Becoming Ironman: Everything Went as Planned–Until It Didn’t

Here’s a short summary of my Ironman race at Bear Lake on September 17, 2022. I may provide a more thorough recap at some point.

On Saturday I set out to complete an Ironman triathlon. It was insanely hard. Harder than expected. But when this picture was taken I felt incredible. I had no idea what was about to hit me. 

2.4 miles of swimming and 112 miles of cycling were in the books. All I had to do was run 26.2 miles. I was feeling confident. The afternoon sun peeked through the clouds. 

In many ways I thought the hardest part was behind me. It was 42 degrees at 7am when I jumped into the cold water of Bear Lake. It had rained hard multiple times during the bike portion. It was hard. But I knew it would be hard. Months of training had prepared me for this.

But then reality came crashing down on me. I was 11 miles from the finish line when the weather turned for the worse. It got cold and windy. It started raining. Then it poured down. My pace slowed. Stomach cramps literally brought me to my knees. Darkness descended. I felt so alone. 

21 people had signed up for the full Ironman distance. 13 triathletes had either finished or were somewhere ahead of me. 7 had already pulled out of the race. Most of the volunteers had gone home. 

With 7 miles left and the rain still coming down a truck pulled up to me. A volunteer rolled down the window and asked if I wanted to be picked up. My body screamed yes but I slowly uttered no. They drove off. 

I wanted to stop. I was in pain. I was cold. I was wet. I was exhausted. I had to keep going. This meant so much to me. I knew if I could just make progress, regardless of my speed, I’d ultimately get there. I kept going. 

I was the final person to finish the race. DEAD LAST. Maybe I should have been embarrassed. But I felt nothing but joy as I shuffled across the finish line. I made it. I had persevered. I was an Ironman. 

Triathlon is a good metaphor for life. There are a million lessons that can be pulled from this experience. I’ll mention one. A few weeks before the race, my daughter asked me why I was doing an Ironman. It sounded silly to her. I shared the story of JFK and his speech about putting a man on the moon. 

He said, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

You get stronger by doing hard things. You gain power when you set an audacious goal and do EVERYTHING in your control to accomplish it. You don’t give up when things get hard. You keep going.

I wanted my kids to see that. I wanted my clients to see that. To be candid, I needed to remind myself of that. 

We keep going. We don’t give up. Do hard things. Then do harder things.

Oceanside Ironman 70.3 Recap: How I Blew Away My Personal Best

My journey to Oceanside starts with the St George Ironman 70.3 in May 2021. I had trained for months leading up to St George, but my taper couldn’t have been worse. Three weeks before the event I got sick, a job offer led to lack of sleep as I evaluated what that would mean for me and the family, and then I smashed my middle toe on vacation just days before the event. 

While I rebounded from the first two, my toe was in serious pain. X-rays showed it wasn’t broken, but the pain was so severe I couldn’t run on it. I could barely even walk. A few days of recovery and a lot of ibuprofen got me to the start line. My former goal of beating my brother was long gone. I simply wanted to finish. 

Race day came and things went better than expected. I had to stop several times to tape my toe. I noticed pain on the bike, but had virtually no toe issues on the run. I crossed the finish line in 6 hours and 35 minutes. I was pleased, but knew I could do better. 

I signed up for the Oceanside half Ironman (I use 70.3 and half Ironman interchangeably) in October 2021, six months before the event. My young brother, who I often compete with, signed up too, but with a baby on the way I knew he wouldn’t be at his best. My Oceanside training had less to do with beating him and more to do with beating myself. I wanted to get faster. 

I created a rigorous training plan that involved more volume than I’d done before. I also shifted my intensity, spending more time in zone 2 (which for me is a heart rate between 138 and 153). This was a massive shift. Historically, when I’d gone out for a run or ride, I’d push the intensity, letting my heart rate go near max capacity on a regular basis. 

While this felt good at the moment, I didn’t have ample time to recover and was often left with nagging injuries that hurt my ability to train. My research had shown that spending 80% or more of my training in zone 2 would allow me to train longer, which would lead to increased fitness and speed. In essence, my mantra became “go slower to go faster.” 

I stuck to the plan for months, making sacrifices in other parts of my life to make time for cycling, running, and swimming workouts. Some days I woke up really early to get in a long workout. Other days I exercised after the kids had gone to bed. Once or twice a week I did strength training, knowing that weights were needed. I strived to eat healthier. All these things added up, and as the months passed, it was clear I was getting faster. 

I had set the goal of 6:10, 25 minutes faster than my St George time. That was a stretch, but I wanted to push myself. If everything played out perfectly, I had a distant chance at breaking six hours. 

Race day came and my training was complete. Things were looking good. I hadn’t gotten sick right before. I hadn’t jammed my toe. I didn’t have any excuses. The time for performance had come. 

The 1.2 mile swim felt great. It was an ocean swim and after fighting through the breaks I found my stride. The transition to the bike was rocky and one of my water bottles bounced out of its cage but I didn’t slow to pick it up. I figured I could grab a water bottle at the first aid station. 

The cycling course was beautiful and we spent a good chunk on Camp Pendleton, a marine base with rolling hills. 56 miles in total, the ride had a few steep climbs, but nothing too bad. A headwind made the final seven miles harder than expected but I was able to keep a strong pace throughout. 

After changing into my running shoes and taking a quick bathroom break, it was time for the 13.1 mile run. As expected, running off the bike left my legs feeling gelatinous but I knew from experience that feeling would go away. The course was mostly flat, with several steep inclines near the pier. A few miles into the run I was feeling great. My bike computer broke days before the race and I didn’t use my watch for the swim, so while I felt strong, I didn’t know how I was pacing. 

Everything was perfect until mile 8 when my right achilles and left hamstring tightened. I felt like I was one bad step from the race coming to an abrupt halt. My gradual run pace kept things at bay, but with five more miles I didn’t know how long I could keep it all together. 

One fun aspect of the run course was that the streets were lined with people cheering and music blaring. The environment was electric. 

And then with two miles left things got hard. Really hard. My hip started aching. The achilles tightness was consistent but the left hamstring pain was worsening. My longest training run was 10 miles and I was kicking myself for not training longer. 

As I passed mile marker 12 felt a rush of adrenaline hit me. One mile more and I’d be done. But every time my left foot struck the ground a shot of pain went through my hamstring. It literally felt like someone was punching me. I silently prayed that it wouldn’t give out. 

I didn’t have much in the tank, but as the finish neared, I gave it everything I had. The race announcer yelled my name and I pumped my fists as I crossed the finish line. A screen above my head displayed the final times of each triathlete. My run slowed to a walk and I turned my head 180 degrees to see the screen. 

Nothing yet.  

Then it flashed: Nathan Tanner – 5:55:23

You’re kidding me, I thought. 

A rush of emotion poured over me as I realized that I hadn’t just beaten my goal time, I had crushed it. My eyes filled with tears as it hit me that I had done something I didn’t think was possible. 

The tears continued and I started to lose my balance. Leaning against a fence, head buried in my elbows, I cried uncontrollably. I cried loudly. So much so that another athlete stopped to make sure I was okay. I thanked her for her concern and put my head back in my elbows. This was a full body release. I had left everything on that course and my body was releasing its last bit of energy through tears. 

Yes, I beat my brother by 15 minutes, but that wasn’t it. It was something more. I had set a big, hairy, audacious goal, I had trained harder than ever, and I blew the goal out of the water.

As I write this almost two months later, the emotion of the moment comes back to me. I’m not entirely sure what I experienced, but it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.

Many times it seems like things don’t go as hoped. The plans and goals and ambitions I have for myself fall short of expectations. But on that early April day in Oceanside, California, everything went my way.

And I’ll never forget it.