For most things in life, we are not judged by what we start but by what we finish. Most Ironman athletes would agree that there's nothing more fulfilling than crossing the finish line after covering 140.6 miles.
As it relates to defining a successful Ironman, what is it? Is it a kona slot, a podium placement, a specific time, not bonking or suffering from GI issues or simply crossing the finish line? Is success an outcome, like a time, place or pace or is it something more personal?
I don't know any athlete who aims to have a "bad" Ironman race. We all want to experience success on race day and most of the time, we hope to feel good all day, with good mechanical and physical luck. Certainly, this is why we train - to feel prepared for a good race.
Although every Ironman athlete will have his/her own definition of "success", the real reward occurs once you arrive to the start line, hopefully without burnout, injury or health issues. As you stand at the start line, congratulate yourself for having the discipline, mindset, support and time to prepare for the extreme 140.6 mile event. The race experience itself is simply the bonus for all that training that went into preparing for an Ironman. Those who stand at the start line of an Ironman are a special group of people and not anyone becomes part of this club of being an "Ironman athlete."
Training for an Ironman is exhausting. It's sometimes boring, it's draining, time consuming and most of all, physically and mentally hard. Overtime, the Ironman distance becomes less daunting and confidence builds as the race nears. But the biggest struggle for most Ironman athletes is integrating training into an already busy, exhausting and stressful life. Ultimately, the goal for any athletes is to use training to become physically, mentally and nutritionally prepared for race day, all while optimizing available training hours, without risking injury, burnout or health issues. There is no reward for being the fittest, strongest, fastest or leanest athlete in training but instead, the true Ironman success comes when an athlete can manage the obstacles that are encountered on race day.
Far too often, Ironman athletes place a tremendous amount of pressure and expectations on themselves because they want to have a successful race. The truth is that it takes many years, of consistent training, to put together a successful Ironman performance that matches your true athletic capabilities. However, even if you are consistent with training, there are no guarantees that next year will be better than the last year. Performance improvements are not linear as life is dynamic and it will always require you to adjust your training strategies, with more/less time, money, support, mental and physical energy devoted to training.
Karel and I have completed a total of 19 Ironman events between us both. We have raced in the Ironman World Championship a combined 6 times and no matter how prepared we feel for a race, every race comes with its challenges and truth be told, preparation is much more than just being physically fit.
Therefore, a successful Ironman starts with arriving to the start line. The ultimate goal for any Ironman athlete is to arrive hungry to race, healthy, fit and physically, nutritionally and mentally prepared. It is much better to feel confident, but that you could have done more, than to wish you could go back in time and do less and recover more.
Secondly, remove the expectations on the outcome. While it is good to have a plan, understand that no Ironman race will go as planned. A successful Ironman is all about managing everything that you can't control, when it occurs when you least expect it. Preparation builds confidence but no amount of training will prepare you for what is out of your control. The Ironman is all about managing everything that comes your way as you remain an active participant on race day - no matter how good/bad your race is going.
Ironically, race day goes by quickly. All that training just for a one day, 9-17 hour event. Racing an Ironman is also a lot of fun thanks to the adrenaline rush, the signs and scenery, the cheers, the crowd support, the volunteers and surrounding yourself with like-minded athletes. But on race day, the hard part is not knowing what will happen over 140.6 miles. This is scary, overwhelming, nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. There are so many opportunities over 140.6 miles to convince yourself to quit, take it easy, give up, doubt yourself and to stop caring. Although some athletes have good luck and seem to escape the dark places of racing in an Ironman, but the real Ironman success comes to those who can manage what they are given (GI issues, a flat tire, rough wind, pain, empty legs, etc.) and still make it to the finish line. Racing an Ironman is not easy and rarely are athletes given an "easy" race day. Sure, some athletes can get to the finish line faster than others, even while facing obstacles, but this doesn't mean that you should term your race day as "bad" or unsuccessful, just because you have to deal with a lot of obstacles on race day.
To have a successful Ironman, you do need to be fit, healthy and prepared. But there will be things out of your control and you can't plan for everything. Rather than hoping for "no problems" on race day, give yourself permission to welcome obstacles on race day. And just because you run into an issue on race day, this does not mean that you are having a bad race. Reframe the situation and accept that Ironman racing will be difficult and it's not because your muscles are fatiguing and because you are physically and mentally tired but because an Ironman is an extreme event that is very difficult to master when you only have one day to potentially get it all right. Above all, don't give up when your Ironman race does not go as planned. A better scenario is to understand that there are things out of your control.
Respect the Ironman distance. If you are an athlete who is preparing for an Ironman, you can prevent issues by having a plan that reflects your preparation for the event but you also have to be prepared to change your plan as you manage what comes your way on race day. Instead of terming "Ironman success" as an outcome (time, placement, Kona qualifying), welcome the opportunity to race 140.6 miles by "successfully" overcoming everything that comes your way.