Why and how I did two Half Ironman races

Just to explain quickly what a Half Ironman is, as I didn’t know until I started doing triathlons. I had no clue what was involved or how long the distances were. The name just sounded hard ;-) and like something that was NOT for me.

Why and how I completed my first half ironman 70.3 | Emilia Ohrtmann

To complete a Half Ironman, you complete a 1.9km swim, a 90km bike ride and run a half marathon, which is 21km long. 

And I just want to point out, yes, I was always active, but I never felt that I was very good in any sport. There were always kids, and then adults, who were better than me. So, as a child I had kind of given up on the thought of becoming really good at anything physical. As a teenager and young adult I played golf quite well, I realized that it was a mental game and that I was quite suited to that. It was basically a game I played against myself, but for a long time being physically active was just a form of staying fit and healthy. 

Let’s start with the three disciplines involved in the Ironman. 


I was never a fast runner or a long-distance runner. In fact, I remember one very long run in particular. It was with my school and I was about 17 years old. We had to run through the countryside and even now I can still see myself doing it. I can still feel the pain. It was that hard for me. I played a lot of hockey and tennis at that time, so I considered myself quite fit. However, many of the other girls, who had not trained and even stopped for a smoke on the way, were faster than I was. Some of them sprinted down the finish line and I really struggled. The next few days I could hardly walk down the stairs. Long distance running always felt hard for me.  Conditioning training with my field hockey team was also always the hardest part of hockey practice. Even so, when I grew up, I kept on running to stay fit, but I was never fast nor did I even consider doing any races, let alone a half marathon. 


Riding on a road bike seemed like something for the pros who are cycling the Tour de France. Although my husband Gordon and I started doing spinning classes at our gym many years back, I never even considered using a road bike and going on an outdoors bike ride. It was just never on my radar. I cycled, but with my normal bike, to school and university, around the city and more recently to drop my kids off at school. 


And swimming…. Well I could swim, breaststroke with my head up. I liked it, especially during my pregnancies, it was easy on the body. However, I swam in the pool, not in the sea or a lake. I was slightly afraid of the sea and the fish or any other sea creatures I might encounter! I definitely did not know how to swim freestyle, how to breathe properly and not drown, let alone how to swim fast.

Since we live in Dubai, we have met many people who do triathlons or other types of endurance sports. I am not sure if it’s a worldwide movement or whether it’s just so popular in Dubai as the weather is mostly good. Gordon and I have always been active, we went to the gym, to group classes, we went running and so on. But we never considered doing anything like our friends. The more we heard about it though, the more curious we became. The stories how other people started, for example how they went from drinking in the pub on a regular basis to running marathons, inspired us and it did not seem so out of our league anymore. Other people had started from being overweight and totally unfit and became these incredible athletes. It became clear to us that it is possible, also for us! We just had to start somewhere….

It’s always about just starting… 

And I wrote a another blog post about that ;-)

We started slowly. The very first ‘race’ I did, if you can even call it that, was a Colour Run. This is a 5k run where along the way you get showered with coloured powder. It was just a fun run - and very slow for Gordon - for me it was the first feeling of a race - and not slow!

We met more and more people who were doing triathlon, it just seemed to be the thing. I am not sure if that was because we were more aware of it? Kind of like when you are pregnant and suddenly the whole world seems to be pregnant too, you only see pregnant women :-)

One evening we met another couple at a party, and they told us about a duathlon happening the following weekend. They said even their son was doing it and we should just sign up, it’s not hard. 3k run, 20k bike and another 3k run. It sounded manageable. We just signed up and went and, luckily, we did not think too much about it. I did this race with my normal school run bike. Had I known that everyone else there had a road bike and how professional that would be, I would not have gone, I am sure ;-) However I did not come last, and during the run I was not the slowest. 

It took some time, but eventually we bought our own road bikes and we started going on bike rides every weekend. We go very early in the morning before the kids wake up. I also started running a lot more and eventually I did my first 10k race. 

We met more and more like-minded people and that pushed us along. 

My good friend showed me how to swim front crawl and slowly I joined her and a group of ladies swimming in the sea once a week. I also booked a coach and started taking swimming lessons. And to my own surprise I really enjoyed it and got a lot better at it. 

Eventually I dared to do my first triathlon. A sprint (short distance) and I was so proud that I did it!

Doing a half ironman was still never something I even thought of.

However, suddenly these longer races did not seem so out of my league anymore. That’s how it happens, you start something, you get better at it, you become more confident and suddenly new doors and opportunities open up.

Just Start & new doors will open | Emilia Ohrtmann

I remember clearly the summer after I had just given birth to L, my youngest, we went home to Hamburg. When we took our first walk we ended up by a road where thousands of runners came past doing the Hamburg half marathon. And suddenly I said to Gordon, I want to do this next year. Although I had just been pregnant, it did not seem so impossible to me anymore. I guess the longest I had ever done was a 12k run, but this time I knew I could do it, I could train for it. And at the end of the day I am only running against my own mind, not against anybody else. It is all in our mind, it is all in our belief that we can do something. 

The Half Ironman

To cut a long story short, I then read a blog post of a client of mine (I designed her blog www.racinggiraffe.com) about her first Half Ironman. It was such an inspiring story. I thought to myself, if she can do it, I can also do it. And just like that a Half Ironman did not seem so far and impossible anymore. 

And I was not alone. Gordon was also curious and one day we sat down, spoke about how we could manage the training. We made a plan and together we signed up. Together we trained a lot, we held each other accountable (which always helps me so much), got some help with swimming, joined groups for swimming and running in particular. I also got a trainer for strengthening exercises as I often get knee problems when running long distances. 

We trained for this race for five months.

When race day finally came, I knew I was fit enough and mentally prepared. I had done all the distances before and so I knew I could do them. Now I just had to piece them together. It is funny how I got very calm through this knowledge that I can do it. I was nervous of course, but not that much because I just kept on visualizing myself doing the race. During training I had visualized my run over the finish line so many times. This image in my head kept me going. And it also kept me going throughout the race. It was a great experience and at the same time the hardest thing I have done. Btw I have also told myself: You have given birth four times, now you can do this one race! ;-) That also helped, but not as much as the security that I was fit and healthy. And the images of me picturing myself doing the race and finishing. 


Visualizing is such a powerful tool. I have done it many times when playing golf. Seeing in my mind the ball flying on the exact curve and land at the exact spot I wanted it to and then playing the shot the same way. Our minds are so amazing. As soon as I saw myself hitting into the bushes, even if it’s only for a split second, I would hit the ball into the bushes :-)

Why I still do these races?

Every new race I take part in, I do in order to challenge myself. To step out of my comfort zone over and over again. It does not come easy to me. The training also does not come easy to me. But having a goal in mind, a race to prepare for, helps me get up and train. And having like-minded friends and Gordon helps too. Overall, the feeling of running over that finish line, totally exhausted and having pushed myself to my limits, the endorphins that the body releases, is just amazing. It is also just a little bit addictive ;-)

When I finished my first triathlon and was ecstatic my friend said, “and now you are hooked, now you are addicted.” She was right. That’s what happens. 

I like to challenge myself and step out of my comfort zone, also in other areas of my life. I like to see that I can win in my own mind and that I can achieve things I did not think were possible. 

Finishing a Half Ironman was something I would have never thought possible and all my friends were equally surprised. I want to prove to myself over and over again that anything is possible.

We just have to work hard and believe in ourselves. 

And I want to carry this message to my children! I want to show them how it can be done. They don’t need to do an Ironman, but I would love it if they have big dreams and step out of their comfort zones to achieve them. I want my kids and I alike to look back at our lives one day and not regret that we haven’t even tried. I want to look back at my personal achievements. They don’t need to mean anything for anybody else, but they need to mean something to me. 

What is it that you want to look back on?

xoxo Emilia