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The Road to Ironman May Get You Dirty

20 Jul 2015
by Mike Luebeck

By Mike Luebeck

I do not like trail running.  I would go out, run about 10 miles, fall all the time, and later ask myself what in the world I was doing out there.

Somehow, before my first Ironman in 2012, I got talked into a 50K trail race in Mississippi.  I have a bunch of friends that are Ironman finishers and Ultra Marathoners; so of course, they convinced me to go run trails with them in the winter months.


Having completed 20+ road marathons, I thought going about 6 extra miles would not be that big a jump.  

What did I get myself into?  Preparing for a 50K involved a lot of back to back runs on trails at least 5 days a week.  The weekends were back to back double digit runs. Trail running is hard; you must be focused the entire time.  No time to just gaze out and think about whatever crosses your mind like you can while running on the road. However, the more I ran the trails, the stronger I was getting.  

Trail running is not the same as road running.  You have to throw out all thought of pace as it compares to road running.  Pace can change from one hill to the next, one creek or river crossing to the next, or a wrong turn and oops, you are off on your own.  Trail running is about knowing this is going to be a long day.  


Race day, my first 50K, and all it did was rain for the entire week before the race.  Two miles into the race, we were in waist deep water, and our shoes were full of mud and rocks.  This went on all day.  I use to play in the mud as a kid, now I got a chance to play in it for 8 hours.  


This year I made this mistake of hanging around those same friends, and found myself training for a 50 mile trail race.  Wait a minute, I am the guy who does not love to run trails, what have I done now?  Just when I thought training for a 50K was hard, I now find myself training for a 50 mile trail race.    

We did a 50K race as part of our training, which means I must be nuts.  I discovered more new things:  I think it’s easier on your body (as long as you do not fall) and it’s actually nice to run in the woods.  It is beautiful as well as challenging.  

The 50 mile race started when it was light enough to see, and ended in darkness when I finished 13 hours and 45 min later.  It was a great experience, and for hours, I could not see anyone around.  It taught me to run when I was uncomfortable….when I didn’t want to run.

I am of the opinion that to be successful in an Ironman event, you need to be able to run when you do not want to.  Here is a quote that I am in total agreement with:

The last time we checked this was an Ironman® TRIATHLON — swim, bike, and run. The difference between a “good” swim or “bad” swim is only about 2-4 minutes. The difference between “easy” bike or a “hard” bike is only about 10-15 minutes. But the difference between a “good” and “bad” run can be measured in hours. In our experience, your chances of dramatically slowing down happen in the last six to eight miles of the run. Therefore your focus all day is on creating conditions for success in the final six to eight miles of the run, NOT on putting up a sexy bike split. The Ironman® run course is littered with the walking bodies of athletes who put up great bike splits. (Rich Strauss,

Trail running not only builds up endurance, and some serious core strength, it builds up your mental strength.  You will run in conditions that are difficult at best, but every time you do, you file that away into your memory bank, and pull it out around mile 16 of your Ironman run.  So when you get to the run portion of the Ironman, you know in your mind, this is going to be easier than that 50K trail race you did.  Maybe trail running is not so bad.


My advice, go out and run some trails, regardless if you are training for an Ironman or anything else.  You will find out what I did, that trail running is fun.  Start out slow, take your time and enjoy the beauty of trail running.  You will find peace and quiet, no cars, and a great new adventure, as well as find that confidence come mile 16 of an Ironman that lets you know “I got this. Heck…it’s paved!”

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