Student essay: How I became an Ironman

For those who don’t know, Ironman is a triathlon discipline which combines marathon races from three basic sports: swimming, cycling and running. It is considered the hardest one-day race in the world. The history of how the distances for each of the disciplines were chosen says that on the island of Hawai, in the mid-70’s, athletes from local swimming and running clubs were debating who is more fit, runners or swimmers. At the same time, Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx had the highest recorded oxygen uptake, so many people argued that cyclist are more fit than anyone else. In order to solve that debate, one U.S. Navy Commander decided to organize an event that would combine all three disciplines. Since the distance between the end of the already existing swimming competition, which was 3,8km long, and the beginning of the Honolulu Marathon route was 180km, the organizers decided to create a competition which would consist of 3.8 km of swimming, 180 km of cycling and a 42.2km marathon run.


I would like to start my story by looking back to some 9 months ago while I was lying in a hospital. As many of you know, a year and a half year ago I had thyroid gland surgery. About one year after the operation I had to stay in a hospital for three days. That was a regular check-up procedure for a health issues I had. The procedure included taking a radioactive iodine pill and consequently spending three days in isolation. The only people I saw during those three days were the nurses who brought me meals and my parents, who were not allowed to enter the room and with whom I chatted through the window. While lying in bed for those 72 hours and I became aware of what a gift it is to be able to move. Therefore, I firmly decided that never again in my life would I take that gift for granted and that after leaving the hospital I would use that human ability to move as much as possible. Also, with a lot of time for contemplation, one strange idea came to my mind. If a human being is able to lie for 72 hours without getting tired, is it possible to be in such good shape that one can be involved in some kind of physical activity for 72 hours without getting tired? Logical, right? I know it is not, but I convinced myself it was, and that thought drove me forward.


At that time I had already successfully finished two Olympic triathlons (approximately 4 times shorter than the Ironman triathlon) and one half Ironman triathlon. Since I didn’t have a coach, my only source of information about the Ironman triathlon was the internet. Surfing the net, I found out a lot of useful information, among them that the average time to prepare for Ironman is 8 to 12 months (assuming the person was physically active before). Since it was December, that meant it would be possible to apply for races held in the autumn. In addition to being held during that period of the year, there were two more requirements that I wanted the race to meet: for it to be near Zagreb, in order to minimize transportation costs, and for there to be a decent probability the weather would be good, which meant that the race had to be in the first two months of autumn. Surfing through the net a little bit more, I found the perfect date and destination: Balaton Lake, September 10th.

The first period of my preparation was spent mostly indoors. At that time I was focused on strengthening my muscles so as to minimize the possibility of injuries and prepare my body for the upcoming efforts. On average, in one week, I spent five days doing cross-fit training, one day running, and one day swimming. With spring approaching, and by building a strong foundation with muscle strength, I was ready to focus on endurance trainings. So in the second period of preparation my average training week consisted of three days of cross-fit trainings, two days of running, one day of swimming, and one day of cycling. All in all, that was 12 hours of training per week. If I add to that different activities which are directly or indirectly connected with training, like stretching after the training or preparing special food, the majority of my free time was dedicated to preparing for Ironman. Consequently, even though I was enjoying every second of my training, I also had to sacrifice other parts of my everyday life and that was probably the hardest part. Now, I hope, you can understand why so many times I had to turn down your invitation to coffee or some other social gathering. Simply put, the day had too few hours.

balaton ironman

The start of the race was at 8 a.m., which meant I had to be at the start at 7 a.m. in order to organize everything I would need during the race, such as clothes, food, beverages, massage cream, etc. As in every triathlon discipline, swimming was the first one. The swimming course consisted of 4 laps, each 950 m long. Since the water temperature was 23 degrees, swimming wetsuits were allowed, so after warming up, I put on my wetsuit and was ready for the start. I started the first few hundred very carefully, since I didn’t want to be kicked in the face by someone’s leg. Luckily, that didn’t happen, and I could continue with swimming without worrying. After every lap we got out of the water, ran a dozen meters, and then continued with swimming. I had a pace of approximately 20 min/km, which I knew I could almost tirelessly follow during the whole 3.8km. That turned out to be true, and after 1 hour and 23 minutes I finished the swimming part. In the first transition, I equipped myself with isotonic drinks and dried figs and was ready for the 180-km bike journey.

The bike course also consisted of 4 laps, each 45 km long, and it was, given that Hungary is considered a very flat country, unexpectedly mountainous. Each lap had 500 m of vertical distance, so overall it was 2000m of ascents and descents. The hardest part of the bike course was the first 10 km of every lap, during which we reached the highest point of the course. The middle part had a lot of pace changes, since uphill and downhill parts had constantly exchanged. Therefore, the last part was the one in which we could relax our legs a little bit, and let gravity move us forward. As the weather was very demanding, with a cloudless sky and temperatures of around 30 degrees, I knew I had to drink even before I was thirsty. Otherwise I would risk dehydration and it is almost impossible to compensate for that later. So I drank an isotonic beverage every 10 km, and every 20 km I ate dried figs or energy bars, as they release carbohydrates immediately and therefore are a great source of energy.

Halfway through the first lap, where the refreshment point was located, I replaced empty bottles with full ones and continued towards the end of the first lap. There we were allowed to meet our families, which was great since I could break the loneliness and talk with someone. After every lap I stepped down from the bike to relax my legs, and I ate, drank and talked with my loved ones. Those breaks helped me a lot mentally, because I knew that after every lap I had my mom, my brother and my girlfriend to encourage me and supply me with everything I needed for the next lap. The other two laps went really well, and since now I already knew what to expect from the bike course I could create a tactic for when to push more or less. The last lap also went pretty smoothly. The only small problem I had was during the last 30 km. I started to feel uncomfortable sitting on the bike, so I decided to ride every uphill part in a standing position.

balaton iron man

Finally, after 7 hours and 20 minutes I finished the longest discipline, and “all” that was left was for me to run the marathon. The running part consisted of 16 laps, each 2637 m long. Unlike the the bike course, it was completely flat. In the few first laps, I made the only mistake that day, and it is the only part of the race that I regret. I drank an energy gel in the first lap, and I took one more in the third one. Unfortunately, my body couldn’t process so much food, and I started to feel digestion problems a few laps later. It happened because under such great effort, blood is primarily used to supply the body with the oxygen, not leaving enough blood to process food as easily as it can under normal conditions. Because of that, I lost more than half an hour, but after already spending 10 hours in the race, giving up was not an option. I knew this was my only chance to finish the Ironman race, and I didn’t want to waste it. So I proceeded despite those difficulties. I learned something from that mistake, and at the next refreshment points I only took water. Luckily, that proved to be good tactic.

ironman balaton

I kept cutting down the number of laps which were left to be run, and when I finished the eighth lap, it was mentally much easier. I knew that I had run more that I had left. In the meantime, the sun set, and the moon came out. In those conditions it was much easier to run. With a lot of thoughts going through my head, I made it to the last lap, during which I was accompanied by my girlfriend. At that moment, I knew that I was well below the time limit of 16 hours, so we spent the last lap half running and half walking, talking and just enjoying the unique moment. Finally, at 10:20 p.m., after an amazing 14 hour and 22 minute long journey, during which I drank 12 liters of liquid so as to keep me fueled, I crossed the line realizing I became something that 2 years ago I though only some superhuman could do. I became an Ironman. Immediately after the race, I received a finisher medal, which is for now hanging on the wall in my bedroom, as a symbol that, with the support of your family and friends, and with persistent and hard work, any goal, no matter how big, crazy or impossible seems at the first glance, is achievable.

Written by: Marko Primožić