Ironman season is rough going for many families but it doesn't need to be

Credit: Jamie Squire/Allsport
It's 4 a.m. and Scott's alarm has just sounded. By 4:20, the 36-year old triathlete has downed a double espresso and is headed out the front door for a "quick" 40-mile cycle before heading to work.

It's dark outside, and damp. Scott says he has no choice but to go. With Ironman California only weeks away, he knows this is his only opportunity today to log in crucial mileage.

The first few miles are tough. His muscles are tired from the massive training. He thinks of all the sacrifices family time, work, and friends but every mile reconfirms any doubts he has for anything but a stellar performance.

Ten miles into his ride, endorphins begin to fuel his mind and muscles. Pushing hard up the hills, he envisions the infamous Italian climber Marco Pantani on his tail. Scott wants to scream into the darkness, "My family will finally understand!"

He fantasizes about his upcoming race. After swimming 2.4 miles, riding 112 and running 26.2, Scott has an idyllic vision of the finish line. Music is playing and flags are waving in the wind. And there is his proud family cheering him on, embracing him after his victorious finish.

But as he pedals into the morning fog, his dream begins to fade into reality. He starts to wonder whether he will even have a family at the finish.

Scott says he can't help but to remember the good old days, when he and his wife used to be a team in marriage and in triathlon. But now, the team seems to have split. How could this have happened?

Eight-time Ironman finisher Matt, 39, of Newport Beach, Calif., says that's the way it started out with his wife. They were a team: she would cycle beside him during long runs, fueling him with encouragement, energy drinks and power foods. But three children later, his wife has put her foot down.

"If you want to train," she said, "it cannot take away from our family time."

Matt compromises by setting out for his weekend long runs at 3 a.m., returning home by 7 a.m., just before his girls wake up. During the week, he takes "extended lunches" to fit in 80-mile bike rides.

Carol, 30, of Tustin, Calif., a full-time marketing director and mother of three, says she finds time to train for her first Iron-distance race by running during the week at 4:30 a.m. then jumping into a 6 a.m. master's swimming workout.

She admits that her quest to complete her first Ironman has put significant strains on her marriage. Her husband refers to her training and friends as "her new life," and complains that household duties like cleaning and bills are being neglected.

Neither Matt or Carol feel that their spouses are sympathetic to their workout needs or are supportive of their dream to race in the Hawaii Ironman.

Dr. Bob Cuyler of Newport Beach, Calif., insists, however, that it can be done. In 1990, Cuyler had a thriving dental practice, a newborn child and had qualified for the Hawaii race. He insists that he could never have finished 150th overall with a 10:19 finishing time without first having an understanding with his family and job.

He emphasizes, though, that it isn't worth losing your family or job for the race.

In retrospect, he says that he did have the luxury of organizing his dental practice around his 20 hours a week of training, and put in many early-morning workouts, but he did miss workouts each week because of family commitments. He says he feels that those missed workouts were actually a blessing, by helping him to avoid overtraining.

Cuyler says he can't emphasize enough that when training for an Ironman-distance race, it is important "to have a clear understanding between your family and you, that once the race is over, your schedule will change."

"Most families can be understanding for six months," he said. "But not for six years."

In most cases, Cuyler says, six months is ample time to prepare for an Ironman-distance race.

Jay Hunter, 39, of Dana Point, Calif., agrees with Cuyler. Finishing the 1990 and 2000 Hawaii races with respectable 10:19 and 10:29 finishes, Hunter advises triathletes to "discuss your schedule with your family. Ask for a certain amount of time, then add that following [that], we'll do something everyone can enjoy."

"But," he adds, "an outing to the beach with the family shouldn't be your opportunity to do a two-mile ocean swim."

Sports psychologist C.J. Lockman Hall of Rockville, Md., agrees.

"One of an athlete's most valuable assets is their family, but don't forget to express your gratitude a simple 'thanks for supporting me' goes a long way."

"Don't forget to return the favor. Support your family members as they pursue their goals."

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