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Eating the Elephant.
By Tom Demerly
Sarah Demerly sits on the back of an elephant.


You’ve heard the saying, “You can eat an elephant, but only if you do it in little bites.”

It’s time for Ironman and I’ve been thinking about that saying. Ironman is my elephant. I’ve eaten the elephant five times; once in Hawaii, twice in Canada, once in New Zealand and once in France (albeit a slightly smaller pachyderm called “Nice”).

Eating the elephant is a great metaphor for Ironman, especially as we get closer to the race and the entire thing seems to get really… big. Thinking of the whole 140.6 miles at once produces an uncomfortable form of mental indigestion. This is a good time to push back from the table and take a deep breath before thinking about the main course.

If you think about eating the elephant all at once you realize it is impossible. You can’t get your mouth around it. So you take little bites. After a while, the elephant is gone. You’ve eaten the entire thing. Bite by bite. That is how you do Ironman. You make your plan for the whole thing, break it down into manageable sections and simply move from section to section without thought or concern for the previous one or the next one. You stay in the moment, stay where you are in the race inside your mind. If you think about how far you’ve gone or how far you have to go it simply becomes too daunting. You simply have to go one small bite at a time. Keep nibbling, and soon the elephant is all gone.

After doing a couple Ironmans I noticed I always hit a rough patch mentally around 90 miles on the bike. By the time you get to 90 miles you know you have basically ridden 100 miles in the way our minds tend to round numbers up. You also realize you still have 22 more miles to go- or another hour plus in the saddle. At this point your back hurts, your crotch is screaming, your stomach is going south and you are bored stiff with being on the damn bike. But you still have more than an hour to go. Then you have to run a marathon, and you simply don’t feel like it. That is the emotional low point of the race, the toughest part of eating the elephant. When that place arrives I simply have to tell myself, “Take it easy, you feel OK, you’re going good. Easy does it, keep moving, concentrate on feeling good now and let the time and distance take care of itself.” Sports psychologists call this process “Thought replacement”, replacing the encroachment of negative thoughts with positive ones. I’ve tried it in racing and training. The more you practice it the better it works. If you do it enough you can actually talk yourself into feeling good.

During my preparation for Ironman I’ve had plenty of time to ponder how some guys and girls can finish Ironman so darn fast, while the rest of us mere mortals suffer and toil to finish between 11 and 17 hours. This is what I’ve come up with: They think differently.

Given, they have done more training. That is part of the thought process too. They stay in the moment while training, and they are always training, always getting more familiar with that feeling of going long and how it will be on race day. Right now they are out on their bikes or running. I am sitting behind a keyboard. If I were one of them I wouldn’t be thinking about training- I’d be training. That is one reason they will be faster than me on September 9.

The other reasons they are fast boil down to how their head works though- I am convinced of it. I occasionally feel moments of it in my own training. Moments of ephemeral perfection where there is no past and no future, only a constantly evolving present that I hover in. It neither gets worse or better, it simply is what it is and it stays that way. When I find that place it seems like I can simply go indefinitely. Time stands still. If I could make that last for hours I am convinced I could go faster. The pros have figured out a way to make that feeling last for hours. If you’re a fan of the great Ironman champion Mark Allen then you recall that he spoke of this place, this mental state, often. He had visions of an Indian shaman and unusual mystic interventions that he felt guided him through the race.

I don’t have those. Shamans don’t visit me during Ironman. I just feel like my bones are poking through my skin, tell myself that is impossible and keep on running.

With just a couple weeks before Ford Ironman Wisconsin I get a feeling I haven’t had in quite a while- that I am very, very small and this whole thing is very large. As I move through the race I kind of feel like a morsel in a giant animal’s digestive system, hoping to spit out the back end as quickly as possible. I tend to wonder, am I eating the elephant, or is the elephant eating me?

Honestly, the whole thing scares me. I’m not scared of being hurt or dying. I’m scared of being humiliated, having a bad day, looking foolish. Those are real concerns. To moderate them I tell myself to calm down, I’ve done this before, I’ll do it again, take it easy, one bite at a time, make a plan, break it down, go one step of the plan at a time, it isn’t that big of a deal.

At the same time I do relish the feeling that this is a big undertaking, a worthy endeavor. One of the reasons we do Ironman is to be a part of the big show. When the show feels so much bigger than us it gets a little scary.

As we get into these final couple weeks before Ironman the fear of anticipation returns and it is an old and cherished friend. I remember previous years when we got people’s bikes ready for Ironman and sent them on their way, then spent all day on following their progress, watching the weather, watching the videos of them finishing. That’s was fun, but actually being a part of it is more fun. Ironman is the big show. It’s almost show time and I’m hungry for the show. While I’m never sure I am hungry enough to eat an entire elephant, I am ready to take that first bite…


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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