Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | September 17, 2010

Journey to The Half Ironman: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

Apologies to David Foster Wallace for ripping off that title, but it is so appropriate. And I simply had to pay homage to DFW because the only thing I’ve found more challenging than reading Wallace’s colossal novel, Infinite Jest, was training for a triathlon. In fact, Half-Ironman training was a lot like reading Infinite Jest: enjoyable and engaging at times, but also frustrating and seemingly endless. As with Infinite Jest, I frequently wanted to give up, but was determined to get to the end.

I had four goals for the Half-Ironman. In order of importance, they were: 1) to finish 2) preferably upright 3) ideally without throwing up and 4) under 7 hours would be nice, but not necessary. The Half-Ironman was It: the Big One, the Queen and very far Outside the Comfort Zone. The question was, quite simply, could I do it? A good follow-up question was, “Why?”

My journey to the Half-Ironman (or Ironman 70.3 as it also known) began nearly a year ago. It was last October and I was in my post-marathon high. After several days of hobbling around the house, crying every time I approached a flight of stairs, my legs felt normal again and I quickly forgot the pain. I foolishly believed I had conquered a marathon and therefore could do anything. I was sitting at my computer reading posts by my friend Nina raving about her experience at the Longhorn 70.3 triathlon in Austin, Texas. She declared that it was fun, well-organized, and would be a perfect experience for a “first timer.” I must confess that I have never, not once in my life, given so much as a fleeting thought to a triathlon. I am a big cyclist and runner, but I hate swimming. The triathlon was not within the realm of possibility. However, with my 26.2-mile race endorphins still surging through my body, I looked at the Longhorn website and read the distances: 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run; 70.3 miles total. Basking my post-marathon euphoria, I thought to myself “I could do that,” conveniently ignoring the fact that I don’t swim. Then I made the fatal mistake of putting my irrationally optimistic enthusiasm in writing, on Twitter. “Nina, I’ll do it next year if you’ll be my coach!” Little did I know that Nina was in the process of becoming a certified triathlon coach. Without fully realizing what I was doing, I had publicly declared my intention to do a Half Ironman Triathlon.

And so it began. Nina convinced me that an Ironman 70.3 would be doable. She assured me that yes, I could adequately train for the swim, even if the only swimming I’d done in the last decade was to get to the swim-up bar at a hotel pool. She came up with a plan, I hired her as my coach, and I was on the road to a Half-Ironman despite the fact that I had never done a triathlon before.

Now, you might wonder what sort of insane person would commit to doing an Ironman 70.3 Triathlon without ever having done an easier, shorter triathlon first. The answer, of course, is a person like me who suffers from Athletic Event Related Psychosis. The only thought in my brain was “Hey, I want to try that!” The fact that I might hate triathlons with a passion, or that I might be completely unable to swim, never crossed my mind. Fortunately, Nina convinced me that I needed to do some shorter triathlons for practice, in advance of The Big One. We also decided that while Longhorn was a great race, flying to Texas would simply add unnecessary stress. We researched and found another Half-Ironman within driving distance: The Lake Geneva Triathlon Series in September. We mapped out my training and racing schedule for the year, and I began training in earnest in January.

From the get-go, there were times when I wanted to chicken out. The most serious of these was the first time I went to the pool for a swim workout; it took me over an hour just to muster up the courage to go inside the building.  I took lessons with a fantastic swim coach, AJ, who was patient and kind and never made fun of the fact that I swam like a drowning cat. I was also fortunate enough to have a friend, Laura, who is an amazing open water swimmer. AJ and Laura managed to convince me that I could, in fact, survive a triathlon swim. But even with their help, every time I pulled into the parking lot at the pool, I would ask myself “Why am I doing this?”

Thanks to the penchant of Chicago winters to last until June, my bike training time was limited at first. Fortunately, I had been doing some off-season training at Vision Quest Coaching‘s indoor facility, as well as lots and lots of spinning. Luckily, Chicago had great winter running weather this past year: frequent new snow but few sub-zero snaps. I stuck to my training schedule religiously, even when traveling, which gave me some great material for blog posts. I had memorable runs in Laos and Vietnam. I even overcame my pool phobia and did a swim workout while in Paris (but only once, because once was enough).  Winter and spring flew by, and before I knew it, my first “training” triathlon, a short tri in Galena, IL, was upon me.

Much to my surprise, I survived the Galena Tri. It could even be argued that I had fun. Galena was quickly followed by a longer Olympic distance triathlon in Helena in July, and then Chicago in August. I gained valuable experience and learned useful tips at all three. I learned, for example, that putting socks on wet feet is far more challenging than it sounds. I learned that indecision leads to a substantial loss of valuable time in transition. And I learned that in almost all situations, I still don’t like swimming.

Then my training ramped up as the warm weather arrived. I contemplated, on several occasions, writing a blog post called “How Triathlon Training Ruined My Summer.” As July morphed into August, I started to wonder if I had made an enormous mistake. There were a dozens of reasons to quit. To begin with, there were the vanity reasons. My goggles gave me wrinkles around my eyes. The hours spent riding and running outside gave me bizarre tan lines. Although I was working out constantly, I was hungry all the time and I over-fueled, to the tune of actually gaining five pounds. Wrinkles, sun damage, weight gain? I was killing myself only to face a future filled with Botox, age spots and Weight Watchers? Forget it.

Furthermore, as my training hours piled up, I was spending more and more time away from my family. One morning I was late getting out for my bike ride, and I needed to tack on a run at the end of the ride. One of my kids asked what time I would be home. I looked at the clock, did the math and said “Hopefully by 3.” In other words, I would be gone all day. It was getting ridiculous.

I reached a low point several days later. I was out for a short run, just 6 miles or so, and I lost my will to go on. I called my husband at mile 1.5 to come pick me up. When he arrived, he asked if I was ok, obviously concerned that I was injured. I told him I didn’t want to talk about it. In my head, I had resolved to quit the triathlon. I had wrinkles, weird tan lines, an extra 5 pounds, and I was lonely and exhausted. I was done.

Fortunately, my despair didn’t last. I eased up my workouts for a few days and cleared my head. I bought higher SPF sunscreen and set up a Botox fund (just kidding!). I made an effort to move my workouts earlier in the morning so the time away from my family wouldn’t seem as significant. My kids started taking turns coming with me on their bikes while I ran. They even escorted me in a canoe while I swam in the lake.

Before I knew it, the scent of fall was in the air. The days were getting shorter and the nights took on a slight chill. As usual, I mourned the end of summer, but this year I also felt a twinge of dread pulling at my heart.  The Half-Ironman was almost at hand. Would I be ready? Could I do it? Did I have to?

I was more nervous and edgy in the weeks before the Half-Ironman than I ever have been in my life. I was scared I would get sick or injured. I felt like a delicate flower – one misstep, one twisted ankle, and all that training would be for naught. Sure, there were other races I could do later, but I was not ready to start training all over again. I need it to be over. Now.

The week before the race, I watched the weather obsessively. The forecast for race day called for wind and rain. Thunderstorms were my biggest fear, not because I was afraid to race in them (I have been caught in numerous storms over the years) but because I was afraid race officials would cancel all or part of the race if there was lightning. This was the day I had planned for, the race I had planned for. Every day for the previous 9 months had been mapped out based on this race on this day. I desperately needed it NOT to be canceled.

My days leading up to the triathlon consisted of me making large piles of triathlon equipment in my family room and obsessively checking the weather. It is possible I crashed the website by hitting refresh too many times. I laid out all my tri stuff: wetsuit, cap, goggles, back up goggles, helmet, shoes, sunglasses, race belt, etc. Anytime someone walked near my piles of stuff I yelled”Don’t touch anything! It is all organized! Don’t mess anything up! Get away from there!” Yes, good times in the Gelber household.

I spent hours driving myself crazy reading race reviews that called the course “challenging” and “difficult.” There were even references to the “Killer Hill.” What the heck had I gotten myself into? Bad enough I had to cover 70.3 miles in one day, but I had to pick a course that was “difficult?” Why couldn’t I have found an easy one? Why do I do these things to myself? What if I crashed? What if I got injured? What if I couldn’t do it and got my first DNF (Did Not Finish)? I was a nervous wreck. I needed to get this tri over with before I drove myself, and family, absolutely insane.

Finally, it was time to head to Lake Geneva. I was nervous and fidgety for the entire car ride. I got my race packet and headed to the hotel for a fitful night’s sleep. I woke up at 4:30 AM, ready to head to the race. After 9 months, it was finally time to deliver this baby.


  1. Not only did you deliver,but on Sun. you looked great-almost radiant with your big smile.Congrats, and a big hug.

  2. You’ll never do it again, because you’ll go straight to Ironman 🙂
    I blew out my foot training for an ultra a year ago. Now all I can think about it getting my mojo back and doing another half…and then a full. And every moment of training and doing it was hard. Some of it was fun, but mostly it was hard, and I am PRONE to ugly mood swings when something tests me. But I have never felt better about myself.
    I want that feeling again.
    It’s addictive.
    Anyway, this was awesome.

    • Thanks Pamela. You are right. It is addictive! Maybe not addictive enough to get me to do a full Ironman. That requires a combination of addicted and insane, which I may be…. We will have to wait and see!

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