By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
It’s been another big year for Ironman; new races and more athletes earning finishers’ medals. It’s worth asking: why is Ironman so popular?
Consider the downside of Ironman:
Ironman is hard, beastly, grindingly hard. If you haven’t done an Ironman think about this: when was the last time you exercised non-stop for 10-17 hours, and paid to do it?
Ironman is a “dry pain”. An abrasive, gnawing bone-on-bone scream to just stop and give up. It’s combined with a wearing fatigue that doesn’t end until you reach the finish line. People have the ominous sensation that they’re actually doing harm to themselves, permanent, medical harm. Yet they continue. You find a lot of things on an Ironman course; common sense usually isn’t one of them.
You won’t feel right for weeks after Ironman. After the glow has faded you may sink into a mild depression, a depression that attempts to moderate the realization that hitting that finish line may have been the single biggest day in your life.
And so, inevitably, like an addict to the needle, you go back. Just one more hit…
Second, Ironman is expensive. Racecar engineer Carroll Shelby said, “Speed costs money, how fast do want to go?” That realism applies to Ironman. Entry fees, equipment, travel. It would be tough to complete an Ironman for less than a few thousand dollars and it’s easy to spend over ten thousand. Racing anything is expensive; racing three sports is three times as expensive. Traveling to do Ironman costs even more. Divorce attorneys add to the cost. And eventually, so do therapists- for your bones and your brain.
Ironman hammers your life. You spend endless time training and worrying that you aren’t training enough. You never realize how little time you have until you have to squeeze long rides, runs and swims into a normal life. And speaking of that fleeting thing you used to have called “A Life”, well, you can forget about that when you are training for Ironman. You become an “Ironmonk” somehow sworn to an oath of servitude to distance, diet and determination so deep your old friends who don’t share your goals become distant friends.
You may do Ironman to bolster your confidence, but the journey to the start line and the crushing enormity of the distance stacked next to the puny sum of your training is enough to dash any ego. At the start line you are small and weak. At some point in the race you become broken. But at the finish you grow to ten feet tall.
But there are compelling reasons to love Ironman:
- Welcome to your whole life, condensed into one day.
Ironman is the physical metaphor for every obstacle we’ve faced in life packaged into one long day. But unlike the other struggles in our life, there is a defined finish line. And we get a medal.
Your education, job, and relationships are all undefined. There are no mile markers, no finish lines. They become a grind with a generally anti-climactic ending, a finish line that keeps moving. At Ironman, they announce your name, give you a medal and take your picture. The finish line does not keep getting farther away. Every stroke, turn of the pedals and step brings it closer on race day. The finish at Ironman isn’t a moving target. It’s clearly defined. That is tough to find these days. At Ironman, you actually do get the carrot on the string.
- It’s us against life.
More than anything else in life we race against time. We try to get things done faster, try to live longer, and try to end hardship sooner. We never win that race. Ironman is one of the only places you can win that race. You get to the finish line before midnight, you won. Ironman gives you the chance to win life in one day.
- Ironman is cooperative, not competitive.
At Ironman every participant is united against two common adversaries: time and distance. Almost no one except the top ten athletes actually “race”. Most of us are competing against the terrible distance and relentless procession of the clock. Separate from the politically correct notion that “everyone is a winner”, every person who makes it to the finish at Ironman actually is a winner. They slayed the dragon. They beat the distance and the cut-off. Sharing that win with like-minded people creates a sense of community. Normal sports create winners and losers. They create divisions. Ironman creates bonds against a common adversary. No one who makes it to the finish line loses.
- Instant Gratification. (Almost).
They hang your medal around your neck when you cross the finish. It’s instantaneous. Ironman has gotten more clever by erecting trendy photo backgrounds to pose in front of for social media snapshots. You look like a Hollywood celeb at a premier, only you’re covered in your own urine.
- It’s Good for the Ego.
If only for a little while, Ironman gives us the chance to be somebody. It makes us feel strong, capable, invincible. It validates something that exists in every person; our incredible ability to overcome an obstacle greater than we think we can. In a way, Ironman athletes may be weak of confidence since they seem to gravitate toward a store-bought, conspicuous brand of self-confidence: the finisher shirt, the medal, the sticker, and the tattoo. But judgments aside, it feels darn good to cross that finish line, sit down and drink something cold. For at least a fleeting few moments we can wrap the thin foil blanket of accomplishment around us.
- We’re Doers, not Spectators.
You can broadly divide people into two categories: spectators and competitors. But like any division between a group as vast as all mankind there exists grey. We are that grey area. A culture of people who may not be eligible for Olympic Gold or Superbowl fame but who are as uncomfortable on the couch as they would be running a 4:40 marathon pace. We land in between. We want to participate, we don’t want to just watch, and we will likely never win. That’s us. We just want a piece of the action.
Social media is another reason Ironman has exploded. We now have a vast space where we can talk about ourselves. And we do. Ironman weekend is a litany of selfies with our bike, race number, shoes, porta-johns and barf. This perfect storm of Ironman and social media has created a legion of everyday Geraldos, Diana Nyad’s, John Krakauers and even a few Ernest Hemingways. Even if no one is looking we still love to post, tweet, strava and share.
- If We Can Do This…
Our lives are increasingly convenient and safe. From airbags to instant communications and weather warnings, we are exposed to very little real risk. So, we have to manufacture synthetic risk. Ironman does that. It interjects much needed doubt into our lives. Ironman makes us feel like we are on some kind of edge, even if the edge is the synthetic manifestation of distance and time.
There are as many motives for doing Ironman as there are competitors, and the thing that pulls us to the start line then drags us to the finish line is usually personal, often difficult to articulate. We likely don’t understand all of our motives. And there may be no necessity to understand entirely. One thing that is certain is the choice to do Ironman is an ephemeral one that can- and will- be revoked at any time, usually without warning. An injury, illness, the rigors of age or disease will someday take away the choice. That alone may be the best reason to try to make it to the finish line- because we still can.