'Ironman' photographer swims, bikes, runs

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Mark Simpson, half-Ironman

To complete a full Ironman, you must swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and then run a marathon, 26.2 miles.

People who do that are “crazy,” says WRAL photographer Mark Simpson. Last November, he completed the half-Ironman in Wilmington, so I guess that makes Mark only half crazy :)

I asked him to share his story and tell us what it’s like to swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles and run 13.1 miles in one day.

What made you want to compete in a half-Ironman?

I’ve always raced in 5k or 10k running races but I started to have knee problems so I took up riding the stationary bike at my gym. I was introduced to a guy that did an ironman and thought that was impressive. He had a bike that he would let be use to try and do my first one and I got hooked. As soon as I finished the first one and saw my time I started thinking how could I go faster?

What kind of training did you do?

There are different types of training depending on the distance of the race. For my half ironman I usually trained about 1.5 hours a day during the week. Usually working on technique or speed drills and also strength training. On the weekends is when the long endurance building sessions take place. That way I could crawl back in bed or hit the couch and not worry about having to work. Some of the longer training days would consist of a 60 mile bike ride followed up with a 10 mile run as soon as you get off the bike. It’s called a brick when you pair to disciplines back to back in training. It teaches your body to be able to change the muscle use from pedaling a bike to running. There were a few Saturdays that I would leave my house at 8am and get back at 2pm.

What was it like to participate?

Having done shorter distance races I kinda new what to expect at the beginning of the race, but once I was at the starting line I had the thought of “why am I doing this again?” The hardest part that day was waiting to start. The air temperature was in the mid 40s – the coldest day of the season in Wilmington. The water was in the upper 60s. Thank goodness for wetsuits. After getting out of the water you have to get your bike in the transition area. That is where everyone keeps their bikes while they are swimming. Having just come out of the cold water and now jumping on a bike going 25 mph you get a little cold there too. I think the first 10 miles or so I was just trying to feel my fingers and toes. The last few miles of the ride bring you back into the park for the battleship North Carolina. When you get there you hop off your bike and throw on your running shoes to go run a half marathon. Why did I sign up for this? One of the funniest things during the race was I was running and there was a lot of traffic because they had several main roads blocked for the race. This family pulls up next to me while I’m running and asks “What’s going on?” We talked for about a half mile, me running and them sitting in the car. I explained to them that the race started out at the beach, then road into the country, then ran around the lake. The looks on their faces were great. You could see them doing the math and when they figured out how far it was they thought it was pretty impressive.

Was it tougher mentally or physically to finish the race?

Probably mentally. You spend all the months before getting yourself physically prepared for the race, but the mental side plays a huge role on race day. Being out on the bike and knowing that as soon as you finish up riding 56 miles you have to go do a half marathon, well, can make you think. Being by yourself during a physical event like the race, your mind can drift to all sorts of places. From a cramp or muscle ache to pedaling by an open field and seeing some deer munching away on the grass, your mind takes you all over the map. I think I trained right because on race day I felt great afterwards. Took a 30 minute nap when I got back to my place, then started eating and pretty much didn’t stop for the rest of the weekend. I heard someone that doing a half ironman you can expect to burn up to 10,000 calories. Not sure how accurate that was, but I probably ate that afterwards.

Has the training helped you with your job as a photographer at WRAL or with life in general?

My job is a physical one here lugging around all of my equipment, so being in shape definitely helps me out. Running up the stairs to grab a quick interview in the courthouse or running back and forth to a live truck. Each day is different but the one constant is hauling a 30 lb camera around. As far as life in general, it’s taught me a lot about myself and my limits. Setting and achieving goals. Being able to push through any barriers that might be in my way of obtaining my goal.

What’s next for you? Another half-Ironman?

I had signed up to do another half ironman in May at White Lake, but a disc in my back decided that I wasn’t going to do that one. I’m still trying to get over the back issue, but I am already signed up for the Beach 2 Battleship race that I did in November. Slowly starting my training, but it all depends on my back. There is always another race to race another day, but I only have one back so I don’t want to push it and make it my last race. As far as my next race though, now that I know what to expect, it’s all about doing it faster and beating my time of 5 hours 37 minutes. Maybe one day, a long, long time from now, I’d like to race the ironman in Hawaii.

Anything else you’d like to add?

When people think triathlon they think it’s only for the super fit people of the world. That is so far from the truth. The short distance races called sprints, pretty much anyone can get out there and finish one. You’d be surprised of the shapes and sizes of all the different athletes at a race.

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