Photo by Shelby Lum

Life of an Ironman Athlete

Summers in the south can be punishingly hot, and on this particular August day the heat index in Louisville reached more than 100 degrees.

Grandview Heights advertising rep Bryan McMahan was one of thousands of participants braving the extreme conditions, hoping to earn the title “Ironman.”

But McMahan was in trouble.

As he hit mile 90 of the 112-mile bike ride, McMahan “bonked.”

“Both of my legs, everything was nothing but a cramp,” he remembered. “And I still had 22 miles left to go, and a marathon after that.”

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Photo by Shelby Lum

I asked McMahan if he ever had a moment where he thought he might not finish. He answered without hesitation.

“Yes.”

A former high school athlete, McMahan told me he always maintained an active lifestyle as an adult. In 2006, someone at his gym challenged him to run the Cap City Half Marathon. Figuring he was already in pretty good shape, McMahan trained for a few weeks and ran the race. He finished an impressive 41st out of more than 2,600 people. An addiction took hold.

McMahan’s new hobby eventually led him to triathlons. He started with “sprint” events (shorter distance races) and eventually completed an Olympic Triathlon in 2012.

In December 2013, he began working with his coach Kathy Parker Jones of Balance Triathlon Training in Columbus to prepare for a full Ironman race: a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run.

He had eight long months ahead of him.

Training for an Ironman is basically a second job. In the beginning, McMahan spent about eight hours a week training. By the final weeks, that number more than doubled to 18 hours a week. 

“I didn’t do anything for eight months but train, go to work, eat and sleep,” McMahan says.

A typical day meant getting up at 5 a.m. for a 3,000-yard swim. After work, McMahan ran for an hour. He trained like this six days a week for the entire eight months. “I only missed five days of training,” he said proudly. “One for stitches, two because I had the flu and two for the Indy 500.”

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Photo by Shelby Lum

Training is a tough process, but the hardest part was the long, lonely bike rides during which McMahan said he had to play motivational mind games with himself. “I thought about anything but riding that bike.”

He shrugged off questions about how he was able to push himself when things got tough mentally and physically. “You just find a way to do it,” he said. “Your body just gets used to it, believe it or not.”

In the final days leading up to the event, McMahan admitted he was getting burned out. I asked if he was psyched up for the race. “No,” he replied. “Towards the end, I was done with it.”

But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to finish it.

On that sweltering August day in Louisville, he found himself sitting on the ground changing his socks. A fellow race participant told him not to sit too long because he wouldn’t get back up. McMahan fired back, “Oh yes I will!”

“I got up and limped through it,” he remembered. He admitted to walking much of the 26.2 miles to finish the race, but finish he did, with 52 minutes to spare.

Crossing the finish line was a monumental moment. “There is no feeling like that for me,” he said. “I still can’t believe I’m an Ironman.”

McMahan intends to add to that title as well. He’s already planning for his next races, likely a half and a full Ironman over the next couple of years.

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Photo by Shelby Lum

When asked why he wants to put himself through it again, McMahan didn’t hesitate. “You just want to get better,” he said. “I love to compete. You’re really competing with yourself.”

He plans to continue entering endurance events as long as his body will allow. “Once you do one, it’s not that bad,” he assured me. “It will surprise you what kind of endurance the human body can take.”

Overcoming the challenges of training and pushing himself to finish the race make the difficulties of everyday life seem easy. “It’s very empowering,” he said. “If you can do that, you can do just about anything.”

McMahan hopes his story will inspire others to push themselves to achieve their own fitness goals. “I encourage everyone to do something,” he said. “Find your own way to get fit, but do something.”

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