Training for a Triathlon: Living with (or putting up with!) an Ironman-in-Training

Editor’s note: This is part two in a series on training for triathlons.

At the Coeur d’Alene Ironman a few years ago, I ran into a friend who was herding her family and friends, all clad in matching “My [dad/husband/son/friend] is an Ironman!” t-shirts, through the crowds of spectators. Perhaps I caught her in a difficult moment, but when I asked how she was doing, she burst into tears and gasped, “It’s just been a really long year.” Photos of her hours later as her husband crossed the finish line showed a genuinely elated, if exhausted, woman, but as I parted with her that day, I thought: “This race demands a lot from many people, most of whom aren’t walking away with a medal.”

Ironfamilies and Ironfriends are expected to support, adjust to, and wait on their Ironman-in-training, and they’re often made to feel selfish or guilty if they respond otherwise. These significant others, children, parents, friends, and roommates live through months of being de-prioritized in deference to their loved one’s goal – a goal that is ultimately an individual pursuit but that has far-reaching effects on relationships.

To begin with, there’s the schedule. An average Ironman training plan is 6 months long, starting with 6 hours per week and incrementally increasing to 20 hours per week. It demands the time equivalent of another part-time job, and those hours are non-negotiable. For athletes with regular 8-to-5 jobs, the training must take place in the early morning, after work, and on the weekends – all time previously spent with family and friends. “Weekends were the hardest,” said one Spokane-area Ironspouse. “Long rides and runs made for less time at home with the kids.” “It definitely keeps my mom busy,” said an Ironkid. “I don’t see her very often because of her training and my sports.”

Relationships outside of the immediate household experience strain as well. A straight-talking friend leveled with me: “Nobody is going to understand or sympathize when you don’t show up to an event because you had to ride your bike for five hours. And honestly, I don’t want every conversation to be all about someone’s training. The same goes for Facebook posts.”

Then there’s the food. Athletes learn how to keep themselves adequately fueled during training sessions and racing, but regular meals increase by number and volume. “I had to have a large meal prepared every evening,” said one Ironwife. “I don’t think he realized that his being gone a lot and then super hungry when he got home affected the way I spent my time. Instead of cooking together, I was suddenly the sole person taking care of those needs for our family.” One Ironfriend reported a different challenge: “She’s not good at nutrition, so I had to constantly remind her to eat well.” Another Ironspouse simply said: “Hours in training get longer, and the fridge gets emptier.”

Getting enough sleep is a challenge. A 4 a.m. alarm clock, no matter how conscientiously turned off upon the first ring (or accidentally upon the third snooze reminder), interrupts the household. “The training schedule has been difficult to get used to,” said one Ironhusband. “She wakes up early most days, which means I wake up early most days. The methodical thumping of treadmill footsteps in the basement isn’t as soothing as one might imagine.”

Several Ironman finishers have admitted, "After Ironman, I needed to do some relationship recovery work."
Several Ironman finishers have admitted, “After Ironman, I needed to do some relationship recovery work.”

Dirty laundry piles up so quickly and with such intense odor that the act of just getting it clean becomes all that’s expected. “Putting away” means making sure the baskets of clean laundry are backed against the wall where they can be pawed through as needed.

“After Ironman, I needed to do some relationship recovery work.” Several Ironman finishers, still stuck in race-speak, have admitted this to me. Indeed, I know at least three couples who divorced soon after one of the partners completed the event, and while none of them hold the monumental triathlon solely responsible, they all agree that it strained their relationships.

But Ironman doesn’t have to be a divisive element in relationships. “It helped us to grow closer,” said one Ironwife. “Since I had decided to train for a race as well, it gave us new ground to build our relationship on. That helped us recognize that with a family, it takes the effort and support of both people to be successful.” Many people use humor to maintain healthy perspectives. “We laughed about all the things that come from training so much,” said an Ironfriend, “like the sore and tired muscles, or the ridiculous antics from lack of food or sleep due to hectic training and work schedules.” One Ironhusband noted that “We value our time together more, since we don’t get as much of it. We are more deliberate about scheduling our time together.”

While an Ironman requires admirable mental and physical strength, it’s a self-indulgent goal that people need to be candid about when they take it on. It will undoubtedly stress personal relationships, but with a deliberate and honest approach to this relatively short-term goal, those relationships can emerge stronger and healthier after the race, even if only one person can wear the finisher’s medal at a time. //

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