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The Aha Moment

Usually a trip to Vegas over spring break means a hangover-laden drive home, but for Lydia Collins, it meant inspiration. “I listened to a podcast about mental and physical limits, and this one woman told a story about doing the second-ever Ironman and getting second place,” Collins says. “When I heard her story, I thought, ‘This is something I want to do.’” 

Collins had been a cyclist for years and, while rehabbing a broken hand, had recently added running to her workouts, but the swimming — that was a different story. “I had never been swimming in my life,” she admits. “But I signed up for a half Ironman anyway and literally learned how to swim the month before. I showed up at the pool and was like, well, today I either learn to swim or I drown, and I jumped in.” A friend eventually showed Collins how to freestyle properly, and after a little practice, she was on her way. 

Murphy’s Law

Several months later, Collins was toeing the starting line in her swimsuit. She had trained and was fit and ready to roll. But like they say, whatever can happen will happen: During her transition from bike to run, Collins stepped on the sizzling-hot asphalt in her bare feet. Within seconds, her feet were blistered and scorched.

“The blisters were standing so far off my feet I couldn’t run,” she says. “I thought about quitting, but I had trained for this for six months — I was not quitting. I calmed myself mentally, then took a safety pin from my bib, popped the blisters and continued on.”

Even though her feet were raw and wrecked, Collins still came in second in her age group — a fantastic finish for a first-timer but not good enough for Collins. She decided to do the same race in 2014, and she placed first in her age group (18 to 24) with a time of 10:59:50, which qualified her to go to the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, this month. 

Mind Games

As an Ironman competitor, you are not allowed to listen to music or podcasts or anything but the endless soundtrack of your brain, so Collins played little games during her 11 hours en route. “I am not the strongest swimmer, so during that leg, I just tried to get to the next buoy,” she says. “But I could cycle forever. I enjoy the scenery, and I kept an eye out for people in my age group and picked them off one by one.” During the run, her strategy was to break the race down into 1-mile segments. “I let myself walk at every water stop,” she says. “They’re a mile apart, and my thought process was that anyone can run a mile. Thinking about it as a 26-mile race is daunting, but if I break it up, it’s mentally manageable.” 

Today, Collins is busy training for Kona mentally and physically. “You learn a lot about yourself in a race like this,” she says. “I found out that I can stay calm in the face of panic and that I have to remember that you can’t plan for everything. Something can and will always go wrong, and you can’t help what it’s going to be.”

Food for Thought

In order to finish the Ironman, you have to properly fuel your fire. “This isn’t a sport for people who want to lose weight,” Lydia Collins says. “To perform, you need to eat well.” Here are some details of her nutritional regimen.

• During Training: “I go through 3,500 calories a day, easy,” Collins says. “I bring a bunch of food to work with me so I can make sure I’m properly fueled after my morning workout and before the evening one. Plus, I hear I’m terrible when I am hungry!”

• Pre-Race:“I start carb-loading about a week and a half out from the race,” Collins says. “I eat to the point of discomfort — lots of spaghetti, quinoa and bread.”

• During the Race: “I go through a couple of bottles of a carb drink, as well as three Bonk Breaker bars cut into small pieces while on the bike,” Collins says. “Then I have another bar before I start the run, and four to six gel packs and a sports drink during it.”