The Ironman triathlon is no joke. The race consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike course and a complete marathon (26.2 miles) to be completed within 17 hours in order to finish the event. It is, indeed, a very long journey and it takes a dedicated individual to train day in and day out. But in the end, Ironman triathletes know it’s worth the sacrifice.
I wanted to find out more about this highly competitive and super-charged sport, so I spoke with Pam Kallio, a veteran triathlete, who will be competing in her 13th Ironman race this month in Tempe, Arizona. The Ironman Arizona has been in Arizona since 2005 and is a qualifier for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
The triathlon starts with the swim in Tempe Town Lake. The bicycle portion of the triathlon takes competitors on a three-loop course that starts in Tempe and zig-zags out to the Beeline Highway, which gradually climbs approximately 10 miles through the Sonoran Desert to the turnaround just before Shea Boulevard, ending up back at Tempe Beach Park. Then the competitors run a course set up around Tempe Town Lake and Papago Park. This year Ironman Arizona race is being held on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013.
Now that you know what these athletes are up against, let’s get down to business and see what it’s like to prepare for the ultimate race, the Ironman.
What sparked your interest in triathlons? How long have you been competing?
Pam: I always wanted to run a marathon and in the past I trained on and off for years, but I was really busy with my day job and it got in the way of training. I finally ran one in 2000. It was the Hops Marathon in Tampa, Florida. This marathon was on an Air Force Base, and it was just a straight path with no shade or spectators. It was the most boring thing in the world. I had it built up to be this glorious event and it was so boring. On the way home, I stopped at a bike shop and picked up a cycling magazine and started to get into swimming as well, with a girlfriend of mine who swam competitively, I was 47 and never really swam much before and I wouldn’t put my face in the water, but I wanted to do this.
The marathon was in December 2000, and my first sprint triathlon was in May 2001, after that I was hooked.
Now, I’ve competed in over 100 triathlons and have 12 Ironman finishes and I’ve also competed in each of the sports individually- cycling, running, mountain biking and swimming.
I used to be intimidated by people just wearing the Ironman logo, but now it’s my favorite race.
How many months/years of training did it take to prepare for an Ironman Triathlon?
Pam: A year from when I picked up the magazine. I did my first triathlon in May 2001, and my first Ironman in June 2002.
Why do most people compete in triathlons?
Pam: Oh it’s for a variety of reasons. The sport has grown tremendously popular in the last five years. It’s the Ironman. Maybe it’s on your bucket list, some people do it for their health, others in honor of relative, or for the journey you take. You find out a lot about yourself, will you quit, how far will you go? Some people get really hooked, like me. They love the competitive aspect of the sport.
“When you cross the finish line it’s like nothing else, the most tremendous feeling in the world. You know what it’s cost to get there.”
The crowd is like no other, and it’s amazing to watch the finishers cross the line. The last people to finish are the cancer survivors, the people in their 70s, the stories are just really touching. It’s hard not to tear up or get goose bumps when the announcers tell you to cheer on so and so, and the crowd goes wild for these competitors.
You’ve competed in Ironman races in St. Croix, New Orleans, Arizona, Florida and most likely others. Which location has been your favorite and why?
Pam: I don’t have a favorite; each race has its own personality. I really like competing in Lubbock, Texas, it’s called the IRONMAN 70.3 Buffalo Springs Lake and I love it because of the people who host the race. Marty and Mike Greer are tremendous hosts who put on the race. They invite you into their community, into their home, if you forgot something, you are completely taken care of.
There’s also an ocean swim in Florida that is pretty amazing and the weather is always perfect in Panama City. I loved being a part of the Inaugural Arizona race in 2005 and I loved racing in St. Croix, it’s just so beautiful racing on an island. Every place you go you get the personality of the town and the people.
How beneficial is it to the athlete to train in the same weather conditions as the race?
Pam: Very, very, very beneficial, if possible, and with similar terrain. When I lived in Florida, everything is flat so training could be better. Now I live in Tucson and it has lots of hills and it’s really great for training. The hardest issues to deal with are extremely hot and dry climates and places with higher elevation.
There are usually training camps where athletes can go to train in the appropriate weather conditions and terrain before the race.
Do you think the Arizona climate is good for the Ironman Triathlon? Are some IM locations more desirable than others?
Pam: Yes, I live here I think it’s perfect. Depending on the time of year, it’s perfect, in May or June it’s getting hot, but spring and fall is perfect for racing here.
Certainly there are preferable locations, based on weather variants.
The Ironman races are usually scheduled for the time of year that weather is stable in that particular city. Some are more desirable because of the venue.
I understand that people travel from all over the world for the Ironman Arizona. Why do you think it has such a strong following?
Pam: Tempe is one of the most spectator-friendly venues, they get to see their athlete on the course many times because the course loops. At some Ironman locations, your family may only get to see you during the transitions. It’s really important to have support from your family during the race, the longer the distance the more you need family support.
The Ironman Arizona is also an early qualifier for the Hawaii Kona World Championship in October. So athletes strategically pick the races for best chance for a slot in their age group.
Also in Arizona, the weather is perfect for family vacations; some places already have snow where they may live, so racers usually bring their families along for a minivacation. This is also a fast course, it’s much preferred over very hilly or technical course.
It’s a week before your race. Walk me through your mental state and how you prepare leading up to the big day. What goes through your mind during the race? Do you have a mantra or repeat a phrase- what tactics help you power through the distance?
Pam: Well the race can last from 9 to 17 hours and that’s a long time. Everything conceivable will go through your mind, there will be moments where you just keep going like your flying on a cloud, it’s phenomenal, but throughout the race you will have aches and pains. If something is hurting, it’s best not to focus on it because 5 minutes later something else will hurt and a few minutes later something else will feel good.
You have to get through that moment, catch your breath and then there’s another challenge to face.
I try not to think ahead, not look back, just live in that moment in time, keeping your mind clear and when you finally get there, it’s a phenomenal feeling.
I tell my athletes, have a mantra, and when you’re in a bad place mentally that’s what the mantra is for. The brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Distract it from the pain for that moment.
Staying positive is really the most important thing, just focus on what your doing and don’t allow any negative thoughts while you’re in this zone.
You always have more physically in the tank than your mind thinks you have.
What is the first thing you want to do when you finish the Ironman race?
Pam: I always look around for my husband at the finish line. I want a hug and also sit down and take my shoes off. I recover for a few minutes, and then I’m ravenous. I want greasy pizza and everything unhealthy! I’m soooo hungry after the race. I also like to watch others cross the finish line and hear their stories.
What is your best time or PR- Personal Record?
Pam: For a Half Ironman 5:55 and a full Ironman 12:07.
What advice do you give to your clients before their first race?
Pam: For their first Ironman, just to relax and enjoy the experience. You have to do one before you can race one. It’s a journey, the training, the people you meet, what you learn from others and about yourself. Enjoy the entire experience. If you’re too tense you’re not going to race well anyways. Make a memory out of it.
The Ironman motto is, “As long as your moving forward you’re doing ok.”
Some people like to workout to relax, but it seems as though working out would also be a big part of your career. How do you like to spend your downtime?
Pam: In this part of training (three weeks out), there really is no downtime.
I watch TV for about two or three hours a week. I’ll read for 15 minutes before bed and go to sleep. I love training. I’m a morning person. I like to be out there early in the morning it’s peaceful and it’s a nice break from the hubbub of life.
Three weeks out: The last six weeks have really been intense. This weekend is my last hard weekend, and then I’ll taper down with a shorter distance, but just as intense. I need to recuperate and soak in the training, like a race horse, work hard before race and then stay super healthy leading up to race day.
I’ve already peaked for the race, and the taper is part of the training process.
Do you have any advice for someone training for a race of their own that may not be as intense as the Ironman, but I am- I mean they are having trouble staying motivated, what would you tell someone in my sit- or their situation?
Pam: Get a coach. There’s no reason not to have one. I’m a level two triathlon and cycling coach and I went to my boss for coaching to give me the edge for Kona. Also it’s smart to get a good training partner.
If you have a coach or a partner, you have a purpose. I didn’t want to ride my bike in the cold this morning, but I knew my boss would ask me about it and I didn’t want to let him down.
If you need an amazing coach for your next triathlon, get in touch with Pam Kallio! www.trik2kalliokoaching.com