This Blog post is my journey over the past year to becoming a 3 time Ironman Finisher, finishing top 10 in one of the most elite age group fields at Ironman and all of the lessons learned from stepping into the unknown and doing what most would consider impossible.
1. If You’re not Growing You’re Dying!
Ironman (IM) is considered the most challenging single day endurance event on earth. Ironman is the grand daddy of triathlon. It’s a 3.8km (2.4 mile) open water swim, 180 km (112 mile) non-drafting bike ride and it finishes up with running a full marathon, 42.2 km (26.2 miles). The most common question I’m asked is “why”? “Sukhi, Why do you race these insanely challenging ultra-endurance events?” The answer to this is quite simple… If you’re not growing, you’re dying and the only way to keep growing in life is to pursue endeavors that force you to get way out of your comfort zone. IM does this for me. If you truly want to know what you’re capable of and who you are this experience will strip you down to your core, remove the veils and all you’ll have left is the beautiful and remarkable YOU!
Before you dive into this blog I just wanted to let you know that it’s on the longer side. Which I believe gives IM the respect it deserves, as it’s so much more than a physical endeavor. So grab yourself a cup of your favorite beverage and sit back for the ride.
2. Every New Beginning Starts with Some other Beginnings End
After underperforming and spending 3 hours in the medical tent on IV’s after Ironman Canada in 2011 from dehydration, I knew I had to take a different approach coming in to this years Ironman. Specifically, I began trading in volume for intensity over the offseason and was really impressed with my fitness improvements. All year I’d spent hours in my “pain” cave doing the most intense interval sessions on my bike trainer. I’d also hit the seawall every morning before the sun came up and run intervals and sprints. I had found a new methodology to training that more closely resembled my days growing up as a hockey player. As much as I know about exercise physiology, the human mind and potential, I still sought out a coach that could take my training to an even greater level. In fact I found two, one from California and the other from upstate NY. A coach can see things that we cannot, they remove the barriers to our blind spots and they help us achieve all our goals with more ease, efficiency and grace. It’s why I’m so big on supporting others as their coach/mentor in life as well. This was the start of something new and extraordinary.
3. 10,000 Hours to Mastery
Over the course of the year in preparation I’d swam over 400 km, I’d cycled over 10, 000 km and I’d ran over 2000 km. All of this mental, physical and spiritual preparation took over 1000 hours over the past year. Here’s an interesting metric for you to consider in everything that you do. It’s believed that it takes 10,000 hours of pure dedication to anything to achieve mastery. I became an endurance athlete in 2006. For the first few years all I did was run. Everything from 5km to 100-mile races. During that time I logged in just over 2000 hours of running. In 2009, I became a triathlete. The only challenge was that I’d never swam, had swim lessons or spent much time in the water my entire life. That’s a problem when you think about getting into the ocean with 3000 other athletes for a 3.8km swim. I also had not ridden a bike in over 17 years. Another small problem when you think about riding 180 km in preparation for a marathon. As a triathlete I’ve logged just over 3000 hours. So as a triathlete I’m just leaving infancy and entering adolescence.
This is such an important benchmark when you begin to think about the things that you pursue and do in your life. So often if we’re not “good” at something we simply give up. Whether it’s a relationship, career, business, entrepreneurial pursuit, education, whatever… So please check in with how many hours you’ve dedicated and give yourself a reality check and break.
Today I still royally suck as a swimmer and cyclist, yet my run is the strongest simply because I’ve logged more time in that discipline.
4. In Life We Never Plan to Fail, but we might Fail to Plan
These were my 2 Week Goals leading up to race day. In order to execute the perfect race I had to execute the perfect preparation. Eating lean and mean, tons of greens and staying well hydrated with alkaline water. Eating 1800 calories/day + replacing calories lost during training. No meals after 7pm, largest meal breakfast, smallest is dinner (pyramid consumption). Prepare all meals for travel and in Florida. (No alcohol for past several months)(My body hasn’t taken any drugs/medicine in over 20 years).
Meditation and visualization everyday for at least 60 minutes rehearsing every situation that could arise race day and seeing/feeling my perfect race. Stretching/body rolling 40-60 minutes daily, full body. Staying off my feet as much as possible and spending quality time with Kate. Lots of laughing, smiling and gratitude for being able to journey through life in this amazing vehicle called my mind and body. I also asked myself from every moment to moment, “Is this thought/activity/behavior fueling me or depleting me”, and then making the appropriate changes. Staying positive, focused and confident.
I arrived in Florida on Tuesday night with Kate, mother in law Debbie, good friend and training partner Lanny Taschuk and his fiancé, Lexi. I laid out all my nutrition, gear and got my bike together. Monday and Tuesday were complete rest days for me. Wednesday morning Lanny and I hit the ocean at the race start and attempted to get a 30-minute swim in. It wasn’t happening, the waves and chop was far too much for us to handle, we were laughing hysterically at how ridiculous it was. We stayed in for 30 minutes and did our best. I also went for an easy 60 minute ride staying below my race pace watts on the course.
Thursday I decided to stay out of the water cause I felt there would be no Return On Investment and instead opted for an easy 30 minute run and ride.
Day Before Race
I packed all my bags, did my last check of my bike and head into Transition. IN & OUT! No messing around there and getting caught up in the nervous energy of it all. There are thousands of people dropping off their bikes and handing in their swim to bike and bike to run bags and the energy of the place is intense and nervous. Athletes, supporting friends and family are all thinking about what the next day will hold. Being who I am and very sensitive to electromagnetic fields and energy I put on my protection and did my admin duites and got outta there ASAP.
Carbohydrate loading began the day before with simple carbs and my cocktail of sports drink (no more water). Friday I ate 3 very large breakfasts, 2 very large lunch’s, snacking throughout the day and a small dinner at 5pm (all of this was simple carbs, 20% protein from nonmeat sources, very little fat, no fiber). By 6pm I was off to my bedroom and visualizing my entire race execution several times. By 8pm it was lights out and bed time.
5. Ready or Not Here Life Comes
I had a great nights sleep and got in a good 4 hours. The rest of the time was spent meditating. I got up at 3:30am and got breakfast ready. I had 3 cups unsweetened organic Applesauce with Vegan Protein powder, banana, and 24 oz of sports drink. I continued to sip my sports drink throughout the entire morning.
I could feel the nervous energy in the air. The waves had settled slightly since Wednesday, but it wasn’t a sheet of glass either. I managed to get in a short warm up and lined myself up 2nd row from the front in the middle of the pack (waves were moving right to left). My last Race Rehearsal in training I swam 3.8 km in 1:00:53. My swim training had crossed a new threshold, this was the fastest I’ve ever swam that distance. On race day I knew the waves and chop would be tougher for me and I was set on not fighting the waves to save energy for the later stages of the race. The gun went off and it was a full on assault. A friend racing said it perfectly in his race description, “It was like the gun went off, everyone turned to the person next to them and starting punching and kicking them… : )” Literally, that’s what it felt like. I’ve been in over a dozen open water swim starts and this was by far the roughest and most challenging. I think the waves crashing on all 3000 of us and slamming us all over the place in the wake of its turbulence was what made it so bad. I got beat up pretty good. Elbows and fists to the head and kicks to the ribs and chest. And this is supposed to be fun???? The wonderful thing about all the work I’ve done on myself and mental preparation was that I remained calm the entire time and never lost myself. I focused on counting my strokes, “1, 2, stretch…1, 2, stretch…” This is my 3 stroke breathing rhythm and I made sure I had a steady exhalation to remain calm.
6. Never Let the Circumstances Outside You Dictate the State Within You
I kept turning my arms over focused on my form and began to settle in after 1300 meters, yes it took a while. During the second lap I was with a group of people and was not doing much sighting, until I had a gut feeling we were way off course. I looked up and we were, swimming 90 degrees from the direction we should have been. I grabbed the leg of one swimmer close to me, he looked at me as if he was going to punch me out and then I pointed to the TYR exit chute and he realized my intention and gave me the thumbs up and we swam in together. The rest of that group continued to swim off course. My guess is that I lost a few minutes over this. This was my worst swim in an IM, but it didn’t phase me at all. I didn’t burn much energy and was ready to hit the bike.
Swim Time: 1:10 Overall Rank: 579 Div. Rank: 86
Goal: IN & OUT… ASAP!
The Transition from swim to bike was the longest distance I’d ever seen. We had to run a good distance out of the shallow water and then hit the sandy beach. The beach was long and we had to run through a corridor of the host hotel and grab our bike gear bags. From there we had to run into the hotel where the change area was. My wetsuit got stuck on my wrist and I needed a wetsuit stripper to help with that. I finally got it off… whew! T1 was a total zoo, bodies were everywhere scrambling as I was doing my best to navigate through them. As I was running into the change area I knew I wouldn’t need my gloves and arm warmers as temperatures were warm. I threw on shades and helmet and ran with my cycling shoes in hand. From here I had to run back out of the hotel, through a long transition area to get to where my bike was racked. Transitions are free time so I try to keep it simple and clean. Because the run through T1 was so long I decided that I could run faster and safer bare foot. I got to my bike, which was close to T1 exit and put on my shoes there and then made my way to the mount line.
T1 Time: 4:59
7. The Journey of 140.6 Miles Begins With One Step at a Time.
I was very vigilant early on the bike as the mount line and first few miles of the ride are danger zones. This is where accidents happen. Athletes are dizzy from the swim, they’re panicking, they’re simply not themselves. I Velcro my shoes, set my Garmin 910xt and settled in to my nutrition plan within the first 10 minutes. 325-350 calories/hour from Perform, Bonk Breakers, Cliff Blocks and Honey Stingers and an additional 700mg of Na/hour from Salt tabs, NO water. Most athletes make this mistake. They drink water to hydrate but don’t realize their causing hyponatremia. My bike had a very clean set up with a speed fill for perform and solid nutrition/salt tabs in my aero bento and drop bag.
My goal on the bike was patience, persistence and steady power! I took it easy during the first 20 miles, but something appeared to be wrong with my power meter reading. It was way too low. This past year I invested in a power meter for my bike, which essentially measures how much force I’m putting on the pedals. I knew exactly where my power watts had to be to execute my perfect 180 km ride. When we had a slight incline on the road I tested this to spike my watts and something was definitely wrong. Yikes! Yes, for the first time my power meter decided to play games with me race day.
8. In Life We Must Focus on the Process, Not the Outcome, Because the Outcome is a Metric in Which We Have No Control Over
I was focused on the process of the ride, not the outcome. The process lives in the here and now and you have direct control over it. The outcome does not exist because it’s somewhere in the future and therefore you have no direct control over it. When you focus on the process the outcome takes care of itself. With no power meter I delved into my data bank of spreadsheets in my head. In life we never plan to fail, but we may fail to plan. Power meter or not, I was still going to race my race and focus on every pedal stroke. I train with Heart Rate (HR) occasionally, but HR is an indirect measure of work that may or may not be reliable. The only objective info I had now was speed and cadence. Yet I know that the most precise metric for racing is perceived exertion (RPE). Yet the challenge with it is that it’s a very delicate and subtle measure that must be developed with experience by each athlete and their body. Knowing this I still wanted to ride at my goal watts so I went back to my Race Rehearsal, which I did 3 weeks before race day on similar terrain at home. During that Race Rehearsal I rode the entire 180km as if it was race day and I memorized all the metrics, Speed, cadence, power output. I found that for the first 40 miles I was doing great and staying right around 22MPH and was getting in lots of calories. When I feel good I don’t push the pace, I simply eat/drink more. By mile 43 I began to hit a low point. Not sure why, but holding this effort became increasingly difficult. I went through my systems review, nutrition and hydration plan and it all seemed great. So I just kept on working.
During the race I thought I was going to see large draft packs (cheating) and penalty tents full of people, but I didn’t see any. From my lens it was a very clean race (although I heard otherwise after the race). As a result, I never had a chance to get any “free” speed or legal draft. It was a full on Time Trial; me, myself and I working my way through the field passing people all day… the way I like it. I continued to work and kept reminding myself “this will pass…. This will pass… just stick to the plan”. 1, hour, 2 hours, 3 hours, creeping up on 4 hours and I still felt like crap… WTF???
9. In Life You Can Be Driven by Your Values or Your Emotions
In Beyond Body Beyond Mind I get into this concept with more detail. Here’s the short version… When you’re up your emotions fuel you, when you’re down you’re emotions deplete you. If you live this way you’re a disempowered person because it’s impossible to always be up. An empowered person is driven by their values regardless of what their emotions are telling them. There are times we must listen to our emotions and there are times we must ignore them, my book elaborates on this.
I stuck to my values, “this is Ironman keep working away this will pass in time”… I kept asking the universe for support, a sign, a message, a crack on the road, anything… It was mile 90ish and an athlete rode up to me and I saw his race kit and recognized him. It was a guy on my race team from NY named John and he was hammering looking very strong. I told him I’d been in a low spot for the past 50 miles… He lifted me up by saying, “Well, the runs just around the corner and that’s your thing…!” We never know how far reaching something we may say will affect the life of another. John was right, I was doing my best to hold RPE at 70-75%, I’d stuck to my nutrition plan perfectly and I was less than 20 miles to running a marathon, and that’s “my thing”. John lifted me right up, A big Thank-you to you John! I stopped thinking about how I was feeling and switched gears to how I was going to execute the run. At the finish line I had a great conversation with John and he told me that when we rode together he was at a low point too, but then he thought, “Shit, I’m riding with Sukhi and he’s smoking fast, I’m having the ride of my life here”, which he did also setting a new personal record. So I was able to lift him as well, how cool? A symbiotic dynamic!
Ironically by the time I hit mile 105 I was feeling fantastic and ready to hit T2. I stepped out of my pedals at mile 110 and stood up on the bike opening up my torso, hips and stretching my calves, hamstrings and glutes. Amazing how reliable perceived exertion can be… and how perfect I rode 180km based on feel, despite feeling like crap for 3 hours. My time for my race rehearsal 3 weeks ago was 5:09, my bike split at this IM was exactly 5:09. Amazing! So I knew I rode my perfect ride. It was my perfect “should” ride even though my sub 5 hour “could” ride was possible (followed by a crappy run). I was now set up for the perfect run and rode this bike split 29 minutes faster than my previous Personal Record (PR). I’d passed 334 athletes on the ride.
Bike Time: 5:09 Race Time: 6:24 Overall Rank: 245 Div Rank: 38
I rode up to the dismount line and stepped off my bike barefoot. The first few steps into T2 will tell a thousand tales for me. My legs felt light and strong. I was smiling ear-to-ear and ready to rock this marathon with perfect execution. I got my bag, dumped it, ripped off my helmet and put socks and shoes on and ran out with my visor and salt tabs in hand.
T2 Time: 2:28
Although I’m a former hockey player I love to run. Marathons and Ultra-marathons got me into triathlon and it’s my strongest discipline. Over the past year I’d been working hard to better execute during the marathon of Ironman. I’d PR’d a Half IM this summer with a 1:26 run split, but my speed gains got to my head and I stopped listening to my body. A classic example of letting my ego get to me. Which’s also another great example of when we let our emotions which are truly an addiction to a strong dopamine release dictate the show. We must step into power!
10. IN-JURY means the JURY is IN.
An ache, pain, low energy, frustration, anger, sadness, illness, disease of the mind or body is an Injury. And it’s time for the JURY to come IN and see where you’ve disconnected. In July my run paces were off the charts and all I kept thinking about was how I was going to crush the marathon at Ironman this year. Yes, when I focused on outcome, not process, the universe put me in my place and forced me to call in my JURY. After a few races this past summer that were perfectly placed to build into my Ironman training I could barely walk 10 ten steps without having lighting bolt pain shoot up my left shin/calf. I’d crossed the training line and had a stress fracture. I was sidelined for 9 weeks with absolutely no running during the last 14 weeks leading up to IM. When I began running again I couldn’t do any speed work as it still created discomfort and healing wasn’t complete. So I ran easy paces in the 8:00min/mile range. But as the weeks progressed I was able to begin doing some sub 7min/mile runs. Which was almost 2 minutes slower than what I was doing this summer. I knew I’d be able to complete the marathon at Ironman, I just had no idea what my legs could handle because I hadn’t put in the proper run training. My leg was 80-85% come race day. It was such a wonderful summer healing this injury and learning so much more about myself, I’m so grateful for the experience.
11. Work with an Expert
This past summer I’d worked with many docs, healers and did tons of personal work. I’d worked with a friend who’s a Master NLP practitioner recently to help me mentally through the run because I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. His name is Harry Nichols and he’s awesome. I had mental words flashing through my mind and my main mantra was “the closer I am the stronger I feel, stronger and stronger, stronger and stronger, find that edge and ride it, Let’s do this… “
When I race it’s never a question of “if” it’s a question of “when”. “When” will I have to go to that dark place within myself to find that special something to keep me driving forward in the face of adversity? Perhaps it’s because I have a dark past, perhaps it’s because I was raised on the other side of the tracks, yet I welcome this place of discomfort and it’s truly the “why” of my racing. Every time I go to that place I come out a different human being on the other side. That finish creates the space for a brand new beginning.
My run goals were again to focus on process not results, ignore what everyone else is doing, run the entire marathon, but walk the aid stations to get in optimal nutrition (Perform) and stay cool (ice water/ice), run the tangents, sling shot around corners, high cadence (92), light on feet driving forward at the hips, staying tall, shoulders down and relaxed and being in control, pain and pace management.
I felt great. The pace was easy. While running my own race I take inventory of those around me. I rarely get passed during the run and in the first 6 miles 2 men passed me. I took note of their race kits and would use this as fuel for the later stages of the race. First 6 miles I averaged 7:40min/mile, not crazy fast but respectable. Again, because I felt so great I took in lots of perform (1.5-2 cups at every mile) and maintained 600mg/sodium/hr.
Making my way back to the start line to finish the first loop I noticed there was a slight head wind and I had to dial up my effort to hold pace. By mile 9 I knew I was in the middle of a race and I was going to have to call upon my mental reserves soon. My body was getting tight especially in my oblique’s and calves. When my calves get tight during a race I know I’m riding the edge of a pace that may be too fast given the training I’ve put in. It was a lot worse in my left injured leg. Sticking to my fuel and race plan I didn’t feel I should adjust anything yet. Again I held pace and hit the half way point of the run in an 1 hour 40’ish minutes.
At half way I grabbed my special needs bag and had some cliff blocks (200 calories) and added more salt tabs to my container in my pocket. It was getting tough to hold pace once I left the high energy area of the start line and was making my way back out for the last loop. Again I held pace through mile 15, 16, 17 and 18. But the pain in my calves was becoming extreme, I was entering my dark zone. It literally felt like someone was taking an icepic and stabbing me in my calf. So I took an extra 10 seconds at each of these aid stations doubling up on my nutrition (2 performs, 1 coke, 2 salt tabs every mile) (yes, when I race I drink coke – simple sugar, caffeine, pretty much like nitrous oxide, then I vomit at the finish line getting rid of it… : ).
Most of us have experienced that sensation when the bottom of the arch of our feet spasms and we’re literally laying on the floor in a fetal position waiting for the cramp to subside. It was clear to me that I hadn’t put in the mileage and that 9-week hiatus from running had caught up to me. Specifically, I’d missed 53 run workouts leading up to this race; my run fitness was weak. Mentally I was strong and focused, but my calf was a short step from cramping up the way I explained above. Every cell in my calf was screaming at me to walk so I knew I couldn’t because if I did I may never start running again. Instead of walking through aid stations I shuffled now. I was focused on perfect running form and exaggerating the swing in my arms to drive forward through the hips. This helped until mile 24. My pace had slowed slightly but I was still working my way through the field and getting more energy as I passed people. There was only 1 man early in the day that passed me that I hadn’t caught yet. I was looking for him, he had to be somewhere close. That motivation and connecting to that place inside myself kept me running hard.
12. The Only Way to Know What’s Possible is to Step into the Impossible.
Just after mile 24 it happened. Lightning bolt pain shooting up from my left lower leg and calf, my nightmare came true. That debilitating spasm that lasts for a few seconds under our feet crept into my calf and I was forced to stop. I collapsed to my knees and lay on all fours on the ground grimacing. Eventually, I took 2 trigger point contacts to release the spasm. After a few seconds, Nothing! The pain deepened. I pulled out my salt tabs and took in 5 tabs (over 1500mg/Na). The pain of the spasm was so intense I began punching my left calf with my right fist. I yelled at it, “You give me 2 more F**kin miles”. After laying on the ground there for 40’ish seconds the spasm backed off slightly, the only way to know what’s possible is to step into the impossible. I started running again but changing my running gait so I was only running on my heels because that calf was done (I had to stay off the balls of my feet otherwise it would spasm again). All I kept thinking was that I was not going to walk the last 2 miles. I was conjuring up every last bit of inspiration from within to keep driving forward. One step at a time the pain became slightly more intense again. That lasted several minutes and I was able to pass the one gentleman that overtook me early during the race. With 1 mile left to go the intensity of the cramp heightened again, but I didn’t stop. I dug deep, took every salt tab I had left (8’ish thanks to my special needs) and I took them all… : ) Over 2400mg/Na.
By the time I was less than half a mile from the finish I was on pure adrenalin. I decided to finally look at where I was in the race. Up until this point I had no idea because I was just focused on the process not the outcome, because you can’t control outcome. My watch said 9:50’ish and I was so excited. Having stopped with the cramp and changing my running gait over the last 2 miles I ended up slowing down and lost a couple minutes compared to my pace over the first 24 miles. My overall run pace was 7:2xmin/miles, with walking the aid stations and stopping my overall run race pace for the marathon was 7:54min/miles. Since the swim I worked my way through the field passing 470 athletes and having the race of my life.
Marathon Run Time: 3:27 Race Time: 9:54 Overall Rank: 109 Div Rank: 10
13. You Never Know What’s Happening On the Journey in Front of You, so NEVER Give Up!
After the race I learned that when my leg had a spasm at mile 24 I was in 12th place. If I knew that I may have given up. I only had 2 miles to run. But I kept running as best I could and ran my way into the top 10 over the last 2 miles edging 11th place by 19 seconds and 12th place by 29 seconds.
I showed up at this race 80% of my best due to an injury and lack of run training. Over past Ironman races I’d shown up 100%, but I was only able to execute at 70%. Even though I was only 80% this day I executed 100% of that 80% and had the race and experience of my life. My run split was 12 minutes faster than last year. I joined the elite club of sub 10 hour IM finishers. My coach told me 2 hours after the race that I’d finished 10th in the fastest age group in IM. He said I’d arrived and that the field ahead of me were the top AG in the sport and I was now in Elite IM company. I was speechless.
14. Finding FLOW
I was so excited to have had this breakthrough race and shave 35 minutes off my Ironman Personal Record. It was a tough day and it always will be. Today my racing self honored my training self by doing my absolute best and never giving up in the face of adversity. It’s what we do in those moments that define who are and what we’re capable of. Throughout the entire day I never looked at a single calf (shows peoples age group division) or even thought about what place I was in. When I focus on the process and pace, the place takes care of itself.
I literally spent the majority of these 9 hours in a state of thoughtlessness. Which means that I never gave many thoughts an emotional meaning or charge. It’s a state I call present time consciousness. Where there is no past, no future and the only thing that’s occupying your conscious awareness is this present moment. This is FLOW and when we step into that state we’re pouring 100% of who we are into that moment. All the preparation over the past year allowed me to step into this state of flow and execute 100%. When we find FLOW we find ourselves, it’s where inspiration meets motivation and extraordinary ensues.
The next racing adventure for me is Ironman Canada 2013 on the inaugural new Whistler Course in August!
Thanks for reading, please post ALL your comments below and what you’ve taken from this. We can always learn from others and I’d love to know how this has touched you.
Life just keeps getting better my friend!
For you it may not be Ironman, but I invite you to find your edge and ride it!