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The 3 Essential Rules of Ironman

Eat often. Pace yourself. Don’t be a dumbass.

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In my book, Life’s Too Short To Go So F*cking Slow, I tell the story of my mentor, Carlos Nunez, a 13-time Ironman and old-school hardass. Carlos was a no-nonsense, no-excuses kind of guy: When high winds picked up, I’d rack my bike on an indoor trainer while he strapped on a helmet and headed outside. I thought covering 20 miles in a run was hard enough, but he insisted on plotting a course that crested every hill in town. He shoved his way into my lane of the pool during Masters swim, deliberately jostling me with every stroke. Ironman training with Carlos Nunez was a boot camp of exasperation, made more infuriating by his constant refrain of “You’ll thank me for this later!”

Oh, I thanked him. Repeatedly, with my middle finger high in the air.

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Though I learned many lessons over the course of my 10-year friendship with Carlos, perhaps the best one was written in a letter taped to my bike the morning I raced Ironman Arizona:

“Eat often. Pace yourself. And for f*ck’s sake, don’t be a dumbass.”

(Told you he was an old-school hardass.)

“Ironman is hard,” he’d always say, “but it’s also so simple.” He had little tolerance for people who tried to complicate what should be a fairly straightforward day of swim-bike-run. To him, getting to the finish line only required those three simple rules:

1) Eat often.
Though every individual is different as far as how much and what kind, every athlete needs calories, and lots of them. This was a hard one for me to learn; not only did I need to deprogram years of associating calories with weight gain, but I also needed to teach myself to eat even when I wasn’t hungry. It’s much easier to top off the tank at regular intervals than it is to fill an almost-empty one.

I learned this lesson the hard way: on a bike, in the middle of the desert, firmly believing I was going to die wearing neon spandex. Carlos, recognizing a bad bonk when he saw one, stopped the ride at a gas station, where he bought me potato chips and a delicious, life-giving Coca-Cola. (He also called me a dumbass for ignoring his reminders to eat, but I was too busy chugging caffeinated sugar water to hear it.)

RELATED: How to Plan an Ironman Nutrition Strategy

2) Pace yourself.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of race day. It’s easy to believe the voice in your head that says I can totally run six-minute miles! And it’s really, really easy to forget at some point in an Ironman, things are going to suck. “It’s not a question of if, but when,” Carlos once told me.

Though you can’t entirely keep the struggle at bay, you do have some control over when and how it appears. Showing restraint early on is hard, but it also means the suck will more likely come in a slow, manageable trickle. If you don’t pace yourself–because you’re overconfident, banking time early on, or trying to avoid getting passed on the bike–you’ll be hit with a tsunami of suck at the most inconvenient time.

RELATED: Want to Avoid Bonking? Learn the Science Behind It

3) And for f*ck’s sake, don’t be a dumbass.
For the longest time, I thought Carlos trained the way he did because he was a sadist. After all, there’s no way a normal person could like suffering that much. But once I started racing Ironman, it all made sense. You see, the toughest days of training are the ones that yield the biggest lessons. Race day can– and does–throw everything at you, from two-foot swells in the swim to flat tires on the bike to relentless heat on the run. If you haven’t encountered those things before, you’re liable to panic, and panicking leads to dumb decisions that can cost you time, energy, or the ability to finish the race.

But if you deliberately seek out those experiences in training, you’re less likely to make dumb decisions on race day. While everyone else is freaking out, you can proceed in calm, rational fashion–you’ve seen it before and survived. No big deal.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve yet to master this one. Still, I’m thankful for this–and every–lesson Carlos taught me. Before every race, I read the entirety of that letter he taped on my bike:

You will do this. Say it to yourself a thousand times. Remember that during the race, just like during the several months of training you have endured, your body will question your sanity and give you hundreds of reasons to quit. Prepare your mind to have an answer for every question your body asks. Never forget why you are doing this.

Eat often. Pace yourself. And for f*ck’s sake, don’t be a dumbass. Do those three things, and you will cross that finish line.

But regardless of the outcome of this one race, you have made me so proud. In my mind, you have always been, and always will be, an Ironman.


Read more about Carlos and Susan’s extraordinary friendship in her debut book, Life’s Too Short to Go So F*cking Slow.