Road to Ironman: Execution, Willpower, and Sacrifice

Recently, Source Endurance athlete Nick Coil completed his first Ironman triathlon. When I first discussed the process with Nick, I knew there would be some big obstacles to overcome. Nick has a young family, a demanding full-time job, and even moved in the 8 months leading up to Ironman Wisconsin. It’s safe to say the guy had a tremendous amount of everyday life stress to deal with as he prepared for the race, especially considering his goal of going under 10 hours. It was an exceptional performance despite being JUST short of this target.

The Backstory

First, I’d like to congratulate Nick on his massive accomplishment. Simply FINISHING an Ironman is an achievement that not everyone is cut out for. Nick not only placed in the top 50 out of 2,282 athletes, but he did it in his first ever Ironman with very limited experience in triathlon in general. It’s even MORE impressive considering the training time Nick had available. He may have devoted much of his free time to preparation, but he was still able to function in everyday life. I’ll get into some of the training more near the conclusion of the article. Nick closed out an amazing 8 month period (with interruptions!) with a phenomenal race time of 10h10m10s for 10th place in his age group. I started with Nick on February 1st, 2017 and IM Wisconsin took place September 5th of the same year.
Over the course of his preparation, Nick made a lot of sacrifices and faced many challenges that could’ve seriously derailed the entire journey to Ironman. I’ll mention a few in order to highlight how Nick’s coachable attitude, honest and insightful feedback, and trust in the process contributed significantly to his success despite these potentially major issues.

The Gradual Build: Not without its setbacks

Nick came out of the gate on February 1st with some pretty impressive latent fitness. He competed for many years in the upper levels of cycling and had run in college as well. We started with some baseline testing including time trials and general pace-setting. Shortly after this, Nick realized he was dealing with a familiar training foe: anemia. With prior experience guiding his management of the condition, Nick quickly got on top of iron supplementation and moved forward well. He still lost a minimum of 3 weeks of really solid and focused training time. While I continued to build training time into the schedule, this was a big issue that needed to be solved before Nick could get harder workouts.
Following this, Nick spent the better part of the next 6 months in a gradual, progressive build. Regular discussion and constant adjustment marked the entirety of Nick’s training time as we moved toward the race date. At each consult, Nick would provide feedback on what went well and what went poorly and then we would adjust and adapt the schedule to his often hectic schedule. I originally intended to give Nick a “reverse” periodization scheme in which the training started at high intensity to increase his Vo2max “ceiling” and then progressed into the longer, slower, and more Ironman-specific training that he’d need to effectively race. To be concise: it didn’t quite work out that way.
It’s important here to mention that coaching is not a one-way relationship. Nick’s feedback led me to seriously alter the entire philosophy I’d started with around his preparation. The high intensity of my intended reverse periodization did not suit Nick as well as I hoped. Instead, he found himself tired and sore more often than not. He’d get a lot out of each workout, but combining all three disciplines of triathlon with a busy family and work life meant that the stressors of high intensity training were too much for Nick to recover from adequately. Ultimately, his performance improvement was stalled when the intensity was “high” and I pulled back, reducing the frequency of higher intensity workouts. After the first few weeks of initial orientation to the training, we settled in and focused more on Nick’s weak spots individually by sport.

Run & Swim Prep

On the run, Nick merely needed to avoid injury and become accustomed to running off the bike and running long. His speed has been impressive since the beginning. We kept most runs relatively short, and relatively fast, until the last 6-8 weeks, when the volume went up to make sure he could handle the magnitude of a marathon at the end of an already brutal day. Most runs were preceded by bike rides, except the long runs near the end of the major training cycle. Another of those difficulties I mentioned before includes Nick’s work travel, which would often take up 3-4 days in which it was difficult to find a venue, or time, to train. I would typically adjust the training to accommodate either a running or recovery block during these times. Closing in on the race, Nick’s run was a point of confidence for me as his coach. All he’d need to do is stay fueled and hang on through the suffering, which he’s proven time and again he can handle.
Many endurance athletes have all the fitness and none of the technique required to be effective swimmers. Despite some issues with his activity tracking watch, Nick learned quickly. While his swim was not the most blistering split, he made impressive gains all the way through August. The goal at the start of training was simply to get Nick used to swimming and get him comfortable in the water. Then, we progressed to swimming longer with more drills and specific technique work. Unfortunately, Nick injured his shoulder and was forced to take several weeks of swimming at a reduced level. Without panic, we adapted to this, too, exchanging a few swim days with cycling, running, or easy pool recovery days. Next, Nick was able to get some open water training. Finally, we put it together and included several long open-water and indoor swims before the race day. Pacing was one of the main focuses for the swim, so I really tried to get Nick’s natural pacing drilled into him with some precisely timed repeats. I believe it worked very well.

The Bike Leg

Nick’s bike leg was my major concern going into the last 2 months of training. With the run and swim looking on-target in terms of pacing, I pushed Nick most on the bike. The first few months, more than we’d prefer, were spent on the road bike as Nick waited on the TT bike to be ready. Once it was, Nick had some difficulty adjusting to the demanding aerodynamic position the bike requires. I had Nick spend increasing time tucked and speedy, and it worked out fairly well. The bike fit and aerodynamics take a lot of time and discomfort to get really dialed, and it’s definitely something we’d focus on for the future.
The other major difficulty with the bike is the sheer time. Making up more than half the race, by time, the bike is often where the race can be lost. Minutes, not seconds, can be lost due to poor aerodynamics or discomfort in the TT position, even with huge amounts of fitness. I prepared Nick for the bike by focusing on the energy system development. With a target power output at the relatively low intensity of ~70% threshold, Nick fell below the ~80% seen by the pros. However, his training time was far, far less. To compensate, Nick’s long rides often built upon one another in order to stress the system more completely. I’d start with a hard ride and a short run on Friday, then progress to a pair of long rides on Saturday and Sunday. This meant that most of Nick’s long rides were done in an already-fatigued state. This was my greatest concern for Nick heading into race day. It turned out just fine aside from my overestimation of speed on a tough course.

Among the many impressive accomplishments that I saw with Nick was his ability to stick to the plan, trust in the progression, and suffer through when necessary. The plan did not always appear, at the surface, to have a well-defined or long-term logic. I was able to use Nick’s feedback each day and each week to guide the adaptations that he needed as we approached race day because he trusted me. Training was never perfect and, as always, both he as the athlete and me as the coach could have done things more effectively. Still, the result was one I consider pretty special because it was a true testament to making the absolute most out of what we had to work with.

Race Day Execution:

In Ironman, the “limit” is a fine thing. Going 5 watts too hard on the bike could mean blowing up 13 miles from the finish. Running just 15s/mile too slow costs more than 6 minutes over the marathon. Each step and each pedal-stroke has real consequences for the entirety of the 140.6 miles. Back in May, a short three months after we started (and an effective training time of only about 8 weeks), I set out some splits for Nick to target. They were: 1:50/100m on the swim, 8:17/mile on the run, and 23mph (estimated at 240w) on the bike. This put Nick just under his goal of 10 hours.
In our pre-race conversation, I gave Nick several pieces of advice that I believe he followed to full effect. These included how to gauge his efforts on the bike and run, what to watch out for in nutrition, and expectations for the day. Nick took in my recommendations for nutrition (which he’d trialed on his own over the course of training) and paced about as perfectly as any race I’ve ever seen. Watching Nick’s splits and time during the race was fantastic because I could see from each split that he was racing at his absolute limit all day long. He listened to my advice on cramping, consuming a product designed to counter cramping at the nerve despite never using it in training. It paid off. Nick avoided cramps for the whole race after taking it halfway through the marathon when his legs began to feel that familiar dreadful sensation prior to cramping.

With a tough bike course, the time didn’t quite match my projected speed here. Otherwise, Nick absolutely nailed the pacing. As you can see from each split, Nick put together an outstanding race overall. The run was 19s/mile FASTER than I planned back in May, the swim was EXACTLY on, and Nick saw a power output on the bike of 234w when he hopped into T2 and threw on his running shoes. On race day, I gave him an official target of 235w after his last month of training. Nick’s entire Ironman journey was successful because of how well he put together the actual race day.
I see Nick’s Ironman as a colossal success. He overcame a lot of challenges and worked with me to maximize his training time. Despite all the challenges and potential setbacks, Nick made the best of his time. I want to close with some training numbers to give a sense of how much was done in Nick’s preparation.
Total Volume:

  • Swim: 50 hours, 9 minutes
  • Bike: 180 hours, 15 minutes
  • Run: 58 hours, 53 minutes

Average Weekly Hours:

  • 9 hours, 1 minute.

Total % of planned duration completed:

  • Swim: 83%
  • Bike: 94%
  • Run: 100%

This last detail is one of my proudest as Nick’s coach: Nick’s finish time on race day was a full hour longer than his average training week since February.

  • Hurt Ankle (possible, avoided with higher intensity and less initial volume)
  • Anemia (4-6 weeks training reduced level)
  • Hurt shoulder (reduced swimming)
  • Bike (didn’t get TT bike until later in training)
  • Travel for work
  • Has a kid
  • Moved houses
  • Nutrition learning curve (overcome primarily through trial and error and race-day decisions we made together)
  • Bike fit issues


  • Absolutely nailed pacing on race day
  • Adjustments in training made often and with a very relaxed outlook
  • Cramps/Nutrition handled
  • Suffers like a champion
  • Set up/Transition was smooth

As an Exercise Science student at the University of Texas, Mitchell Sides assisted coaching the university cycling and triathlon teams. Since graduating, he raced professionally for Elevate Pro Cycling and started his coaching career at Source Endurance.  Mitchell has been using TrainingPeaks and WKO4 analytical software to help optimize workouts for each athlete. His athletes range from masters to college freshmen in cycling and triathlon. He currently resides in Austin, Texas. Learn more about Mitchell.