Inside the mind of a New Orleans Triathlete
On April 22, approximately 2000 athletes participating in the Ochsner Ironman will dive into the cold waters of Lake Pontchartrain, steeling themselves physically and mentally for what lies ahead: 1.2 miles of swimming along the Lakeshore Drive seawall, 56 miles of biking, and finally, a 13.1-mile run along the lakefront. In five to seven hours, these athletes will have traversed 70.3 miles.
Who would voluntarily participate in such an arduous challenge, and why? We posed the question: “Why Tri?” to four local triathletes, and what we found out about their motivations and how they got started surprised and inspired us.
The New Orleans Ochsner Ironman 70.3
• In the top five of 70.3 races in the world in terms of participation
• One of the only 70.3 races where relay teams are permitted
• Held on the same weekend as the 200th celebration of the Battle of New Orleans; festivities include an air show from the Blue Angels at the Lakefront Airport.
• Registration is still open: http://ironmanneworleans.com/
We spoke to the Race Director of the Ochsner Ironman to get the inside scoop on this year’s race and what he’s planning for next year.
Bill Burke, 56
Race Director Profile
Races Produced and Directed:
• Both New Orleans triathlons: The Ochsner Ironman 70.3 and the 5150 Triathlon
• Crescent City Classic from its inception in 1979 until 1993
• 0lympic trials in Honolulu in 2004 and Des Moines in 2008
• New York City Triathlon in Manhattan
• Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in San Francisco
• Hy-Vee Triathlon in Des Moines
How he changed this year’s route: “The race will start at the UNO Research & Technology Park, and it’s going to finish there for the first time. Most triathlons start and finish in the same spot; it makes it very convenient. This way when your family shows up to watch you, they don’t have to leave and go anywhere; they can just stay at the race and enjoy the activities there the entire day.”
What he has planned in Nola for 2013:
• The first annual Shamrock Run, St. Patrick’s Day, 2013. www.shamrockrunnola.com
• An 8k that will run on the old Crescent City Classic racecourse, starting at the WWII Museum and running down Prytania to finish at Audubon Park.
• Details: A costume contest, $40,000 in prizes, and an Irish band on every mile. The Thursday night before the event there will be a Shamrock Underwear Run to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project.
Front Desk Supervisor and Group Fitness Instructor, Elmwood Fitness
Previous Ironman experience: Trained for the 2011 Ochsner Ironman but her event (swimming) was canceled due to inclement weather
Training since: 2011
Three’s company: I am on the Ochsner relay team. I’m doing the swim, another guy is doing the bike and our manager is doing the run. The Ironman swim is 1.2 miles, and I’m hoping to do that within 35 minutes. I think swimming is the easiest discipline. I am very comfortable in the water; it’s my release.
On discovering her love of swimming: At work we were all in a slump with our workouts and none of us wanted to gain too much weight over the holidays, so we started a friendly competition to see who could alter their body fat and weight the most. The only thing I did was add more swimming to my workouts, and suddenly my body fat just dropped.
Last year a relay team was looking for a swimmer and I said I’d do it. That was the first time I’d ever swum any kind of distance. It’s rewarding because you think you can’t do different things, and then you just do them. You keep going back to it and eventually it becomes natural.
On training with a coach: Endurance challenges weigh on you physically and mentally. You get to a point where you feel overwhelmed and overworked. If you train without a coach, you could be doing too much. A coach can tell if you need to take a break or slow down. If you’re not training with someone or having someone coach you along, you can’t really tell that on your own.
On overcoming obstacles: Over the summer I became severely anemic, and I couldn’t’ train at all for a few months. Starting to swim again was challenging; it almost got to a point where I thought I couldn’t do it anymore. But you keep going out there and you keep pushing it and your body gets back to where it used to be—your body remembers.
On nerves: Swimming in open water is different than in the pool. When there’s wind, the water can be really rough. In a pool you can see the bottom and you can see a line; in open water it’s like you have a blindfold on. You don’t know if you’re going straight or not. [Lake Ponchartrain] is so murky, you can’t really see anything. And then there’s swimming in a group: they say you get kicked, you get punched and people swim right over you. My biggest fear is freaking out when there are so many people around me.
Her greatest motivation: A lot of it is encouraging other people. When they see you do it, they can work up to it themselves. I had my son five years ago and gained 70 pounds. I never thought I’d be in the shape I am now. It’s sharing that with other people and seeing their eyes light up, like “I can do that too.”
Scott Eckart, 37
Previous Ironman experience: Three half-Ironmans and one full-length Ironman
Training since: 2004
On the perks of triathlons: One of the allures of the triathlon community is getting to pick an event and make it into a vacation. Earlier this year [my wife and I] went to Corpus Christi and just took a weekend. We’ll usually travel somewhere and have some fun with it, instead of making it just a job.
On New Orleans’ greatest training asset: The levee right on the [Mississippi] River is a phenomenal resource for bikers and athletes. From Audubon Park to the turnaround point is 22.5 miles, so to go out and come back is a 45-mile loop. When you’re up there, you curse the wind, but the irony is that it’s making you stronger.
On the importance of coaching and a developing plan: The coaches at Ochsner help you come up with your plan, which is designed around your fitness. Obviously the plan takes into consideration the conditions: whether it is hot, windy or cool, and you compare your fitness level to what the conditions are. You just stick with the plan, and if the plan is good you can usually prevail.
On the most common mistake triathletes make: Not properly pacing; 95% of the time people go too fast too early. They’re all amped up and they get out there and start riding too hard. But if you get the pacing wrong, you’re not going to finish. It’s an endurance event; it’s all about how strong you are at the end. It’s a long day, so you’ve got to make sure that you don’t over-exert yourself early on. That’s the number one thing that hurts people. The body knows; you can’t trick it. You just have to have that plan.
His greatest motivation: At the competitions you get really nervous before the event—you’re really kind of dreading the whole thing—but as soon as the gun goes off, it’s a different set of feelings. It’s all business. You go out there and race hard and then you finish and it’s a fantastic feeling. What I’ve noticed is the more nerves you have before an event, the more gratifying the feeling once you complete it. That’s why you keep coming back for more.
Dr. Ali Sadeghi, 36
Plastic Surgeon, Sadeghi Plastic Surgery
Previous Ironman experience: None
Training since: November 2011
On how he got into triathlons: I’m a pretty athletic person and I used to lift weights and play soccer, but I sustained an injury and it got to the point where it was too painful to play, so I stopped. I had a friend who did triathlons and he introduced the idea to me. I saw that it had completely changed his lifestyle. I just wanted to get on a bike because I thought that would be better for my knee. I got into the biking aspect of it and loved it. My knee was healing. Soon after that I started running. The rest is history.
On the mental challenge: It’s not just physical training; it’s also the mental preparation. Swimming in open water can provoke anxiety, then you get out and get on your bike, and then you’re exhausted and you still have to run a half marathon. You can be the strongest physically; you can get all the gadgets and gizmos; but if your mind is not ready, you’re not going to be able to get through it. Most people don’t talk about that part. Mental preparation comes with practice.
Strength in numbers: I train with two of my friends: Arthur Deutcsh and Josh Barndner. Two of us are doctors and the other is a medical sales rep. We have crazy hours and we try to train four out the five mornings and, if time permits, some training after work. We motivate each other through emails and phone calls.
We’re planning to try to stick together [during the race]. It’s nice to have people you’ve trained with be close to you; it’s definitely a motivating factor. My friends have done the half-Ironman before. It gives me comfort knowing they think that I can do it.
On the importance of family support: My wife, Eliana, and I have been married for nine years and she’s very supportive. She is also a physician and with three kids, our time is very scheduled around the household. It’s a completely different lifestyle in terms of eating, exercising and trying to be a role model for those around you. Your family really has to be on your side to make it work. That’s part of the mental preparation. Their support goes a long way.
Jacqueline Bethel, 26
Weapons Officer, US Coast Guard District Headquarters
Previous Ironman experience: One half-Ironman
Training since: 2010
On how she got started: I really got into running when I was in college and started doing 10ks and 5ks. While I was on deployment a year ago in Houston, one of my friends said “Hey, why don’t we run the triathlon?” I ran it with [my friends] and I had a blast, and one friend in passing suggested I do the Ironman in Texas. I didn’t do it to be competitive; I just wanted to see if I could finish. Then, since I’d gotten in shape for it, I figured if I could keep it up between races, that I would keep doing them.
Her biggest challenge: The newest part for me was the style of biking. When I was in college, all I ever did was mountain biking and this kind of bike is very different. When I first got on mine, a couple of pedals into it and any small movement I made the bike reacted to. That took me quite a while to get used to. I’m very slow compared to the people I’m in a group with.
On nerves: I worry about whether I prepared enough, whether I ate the right things the day before or whether I have enough water with me. If it’s something that I could have prevented in preparation—that’s the one thing I get nervous about.
It’s neat when you get there the morning of [the race] and you can watch [the athletes] set up their little staging area because everyone has a particular way of setting up [his or her] one square foot of space. That’s where I see the nerves start to set in. You’re setting up your stuff and you’re wondering if you’ve forgotten anything. You see who’s around you and what type of bike they have and you wonder how long they came to be here.
On why she finds Ironman races so addicting: In running races you have beginning, intermediate and advanced runners. If you’re competing in a triathlon, every single person competing is an athlete. No matter how physically fit you are, you’re considered an athlete when you compete in these.
Her greatest motivation: I’d like to complete 32 half-Ironmans as a tribute to Virginia Tech, where I went to college. I was there during the shootings and 32 of my classmates were killed. Right before I left they came up with the slogan “Live for 32.” I thought about it before signing up for the last two races: “What if I did one half-Ironman for each student?” It’d be my own way of remembering them.