Ironman Triathlon Death March

Controlling your enthusiasm is a major key if you want to avoid being a major player in the Ironman death march.

In the back of your mind you were always pretty sure that making it to the Ironman Triathlon finish line was going to somehow involve a certain amount of pain. After all, it’s a long, long day out there.

Even so you were simply not prepared for just how bad you were going to feel on race day.

The pain and fatigue began it’s relentless creep into your muscles about halfway through the bike course. At first it was easy to ignore, but as the miles passed beneath the whirring wheels a voice deep in your sub-conscience began to whisper “slow down, slow down.”

The Ironman Marathon will test you on many levels.


Just a few miles into the marathon the pain came in earnest and it happened with the subtlety of a house being dropped on top of you about 5k into the marathon. Sure, you felt a stiffness when you finally climbed off your bike at the end of 112 miles, but didn’t you run at a pretty brisk pace as you passed the crush of spectators cheering you on as you left transition?

First of all, most novice ironmen get caught up in the emotion of the day and don’t race within themselves.

So why did that brisk run become a slow trot, a walk-run, and then an even slower agonizing shuffle? You ask yourself how this could possibly have happened because you did plenty of long bike and run training sessions and it never hurt this much.

What could you possibly have done differently in order to avoid becoming a participant in the Ironman death march?

Perhaps two of the greatest Ironman Hawaii Champions in the history of the sport can shed some light on the subject.

When Dave Scott and Mark Allen hooked up in Ironman Hawaii 1989 in what would become known as the “Iron War” they re-defined the meaning of “no pain, no gain.” It was probably one of the greatest performances in the face of pain in the history of endurance sports.

They did the 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike in tandem and neither was willing to give in and let the other gain an advantage and break away. Despite being in pain at the beginning of the marathon, they ran virtually side-by-side for over 2 hours and 30 minutes at their maximum possible speed.

Dave Scott and Mark Allen. Neither would give an inch.


They took turns surging and trying to break each other, but each time they were drawn back together. At one point near the turn-around of the marathon course there was a surge by Dave Scott that computed to a 5:40 mile timed by race officials and yet at the end of it, it was like he was tied to Mark Allen with a 3-foot string.

Ultimately Mark Allen won when he pulled away at an aid station as they entered Kona and neared the finish of the race. To this day they recorded the two fastest marathon times in Ironman Triathlon history with their sub 2:40 times and by the end of the race were 3 miles ahead of the third place finisher.

So how did they do it?

For Mark Allen it was more a matter of using mind-power to deal with the pain. It took many attempts before he was finally able to win the Hawaii Ironman because he would mentally give in to the pain. It wasn’t until leaning to master the pain on a mental level that he was able to perform through it and became a true champion.

Dave Scott learned how to deal with pain in a far different way. He would train until it hurt because he knew he was going to feel that same pain on race day and he had to get his body used to it. Ultimately he mastered pain on a more physical level.

It was this training method that propelled him to 6 Ironman Hawaii Championships. He didn’t necessarily train more than the other top pros of the day, but instead trained his body to perform through pain.

So how does today’s triathlete approach the pain factor and avoid the death march?

There seems to be two main reason why many age-group triathletes feel such extreme pain in a race that far exceeds anything they ever felt in training.

From the moment the start gun sounds they are off like a shot and don’t slow down until they run right into the wall of pain that awaits those who simply run out of gas. Often they still have part of the bike and the entire marathon to go, and through their enthusiasm have set themselves up to be a major player in the ironman death march.

In the mayhem of the Ironman swim, be the calm in the eye of the storm.


The best way to avoid this is to temper your enthusiasm and concentrate on maintaining a pace that can be sustained through the entire day. It is “extremely” important that this begins in the swim as soon as the start gun sounds and emotions are at a fever pitch. Energy wasted in the swim is unrecoverable for the rest of the day and is gone for good.

Be the calm in the eye of the storm when all others are caught up in the fury of the Ironman swim.

The second way to avoid the death march is to train outside of your comfort zone. There can only be one outcome if most of your training sessions are relatively easy and comfortable and then suddenly you push your body to it’s limit on race day.

If you plan on racing until it hurts then it would be in your best interest to take a page from Dave Scott’s book and practice training out of your comfort zone so you can experience some of that pain ahead of time. At least that way it won’t be such a shock to your system.

By approaching an Ironman Triathlon in a manner that best suits your ability and preparation you will avoid the death march and have your best possible outcome.

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