“Coach, I want to do an Ironman.”

For many, saying those words are exciting but at the same time a little terrifying. It is difficult to open yourself up and proclaiming that you want to try to accomplish such a lofty and daunting goal of an Ironman.  I am a coach who firmly believes that anything is possible.  When you want something badly enough, anything is possibly.

Years ago, while having a follow up meeting with a first-time Ironman finisher, I was praising his accomplishments.  At the age of fifty, he had gotten himself off of the couch, lost 50+ pounds, completed a 5K, a sprint triathlon, a half Ironman and then finally Ironman Coeur d’Alene. He was very humble and typically brushed off the praise he received along his lifestyle changing journey. After telling me it wasn’t such a big deal, I felt the need to stop him and tell him that it was okay for him to brag a little and feel extremely proud of his achievement.  His reply was succinct.  “John, “ he told me, “there are only two things that you need in order to complete an Ironman…” I was very interested in hearing what these two things were as he continued.  “One, you can’t have any major physical injuries or limitations preventing you from training. And two, you have to have the desire and motivation to do the training and the race itself.”


I will always probe into the motivations of an Ironman-wannabe as we discuss what it takes to reach this goal.  Some might say I paint a dramatic picture of the reality of the process.  But honestly, it is not a picnic.

  • Training is like taking on a part-time job, you’re training anywhere from 15-20 hours a week, especially during your peak training ramp-up.
  • There are long days, 5-7 hour bike rides, 3-4 hour runs, 90 minute open water swims, etc. and they seem to be endless. There will be days you just don’t want to train – because there is no medal or finish line to celebrate when you’re done with a long workout. You just get back in your car and go home.
  • Your family, spouse/significant others will sacrifice a lot in this process. So, they need to be on board as well. No Ironman finisher’s medal is worth a divorce.
  • You typically have a lot of preparation before most of your workouts – fixing nutrition, water bottles, equipment, etc. which takes additional time.
  • Your body is sore and achy most of the time. You’re definitely tired more than normal.

Before you embark on this journey, I think it is important that you’re aware of the crap that is Ironman training… because it can be a real grind.

Now, as my client told me, “as long as you have the desire and motivation…” And I completely agree that is the key.  When you are chasing a goal this big and have specific, tangible reasons why you are doing it, all of the negatives are worth it.  The stronger your reasons, the easier the process.

In my fourth Ironman, I had a personal goal that I kept to myself until the finish line.  This race was not for me, but for my father, who has always supported my dreams to coach and has always been at the finish line of my Ironmans.  So, once I got to the finish line, the medal went around his neck… not mine.  I wanted to get this medal for him.  Having that drive me throughout my training made a huge difference.

So, before you commit to do an Ironman… make sure you have a truly solid reason you want to do it.  It can be a personal motivation, or something outside of just you.  Whatever it is, it needs to be real.  Once you have that deep driving motivational force, you’re half way there.

Another important thing to consider – be okay with taking adequate time to prepare.  Don’t look at this as a one year from the couch to the finish line thing.  It’s not that easy.  Take a period of 3-5 years and do it right.  There is a lot for you to learn.  Start out with some shorter tris, graduate to a 70.3 and do a few of those before taking on the full distance.  Enjoy the process and the sport of triathlon.  After all, triathlon is not JUST Ironman.

Now that I’ve listed out all of the pitfalls and challenges that come with training for an Ironman, the rewards of an Ironman finish are truly immeasurable and they last a lifetime.  The grind of training, and the peaks and valleys you go through on race day, will teach you more about yourself than you ever dreamed of discovering.  You’ll find out just how strong you truly are and learn that you really can do anything you set your mind to.  When you’re older and look back at some of the most memorable days of your life, the day you became an Ironman will probably be among them.  Any day like that is well worth all it took to get there.

John Pottebaum is an Ironman Certified Coach, Four-time Ironman and triathlete for over 20 years.  He has been coaching triathletes out of Sacramento, California since 2000 and welcomes any questions you might have. Contact John directly here.