Training for a 70.3 or half IronMan was similar to training for my half marathon and Marathon. My first step was to register for a race to create the pressure I needed to train.
This race was Ironman Wiesbaden 70.3. As it had become my habit, I didn't check the course. The choice of event always came down to two things: a date that fit into my calendar and gave me sufficient time to train and a place that was interesting enough to entice my wife to agree.
Buying your first bike in triathlon is not straightforward. You think back to the last bike you bought and add 200 dollars. Wrong.
When you buy your first bike in triathlon prepare yourself for information overload. I can only liken it to shopping for our first baby; the fear is what gets you. You have to buy the best or else you are putting your baby (or triathlon) at risk.
Carbon bikes, frame size, fittings, wheels, power meters, manufacture, fittings. The list goes on and on. I learned very quickly that triathletes love gear and have a lot of disposable income. Frankly, it's overwhelming.
You always find that one person that helps you cut through the nonsense. They are usually older and more experienced. For me, it was an experienced Serpie. He told me about a UK company called Planet-X. You can get a great full carbon bike for 999 pounds. With the U.K. cycle to work scheme, I would end up paying less than 700 pounds for a full carbon bike. “That’s exactly what I will do," I responded.
A couple of weeks later, my bike arrived. She was beautiful and I named her Winona. I discovered that I needed to buy bike shoes that clipped into the pedals. This sounds easy in concept; you connect your shoes to the pedals so you can get more power from each pedal stroke. The problem is remembering that you need to “clip-out”.
“Accept that you will fall a couple of times. You will get the hang of it," a person from my club told me.
It just so happens that the first time I forgot how to clip out was while I was on the pedestrian crossing of the George Washington Bridge. If you ever need a heart-stopping adrenaline pounding experience, try riding over the George Washington Bridge clipped into your bike for the first time. I was riding fast, smoothing along, trying to get over the bridge as quickly as possible with the traffic to my left and the Hudson River to my right. The only thing protecting you on either side are barrier bars that don’t seem quite so high or protective when you’re up high on a bike. I don’t even like to be on bridges in a car, but on a bike, you feel much more vulnerable. Suddenly, I came upon a group of pedestrians that were mostly blocking the path. I slowed down to bypass them but couldn’t and ended up stopping. Instinctively, I made to drop my foot to the ground to hold me up. But both my feet were stuck in place. Immediately, I lost my balance and teetered to the right, bike and all. I was able to grab the barrier bar and steady myself but not before seeing my life flash before my eyes.
When I moved back to London, my real Ironman training began. I had no idea how to actually get ready for an ironman 70.3. I did what anyone else would do, I googled it. Navigating the training plans, books and sites made me anxious and confused. I then googled, “best triathlon coach London”
I emailed a number of them and one responded immediately with his terms and conditions. Something to the effect of:
“Here's how I work, I will send you an assessment. Once I understand a bit more about you, I will send you a training plan. You send me the results and we take it from there. email communication is part of the deal and if can call me once a week”
“When do we ride and train together?” I asked.
“We don't unless you attend one of my training camps which is additional”
This is not what I expected at all. He sent me a sample training week that contained words like “turbo, tempo, lactate threshold.”
This was not going to work out. I wanted the equivalent of “go run a mile.”
Luckily for me, the serpentine running club also had a triathlon club. I went to their website and they listed triathlon related sessions as well as beginner swimming sessions.
I decided they were great places to start.
The serpentine running club would leave from Roehampton gate every Sunday at 9am. I had no idea how to cycle from my new flat in Ealing to the start. Not wanting to risk it, I took a black cab with my bicycle to Roehampton gate. I later learned it is a short 20-minute bike ride from Ealing to Richmond park.
Roehampton cafe has dozens of cyclists on Sunday. the Serpies were gathered outside of the cafe waiting to leave.
“I’m Ahmad, I am here for the the “long ride” I said to one of the lycra clad riders.
I, on the other hand was wearing cargo shorts and a t-shirt. I couldn't bring myself to wear full body stockings. It looked ridiculous to me at the time.
The route that was being taking the day way the Surrey Three Hills. We immediately set of and were met with a hill in richmond park.
“Is this the first hill” I said to the rider next to me?
“hahaha” they responded thinking I was joking. I, of course, was not joking.
I found the hills torturous. I would sometimes grind to a halt on some parts.
“You guys just go on” I said towards the middle of the ride probably being a bit over dramatic.
“That's not the way it works” one of the Serpies replied,
“We will get you home” Another member yelled
I eventually got home and collapsed. I have been told that I should take an ice cold bath to speed up the recovery period. I opted for a hot bath and latte option.
These Sunday rides became a staple in my training. The hills became easier with time. One of the Serpies that led the riding was named Iron Mike. He had completed 10 Ironman and coached some of the Serpies.
He later became my coach. His simple, down to earth style suited me perfectly. I also was to ride and run with him.
One day after a ride, we started talking about gear.
“It's time we visit Sigma sports”, he said.
Sigma sports is the mecca for triathletes. It’s an expansive store that has everything triathlon and cycling. It is an adult male toy store for males with a lot of disposable income.
The store is overwhelming to the uninitiated. One look at the prices and I knew that it would not be a cheap visit.
“What do I need?” I asked mike
A bento box is a little box that sits just on your top tube that allows you to keep food and jells for your races. This is important as you race in a tri suit and not a cycle jersey which has large pockets in the back that can hold a laptop.
For the Tri suit, I went for 2XU. It was all black and I thought it would draw less attention to me. I tried them on and could not believe that I would be seen in public like this. The wet suits were a different story. They ranged from 100-800 pounds.
“What's the difference?” I would ask Mike.
"This one will make you 1 minutes faster over an ironman” he would respond.
“Is that all. it's ok, I don't mind being 1 minute slower.”
I bought the middle of the road everything thinking that I was not fast enough to justify any of the “elite gear”
In the future, whenever I veered away from this, I wasted time and money as I would learn years later in the lead up to my first Ultraman.
My training plan was incredibly simple and loosely based on Joe Friel's Periodization theory. (note: need to define this)
I did the majority of the runs and rides with the Serpies.
One day during the ride, a guy with a red beard and a big grin riding pink bike cycled next to me.
“Holy crap dude, you have huge triceps” he yelled at me.
“Thanks” I said, wondering if it was a come-on. We spoke for bit and then he cycled to the front of the group.
Later I mentioned him to mike.
“he isn't gay if that's what you are thinking. He is Danny and he is a great athlete” he said
I have since become friends with Danny Bent. He is one of the most “awesome” people I have ever encountered. He quit his job, rode his bicycle from London to the south of India by himself. Years later, he started an organization called Project “Awesome.” Three times a week hundreds of people descend on different parts of London to exercise, hug, dance and have fun at 6:30 in the morning. No matter how cold it is, he is wearing his short shorts and long red beard. He has tapped into a nerve. He has successfully made British people act more american and than americans. There seems to be a need for genuine community that is missing from people's lives and he has found a way to meet part of that need. He is making this world a better place.
During this time, I had to learn how to swim. When I say I didn't know how to to swim, I didn't know how to swim a single lap in a pool.
The Serpie website listed a beginner class on Tuesday and Thursday morning in the queen mother pool near Victoria station.
I showed up to the first class. I always hated pools. they whole experience intimidates me.
I was running late and quickly got ready and jumped into the pool with the other beginners.
“Who are you?” the instructor. She was an older woman with short grey hair.
“I’m Ahmad” I replied.
“Are you chewing gum in my pool” She snapped
“Yes, I’m sorry”
“Well get out of my pool”
I ran jumped out of the pool and ran back to the changing area. Only to realize it was the women's changing area.
This was not starting off well.
My instructor, Stephanie Ellis, subscribed to the total immersion school of swim teaching pioneered by Terry Laughlin. The fact that I didn't know how to swim turned out to be a good thing. I didn't have to unlearn bad habits, I just had to learn new habits.
Total immersion centers around three principles: balance, propulsion & streamlining. When watching an experienced practitioner; it seems like they are floating effortlessly in the water. It's almost magical. I, however looked like a wet dog struggling to make it back to land.
Rather than endless laps of front crawl, total immersion classes are drills based mean to teach the principles of balance propulsion & streamlining. For someone who fears the distance, these drill are frustrating but ultimately vital. The whole thing is very wax-on/wax-off.
Stephanie started with the basics; learn how to find your balance in the water. This involves learning to relax in the water. For someone who hates pools and was just thrown out of the pool only to find himself in the women's changing area, finding balance wasn't easy. I had an irrational fear of these types of swimming pools. When I was younger my father, who didn’t know how to swim, believed that the best way for me to learn how to swim was to throw me into the deep end. His logic did not pan out and I didn't step into a swimming pool for many years.
After an hour of drills, I couldn't balance. I was terrible and I could sense that Stephanie was getting frustrated.
Every class would consist of drills and then a main set. I would stay on after the class to practice the drills. My commitment caught Stephanie’s notice. She would peer over to the lane I was in and make a comment here and there.
The hardest lesson I had to learn was to let go and relax in the water.
After weeks of practice and finding my balance in the water we started working on forward propulsion. Total immersion teaches you to swim without the use of your legs. There is barely any kicking. You glide from side to side. When done right a person looks like poetry in motion. I was not very poetic.
Week after week I would practice until I could swim multiple laps without tiring;albeit at a glacial pace.
Eventually the day came when I would have to do what I was terrified of doing, swim in a lake.
Stephanie ran an open water swim session in a lake near Heathrow airport. We finally showed up and I put on my 2xu wetsuit for the first time. Putting on a wet suit for the first time is a ridiculous site and required practice. Taking it off is even more challenging. I learned from local triathletes that Bodyglide is your friend and long nails are your enemy.
After finally getting it on, I walked up to the dock where Stephanie was waiting.
“Wait, you are not going to go in the water?”
“Of course not” She said.
“What if I drown?” I said
“It's ok, I already have your money. Jump in” she said
I did just that. I jumped in and saw nothing but green water and plants. England is not known for its crystal clear water. Surprisingly, I floated straight to the top and just floated there with little energy. The wetsuit was magic. I wasn't going to die after all.
“Just swim from this buoy and come back.” She yelled.
“Ok” I responded.
The green murky water also had scuba divers. As I swam to the buoy and man looked up at me and waved. It was a scene out of a horror movie.
“Congratulations, you swam in a lake” She said sarcastically.
“Now swim around the lake twice” She said.
Eventually, I swam around the lake twice and was very pleased with myself. I was the slowest person there but as far as I was concerned I was Michael Phelps.
One triathlon rule of thumb is: If you have completed the distance for the swim, bike & run independently, you will be able to finish the triathlon. I had now completed all three disciplines for an olympic distance triathlon: 1.5km swim 40km run & 10 km run.
I agreed with Mike that I would do the Steelman triathlon in Dorney lake near windsor castle. It was a popular race with the local triathletes and the perfect place get my feet wet. It was an hours drive from my house so not too taxing on the family.
Steelman Triathlon (Dorney Lake)
The Steelman Triathlon is set in a 2012 Olympic rowing venue. Dorney lake is an intimidating site as you drive down a the seemingly endless length of the man-made lake.
My anxiety and nerves cause me to empty my system before any race. Once this happens I feel instantly better. The only issue is that most athletes have the same routine.
Tip: always bring a wet wipe with you. It’s a curious thing, many baby “things” work well for endurance athletes: Diaper rash cream for saddle sores, baby food, and wet wipes.
I decided to hang back and let all the fast swimmers go first. The fast swimmers had waded too far forward and were called back. All of a sudden I was in the front. Rather than make my way to the back, I thought, “hey, this might force me to swim faster” and I remained where I was.
This proved to be a dumb idea. They don’t call this the human blender for nothing.
The horn sounded and I was crushed in the onslaught of strong swimmers. I was pushed down into the cold, murky water. People were literally swimming right over me. It was impossible to come up for breath, I just kept snorting water. I don’t even know how many times I was kicked in the face.
When I finally caught my breath, I was wading alone with the herd of swimmers ahead of me.
A paddler came to me as I floated there dazed and asked me if I wanted to quit.
“No, I will go on”
After that I put my head down and started swimming.
“hey, what are you doing!!” Screamed the paddler
Sighting, or learning how to look ahead while swimming is a vital skill you learn when you swim in the open water. It was a skill I had not learned.
It won’t come as a surprise that I was last out of the water that day. After dragging myself out of the water, I was wobbly, confused, and light headed. My body needs time to adjust from being horizontal to vertical. I get light headed during this time.
I never have trouble finding my bike at these events. It's usually either the last one or one of the remaining few. I found my bike and heard my family scream. They had been waiting for me at the bike transition area.
“hurry, hurry, baba. you are in last place!” Yusuf yelled
After transition, I started the bike ride. Once on the bike, the race was over as far I was concerned. No matter how long the rest would take it would be ok, the hardest part was over.
Other than finding my bike easily, being last out of the water has other benefits. I spent the next two and a half hours over taking people. It was actually fun. Overtaking people became a staple in my future races. I would focus on nothing else other than the person in front of me until I overtook them.
I had survived my first triathlon. More importantly, I had learned a lot. I would take this learning into my main race for the year, Ironman Wiesbaden.
Ironman Wiesbaden 70.3 was set in Wiesbaden Germany. It was my first Ironman branded event. Ironman is owned by the world triathlon organization. The M-Dot is one of the few company logos that people permanently tattoo on their bodies.
“are you going to get a an m-dot tattoo” after you complete the race is something you regularly hear.
“Well, after I finish a full, I might get one.” some say
“If I finish Kona, I will get an m-dot tattoo.” other's reply
It’s a badge of honor that people want to permanently wear on their bodies. Such is the following that Ironman enjoys. People who are into ironman, have the m-dot everywhere. Once you complete a race you are part of a tribe. Being part of the tribe allows you to go up to anyone else with an m-dot tattoo or t-shirt and strike up a conversation.
The setup was unlike anything I had seen. Wiesbaden was transformed. It was no longer a small town in Germany, it was a town owned by Ironman and its citizens were tattooed people who walked around in compression tights, drinking weird colored liquids and wearing very loud sunglasses. There were Ironman 70.3 posters hung up everywhere. One still hangs in my living room today.
Walking around the ironman expo, I had neither cool sun glasses, compression tights or brightly colored liquids. The expo has a strange power to separate you from your money.
Yusuf and I went to the pre-race pasta party. Having him with me was brilliant. I didn't have to the awkward i’m alone puppy routine but also Yusuf has no problem talking to anyone. Being homeschooled he doesn't have the “be quiet and sit down” drilled into him and he is not intimidated by adults.
“That is Faris Al-Sultan, he won Kona” I told Yusuf. Faris Al Sultan was famous for being a strong rider, but also for racing in what looks like a bikini bottom and sports bra.
“No way baba, that so cool” he said excitedly
Before I knew it, Yusuf was hanging out with Faris and the other pros. It was a fun night and Yusuf made it fun.
After a sleepless night, I woke up and took the bus ride to the race check in.
I had learned a lot from the Steelman debacle and would apply it here:
- Stand at the back of the swim
- I learned an easy technique for siting called turtle head
- I created a counting routine. Count from 1-8 then sight
I emerged from the lake in much better shape than Steelman but still at the back of the bunch.
Having not studied the course, I did not know how hilly Wiesbaden was. It had steep climbs and steep descents. Training in the surrey hills had prepared me for the hills. What I was not prepared for were the german roads. They were pristine. People would descend at spends over 70km per hour. I had my hands firmly on the brakes slowing me down.
“Get out of the way!” shouted a lady flying down in her aero bars.
I needed to learn to descend like that German lady. But for now I was still scared.
It was a very hot day and the run was 4 loops. I love loops because I get to see my family 4 times. As a tired athlete, seeing your family is better than any gel.
I finished my goal for the year and would be able to finally enjoy Germany which is an incredibly beautiful scenic country. I recovered in the hot salt baths of Wiesbaden. Later, we headed to the Black Forest and Lake Constance.