Taking on the Ironman worlds

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii -- On Saturday, the 2011 Ford Ironman World Championship will take place on the Big Island of Hawaii. For weeks, elite triathletes have been deep into their taper -- a period of decreased activity in preparation for the race. They've been resting, but they probably haven't slept much.

It's nerves, mostly, that keep them up -- anticipation for some; fear for others. The Hawaii Ironman is 2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles on the bike, and then the marathon (26.2-mile) run. The wind is a relentless bully, the hot air like a punch in the face.

What are the keys to tackling -- and maybe even enjoying -- an event and a sport that's so notoriously challenging? We asked Montana's Linsey Corbin, one of America's top female triathletes, a nine-hour Ironman, and bib number 124 in this year's world championship race to give us her thoughts.

1. A plan

Corbin works with coach Matt Dixon of purplepatch fitness. Dixon guides her throughout the season, scheduling workouts to make sure that she trains enough, but not too much.

"We focus a lot on rest and recovery versus the big miles," Corbin explained. "But, we always say that you have to earn your bacon. So, when we go hard, it's really hard."

2. Training … a lot of it

The Ironman distance requires a high volume of training for each of the three sports: swimming, cycling, and running. Corbin's program includes five to seven hours of swimming weekly and over 300 miles of cycling. As for running, "I try to get in 40 to 60 miles a week," she said.

3. Nutrition

Nutrition is sometimes referred to as triathlon's fourth discipline. It's that critical to racing success. For optimal performance, triathletes need to take in carbohydrates for fuel, electrolytes for muscle function, and fluid for hydration. Corbin gets all of her nutrition from gels (Clif Shots) and fluid; she doesn't eat any solid food while racing. "I take a gel every thirty minutes and three salt tablets on the hour," she said. Somehow, she manages to consume 3000-3500 calories on race day.

As for her sports drink, Corbin isn't picky. "I'm fortunate with my gut, so I take what's on the course." She generally aims to drink two water bottles (32 ounces) per hour during the bike leg. "After half way through the run, I just take in as much as I can handle."

4. Balance

Triathlon training and racing can be all-consuming if it's not occasionally put in check. Even professionals, like Corbin, consciously balance things out by making time for family and friends, and activities outside of triathlon. "Triathletes tend to take things too seriously. I just like to keep it light. Include others, enjoy what you're doing." Corbin keeps it quirky, too: She finishes every race wearing a cowboy hat.

5. Grit

No one completes an Ironman untested, especially in Hawaii. Even top professionals fear knowing how far they'll have to push themselves physically, and how bad it's going to hurt.

Short-term discomfort is sometimes a reality of endurance sports, but when a performance is cut short, it's more often psychological than physical. When you're halfway through the run course -- air temperature 83 degrees, asphalt 115—expect the demons in your head to lobby for a larger share of voice. It's okay to walk. This isn't fun anymore.

"That's when the race gets tough," Corbin said. Her advice: Get out of there, mentally. "I just try to think, ride out this hard part. It's not going to be this ugly the whole time -- it never has been. Somehow, find a way to turn that switch off."

Kurt Hoy is content director for Triathlete.com

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