With the right training and dedication, everyday men and women are accomplishing this extraordinary feat
By Sue Baldani
Crossing that red carpet and hearing Mike Reilly, the official voice of Ironman worldwide, proclaim “You are now an Ironman!” is an unforgettable experience. “It’s just electric,” says Erika Smiley, who completed her first Ironman in November at the age of 48. “There’s music cranking and everybody’s cheering and yelling – it’s an amazing experience.”
While many of the participants who compete in triathlons are superior athletes, others are moms, dads, brothers, sisters and even grandmothers and grandfathers. “When my dad turned 50, I think that’s when he did his first triathlon,” says Ryan Ross, who completed his first race 11 years ago at the age of 24.
“In 2011, I moved to New York and I saw a guy running the New York Marathon. Plenty of people run this marathon, but this guy didn’t have any arms or legs. He was using prosthetics and there were other people in wheelchairs. It was really inspiring and I thought ‘I have to do something like this.’”
Ryan, who lives in Mendham, has now competed in approximately 14 triathlons including both Ironman and Olympic (which are shorter) in places like London, Copenhagen, Estonia and in the U.S. He usually finishes a full Ironman in 12 to 13 hours (professionals can do it in about eight hours, he says).
Neither Erika, who lives in Indiana and is the director of business development for City Lifestyle, nor Ryan, who is in residential real estate, would consider themselves fitness fanatics. “I started running about 14 years ago after I had my second child to get out of the house and relieve stress,” says Erika. “I would run a block, walk a block, run a block, walk a block, and that built up to where I could do a 5K. After that, I was hooked and thought, ‘Maybe I can do a 10K, maybe I can do a half-marathon, maybe I can do a full marathon,’ and so on.”
Ten years ago, she ran a full marathon, and afterwards decided to train for a triathlon. “I ended up doing five or six of them and actually did a half Ironman as well. After that, I took a break.”
During the COVID pandemic, she felt the need to do something meaningful, so she started to train for a full Ironman, which is a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, plus a 26.2 mile run. The competition, held in Panama City, Florida, took her 16 hours and 36 minutes to finish.
“You have to finish each event at a certain time, so I was really nervous because I’m slow. You have until 12:30 at night and I finished right around midnight, so I only had about 30 minutes left.”
For those wishing to take part in a triathlon, organizing a training schedule and budgeting your time is critical, says Ryan. Erika agrees, “It takes a lot of training, but you can have a job and have kids and do it. It’s really just putting in the time and building up. I bought a book with a 30-week training plan. It’s not about being perfect, though, it’s about being consistent.”
You also have to make sure you have the right type of bike, the right shoes and have somewhere to swim, explains Ryan. For this last part, that often means joining a gym with a pool. Financial budgeting is also important. In addition to the needs above, there are travel expenses, lodging costs, race fees, and more.
Nutrition is also extremely important, and nutrition training plans are available to make sure you’re getting enough micronutrients and electrolytes. Salt is also a big component. “I’ve never had really bad cramps because I religiously take in salt while training and competing,” he says. He sets alarms on his Garmin watch to remind him to hydrate every five miles as well because once you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.
Finishing an Ironman is not just great for us physically, but mentally too. “Anytime you commit to doing something this big and finish it, it really gives you the confidence that there’s really nothing in the world you can’t handle,” says Erika.
Want to become a triathlete or even an Ironman (or woman)? Here are some resources:
Find a triathlon in/near NJ: https://www.trifind.com/nj
Training plans: https://www.trainingpeaks.com/
Plan your bike ride: https://www.mapmyride.com/us/
Zwift Smart Trainer: https://us.zwift.com/
Strava heat map (to find where to ride/run/bike): https://www.strava.com/heatmap#7.00/-120.90000/38.36000/hot/all
Facebook site for beginner triathletes: https://www.facebook.com/groups/pathetic.triathletes
Ryan’s custom training log: ryanrossnow.com/triathlon/track-your-training
Written for Morris City Lifestyle magazine in New Jersey.