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Men and Women of Steel

Paul Grech Friday, August 7, 2009 , ,
Every day you wake up, take a quick shower and something for breakfast before going out to work. There you spend a good part of the day before finally clocking off to return back home

Now imagine that, rather then sitting in front of a computer screen or whatever it is that you do, you were to spend those ten hours running, cycling and swimming. Sounds good? Well it certainly does for a group of athletes who, for the past year, have been gearing up to take part in the Karnten Ironman in Austria.
In reality, the word ironman does very little to describe the sheer difficulty of this sport. For ironman, which is an extended version of triathlon, consists of a 3.86 km swim, a 180.25 km bike ride and a full marathon run, raced in that order and without a break. The very best athletes, can complete this in around eight hours; for the rest it can take up to fifteen hours. Or, to use the previous example, if they set off as soon as you wake up they would still be at it by the time you’re getting ready to go to sleep.

For most of us, that seems like sheer madness yet for those who want to push their bodies to extremes it is something that they have to do.

“Ironman is a challenge,” Dermot Galea explains. “It is something different and whatever the result the fact you finished such an event is always something to be proud of. This is not just a race but a journey where you learn about yourself, and your limits, mental and physical.”

Despite having won countless national triathlon championships, Galea is still in his mid-twenties and an athlete who is still to reach the peak of his physical abilities. He is also one who you get the feeling love a physical challenge. Little wonder then that, the Austria ironman will be his fourth.

Galea is the one who has spearheaded the recent increase in the number of athletes interested in the ironman distances.

Fabio Spiteri is another experienced tri-athlete who is also gearing up for what will be his first ironman. “We where chatting after a triathlon and afterwards we started sending out e-mails about the possibility of doing an ironman. Eventually others joined in so that now there will be a total of nine athletes who will be taking part. That’s quite a big group for a small island like Malta.”

With over 2,500 athletes being expected to turn out for the Karnten ironman, the Maltese will be but a drop in the ocean. Similarly, with the possible exception of Dermot Galea, none of them are going with any hopes of finishing high up the ranking. Yet, as you would imagine for such a tough event, training over the past months has been intensive.

“Ironman preparation is not just about physical endurance training,” Spiteri confirms.

“There are three main issues that I keep in mind. Obviously, the physical aspect is important. When you’re training for an Ironman, your training program must incorporate training in a fatigued state to get your body used to those types of demands. Training for a marathon is one thing, running a marathon when you’re already tired from your 3.8km swim and 180km bike ride is completely another.”

“Another important aspect of training for your ironman is to understand and apply endurance nutrition,” he continues. “During the course of an ironman, around 8000 calories or more are burnt so I have to eat and drink during the race because my body can't convert fat to energy fast enough to support the effort without additional fuel.”

Then there is the mental aspect where Spiteri is turning to visualization in order to help him out: “during the race if you're thinking of giving up...just think about the finish line!”

The psychological is also highlighted by Dermot Galea, even if he doesn’t really agree that one has to be mentally prepared to face an ordeal. “It is not an ordeal, its a challenge, and one needs to prepare for it mentally like any challenges in life. It is all about one's limits and doing an ironman you certainly learn a few things about yourself, and who you are.”

Learning about herself and her limits is certainly what attracted Donatelle Callus, one of two women in the group, to ironman.

“Every extreme is a challenge; let’s hope that my body and mind will take me through this,” she says. “I love the diversity of the sport – having to do three disciplines never gets boring. And since I am a person who gets easily bored and am always looking for an adventure or something new to look forward to, it is ideal for me. Ironman Races are the ultimate races in triathlon.”

Similarly, Callus doesn’t really mind the fact that there are just two women on the island preparing themselves for this challenge. “I don’t think about being the only women in the group as this sport is a lonely sport and, in any case, I do most of my training alone. True, I will be part of a group but during the race I will be alone just my body and my mind.”

Callus laughs when asked about her targets. “I want to finish!” she exclaims. “The cut off is 17 hours and I would like to do it in 15 hours even if I will probably be walking most of the marathon.”

Finishing is also all that Fabio Spiteri is thinking of. Well, almost. “Since it is my first ironman I should be aiming on just finishing. But, knowing me, I've always trained hard, done well in l races abroad and am very competitive so on a good day I should be somewhere between 9hours 45 minutes and 10 hours.”

Galea is the least specific of the three and, even though he admits that he’s hoping for a “fourth finish”, all that he will add is that he’s looking for a “a fast time. That would be great.”

As, in reality, is any sort of finish to the ironman challenge.

This article appeared in the July 2009 issue of Skylife magazine.

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