Beyond Physically Ready
Developing the physical fitness that is required to complete an Ironman or to achieve a competitive goal in an Ironman is only one dimension of attaining total readiness for such ambitions. There are other dimensions to consider as well.
The first question Rich Strauss asks athletes who tell him they want to do their first Ironman is “why?” There are good reasons and bad reasons to chase this dream, and Strauss wants to be sure that his athletes commit for the right reasons. “It’s supposed to be fun,” he explains. “If training for an Ironman sounds like fun, then go for it. But if it seems like something you have to do, don’t do it.”
The idea that completing an Ironman would feel like an obligation to anyone might seem strange, but it’s actually quite common. What’s the first question people ask you when you tell them you’re a triathlete? That’s right: “Have you ever done an Ironman?” Let’s face it: One of the reasons we do triathlons is to impress people who don’t, and, right or wrong, finishing an Ironman is vastly more impressive to the average person than winning any shorter triathlon.
Within the sport, as well, there’s a sense that you’re not a serious triathlete unless you do Ironmans. There are many gifted age-group triathletes whose bodies are perfectly designed to kick butt in sprint triathlons but who get their butts kicked in Ironman races instead because they feel obligated to go long.
Fliegelman believes that overall experience is a more important factor in Ironman readiness than physical fitness. That’s why he told Steve to wait a year to make his Ironman debut and would have told Bruce to do the same if he’d been given the chance. Bruce is actually the more physically talented of the two men, according to Fliegelman, but Steve is more Ironman-ready because he has an extra year of experience, hence more all-around “triathlon intelligence,” as the coach puts it.
Bruce has difficulty pacing himself appropriately in workouts. Steve, on the other hand, has mastered the art of training by heart rate, and over the past year he has also learned how to train effectively by power on the bike. While Bruce is a better pure runner than Steve, Bruce has never run well off the bike in a race. Steve is better at holding himself back on the bike and saving something for the run. It’s not that Bruce will never get to that point; he just lacks experience.