My Journey to Becoming an “Ironman” Firefighter

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My Journey to Becoming an “Ironman” Firefighter


Everyone in the fire industry feels the effects of September 11, 2001, and this year’s 10th anniversary was marked with heartfelt ceremonies, dedications and acts of patriotism. Like most, I was compelled to do something to honor the 343 firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice.

I’ve been a firefighter for more than seven years, working on both an on-call and full-time basis. I often try to put myself in the boots of the New York firefighters, and hope that I would have the courage and physical stamina to run up the World Trade Center stairs like they did; then again, that’s what we’re trained to do.

Discovering the Challenge
In November 2010, I was working a shift at Firehouse 8 in Madison, Wis., when I saw a media release come through our department e-mail. It read, “Ironman Wisconsin Opens Entry Slots to Service Members.”

Madison hosts one of the only Ironman events in the Midwest. And believe it or not, it actually sells out within hours. I wondered, “Who in their right mind would want to compete in this event?” Honestly, I’ve always wanted to participate in an endurance event like an Ironman triathlon, but I certainly didn’t have the background or an “endurance” body type.

There was some interest around the firehouse, especially with one of the apparatus engineers on shift. He too didn’t have the “endurance” body type but had completed numerous marathons. He was trying to talk me into entering because he needed a training partner. He even played the “age card,” telling me that I’m not getting any younger so I better do it sooner than later.

As we read through the e-mail, we realized that the event was to be held on September 11, 2011. To me, completing one of the most physically and mentally challenging events in the world—an Ironman—was a great way that I could honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice. I signed up that afternoon.

Ironman Triathlon Basics
The object of an Ironman triathlon is to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles (a total of 140.6 miles!)—all in less than 17 hours. At this point in my life, my only experience in endurance sports was a “sprint-distance” triathlon—quarter-mile swim, 10-mile bike and four-mile run—which I completed five years ago. I had never run a marathon nor completed a century bike ride. I had always thought of myself as an “Average Joe” firefighter in that I can hold my own in the gym, but when it came to endurance sports, I don’t fit the mold. But this was my time. I had always lived by the motto, “If you’re going to go, go all out,” so I focused that thinking on the Ironman. Of course, I knew that I would need a lot of help and a lot of time to get myself ready to complete this challenge. Bring on the training.

Time to Train
I sought training advice from numerous sources: books, the Internet and other firefighters on my department. (Check out the story of one of my fellow Madison firefighters who completed the marathon portion of the Ironman in full turnout gear:

My training program started in December 2010 and consisted of six workouts per week (two swims, two runs, two bikes and some occasional weight training). My goal was simple: to finish the Ironman and enjoy the overall experience.

Athletes of all levels attempt the Ironman. Some have aspirations to make it to Kona, Hawaii, for the ultimate Ironman triathlon, and finish in approximately 10 hours. Others, like me, hope to finish within the allotted 17 hours. One thing that I didn’t know about the Ironman is that there are cut-off times for each portion of the event. The swim begins at 7 a.m. and must be completed by 9:20 a.m. The bike has to be completed by 5:30 p.m. And the marathon must be finished by midnight in order to officially complete the event. This adds to the training challenges because you have to be fairly strong in all three events and, therefore, you can’t slack in training—at all.

As mentioned earlier, I tried to train for each event twice per week, and gradually increased my daily training sessions in time and mileage. I put a lot of thought into the training. Similar to responding to a fire, you have to think about what could possibly go wrong and try to train for the worst.

At the peak of my training, I was working out almost 20 hours per week, averaging five miles of swimming, 150 miles of biking and 40 miles of running. The object of these long training sessions was to prepare my body physically, as well as to formulate a “game plan” for race day. I had to figure out how to fuel my body and rehydrate adequately to prevent my muscles and mind from shutting down. I thought the physical training was tough enough, but in an event as long as the Ironman, I had to mentally prepare as well. During training, there were numerous times when I thought about giving up. At one point, my knee was so sore that I could barely climb any stairs. But after a couple days of rest, I was able to finish training and solidify my race day plan.

Now for the hard part—following through on all the hard work and completing the race.

Race Day
Finally, after 10 months of training and planning, it was September 11. Race day was here. This was an emotional day, and I would be lying if I didn’t tell you I was a little nervous.

As mentioned above, one of the unique aspects of the 2011 Ironman Wisconsin was that they were honoring first responders by opening the competition to them as well. Out of 2,500 competitors, more than 150 military, police and fire personnel were honored before the race and given special race tags and uniforms.

Each Ironman race begins with a mass start and the loud firing of a cannon. Fortunately, race day weather conditions were pretty prime; it was 80 degrees and sunny with a little breeze—almost perfect.

The first portion of the event is the 2.4-mile swim. I found that the most difficult part right off the bat was jockeying for position—not to mention avoiding getting kicked. It was like a mosh pit at a concert at first. But after the first quarter mile, the crowd thinned, leaving room to actually swim. I finished the swim portion with plenty of time to spare. Out of the three events, the swim had concerned me the most, as the water was choppy and crowded, and you can’t just pull over to rest.

The Ironman Wisconsin bike course is one of the most difficult of the nine Ironman courses. The 112-mile-long course features numerous elevations and technical turns. I remember the first time I rode the course during training, I thought, “The bike course shouldn’t be this tough; don’t the organizers know that I have to run a marathon after this?” Surprisingly, the hardest part of the bike course wasn’t the 112 miles or even the hills—it was watching some of my fellow competitors in hardship. I witnessed four different accidents, numerous mechanical issues and at least 15 different athletes in distress on the side of the course. As first responders, we are trained to respond. So each time I witnessed hardship, I would slow down and check to make sure everyone was all right. On one instance, I slowed to try to assist a downed biker, only to hear him shout, “Don’t stop for me; go finish your race.” I followed his advice and completed the bike portion in a little more than seven hours.

So far, my day was going really well. I was tired but felt great and had no major issues. From the bike, I once again transitioned to the next step with a wardrobe change, got some liquids and food and moved on to the run. The streets of Madison were lined with thousands of people, cheering and yelling encouragement as the competitors went by. I’ve never been a rock star, but I felt like one as I turned the first corner.

Up until this point, I had followed my race day hydration and pace plan to a T, and it was paying off. I was feeling good. To begin the run, my plan was to walk the first 15 minutes to allow my stomach to settle and my legs some time to adjust from biking to running. I don’t know what really came over me—the excitement of the crowd, the emotion of representing my fire department or the fact that I was feeling really good—but I decided to run long before my plan had indicated and long before my legs were ready.

Hitting the Dreaded Wall
I’ve heard of “hitting the wall,” the moment when an athlete starts to physically and mentally shut down, but had not really experienced it. For me, the wall didn’t happen when I heard it would—at mile 22 on the final journey toward the finish line; it happened at mile one. I felt the back of my legs tighten and seize up. It felt like a snake jumped out of the pavement and bit me square in the back of both legs. Pain settled in, then panic. “I have 25 more miles to go; this can’t be happening,” I worried. I think this was the moment when being a firefighter truly helped. After all, it is extremely rare that everything on the fireground goes as planned. We are trained to stay in control and adapt. I couldn’t run. At one point, I barely felt like I could walk. But I thought to myself, “Ten years ago, hundreds of firefighters ran up dozens of flights of stairs in full gear. They were tired, and they were scared, yet they did their job. This is nothing compared to that, so suck it up.” I slowed my pace, stretched my legs, changed my outlook and continued. From that point on, I followed my plan to run and walk in equal time increments and, fortunately, I did not have any additional problems with leg cramping. Actually, my legs felt pretty good after that initial seize-up. Looking back, I felt that it was harder to manage my mind than it was to manage my body.

The Finish Line
Words can’t describe what it felt like to finish the Ironman. There were thousands of people lining the last few miles of the run. Whatever pain I was feeling slowly left my body and my mind as I inched closer to the finish line. I rounded the last turn, saw the finish line and heard the amazing words: “Aaron Zamzow, you are an Ironman!” At this point, I couldn’t hold back the tears. All the emotions from the day flowed out. I don’t know what moved me the most, whether it was the feeling of accomplishment, the honor of being a firefighter on this day in particular, the crowd or seeing the joy in my family and friends. I think it was the culmination of all those things. After all, I was an “Average Joe” who had just finished one of the most difficult endurance events in the world.

The Takeaway for You
For so many firefighters (including myself), staying in shape is a challenge. But our jobs are extremely physically demanding, so physical wellbeing is a must. Of course, I realize that it’s hard to compare what we do on the fireground to an Ironman triathlon—and I’m not advocating that all firefighters attempt an Ironman. But I do know this: Choosing events to compete in, whether it be the Ironman or a charity 5K, can help get you into better shape. And the better shape you’re in, the better you’ll be able to perform your job. So think about what you need to do to get in shape. Think about how you can find the right mix of strength, endurance and power training—a mix firefighters need more than most professions. Whatever it is, I encourage you to find something that motivates you to maintain a higher level of fitness.