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Becoming an Ironman: From Couch Potato to Elite Triathlete in 9 Months

Becoming an Ironman: From Couch Potato to Elite Triathlete in 9 Months

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Do you have fitness goals for the new year? Are they sometimes overwhelming and difficult to keep up with? Take a page of inspiration from this story of an average guy who had a bigger than average fitness goal, one that would take him through the most challenging and rewarding experiences of his life.


The Ironman Triathlons are considered by many athletes to be the pinnacle of endurance sports. First held in Hawaii in 1977 as a test of endurance amongst military athletes, it is a backbreaking 227 km (141 miles) race consisting of a 3.86 km swimming, 180.25 km cycling and 42.2 km marathon running course, with no breaks in between. To qualify as an Ironman, the athlete must complete the race in 17 hours or less. Every year, thousands of extremely capable athletes around the world begin at the starting line, but fewer finish. Common setback? Pure, unadulterated mental and physical exhaustion.

When Alwaleed Alkeaid convincingly completed his first Ironman Triathlon, the Subaru Ironman Canada 2010, he became the first Saudi Arabian Ironman in history. On video, Alkeaid looked unfazed in the final stretch of the race, grinning from ear to ear, proudly holding his country’s flag as he ran (more like leaped) across the finish line at just over 13 hours. He placed 24th in his division. For the proud Saudi Arabian, it was a life-affirming moment, and in review, quite a surprising feat. After all, 9 months ago, the unassuming, 22 year old college student was a self-confessed couch potato who had never ran, biked or swam for more than 20 minutes at one go.

I sat down with him over coffee to talk about his accomplishment.

Enter Ironman Alwaleed Alkeaid.

Becoming an Ironman: From Couch Potato to Elite Triathlete in 9 Months

"Mental disposition is more important than physical disposition."


What was the spark that inspired you to become an Ironman?

I was surfing Youtube one night and saw the video of Team Hoyt, a story of a father and his son, a spastic quadriplegic, who competed in over a thousand marathons, biathlons and triathlons. The son was disabled since birth and never had the chance to play sports. The father decided to run marathons with his son because his son once told him that “I don’t feel disabled when we ran”. During triathlons, the father would pull his disabled son on a floatation device during the swimming stage, ride on a two-seater bike during the cycling stage and push his son on a running chair during the marathon run. That video really touched me.

I took a good, hard look at my life and assessed what I really wanted out of it. Did I wanted to sit here watching TV while life passed me by? Was there any value I could bring to this world? I needed to take drastic action. So I put my foot down: I was going to do the Ironman. Quite drastic, I think!

What was your goal(s)?

Originally, my plan was to do the Ironman in 5 -10 years. I didn’t have an action plan and didn’t know what was possible. However, after discussing with a couple of close friends and mentors, I decided to push myself to compete in an Ironman in a year or less. After doing some research, I realized that a beginner can become competitive in a shorter amount of time than most would think. As it turned out, I did it in 9 months.

I also wanted to do it for something that was bigger than myself. I knew if I followed through with my race schedule I would be the first Ironman in my country, and hopefully it would inspire the younger generation of Saudi Arabia to get into better shape. It is not very talked about, but Saudi Arabia has one of the higher rates of adult obesity in the world. I wanted to do my part.

Other goals? I would finish the race strong, raise awareness for disabled children… and try not to end up at the hospital!

What was the one constant motivation that kept you on track in your training?

I built a “motivational ecosystem” around me. I regularly met with a mastermind group, that initially challenged me to do the race in a year or less. Before I started training, I also started a Facebook page announcing to everyone I knew under the sun about my Ironman ambitions. I blogged about my training progress and thoughts. I had a lot of people to let down if I gave up – that was a big motivator.

I would also constantly read about and watched videos of people who have done it before me. I would watch the Team Hoyt video over and over again whenever I felt like giving up or slacking off for the day. The power of focus is very important. Sometimes, doing the doing Ironman was all that I had on my mind.

What was the greatest challenge you faced training for the Ironman?

Most athletes that go into the Ironman training will typically have a strong background in all three sports: swimming, biking and running. Some have been doing all three sports at an elite level for years. For me, I had 9 months to learn to swim and bike at the same proficiency. Those two sports were always the training sessions I would dread the most. However, I knew that the best triathletes always spent extra focus on things they lack, rather than the things they were already good at. So I sucked it up.

One of my biggest “money well spent” was am experienced triathlon coach. My coach designed and supervised my “form” workouts (where technique is emphasized), which was extremely important to my rapid development. He knows when to push my limit, track my intensity and gave overall guidance to my race preparations. To put it another way, all of the world’s best athletes have and continue to use coaches. In my opinion, this was one of the biggest defining factor in achieving my Ironman dreams.

Do you consider yourself to be physically predisposed to be an endurance athlete? What was your athletic capabilities before?

Becoming an Ironman: From Couch Potato to Elite Triathlete in 9 Months

Alwaleed before his transformation

Before all the training I wasn’t into sports or training at all. I would run occasionally and that would be my only form of exercise. I think physical predisposition is not as important as mental disposition. Physicality can only carry you so far in an Ironman race, mental toughness is the more important ingredient.

After the Ironman I can`t imagine not being an endurance athlete! Something about endurance sports make it “magical”. Some people say you have to seek pleasure in pain to do this. I guess you can say I sought pleasure in overcoming the pain.
I know you juggled full time school and training when you prepared for the Ironman. Can you give us an typical schedule of a week’s training for you leading up to the race?

A lot of the time I would wake up at 5am, head to the pool for a 2 km swim and go to class at 10am. After classes I would sleep/nap for a bit and then do a 30 km cycling course. I’d admit it, it wasn’t always fun.

Here’s a typical weekly training schedule:

Monday: Swim for 2 km in the morning. Rest a bit during the day after class. Cycling for 30 km in the evening.
Tuesday: Intensive run in the evening for about 8-10 km and then weight train for an hour or so.
Wednesday: 40 km hill training on a bike for 2 hours or more in the morning or evening.
Thursday: 2.5 km swim in the morning. Rest after class. 10km run in the evening. Cap it off with weight training.
Friday: Rest day
Saturday: 2 km swim in the afternoon and a 100-140 km bike ride (about 5 – 6 hours). Transition into run for 15 min after the bike.
Sunday: 25 km run in the morning/afternoon.

As part of my training, I did two “half” Ironman competitions in the months leading up to the real race. These were the litmus tests to gauge whether I was ready for the real thing.

How did your body respond to the training?

There were definitely mornings that I didn’t really want to wake up to. Some muscle aches and bouts of sickness led to some missed workouts. Having an experienced coach helped prevent any serious injuries. The impact on my social life, however, was brutal but looking back it wasn’t so bad. I obviously could not go out on weekends as much to keep up with my demanding training schedule. Time was scarce for the most part but one thing you do learn to do is make the most of your time.

Becoming an Ironman: From Couch Potato to Elite Triathlete in 9 Months

Alwaleed at the swimming-cycling checkpoint

Can you describe any diet changes that was necessary to perform at this higher level?

I had to make sure I ate enough calories to sustain my training. I had a lot of carbs in my diet, mostly from pasta and brown bread. I stuck to lean beef, chicken and salmon for my protein needs. I ate about 3000 – 5000 calories a day depending on the intensity and duration of training each day. I took iron tablets to supplement my daily intake. I didn’t have a fancy diet plan or anything. I just try to have whole foods, and stay away from the junk.

What did you learn from this race that you would improve on in the future?

Pacing. As a beginner, you always want to push the envelop and that leads to overexertion in the beginning. I had to learn to slow myself down and not push too hard. I know I pushed the pace too hard during the cycling course and ended up feeling like sh*t during the marathon run. Your heart monitor is your best friend.

Athletes often talk about hitting “The Wall” during an endurance race, where the body gives in and they lose their last strand of will. Could you describe your experience? What were your strategy in managing the pain during those difficult patches?

In my experience, it definitely was more than one wall! The first big “wall” I hit was about 120 km into the bike course, about 6 hours into the race. The weather suddenly changed into a windy and cold mess. My head was exploding from the pressure of the helmet and my eyes were in excruciating pain. It was almost impossible to keep paddling and keep control of the bike. All my body wanted to do was just to shut down. Eventually, I broke down and started crying on the side of the road, from the pain and the hopelessness that overcame me. It came over me a like quick wave and took me by surprise. But I also knew in advance that this would come. My coach had warned me about this zone, and the only thing you could really do is to keep moving. Stay calm and carry on.

In my head I was negotiating with myself. Can I give up after all the hard work that led up to this moment? I will just do another 10 km. Can I disappoint all my family and friends who are waiting for me at the finish line? Maybe I can do 25 km. I made a mental list of all the reasons not to quit and repeated them in my head. Regret was a big reason. Eventually I bargained that I would finish the bike course, and since the marathon run was my specialty, I might as well have a go at that Becoming an Ironman: From Couch Potato to Elite Triathlete in 9 Months

My second wall was colossal. I had 21 km left on the run… and I had no fuel left. I stopped and held my buckling knees. Everything hurt like hell. I really thought that was the end of the race for me. That was it. But the fear of regret is a scary, relentless bastard. Somehow I managed to convince my body to start jogging and see how far that would take me.

I ended up finishing strong at the finish line at just over 13 hours. I fed off the cheering crowd. Finish strong! That was the mantra that kept me moving.

What would be one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring endurance athlete?

Believe in yourself and just go for it! People will tell you that you are crazy. Start taking action and begin training today. It’s incredible how much small improvements everyday can compound into something incredible. Even if you start off as a beginner or novice athlete, you can still do the Ironman in a shorter time than you think. Also, learn to listen to your own body and get a coach. Those two things paid dividends for me.

What’s next for you as an endurance athlete? How will you be giving value to the world?

Becoming an Ironman: From Couch Potato to Elite Triathlete in 9 Months

I plan to run across the Middle East to promote health and wellness through an active lifestyle. The big picture is a campaign to reduce the percentages of obesity in Saudi Arabia. Of course, I will continue to train and compete in Ironmans and other endurance races. As long as I am challenging myself with something bigger every year, this Ironman will have his hands full!

Best of luck to your future endeavors!


Resources for the Aspiring Triathlete

Be Iron-Fit: Time-Efficient Training Secrets for Ultimate Fitness by Don Fink: A highly detailed book that covers all aspects of triathlon training. Includes training regiments, proper techniques, race strategies and mental aspects. Alwaleed personally recommends this book as a starting point.

Start to Finish Ironman Training 24 Weeks to an Endurance Triathlon by Roch Frey. A personal recommendation from Sarah Reinertsen, the first female above knee amputee Kona World Championship Ironman. She also recommends anything by Paul Huddle.

Triathlete Magazine Check up on upcoming race dates, gear recommendations and a triathlete forum in the longest standing triathlete magazine.

Ironman’s Official Website: Learn more about the elite triathlon event.

## Value Giving: Win a SIGNED copy of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman by Timothy Ferriss! ##

To enter the draw, be the first 5 to comment on your fitness goals and how you intend to keep it. The most convincing of the 5 will receive the brand new, author signed The 4-Hour Body , shipped free of charge anywhere in North America.

Contest ends January 12th, 2011.

About the Author


Wants to explore the world, write about it, and inspire others.

Alwaleed Alkeaid  8 Jan 2011

The post looks great and if anyone needs some tips I’ll be more than glad to help!

Cheers !


RaySimone  8 Jan 2011

In for the contest.

As for workout goals and how I’m do it… one word: “Insanity”


Alwaleed Alkeaid  10 Jan 2011

Since we are talking about our goals for this year here are mine:

I am planing to run a 400 km run from my city to another city: 50 km a day for 8 consecutive days. Also doing all the races available in the area and getting fit enough to eventually be able to run a marathon every weekend by the end of the year :)

Cheers Tony !


JMP  12 Jan 2011

My mother has been a dedicated athlete her whole life and is a 4 time Ironman. Twice in Florida, once in New Orleans (which she qualified for Kona) and in Hawaii. It takes a lot of heart. 9 months is impressive if you’re a beginner but definitely not impossible. I ran my first full marathon after a 3 weeks training in high school- the human body is an amazingly adaptive machine.

Oh and my goal is to run my first 4 minute mile. Training right, eating right and getting tips from my Ironman mother. :)

In for the contest.

tonykwan  13 Jan 2011


I’ve seen the program on infomercials. Is the Insanity program all calisthenic exercises?

@JMP Nice! I’m not much of a runner but isn’t 4 minute mile a benchmark for sprint performance?

Good luck to all your goals! The winner of the 4 Hour Body has been contacted. Thanks for your comments!

RaySimone  16 Jan 2011

No book? :(

Yes. 100% no weights workout. It’s one of the toughest home fitness regiments I stumbled upon so far… crazy but true: the “burn” from the exercise can get addictive.

Bolaji O | WhoIsBolaji.com  19 Jan 2011

What’s up, Tony!

First, I’m loving the blog design, and blog focus on lifestyle design.

I just learned about your blog from Vance Sova’s post about you all meeting John Chow in Vancouver. Congrats on your momentum thus far.

This was an inspirational post. I can’t believe the transformation that occurred in 9 months! MAN!

Alwaleed – congratulations, and thanks for the inspiration! I’ll have to read through this interview AGAIN!

I’ve subscribed, Tony. Keep doing your thing!

tonykwan  21 Jan 2011


Thank you for your support!

As for Alwaleed, having known him before his training, I can vouch that the man has gone through an amazing transformation, both physically and mentally. The man has heart!

I’m having temporary issues with my subscription, so do check back to the blog for updates.


An Ode to Fear: Feel Fear, But Do it Anyways | The Blog of Tony Kwan | Musings of a Life Enthusiast  29 Jan 2011

[…] of the signed 4-Hour Body Contest: John Pan from Tampa Bay, […]

ColinMcphee  11 Mar 2011

Awesome- I’ve been looking for some case studies of athletic performance turn-arounds. It’s amazing how much the human body is able to endure and adapt in such a short time.

I’ve been thinking about doing my first marathon in about two months- thanks for the inspiration!

@Alwaleed: did you suffer any injuries from the race?

– Colin

tonykwan  23 Mar 2011


Thanks for your comment!

“It’s amazing how much the human body is able to endure and adapt in such a short time.”

That’s very funny. In that one of my MMA/self-defense instructors said the same thing… but about getting kicked in the ribs.

I have a great deal of respect for endurance athletes, and I hope to pursue a marathon or triathlon in the future.

Good luck and keep me posted with your progress!


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