Advice "no ka oi" (You can't get better advice than this)

9/2006

I've never done an Ironman, or at least not a full one. But I have done pieces. There was the Romper Room One-Mile Fun Walk in Rahway, NJ, the Trike-Around-the-Block fundraiser for victims of psoriasis in Aruba, and I've been to the Splish 'n' Splash Family Water Park in Palm Springs not once but twice, my friend.

I therefore feel fully qualified to dispense Ironman advice, and while it's not my habit to do so for free, I've decided to open the contents of my private mailbag to the general triathloning public for the very first time.

Herewith, some recent question from Ironman newbies, along with my responses.

 

Q: Dear DORK (Dispenser of Racing Knowledge. I assume):

I'm on Mile 16 of the run. I've thrown up twice, my legs are cramping badly, I'm having hallucinations and I don't feel I can run another step. What should I do?

A: Quit. Immediately.

This one is so obvious I can't believe you're even asking the question. There is absolutely no downside whatsoever to quitting, but the downside to continuing is horrific. The cramps are going to get worse, you're definitely going to throw up at least six more times, and you'll probably wind up in the medical tent where some first-year is going to treat you like a voodoo doll as he hunts around for a vein in which to jam a large-bore IV needle. Do these strike you as compelling reasons to go on?

Fuhgeddaboudit. Your hallucinations can't be that bad, but you have to really be painting behind your eyeballs to think there's any reason to finish the race. Just quit, and inside of twenty minutes you'll be sitting in some nice, comfy sag wagon being taken to the finish line the way God intended it, via piston-powered gasoline engine. Soon you'll be happily ensconced in Kona Amigos slurping mai tais and watching all those sorry souls who never read my column drag their sagging butts down Ali'i Drive just so a sun-addled Mike Reilly can scream "You are an Ironman!" at them as they collapse across the finish line.

You want to hear Reilly yell "You are an Ironman?" I'll send you a ring tone, no charge, and you can listen to it twenty times a day. I hear it's especially popular in the New York City subways during the morning commute.

 

Q: What should I eat on race day? I've heard you should eat and drink the same stuff you've been eating and drinking during training, Is this true?

A: Yes, it may be true that you heard it. But that doesn't make it right.

Okay, let's break this one down. You're going to be doing a distance you've never done, on a course you've never seen, under conditions you've never experienced, alongside people you've never met. This is a day of firsts, and it's going to be tough out there, so why on earth would you eat and drink the same stuff you've been eating and drinking all along? You trying to jinx yourself? If everything else is going to be different, your food should be, too.

Now, the most important ingredients for getting you through an Ironman are carbohydrates, salt, glucose and something to help keep control of your anxiety. Taken as a group, these are known as "comfort foods," things that will give you the confidence and serenity to get through this race. Fortunately, everything you need is readily at hand. I recommend Twinkies, pretzels and beer.

There's no beer served in an Ironman but most of the spectators lining the course will be drinking it, and those fans are only too happy to toss you a few cold ones. Just yell "Brewski!" as you pass by and you'll think a new aid station just materialized from outer space. But be careful: An overly pedantic reading of the rules might lead some marshal to conclude that sharing suds constitutes "outside assistance," which is forbidden. No problem. If confronted, pull out your own copy of the rules and refer him to the section entitled "special needs." The marshal, newly enlightened, will be sure to move you along with a cheery wave and a jaunty "Good luck!"

 

Q: Are there any sharks off the Kona coast?

A: No.

 

Q: What sunscreen do you recommend?

A: Hawaiian Tropic Thermonuclear Deep Tan Bronzing Oil.

Look, you're from like, what: Minnesota? You've been training all year at forty below wearing more layers than an astronaut …are you really going to come all the way to Hawai'i to spend a week encased head to foot in some icky, white, full body grease bath and then go home looking like Casper the freakin' Ghost? If you're going to do that, you might as well race in Anchorage.

Start slathering on that Hawaiian Tropic the instant you step off the plane, and keep it on all week. Strap a bottle to your race bike and follow this simple rule: Every time you sip some water, dab on some bronzing oil. Good race or bad, you'll go home looking like a million bucks.

And here's a little insider's tip: When you come out of T-1, there are going to be some people there with buckets full of creamy white stuff. These people are going to try to rub that stuff all over you. Don't let them do it! That cream is full of a toxic chemical called "SPF" that will rob you of that great tan. The only reason the FDA allows it on the market is that it's used by veterinarians to induce vomiting in farm animals that accidentally ingest large quantities of industrial pesticides. You know those athletes you've seen doubled over by the side of the road, pale white and puking their guts up? 'Nuff said.

 

Q: What about hydration?

A: Not necessary. The air in Hawai'i is quite humid and you can get all the water you need simply by breathing. Drinking more will only make you sick, because it sloshes around in your belly while you run. That's why you see all those people by the side of the road throwing up. If you should happen to get a little low, don't worry. That's what the medical tent is for. They've got it in little plastic bags hanging from poles. They'll pump it directly into your blood stream and have you off again in a jiffy.

Remember that too much water is poison to an endurance athlete. It'll flush potassium and sodium chloride out of your system faster than you can say "hyponatremia." And as for all of those people who keep telling you "Drink, drink, drink" all day? Let me put it this way: Gatorade is a major sponsor of the race. Need I say more?

 

Q: Any recommendations on running shoes?

A: Air Jordans. The best basketball player in the history of the sport designed them himself, and he ought to know.

 

Q: How do you handle all those marshals out on the course?

A: I actually have a lot of sympathy for those guys. It's a tough job that has to be done in order to keep the sport clean, and athletes who have their heads screwed on right understand and appreciate that. As a matter of fact, a lot of racers keep a $20 bill tucked under their bibs as a sign of appreciation to the marshals, in case one of them should happen to pull them over to the side to put that big red  X on the race number. I've heard plenty of stories of how touched some marshals were by this display of generosity, and —I kid you not — they've even been known to refrain from assessing a penalty and simply wave the cyclist on with a jaunty "Good luck!" Now that's what I call the Aloha spirit!

 

Q: How long should I taper before an Ironman?

A: Glad you brought this up. In modern racing protocols, tapering has gone the way of carbo-loading, lost to history as an idea that sounded good on paper but turned out upon closer analysis to have no firm scientific footing. Tapering makes you bloated, sluggish and complacent.

A much better idea is to stay loose and in that all-important mental groove, so I recommend going out the day before and doing the entire course. Yes, you'll already have checked your bike in, but you can rent a perfectly adequate three-speed at the little kiosk directly opposite the King K. The best thing about those rentals is that you don't have to squeeze hand brakes to slow down. Just press backwards on the pedals and you'll come to a slow, smooth stop. My guess is that it won't be long before we see that remarkable innovation on triathlon bikes.

 

Q: Any special supplements I should be taking?

A: You bet. But I can't tell you which ones until my agent receives all the bids for my endorsement. However, I absolutely guarantee that you'll be very happy with the results, because they're the best ones on the market.

 

Q: I've been riding 5-600 hundred miles a week for nearly a year now. Everything within 18 inches of my groin is completely numb and we're having trouble starting a family. Any idea what could be wrong?

A: Yes. You're not putting on enough miles.

That numbness you're experiencing is a cry of protest from your muscles that you're not giving them enough time to warm up. Just when they're starting to loosen up a little, you get off the bike and shut them back down. That's worse than never having gotten started at all.

As for that failure to start a family, well, that's just anxiety. Happens to a lot of guys, so don't worry about it. Double your bike mileage, work some of that tension down, and everything will be fine.

 

Q: I was recently diagnosed with multiple stress fractures in both of my tibias. What's the best way to deal with this?

A: Aggressively. Run through the pain.

Look, let's be honest with each other here. Ironman isn't a round of lawn bowling at some seaside resort in Brighton. It's the toughest endurance event in the world. Of course it's going to hurt. It's supposed to hurt! And you need to get used to looking past pain.

 

Q: I've seen a lot of pros wearing these really nifty-looking, knee-length tri-suits that appear to be very hydrodynamic and convenient. Should I consider getting one?

A: No. The problem with these suits is that they're black. From underwater you look like a seal, and that can attract sharks.

 

Q: Sharks? But I thought you said…

A: Whatever. Let's move on.

 

Q: I've heard that you should underpressurize your tires on race morning because they'll come back up to spec as the sun and hot road surface expand the air inside, but if you pump up to the right pressure to start with, the tire can explode as it heats up. Is that true?

A: No. In fact, you should overpressurize your tires on race morning.

Back when you were a 6-year old riding your first Schwinn, do you ever remember pumping up your tires? Of course not. The only time you put air in was when you got a flat or turned eighteen. But now you've got one of those fancy-schmancy road bikes with tires the width of linguini that you have to pump back up before every ride because they leak so much.

Well, what do you think is happening to your bike while it's sitting in T-1 for all those hours? The tires are leaking like sieves. And as the sun comes up and throws heat into the equation, the pressure inside jumps even higher and the leakage rate increase. Volunteers waiting in T-1 can practically hear the hissing.

Now, since you don't want to take the time to pump your tires when you get out of the water, you want to make sure you've got plenty of extra pressure stored up to compensate. Here's a little chart to help you calibrate exactly how much is needed:

 

If your tires                   Pump them up
normally inflate            to this psi on
to this psi:                     race morning:

100                                 230
120                                 260
140                                 280

 

When you arrive in T-1, your tires will be nice and firm and ready to go. And don't worry about those popping noises you can hear all the way out to the swim turnaround. That's just local kids celebrating the day with a few harmless fireworks.

 

Q: What's the best single idea you've heard for what to put in the special needs bag?

A: A cappuccino machine.

Hands down, that's the best idea I've ever heard, and I’m not talking about one of those little stovetop pieces of junk you buy in a Parisian schlock shop for fifteen Euros. I'm talking about one of those gigantic, copper clad Pasquini Liva numbers that can squirt six cups of espresso at a clip and has a foam-making nozzle like a fire hose. You'll not only give yourself a rip-roaring caffeine rocket boost, you'll be the hit of the race as your triathlon buddies line up for a crack at the next free spout.

And (but don't say you heard it here) you might even be able to snag a few bucks hawking fresh mocha lattes to the spectators huddled against the rain in Hawi. Just bear in mind that this is a health-conscious crowd so be sure to also stash some fat-free creamer in that special needs bag.

 

Q: Is it possible to overtrain?

A: Overtrain? How can you possibly overtrain?

It's simple physics, so try to follow along here. Training makes you stronger and faster. The more you train, the stronger and faster you get. So what are you telling me: You're worried about getting too fast and too strong? Not bloody likely.

If you want to be the best, you have to work harder than everybody else, and no matter how hard you're already training, I guarantee you that somebody out there is working harder. Therefore, it's a mathematical certainty that, no matter what you're doing, you're undertraining.

And you're worried about overtraining? Please.

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Well, that's it for now. If you follow these tips religiously, what could possibly go wrong?