Beating the Ironman Blues

author : IRONVIKING
comments : 4

After completing the 2007 Ironman Coeur d’Alene, I fell into a funk. I should have been extremely elated that I, two years removed from open heart surgery, had trained for and completed the sport’s ultimate distance race. But instead I found that I didn’t want to train at all, in any way, and for any duration. The thought of swimming repulsed me. I stood in my garage staring at my bike, but couldn’t bring myself to ride it.

An email to an acquaintance of mine, Brook Gardner, of RaceCenter Magazine and website, tried to put me at ease by telling me it was normal to feel the way I did. He told me to enjoy taking some time off. When days turned into weeks and still I couldn’t bring myself to train, I could only ask myself why I felt this way. Other newly-crowned IM BT’ers I contacted regularly fell under the same spell, but not every case. I had to know why some did or didn’t—hence this article.

Race Report Heaven
One of the many benefits of our Beginner Triathlete website is the race reports submitted by the members that we can read after the fact. They really come in handy if you’re planning on doing the same race because you can get a heads up on the course and what to expect when it’s your turn. They came in very handy for me while doing this article because they provided the names of all BT’s who filled out Ironman race reports from last year.

I accessed only those races held in the continental United States and list them here in chronological order as follows:

The Q&A’s Go Out
After consulting the main race report page for all Ironman races, I found that a total of 158 BT members had race reports that were filled out. This became my list of names to contact. To some I did so with an inspire. To others I sent a private message. I did my best to contact them all, but some were unavailable. In fact, their BT pages were blank; as barren as a ghost town. I could only wonder if they had met a similar fate as me and simply dropped out of the world of triathlon all together. I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt in that maybe for some, completing an Ironman was just one of a long list of life’s goals completed and crossed off, and thus they had no more need for their blog page. Still, in the back of my mind, I held doubt.

To each I asked seven questions as follows:

  1. Did you race your Ironman or more-or-less survive it?

  2. Did you continue training after a short time off, and how long was your recovery?

  3. Did you become depressed and lose the desire to train, and if so how long did it last?

  4. Are you back to your old self? Better then before? Haven’t been the same since?

  5. Do you plan on doing or have you done another IM?

  6. How has the Ironman changed you? Do you now feel that you can take whatever life throws at you?

  7. Any parting shots?

I started out “racing” IMCDA but developed a pain on the top of my left ankle during the bike stage that plagued me for nearly one hundred miles. There was no reprieve from the pain during the marathon. For me, my IM became one of survival. That’s the reasoning behind question number one.

As stated in the first paragraph of this article I lost my desire to train. I did suffer some depression afterward as well. Hence, questions two and three.  Questions four through six helped me get a feel for who I was communicating with and what, if any, changes occurred in them post-race. Lastly, number seven simply gave each replier an opportunity to say whatever they wanted in closing.
 

The purpose of this survey was to try and establish a common thread between those who did or didn’t suffer from depression after their IM event, in hopes that the information would help me better understand just why everything training related, post-IM, seemed to collapse around me. I did become depressed and I know other people who did, as well.

 

I also know a few who didn’t, and since I’m signed up for IMCDA, I thought it might be something worth figuring out before I went through it again. As I read the replies of others, I found them to be very therapeutic for me. I realized my downward mood swing stemmed mostly from an injury and not being able to perform at my best. So many laps, miles, and workouts went into getting to the starting line, and all I got was a bum ankle. But really, I got more then that. I have the memory and the experience of the event itself. Plus, I have the knowledge that I sucked it up and hobbled to the finish, which shows me my level of determination when the chips are down. But enough about me; let’s talk about you.

And The Survey Said...
The first thing I had to do was come up with some simple questions regarding the event and the person in general that would help me get a handle on each triathlete’s specific event. Also, I wanted to know about their personality traits/attitudes before and after the big day. Part one lists the specific questions and my reasons behind each one, but for your convenience I’ll list them again:


1) Did you race your event, or more-or-less survive it? (What I wanted to know was if the person had issues that prevented them from competing, even just with themselves, through the entire race. It’s one thing to say “I was tired and walked some during the marathon,” but “explosive diarrhea” is a different matter.)
 

Poll Results: I answered this question myself, to start things off. I started out racing my IM, completing the swim within five minutes of my goal time. My T1 went well enough but during the first serious hill of the bike course, my left ankle started hurting. I had to back off the pedals and ride out the pain, and that hurt my time. The pain continued into the run, forcing me to walk a lot of the run course. Had I been able to ride and run without that pain, then I would have said I raced my IM. Instead, I could only hold on and keep moving forward until I hit the finish line—in other words, survive it.

 

Another example of this comes from Cappy who was racing IMLP until about mile seven of the marathon, when severe blisters forced him to walk.

 

MForger18 cramped so bad during the marathon he had to walk the last twelve miles of IMLP.

 

My last example of survival comes from rbschlesinger who finished IMAZ even though he dislocated his shoulder halfway through the swim. Now that’s an Ironman!
 

48 members said they “raced” their IM.
27 said they “survived” due to injury or “issues.”

And one respondent, Pirategirl, did not finish IMAZ 2007. However, she came back with a vengeance, and successfully completed IMAZ 2008! Way to go, Elaine!

2) Did you continue training after a short time off, and how long was your recovery?


Poll Results: The answer, by overwhelming majority, was “I spent two weeks away from training.” Some, depending upon injury or sickness, took a little longer. And a few scheduled vacations immediately after their IM for rest and recovery. The time of year of the race was a part of the equation as well. IMCDA is held at the end of June, while IMFL is held in November. Even though I entered a couple of sprints and a half marathon prior to IMCDA, there was still plenty of season left afterward to compete. I struggled through an Olympic triathlon, a 10k, a 5k, and a full marathon because I just didn’t want to train but didn’t want to waste the remainder of the season doing nothing.

 

Sue (sue7013) completed IMFL in November and looked at it as the end of her season, hence time off was a natural thing to do. She didn’t have the depression problem I and others had, and after a short break started training for the upcoming season with no problems.

3) Did you get depressed and lose the desire to train? And if so, how long did it last?


Poll Results:
28 said they did get depressed after their IM.
48 did not become depressed following their event.

 

*The key seems to lie in post-race activity because the non-depressed athletes had a plan for recovery.

 

Ron (Atl_runner) put it best: “You have a plan to get to the summit. You also need a plan to get back down.” The majority of those IM'ers that got depressed stated they had no goals or plans post-race to focus on. For six months or more you eat, sleep, and train for a monumental event and when it’s over, if you’ve no plan or next race, you get lost in idleness.
 

4) Are you back to your old self? Better then before? Haven’t been the same since?
 

Poll Results:
31 said they were back to their old selves.
39 said they were better then before. Because they’d completed an Ironman they found renewed motivation to train, or the confidence to try to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

6 said they haven’t been the same since. A few claimed improvement in one area, like cycling, but haven’t gotten back into running, while a couple haven’t been able to recover their running speed since the big day.

5) Do you plan on doing another Ironman?


Poll Results:
48 plan on doing another Ironman.
3 don’t want to do another
25 gave an enthusiastic “maybe.”

6) How has the Ironman changed you? Do you feel you can take whatever life throws at you?


Poll Results:
There was a split on this question, with many saying completing an Ironman gave them more self-confidence and the belief that they could better cope with any given situation.

 

Still others like Jared (tell3131) said they already possessed that confidence before the race, and try to instill confidence in others. He says that we humans “are capable of doing more then we think we can.”

7) Any parting shots?


Poll Results:
Jeff (leapdog) said there was “No feeling in the world like crossing the finish line.” I would definitely agree with him on that. If only we could run down the chute everyday.

 

Jeff (Q) wrote that he got depressed after his first marathon because he didn’t plan on doing another one. With the IM, it’s a part of his lifestyle now, and he knows he’ll be back out there again and plans for it.

 

Dennis (BeCivil) encourages everyone to “cross the finish line.”

 

Peter (Pkingfl) wishes he’d started ten years ago.

 

Bryan (Bryancd) hopes I “find my mojo again.” In writing this article, I believe I have. Thanks, Bryan.

 

Chris (ccrema) also noticed the blank pages of BT members as I did, and wondered if there was a slump that IM athletes experience post-race. I believe the evidence answers that question in the affirmative.

What Does It All Mean?
Amy Kuitse, a USAT certified coach, covered this topic for D3 Multisport in this article. I took the following from her article with her permission:

If you ask me if I believe we feel a loss or depression following our IM, I will comfortably answer, “YES!!!” It is real, something to recognize and deal with. Think about how you feel regarding planning for a wedding, baby, graduation, Christmas, vacation, etc...Anything that takes time to plan for has somehow grabbed your attention more than normal. It has made you think things out, plan, prepare, and somewhere along the way, you have sacrificed doing other things you may normally do. Is IM a wedding day or the birth of a baby...NO...but it is a day that we have invested in emotionally.

Consider this though, just like big emotional moments in your life, you plan for an IM for almost a year. With the growing popularity of IM we don’t have a choice but to commit to this very early on if we want to do one. So, this thought is in the back of our mind and we revisit it many times over the course of the year.

To quote a good friend, training buddy, and someone I have had the pleasure of coaching to two IM finishes, “Amy, it’s like losing your best friend,” Joe Poszgai said to me about a week after he finished his first IM in Arizona.  One very helpful thing is to recognize it as “real,” and know that you are okay. Seek out another triathlete you know who has done an IM and talk with them about it. Do not come home following an IM and close the door on training. Talk with your coach about a post IM training plan. Do you need to train like you had been...absolutely not, but having some type of structure will help you.

 

It is amazing how nice it can be to have a training plan that only has a 30’ walk on it, a 1,000yd swim, and a 30’ bike, for a couple of weeks, and eventually a little running. It might be more of a comfort to have the training plan than doing the actual workouts. Another great thing to do within the first week is to write a race report. This written form of your memory already has a permanent place in your heart and mind, but one that is nice to go to from time to time remembering certain pieces of your race day. It is also a nice way to share your IM day with family, friends, and fellow triathletes.
 
Mike Ricci of D3 Multisport put it best, and I’d like to share his answer to question 6 in its entirety:

The best thing I can say about IM- and this is the part I love- is that there is a certain part on that run course, be it mile 16 or 10, or 20, where you have to ask yourself how bad do you want to hurt. I call this the ‘line of departure’- because once you step over that line, for better or worse, you are going to be a different person. Either you are going to step up and do something you didn’t think you could do (push yourself to a completely different level) or you are going to show weakness and not push yourself like you actually can.

 

Both situations build character. My high school football coach used to say “Winning doesn’t build character, losing does”- he didn’t mean that you should lose, but he did mean that facing adversity makes you stronger in anything you do. How will I face my demons of self-doubt when I get to the Line of Departure?

My thanks to Mike and Amy for their helpful insights.
 

In Conclusion
So there you have it. The phenomenon know as the “Ironman Blues” does exist. Not all IM finishers experience it. If I were to encapsulate all the information I gathered, and that was unselfishly provided by some of the great triathletes of BT, I would say this to an Ironman wannabe:

  1. Plan on two weeks away from training for recovery purposes. More if you’ve suffered an injury.

  2. Have a post-race event scheduled ahead of time to help motivate you to start training again. And when you do start up, do it gradually at first to see what hurts and what doesn’t.

  3. Realize that finishing an Ironman is a great physical accomplishment and that it’s okay to feel good about it. But at some point you have to move on to the next thing to stay hungry.

Pirategirl stepped up to the plate after striking out her first time up, and she hit a home run at IMAZ 2008 this year. Now it’s your turn. Batter up!

 

Many Thanks To My BT Friends
Many BT’s provided invaluable assistance in the writing of this article. A particular standout was Sue7013, who completed the 2006 Florida Ironman. I’ve been in contact with Sue since day one of my BT membership, and I actually consulted with her first last year when I was in the middle of all this down time. Thanks Sue!

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date: June 10, 2008

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IRONVIKING

I love my family, football, tri training and racing, seeing heart patients smile when I share my story with them . . .

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avatarIRONVIKING

I love my family, football, tri training and racing, seeing heart patients smile when I share my story with them . . .

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