My first time was in Port Mac

After watching my partner cross that magical finish line not once but three times I decided it was my turn to see what all the fuss was about and enrolled in my first ironman.

Some people would say choosing to do an ironman is crazy and others will say it’s just plain stupid. For me it was both. This was my third triathlon - ever. You could say I had bitten off more than I could chew but to that I would say chew harder. Granted health and fitness has always been a huge part of my life, being a former dancer, training for the ironman was harder than I could have ever imagined. This is the recap of my first time.

The hardest part

For me, the hardest part was definitely the last 3-4 weeks leading up to race day. Training sessions were long, the weather at that stage had gotten cold and it became a mental battle between not feeling ready, over it and excited. I remember one night in particular, it was Wednesday swim night, my worst leg of the event. It was cold, only the outdoor pool was available and as always during the week I was training alone. I got to the pool, warmed up, put on my cap and goggles and sat watching the other swimmers for almost 30 minutes. Crying into my goggles I was texting my partner saying this was stupid, I didn’t want to do it, I should give up. Somehow I eventually got myself up and into the water telling myself I just have to swim 500 meters and I can go home. I ended up swimming the whole 4km.

Oh and kilometre 28-35 on race day (run) wasn’t easy either!

The beauty of being slow

During training adding on the kilometres and doing it with speed is the goal for many. However for me just getting the distances under my belt comfortably was my goal. Speed was not an option. But being slow is by no means a shame in fact I think it's a total win because you are in the best company at all times in the ironman. By the time you are on your first bike lap most pros will be on their second. Sharing a piece of race road with a pro, even if for a split moment, is just too cool. And when a pro shouts you a ‘well done keep going!’ as they zoom past, you definitely feel your legs push with a little more enthusiasm.

When you are on your second bike lap with other competitors at your pace you start to feel an incredible sense of comradery. You are all in it together and words of encouragement pass between you. This is especially true on the run. If it wasn’t for two particular athletes at kilometre 38 I would have IM shuffled to the finish line instead of ‘sprinting’. On those dark difficult km’s we all became each other's coach and cheer squad, ‘just around that corner’, ‘just to the next aid station’, ‘don’t waste a down hill’, ‘only 2kms to go, run with me’.

Finding the why

Finding your ‘why’ is important simply because you will ask yourself that question over and over during training. Remember training isn’t just swimming, cycling and running a couple of times a week. It’s 17 hours training a week minimum at the peak point. It's like having a second job that doesn’t pay but strips you of time, energy and money. Its saying no to social events, alcohol and bad food. It’s your whole body hurting and saying no.

My why was a desire to find my limits, I just had to know if I could do it. The ‘why’ is different for everyone and I highly recommend finding it before starting even if it's as simple as ‘can I do this?’

Lessons Learned

Accept the things you cannot change - It’s going to take a while. From the long period of training, to each individual training session and the actual race day. You have to learn to accept that you are going to swim for an hour to possibly two hours, you are going to cycle for up to eight hours and you are going to run (well shuffle really) for up to seven. Once you get over the fact that it's not easy, it’s going to hurt and it's going to take a while, everything becomes much easier.

Choose to complete or compete - Set realistic expectations. If you are doing this to complete that's fine, but then just complete. Yes, push where you can but don’t go out there with the vision to totally smash it either. There will always (unless you’re Chrissy Wellington perhaps) be someone faster than you but also someone slower than you. Don’t be a hero, this is your race.

If you are a beginner, and by beginner I mean you are trying Ironman for the first time completing is probably the best option. If you have done the race before I would suggest competing with your first time. Unless you are a pro or highly experienced I would avoid trying to compete for a podium position.

Nutrition vs diet - Coming from a dance background the ‘fourth’ sport had always been diet. Eat as little as you can to be as thin as you can. Terrible I know but a reality of the art. In triathlon the ‘fourth’ sport is nutrition. The term in itself describes its importance and value. Eat! Veggies, carbs, protein and some sugars - just make sure you fuel your body for the work you are going to put it through. It is not a beauty contest. To put it into perspective I did not lose a single kilo while training for the Ironman and that makes me very happy. I didn’t put myself through this hard training to lose weight, I did it to become an Ironman. If you are doing this to loose weight you are doing it for the wrong reason.

No secret formulas - When I completed a girl ask me via Instagram what the secret to completing an Ironman was. My answer was simple; plan, commit, endure. That’s it, that’s the formula. Enrol and work your way backwards when planning your training. Create a detailed spreadsheet and stick to it. Train and live smart to avoid injury and illness which will prevent you from training. To do an ironman showing up to training is not enough to make it to the end. It really is about ‘the journey’.

All in all IM was hard but it wasn’t impossible. Ok, I was ‘slow’ but that’s just motivation to go faster next time. It’s an experience which is different for everyone and hard to explain if you haven’t done it. All I know is I can’t wait for the next one!

Stephanie Dunbar is a media professional with a love for triathlon. She recently completed her first Ironman at Port Macquarie and is a regular contributor and sub editor for the TriChicks Hub.