Athlete Interview: How to train for an race your 1st IM

Athlete Profiles, April 24, 2013

Over the last 2 years, I have had the pleasure of coaching Peter Crawley.

Over the last 2 years, I have had the pleasure of coaching Peter Crawley.
I guided him through his 1st sprint distance triathlon while he was based here in Singapore. At the tail end of last year, he moved back to South Africa and we worked hard to stay close and kept communication going. It all paid off when, last weekend, he completed his 1st Ironman ( South Africa) in 10hrs 54 mins.
Had to pleasure of interviewing him after this tremendous milestone to inspire the rest of us out there. Check it out..
Peter, Congratulations! It’s a rare occurrence that an athlete finishes their maiden Ironman in under 11 hours. I’d like to get into your head a little and draw out inspiration for the rest of us age- group wannabes out here.

1. First up – How did you feel crossing the line of your 1st IM in such an impressive time?

It was rather overwhelming. The crowd make you feel like a rock star and I had a real surge of adrenalin running down the finishing chute. Completing in under 11 hours, which I had not had as a target at the outset, was a real cherry on the cake.

2. Briefly talk us through the race. High/ low points during the race. Standout thoughts at certain points in the race.

* Waiting for swim start – Choosing your game plan can be daunting. Do I back myself to swim like Thorpe past the 1st buoy, should I stand with the 1.5 hr guys or should I swim wide and avoid the squeeze but maybe swim an extra 100 metres? I went with the 1.5hr guys and got chatting with the guy next to me to calm the nerves.
* Mid way though the bike- A guy commented as I passed that he had done some hard yards and was now going to coast to a 6hr ride. I remember feeling good that I hadn’t overdone the first half and set my mind on a negative split 3rd lap and realized I could achieve a 5hr30mins ride.
* Starting out on the run – I kept reminding myself that this was just a standard bric set that I had done many times after my Saturday rides.
* Finishing up on the run- I managed to dig deep for a sub 5min/km last 3 kms. I remember thinking that this effort should feel like the last stretch before home on my Sunday run, but now there were hundreds of cheering spectators to encourage me.

3. How did your physical training prepare you to stay strong mentally throughout the race?

The day before the race I kept telling myself that tomorrow was really just a pay-back for all the effort that I had put in over the prior months. I had steadily ramped up my training volumes in the months before the race and my weekends increasingly looked like a stretched out Ironman. In the last 2 months it was hard to find triathletes that wanted to train at the same time, intensity and volume as me and I think the longer sessions on my own actually helped me toughen up mentally for race day. The training plans often incorporated a lot of ‘on the go’ recovery strategies, which also helped me keep calm and steady on race day. Lastly, making sure your body stays out of trouble on race day has a lot to do with how well you have practiced your nutrition strategy in training. Coach Shem had helped me experiment with nutrition during training and not worrying about whether I was consuming too much or too little on race day, as I had developed a good feel for my needs, helped me mentally too.

4. At which point did you realize you could break 11 hrs and where/ what did you draw your strength/ resolve/ focus from to dig deep and go for it.

Until midway through the race I never set a time expectation. I had to stop on the first lap (of 3) of the ride as my handle bars rattled loose – I lost about 7 or 8 mins. I tried to keep cool, despite all the riders zooming past, and kept telling myself that it could’ve been a lot worse like an accident or puncture or having no tools. Then about 80kms into the ride I was averaging around 32km/hr, I still felt good and with the repairs behind me I then planted the seed that breaking 11 hours was a possibility if I could pull off a decent run. My standalone marathon PB (5 months prior) was 3hrs52 so I knew I would have to dig deep. I kept a 4 hour run in the back of my head and promised myself I would just take it in small chunks and keep an open mind as I’d never done this before. There were three 14km run laps and I just tried to hold a steady pace and keep form for the first 2 laps. I could feel myself fading in the last lap and kept breaking it into small sectors saying things to myself like “this next 5 kms will feel like the short run you do after your Saturday ride set”. With 5kms to go and just over 30 minutes to spare I knew I could make it and for the last 3 kms it was along the Marine Parade strip where there was loads of people cheering and I ran flat out, this last stretch felt exhilarating and I knew I’d done it.

5. Let’s talk about your training. Can you briefly describe your weekly training schedule. How and why that’s working for you.

I prefer the early morning for my main sets. 3 to 4 months ahead I was also doing 2 gym cross training sessions per week. At my peak I was training 17 hours a week and the closer to the race the more the time was loaded toward the weekend to emulate the actual race. A typical weekday included a 1-1.5hr morning session each day, a maximum of 3 shorter evening sets per week with a long ride on Saturday (with a short bric set) and long run on Sunday. I travel a lot, mostly for work, and always try to find places and make time so I can swim or run during these trips.

6. Please share with us the 2 most important ‘take home’ messages that you have learnt about endurance training that everyone needs to hear.

(i) Consistency pays. Training long and hard all the time is old school. Train smart and train consistently and you will minimize downtime due to injury/fatigue and improve progressively.

(ii) Keep a positive frame of mind. What you think about during training and on race day affects your performance in a big way. On race day, it’s only your mind that will let you down.

7. I always stress the importance of communication in the coach -athlete relationship. Your thoughts on this please.

Learning to race/train based on feeling took me some time. You are sometimes so focused on ‘executing the training plan’ and ‘looking at the numbers’ that you can easily forget to listen to your body. Coach Shem was great at probing out how I was feeling and adjusting my plan accordingly. In the months before the race this meant I had limited downtime due to over training/injury and could keep a good training structure. The consistency in training really is key to a good race performance and you can’t achieve this without communicating.

8. It wasn’t that long ago that you completed your 1st Sprint distance triathlon. What life lessons have you learnt since then on this journey to Ironman?

I keep a small note book of all the races I’ve done and I can see it was just under 2 years ago that I did my first ever sprint tri. I didn’t have Ironman in my sights at the time, it’s something that grew as I extended myself in the sport. The first year of training was patchy as my body adjusted. I was initially exhausted after my long rides and recovery seemed to take a long time. Gradually the ‘effort’ became a pleasure and I needed less recovery time too. There were several points along this journey at which I didn’t believe I was able to improve as the additional effort for a marginal gain didn’t seem worth it. But, the more I made tri a lifestyle, the more opportunities I could see for improvement whether it was training effort, recovery strategies, race plans, attitude, transition practice, nutrition, cross training, the company you keep or managing stress levels.. there are countless ways. My major lesson has been about how making my passion a lifestyle rather than just a hobby has not only helped me be a better athlete but made me a better and happier person at home and at work.

9. Your loving wife, 2 beautiful daughters, kicking ass at work, Ironman training – How do you balance it all?
There’s no doubt that the training load for an Ironman takes a toll on the family. Having Justine’s buy-in was crucial and she’s been a real pillar, encouraging me when I have down days and tolerating what must look like an obsession to someone not training to compete. The kids started coming to the races, then wanted to run down the finish with me, then wanted to come along to some training sessions and have now even done their first races. I’m so proud of them and they seem to enjoy getting involved. The more of a lifestyle its become, the less it seems to be a balancing act.
10. What are the benefits of having a coach? What are the characteristics for a good coach to look out for?

There are many benefits. Building up from a sprint distance to olympic distance to half ironman and marathon runner to a full ironman would have been an incredibly hard journey with many injuries and frustrations if I had not used a coach. It took me the first 6 months to learn this. The key benefits of having a coach, for me, were (i) access to great technical advice on a wide range of topics including run technique, bike set-up, training intensity, race strategy, nutrition, recovery plans; (ii) having an outsider that gets to know how you train/race and can see your blind spots and help put plans in place to improve you; (iii) having a plan that evolves and adapts to your family/work commitments, race schedule and goals and (iv) having a community of triathletes using the same coach with whom you can attend track classes, join on runs, rides, races etc. Its an individual sport but also a great community.

Look out for the following characteristics in your coach: regularly refreshes your plans, has ability to reflect changes to your situation in your training plans, has enough time to check-in, has a passion for what he/she does and has a following of like minded triathletes.

11. Think you can go faster?

The conditions were good on the day but I am sure if I keep consistent with my training, try do a few things differently and maybe up my running game I can knock some time off. I’m going to take a bit of off season time to reflect, maintain some light training, spend time with my family and then I’m going to take a crack at getting faster!


So there you have it peeps… Dream BIG, get your head down, do the work in training, stay balanced and leave it all out there on race day.