In the second in a series of posts examining six of the most successful Irish Ironman athletes we look at a number of critical elements that they all possess. With over 80 combined Ironman races and 29 Kona qualifications they have cracked the Kona code and they share their secrets here.
The athletes are Matt Molloy, Alan Ryan, Owen Martin, Martin Muldoon, Declan Doyle and Bryan Mc Crystal. In actual fact all of the Kona qualifications are attributed to just five of these guys. Bryan hasn’t qualified yet despite being the fastest Irish Ironman athlete we’ve ever had. He is the current Irish Ironman record holder after breaking the existiong record twice in less than two months in 2015. Bryan races as a pro and the qualifying is different for professionals than age groupers.
1. Mental strength: This comes up again and again with these athletes. It’s often put forward by them as their biggest asset and often above any physical strengths they might have. Matt Molloy who regularly swam as fast as the pro’s and usually exited the water with or ahead of the first age-group swim pack says that swimming might be his strongest of the three sports but that his mental strength is more important. Declan Doyle also says that the ability to accept and keep pushing while in a lot of pain and discomfort is his biggest strength despite the fact that he came from a running background actually earning a scholarship through his running and football ability.
Why is mental strength so important for Ironman racing and how can you improve it?
I think mental strength is critical for both training and racing. In training it’s is important to be able to actually do the work. Having the mental strength to get yourself onto the turbo trainer or out the door for another five hour session despite bad weather, rain, cold, or the fact that you maybe don’t like the turbo so much. Having the mental strength to do the work even when you don’t want to is vitally important. I learned in my first few seasons racing Ironman that doing the training when the sun is shining is the easy bit. Getting up in the dark in the middle of winter and going out on the bike in 6 layers of clothing with lights and mudguards or 20k swim weeks or double run days or big run weeks when I was already exhausted were the hard parts. Developing the mental strength to do the work regardless of motivation or tiredness or the weather or difficulties that live threw me was a big part of the learning curve in my first two seasons.
2. Decision making ability under race day stress.
The report examines how decision making, an often overlooked skill but a crucial one impacts on race results. Ironman is a sport where a mistake made at the start of the day can cause huge problems later on. These guys have learned the importance in making good race decisions, often because of the level of pain caused by making mistakes. Racing early on the bike causing a meltdown on the run being the most common mistake and one almost all of the athletes warn against.
3. Dealing with and overcoming problems.
These athletes see injury, illness and problems differently. Problems force them to adapt their training and approach but doesn’t give them an excuse to either quit or accept a poor result. They have all had to overcome injury and illness in both training and racing and still perform. Some of the examples are quite incredible and even shocking. Declan Doyle recalls finishing Kona with a broken wrist, broken ribs and damaged lungs after crashing his bike in the first 10k. How many athletes do you know that would ride 170km and run a marathon with those sort of injuries? How is it possible to develop that sort of drive and determination? Kidney Failure, torn achilles and a broken elbow are just some of the stories I heard but none of them stopped the athlete in question either starting or finishing.
4. Mental strength on race day.
Race day is where we often see physically prepared, very “talented” athletes under deliver or fall apart. They make bad decisions under pressure and fail to understand that everyone has problems to deal with and overcome. It’s often not the fastest athlete who succeeds but the one who reacts best to problems on the course. Alan and Matt both deal with this point in their answers stressing the importance of this one crucial attribute.
5. The ability to master race day nutrition.
It’s almost like the Holy Grail of racing Ironman, how to avoid stomach issues and the porta-loo. These guys clearly have it nailed but also talk about what to do if things go wrong. I have a couple of articles on the same subject in the works for the coming weeks and months so keep an eye out for them. To receive notification when they are published or follow the blog at the follow tab usually found at the bottom of the page or sign up for my newsletter here
6. Self control and pacing judgement.
These two go hand in hand in my opinion and all of the athletes talk about their importance in the report. I think that poor self control particularly at the start of the bike leg has repercussions that aren’t often felt until well into the run. But any perceived gain in having the bike of your life is usually more than cancelled by having to walk or slow significantly for large portions of the run. I’ve seen plenty of athletes spend as long on the run/walk as they do on the bike due to poor self control and the inability to correctly pace themselves. Ten minutes saved on the bike is lost by walking only one kilometer.
7. The ability to sustain a high level of pain, discomfort and continue to hurt themselves at the end of a race. This one is a bit harder to learn but they all have it, whether they call it a strong run, the ability to race the last 8 miles, or to finish strong. They all mention and emphasise this important aspect of Ironman racing. I’ve seen all of them on race day and they all have the ability to push themselves hard right to the end.