The Journey to Becoming an
It was over chicken wings that Jeff Vandenberg impulsively decided that in nine months, he would try to complete the Ironman Triathlon. And on race day, it was chicken broth that got him over the finish line.
—By Braydon Holmyard
This is how an average guy became an average Ironman. Hint: It took more than just chicken.
Jeff Vandenberg likes to stay in shape. He plays hockey, dabbles in other sports, and frequently visits the gym, though his workout routine consists mostly of powerlifting. Cardio had never really been on his radar – and it no longer is today — until he decided to enter one of the most gruelling fitness tests in the world and enrolled in the 2019 Ironman in Whistler, British Columbia.
The journey began with a regular night out for Vandenberg. He was eating dinner with a friend who had in the past completed half the Ironman Triathlon and was considering putting his passion for fitness to the test by signing up for the full race.
“He didn’t suggest I do it with him, because that would be absurd,” Vandenberg says. “But because I’m an idiot and I was drinking beers and eating wings with him, I was like, you know what? I’m in. Let’s do an Ironman.”
The rest is history. Over the next nine months, Vandenberg dedicated himself to the 3.8-kilometre swim, 180-kilometre bike and 42-kilometre run, while maintaining a full-time job.
Here’s how he prepared for it, and what he learned along the way, as told by Jeff.
It was my goal to do two sessions of each stage per week. We also did a lot of brick sessions, which is when you do two of the workouts in one day, specifically in the order they come in during the race.
I swam for roughly an hour and a half for one session, nice and slow just to try and get my body used to it. My other session later that week was a really intense hour. I did a lot of intense, short workouts combined with long workouts, to try and build power and maintain endurance. I did this all out in public, at a 25-metre Goodlife pool.
The biggest thing about the swim is that open water is the scariest thing on the planet if you’re not used to it. It triggers you. You go out there and you start swimming, you start breathing really fast and your heart rate goes up. The fear of the unknown comes out and you can’t see the bottom anymore. I prepared for that out in the lake at the cottage and would suggest that swim training should include being outdoors.
It was a 180 km bike ride, which is extremely long. Even the fastest times were around four hours. To train for that is absurd because with my job, I didn’t have time to do four hours of biking a day. So, what I did was really intense sessions between an hour and two hours. Sometimes, I would burn between 1500 and 2000 calories. I would get on the same spin bike at the same Goodlife, trying to increase my power every single time.
I was able to manage it without doing that much outdoor biking. If anyone said they were doing an Ironman in a year, I’d say you could do all indoor training and complete it. I did one ride that was only 60 km, but it was the hottest day of the summer and I had heat stroke after. That was so discouraging because I was like, how am I going to do 180 km of this?
The run was my worst of the three. I’m a real awful runner and have really short strides, so I have to run very fast just to go nowhere. I hadn’t even done a 5 km run in years and the race was 42 km. I did my best to just get out running as much as I could and work my way up. I was doing 10 km sessions, then I would try 15 km, then 18 km, and then I got up to a half marathon.
I did two half marathons in training. My training buddy and I mapped out two half marathons at his cottage and ran them on a couple Saturdays. It was pretty brutal. I’m not a runner so it sucked, but I was able to run a steady pace for a half marathon. To finish off, we mapped out an Olympic triathlon and completed that to practice our transitions.
I lost weight when eating a lot more. I wouldn’t eat that much leading up to training sessions because in the Ironman, you don’t get the luxury of having a lot of calories throughout the day, so you have to be comfortable burning fat. But, right after my workout was when I’d pump myself with protein. Tons of protein. One time me and my training partner ate a meal for seven people at a bar. Six pounds of wings, a medium pizza, a salad, and four beers. We didn’t stop. We kept our normal lifestyle but amped it up.
Surviving the Ironman
They throw some curveballs at you on the day of. They have a version of Gatorade that has extra sodium and potassium to help your body retain water. There were a lot of Cliff Bars and bananas. They had a lot of chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies, I guess to make you feel happy. The other weird one was plain Ruffles chips because of the sodium. You feel super dehydrated but get enough water throughout the race, so you need the calories. They also have Red Bull and Coke for the caffeine and sugars. I probably had six Red Bulls.
Halfway through the marathon, the sun started to go down and it was getting chillier and they were serving chicken broth. That was the weirdest one. But I tried it and I think it actually got me to the finish line to be honest. I was cold and it was a really salty warm drink. It fuelled me. At the end of the race they have this huge buffet with things like pizza and spaghetti and a lot of foods with carbs and protein.
Takeaways and reflection
I don’t know why I did it. And to be fair, I went from powerlifting extremely heavy weights to running and swimming and biking. My body was not used to that at all. Now that I’m getting back into powerlifting again, I don’t think I lost that much muscle. I think it’s a bit of a myth that running reduces your muscle mass.
One thing I know is, I couldn’t find a video of someone who was talking about their very first Ironman. Everyone gets into it and you either don’t finish and you never tell anyone, or you do finish and just keep doing them. But I had a specific mission of completing just one. I’ll go and do something else cool later.