If you missed Part 1 and Part 2 of this special series of articles from Israman triathlon in Eliat, Israel, I'd highly recommend you go and read them, especially if you want to impress your friends with interesting tidbits about this part of the world, or get your mouth watering over Mediterranean cuisine.
In this article, I'm going to get into the nitty-gritty of the Israman triathlon itself. If you've every thought about doing this race, or want a sneak peek into what one of the hardest Half Ironman and Ironman triathlons on the face of the planet is like, then keep reading.
Or if you just want to find out how to stand on a bike for 20 miles, make your feet bleed and pound downhills until your quads are weeping, you can also keep reading. Below are my top 10 tips for racing Israman triathlon.
1. Make A Mantra
You're going to experience a few tough moments during the race. The air temperature and water is a little chilly on race morning. It's still dark out when you start swimming. The first 20K of the bike is nearly all steep climbing. T1 is in a different place than T2, which means you climb and climb on the bike...but never get the dessert: descending. There's a lot of wind. You bike and run in exposed desert.
So when you get into this kind of sticky situation, it always helps to have a mantra. My mantra was "It's Just A Thing." I don't remember where I first heard that phrase, but I think it may have been Mark Divine of SEALFIT. So when my teeth were chattering at the swim start: it's just a thing. When I realized a mile into the 56 mile bike that my borrowed bike seat post was too short and I'd be spending the majority of the bike ride standing: it's just a thing. When I looked down at my watch and saw that the first 40K of the bike took nearly 2 hours because of the brutal climbing: it's just a thing. And when the skin got scraped off the bottom of my feet from 8K of steep downhill running: it's just a thing.
2. Pack Like You're Bipolar.
Israman is cold in the morning. Then you climb into the mountains, where headwinds and crosswinds and elevation drop the temperature even further. Then you finish with a run that starts in the cold mountains but ends in the hot desert along the Red Sea. So bring gloves, arm warmers, leg warmers (unless you have hairy legs like me) and a coat or wind jacket. Sunscreen and chapstick are not bad ideas either. I used none of the items just listed and probably should have.
3. Don't Speedo It
If you show up in your swimsuit, skinsuit, speedsuit, speedo, banana hammock, budgy smuggler, ballbushka, or any other form of skimpy swimwear, be prepared to shiver hard. This race is wetsuit legal. So bring your wetsuit. No need for a neoprene cap or anything like that, and the water is crystal clear and smooth to boot. But it is a bit chilly due to the early 6:15-6:30am-ish race start.
4. Get Ready To Climb
As I've alluded to earlier, you ride from the Red Sea straight up into the mountains. The race opens with nearly 20km of climbing with an elevation gain of 700m, and a total elevation during the race of over 3000m (that's for the Iron distance and the Half is more than half that). As last year and this year's winner Petr Vabrousek reported on Slowtwitch:
"Everyone knows the climbs are tough - 10,000 feet of elevation gain matches the toughest tests in the sport," he said. "But today the desert side winds were brutal. Today there were times when I was riding hard but felt I was standing still. Another factor that makes this race so hard is the bike to run transition is still at 600 meters of elevation. So you don't get the advantage of a long downhill to finish the bike."
That 600 meters downhill starts the run and that declivity takes place over 10 precipitous kilometers. "When you start the run on such a speed downhill, you trash your legs," he said. "People may think that is easy, but with my 80 kilograms weight, my quads are screaming. My feet are screaming. Once I hit the flat, your speed is gone and all you have left is will. Usually I race in very light shoes, but here I ran in my heavy training shoes to absorb the punishment."
5. Don't Watch The Clock
Just face it - you're going to be slower than you expect during the bike ride. A lot slower. For example, 40K of a ride usually takes me about an hour and in this race, it was nearly double that. So don't watch your clock or you'll be disappointed in yourself. A power meter would be fine, but consider keeping the clock off or putting a bit of electrical tape on it. Then just ride and pay attention to the topography and your gearing, and don't let your time get you down. I think my bike split was about 3 hours and 30 minutes - a good hour longer than my usual Half-Ironman bike split - and you can chalk much of that up to the pure difficulty of the bike course. Every time you think you're done climbing, there's simply another hill!
6. Practice Running Downhill
Like I mentioned earlier: you're going to run downhill at Israman. A lot. And it's steep. The first 10K or so of the entire half-marathon and marathon are straight down a road carved into the side of a mountain.
Your quads are going to take a beating from the constant "braking" you have to do during a downhill run, so send them some warnings in your training. Run steep downhills. Do some hard pounding with a treadmill at 0.0 incline. Strengthen the quads just a bit with some squats, lunges, and even leg extension machine at the gym. Your body will thank you later. And by all means, come prepared with the proper downhill running gear, which brings me to my next point...
7. Choose Your Shoes Wisely
I wore my usual shoe choice: my minimalist Skora racing flats with elastic shoe laces. These are great for speed, but don't offer much in the way of cushioning or tightness. So once I began pounding the downhill, it took about 5K for the bottom of both my heels to get rubbed raw as my feet slide around in my shoes. So I ended up walking and even running backwards for the next 5K.
A better shoe choice would be a slightly more cushioned shoe, and then non-elastic shoelaces that allow for a tigher lace-up. Just sayin'. The picture below shows my awesome, yet inappropriate, shoes.
8. It's Only Over When It's Over
So once you finish the chilly open water swim in the Red Sea, the steep climb into the mountains above Eliat, and the intense downhill running, that last part of the run should be a breeze, right? Not quite. It's only over when it's over - and the final sections of the run include flat but heat-exposed pavement pounding along the promenade that lines the Red Sea. It's beautiful, but by the this point you're physically and mentally beat up, and leg turnover is hard to maintain. I recommend you pull out my second trick once you get here: count your steps. I counted to 100 over and over again, trying to ignore the stabbing pains in both feet with each step.
9. Don't Forget Your Flag
Finally...the finish line! Keep your eyes open if you're an early finisher, because once you reach the finish line chute, there's a guy with a bucket of little flags that represent each country. Take the time to stop and grab the tiny flag so you can carry it proudly across the finish line.
Warning: even a tiny flag feels very heavy at the end of Israman!
10. Think Beyond Baklava
For those of you who had watering mouths reading my previous description of Mediterranean cuisine...
And for those of you concerned that Hummus, Falafel and Baklava may not hit the spot after several hours of racing in the desert...
Thanks to my gracious host for the trip (Vibe Israel) I was able to punish a gluten-free hamburger with the works: ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard and pickles. Thank you for that, America. And of course, there was some nice Italian gelato to wash it all down.
Bon appetit, and leave your questions, comments and feedback about the Israman triathlon below. I promise to answer any of your questions about race preparation, aid stations, fueling, course logistics, or anything else. Just promise me you'll think about racing this one - it's well worth the trip!
Author Ben Greenfield runs the highly popular fitness website BenGreenfieldFitness.com, and is author of the brand new atlas of human performance and nutrition, “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life”. He was also recently named as one of the top 100 most influential people worldwide in health and fitness.