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Ironman: How to succeed as a first timer.

The Great Floridian Triathlon XXV with Mark Campbell

Are you tough enough?


That's the catchy tag line of the Ironman distance triathlon. And indeed, it's a good reminder that this type of ultra-endurance events are not for the faint at heart.

Yet, the popularity of triathlons is at an all-time high. More and more individuals delve themselves into the obscurity of this question and go on a soul-searching performance adventure that takes them to the limits of their fitness and will power.

In this article, we take a departure from our typical approach and introduce a very well-written short story from one of our customers who answered the call of the Ironman for the first time.

Mark Campbell is no ordinary man. He lives for swimming, running and cycling. He loves the self-reflecting quality of endurance, yet he had never gone the full distance.

In this brief article, he recounts the realities of what it takes to prepare emotionally, physically and equipment-wise in a very concise and easy to read way.

We helped him prepare. Not unlike many of our customers, he is no Pro. He holds a real job. He has a life outside training. And he has to balance the demands of his life with those of the sports he loves.

Crossing the finish line below average time. A great achievement for a 1st time Ironman!

A good, efficient road bike position and a pure aero tri position can be achieved with a few tricks and great bike fitting technology like RetŁl 3D motion capture.

A few months before this event, Mark approached us for his bike fit. He uses a standard road bike for all his activities. He wanted to know what we could do to optimize his bike fitting so he could make the best of using this bike versus a Tri-Specific model. To add to the challenges, we learned that the course he chose for his Ironman debut was to be very, very hilly.

Unusual for Florida, the amount of elevation gain (some 6,500 ft!) would be challenge enough. But it came in short, punchy climbs, punctuated by equally fast and occasionally windy flats.

This is the holy grail of Tri bike fitting: achieve both maximum aero and best climbing performance.

Anyone who has ridden a Triathlon knows the two don't quite seem to go well together. Generally, you achieve one at the expenses of the other.

We were able to turn what normally would be a disadvantage -using a road bike instead of an aero bike- into an asset.

We leveraged the road bike geometry and sized the stem length so that Mark could be optimized using a standard bull-horn handlebar and climb with his hands comfortably in the hoods of his SRAM shifters/brakes.

Then we moved on to optimize the aero bars as this were a true Tri bike, so we could encourage a fully  aerodynamic and powerful position.

The result was that Mark found his best performance on the bike no matter what position he was in. We gave him the best of both worlds.

We diligently worked on our process of running muscle de-activation, so we can save muscle groups for the run .

Although it appears that the intense heat, the amount of climbing and the enthusiasm of the best bike-leg-of-his-life put Mark on the collision course with cramping, he was able to work through it and finish in better than average time, in an Ironman event with more than 30% DNF rate.

Doesn't he look like he feels a little too good after 100+ miles?

We chose to tell his story because it's representative of what most Ironman distance riders experience, not only the first time. We chose to tell it because Mark represents your average Joe triathlete - and we can all relate to that. We chose to publish it because it's representative of what bike fitting can do for an every-day, normal cyclist when the spirit drives him/her to great challenges.

So, without further ado, here is the first-hand account from the man himself, Mark Campbell. It's good reading. Enjoy.


The Great Floridian Triathlon XXV by Race Finisher #83, Mark Campbell

Welcome to The Great Floridian Triathlon (GFT), the second oldest ironman distance triathlon in the continental U.S. and one of the few remaining independent ultras in the country. The day-long journey consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a full marathon (26.2 miles). Over the years, I have raced in a handful of triathlons of varying distances, but this was my first ultra. On October 24th 2015, I took on the challenge of my first "iron-distance" triathlon, the 25th anniversary of the Great Floridian Triathlon. The slogan "Are you tough enough?" has been attached to this race for decades, but I didnít really have a reference point to fully comprehend what this meant. Interestingly, statistics illustrate how this relatively small race compares with the Ironman-branded events held around the world, and why the slogan still fits, particularly as a result of the changes made to this yearís bike course.

Some statistics that are used to measure how difficult a race is include the average finish time, and the Do Not Finish (DNF) rate. The DNF rate is the percentage of competitors who start a race but for whatever reason abandon the race or are unable to finish within the 17 hour cut-off time. According to, which has done extensive statistical analyses on triathlons, a handful of the hardest-ranked Ironman races in the world (Texas, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Malaysia and China) average approximately 13:20 hours to complete, with DNF rates ranging between 8 and 12%. In 2012, the now-discontinued Ironman St. George in Utah had an average finish time of 13:42 hours with a DNF rate of 14%, including a difficult cumulative bike-segment elevation gain of 7,000 feet. Conversely, Ironman Florida is a flat and fast course with an average 12:38 finish time and a low 4% DNF rate.

According to Sommer Sports Race Director Fred Sommer, only about 60% of participants finish the Clermont GFT race (Sun-Sentinel October 22, 2015), though the basis for this statistic is unclear. Actual GFT race results over the last three years (average finish time in hours and DNF rates) are as follows: 14:28 / 20% in 2013; 14:16 / 20% in 2014; and 14:34 / 32% in this yearís 25th anniversary GFT race. Thatís right, a whopping 32% DNF rate in 2015 with the slowest finish times in years! This yearís GFT averaged about an hour slower and more than 2x the DNF rate than the worldís statistically hardest Ironman race. This may have largely been due to the most challenging bike course in years that sent participants climbing over 6,500 feet total. The 3-lap bike course required competitors to repeatedly climb Floridaís largest and steepest hills, including Pitt St, The Wall, Buckhill Rd, and Sugarloaf Mountain Rd.

Oftentimes, statistics are subject to misinterpretation due to the many environmental variables at different race locations on race day. We were fortunate to have racing with us John Wragg aka "The Man with 200 Races", who at 65 years old is the current world record holder for completing almost 200 ironman-distance races. As we discussed how difficult this yearís GFT race was, he entertained us with stories of the hardest races he has competed in and said that this yearís GFT race was about the 5th hardest ironman he has ever completed. When we asked how many different races John has competed in, he replied, "Iíve done every different ironman in the world". I sheepishly said with a grin, "This was my first ironman!" He peered down like a big old cowboy and responded, "You picked a good one, Son" and smiled.

As my first ultra-distance triathlon, I donít have much to compare it to other than the handful of half-iron distances Iíve completed over the years. I was pacing myself for a long day and enjoyed the relatively wave or chop-free swim without the excessive number of swimmers you typically find at the larger Ironman-brand races. However, the lake water was very dark and murky so you could not see your fingertips or the swimmers in front of you. You just have to follow the bubbles! As I neared the swim finish, I swam past the last large triangular buoy when all of a sudden, "Whammo"! I plowed face first into some guy holding onto the buoy.

Three months prior to the race, I was privileged to obtain a professional bike fitting with Steffi Bici at A Perfect Bike Fit Pro Studio (, located in Hollywood, Florida. This was my first advanced bike fitting using a highly sophisticated set up with computerized 3D motion capture and power analysis from a RetŁl Certified Fitting Center. The challenge, in my case, was to optimize both power and position on a standard road bike with aero-bars. For years I have cycled long-distance endurance rides in addition to the short and fast group rides on my road bike. With all the climbing, the road bike was the clear choice. But I felt I also needed an optimized aerodynamic position for the long, flat and windy stretches of road in this Ironman race. Steffi was very methodical and leveraged her experienced to optimize my set up for climbing while in the hoods of my drop bars and maximized my aerodynamics in the aero bars for the fast sections. She went over all components from cleats to aero-bars, even replacing the seat-post for a more forward position. When the fitting was complete, my power curves and leg rotation were perfectly optimized. To my friendís dismay, there was a notable speed and power improvement during my local group ride. As I took this new bike setup into the hills of Clermont on training weekends, my comfort and confidence grew with time. On race-day, it was critical to know you have optimized your equipment to conserve your limited supply of energy. This gave me the confidence and calmness I needed as I exited the water and headed out on the bike course.

Living three hours from Clermont, I had the luxury of training on the bike course and all its hills many times throughout the year. Training weekends with good friends made the journey that much sweeter. We had so much fun spending the days cycling in the hills and the afternoons lounging in the pool or refueling at the local Tiki bar. On Race Day, I traversed the hills and climbs with aplomb. It was a special day to see my fellow competitors out there and I would constantly wave at them and provide encouragement, ringing my little bike bell as I passed. Yes, I purchased a cute little bike bell the day before and rang it as I crested every climb with a smile! You can't take yourself too seriously and one must never forget this is what we do to have fun!

Although I felt good running out of the transition area, a few miles into the run portion my legs were out of gas and began to cramp. Did I push too hard on the bike leg? I felt so good, could I have possibly forgotten to pace myself? The words of Steffi's advice at the end of the bike fit echoed in my head: "You'll feel good. You'll want to go faster. Don't go unto the unknown. Pace at what you know brings you home." At this point, my head was filled with questions.  "How is my hydration?". "Can I recover?". "What is the course of action here?".

I definitely had my doubts if my legs could survive another 24 miles. I persevered and continued to walk off the cramping. I walked through the drink stops every few miles, took in electrolytes. The run course was an "out and back" every few miles, passing the transition area six times, offering plenty of opportunity to pass fellow running friends and spectators. It was very encouraging to see and cheer my local friends on the course, even stealing a few hugs and smooches along the way. At some point I think my legs just got tired of cramping since I would not listen to their plea to hand-in my timing-chip and grab an early beer. After a while, the sun began to set and the cooler air blew in. I watched the mile markers climb from Mile 12 to 16, then 22, and the realization finally set in that I was going to finish this race no matter what.

At that point, the course almost felt downhill. My confidence soared and I crossed the finish line with a time I felt I could be proud of.

Most importantly, I learned the value of friendship, preparation, and dedication. I enjoyed the swim and wanted to do an additional lap thanks to Coach John Grzeszczak of Hammerhead Aquatics ( in Wilton Manors. I donít think arriving poolside at 5:30 a.m. ever gets easy. I felt confident and great on the bike in no small part due to the professional bike fitting with Steffi Bici at A Perfect Bike Fit Pro Studio. Finally, a big "thank you" to my early morning running friends along Fort Lauderdale beach; a beautiful way to start and honor each new day. I look forward to continuing the training and nurturing the friendships Iíve made along the way, because ultimately itís all about the journey. The question is Ö Are YOU tough enough?

By Mark Campbell, First Time Ironman Finisher

"You don't have to be a Pro to get a bike fit. Everyone who climbs into a bike deserves to have a great experience, regardless of their fitness, expertise or equipment level."

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