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38 years ago on today’s date, 15 athletes competed against each other on the coast of Hawaii. The goal was simple: find the toughest endurance athlete.

Unlike today, these 15 athletes didn’t have a stacks of books at the library or 567,000+ results on Google to help guide them to the perfect training plan or race strategy. Buoyant wetsuits weren’t used during the unprecedented event and aero bars hadn’t even been created.

Yet, all but three athletes finished the race.

Today, I have unlimited resources at my fingertips. I have seasoned athletes who’ve conquered the Ironman numerous times feeding me advice. I’m just a Google search away from any training question that comes up. And with so many Ironman plans to choose from, the options can actually be overwhelming.

Despite all these factors, part of me can’t help but feel a connection to these 15 athletes who took on the race in 1978. The race will mark the hardest endurance challenge I’ve ever conquered. The entire distance, 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle and 26.2-mile run, is something I don’t actually know for certain if I can finish. And I’ll be relying on a fairly basic bicycle without all the bells and whistles (though, more advanced than Dave Orlowski’s Sears Free Spirit 10) due to budget restraints.

Choosing a Plan

After several months of reading online articles, published books and in-person talks with other triathletes, I’ve chosen a 24-week plan based on Matt Fitzgerald’s Essential Week-By-Week Training Guide. The plan incorporates three phases: base phase, build phase and a peak phase. As with the running plans I’ve developed, every fourth week is a recovery week.

Fitzgerald’s book encompasses eight different levels for the full Ironman distance. While I’ve chosen one level based on my fitness today, I’ll be re-evaluating that decision every day based on how my body is reacting. Fitzgerald explains this best in the beginning of his book:

“You should never treat a training plan as a gospel. It’s impossible to always predict how your body will respond to training. When it doesn’t respond quite as expected, adjust your training appropriately or your fitness will stagnate or worse. Training well is about doing the right workouts at the right times and the only way to do the right workout every time to is to be responsive.”

Beyond the Swim, Bike and Run

Since finishing a book written by Joe Friel and Gordon Byrn titled Going Long, the way I view Ironman training has changed dramatically.

From the first chapter of the book:

“The spirit of Ironman is much more than a race, more than a simple time goal. It is about the process of preparing yourself for one of the greatest endurance challenges you will ever face. Race day is but one aspect of your overall journey.”

Preparing the body for one of the greatest endurance challenges I’ll ever face requires training beyond the swim, bike and run. From my perspective, Going Long is one of the best resources out there for mapping out what the “beyond” means. From nutrition, which they describe as the “fourth discipline,” to emphasizing the importance of sleep, this book encompasses it all.

In my experience, the biggest challenge I’ve encountered on race-day can usually be attributed to the mind. Yet, I rarely, if ever, put any emphasis toward mental toughness during training. One of my favorite aspects of the book is in chapter 11, which provides techniques to approach the mental aspect of training.

Cautiously Optimistic

I’ve suffered two stress fractures in less than a year. I struggled with a disappointing marathon time in the fall. And even after spending hours and hours in the pool and lake, I’m still a slow swimmer. But despite all this, I have so many reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

I have training partners to hold me accountable. I have a training plan that can easily be adjusted, if needed. I have the gear already purchased.  And I have a successful half Ironman already under my belt.

Most importantly, I’ve developed a strong passion for this unique sport that puts my body up to the ultimate endurance challenge–without all the pounding.

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