Enduring Enigma

From Philosopher to Ironman: How and why I took on the world’s toughest triathlon

Step One: stop drinking. Step Two: watch a lot of YouTube videos.

In September, Aakash Singh Rathore, formerly a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Delhi, finished the gruelling Ironman triathlon – known as the world’s most difficult one-day sporting event. The Ironman consists of a 3.86 km swim in open water (lake, river, or ocean), a 180.25 km bicycle ride, followed up by running a full marathon (42.20 km), raced in that order and without rest. Contestants must complete the event within 16 hours to be declared an Ironman.

The idea, like all dubious, questionable ideas, came to me suddenly, late at night. It was May 1. I immediately shot off a mail to the Indian Ministry of Sports, which opened – perhaps unconventionally for its bureaucrat reader – like this:

“The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports must be cognizant of the world-famous triathlon, the IRONMAN. Unfortunately, very few Indian athletes participate in this event of international significance. The minuscule participation rate of Indians is a negative for the promotion of sports, health and fitness in an increasingly obese, physically unhealthy and diabetes-prone India. It is also a negative for diversifying global perceptions of India’s soft power.”

What I suggested to the ministry was that they sponsor my participation in an upcoming Ironman, and that in exchange I would guarantee to place within the top 15, representing India, and running with the Tricolour held high across the televised finish line. I asked for a total of about Rs 1 lakh, and said I would sign a bond to return the money in the event that I did not finish within the top 15. I did not think they could turn down my offer, since an Indian in the top 15 could easily reach international sporting news, reflecting credit upon the ministry at a totally negligible cost to them.

If I failed, they got their money back. But this is the Indian Sports Ministry we are talking about. They did less than turn down my offer: they did not even bother to reply at all.

I was disheartened but not discouraged. I decided nevertheless to proceed with the idea of competing in the Ironman, even though I knew that without some kind of external support or expectation or pressure, the only thing that I would have to carry me through all the agony of training and the dietary discipline and many other behavioural changes would be just my will power and solitary resolve. My will power is strong, but so is my thirst for whiskey. It was May. I had five months to train like a maniac.

Step One was clear: stop drinking like a pirate. But Step Two and onwards were still hazy.

YouTube could fix that, I figured. I needed to learn to swim, bike, and run with speed and stamina. So obviously Step Two was to binge watch YouTube videos of or by or about Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong, and Usain Bolt. I wasted a week in May just doing that. But it was fun.

Watching videos of achievers is inspiring, for sure, but there needs to be some underlying substance that gets inspired. That underlying thing is the athletic body. To build that body there are no shortcuts. The five months I had were not enough. At least, not while juggling work, parenting, publishing, family and social obligations. Had I been a sponsored athlete, where I could leave so much else of life aside just to pursue the one goal of a spectacular finish in the Ironman, things might have been different. But as a ‘normal’ person, it really seems like there is never enough time in the day, week, month to train. But how could there be, when the training regimen is just so all-consuming?

Credit: Facebook.com/IRONMANWorldChampionship
Credit: Facebook.com/IRONMANWorldChampionship

To be in a position to finish strong in the Ironman, you need to train six days a week. Swimming is the most technical of the three events, I think. You have to try to swim at least three days a week. Four or five is more adequate, but it is not easy to find a good accessible place to swim in New Delhi. Still, no matter how many laps you do in a pool, and for how many days a week, it still does not prepare you in the least for swimming in the open water. And indeed, even open water as a concept masks the remarkable differences between lake-swimming, river-swimming, and ocean-swimming.

When you swim in a river, assuming you swim with the current and not against it, the flow of the river speeds up your time, improving your performance. However, rivers also tend to be choppy and turbulent, and you find that you cannot breathe from both your left and right side, since on one side or the other your face will inevitably be slapped by the rough water, and as a result you swallow mouthfuls while trying to gulp air, and you gasp and choke. So, in rivers, what you gain in speed you lose in form. It is not efficient to keep breathing from only one side, as it throws you off balance and speeds up your heart rate, which you need to try to keep moderate, since there is a long, long day of exertion ahead.

Lakes, on the contrary, tend to be calmer, and permit bilateral breathing (i.e., breathing from both right and left side). However, you do not have the benefit of the current pushing you, and you also do not have the primary benefit of ocean swims, which is the added buoyancy. In the ocean, since salt water is more dense than fresh water, your body is more buoyant. This allows you to focus more on propulsion (that is, moving forward), and less on simply keeping afloat (that is, not drowning). But the free flotation you get in the ocean is immediately countered by the surf, the waves tossing you all about, the dehydrating salt water, and, yes, some of the scarier stuff – sharks, jellyfish, and whatnot.

None of the peculiarities of these three types of open water swimming can be adequately prepared for in your local lap pool. And add on to this that in open water swimming, it is often necessary to wear a wet suit due to the cold temperatures. So, in addition to swimming three or four or five times a week, it is also essential to find a lake or river or sea to swim in several times before the big day. You do not just need to learn how to swim, you need to learn how to swim fast and long in a wet suit.

Then there is the biking. During an Ironman, you spend the majority of your time on the bike. It generally takes around six hours to complete the bike segment of the race. Just sitting on a bike for six hours at a stretch takes a great deal of practice, not to mention all the pedaling and pumping and exertion. Riding around 200 km per week is necessary to get good on the bike. You can split this up and do an hour or two a day, or you can do a couple of big rides each week. Either way, you have to get at least one big ride in every week or so. A big ride is something like 70 km or more, something that takes you about three hours to complete. How do you bike around Delhi for three straight hours? You have to wake up very, very early, and hope for the best. Wrecks are inevitable. And painful. But the worst thing about cycling in Delhi is the palpable risk of death – there is little traffic at 4 am, but what little there is just does not give a damn about you.

One other pretty crazy part of training for the bike segment of a triathlon is that you have to not only learn how to race a bike, you also have to learn how to fix one – you need to become a competent bicycle mechanic. So, that means more YouTube binges, a lot of trips to the bike shop, and a big mess of grease and dirt. Given the costs of shipping a bike or flying with it, it is essential to learn how to disassemble a bike – removing wheels, pedals, aerobars, handle bars, steering column, seat tube, front brakes, and rear derailleur – so it can fit into your luggage without paying extra fee.

Thanks to the wet suit, the challenges posed by different bodies of water, the risk of drowning, the technical aspects of bike racing, along with the need to suddenly become a part-time bike mechanic, it almost seems like the run portion of an Ironman is the easy bit.

It is, after all, nothing but running a marathon.

But running a marathon is pretty hard in itself. Just to train to run a marathon requires running four or five times a week, mixing up sprints, shorter runs, and at least one longer run each week (a longer run is something like 15 km). But it is especially hard to run a marathon after you have already been racing in the water and on the bike for the past seven or eight or nine hours. You are already exhausted. You have already pushed your body to its limits. You have not eaten a proper meal the entire day, but have already burned 5,000 or more calories. You are dehydrated, since you have been sweating since the moment you jumped into the water. On top of all this, you hardly slept the night before, as you have to be at the race site by 5 am or so. It is getting late in the day by the time you are going to start that run. And now, now after all that, you have to run a marathon. That you can wrap your head around that, that you can push your body to attempt it, that is what makes you iron.

Did I achieve my dream?

In short, then, my average training regimen three or four days a week was a swim of 30 minutes, a bike ride of an hour, and a run of 30 minutes to an hour. In addition, on weekends, I would push the bike rides up to two or three hours, and the run up to one to two hours. In the midst of all that, I would need to find time to do two sessions of weight training at the gym. All that endurance work withers down your muscles, and you have to spend a bit of time each week building them back up. To exercise like this was not just a question of finding the time. It was also a question of finding the energy, of refueling the body – of nourishment and nutrition.

By the end of May, right through till September, I increased my caloric intake to some 4,000 calories on training days. And, unfortunately, these are not delicious calories full of sweets. Sugar needs to be cut out as much as possible. For protein, being vegetarian, I required supplements in order to get the adequate amount. Drinks? Next to nothing. Water all day, every day, as much as possible. This is the regimen for building the athletic body that can persevere the demands of the Ironman. Eating huge amounts of complex carbohydrates, raw fruits and vegetables, protein wherever you can find it, washing it all down in floods of water, and then burning it all away in daily hours of swimming, cycling, and running.

There is more to it, but the nitty gritty of it gets fairly tedious. Suffice it to say that even if you do all of these things sincerely, you still might not succeed. For example, in the Ironman that I completed on September 25 – some five months after the zany idea had popped into my head – there were 2,716 athletes from around the world registered to compete. Out of these, only 1,651 managed to cross the finish line. That means that over a third of the athletes, despite months of training and dietary discipline, still could not cut it. It certainly did not help that a heat wave hit just before race day, and we witnessed the hottest Ironman on record, with temperatures reaching 36 degrees centigrade during the marathon segment. A great many of those one-third athletes who could not finish collapsed from dehydration and heat stroke. I nearly did myself.

In the end, I am proud and somewhat amazed that I finished. But I came nowhere near the 15th place I had been hoping for those few months before. Out of the 418 athletes in my category (that is, males aged 45-49), I came in a humble 208th. I still retain that goal of finishing in the top 15. I plan to compete again in a half-iron in Dubai in January 2017, and then another full Ironman in Malaysia in November 2017. I will find the time and energy and dig deep for the discipline and motivation to keep up training until then. That top 15 may forever remain a pipe dream for Indian athletes if self-motivated competitors such as myself continue to receive absolutely no support or encouragement from the one government ministry whose raison d’etre is precisely to do just that: to encourage and support Indians to engage in and excel at sports.

But there is no time for complaints. It is time to go out for a run.

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