Two years ago, Scott Fliegelman, executive director of FastForward Sports in Boulder, Colo., was approached by one of the newer triathletes in his 400-member club. The athlete, Steve, told Fliegelman that he wanted to do his first Ironman the following year. The coach told the athlete that he should wait; he wasn’t ready. Steve accepted the advice and targeted Ironman Louisville 2012 for his Ironman debut.
Last year, while Steve remained focused on short-course racing on his coach’s advice, Fliegelman was approached by another newer triathlete with ambitions of moving up to the iron distance. But instead of asking his coach’s opinion, this athlete, Bruce, informed Fliegelman that he had already signed up for the inaugural Ironman U.S. Championship in New York City in August 2012. Fliegelman told Bruce it was a bad idea—he wasn’t ready—but he would help him make the best of it.
Recently, just weeks before both Steve and Bruce were scheduled to participate in their first Ironman races, I asked Fliegelman how each of them was doing.
“It’s just what I expected,” he said.
Steve, the athlete who waited, had made great progress over the preceding year. He was training well and feeling confident. Bruce, the athlete who couldn’t wait, was struggling. His training was off track, he felt overwhelmed, and his looming date with Ironman destiny filled him with dread.
Of course, Fliegelman pointed out, there are no guarantees in Ironman racing. While he expected Steve to do well by his own standards, the coach granted that he might not. And while Fliegelman feared that Bruce would not much enjoy his Ironman experience, the coach conceded that he just might. But race day is only a part of the overall Ironman experience. The greater part is what Fliegelman calls “the other 364 days” of preparation. Clearly the journey toward race day had gone better for patient Steve than it had for headstrong Bruce, so Fliegelman’s judgment that Steve was wise to wait and Bruce unwise not to had already been validated.
When is the right time to do one’s first Ironman? How does an athlete know? There are no tidy answers to these questions. Defining and recognizing the right time to move up to 140.6 miles requires that various individual factors be considered. Most coaches agree that there are a lot of Bruces out there—moving up too soon is very common. But doing it at the right time is not all about waiting—it’s really about preparing in order to maximize the likelihood of a positive experience.