How I trained for and successfully completed my first full IRONMAN on a plant-based diet and some life lessons learned along the way.
What’s Your Why?
I filled out the online form, checking several times to make sure all of my information was correct, but I just couldn’t bring myself to hit the “submit” button. I would even go as far as hovering my mouse pointer over it, but clicking that button meant a commitment to doing something really hard, probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life up to this point. So I waited.
I walked away from my computer. I talked to my wife Kristine about it. She asked me what the problem was. I didn’t really know. I had signed up for many marathons and triathlons in the past and done a lot of hard things, but this was different. This was the BIG one. This was IRONMAN. “Why do you want to do this”, she asked. Hmm. I had to think. Why DID I want to do this? Did I want to prove to the world that you can do an IRONMAN while eating a plant-based diet? Did I need to somehow earn the love and respect of my family and friends? “Once you know your ‘why'”, she said, “you’ll have no problem signing up.” She was right. It also really helps to know your ‘why’ and be able to remember it around mile 18 of the run portion of the IRONMAN. It may be the only thing that gets you to the finish line. I had to figure this out. I went back to the computer and hit the submit button. I was committed. Now I just needed a ‘why’.
Fear & Training
I didn’t know it when I signed up, but the next eight months would be the toughest of my life. Not a day went by during that eight months when I didn’t experience some level of fear. This was a huge, difficult, scary thing I was doing. The training was hard from the first week in January up until race week in August. A typical training week looked like this: Monday was my easy day, no cardio, just some strength training in the afternoon. Tuesday was early morning run, swim after work. Wednesday was early morning spinning class at the gym and running group in the evening, usually speed work or hill repeats. Thursday was early morning swim, strength training in the afternoon, and an evening ride with the cycling group. Fridays were light days, just an early morning spin class. The weekends were when all the fun happened! Saturday mornings were long runs (up to 20 miles), and Sundays were long rides (up to 112 miles) followed by short runs of 5 miles or so. Some weeks were a lot harder than others, but in eight months there was never an easy week. I worked out for 15-20 hours per week, every week. It was a lot like having a second job. I was tired all the time. I was also hungry all the time!
Eat Like a Monkey
Working out for 15-20 hours per week meant I was burning a LOT of calories. I had to make sure I was getting enough to eat each day and that the calories I was taking in were high-quality, enabling my body to work hard, recover, and repeat, week after week. Here’s what a typical day looked like: Most mornings I would work out early, so on the way to the gym I would try to get in 100-200 calories of simple carbs. A banana or 1/2 a pack of GU Chomps usually did the trick. After the morning workout I would make a large smoothie: banana, protein powder, blueberries, cherries, flaxseed meal, agave nectar, lemon juice, coconut water, and a big handful of fresh spinach. This smoothie is a nutritional powerhouse delivering protein, carbohydrates (both simple and complex) anti-inflammatories, vitamins A and C, fiber, iron, antioxidants, and Omega 3s. It’s also super delicious and very satisfying – the perfect post-workout meal. My mid-morning snack was usually 4-5 bananas. Kristine started calling me “monkey” and the nickname stuck. Lunch varied; most days I would grab something from one of the local restaurants near my work, most having good vegan options, my favorites being Mediterranean, Indian, and Chipotle. Mid-afternoons I snacked on whatever fruit was in season – pears, apples, oranges, or peaches, and a Clif Builder Bar (for added calories and protein). After my evening workouts I was always really hungry so dinner was a big salad with tons of fresh vegetables with an oil-free dressing, and a good-sized entrée – most likely something easy to prepare, because who has time to cook when you’re working out all the time? Some of my favorites are Cauliflower Tofu Curry, Spicy Black Bean Burgers, Vegan Street Tacos, or Marinated Tofu & Veggie Stir-Fry. Finally I would treat myself to some well-deserved chocolate ice cream before heading to bed at 10:00 sharp every night.
Nutrition & Training
Training for an IRONMAN requires putting in a LOT of miles cycling and running. Some days I was on the bike for 6-7 hours or running for 3-4 hours. It is extremely important to get enough calories in the form of carbohydrates during endurance training. I decided early on that I would train with the same products they were using out on the IRONMAN course: GU Chomps, Bonk Breaker Bars, and IRONMAN Perform energy drink. The goal was to take in about 90 grams of carbohydrate every hour while training. As long as I was getting enough carbs and hydrating properly I never had any issues while training, even on some of the hottest days of the summer.
Calories & Protein
I am not a big fan of counting calories so I didn’t spend much time thinking about how many calories I was getting each day, week, etc. I just tried to eat a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, good carbohydrates, and quality plant-based proteins (especially after workouts). I weighed myself a few times a week and would just adjust portion sizes if I was up or down a pound or two. During those 8 months of intense training I weighed exactly the same in January as I did in August. I figured that was as good an indicator as any.
Many people want to know how it’s possible to get enough protein to train for an IRONMAN on a plant-based diet. Not only is it possible, but in my opinion, it’s optimal. You can get all the protein you need from a well-balanced diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, dark, leafy greens, grains, oats, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds – all of which are high in fiber, nutrient-dense, and contain zero cholesterol. In contrast, the protein found in animal products can be very high in fat and cholesterol, contains no dietary fiber, and has been linked to a myriad of diseases including the accelerated growth of cancer cells. It’s less about ‘how much’ protein you’re getting in your diet and more about getting the ‘right kind’ of protein. Kristine recently wrote an awesome article about how much protein we really need, go and check it out now.
It’s All About The Run
All year during my training there was one goal I was laser-focused on: crossing the finish line with a smile on my face. I also had some time goals – swim under 1:30, bike under 7:00, run under 5:00, and finish under 14 hours total. IRONMAN is different than just about any other endurance sport in that you begin the hardest part of the race in the heat of the day after already going non-stop for 6-10 hours. I jumped in the water just after 7:00 am and did not start the marathon until around 3:00 pm when the temperature in Louisville had soared well into the 90s. I had a fast swim – 1:15, and a long, slow bike – 7:06. I stuck to my nutrition plan the whole day, taking in around 90 grams of carbs every hour and hydrating as much as possible. I slipped on my running shoes and headed out for the run. It was in that moment I realized just how tough the IRONMAN really is. I was exhausted. The plan was to run the marathon one mile at a time, just walking the aid stations. I may have slipped in a few extra walk breaks here and there during the first 13 miles; it was all I could do to just keep moving forward.
An Incredible Feeling
IRONMAN Louisville includes a couple of cruel twists – a HUGE and dangerous hill that you do twice on the out-and-back section of the bike, and having to run right by the finish line halfway through the run. As hard as it was seeing that finish line and hearing the crowd cheering on finishers while I still had a half marathon to run, it was also incredibly energizing. The noisy crowds downtown, the cheers from my friends, and a big kiss from my wife gave my psyche a much-needed boost. The second half of the marathon was a lot faster than the first half, and the last two miles were just amazing – I felt like my feet weren’t even touching the ground.
I ran a 5:03 marathon and posted an overall time of 13:46. I crossed the finish line around 9:00 pm with a HUGE smile on my face. I had achieved my goals. I was ecstatic.
(Here’s a little video clip from a local news station. They caught me at a very emotional moment right after crossing the finish line.)
I Found My Why
I don’t know exactly when or where it happened, but somewhere along the 8-month journey to my first IRONMAN finish I found my why. I had to have a heart-felt, personal, and compelling reason for doing this or really, what’s the point? I thought I had to justify my lifestyle to the world – that you can train for and execute a successful IRONMAN while eating only plants. I thought I needed to do something BIG to prove to my wife, my family, my friends that I am worthy of their love and their friendship. These thoughts are just plain wrong. I don’t need anyone to sign-off on my lifestyle. I choose to eat a whole-food, plant-based diet and I look, feel, and perform better in all aspects of my life because of it. I also don’t have to earn the love and friendship of those around me. My friends and family love me for exactly who I am right here and right now, and no feat of athleticism could ever change that. I did it for me.
Anything is Possible
IRONMAN’s tagline is “Anything is Possible.” I wanted to prove to myself that I could accomplish anything if I wanted it bad enough. I wanted to do something that I was really fearful of and then conquer that fear. I wanted to do something really big, really difficult, and really scary. Check, check, and check. I trained hard for eight months and I executed on race day.
I learned a lot from my experience. I learned that I could do anything I wanted to do. I learned to move through fear and not let it stop me from realizing my dreams. I learned that anything truly is possible, even on a plant-based diet. Most importantly, I learned that it doesn’t really matter what I do; I am truly an amazing person right here and now, and I’m worthy of all the love, joy, and abundance that this life has to offer. What an amazing journey this has been.