One of Webster’s definitions of “extreme” is “exceeding the ordinary, usual, or expected.” For many people, the idea of competing in a triathlon fits that definition.
But, for a small part of the population, such a task is nothing more than a challenge that needs to be conquered. And, for an even smaller population, that challenge must be taken to the limits of the human body. For them, there is the Ironman Triathlon.
The Ironman Triathlon takes three events—2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run—and puts them into one. Just one of these events on its own might be too much for most mortals, but, then again, the Ironman triathlete is no mere mortal, even if he or she might be your next door neighbor.
True, some Ironman triathletes are professionals. But, many of them are not. They are doctors, accountants, housewives and former high school classmates.
Recently, I caught up with one of my own former high school classmates, Rick Vivolo—a family man, a healthcare professional and an Ironman—via email to get his perspective
Bleacher Report: Every story has a beginning. When did you start competing in triathlons and why?
Rick Vivolo: I have been competing in triathlons since 2005. My first and only Ironman was Ironman USA Lake Placid, July 20, 2008. I started doing triathlons because I was bored with just going to the gym and running once in a while to keep in shape. I needed something more. I still had that competitive fire burning in me since college and I needed to challenge it.
B/R: I know that I could never compete in an Ironman Triathlon. I don’t have the drive or the desire. Do you feel that there is a particular personality that is drawn to the Ironman Triathlon? If so, how does your personality fit that mold?
RV: Absolutely. Ironman training is extremely demanding, to say the least. It requires a major amount of time commitment. Also, your diet must be very strict. Because of this, people with a type A personality (i.e. doctors, engineers, etc.) are usually drawn to the sport. I work in a laboratory as a clinical laboratory scientist. So as you can see I fall right into that category.
B/R: Many people only think about the physical aspect of competing in an extreme event, but don’t take into account the mental part. Which is the more difficult aspect of preparing for the competition, the physical or the mental? Or are they equal in difficulty?
RV: Oh, the mental, by far. I actually enjoy the physical part of it. It’s nice being in the greatest shape of your life and having so much energy. Mentally though, it is very taxing. Always having to stick to your training schedule; the guilt of leaving your wife with two small children while you head out for a six hour bike ride; or getting out of a nice warm bed at 4am in January to head out of a long run—all are extremely difficult mentally.
B/R: Time to do a self critique: Which part of a triathlon is your strongest? Your weakest? Why?
RV: Running is definitely my strongest discipline. I ran track in high school and college. Even though I was a sprinter, I never seemed to have lost my ability to run strong. My weakest segment of triathlons is certainly swimming. Despite growing up with a pool in my backyard, I have never been a strong swimmer. And I have only learned to swim competitively in the last five years. It is a never-ending challenge, but still one that I enjoy.
B/R: Preparation is obviously the key to success. What is your training regimen?
RV: Of course this goes for when I actually am training for a race, but...
I try to hit each area three times a week, with one brick (bike and run back to back), and one rest day. I will usually try to hit the pool by 5:30am since I have to be at work by 7. Then, I save my evening for a bike ride or run. My weekends are primarily used for long rides and runs.
B/R: For professional triathletes, competing is a job, so finding time to train isn't as difficult as it is for the amateur triathlete with other priorities. How do you fit training into raising a family, a career, etc.?
RV: This is a great question. One where there is no short, easy answer and I am sure it is different for everyone. I have wonderful wife with two children (two years and eight months). To say that my wife needs my help around the house is an understatement. I am finding it increasingly difficult to get any sort of training in right now. We both work full-time jobs as well as our full-time parenting gig. I do fit an occasional run and ride in. But simply put: My triathlon training has been put on hold for the time being. I hope to do another Ironman someday, but not until things stabilize more on the home front.
B/R: Are there times when you think “Why am I doing this?”
RV: Yes. That thought went through my head during Lake Placid at about mile 15 during the run, when it was “still” pouring rain since the start of the race, and I was suffering excruciating pain from both my right knee and left ankle, wondering how I was going to make the last 11 miles.
B/R: Give us a bit of insight as to what goes on inside your head during a competition and how you keep yourself going.
RV: At the risk of sounding cliché, as an amateur, you really are competing against yourself. With shorter triathlons, you may be good enough where you are trying to win your age-group. But with the Ironman, realistically, you are competing with your own body—to finish. That’s all you think about. What do I have to do to go bike five more miles? How far can I run without stopping and walking? What should I eat at the next aid station? How do I ignore this pain in my ankle? I could go on and on. For the most part, I tell myself that the pain is only temporary, and I didn’t train for the last nine or 10 months to just quit right now simply because something hurts.
B/R: How long do you see yourself competing?
RV: As long as I can. I refuse to disappear into the depths of middle age simply because I’m over 40.
B/R: What’s your advice for someone just starting?
RV: I’m assuming you mean just starting triathlons, because you certainly don’t want to begin with Ironman distance races. Try to find triathlons in your area that are labeled as “Sprint Triathlons.” These are the shortest distances (approx. 500-750 meter swim, bike 10-12 miles, and a 5k run). Also, it’s certainly best to find a race where the swim is in a pool rather than open water. Open water swimming can be quite terrifying if you don’t have a strong swimming background. Find a free training program online somewhere. Good luck and have fun.