From Normal Guy to an Ironman Triathlete – Interview with Eric Teplitz

This post has not been written to encourage you to do an Ironman triathlon, but rather to encourage you to believe that anything is possible if you open yourself up to seemingly outrageous possibilities.

For many people, the idea of competing in an Ironman triathlon is (initially at least) impossible. An Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile marathon run. It's considered the most challenging single day event in the world.

True, some Ironman triathletes are professionals, but many are not. They are normal people with normal lives who decided to make their vision a reality.

I have recently met one of these "normal" guys at a conference. His name is Eric Teplitz and I was delighted when he agreed to be interviewed and share his thoughtful insights here.

 

1. Hi Eric, tell us a bit about yourself and your Ironman dream that you fulfilled.

I am just a regular guy who became enthralled with the challenge of completing an Ironman and eventually achieved this goal.

2. Do you consider yourself to be physically predisposed to be an endurance athlete? What were your athletic capabilities before?

Now that I have completed an iron-distance triathlon, you could say that I was “physically predisposed” to do so. But it’s sort of a “chicken and egg” question since you cannot really know for sure what you are capable of doing until you’ve actually done it.

Would anyone who knew me during the first, say, 25 years of my life guess that I would someday even attempt an event like the Ironman? I highly doubt it.

I know I certainly never would have! As for previous athletic abilities, I was always in decent shape, and blessed with a really good metabolism, but I was never particularly drawn to athletics growing up – nor did I show any real promise for any sports in particular, endurance or otherwise.

3. What was the spark that inspired you to become an Ironman? What ultimately led you to the decision to make a lifestyle change? How did you get introduced to the sport of Ironman triathlons?

For me, it was a very gradual and progressive process. When I was living in Pennsylvania in the late ‘90s I knew a guy who happened to be a triathlete who told me a little bit about his crazy escapades. I expressed a certain amount of curiosity, so he gave me a sheet that outlined a twelve-week training program for a “short course” triathlon. I never did anything with it, other than file it away somewhere.

Fast forward several years to 2003: I was now living in L.A., and I had bought a mountain bike and was really enjoying riding it to the beach and using it to commute to work. I thought back to that sheet and managed to dig it up out of an old storage box. I took a close look at it and thought, “You know, this seems doable…” so I signed up for the Malibu Triathlon few months later in September.

The distances of that race were a .5-mile (ocean) swim, an 18-mile bike, and a 4-mile run. I had never attempted anything like it before. In fact, I had never entered a race of any kind before. For me, the most intimidating part by far was the ocean swim, as I was woefully underprepared for it on race day, but I did manage to get through it. I remember being thrilled once I could see the shoreline after rounding the final buoy and realizing I was going to live!

The completion of that race was a big personal victory for me. But, glorious as it was, I never imagined at that point how far I would end up going with my interest in the sport of triathlon.

A friend of a friend had completed a marathon earlier that year, and I remember thinking not long after finishing my race that, as awesome as the triathlon experience was, you’d have to be out of your mind to do a marathon.

Running 26 miles just sounded like pure punishment to me. Why would anyone in his right mind willingly subject himself to that? A month later, I started training for the LA Marathon! And it just progressed from there.

I got hooked, and intrigued by the possibilities of what else I might be able to do. I thought for sure that the most I would ever even consider doing in terms of triathlon distances would be the half-Ironman (now commonly known as the “70.3”) distance, but once I completed one of those, I thought to myself: “Well, if I were ever going to consider signing up for a full Ironman, it would seem like now would be the time to do it, having just done all of this training and built up all of this momentum!” So that’s how I ended up signing up for my first Ironman race.

4. Once you knew what your dream was how long did it take you to actualize it, and what was your first step?

It took me three tries and over four years from the time I signed up for my first Ironman race ‘til I actually finished one. My first step was just immersing myself in the goal.

Remember I was building upon my training and completion of the Ironman 70.3 California race in 2007, so I wasn’t starting from scratch.

It did involve a higher level of commitment and an even greater absorption in the goal. I read everything I could get my hands on about Ironman training, finally upgraded to a road bike (I had been using my $300 mountain bike all of this time, including at the 70.3 race), and spent a lot of time thinking about the Ironman in addition to training for it.

5. Tell us a bit about what the training involves? Also, Can you give us a typical schedule of a week's training for you?

I had to go dig out my training log and notes to answer this one. I did not follow any one training plan to the letter. I studied a number of plans, philosophies, and approaches (mostly by reading books on the subject) and took what I liked from each and incorporated them into my own training regimen.

I trained specifically for endurance, not for speed, as my goal was simply to complete the distances in the allotted time (and to do so without needing any medical attention). So my plan involved reaching endurance benchmarks by certain dates more than following a strict daily routine. I was disciplined, but flexible and self-directed in my approach.

Shocking as this may sound, the training involved mostly a lot of swimming, biking, and running! And resting and recovering, let’s not forget that.

As for a “typical” week, because I was training for endurance, I generally tried to do one long swim and one long bike ride each week, and long runs even less frequently than that because it takes longer to recover from those. Looking back at my training log I can see that I accumulated over 200 hours of training time in the seven months leading up to the race that I successfully finished (Vineman, on 7/30/11).

200 hours sounds like a lot, and it is, but not by Ironman training standards; it really only averages out to about 7 hours/week for the duration of those seven months. To get a little more specific to the weeks leading up to the race, I can see that in the seven weeks just before my four week taper (the peak of my training), I averaged 10.5 hours of workout time per week, with the maximum number of hours in one week being 15.75 (five weeks before the race).

That at least gives you some idea of the physical aspect of my training. Note that those are hours spent actually working out, and do not include things like planning and preparing for workouts, commuting to workouts, stretching after workouts, trips to the bike shop, and reading, note-taking, and generally obsessing about all things Ironman!

There’s a huge mental component to training as well, but the physical and mental aspects are definitely intertwined. Figuring out how to give yourself enough (and the right kinds) of nutrition over the duration of a long workout is also a big part of the overall equation, and for me involved mostly experimentation.

Each individual race (and in some cases, individual workouts) also has its own logistics that need to be understood and planned for. And then there are the issues related to clothing and gear, and the financial cost of everything. So it’s a pretty big undertaking all in all.

6. Did you enjoy your training? What didn't you like?

I did enjoy my training. It’s incredible to experience your body adapt to this kind of conditioning and to do things you may have previously thought were not even possible for you.

Ironman training can be addictive but in a positive way. There is the feeling of making continuous progress toward a significant goal, which is very motivating. You experience an increase in your fitness level (obviously), collect a series of accomplishments along the way, which builds self-esteem, gain experience with pushing past discomfort to achieve something that’s important to you, and inevitably learn a lot about both the sport and yourself. Plus, swimming, biking, and running can all be very enjoyable activities in and of themselves. Endorphins are wonderful things!

I also very much prefer the variety of doing workouts in all three of these disciplines rather than just one of them. You tend to naturally eat better during training, too, in response to your body’s craving for certain nutrients, and because you want to perform at your best. All of these things are very positive.

As for what I didn’t like? Maybe my memory is selective in hindsight, but nothing stands out as being particularly negative. Are workouts sometimes hard? Yes, but you at least have the feeling of accomplishment at the end. Do you have to make certain sacrifices in order to train? Sure, but I didn’t feel resentful about this because I chose to do it and the goal, for whatever reason, excited me.

I was also very fortunate to not suffer any injuries during training. This was due in part to being as smart and careful as I knew how to be, but there’s always an element of luck in there too, for which I am grateful.

7. How did your body respond to the training?

Wonderfully! I had experienced this process before in training for other races. I’ll never forget my experience training for my first marathon. I followed a training program very diligently for that race, and was amazed at how my body gradually adapted to each incremental challenge as long as I kept my focus on the current workout - or the next one, if I was between workouts - and not on the seemingly impossible ones further on down the line (there’s a lesson in there somewhere!).

I think it’s also very important to listen to your body. I keep learning this over and over again with every race that I train for, and I’d like to think that I have gotten at least a little better at it with experience. You have to respect when your body sends you a message such as “I need rest!” and give it what it asks for.

If you do this, if you honor your body, if you really appreciate the amazing things it can do and give it the respect it deserves, it will likely come through for you when you need it to. This means you have to be flexible enough during the course of your training to allow for unplanned rest days and other modifications to your training plan.

One of the trickiest aspects of endurance training is knowing when to keep pushing yourself versus when you need to back off. This is something that your body will teach you, ultimately. You’ve got to listen to your body above all else if you want to get the best results from it.

8. How did you juggle your full time job, your social life, and your training when you prepared for the Ironman? How did you manage your time?

I think what happens is, you get better at managing your time when you have a compelling goal driving you - such as training for an Ironman - as compared to when you don’t. At least, that’s how it was for me. I was more motivated and serious about planning my free time in such a way as to fit in the training I wanted, or felt I needed to do.

I was not working full-time when I trained for my first Ironman race, but I did work full-time throughout all of my training for the other two, including Vineman, the one that I finished. Looking back, what I find interesting is that I put in pretty close to the same amount of hours of training when I was working full-time as when I wasn’t. That surprises me, actually!

9. What was the one constant motivation that kept you on track in your training? What gave you the courage to go after your biggest dream?

You know, that’s hard to answer. It’s kind of an intangible thing, but it has something to do with really caring about the goal – becoming fascinated and even obsessed with it. I can’t explain why I cared so much about finishing an Ironman, of all things. I’m sure there are a number of reasons.

I have said before that I am the most and least motivated person I’ve ever met. When I really care about something, I seem to have a deep well of motivation and resourcefulness upon which I can draw. But understanding exactly why it is that something captures my imagination so intensely is not always easy for me to explain or even fully understand.

10. What was the greatest challenge you faced training for the Ironman?

I would have to say that the greatest challenge for me was being able to cover the race distances quickly enough. There are cut-off times for each of the three disciplines (and sometimes within them, as well, depending on the race).

As I mentioned earlier, I spent the bulk of my training efforts on building endurance, but the reality is if you don’t make a particular time cut-off, you’re out of the race right then and there. So in each race I did, I had a battle with the clock. But it did keep things exciting!

You can read the following entries on my blog in which I describe this in much greater detail: “The Most Athletic Day of My Life” (Ironman Arizona), “An Exercise in Courage” (Ironman St. George), and “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Tri, Tri Again!” (Vineman).

11. Can you describe any diet changes that were necessary to perform at this higher level?

I was far from fanatical about monitoring my diet during training. That said, I have been a vegetarian for several years now and eat a pretty healthy diet overall.

I do have a bit of a sweet tooth, but one of the wonderful things about Ironman training is that you burn so many calories that you can justify almost anything you eat!

As I mentioned earlier, though, your body tends to crave certain foods during training and I found that, even without having to be strict about eating “healthy” all of the time, the habits of regular exercise and healthy eating tend to reinforce one another.

12. If you were to do it all over again, would you do anything differently?

Nothing major comes to mind. In part, this is probably because I am not a super-competitive athlete, other than with myself. I strive to improve my own performance, but I’m not motivated much by competing with other athletes the way some people are. I do this kind of thing to test, and stretch, my own limits.

13. What was your strategy in managing pain during difficult segments of the race?

This is an interesting question, and I’m not sure I have a definite answer for it. I have noticed, through training for and participating in a number of different races, that there is a huge mental component to getting through an endurance event.

When you train, you train not only your body but also your mind. In addition to the physical fitness you’ve built and can draw upon in a race, you also build a storehouse of mental fortitude. If you have trained with any degree of seriousness, then you have inevitably accumulated some mental strategies for getting yourself through, and I think these are highly individual and personal – they really amount to whatever works for you.

So, in a race you are drawing from all similar experiences you have created for yourself during the course of your training (including any other races you may have done)., but because it is a race and not just a training session, there are other factors at play.

Most people will take a race more seriously than a training workout. There’s more on the line! There is also a unique environment of some 2,000 people around you giving everything they’ve got, and you can draw from their energy, encouraging comments, and inspiring examples, as well. Not to mention the support of the volunteers and spectators! So, one of the main challenges in an endurance event like the Ironman is keeping your morale up, especially when things don’t go as you planned or hoped they would.

My only real strategy was to keep going, and I did whatever I could in any particular moment to motivate myself to do just that. The race reports on my blog provide more specifics about this.

14. What did your Ironman experience teach you? Did you apply any lessons learnt to your day-to-day life?

First and foremost: you can accomplish way more than you think you can.

The whole process of training for an Ironman involves bridging the gap between what your perceived limits are and what you actually can do. There are plenty of other lessons, too, but that’s the big one.

Have I applied that big lesson to other aspects of my life? I’m still working on that, honestly! But here’s some more food for thought: I mentioned earlier that I averaged around seven hours of training per week for seven months for the Vineman race that I completed. This, on average, comes out to just an hour a day. Now granted, if you were to train for literally an hour a day every day for seven months, it probably would not serve you in good stead for an event like the Ironman, where the whole point is to build up the endurance needed to complete it.

But it does kind of beg the question: what might you be able to accomplish if you devoted a mere hour a day (either literally, or on average) over a period of time with a singule focus in mind? That question, especially if answered with some creativity, imagination, courage, and ambition, has the potential to change your life.

15. Do you recommend any books, products or websites that helped you along the way?

Yes, my number one recommendation would be the book IRONSTRUCK…The Ironman Triathlon Journey by Ray Fauteux. Other books that I found helpful during my Ironman training were Be Iron Fit by Don Fink, and Going Long by Joe Friel and Gordon Byrn.

16. What would be one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring endurance athlete? What is your message to someone who's about to embark on his dream?

If doing an endurance event is something that interests you, go for it! You don’t have to start with an Ironman, try something that would be a stretch for you, whatever that may be.

Start wherever you are, and enjoy the journey. Another book I highly recommend, by the way, is the one I used to train for my first marathon: it’s called The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, by David Whitsett, Forrest Dolgener, and Tanjala Cole.

It takes what is potentially a totally intimidating endeavor - training for your first marathon - and helps to make it truly accessible. It certainly did for me.

17. Do you continue to do triathlons? What's next for you as an endurance athlete? What are your fitness goals for the New Year?

I just completed the Rose Bowl Half Marathon a couple of weeks ago (my 6th race at that distance). At the moment, I am not signed up for any other races.

As for my fitness goals right now, I would like to establish an exercise routine that is completely independent of training for any races. In other words, I’d like to see if I can stay motivated to exercise for its own sake and rewards - to keep it a regular part of my life, but a smaller part so that I can give more attention to other things.

Will I end up doing other endurance events in the future? I’ve certainly learned by now to never say never! One thing that interests me to some extent is doing a double century (200-mile bike ride), as I’ve never done one. But I have no plans for this right now. Time will tell if my interest in this persists and proves compelling.

18. What's next for you in life?

The biggest challenge in my life for quite some time has been trying to figure out a way to make a living that really suits me – something that I find enjoyable, fulfilling, and in which I can feel really good about investing myself; something that allows me to realize my most positive and creative potential, and that makes a positive difference in the lives of others, as well. Stay tuned!

Thanks Eric

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