The Journey – No Zero Days

The Journey – No Zero Days

by Jeff R.

Ten years ago I may have been the last person you imagined would finish an Ironman. I wasn’t particularly athletic growing up, including a season of Little League where I collected exactly one hit. (“You were destined for more than little league,” a fellow Ironman would later tell me.) I was cut from every sport I tried out for. Never exercised, and I had developed some unhealthy habits during college and the years after.

The start of this journey required a major lifestyle shift. I spent a lot of my early 20s drinking and recovering the next day from the previous night’s drinking. Zero Days I would later call them. Days when I was unable to do anything for anyone, including myself. After my first daughter was born, I adopted my own personal mantra to have No Zero Days. Everyday I wanted to do something good. It could be anything, big or small, for myself or for someone else. I wanted to do something good at work, be a good husband, be a good father. Later it also came to mean that if I planned to swim or bike or run, I was going to do that too. No Zero Days. Even a quarter or half effort was better than nothing – better than a Zero Day.

No Zero Days never meant no rest days or no easy days. It just meant that if I was healthy enough I was going to get out and do the work that day. It meant I wasn’t going to quit when times were tough. I wasn’t perfect, and I still took zeroes along the way. But I have also learned to expect excellence from myself, instead of perfection. Expecting excellence allows us to correct mistakes, change, and grow. I’m forever a work in progress.

My running journey began in 2014 with a work outing at a 5K. “Anyone can run 3 miles,” they told me. I found some old athletic shoes in my closet and set out on my first ugly mile – 24 years old and I had never run more than a mile in my life. Turns out I couldn’t run more than two minutes that first run. But I kept at it and crossed that first 5K finish line.

I first came across Experience Triathlon (ET) in the early summer of 2016. I was training for my first sprint triathlon in Door County (thanks to my brother Steve for the motivation to sign up) and wanted a race before it to test out the world of multi-sport. I was also pretty scared to swim, so I decided to do the ET Batavia Duathlon (400m was a long way for me to swim in 2016). That’s when I first came across Coach Joe LoPresto, the race director, who at the start line of that day said, “I think our Du Rocks!”

After a successful first triathlon, I wanted to improve my swimming and started swimming ET Masters swim classes. Almost every week (most weeks twice) since December of 2016, I would climb down those stairs and swim at the ET Training Center pool. Lots of memories in that pool, including the winter where the heater was broken. That’s the pool where I learned to love swimming and where my swimming jumped to the next level.

By 2018, I officially became an ET Club member, bought the ET racing kit, and had raced a half iron distance as a self-coached athlete. In the middle of 2020, after a mentally poor performance I made the call to Coach Joe and signed up for ET Personal Coaching Services. I had a few goals we discussed early on. I wanted to qualify and compete at USAT Nationals and I wanted to finish an Ironman. Despite some initial trepidation, I agreed to go after Ironman Wisconsin in 2022.

2021 was an up and down year for me, but I became a mentally stronger athlete, learned better balance and flow, and worked on setting ranges of goals. Early in my endurance career I became addicted to breaking my Personal Records (PRs), and when they became harder to achieve I would get very down on myself. Working with Coach Joe helped me find the joy in racing and to give my best effort on the given day.

2021 is also when I became a better open water swimmer in large part to the ET Open Water Swim classes on Monday nights at Centennial Beach, Naperville. I got very comfortable bumping, drafting, and getting knocked around. Okay, sometimes I would knock others around too.

As the 2022 training season kicked into gear, I knew I was going to need to ride more with others to make the miles more manageable. A lot of 2020 and most of 2021 was spent riding solo. As a result, I started to not enjoy riding as much as I used to. Riding with my friends on Sunday at ET Bike Club made 60, 70, 80 or more mile rides fly by.

This was also the time I started to tell myself “Why Not Me,” and that became my rallying cry for the year. Why couldn’t I do this? Why couldn’t I become an Ironman? Even me, the kid who got one hit in a year in Little League; who at 24 years old couldn’t run for two minutes.

The lifestyle shift was slow, and I kept working at it and I got better. My runs and rides got longer. My swim stroke got better. I learned to love working out every day, and getting up in the 4am hour. Since 2018, I’ve been going at it most days trying to reach this ultimate goal. There are absolutely no shortcuts to this. But I firmly believe that if you want it, anything is possible.

When the alarm went off on race morning, I was glad for every bit of my journey, and I was going to need every physical and mental skill I have worked on over the years to make it through the race. Ironman Wisconsin 2022 will forever be remembered for the conditions. Cold, rain, and wind was not how I imagined competing in my first Ironman, but as Coach Joe says all the time, “you don’t get to pick your race day weather.” I was glad I pushed myself out of bed in the early morning hours for years to get my body and mind ready for this day. I was glad for those No Zero Days.

I had a really great swim. It was the easiest part of the day and warmest. My open water skills were top notch yet again and put down a great swim.

The bike might have been the most challenging thing I have ever done. I have ridden exactly five loops on the IMWI course. The first one I fell and broke my shoulder. The third one I cramped on a hill on an extreme heat day. And the fourth and fifth were in the cold rain of race day. I was so glad I had experience with the course from ET Summer Training Camp to know when to shift and especially get into my small ring. But also when the curves were coming and on a wet day when to slow down and take downhills carefully. Close to 7 hours on the bike course was absolutely brutal, but I made it back to the helix upright and that was the only goal I had for the bike portion. The slower pace on the bike definitely saved some leg strength for the marathon ahead. Race smart, tiers of goals, best effort on the course for the day – all things I had worked on with Joe.

Lots of teammates have told me how much fun the run course is at an Ironman, and how happy they were to be off the bike that they didn’t care about having to run a marathon. Not sure I really believed them, but they were right. The run was a blast. Positive thinking, staying mentally in the game, never down on myself, smile, soak it in, and enjoy. Legs were beat up, but was able to run well and keep fairly steady paces.

The finish line was incredible. It sounds hokey if you haven’t experienced it, but it really was transformative. Mike Reilly, the Voice of the Ironman, said my name and declared me an Ironman.

This was an amazing journey. One that I never expected; one that I’ll never forget. My wife and kids met me at the finish line. My wife put the medal around my neck. I hugged my parents, in-laws, brother, and friends at the finish line. It was an incredibly hard day, but I will always have pride in becoming an Ironman on this course on this day.


Share this post