From a Smoker to an Ironman Triathlete!

By guest writer Johannes Grobler

I have been wracking my brain trying to track down where this journey really started and I think it all started on a day when I must have been around 16 years old and I watched TransWorld Sport on the TV. I saw something that day that amazed me. It was footage from the Ironman world championships in Hawaii.  
Unfortunately smoking, drinking and girls took over from there for 14 years. I joined the Royal Marines reserve for a couple of years around the age of 20 and did get quite fit but again that died off pretty quick once I left.
It all started to change in my mind in 2005 when I moved to Denmark and one of the people I was working with had just done an Ironman. Now, to me, this was just amazing and I admired the guy and felt almost ashamed because I was still smoking and piling weight on. I had my first child a few months later and then another a couple of years later. Now anyone with 2 small kids will agree, they don’t leave you with much time for your self. Then in 2009, I think it was March, I heard the news that this guy was going to train for another Ironman in 2010! That was the kick in the rear that I needed and I went home that day and decided that I was going to stop smoking, start training and that I would do my first Ironman in 2010!

Johan before Ironman Training

I set myself a date 1 week later to start training. I knew I was going to do it. I knew it was going to be very, very, hard. Giving up smoking was effortless, this in itself was pretty amazing as I had tried a number of times over the years to quit and never managed it.
The training started and it wasn’t easy! I could barely run 5k, couldn’t do more than 50 meters in the pool without serious breathing issues and my cycling was very slow! I read a book called “Iron Struck” and this helped me to try to stay motivated. I knew what the goal was and I was very determined to make it happen. I knew I had two main issues – I had spent 14 years smoking and I had put on a lot of fat. I was 100kg and that was not muscle!
I ran early in the mornings and this helped me not to feel too embarrassed about how I looked. When I ran at lunchtimes I was so knackered that I didn’t care!
A couple of weeks into my training I booked to do Challenge Copenhagen – an iron distance race in central Copenhagen. I had 360 odd days to make it happen. I decided to tell everyone I knew – the thinking behind this was that if I told everyone then I would have to do it!
I began to improve week by week and was soon regularly running 10k,and cycling 60k but I still had big problems with my swimming. I found out that another guy at work was a club swimmer and he used to race so I just came out and asked him to help me. Luckily for me he agreed and we have been swimming ever since. His help had a massive effect on my swimming. He told me to stop doing what I was doing and we started to do more speed work.
The guy who did the Ironman joined our running group and soon had me running much further and faster than I had ever dreamt of doing.
By the spring of 2010 I was running 24k at least once a week. I had pushed my cycling up to regular 100k rides and was swimming 2 to 3 k 2 or 3 times a week. I knew I had it in me. I spent a week in Mallorca cycling with a bunch of Danish guys (Which was very nice of my wife to agree to!). By this time I was down to 80kgs and had not smoked 1 puff since the day I quit. I felt I had more energy and was much more confident in myself. I had to buy a whole new set of clothes, which was a great feeling too.
I did the Copenhagen marathon in May 2010 in a time of 3 hours and 25 minutes. This was 1 hour and 50 odd minutes better that I had ever run that distance. It took a lot out of me but was a massive boost to my running confidence.
Before I knew it, a year had flown by, I had totally transformed myself and was just about to start an Ironman race! I felt pretty terrified but also very exited. I knew I could do it, I knew I had trained very hard and that I deserved to be there.
I wont go into too much detail as it would fill way too many pages and would bore you to death but I did the race in a time of 11 hours and 12 seconds. The swim was amazing, 1 hour and 2 minutes. The bike was amazing at around 5 hours and 30 minutes and the marathon started well. I soon found myself in trouble as my stomach as a ball of lead. Somehow I managed to finish the marathon in around 4 hours 30 minutes. I had done it and I had a deep down satisfaction that I couldn’t express even if I tried. I had done something that I had set out to do and it was the first time I had seen something through to the end. I rested for a few weeks and a month later I did a half ironman in the UK.
Since then I have done a lot of running and cycling and have completed my first ultra marathon (50 miles in 9 hours). 

Finish line of the 2010 Challenge Copenhagen Race

The main lessons I have learnt so far are that you have to be determined. you can’t fool your self into something like this. You need to want to do it. You need to set goals and you need to train! It takes time but you need to learn to push your self and get to enjoy a hard training session rather than looking for an easy jog. Losing weight will automatically lead to better running and cycling. At the start you can make massive improvements and once you start to see these it’s a boost and it keeps the whole engine running. I also found reading peoples blogs and visiting triathlon forums to be a source of inspiration.
I don’t think doing an Ironman is for everyone. It takes a lot of time and means being selfish and asking your friends a family to stand by you. You will need their support!
I have made this a lifestyle now and I have never looked back. I have made some great friends through all the training and racing and I still find the science behind training very interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t enjoy every run I do, I don’t always like cycling but I know why I am doing it. It’s all part of something bigger. People tend to be amazed by the distances but I think the real achievement is the build up. The hours spent running in the dark and cold (and snow and wind!), the hours in the pool and on the bike.
I would love to qualify for Kona one day and then move into coaching but right now my life isn’t set up for that so ill just keep training and looking for new challenges. Nothing seems out of reach any more.

To follow all of Johannes Triathlon Training and Race experiences check out his blog here!

3 thoughts on “From a Smoker to an Ironman Triathlete!

  • March 28, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    Great article. I’m 3 months off cigarettes and will be doing my first Triathlon on June. It’s great to think what might be…..!:o)

  • March 29, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    The first few months are the hardest by far! well done. You will probably be feeling the improvements already. Which Tri are you doing in June? keep going! once you do a sprint you can see how an Oly is done, then a half etc etc. Dont forget that you dont have to “go long” to enjoy the sport or to be good at it. There are loads of shorter races I would love to do faster and better – I did The Vitruvien in Rutland last year a month after the ironman race and loved it, would love to try that one again on fresh legs.

  • April 5, 2012 at 8:12 am

    Great to see that there is hope for anyone to give up smoking with a little incentive. Nice article.


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