Cake. Gummy worms. Rotisserie chicken. Cheeseburgers.
Not exactly what you’d call the diet of champions, but these are all items that have been consumed by triathletes during actual races.
Surprised? So were we when we sat down with a group of elite endurance athletes to get the scoop on what really goes through their minds and bodies during triathlon training and competitions.
It turns out, a lot takes place during a long endurance event like an IRONMAN—and we’re not talking about the actual swimming, biking, running, and transitions, or the careful calculation of food and liquid intake. Superhuman as they may seem, triathletes experience much of the same discomfort, boredom, crashes, calls from Mother Nature, and other pains that everyone else does during an long race.
We asked IRONMAN athletes about the unexpected and sometimes hilarious surprises they’ve experienced along the course. Their answers provide a candid look at the secret and sometimes humorous side of athletes who often seem anything but lighthearted while they’re racing to the finish line.
Unexpected Things Athletes Do During Endurance Races
1. They Pee Their Pants … Literally
Attend any endurance race and you’ll see portable toilets lining the sidelines. Those reek boxes, however, may get more use from spectators than racers.
“In IRONMANs, you’re out on that course all day and every minute counts at the pointy end of the professional race,” says Leon Griffin, an Australian who burst on the scene to win the 2006 ITU Duathlon World Championship and who quit his banking job to go pro full-time in 2012. “For that reason, you have to breeze on past those Porta Potties on the course and work out how to go on the fly.”
On the fly? Does that mean what we think it …
Yep, triathletes often pee in their wetsuits. In fact, it’s “very common and expected,” according to Griffin. His tip: Have a water bottle handy for a quick wash down.
Some competitors even let loose in their suits before the race starts.
“It’s too hard to get your wetsuit off once it’s on before a race starts, so most people pee in their wetsuit waiting for the race to start,” says Michellie Jones, an Aussie athlete and coach, winner of two ITU Triathlon World Championships, and an Olympic triathlon silver medal in Sydney 2000.
2. They Get Bored
While many endurance athletes say boredom doesn’t have a chance of creeping up during an event, others admit their minds wander at times. When you’re racing for eight hours or more, that’s understandable.
“I find IRONMAN quite boring,” admits Joe Gambles, whose 18 professional event victories include 10 course records. That tedium is one reason he typically races half IRONMANs.
“The swim [which is 2.4-miles] seems like eternity, and on the bike there are times when it’s boring, especially if you’re not riding around other athletes,” he says.
Gambles stays focused by mentally breaking down the race into smaller chunks—swim, transition, 10-miles sections of the 112-mile bike ride—and having a checklist of how often to eat and how much to drink.
He also often has an earworm running through his head.
“My wife picks a song, and it’s my pre-race song before the swim to get me in the right frame of mind,” he says. “It changes every year depending on what we’re listening to, but since some get stuck in your head you want it to be a song you like. The last one was ‘Don’t Back Down’ by Tom Petty.”
3. They Freak Out Over New Body Developments
Most cyclists have experienced saddle sores, but newbies don’t always realize what’s happening.
“When I first started triathlons and riding my bike nearly every day, I went to the doctor and mentioned that I was terrified about this lump that had grown between my legs,” says coach and two-time Triathlon World Champion Siri Lindley.
But she didn’t mention her training.
“He was very concerned and was going to send me to get all kinds of tests to make sure that it wasn’t something horrible,” she says.
Then common sense intervened and she thought, maybe he needs to know I’ve been riding a bike and that the seat really hurts. When she told the doc about her intense training, he laughed and reassured her that all she was suffering from was a saddle sore.
4. They Get Complacent
Another myth about endurance athletes is that they’re always “on,” constantly trying to outperform their fellow athletes. While that’s true to a degree, it’s also true that, just like everyone else, their attention and motivation can sometimes lapse.
“It’s easy to get a little relaxed during that first hour, so during the swim I try to remind myself to keep pushing,” says pro triathlete Kelly Williamson, an Indiana native who grabbed her first IRONMAN victory by taking IRONMAN Texas in 2014.
“Then oftentimes I will gain back some time at the end of the bike, so it’s important for me to keep pushing the latter 15 to 20 miles.”
If she finds herself zoning out, Williamson thinks about all the hard work she’s put into this one day.
“I don’t want to let it slip away—I want to to keep giving it my all throughout the entire race,” she says.
5. They Confound the Medical Community
Not everyone realizes that in a triathlon, athletes put on their wetsuits…and don’t take them off until after they cross the finish line.
“I once crashed my bike in a race and was transported by ambulance to the hospital,” recalls Jones. “The doctor kept asking, ‘Why were you riding your bike in your swimsuit?’ It was actually during the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, so after I explained that, yes, you can escape by swimming from Alcatraz, and you then ride your bike, he still was like, ‘But in your swimsuit? Why don’t you get changed?'”
6. They Remember To Have Fun
Endurance events aren’t as completely serious as they seem.
“During a long endurance event, I try to distract myself as much as possible from the pain I might feel by chatting and fooling around with spectators, volunteers, and my competitors,” says pro triathlete Matt Lieto, an Oregon-based inspiration who’s renowned for a body transformation that saw him drop from an out-of-shape 255 pounds to a current race weight of about 170 pounds.
He also asks the volunteer who body marks him to draw a smiley face of their choice on his calf.
“I do this so that I remember to have fun and so that I remind others around me that even if you are at the front of the race and do this for a living, the most important thing is to smile and enjoy it,” he says.
The IRONMAN world is certainly an interesting one. Thinking about doing a triathlon or IRONMAN yourself? Check out these tips to help you train and prepare for your first triathlon, and pre-season tips to help you get ready for race season. And remember to have fun!