Three, two, one and go—the participants run towards the water for their swim course of the triathlon at the Miramar beach in Goa. After this they have two more challenges—cycling and running. With about 1,000 participants, the Ironman 70.3, that was recently organised in Goa, was the first ever Ironman event to happen in India. The 70.3 refers to the total distance in miles (113km) covered in the race—1.2 mile (1.9km) swim, 56-mile(90km) bike ride and 13.1-mile (21.1km) run. But this is half the distance covered in the usual Ironman triathlons.
Says Deepak Raj, founder and head coach, Yoska, and organising head, Ironman 70.3, Goa: “It was the first time this event happened in India and we had a lot of amateur participants. We decided to go for half Ironman as we wanted many to participate. A full Ironman challenge can seem daunting to many, especially because the culture of participating in triathlons is just catching up here. But I am positive that soon, we will have the full course of the challenge in India.”
Considered one of the toughest endurance challenges anyone can undertake in a single day, the full distance Ironman event involves swimming 3.8km in open water, 180km cycling and 42.195 km running—all done sequentially.
When did it all start?
The Ironman event started in Oahu—a part of the Hawaiian island chain. The idea of the event was conceived by Navy man John Collins and his wife Judy. It was after their family of four—John, Judy and their two children—participated in a multisport event in San Diego, US, that the couple realised their passion for endurance events. They had always dreamed about creating an athletic event that people would enjoy and a debate with friends on which athletes were the fittest—swimmers, bikers or runners—resulted in combining the three of the toughest existing endurance races. Thus, the first Ironman event happened in 1978 in Oahu with the Waikiki rough water swim, the Around Oahu bike race and the Honolulu marathon. The race had 15 participants and the first one finished the challenge in 11 hours and 46 minutes. The next year saw a woman complete the race in 12 hours and 55 minutes. By this time the media started noticing the event and the 1980 event had over 100 participants. A new record of completing the challenge in 9 hours and 24 minutes was set. By 1983, the event got global attention and a qualification system was introduced. A 17-hour finishing cut-off was also instituted. In 1985, the Ironman brand and name got popular globally. Now, there over 100 Ironman events that happen across the world.
Of the three challenges, the swim is usually the most intimidating course, especially for newcomers. “Not everyone in India grows up swimming and swimming in open waters is challenging even for seasoned swimmers. I feel once the swim gets over, participants feel a little relaxed for the next two courses. Sometimes, athletes fear rough waters and this can cause panic which may even result in drowning,” says Jaimielle Jacobs, wife of Ironman world champion Pete Jacobs, co-founder of Live Your Own Fit and a competitive triathlete.
For 18-year-old Adit Dahiya, who took part in the team event category, his phobia of swimming in open water did not stop him from completing the 1.9-km swim; he flew down from UK just to attend the event. “Halfway through the second lap of the swim, I felt like I was seeing things in the water but, it was all in my head. I just kept telling myself that I need to finish it no matter what. I think the mentality matters a lot. I think the best way to overcome a phobia is to experience it first-hand,” he says. His father Yashish Dahiya, 47, CEO of Policy Bazaar, who took up the second course of the triathlon—cycling—says he was just relieved seeing his son come out of the water. “I was a little worried because he has this phobia of open water but the moment I saw him, I just knew the rest of the course is going to be smooth. My last Ironman 70.3 was in Dubai in February 2019 and we have been training as a team for the past six months. I think it paid off,” Yashish says. Their team, Juggernauts, finished first in the team category with Pankkaj Dhiman, their fitness coach, completing the event with the run.
According to Kaustubh Radkar, former national swimming champion and worldwide recognised Ironman athlete, mastering strokes, body position and breathing while swimming is a constant pursuit and every triathlete must consistently train for it. “I usually tell participants to start training at least nine months before the event but this is for people who are the basic level of all the three sports. I think when it comes to swimming, breathe on every three strokes—it allows you to focus more on the stroke,” he says. Kaustubh has completed over 20 Ironman triathlons and is among India’s elite athletes. He made it to the Ironman Silver All World Athlete’s list for the fourth time in a row in 2018. Kaustubh is now an Ironman Certified Coach and he provides coaching to amateur, elite athletes and professional triathletes. According to him, being relaxed and timing the breath is important during the swim. “It is essential that the head points forward and not up—the aim is to get your mouth out of the water not your eyes,” he says.
Most people think cycling is the easiest among the three. Try doing a hilly course or an uneven terrain. Joint-eroding climbs and exciting descents may seem easy for onlookers, because they feel that athletes get to sit during this course, but it is equally difficult. “Swimming is my forte but cycling has always been a challenge for me. I am still trying to optimise my cycling skills,” Kaustubh says.
For Bishworjit Saikhom, the first to finish the Ironman 70.3 Goa challenge, his legs started cramping when he started to cycle uphill. “I decided to let others pass me by and thought I will cover up in running. I was not going to give up. So, I started pedalling lightly and relaxed a bit during the descents,” he says. Bishworjit trains with the Bombay Sappers—a regiment of the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army. It was his first Ironman and now he will be preparing for the full Ironman after the 2020 World Championships in Kona.
According to him, it is necessary to ride the right bike otherwise it can result in pain in joints because of wrong posture. “Ride easy for the first hour; it is okay if you are being passed by a lot of people. Remember, you are also warming up for the run,” Bishworjit says.
A snazzy bike with fancy gears may help you shave off a few minutes but it isn’t all about getting the fastest bike. “There are uncertainties even when it comes to cycling. There are chances that your bike might get a puncture or some other mechanical error but keeping calm is key in all these situations. The moment you panic, the body begins to underperform,” says Jaimielle.
It can be very difficult to run a strong marathon after riding the bicycle for 112 miles. Most Ironman dreams die in this course. According to Deepak, most participants tend to go too hard on the cycling and don’t save energy for the run. “All the athletes are fatigued by the time they reach the final course. Some even think of giving up at this point. This is where training helps you. Your body and mind are so conditioned during training that you know exactly how to combat fatigue,” he says.
Deepak used to be a techie who weighed over 95kg, thanks to bad lifestyle habits and zero exercise. He initially took up running to lose weight but then decided to pick a goal to keep the focus. “I had a pair of line skates and I wanted to do something about it. That is when I came across a flyer with the advertisement of a 38-km roller skating marathon and I signed up for it with no background in the sport. I felt this is the only way I could force myself to learn skating. I started to learn skating and then consistently trained for the marathon. As a result of it, I completed the marathon; this motivated me to condition my running too,” he says. In 2002, he signed up for the Berlin Marathon and with the help of some exercise videos, dietary changes and training, he completed his first marathon in 4 hours and 58 minutes. As a result of his dietary changes, exercising and training, he lost over 30kg. This was when he decided to take it a step further. So, in 2008, at the age of 30, he took up his first Ironman challenge and was one of the few Indians to complete the challenge.
“Fitness is a way to unwind from my everyday activities and it fills me with positive energy and attitude. I am passionate about fitness and I want more people in our country to have the same—I want many to participate in the upcoming triathlons,” he says.
After spending about 14 years in the corporate sector, he decided to follow this passion and start a triathlon coaching company—Tri A New Life—and develop the sport in India. He also set up a technology platform for the coaching company, Yoska, and a triathlon academy to scale up and support a much larger audience across India. He is a qualified and accredited coach for running, cycling, swimming and personal fitness; he has successfully completed 13 Ironman triathlons till date, with a personal best time of 10 hours, 19 minutes and 8 seconds. He now works closely with an extended team of like-minded and passionate people to drive the progress of triathlon in India and support the growing triathlon community in the country.
If you are aspiring to be an Ironman athlete, head to the weight room. Apart from training in swimming, cycling and running, it is necessary to work on your strength. Says Jaimielle: “Athletes must be consistent with deadlifting, squats, explosive movements, lunges and exercises for core conditioning. Strength plays a key role in endurance training. Hitting the gym, at least thrice a week helps to maintain muscular balance and function as well as help in controlling the posture. For an athlete, four things that are key in training are—mobility, flexibility, strength and power.”
Most times, athletes tend to put strength training on the back burner. Gym workout is a massive component of training. According to Jaimielle, more strength means more efficiency. “Strength training not only enhances muscular endurance but also aids quick recovery after the event. Apart from strength training, it is also important that the athletes are given some mental conditioning too. At the end of the day, the mentality of the individual is what determines the result. Athletes need to understand that it is not about finishing first; it is about completing the race,” she says.
Train till you drain?
In the process of training for the event, there are chances that the athletes tend to overdo training and get exhausted—both physically and mentally. According to Deepak, athletes, especially amateurs, should keep in mind that they get adequate rest throughout the preparation period and solid rest before and after the event. “After the race, it is necessary to give the body some recovery time. At the end of the day it is not about winning or losing, it is about staying fit and healthy,” he says.
A certain amount of fatigue is expected during the training period as well as the event. But the problem is when the fatigue persists for a longer period of time. “Most coaches make you push forward sometimes and ask you to be mentally strong and stick to the training. But when you feel tired, it is necessary to take a break but not by completely stopping your routine. Instead try doing minimal or light activity during this time,” says Jaimielle.
Body needs sufficient fuel, especially when you are taking part in endurance sports. “When it comes to Ironman or any sport for that matter, nutrition and hydration is key. Athletes need to figure out an eating and drinking strategy that would last up to 17 hours; this can be challenging. Usually, athletes eat energy bars, gels and chews after the swim or during the cycling and running course. If you consume too few calories, you may underperform as the body does not have the energy to go on. Athletes should aim to eat 60-90 grams of carbohydrate per hour during the event,” Jaimielle says.
According to Nagaraj Harsha, a triathlete and head of brand activation, Fast&Up—a brand of sports nutrition supplements—it is necessary to consume electrolytes (sodium, potassium and magnesium) during the race. “The rate at which a person sweats varies not only with individual but also with regard to the environmental conditions. People not only lose water when they perspire, but also lose electrolytes. Sodium is a critical electrolyte especially for endurance athletes. In hot and humid races athletes require regular intake of electrolytes—about 500-1000mg per hour,” he says.
Even while training, it is necessary to consume a lot nutrient-rich food so as to avoid weakening the body muscles. “Diet is an important part of training. Without proper diet, it is difficult to get the body ready for any sort of endurance sport,” Jaimielle says.
ONE-ON-ONE WITH THE QUEEN OF KONA
A professional triathlete and six-time winner of the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, Natascha Badmann is the first European woman to win the Ironman triathlon World Championship. Called the ‘queen of Kona’ by many athletes, she is a social worker in Switzerland. Also nicknamed, ‘Swiss miss’, Natascha won her first challenge when she was 29. She is coached by husband Toni Hasler, who is also her nutritionist. In an exclusive interview, Natascha talks about her journey into the world of triathlon:
When was the first time you took part in the event? Did you have prior experience of running marathons?
I started gaining interest in sport pretty late. As a matter of fact, I had no interest in sports till the age of 23. This was because I was overweight and overworked; I was not satisfied with myself and used to be depressed. Toni, my husband and coach, asked me to try running. So, I started running; initially with no running equipment and only one block at a time. Interestingly, I felt happy every time I ran. And thus, the story started.
Have you had any setbacks—injuries or opposition?
Thanks to serious planning, I was healthy most of my career. My first real setback was a horrible accident in 2007 during Ironman WC Kona. I hit a cone on the bike leg and I broke both my shoulders, ribs and had two surgeries. The doctors said that I would never be able to race again. And even worse, they said I would never be able to swim. At the hospital, I remember how I couldn’t even wipe my tears with my hands. It was my lowest point. How did I overcome? Long story, short—I didn’t believe a word that the doctors said. I worked hard. It took me seven years to recover and in 2012, I was in Kona again and finished sixth. This was a big victory for me.
What are some of the challenges?
When I had my daughter at 18, I was not into sport at all. So, it was easier to manage a baby. When I entered the field, it became easier as she was no more a baby. My biggest concern at that time was that I was not being a good mother because of my hectic schedule which was mainly coming home from work and going out for a 30-minute run. Although with time, I started to realise that balancing things between professional and personal time is important, so I tried to spend as much time with my daughter.
Why do you think people should try out the Ironman event?
I think people should try Ironman events as it is a test of endurance and mental toughness apart from the physical aspects. It makes a person ready to face any challenge in life and more than just an event, it is more of a lifestyle. Also, the feeling of satisfaction after completing an Ironman race is beyond words.
What is key when it comes to preparing for the event?
The most important aspect of preparing is high intensity training and a sustainable nutrition plan in place. Nutrition and hydration are extremely important to participate in an Ironman event.
Was your family supportive?
My husband always supported me. He is my coach. He also cooks and takes care of my bikes. My mentor, my support system—he juggles so many roles yet does not fail to do justice to each one of it.
What is the feeling when you reach the finishing point?
This feeling is unique and I won’t forget them for the rest of my life. I remember my first victory in Kona in 1998. I was so happy; happier than I could express in words. I spread my arms out and wanted to share my happiness with the whole world.
Has there been a point when someone said you can’t win or said something that put you down?
Well, there are many. But one thing I remember very vividly is when a lot of people thought it is necessary to eat meat to do Ironman. I don’t eat meat and never thought this way. Once I heard someone say—it is unbelievable that she can win without eating meat! Funny, how people are full of such false notions.
What diet do you follow?
I try to eat healthy. I eat a lot of vegetables and fruits apart from the carbohydrates and proteins that I consume daily. The week before a race, I go low on carbohydrates for four days and then about three days before the race, I pick up on carbohydrates and lower my vegetable and protein intake. Also, as I mentioned earlier, it is important to have a sustainable nutrition and hydration plan in place. There should be a high intake of carbohydrates in all forms followed with an energy drink which always helps you while training.
What sort of training is required to participate in the event?
Winter time is very cold in Switzerland and I often go to a training camp on the Canaries to do some long bike rides. When I’m home I hit the gym, swim, run and do some indoor cycling. Before walking into a competition, I prefer to have some outdoor miles on the bike; I prefer the mountains to make my pedaling stronger.
Have you thought about quitting at any point?
Yes, many times. There were times when I was so exhausted that I wanted to quit and move on.
Does it get difficult with age or is age just a number?
For me age was just a number. In 2012, I won Ironman South Africa. This made me the oldest Ironman winner.
What is your advice for Ironman participants?
Have fun and enjoy being able to train and race. This is a privilege.
The event tests endurance—is there any other event according to you which is more difficult than this?
Yes, there is Ultraman. (2-3 times an Ironman). There are also Decathlons (10x Ironman). I have never tried it though.
What if you lost consecutively; would you still pursue the event?
This is a mental aspect. There is no losing for me. There will always be someone who might be faster or stronger than me. I always say—racing is like getting a chocolate cake; if I win, I get additional whipped cream, but I get to eat the cake either ways.
Signs of fatigue
* Loss of appetite
* Sore muscles
* Elevated waking heart rate
* Suppressed heart rate with high exertion in training
* Poor quality of sleep or night sweats