Summer Training Four-Time Ironman Finisher Chris Swanson

I can count on four fingers how many times my life was transformed in an instant, and they all include an ESPN finish line announcer shouting: “Chris Swanson, you are an IRONMAN!”

It all started in 2007 when I stood on the sandy edge of the Gulf of Mexico, staring at swim buoys that seemed to reach halfway to Cuba. 14 hours and 11 minutes (and 140.6 miles) later, I claimed my first IRONMAN title.

So how does a fat kid with a bad haircut become an elite IRONMAN athlete? Glad you asked. In order to finish all four of my IRONMAN triathlons, I used five key principles. In fact, I challenge you to apply these same principles to any challenge you’re facing right now.

Trust me, they work! BFV – Big Fat Vision! Before I even registered for my first IRONMAN, I watched YouTube videos of athletes crashing, crawling, and finishing in all three disciplines. I talked with previous finishers. I closed my eyes and pictured the course in my head, all the way down to the sand between my toes. I smelled the saltwater. I was there before I was there.

Finishing the IRONMAN was my only option. Proclaim It – Once I registered, I told everyone I knew about it. There was no one close to me that didn’t know I was training for IRONMAN. On race day, I knew they were watching, cheering, and celebrating from thousands of miles away. I had to put action behind my words. But that’s not the only motivator. I knew my critics were tracking me as well. They wanted me to fail, but I wouldn’t ever give them the satisfaction. Silence critics with your results!

Eat the Beast in Small Bites – At the 7 a.m. start, I wasn’t thinking about the bike or the run, only swimming to the next buoy. Before I knew it, I had 1.2 miles under my belt. Repeat that loop, and my 2.4-mile swim was done. Then it was out of the water and on the bike for 112 miles. Don’t even try to think of the whole course, just cycle in 10-mile chunks. At the 56 mile marker, you’re halfway to 112! Off the bike and only a short 26.2 mile run to the finish. Stack one mile on top of the next, do it 26 times, and you’re an IRONMAN. Don’t get caught up in the entire task ahead.

Take it one bite at a time. Rewards – I pre-set rewards at different benchmarks. After the swim, I get an energy bar. At the 56-mile marker on the bike, I get a pack of Skittles. Every mile on the run, there’s Coca Cola and pretzels. As each mile passes and I get closer, I push harder.

Turning to my right, I talk to myself as I plant each foot, reminding myself that the finish line has my IRONMAN medal, a blanket, and paramedics. Don’t Go Alone – This was made clear to me at IRONMAN IV in Madison, Wisconsin.

For many reasons, I knew that morning I was not 100%. Each hour into the race, I felt my body break down more than ever before. At mile 107 of the bike, I clicked out of my pedals and had to lie down on the side of the road just to recover. I climbed back in the saddle for the last four miles, but I still had a 26.2-mile run to complete.

At the bike-to-run transition, I was over an hour off schedule. I told my wife Jamie, “It’s gonna be a long night.” It was already almost 6:00 p.m., and I was 11 hours into it. The first 13.1-mile loop was brutal. Each downward movement of my feet was filled with pain that radiated throughout my body. I was physically sick to my stomach and completely exhausted. At the halfway transition, I sat on a chair with my head buried in my hands.

My loyal partner and co-athlete, Casey, was pushing me to get up. I finally made it happen. Shoulders hunched forward, I started with a slow shuffle into the darkness of the night for another 3-hour run. It wasn’t long before I heard behind me tiny footsteps. Turning to my right, I recognized a familiar image. It was my wife, who before that night had never run more than three miles in her life. She ran the next 13.1 miles with me to the finish. For her selfless sacrifice, she deserves the IRONMAN medal more than I ever will. Don’t think you have to do something extraordinary alone!

There you go. Five must-do’s to finish whatever it is you call your IRONMAN. Maybe it’s 140.6 miles, or a health crisis, or a family devastation, or a failed business. Maybe you’re simply lost. But take my advice—these principles changed my life, and they can do the same for you. 

Now go finish or die tryin’!

About The Author, Chris Swanson is a four-time Ironman finisher, two-time best-selling author, national motivational speaker, police commander, and Founder of Swanson Leadership. He has shared his insight on staying motivated in 2019 and making this the year you commit to achieving your goals.