The 10 things I wish I knew before my first Ironman

by Brannigan Barrett

September 9th 2018, Ironman Wales. My motivation was simple: put my mind and body through the ultimate test. I faced up to the Welsh Dragon and during the  six month journey I discovered ten of the most valuable lessons en route to becoming an Ironman.

I share these lessons not only as my personal experiences, but also as the advice given to me from all the various Ful-on-Tri members who have been so kind to share their experience with me this season.

The 10 things I wish I knew before my first Ironman

1) Ask as many questions as you can. There is no such thing as a silly question. Ask any Ironman this question, ‘what one thing, do you wish you knew, before your first Ironman’. Having asked multiple athletes this question, two consistent answers always came back: 1) take it easy on the bike, a lot easier than you think, and 2) focus on nutrition as your fourth discipline. 

  • The bike leg on its own is manageable, however running a full marathon after 180km bike leg is not something you would have practiced in training. I never had a power meter, so I committed to a mantra of ‘Slow Slow Slow your bike, gently up the hill’. I practiced this in training and on race day. If you ever heard me humming on a training ride, it’s quite possible I was singing this mantra. But it helped me be in the present moment and ensure I was always riding below my threshold and rarely in the ‘red zone’ for too long.
  • Nutrition speaks for itself. When it comes to nutrition, try it, test it, stick to it. There are no awards for changing tactics on game day. Make sure you are aware of how many carbohydrates you need as well and your fluid intake (it’s significantly higher than I thought). I wrote out a nutrition plan and stuck it to my bike. It comprised of a highly concentrated High 5 bottle, Pretzel Power-Bar, Cliff Shot blocks, Salt tablets and pure water. A little tip I learnt about nutrition; eat more solid nutrition early in bike leg only once heart rate has dropped down as there is more blood for digestion. Once you hit the run, the heart rate will spike and it’s time to keep intake simple and stress-free for the stomach. Gels and liquids work best. I practiced this all weeks before the race day to ensure my stomach was well rehearsed. A large part of a successful Ironman race is having a successful nutrition strategy.


2) Learn the art of drafting in the swim. We often hear about it but never make time to practice it. I was lucky to practice this once before race day. In any sea swim, especially with a swell, you want to take any advantages you can get. Always breathe away from the swell. Always have as many people between you and the swell. If you are fortunate enough to have someone moving at a similar pace, tag onto their hip line and sit as close as possible whilst you catch your breath before pouncing on your next potential drafting partner. This is the one time you can legally draft, practice this technique and use the rules to good effect.

3) A sea swim is very different to a fresh water swim. Ensure you practice both to experience the differences. The major difference is a sea swell which has a very disruptive impact on breathing. The second, is buoyancy which is a lot easier in the sea given the dense nature of salt water. The third, often overlooked, is the wonderful ‘love bites’ you receive from your wetsuit. Ensure you apply a very thick layer of lubricant and don’t be afraid to use it anywhere and everywhere, even in areas you think not possible. Unless you like the look of having a few ‘love bites’ on your neck a few days after race day.

4) Pack the blue Ironman bike bag to the brim. When I entered transition the day before to drop my transition bags. I noticed everyone had fully packed blue bags. This made me feel uncomfortable as though I was missing something. The major lesson here is pack for any and all eventualities. Sun=sunscreen, rain=rain jacket, windy=arm warmers. You get my drift. But the major lesson learnt is that Ironman is usually going to span over an entire day. The weather can do a lot over the entire course of the day, so factor this in. My number one tip, put a small towel in your blue bag. This towel can be used to dry off all areas which makes putting on fresh clothes, arm warmers and sunscreen more effective. You can clean your feet of sand/mud before putting on warm socks and you can dry your ‘Important Areas’ before applying some Chamois cream. One towel, multiple purposes.

5) Warm up at the start of bike leg, just like any other practice ride. Coming off the swim and into the bike, the heart rate is elevated, but the leg muscles are still cold. The first 10 minutes should be spent bringing the heart rate down, consuming liquid carbohydrates, getting comfortable and spinning the legs over and bringing blood flow to the otherwise dormant big leg muscles. The one minute you lose in warm up, you gain in avoiding injury and finishing stronger.

6) Race your race. I’m a newbie cyclist. It pains me to see athlete after athlete come zooming past me on aerodynamic TT bikes. But Ironman is a race against yourself (for most of us at least). If you choose to dance to the tune of someone else’s race, be prepared to the face the music at the start of the marathon when you have lead for legs. Fortunately, my mantra, ‘Slow Slow Slow your bike, gently up the hill’ kept me steady minded.

7) Plan for success, but prepare for anything. The true test of an Ironman is not when everything goes according to plan, it’s when you forced to change plans because you have no other option. I have struggled with a knee injury throughout the season. I knew at some point I would face this demon, I just wasn’t sure when. It came as no surprise to me when I got off the bike, barely able to walk my bike to the rack. Mentally I didn’t need to panic because I knew at some point there would need to be a plan B. How you approach this plan B is what becoming an Ironman is all about. To become an Ironman is not to complete an endurance race, its to overcome a great difficulty within an endurance race. So plan for success, but don’t be afraid when things fall apart because that is when the real race begins.

8) Make friends aplenty during the run. There are no rules against using other individuals as pace setters and motivators. You will find hundreds of them all around you throughout the marathon run. Even the medics will become your BFF when you desperate for paracetamol. The art to a marathon at the end of an Ironman is to break it all in bite-size chunks. Set small, achievable goals. Every little milestone along the way will soon add up to a full marathon.

9) There is always someone that is suffering more than you. It doesn’t matter how bad you think it hurts. Find comfort in knowing, the collective is hurting. During my marathon run, there was a courageous athlete completing the marathon with crutches. The Wales run was crafted by an egomaniac runner with a 4km climb to start followed by a 4km decent. Imagine the task of using crutches for a full marathon.  That was real suffering. My knee throbbing was a walk in the park compared to the 7 hour hop, this guy had ahead of him. Find comfort in someone else’s discomfort.

10) Use the crowds, it’s free energy. It literally boosts your energy levels. Never forget the crowds admire you for the challenge you have set yourself. Acknowledge the little kids because you are their heroes. Acknowledge every person who yells your name because they admire your determination. Most important, acknowledge all those that are there for you. Without the endless patience and understanding we would never be able to reach our full potential. Lastly, acknowledge what is means to you, to finally be called an Ironman.

What I wish I knew before I did my first Ironman?

I wish I knew how addictive this sport is, because before I had crossed the finish line, I knew this was my first of many IronMan races to come.


Brannigan joined Ful-on Tri in 2018 and completed his first Ironman at Ironman Wales.