How Ironman Taught Me the Value of Health, Perseverance, Community, & Toilet Paper
Quarantine does things to you - Like bad haircuts
My kids call the Coronavirus the “Kona” virus. I could chalk it up to the fact that they don’t have great command of the English language yet, but I suspect their mother may have planted this seed. Some day when I qualify and I’m pleading with her to allow me to race the World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, my children will burst into tears. “Daddy, don’t go to Kona! We don’t want you to get the Kona virus!”
Too late. I’ve had the Kona virus for the better part of ten years. Yes, the insatiable desire to do Ironmans and triathlons is an infection. Or at the very least, an addiction. An all-powerful vortex that keeps sucking me in. Once the desire grabs hold, there’s not much you can do to stop it. My wife has tried. Many times.
Now coronavirus has done what my wife has been unable to do. Races have been canceled. Gyms are closed. Tracks and pools are locked. Kids are home from school and parents are trying to teach math problems they don’t understand themselves.
Many athletes have had to adjust their 2020 plans. I have tried my best to adapt. It’s not the same, but there is a silver lining: newfound time to reflect on Ironman lessons learned that are serving me well during this period of forced isolation.
For example, most people are only recently learning the value of toilet paper. I discovered its unacquainted necessity at mile seven of the bike leg during Ironman Lake Placid in 2018. Stomach issues are not an uncommon feature of Ironman races, and I began having serious problems around mile six.
Just as the dam was about to burst, I came to a blessed Porta Potty. I thanked God for delivering this gray box that smelled like a rotting whale corpse.
I pulled my pants down, crouched and felt as an airplane must when it dumps extra fuel to lighten its load so it can complete its trip. Relieved, I reached for the toilet paper. There was none left. At this moment I would have traded the deed to my house and given my first-born son for a few squares so I didn’t have to ride the next 100 miles in wet, sticky stink.
Yes I know the desperation of looking for that soft cottony comfort and not being able to find it. I carry those scars like a child of the Depression who possesses a vast fortune but still drives a twenty-year-old car. My pantry is always stocked with a nonsensical amount of Cottonelle.
The other thing ingrained in me from training for colossal races is how to stay healthy for the big day. I live with three perpetual petri dishes I lovingly call my children, and it’s an Augean task fending off every disease they bring home from daycare and school. When your cute little snot machines are sick, good luck fending off the contagion, because socially distancing yourself from a toddler is a hundred times harder than finishing an Ironman.
Getting sick a few months ahead of the race is one thing. It sets your training back, but you have time to recover. Getting sick the week of a race is a disaster.
After six months of getting up at 5 a.m. every day to swim, bike, and run endless miles, your body is exhausted and your immune system is vulnerable. This is the time to take every precaution. The two weeks leading up to an Ironman, I spend more money on Zicam and Airborne than on running shoes.
Here are five things I do to stay healthy in the weeks leading up to an Ironman race that can be put into practice during this pandemic:
Get enough sleep. When your body is worn down from activity or stress, sleep is the best gift you can give it to rejuvenate and refresh. Go to bed early. Set a time every night. Save that last episode of Ozark for the next night. When the baby or three-year-old wakes up at 3 am, you’ll be glad you did.
Take a multivitamin, zinc, probiotics, fish oil, Airborne, Zicam, elderberry, and echinacea. I’ve been popping those like Cadbury Easter candies for the past four weeks.
Eat (and drink) healthy. Lots of veggies, like spinach, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli. Fresh, clean foods – meaning less processed junk foods. Drink a lot of water or electrolyte drinks. Pack your diet with ant-inflammatory foods and spices like blueberries, salmon, green tea, turmeric, cinnamon, and cocoa.
Get outside. Go for a run or a walk. Breath the fresh air, smell the honeysuckle, listen to the robin sing. It’s good for the soul and the body.
Cut or limit sugar, sweets, fried foods, and alcohol.
I admit, I have needed alcohol to get me through the homeschooling routine. Oh, how I’ve needed it. But I’ve tried to limit my consumption to one glass of wine or bottle of beer a day.
Another thing Ironman has taught me is perseverance. When you get in that water at 7 a.m. to start the race, you know you have a long day ahead of you. And when you’re 100 miles in and you’re exhausted and your body is screaming, you learn to focus on just putting one foot in front of the other.
That’s it. We have a long day ahead of us, and we have to focus on getting through that day one task at a time. Just keep swimming. One foot in front of the other. I know most of us are exhausted already, but eventually we’ll get to the finish line. As Churchill said, when you’re going through hell, keep going.
The last thing I’ve learned from Ironman is the importance of community.
The Ironman support network is much like the neighbors and nurses, teachers and grocery workers, delivery drivers and first responders comforting us, supporting us, propping us up, and helping us get through this latest challenge.
It’s your very, very understanding spouse and family who put up with your nonsense throughout the year and then on race weekend serve as Sherpas and take care of all the logistics of lodging and meals and transportation and kids so you can focus on the race.
It’s the friends who mock you for shaving your legs or pump you up when you’re feeling unprepared to keep you loose and your mind positive.
It’s the bands and fans along the route who play Eye of the Tiger and cheer you on just when you need a boost.
It’s the volunteers who touch things no human should have to touch, keep you safe, and provide you with fuel, direction, sunscreen, and encouragement
It’s the hundreds of medical personnel and massage therapists who make sure delirious, dehydrated athletes are safe and calm screaming muscles.
And it’s the family with the baby who saw that you were distressed about not having toilet paper and gave you a package of baby wipes so you could have a clean undercarriage for the next hundred miles.
I can’t wait to see my community when races resume. I miss them. In the meantime, I’ll keep riding my stationary bike in the basement and running at acceptable social distances so I’m ready for races in the Fall, or next year, or whenever they return.