Has Ironman Gone Soft?

By Tom Demerly.

ironman history 70s 1

On the beach at the 1979 Ironman start on Oahu before the race moved to Kona. Interestingly, this swim was cancelled too, and moved to the next day due to bad weather.

With the swim cancellation at Ironman Florida this past weekend an obvious question reemerges: Has the Ironman Triathlon become too easy? Too “homogenized”? Is it a watered down event that panders to the business of sponsorship deals in an attempt to satisfy a financial relationship with Providence Equity Partners?

You could say Ironman has changed. But it would be more correct to say Ironman has grown. And with growth, change is inherent. The value judgment is whether Ironman is a better series of events than it was before World Triathlon Corporation and Providence Equity Partners.

I say yes.

Ironman is a better series of events now than it has ever been, and its future is brighter and more promising than ever.

With the move toward greater general participation in Ironman there comes a greater responsibility for race organizers to provide a safe, well-monitored and responsible event. Sometimes that means cancelling a swim.

World Triathlon Corporation has shouldered the responsibility for safer events well, consistently producing a growing number of high quality events around the world in different markets while improving the experience of athletes in their World Championship events as well. WTC has added value across the entire spectrum of the athlete experience. Show me any other company in this industry that has done the same.

Behind the scenes WTC has subverted exposure to scandals that have compromised pro cycling and the Tour de France. To understand the importance of this stewardship for the integrity of triathlon one need only compare U.S.A. Cycling membership numbers over the last decade to U.S.A. Triathlon membership numbers. Competitive cycling participation numbers sank in the post-Armstrong era. Triathlon numbers have boomed.

Swim 3

We may believe that entering Ironman puts us on the frontier of human endurance. Right up there with climbers on Mt. Everest, sailors racing alone around the world and other extreme athletes. That is partially true. Ironman pushes personal boundaries, but lies within the limits of human boundaries. Because of that the sport has evolved from being fringe to mainstream.

Recall that the Olympics prevented women from doing endurance running events as recently as the 1970’s and that women were barred from big marathons as recently as four decades ago because of concerns it may be bad for their health. Ironman was once considered to be at the outer limits of human endurance. We’ve since learned it is a doable event for the citizen athlete.  Now both are fixtures in endurance sports.

Ironman is also a transitional event in a person’s life, moving them from the status of big sports spectator to big sports participant. That doesn’t make Ironman an easy event. Ironman will never be easy. It will never be homogenized. The ruthless arbiters of time and distance have absolute rule over that.

So for those who say Ironman has gotten somehow “too easy” on its competitors, I say one thing to you: Then go faster.

Within Ironman lies layers of personal challenge that are enormous. Finished before the cut-off? Excellent. Come back next year and go under 15 hours. Then go under 13… then… Ironman provides a palate against which Anything is Possible, and that means personal growth, achieving new goals, setting a P.R. and even having a swim cancelled for safety reasons. As with life, Anything really is Possible at Ironman, but at Ironman you have 17 hours to get it all done. It is literally life packed into one long day. And like any experience in life there are ups and downs and the first goal is to get to the end of the day alive.

Author Tom Demerly has done endurance races on all seven continents. He has done the Ironman World Championships, way back in 1986, when some would say the race still had “soul”. He’s raced triathlons, Ironman, ultra-distance running races and adventures races around the world, from Africa to Vietnam, from Antarctica to British Columbia, from New Zealand to Thailand. Demerly did Mark Burnett’s Discovery Channel Eco Challenge and the Raid Gauloises. He has competed in races people died in. Demerly has also climbed the highest mountains on three continents and served in the U.S. military in a long-range surveillance unit.

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