When filmmaker Zeppelin Zeerip, 26, first told me he wanted to complete a DIY Ironman—overnight, and without any training—I had my reservations. Actually, I had an opinion: This was a terrible idea that, at the very least, would lead to prolonged discomfort; and, at the worst, an injury.
I’m allowed to think this. I’m dating him.
Besides that, I respect distance. I’m a runner with several ultra-marathons under my belt. I herald electrolyte mix as the elixir of life. I know that completing an Ironman—swimming 2.4 miles, riding 112, and running a marathon—is a lifetime goal of hardcore endurance athletes, not a nonchalant act of whimsy just to fill a Saturday.
True, Zeppelin (yes, that is his birth name) is a naturally gifted athlete: He’s a sponsored snowboarder, and he’s summited plenty of peaks. But he doesn’t “train.” This is a guy who (prior to this) had never swam more than a few hundred yards, never ran more than 15 miles, and only bikes around town to do errands on his fixie.
So why take on an iron-distance triathlon—especially one that you didn’t register, pay, or plan for? In short, Zeppelin enjoys a challenge. And when he gets an idea that he likes the sound of, he’s not letting it go until it’s a reality.
But he can explain it better than me. Here’s Zeppelin’s account of his mission, from start to finish.
6:00 p.m. Friday, August 3
Salt Lake City, Utah
I have a lot of badass athletic friends, and I originally wanted to do a DIY “off-the-ottoman” (because we were too fit to honestly call it the “couch”) Ironman with them just to have a spicy summer adventure, and do something way out of the weekend-warrior ballpark. It’d been awhile since I took on a big objective, and I wanted to prove to myself that I still could. But everyone turned me down with an intelligent “F*ck no.”
So I put the idea on the back burner. But when I found myself bored with no weekend plans one Friday in August, I told my girlfriend Lauren, “I’m gonna do it tomorrow.”
I Googled “Ironman race prep 24 hours,” only to discover I was six, maybe 12, months behind on training. I also read that nutrition is the most crucial component for finishing. So I went and had a cheeseburger and a peanut butter-chocolate shake from a local brewery (I did skip the beer because I figured I’d save that for the post-event celebration). After dinner, I designed a route on Google Maps: I’d do the 2.4-mile swim by repeating laps of Mirror Lake, about 30 miles outside of the city; then ride 112 miles of mountain passes from Mirror Lake to my house in Salt Lake; and finish with 26.2 miles of running on the city streets. I’d start in the evening and do most of it overnight, to avoid traffic on the bike ride and the sweltering August heat on the marathon. And I’d still have some time to recover before reporting back to the office on Monday morning.
My plan laid out, I tried to get some sleep. The Internet also said rest is important.
11:00 a.m. Saturday, August 4
Salt Lake City
Despite not training, stretching, or even owning a legitimate road bike, I honestly thought an Ironman would be relatively easy. I’ve lived in the mountains more than half of my life, and my weekends are spent completing big missions in the backcountry—traversing ridgeline linkups and splitboarding. When you know the pain of doing a 5,000-foot climb in the snow, at elevation, you figure you can tolerate the upper thresholds of discomfort.
I used the daytime to prepare. First I went to the farmer’s market to buy my body weight in peaches. I eat a lot of peaches. Then I borrowed my friend Drake’s road bike. He also kitted me out with bibs and a few bike lights.
Lauren patiently coached me about why salt tabs are crucial, and I begrudgingly bought two tubes of Nuun tablets instead of one (later I’d be thankful I didn’t save that seven dollars). I also bought four Honey Stinger waffles and four ProBars. A trip to the grocery store rounded out my “nutrition” with a bag of beef jerky, two PB&J sandwiches, two bananas, three donuts, and an Odwalla smoothie. I’d eat it all.
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Mirror Lake, Uinta Mountains, Utah
My understanding of a traditional Ironman swim is that it’s a mass start where you get kicked in the face and otherwise violently assaulted. That didn’t sound too appealing, especially since my swimming fitness consisted of paddling my surfboard when I have the chance to visit the West Coast. So I was glad to share Mirror Lake with just a few fisherman and paddleboarders, as well as Lauren and my roommate/friend, Sean Ryan, who were following me in a canoe with Strava running, and a tow rope (just in case).
I had a wetsuit, but not being a swimmer, I forgot to bring a nose plug and goggles. And my form? It consisted of a spastic front crawl broken up by interludes of backstroke, and one abysmal attempt at a breastroke.
After 1:51:52, I crawled out of the lake. It was getting dark. I was cold, and suddenly not so excited for my 112-mile solo overnight ride. To cheer myself up, I approached a man grilling at a nearby campsite with his family, wearing a .45 pistol on his hip, as one does. I asked if they had any s’mores to share. I did not get one.
Somewhere in the High Uintas Wilderness
After my leisurely 15-minute transition, I felt more ready for the bike than I probably looked. I had never ridden with butt pads before—I was very excited about this new experience—and I wore my trail running shoes over my flat pedals.
I had mapped a mostly flat course (as much that’s possible in the mountains—there was still 4,691 feet of climbing). Within two miles, the front light on the bike died, leaving me to depend on a headlamp with questionable battery life as I hit 40mph down Mirror Lake Highway. I was trying to stay alert to cars on the narrow, winding road, but deer ended up being the real hazard. I was cookin’ at 35mph when I rounded a corner to see that a doe had perfectly positioned herself in the center of my lane. I hit the brakes hard and skidded, thinking I was going down. The doe just pranced away. Later, I imagined her laughing about the “terrified human on a bike” with all the other critters in the woods. That was the scariest part of the night—until I realized I had forgotten to check the weather.
Around 11 p.m., lightning flashed and I heard thunder. Then the rain started. I didn’t have a shell. As I was pedaling into the town of Coalville a little after midnight, cold and wet, a concerned old woman pulled over in her car and informed me of a motel five miles up the road. It sounded tempting, so I rode away, distancing myself from her reasonable voice. As I rode off, I yelled, “I want to be out here!” I think I hollered it as much for my own benefit as for hers.
At this point, I had to admit that Ironman triathlons are hard. There, I said it. I just wanted to be in my bed—where I knew Lauren and my dog Makoa were.
East Canyon Pass was the last, gut-busting climb. I put my head down and pedaled grouchily until I was back in Salt Lake. Strava told me I was only at mile 106, so I rode half-mile laps around my neighborhood park at 3 a.m. until I hit 112 miles, for a bike split of 6:21.
So began the emotional rollercoaster. It was strange: I no longer felt pissy that I had signed myself up for a self-inflicted sufferfest. Honestly, I didn’t feel that bad at all anymore. I had energy and more than a shred of hope that I’d finish this thing. And I was still giddy over the butt pads.
3:37 a.m. Sunday, August 5
Salt Lake City
I felt guilty waking Lauren up at 3:30 in the morning, but she had offered to run the marathon with me. While she was filling up her hydration pack, I filled the gaping hole in my stomach with a peach, a sandwich, and a donut.
My newfound mental fortitude lasted 10 miles. After that, I kept asking for walk breaks, hoping that I could sleep while I was walking. It didn’t work. Lauren tricked me into running four more miles than planned before the first “aid station” break at my house. She also persuaded me to open that second tube of Nuun tabs, and down some much-needed water. At about 6 a.m., with 17 miles down, we got back to my house for some more food, and an espresso.
Knowing that I only had nine miles left was a game changer. I was rehydrated. I had hope again. I was committed to finishing.
Makoa joined us for the last leg, which was perfect because his road running pace is a solid and reliable 9:30 mile. The three of us looked like we were just out for a morning jog. But really, I was on my last leg, propped up by dreams of a Feldman’s Deli pastrami sandwich.
9:06 a.m., and afterwards
After five hours of running, my Achilles felt like a rubber band stretched to the breaking point. A mile from the finish, I was demoted to a run-walk regimen again. But when I got to my house, I saw that Sean had set up a finisher’s tape across our front porch as a surprise. I picked up the pace and ran through it. You can’t walk through a finisher’s tape. Run split: 5:14. Total time: 13:26
The challenge was over. Right? Not quite.
Despite my newfound knowledge of electrolytes, I was still massively dehydrated. Instead of having a celebratory beer, my body rewarded itself with projectile vomiting, hot flashes, and head-to-toe fatigue that (I assume) felt like death. The supreme pizza I ate in celebration at breakfast took a hard U-turn in less than an hour. I had a hard time walking for a week.
All in all, I would give the DIY Ironman 2 out of 5 stars on a Yelp review. I wouldn’t encourage the masses to embark on a huge endurance event with no training. You’ll probably hurt yourself. But if you’re feeling really bored, stupid, and motivated on a Friday, and decide to go for it any way, I have one piece of advice: Buy that second tube of Nuun.
A Postscript, by Lauren
Part of me wanted Zeppelin’s “Ironman” to be the toughest thing he’d ever done. I wanted him to encounter all the pain, fatigue, and anxiety of six months of training in a single evening. I thought he was being naïve—or even a little cocky—to assume that he could pull it off with no preparation.
But as I watched him approach his house on the finishing stretch, I realized that I had a profound respect for him for hauling off on this DIY mission—as much respect as I have for my friends who prep for big races. Zeppelin allows himself to try hard, have big ideas, and do something with them regardless of what the rest of the world tells him is “normal” or “possible.” That’s a kind of courage that I think all athletes can benefit from. Whether or not most of us ever attempt anything this audacious, Zeppelin’s DIY Ironman reminds us that we’re capable of much more than we think—as long as we stay hydrated.