A profile on Ronan Zille, financial adviser and Ironman

Smart practice

Tuesday 01 April 2014

Pain is nothing compared to the feeling of quitting

These words were written on the tarmac as Ronan Zille neared the finish line of his first Ironman competition in 2010.

"I read that and got a tingle down my spine. I thought to myself, who knows what will happen to my body after this, but I'm going to hobble off this course, because if I don't finish, that will kill me."

For financial adviser Zille, the idea of competing in an Ironman competition had always been a pipe dream. An avid swimmer and rugby player, he has always been strong and athletic, but until 2010, he had never done any type of endurance-based training.

"I was talked into doing an Ironman competition in February 2010 by a friend during a weekend away. I had seen some on TV and always thought to myself, how could a human being even do those distances?"

"I always wondered how they do it, what it takes to cross the finish line. I wholeheartedly never believed I could finish it. But I signed up."

So what does it take to finish a 3.9 kilometre (km) swim, a 180 km bike ride and a full 42.2 km marathon in 17 hours or less? It takes enormous commitment, physical strength and endurance and, most important, an internal drive resisting every urge to quit.

"Stopping is never an option. If you tell me you can't finish, you haven't put in enough effort to actually finish, there's no question about it."

At the peak of his training, Zille was putting in 20 hours per week. "The training was insane," he said, "it was my part-time job."

Zille's 103 kg frame dropped quickly to 94 kg as he went through the sport's three stages of training.

The 'build phase' lasts about two to three months and it's where an athlete lays all the endurance groundwork. Building is about going through each discipline: swimming, cycling and running, and learning the technique for each sport.

Then comes the 'endurance phase'. This is where athletes begin to add in longer distances to their training to get their systems ready to handle prolonged periods in the bike saddle, in the water and on the track.

The final stage of training, which begins about three months before the race, consists of 'brick sessions', or combining sessions together – swim/ride, ride/run – always in the same order as the events in the competition.

"At the peak of my training, I was doing a half Ironman every three to four weeks. My friends and I would dedicate five hours on a Saturday morning and map out our own course."

Stopping is never an option. If you tell me you can't finish, you haven't put in enough effort to actually finish, there's no question about it. - Ronan Zille

So when does an athlete know they are ready to compete?

"When you look sick, you're race ready," says Zille.

"At that moment, three minutes before the start, every negative thought you could ever conceive of comes into your head: 'I can't do this, I didn't sleep enough, my nutrition wasn't right'. Then, when the gun goes off, honestly, it's like nothing matters, you just go through the motions."

Once on the course, competitors swim once around the wharf (3.9 km), cycle three 60 km laps, and then run four 10 km laps to round out the event.

Once on the bike, Zille's food and water are already packed, and for the next six hours, he goes through a continuous cycle of taking a sip of water every five minutes and a small bite of food every 10 minutes.

The course itself is not for the faint of heart. "There were people passing out and getting brought to the hospital. My friend fell off his bike at 40 km per hour."

Motivation is not the only thing that keeps these athletes going, pushing them to the very limits of their mental and physical abilities. Family, friends and the support of a cheering crowd as they near the finish line can turn the last leg of their marathon from a slow hobble back to a steady run.

"There was one point in the marathon towards the end of the turnaround point of the run, I was tired, exhausted and despondent – all these negative things came into my mind."

What kept him and all the others going were those personal messages from family and friends written all over the course – 'Competitor #617, we love you, you can do it!'

Zille says it takes "being totally and brutally honest with yourself," calling on every single ounce of reserve that comes along, just to get across the line. And then, there's that moment of finally crossing the finish line.

"The whole way through the race I thought I would never do this again, then you cross the finish line. The red Ironman carpet is rolled out, people are screaming, cheering, and a man calls out your name and says ‘Ronan, you're an Ironman'."

It's those feelings of accomplishment, pride and confidence that keep athletes like Zille going back for more.

What comes after this is more of an attitude than a result. An attitude that Zille says helps him to build solid client relationships and have the confidence to work through difficult processes, even when he's backed into a corner. It's an attitude that he says gains him his clients' trust.

"If this experience has taught me anything, it's the understanding that you have what it takes to see something through to the end, no matter what. It's the only thing you can do, to earn and keep for yourself."


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