During the awards ceremony for a Hawaii running race, a debate ensues among competitors about who is more fit — swimmers, runners or other athletes. One of the participants, Navy Commander John Collins and his wife Judy, dream up a race to settle the argument. They propose combining three existing races together, to be completed in succession: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 miles), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (112 miles, originally a two-day event) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles). “Whoever finishes first weâ€™ll call the Ironman,” said Collins. Fifteen men participate in the initial event held on February 18; 12 complete the race, led by the first Ironman, Gordon Haller. His winning time: 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds.
Comm.10 with Professor Cole; This was my first college course and I took it at UCLA in Westwood during spring semester of my high school senior year. I absolutely loved that course and at the same time, I was stunned at how different the scholastic expectations were moving from high school to college. I got a “B”. I was coming from a secondary educational background where I really just sort of coasted through without ever really cracking a book. I’m sure my parents are rolling over in their graves cursing me out for that one.
Eventually, both Professor Jeffrey Cole and I succumbed to the dark side with me continuing my education and he becoming the Director of the
So why am I posting these college recollections on a blog about triathlon? Well the lessons learned in Professor Cole’s course have come fully to light in the current debate around the Ironman brand. What began in 1978 with a few guys planning a self supported race to see which discipline created the best overall athlete – swimmers, cyclists or runners – has turned into a multi-million dollar industry where brand police and attorneys fight ruthlessly to protect the Ironman brand.
A few years back, my alma mater’s triathlon team wanted to use a dot on their triathlon club’s logo and they were told that they would be receiving a cease and desist letter if they did, and it wasn’t even an M-dot, the logo most widely recognized with Ironman races. Just the dot itself was verboten. Right or wrong, the tri-club decided not to press the issue and went another direction.
Recently in Triathlete Magazine, Charlie Yu posted another brilliant opinion. He is known for opining that you don’t deserve an Ironman logo M-Dot tattoo unless you’ve qualified, raced and finished the Kona World Ironman Championships. This time around, he was interviewed by Dave Wallach who is a veteran of official Ironman races but not Kona, and Charlie is quoted as telling this reporter:
“If you want to call yourself an Ironman, I’m not going to say youâ€™re not, however, I’m not going to consider you an Ironman, but go ahead.”
Such is the silliness of it all.
Ironman has simply become synonymous with endurance. Ironman is the new marathon. But marathon wasn’t a brand, it was a race, a distance that needed to be covered, and in its simplicity, covering 26.2 miles was considered a marathon and anyone who covered that measured distance was considered a marathoner. In triathlon, it is perceived to be very different. Ironman is not just a term to describe those who have completed a multi-sport event consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run. Instead it apparently only applies to those who actually paid hundreds of dollars to enter, race and complete an official WTC Ironman race. Even then according to folks like Charlie Yu,Â you really aren’t an Ironman until you finish Kona.
With Ironman becoming the new marathon, more and more people are signing up and attempting this feat. This also means that it has become nearly impossible to guarantee your entry into this race unless you physically live in a town where the races are held or are wealthy enough to pay the costs necessary to travel to and attend the race in the prior year. By doing this you earn the right to wake up at 5am the day after the race and get in line with the hundreds of others who also want to make sure they have an opportunity to register for the following year’s race. Forget online registration.Â For this year’s race, Ironman Lake Placid sold out in mere minutes, and as far as we can tell, Ironman
Is it enough to have persevered the experience of training for six months or more to be able to complete the 140.6-mile course under the cut-off times? Or is it the M-Dot tattoo, or is it the ability to call yourself an Ironman? And if it’s the latter, then why does the commercial event itself dictate the completion of this goal rather than completing the distance as it does for a marathon?
Predictably, an underground swell has been created against the high cost of this opportunity as well as the notion that to be an Ironman one needs to have completed a sanctioned WTC Ironman race. Websites such as 140dot6.com have popped up to promote underground triathlons and other endurance events. This website launched the day before Ironman Madison in September of last year and already the site has 144 members. Brett Blanker, one of the site’s co-founders, hippie podfather and host of Zen and the Art of Triathlon has completed two separate self supported Ironman races in the past three years. After he completed his first “official” Ironman race at Wisconsin this year, he claimed that IM-Moo, while challenging, was significantly easier than completing the same distance on his own, with no aid stations, bottle exchanges, special needs bags, wetsuit strippers or thousands of fans cheering him on every step of the way. Another frequent contributor to TriScoop.com, CindyJo has come out strongly against even training in groups, stating that Ironman is a race that you do alone, by yourself to test your own limits and capabilities. If you are going to race alone, then get used to it by training alone. Ironman was originally about you against the elements. And yet, for some reason, the triathlon society, or at least some members of it, seem to place the value on the brand more than the experience. Somebody, please tell me why this is so.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think there is something special and different about jumping into the water for a mass start of a 10+ hour race with 2,500 of your closest friends. The mental stress of an official Ironman race is undeniable. But the mental side of completing that same distance on your own, when nobody is around to watch if you decided to take a nap on the side of the road, or cut the distance short, or finish up tomorrow, may be even stronger. I do believe that certain events should be left untarnished. For example, I believe that the Boston Marathon should not offer charity slots and only those that qualify should participate. Similarly, I believe that the Ironman World Championships should be for Ironman World Champions. But in the end, Ironman and marathoner should be terms used to describe those who have achieved their accomplishments and these terms should not be used exclusively to tie these accomplishments to whether or not you have contributed to the economic benefit of a race organizer. As far as I’m concerned, if you put in the 140.6-mile distance and want to call yourself an Ironman, get painted with an M-dot tattoo, or place a 140.6 sticker on your rear window, who am I to say you shouldn’t?
As always, race with purpose.