An IRONMAN's Fall From Grace

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After I explained what an IRONMAN was to a friend, he replied, "that's a long way."

At the time I thought his simple response was funny, but it's true: Completing a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run all in the same day is a long, long way. What most people don't understand, though, is the countless hours of training, planning and preparation that go into such an undertaking. It's not simply jumping on a bike and pedaling for 140.6 miles. It's physically and mentally exhausting.

Let me preface this by saying I'm nowhere near a professional athlete, just someone who enjoys the process and likes pushing myself and completing my goals. I consider myself a cyclist first and a triathlete second, but sometime during 2013, I decided to register for IRONMAN Arizona.

At the time, I was a grad student at the University of Southern California, and I was balancing school, an internship, a girlfriend, family and friends. Nothing extreme--I figured I had more time than the average 9-to-5ers, so this would be a great chance to give IRONMAN a shot.

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After clicking the "register now" button, my mindset shifted. Training wasn't a question mark, but written in permanent ink on my desk calendar. Century rides, long runs and fatigue consumed my weekends. And a swim, a bike ride or a run filled any open gaps in my weekday schedule.

Luckily, I didn't start training from scratch--I was still enjoying my fitness from a 70.3 race earlier in the year. Once IRONMAN training started ramping up, I got into a routine and really enjoyed it. I had little free time, but seeing the physical progression was rewarding. Waking up early, training and going to bed early became normal. I even began feeling guilty if I had to miss a session. My mind and body were completely engaged.

I showed up to the start line in the shape of my life, nervous but confident. I was slightly injured after dealing with a reoccurring shin-splint issue, but I was ready for the swim and the bike. The start felt like any other triathlon, just amplified by 3,000 people. With so many athletes, volunteers and spectators, it was organized chaos, but there was stillness and a level of anticipation in the air you couldn't ignore.

After 13 long hours, I crossed the finish line. I was beyond ecstatic at the accomplishment and sad it was over (sort of). I was also slightly disappointed with my time, but apparently it was the windiest IRONMAN Arizona on record. Excuses aside, I was happy just crossing the finish line and hearing Mike Reilly say my name.

The next day something snapped; it was immediate. I no longer HAD to train. It was a foreign concept, and after almost a year of training, I could eat whatever I wanted and do whatever I wanted.

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Simply put: It was great. I rekindled neglected friendships, and my girlfriend was much happier being once again more important than my bike.

I redefined the phrase "recovery period," and didn't do a serious swim, bike or run for more than two months. Once I finally showed up to a Saturday shop ride, I was a shell of my iron-self. I went from leading the ride to bringing up the rear. Six months after finishing, I had literally swum twice. I wasn't able to get my head in the game.

I gave my IRONMAN everything I had, and I left feeling drained and uninspired. Now when I swim, ride or run, I compare my current fitness to my IRONMAN fitness and become discouraged at my lack of ability. It became a downward spiral into mediocrity and stagnancy. I never realized the pivotal role your mindset plays in your triathlon success.

Only recently, more than six months after crossing the finish line, have I started training again. It's been irregular, but I've learned one thing: maintaining fitness doesn't mean I have to train for an IRONMAN. It's important to remember what drew me to triathlon in the first place--the fun, the people and simply feeling healthy. At the end of the day, it's just swimming, biking and running.

I know there will be more Iron-distance triathlons in my future, but I'll approach them differently next time. A healthy mindset is just as important as a healthy body.