Completing an Ironman – why bother?

Answering a question that I get asked a LOT.

An Ironman involves:

🏊 Swimming 3.6km
🚴 Cycling 180km
🏃 Running 42km (a marathon) 

and takes anywhere from 8 hours (7h51 world record) to 17 hours (the cut-off time).

But the race is only the tip of the iceberg.

Most definitely the "tip of the iceberg"

Friends and family will see race day and the glorious moment that you complete the challenge, but they won’t see the year of training that goes into it.

Over the next 39 weeks, I’ll be training a minimum of 7 hours per week. Using an average of 8 hours per week, that works out as:

312 hours of training

Signing up to an Ironman is no light undertaking, and as I look ahead to the next ten months of training, I wanted to reflect on and clarify why I’m doing it.

When and why did I decide to do an Ironman? 

For me, the seed was sown a few minutes after finishing a 10km race around Hyde Park in 2018.

I was chatting with another runner about his triathlon experience – at this point, I was a duathlete at best – and was intrigued when he told me he’d completed an Ironman.

I vividly remember him telling me about the heightened experience of finishing your first Ironman, having the announcer shout:


and knowing that for the rest of your life, nothing could take that moment and that achievement away from you. On that day, I decided that I wanted to experience it myself.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by James McAulay (@instamcaulay)

My first Triathlons

In 2019, I decided to take part in three triathlons with no prior experience, and completed my first Sprint, Olympic and Half-Ironman races between May and September. 

(You can read more about my first year in triathlon here: My 2019 in Triathlon – From Zero to Half Ironman in 9 months)

My plan had been to race in Ironman Wales in September 2020, but COVID had other plans, so now I’m working towards the same race in September 2021.

IRONMAN Wales - Anything is Possible
The swim start of Ironman Wales in the beautiful Tenby

I went into lockdown in the best shape of my life.

I set new 5K, 10K and Half Marathon PBs in 2019, and on the 8th of March 2020, mere days before lockdown was enacted in the UK, I ran Cambridge Half in 83:45, placing 309th of 10,000 runners. That was the most thrilling run of my life so far.

Unfortunately, like most athletes, I lost momentum, motivation, and some fitness in 2020, so I’m actually glad IM Wales has been moved to 2021.

So, to come back to the original question…. 

Why am I doing an Ironman?

Training is going to take a lot of time.

The equipment, nutrition, accommodation and travel is going to cost a considerable amount of money.

To top it all off, I’m going to experience varying degrees of pain over the next 9 months, culminating in the toughest physical challenge of my life on race day. 

Why bother? 

The race itself actually scares me, and there’s a very real risk that I won’t finish.

There is a part of my psyche that yearns for scary challenges like this. I don’t know where the hunger comes from, but I know it’s not going away any time soon.

Ironman Wales is hard. 13% of entrants didn’t finish the 2017 race!

For comparison, less than 1% of people who started the London Marathon didn’t actually finish it. The finish rate is the same for the New York Marathon.

Ironman Wales is regarded as the 9th hardest Ironman course in the world due to its steep climbs and high elevation profile.

In September 2020, I visited Tenby to try out the course myself:

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by James McAulay (@instamcaulay)

I left Tenby feeling glad that I had another year to train, and with a fresh shot of fear about the difficulty of the course.

For me, the risk that I might not finish is extremely motivating, and will make (hopefully) completing the race feel like a real achievement.

The discipline from triathlon training bleeds into other areas of my life

I noticed when I was training for a Half Ironman last year that my time management was the best it had ever been.

I was training about 7-8 hours per week, often squeezing in a swim at lunchtime or doing a hard intervals session as the sun was coming up. This demand on my time forced me to be more considered and measured with how I spent my days and weeks.

Conversely, during some of my lowest points of the 2020 lockdowns when I haven’t been training very hard, I’ve felt lazy, lethargic and fallen into bad habits. I’d wake up later than I’d like to, procrastinate, stay up late browsing social media, deprive myself of sleep, etc.

Training for nearly 10 hours per week certainly puts a strain on your energy levels and requires you to be sensible with your diet and sleep, but in my experience, it also helps you get the most out of your days and cultivates good habits and routines.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
~ Will Durant

I’ve become slightly addicted to Triathlon

Since joining my local tri club in 2019 and competing in various races, I’ve become hooked on the sport. Unlike competing in a single discipline like running or cycling, triathlon is multi-faceted. There’s always at least one aspect of technique you can improve or work on across the three disciplines.

As well as falling in love with the sport itself, I’ve met dozens of friendly and fascinating people all on their own triathlon journeys pursuing various goals and races, and I’ve really enjoyed expanding my social circle to include people from all sorts of backgrounds and walks of life beyond my professional network and my uni friends.

Signing up to an Ironman is an investment in myself

Entering an Ironman race isn’t cheap (I’ll spare you the eye-watering price tag, but a quick Google search won’t) so once you’ve entered, you want to make sure you train hard enough to:

  1. Finish it, &
  2. Enjoy it

By entering this race, I’ve committed to a rigorous training schedule over the next year that will have numerous first and second-order effects on my life.

I expect to achieve a level of fitness I’ve never experienced before, and in doing so, I expect to sleep better, feel stronger, and even feel more confident.

As a result of boosted endorphins and deeper sleep, I reckon I’ll be happier than if I wasn’t training hard, which will make me a more pleasant person to be around. And, as I’ve already mentioned, all of this progress will have second-order effects on my productivity. My productivity and mindset as CEO has a huge impact on the performance of my company and my team.

Yes, I might have trained hard and reaped all of the benefits above without signing up to a very long and very difficult race, but I don’t think the magnitude of the benefits would be nearly as high.

The experience looks unreal 🔥

Watch this highlights reel from Ironman Wales 2019 and tell me you don’t want to be a part of that electric atmosphere:

Telling my Ironman story

Over the next nine months, I plan to keep this blog updated with my progress, lessons learned, and stories from various races as I work towards completing Ironman Wales in September 2021.

I’ve enlisted the help of a coach, so I’ll be following structured training plans and learning a lot in the process, which I’ll share here.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride!

You can follow my progress on Strava here:

And on Instagram @instamcaulay