years ago after reading about the Kona Ironman world championship. I started thinking about training for one in 2004, after I had finished several marathons and a few short triathlons.

The dream never died, but over the years it sputtered as life got in the way — injuries, weight gain, marriage, a move back to Seattle, and work as an adjunct instructor at campuses in Tacoma, Gig Harbor, and Seattle that had me in my car for three to four of my valuable non-work waking hours every day.

By August, I had almost given up. I was 42 pounds overweight, had high blood pressure, and couldn'ꀙt seem to make the time for even a 45-minute workout.

And then I heard about the Y-Tri.

The idea was to complete a sort of virtual triathlon over the course of a week — doing the 2.4 miles of swimming, the 112 miles of bicycling, and the 26.2 miles of running, only doing it over the course of seven days rather than all at once. The Meredith Mathews East Madison YMCA was hosting the virtual triathlon as part of a national YMCA 'ꀜActivate America'ꀝ initiative. According to Emily Klein, health and wellness program supervisor, every Y had to create some sort of event to motivate its members and others in the community to get active.

Meredith Mathews Y members could sign up to do a Sprint, Olympic, or Ironman-distance triathlon. Participants would put their names on a chart, choose their event, and log their daily distances on an honor system. Those who made the goal would be eligible for a drawing to win a personal trainer session, a yoga mat, or massage.

I didn'ꀙt care about the prizes. I already had a yoga mat and I have worked with personal trainers enough to know what kinds of exercise I like and dislike, and how to organize a regular regime. I wanted to regain my health. I could barely swim 10 minutes without getting winded. I hated my bike, and while I was a good walker, I was not running.

I chose Ironman.

Back in 2004, my friend Bjorn asked me — after my fourth marathon and my second Olympic-distance triathlon — what I wanted to train for next. We were sitting on a beach on Oahu, eating dinner with a group of friends and watching the sunset.

'ꀜIronman,'ꀝ I said. His face brightened. He had completed an Ironman in Penticton, B.C., with his wife Maigee in 2001. 'ꀜPick your race,'ꀝ he said. 'ꀜAnd go for it.'ꀝ

Most training programs recommend eight to 18 hours of weekly training for about six months, as well as the completion of a half-Ironman, before entering the big race. I had some idea of how to create a training plan and figured I could join a group when the time was right. Somehow, the time never became right. I was always too busy to train or too broke to afford the $600-plus registration fee, not to mention the costs of equipment and apparel.

'ꀜI don'ꀙt know if I can actually meet this goal,'ꀝ I told Klein in signing up for the Y-Tri. 'ꀜBut I know that if I try, I'ꀙll at least swim and bike and walk a lot of miles.'ꀝ

To finish an Ironman in seven days, I calculated that I would have to swim at least 22 lengths in the Y'ꀙs 25-yard pool a day, bicycle 16 miles a day, and run or walk about 3.75 miles a day, if I were to do a little bit of each tri-sport each day. I knew my work commitments would make it impossible to visit the Y every day so I opted for a more staggered approach, mapping out a plan to swim, cycle or walk enough each day, depending on my schedule, to meet the required distances.

As the Y-Tri Ironman unfolded in the last week of September, I announced my progress to friends on Facebook, each day posting the distances I completed. Friends from Hawaii, Indiana, Nebraska, Washington, and New York started watching me and cheering me on.

  • Monday, I cycled 11.8 miles on a stationary bike and walked four miles.
  • Tuesday, I swam 48 of the 176 lengths that would complete the 2.4 miles in the water, cycled 10.2 miles, and walked five miles.
  • Wednesday, I got on my bicycle and rode 26 miles.
  • Thursday, I walked seven miles.
  • Friday, I swam 50 lengths, cycled 12 miles, and walked two miles.

But my body was begging for rest. Friday night, I totaled the mileage: 78 lengths of swimming, 52 miles of cycling, 8.2 miles of walking to go. And a very busy weekend ahead. I knew I couldn'ꀙt finish. 'ꀜBut I'ꀙll keep going and recording my mileage until I'ꀙm done,'ꀝ I told my Facebook friends.

About 30 people participated in the Y-Tri, four in the Ironman distance. Collectively, we swam 47,000 yards, biked 659.75 miles, and ran or walked 365.75 miles. Only one of the four Ironman entrants met the goal of finishing in a week. It wasn'ꀙt me.

I ended up finishing the Ironman, but in 12 days, not seven.

Yet even as I "lost" the race, I won something else. In the three weeks since the Y-Tri, I have changed my daily commute from three hours in a car to three and a half hours on a bus, along with bike rides of 20 minutes to two hours interspersed throughout the day. I have channeled a big time gap between an 8:30 a.m. class in Tacoma and a 6 p.m. class in Seattle into an opportunity to swim for 45 minutes at the Y. And I found that I slept much better if I walked from the Y to my classes at Cornish, and from Cornish back to my home.

My weekly exercise average has gone from barely moving to 4,000 yards in the pool, 50 miles on the bike, and about 10 miles on my feet, walking. I hope to throw some gentle running into the mix this week, doing laps after my 8:30 a.m. class at Tacoma Community College on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays; and a light neighborhood run after my longer ride from Gig Harbor to Tacoma on Mondays and Wednesdays.

'ꀜPick your race,'ꀝ Bjorn said in 2004, 'ꀜand go for it.'ꀝ A real Ironman still feels a long way off, but the excuses not to try it no longer seem so monumental. 


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