A couple of months ago I went to support my friend Greg in his first full Ironman competition and I was completely blown away. The sheer guts and dedication it takes to endure such a challenge is outstanding. Watching him was so inspirational and I was instantly motivated – which was great timing as my own fitness journey had been somewhat stagnant lately.
I instantly wanted to interview Greg to find out more about his journey & training and was pleasantly surprised to find out he had even completed this challenge whilst reducing his meat intake – a big thumbs up from me!!
So make yourself a cup of tea, get comfy and discover what goes in to becoming an Ironman below…
What was your main motivation to become an Ironman? Do you have a sporting background?
In 2012 I started my own business and as I was going to be working from home a lot of the time. I decided to start running so that I wouldn’t be spending hours and hours in the house. In school I played a lot of sport up until the age of about 15, and I was a half decent cross country runner.
I started out running small routes near to where I lived. Initially just a few kilometres, and one day I set myself the challenge of running 10k. It wasn’t an organised race or anything, I just headed out the door with the aim of clocking up 10 kilometres, the furthest I’d ever ran. I did it, and it felt amazing. I think it took me nearly an hour but at the time I thought I’d achieved something huge. I think I even phoned my Mum as soon as I’d finished to tell her!
During the summer of 2012 it was the London Olympics. This was the first time I’d really paid attention to it and was hugely inspired. A friend said I should do the London Marathon which at first I dismissed as crazy. I was however intrigued to see what I was capable of and so I entered a local 14 mile cross country race. I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. I remember turning up and seeing that everybody had these weird ‘gel’ looking things and thinking to myself, maybe I need some of those!? I had absolutely no nutrition with me to last a 14 mile race, it’s pretty funny looking back. It was really, really tough, but I finished the event and from that point on I was hooked. Towards the end of 2012, I set my sights on the marathon.
In 2013 I did the London Marathon in the Spring, followed by the Amsterdam Marathon in the Autumn. I was initially training 4 days a week for London, and then upped that to 5 days a week for Amsterdam. That was my first year of taking things a bit more seriously and I was having an amazing time discovering a brand new lifestyle and living far more healthily than I ever had before. One of the things that I most enjoyed that year was breaking boundaries. The first time you run 10 miles, the first time you run more than 10 miles, the first time you run 20 miles etc. I started to realise that with time, patience, and most importantly the correct training plan, anything was possible.
Before I’d even completed the Amsterdam Marathon, I knew my next goal would be triathlon. How this came about I can’t quite remember. The Brownlee brothers were big news at the 2012 Olympics so I think that must have sparked my interest initially. I may have had some vague notion of what Triathlon was prior to that, but I think it was the Olympics that really brought triathlon to my attention. Somewhere along the lines I came across long distance triathlon and IRONMAN. After realising that I was capable of a great deal more than I ever thought possible, IRONMAN looked like the ultimate challenge.
Most people think about the physical aspects of an Ironman but what about the mental side of things? Did you find one harder than the other?
The mental side of things is important for all endurance racing, but when you move to extreme distances like IRONMAN, the mental aspect becomes hugely important. Obviously you need the physical capability to cover the distance, but how you handle things mentally can make a massive difference to your performance, and to your enjoyment of the event.
It’s a crazy long way and so you can’t think of it all in one go or it just becomes too much to process and will only increase any natural fear or anxiety you may be feeling. You need to break the day down into different stages in your mind. Before IRONMAN UK, just as I was going to sleep, my wife said something that stuck with my all throughout the race. She said “just take it piece by piece”. So that’s exactly what I did. I kept that mantra of “piece by piece” in my mind, just like I was building a jigsaw puzzle, putting one piece down at a time as I made forward progress.
The mental aspect really becomes key during the run. This is the toughest part of any triathlon race, and it’s where the hurt really starts. You have to be able switch off the mental dialog or narrative that inevitably goes through your mind. Your thoughts will tell you “this hurts”, “there’s so far to go”, “I want to stop” etc. You need to be able to quiet your mind, and focus on the present moment. I’ve been doing a lot of meditation over the last few months using the Headspace app and in the run up to IRONMAN UK I did some really interesting race specific meditations in the 10 days leading up to the event. I think this made a really big difference and it’s something I’ll definitely be continuing with.
It may sound a bit sombre, but with all endurance sports and particularly IRONMAN, it’s all about learning to suffer. Once you learn to deal with it, and you push through that suffering, that is where the feeling of achievement and accomplishment waits. For many including myself, the suffering holds something quiet special and it’s not necessarily a negative feeling. It’s not something the majority of people will ever feel, but I think absolutely everybody would benefit from it.
I always say ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ – how did you prepare to take on such an epic challenge?
That could not be more true with triathlon. Preparation is absolutely essential. You need to prepare well in training, prepare well for the complex logistics of the event itself, and also have a well planned strategy for the race in terms of the specific demands of the course (they vary a lot), nutrition, hydration, pacing and effort. It’s a lot!
What you eat and drink over the course of 140 miles is so important, and it’s something that has to be practised in training. It takes time to experiment and tweak. I think this season I’ve gotten much closer to what works well for me, but there’s still work to be done. It’s so individual, you need to take time to get to learn your body, and what it needs on race day. I doubt anybody ever gets it completely right.
I’ve been racing 70.3 (half IRONMAN) since 2014. I waited until I’d completed six 70.3 distance races before taking on a full 140 mile IRONMAN. Many people do the full distance as their first triathlon, but I wanted to wait until I had more experience, my swim had improved and I was ready to give it everything. The cut off time varies depending on the course, but generally you have around 17 hours to completed the event. A lot of people go with the goal of finishing within the cut off. I knew I could do that a long time ago, so I wanted to wait until I could get round as fast as I possibly could.
I train 6 days a week, and have a coach who assigns all of my training sessions for me. Training for triathlon takes up a lot of your spare time, and so not having to worry about what you’re supposed to do and when is a massive bonus. All I have to do is get out and put the work in for the sessions I’ve been given. I train year round, through all seasons. Consistency is the key to improvement.
Describe an average week of training for you?
My training load changes depending on where we are in the year. Winter training during the off season is very different to the kind of training I’d be doing in the build up to an event. To give you an idea of what I was doing to get ready for IRONMAN UK, here is the last solid week of training I did before the big day.
Monday – Rest Day
Tuesday – Bike 2 hours (2 x 20 mins hard intervals) followed by 20 mins easy run
Wednesday – Swim (6 x 100m high intensity) x 3
Thursday AM – Swim (15 x 100m high intensity) plus 2 x 400m easy
Thursday PM – Run 55 mins easy
Friday – Run 90 mins (to include 6 mins hard followed by 2 mins easy x 5)
Saturday – Bike 2 hours 30 mins (3 x 30 mins hard intervals) followed by 20 mins easy run
Sunday – Bike 2 hours 30 mins (mix of high cadence / low resistance and low cadence high resistance intervals)
That was a peak week of around 11 hours of training.
And your diet?
Since the start of the year I’ve tried as much as possible to remove meat from my diet. That presented a challenge in terms of the amount of protein I was taking in. I met with a nutritionist who helped me with some ideas as to how I could ensure I get enough protein. I try to include grains and pulses as much as possible. Chickpea Dahl is probably my favourite meal to cook at the moment. Lots of eggs too. I add Pulsin Pea Protein to porridge in the morning. I also make fruit smoothies using things like mango, summer berries and coconut milk with a big portion of the pea protein to have after morning training sessions. It’s still something I’m experimenting with.
You’re a busy man, with a career, wife and social life to juggle – how did you fit your training into this? I presume you had to make a lot of sacrifices here…
Weeks like the example above can be tough, and as race week approaches and the training load goes up it can be a lot to fit in. I find getting sessions done early in the morning before work makes life a lot easier. You have to be organised and do things like have bags packed and ready the night before to reduce the amount of faffing around at 6am. Sometimes though it’s just not possible. It all depends on how early you get to bed, and how good a nights sleep you get. Sometimes I struggle to drag myself out of bed. I find with training in the evenings it’s useful to have meals already cooked and in the freezer, or prepare things in batches like chopped vegetables already sorted so you can just chuck things in a pan. Sometimes I might finish training around 7:30pm or later and it’s great to have a simple meal to cook so you still get some of your evening to relax. Even though I’m highly motivated, I don’t hit every single session all of the time. Sometimes life or work just has to come first.
I’m also self employed and often work form my home office, so if I do need to train in the evenings often I can jump on it straight away at 5pm and not have to worry about a commute home. Equally I can start work late if I need to get a long session done in the morning, so I’m lucky in that regard.
With 6 half Ironmans and one full Ironman under your belt, do you see yourself completing more?
A full IRONMAN takes a lot from you physically, before and after the event, and it can become a bit all consuming. I don’t think I’d do more than one full distance in a year. Racing 70.3 is a much simpler affair, so I’ll likely be doing more of those than I do the full distance. This season I will have done two 70.3’s and one full distance and that’s quite a good balance.
Do you have a favourite discipline in the sport? Why?
This is a tricky question and one I get asked a lot. I come from a running background so running feels very natural to me and something I hugely enjoy. But I’ve also grown to love swimming. There really is nothing like swimming in open water on a bright sunny morning, it’s incredible. Equally cycling (when the weather is right) is also something I really enjoy. The feeling of putting the power down and moving really fast is awesome. I think the reason I love triathlon is the variety. Each sport is so different that it keeps things interesting.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone starting out their triathlon journey, what would it be?
People come to triathlon for all sorts of different reasons and with very different goals. Whether you’re goal is to qualify for the worlds championship in Hawaii or to finish your local sprint, I think one of the most important things is to remember is to have fun. Triathlon is arguably one of the toughest sports around and training for 3 different sports is really demanding. It can be easy to loose focus of why you’re doing it.
Has Greg inspired you to start your own fitness journey? Or even an Ironman challenge? Let us know in the comments below.