Has Ironman Lost its Legitimacy?

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

After the shortened course and prolific drafting at this year’s first U.S. Ironman in Texas, it’s worth asking: has the gold standard of endurance sports become a diluted accomplishment-for-purchase?

The answer is an unfortunate, undeniable “Yes”.

The sooner Ironman’s new parent company, Chinese conglomerate The Dalian Wanda Group, acknowledges the decline in event quality, the sooner it can be restored. But the problem is real, and it didn’t happen overnight.

Ironman is entirely different today than it was when the race began on the beach in Waikiki in 1978. In the early 1980’s Ironman struggled for legitimacy. By the end of the decade, in 1989, Dave Scott and Mark Allen’s “Ironwar” two-up race duel vaulted the event into something even more significant than athletic competition. In 2004 I wrote “The Strugglers”, an homage to the everyman finisher at Ironman you can read by clicking here.

Ironman became legend. It was revered as somehow tougher than mere athleticism. Scott and Allen’s high noon, mano a mano slugfest defined a gritty toughness that transcended other endurance events. Marathon running, once the high bar of the everyman endurance world, took a back seat to completing an Ironman triathlon. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, Ironman became modern gladiatorial combat for the masses in a new electronic coliseum.

Emmy winning television production spotlighted the transformation of the everyman to hero status. With spectacle like the Julie Moss crawl to second place, Ironman was depicted as the one-day filter through which a mortal person could pass to achieve super-athlete status. Everyday people arrived at the Ironman start line as caterpillars, left as colorful M-Dot butterflies decked out in officially licensed “Finisher” apparel.

Ironman became big. Then came the internet. And Ironman became enormous.

The defining Dave Scott/Mark Allen “Ironwar” race of 1989.

As internet and social media exploded a universal virtual podium made Ironman status visible around the world instantly. It became normal for Ironman participants to chronical every step of their journey to Ironman in social media, triathlon forums and blogs. They would top it off with wordy, indulgent “race reports” for all to (presumably) read.

All that was missing from Ironman was the mass production of this new event-product. It was so well recognized that one trademark defined our impression of a person the instant we saw their t-shirt, bumper sticker or tattoo. That status was bestowed when you crossed the finish line and the verbal Excalibur, “YOU! Are an IRONMAN!!!” touched your shoulder.

A person could earn a college degree, raise a family, beat a terminal disease, overcome a disability or serve in the military. But until they dragged their life story across the finish line at Ironman to earn the M-Dot stamp of significance, it was just average. Just life. At Ironman, it became significant. It became a story. A filter through which we must pass to achieve exceptional status.

Ironman sold. And sold. And sold. Events a year away sold out in minutes. Entry fees went up, travel and lodging costs climbed. You had to earn an Ironman finish, and by the turn of the century in 2000 it took not only a deep aerobic base but also deep pockets to finish an Ironman.

Ironman gave the well-heeled everyman the opportunity to be exceptional. And while the majority of the participants in Ironman did have an intrinsically challenging experience preparing for and completing an Ironman, the heavy-handed branding of the event created a brand more conspicuous than structural.

As prices and participation climbed, the quality of race venues and officiating suffered. The event became increasingly “interpretive”, with swim cancellations, course shortenings, inadequate drafting enforcement and no effective athlete drug screening.

Ironman became pass/fail.

I worked and raced in the triathlon industry since the early 1980s and had a front row for the transformation of the sport. I saw it change from fringe endurance activity to apex life-defining event. Then into a credible athletic sport including Olympic competition. And today into a just-about-anything-goes social media stunt. Cutting courses, drafting and using performance enhancing drugs is more likely to be enforced in the kangaroo court of social media than by the people paid to administer the race.

As Ironman peaked in popularity, the races filled from the back of the pack. Race winning times did get marginally faster among top professionals. But the bigger expansion was at the back of the race. Despite a proliferation of “wind tunnel tested superbikes” triathletes were going slower and slower as a group at Ironman.

In the 1980’s and ‘90’s when I either raced or watched an Ironman event, the volume of finishers after 13 hours tapered off to a trickle. By the early 2000’s the floodgates opened at 13 hours with hordes of everyman Ironmen streaming across the finish line. That influx of participants created more demand for Ironman events. Individual athlete performance and overall event quality suffered. If you could drag yourself across the finish line at Ironman, whether you made the 17-hour cutoff time by a second or nine hours, whether the swim was shortened or cancelled, whether the bike course was long, short, flat, windy or mountainous, “YOU!” were still “An IRONMAN!” There was a distinct lack of standards for what had been a high bar of endurance sports.

The double edge sword of social media that helped immortalize and proliferate the sport has now become its undoing. The event organizers appear immune to criticism and largely unconcerned with maintaining event quality. Today brandishing an M-Dot logo on a calf tattoo, bumper sticker or officially licensed T-shirt doesn’t carry the clout it once did. Ironman has become a sketchy, “everyone’s a winner” attention grab that is low on event quality control and high on licensing fees, entry fees, and official merchandise prices. Until that changes the Ironman motto, “Anything is Possible” has become a decidedly cynical commentary of a once great event.

 

 

 

Author Tom Demerly has raced triathlons and worked in the triathlon industry since 1984, completing over 200 races including the Ironman World Triathlon Championships in Kona, Hawaii in 1986 and Ironman events in Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. He has participated in the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge, The Raid Gauloises, The Marathon des Sables, The Antarctic Marathon and the Jordan Telecom Desert Cup. He raced bicycles as an elite amateur in Belgium for the Nike/VeloNews/Gatorade Cycling Team and is three-time Michigan USA Cycling State Champion. He is a former member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team (LRS) and now works as an aerospace and defense columnist for TheAviationist.com, the world’s foremost defense and aerospace blog published in Rome, Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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19 comments
  1. Tom this is, unfortunately, spot on. I’m one of those one-timers who dragged himself across the line in 13+ hours in my only attempt at a stormy Lake Placid a few years ago. It wasn’t the race I wanted. Sure I was happy to finish but when I expressed a bit of disappointment at my results I heard “But you did it”! Frankly, I didn’t really have any doubts I could do it. 17 hours is a LONG time. I was slow at almost all three legs and still had almost 4 hours to have gotten it done. Again, not my plan. I’d hoped to go faster. I also hoped to try again but decided Ironman training wasn’t my thing. It also wasn’t my wife’s thing to spend every weekend alone while I went out and rode and ran for hours.

    But IMTX was a mess. Maybe Berlin can shorten the marathon to 23 miles and have it still count for a world record next year?

    There are too many players in triathlon making their own rules. ITU, Ironman, Challenge . . all have their own play books. Frankly, I stay away from Ironman branded events now. Once upon a time they held a high standard. Not so much anymore.

  2. Kevin said:

    As always, tom you have your pulse on where most of us who are in this sport for racing —-not just social media kudos feel. Because I love the fellowship of local ohio triathlon race scene —-I hope IMTX Schrade is the beginning of the end for “IM” branded “triathlon.” I’ve been a serious competitive amateur triathlete for five seasons now and I’ve steered wellclear of Iron Man. I have tried to buy, train and race local as a matter of conscience and convenience. When IM 70.3 came to Ohio a couple of years ago everyone was so excited, I thought at that time (and being a “hater” even then…) that we were going to lose some of our 70.3 races… And I was right. Almost all of the local races have had to drop their 70.3 distances. 70.3 – A distance that wasn’t bordering on impossible for people people with busy schedules, families & full time jobs to train and compete at. Myself, I have been having Blast trying to get faster each year in the sprint distance. Which takes smart,science based training not endless miles …I’m still having fun!

  3. Tom
    I respectfully disagree. There are some things that have changed but it just depends on your view of what IRONMAN is or is supposed to be. I’ve not been involved in the sport as long as you have but I have been involved with IRONMAN for the last 15 years. Almost all of the best things about IRONMAN are still alive and strong. I’ve seen tens of thousands of people accomplish their dream at the finish line of an IRONMAN. This years IRONMAN Texas seemed pretty much the same as it’s always has been, a bunch of people giving it everything they got to beat that 17 hour cut off. This year there were three visually impaired athletes along with their guides crossing the finish line. This year there were people who had failed to make the cut and came back to beat that 17 hour finish. The one thing that stands out to me is how much it is still the same.

    • Hi Dave, thank you for reading and for your well-reasoned comments. Actually, I have to agree with you. There is still way more “right” with Ironman than there is wrong. That said, I’m protective of the institution and don’t like to see it eroded into an “Anything is Possible” on race day version of the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run. I also don’t like the swim cancellations we’ve seen at some events where a different swim venue should have been planned in the first place to prevent athletes from losing out on the entire experience they trained, bought and paid to have. Yup, the rank n’ file athlete is slower today. Nothing wrong with that. 17 hours is still 1,020 minutes on any course. That has remained almost a near constant with few changes (time trial starts have affected a couple), but when they start changing the course on the fly, or pulling marshals, or declaring events that are fully two miles short as a valid record, then I need to raise my hand in the interest of quality control.

      • Mike said:

        Tom,
        I raced IMTX this year, and the two prior years, and after hearing the “why” the marshals were pulled it seemed like a valid reason. If it happened the way they claim they had no control. I do fault them for not having a backup plan in place to marshal the course.
        And honestly, I fault the riders for the draft fest. I’ve seen the mathematical arguments that you can’t have that many people on the course without drafting. That may be true but not everyone rides the same pace and not everyone climbs the overpasses at the same speed. Ultimately the drafting is on the rider. They knew they were violating the cardinal triathlon rule. It was possible to race that bike leg without drafting. I did it. The conditions were perfect for a fast bike leg, relatively cool, almost no wind, and a relatively flat course. Starky was out by himself – no drafting and hammering away. Participants chose to draft and used a perfect day for a bike PR to cheat.

        The bike course was two miles short last year and based upon the return to t2 they made efforts to correct it this year only to run into a safety issue (again that is IM’s story) at their southernmost turnaround on the Hardy toll road.

        I’m new to this sport so I don’t have the benefit of hindsight, like you but I put this on the athletes.

      • Mike, thank you for reading and for your well reasoned insights, especially since you were there. Well done on the race also. A key point I wanted to make is that Ironman is something special, worth preserving in its purest, original form and distance. I worry when even a threat of eroding the uniqueness and integrity of the event manifests itself, and I’m concerned there has been a slippery slope of creating lots of new races and new athletes but maybe not lots of great new races. Ultimately I want the intrinsic value of the experience and the experience itself to survive.

  4. h2ofeo2 said:

    I agree…it’s been over-marketed and cheapened by big company-mindset and social media.

  5. CHIP MOFFATT said:

    Great write up Tom. It is hard for athletes like yourself and me as well who have been around multisport since the 80s to see how the sport has changed. . When triathlon was a grass roots movement we liked being part of something not too many people had heard of, but the financial viability of the sport was more in question. I think triathlon in general and Ironman specifically means what you want it to mean for yourself. It annoys me when I see people drafting, mostly because I don’t understand the mindset that allows people to feel OK with that, but I feel the same way when I see people going 60 mph in a 35 mph zone.

  6. Mark Brandt said:

    I don’t dispute much of what you say, but as a new November 2017 Florida IM finisher in 11:43:13. It was very satisfying to finish. I’m proud of what I did.

  7. Tim Floyd said:

    Tom,

    I disagree with a part of your argument. You seem to be arguing that Ironman isn’t exclusive enough and you don’t want someone who finishes in 16 hours to be able to call themselves an Ironman like another athlete who finishes in 10 hours. This is similar to the argument from marathoners who don’t want people running slower than 4 hours included in the marathon. It’s the back of the pack people who pay for the races. Yes, it makes it less exclusive but it’s what keeps the sport going. Your view is a little unrealistic and much like the “all about me.com” stereotype of a triathlete.

    The biggest isssue that was on full display with Ironman Texas is the sport of triathlon has an integrity problem. No one wants to talk about it. And it’s a problem within the whole community. Everyone wants to blame Ironman, but the problem starts with governing bodies and stakeholders within the community who offer “certification” for “coaches.” These weekend classes are nothing more than a money making machine for the governing bodies and stakeholders. They don’t qualify these “coaches” to coach. The athletes then go out with a win at all cost mentality, because their unqualified coaches want to grow their coaching businesses with fast times and Kona Qualifications. It’s part of the reason we are seeing more age groupers getting busted for doping with some of those busted athletes having their own coaching businesses. The problem is triathlon has become more of a business than a sport. To get the sport back, it needs to start with the individual athletes who participate.

    Ironman made mistakes with this race and I know they are taking the steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again here. But the big problem is the lack of integrity within the community from the governing bodies, stakeholders, coaches and athletes.

    Tim Floyd

    • Hi Tim, thank you for reading and for commenting. I appreciate it. I’m not arguing that the event isn’t “elite enough”, and I apologize if you got that impression. That was not my intention. My intention is to call attention to the reduction of quality control in Ironman races; swim cancellations, courses being shortened, not enough officials to enforce drafting rules on the bike or no officials in the case of Texas. If it had happened a couple times it would be a normal part of putting on a big event over a long distance in unpredictable conditions. But Ironman has a pattern of event problems that now goes back more than five years. I argue the quality of the event and product, what you ultimately get when you train and sign up for the race, that product has had problems frequently enough that I think it is a problem. It is eroding the integrity of the event. Again, thanks for reading and for commenting. I always appreciate the insight and feedback. -Tom D.

      • Tim Floyd said:

        Thanks for the follow up and the clarification. I worked for Ironman for about 3 years. I know a lot of the people who put on the events in North America. They are working as hard now as they did 5 years ago. Swim cancellations – there’s very little you can do about it. I was a swim course director or staff for 3 different events. Courses get shortened for all sorts of reasons that are beyond the control of Ironman. It’s very difficult to put on events in urban locations. You wouldn’t believe if I told you the amounts Ironman spends on traffic studies for road closures for a single event or paying police or road closures.. I think what you are getting at is that there has been a big increase in the number of events over the last five years and then the explosion of social media at the same time has heightened awareness of events that have issues. Putting on events as big as Ironman at outside locations that span 140+ miles is tough. Shit beyond the control of Ironman is going to happen. I’m not making excuses for Ironman. The guys in charge will take their lumps and needed to do a better job at this race. But the real erosion of integrity is with the athletes. As you can see from the videos and photos posted, there were plenty of athletes who chose not to cheat.

  8. George Rux said:

    Tom, Thank you for clarifying that you are not arguing the event isn’t “elite enough.” I had that impression first reading your article. Your previous article was superb praising the perseverance of the slower age groupers. I agree with those who praise the “back of the packers” who pay for our sport and where just finishing under 17 hours and hearing the magic words “You Are An Ironman” is a huge accomplishment. Re drafting: Watching IMTX this year I was very upset wondering what is happening to our sport. Illegal drafting is killing our sport where an age grouper seeking to earn a Kona Slot is faced with an ethical dilemma. What do you do when someone in your age group passes you on the tail end of a group of younger, faster age groupers? For now, ethically we are obliged to always maintain the minimum legal draft distance. It is frustrating thinking someone can qualify for Kona with officials turning a blind eye to illegal drafting. I now understand the safety problem faced by the organizers on the Hardy Expressway. There still has to be a way to have race Marshalls cite “Pelotons’ with time penalties to help assure the race is legally managed for the benefit of others who are genuinely engaged in fair competition. George Rux

  9. Tom, we’re having a debate over whether you feel the influx of slower athletes is your main complaint, or the overall quality of events, including drafting, doping, course-cutting, a long with many more back-of-the-pack athletes? Thanks in advance for settling this!

    • Hi Glenn, thank you for asking, and for reading. You know, I think I owe you an apology for not being more articulate. You raise a valid question. So, to clarify on your specific question about my main complaint: I am complaining about the lack of standard event distances, inappropriate swim venues that all to commonly force a swim course change or cancellation, too many athletes on a course creating a drafting issue especially for athletes interested in fair play. I am absolutely not complaining about athlete performance or times- be they slow or fast. To me, the “Everyman”, the “struggler” is the genuine backbone of our sport. Events need to be administered and executed in a consistent manner so as to insure the athlete has an intrinsically worthy experience. The distance, rules, course should not be fluid or interpretive, changeable from day to day. The athlete- every athlete- is the core of Ironman in my view. The race organizers owe every athlete a quality, repeatable, consistent race-product. Again, thank you for asking Sir. -Tom D.

      • Glenn Mantel said:

        Tom – Thank you very much for taking the time to respond. And so promptly! You confirmed what I felt was your point and we agree. (My thread was flooded with photos from IM TX showing peletons on the bike course.) I appreciate you sharing your insights. Your love of the sport shows. Keep up the good work!

      • ZipperRacing said:

        I appreciate this reply and clarification. I must tell you the point of view you are describing in your reply is decidedly NOT what you projected to myself and may others in your article. Your, in my point of view, extensive criticism of the role of social media in the erosion of our chosen sport, was very broad and yet specifically lumped both the sincere and the vain into the same category with words like, “It became normal for Ironman participants to chronical every step of their journey to Ironman in social media, triathlon forums and blogs. They would top it off with wordy, indulgent “race reports” for all to (presumably) read.” I will tell you that those who chronicle their journey inspired myself and others to soldier on through the difficult times, injuries and disappointments. Those “race reports” can be incredibly informative and provide insight and encouragement. Not all of them are cries for vain, even narcissistic recognition. Admittedly you tempered your criticism with this statement, “And while the majority of the participants in Ironman did have an intrinsically challenging experience preparing for and completing an Ironman. . .” However, your overall tone still implied to many that somehow we, the “back of the packers” were part of the problem. As if only we weren’t racing there would be more room on the race course for those faster than us. (Even though we often start last and are quickly passed by all but those who race at our speed.) Many of those who are commenting have taken up the same tone and implication. I am glad that many of you “race” while the rest of us “finish.” But I will never say “merely finish,” because to finish is an accomplishment that I will never trade for anything, nor will I ever accept that just because someone is faster than me they are somehow more worthy of being called an Ironman. I finished IM Texas last year, riding alone into the teeth of that north wind that came up, persevering to finish in 16 hours. This year I sat on the Hardy Toll Road as a spectator and cheerleader to give encouragement to my teammates who were racing, and I yelled as loud as I could at all of the brazen cheaters as they rode by because I too felt like they were cheapening my efforts to conquer that road last year. They were cheating and there wasn’t ANY wind this year AT ALL. I was angry beyond words. Yes I am slow, but I feel like this is MY SPORT too. I am proud of what I did and I will defend it just as much as a podium finisher. I will take you at your word for what you said as I have no reason not to. I don’t know you and your reputation and bio suggest that you are someone for whom respect has been earned. I will simply say that if your intent was not to disparage, you missed the mark by a bit. But again, thank you for clarifying your position. I am absolutely with you on all of your quality control arguments. I appreciate your passion and your willingness to speak up. Blessings-Craig G

      • Thank you for reading and commenting Craig. Hope to see you back at Ironman soon Sir! – Tom D.

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