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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Is the new GORUCK Star Course non-stop 50-mile, 20-hour military style endurance event the new holy grail of endurance activities? Has the Ironman Triathlon, with its Emmy Award winning, reality show hype and boom growth in the early 2000’s, trended?

Both events were founded in military tradition. Both were started on a dare. One event is trending upward as participation grows, another is waning downward as participation and event integrity declines. The evolution of the two events acknowledges the normal life cycle of a brand and the typical behavior of trends in American fitness and leisure activities. One is growing, one is dying.

The Ironman Triathlon has struggled with course modifications from bad weather, traffic control concerns on the bike courses, an inability to enforce competitive rules resulting in rampant bike course cheating, escalating entry fees and costs associated with doing the three-sport event. It has also been hit by growing concern over bicycle/car accidents in training as dangers like distracted driving become more prevalent.

The GORUCK event brand, that produces over 500 annual endurance events of various distances around the U.S. has benefitted from much lower entry fees, lower financial barriers to entry, safer training and participation, fewer requirements for expensive equipment, simpler preparation and finally, that one litmus test that grants any event true credibility: Toughness.

The start of the first-ever GORUCK Star Challenge earlier this year in Washington D.C.

While Ironman has become a caricature of its original self with nearly every participant finishing, GORUCK Star Course boasts a brutal 40-50% dropout rate. Most people who enter Ironman can finish within the cutoff time. About half the field at GORUCK Star Course don’t make it, hobbled by foot problems, navigation errors, undertraining or an overall lack of the toughness it takes to survive 20 hours on your feet, in the dark, in bad weather with a heavy load on your back.

GORUCK Star Course is also a team event. Teams consist of 2-5 people. For many competitors, the social aspect of having a small team adds additional value to the experience and makes training, travel to events and participation more attractive. While the Ironman triathlon has a reputation for ruining relationships with its solo training and financial demands, GORUCK Star Course actually reinforces core relationship values.

For companies looking for team building, wives and husbands, fathers, mothers, daughters, brothers and sisters looking for a bonding experience, GORUCK Star Course brings small numbers of people onto a cooperative team competing against the rigors of distance and time more than the other teams.

This evolution in event status also signals something else in U.S. popular culture, the ascension and erosion of “street cred” in participant sports and the social status of iconic, discretionary accomplishments. The Ironman “M-Dot” used to carry significant clout and status, but as the number of Ironman finishers exploded in the early 2000’s, the exclusivity and status of Ironman was diluted over increasing numbers of finishers. Ironman was no longer perceived as being quite as “extreme” as it was prior to large numbers of people finishing the event.

One big difference between GORUCK Star Course and the Ironman Triathlon is media. Ironman rose to prominence on the back of network television coverage prior to the explosion in internet and social media. People entered Ironman after seeing it on TV. People will enter GORUCK Star Challenge as word spreads on user-contributed social media. It’s unlikely GORUCK Star Challenge will ever be the subject of a network television broadcast or spin off a version of itself as an Olympic sport. But ultimately, it will be the participants that spread the virus of the GORUCK Star Challenge as more events take place and the participation germ spreads on the winds of social media. How fast the epidemic spreads remains to be seen.


 

Author Tom Demerly training for the upcoming GORUCK Star Challenge 50-Miler in Cincinatti, Ohio. Demerly is a former member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team (LRS) and Company Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He has raced endurance events on all seven continents including Antarctica and completed over 200 triathlons including the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona. Hawaii. His articles have been published in Outside, Business Insider,Velo-News, Bicycle Guide, Bicycling, Inside Triathlon, Triathlete, Triathlon Today!, USA Triathlon Magazine and many other publications around the world.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com (originally published in 2004)

The weather report said the sun would go down today at 7:49 pm. And it did.

Now it is dark.

In the street there is a sporadic, somber procession. It is a black and white picture. There is no color, no pageantry, and no grandeur. The grace is gone and now and it is down to gritty reality.

It is the time of The Strugglers. 11:18 pm, Taupo, New Zealand- the 20th, 2004 Anniversary Bonita Banana Ironman Triathlon.

The Pros are asleep. Their stomachs are full, their muscles are massaged. Their performances are a matter of record now. They are done. Have been for quite some time. They finished in the sunlight in the front of cameras and microphones racing for paychecks and trophies.

It’s easy to understand why they race. They should race. They look like they should. Lithe and toned and buff and tan and serious, the Pros and the other talented athletes reap the generous gift of genetic athletic abundance, meticulous preparation and clear-cut motivation. They are here to kick ass. It doesn’t take a psychologist to decode their motives. They’re athletes, and this is the big show. It’s what they do.

The pros’ time is over. Now it is time for The Strugglers.

There are no levels of performance for The Strugglers. You either are or you aren’t one. If you haven’t finished by now and you’re still out under the lights you are a member of this vaunted fraternity, The Strugglers. Just as the stark street lights leave either harsh illumination or black despair for The Strugglers this is a matter of finish or not finish, victory or defeat, do or die, pride or humiliation, success or failure. It is all the chips on one square, all the cards face up on the table, and all the aces have already been dealt today. The Strugglers play high stakes with a bad hand.

It may never have been pretty for The Strugglers. Most of them may not be athletes in the sense that they spend hours and hours every week training, but they line up nonetheless to do this race. The downtrodden, the meek, the ones with something to prove or something to defeat. Whatever it is they bring it here and beat it into ugly submission over 140.6 miles, each one a full 5,280 feet. The Strugglers earn every inch of every foot of every mile.

In a day so daunting and fearful they line up on the beach as if bravely facing the gallows. A cannon sounds the beginning of their trial and there is little known at the onset about how matters will be resolved, except to say it will be hard and uncomfortable and then downright painful. That may be the most frightening part: The not knowing. Some will find absolution, some will teeter and wobble and fall. There will be polite acknowledgement of their ambition, but ultimately, for The Strugglers the only thing that matters is Finishing. It’s what they’re here for.

So for The Strugglers, this is a huge gamble. Hero or failure. No in between.

And struggle they might, against awful odds and distance and poor conditioning and genetic poverty, but in bravery they are absolutely peerless. Without equal.

The Strugglers know it will not be pretty. They know it is not a sure thing. They do not have the luxury of prediction or past performances or experience. This is not their aptitude. But this is their choice and their bold dream.

Imagine being sent to do something, something beastly difficult. You know in your heart of hearts you are not prepared, maybe not even suited for this. You know the stares of others less brave and more envious fall heavily on your effort. They want The Strugglers to fail. For every Struggler who crosses the finish line it is a failure for those who never dared try. For every Struggler who sadly and reluctantly succumbs to the distance before the finish line and is carried off the course it is a victory for those who never started. They take sick pleasure in that. Shame on them.

Those who never had the courage to try have no right to cast judgment on The Strugglers.

The Pros are comfortable and resting. But the Strugglers have not left their sacred vigil. They soldier on, unswerving in their oath to finish, No Matter What. People marvel at the Pros performance, but I say The Strugglers are the real athletes. Explorers on the terrible frontier of self-doubt, fear and potential embarrassment on a grand scale. They bring less to the start line and they do more. Longer, harder, more painful: It is a different race for The Strugglers.

It is a parade really. A parade of people so brave and tough and fearless that they don’t care if it might not work. They bank on the fact that it could. They don’t back away from the possibility of failure. Imagine their performance as set against the backdrop of the very best in the world and they are not self-conscious about their version of the very same dance. Ask yourself, would you take the stage at the Kennedy Center after Barishnikov or Pavoratti? Are you that brave?

The Strugglers are.

Their performance is tedious and grinding. It is utterly relentless in its duration. The distance, the time, the struggle cannot be compromised. The Strugglers know this, they accept it- embrace it even. And they never succumb. Under the street lights, through the cool air, in filthy clothes streaked with their own discharge of minerals and fluids and sometimes even tears and blood.

The Strugglers do a different kind of race. A harder one. And they are Elite. It takes longer. It is less practiced. It seems to never end, and it does more damage.

Decode their motives if you will. But I decode yours as trying to explain more why you didn’t try than why they are. Instead, I respectfully suggest, salute them. Unless you have walked with The Strugglers until midnight on the Ironman course they stand above you in the athletic arena. Struggle as they may, they mustered the courage to try.

 

 

Tom Demerly has been doing triathlons since 1984, still does them (but slower and fatter now) and just completed the Detroit, Michigan GORUCK Light event. He worked in the triathlon industry since it began, and the bicycle industry from the age of 15, over 40 years. Today he is a correspondent for TheAviationist.com in Rome, Italy.

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

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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.

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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:

  1. 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.

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  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

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  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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By Tom Demerly.

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When he started, no one thought he could do it: Complete 50 Ironman distance triathlons in 50 states in 50 days. But he’s done it. And in doing so, he’s changed our concept of what is possible. He is James Lawrence from Utah, 38 years old; The Iron Cowboy.

Ironman has become a tattoo, a brand and an object of conspicuous consumption. A logo on a warehouse club fleece jacket bought after a race.

Before that, back on a beach in Hawaii on February 18, 1978, it was something else. And thanks to Iron Cowboy, it gets back to its roots of pushing through barriers rather than stopping at them to buy a logo-ed jacket and get a tattoo.

Iron Cowboy ran straight through all the marketing. Knocked down the barriers. He reminds us that Anything is Possible. And he did it without the licensing fees and waiting lists. He really Just Did It. The finish line is also tomorrow’s start line. It really isn’t over when it’s over. It’s only over when we stop.

One of the things he demonstrated is that we’ve been pretty lazy, pretty complacent, somewhat petty and oddly “consumer-ish” in our approach to Endurance sports. We just want the tattoo. And fleece jacket. And hat. And bumper sticker. And license plate. And bike number. And…

Ironman built it, and we bought it. Until The Cowboy, it had gotten stagnant, the needle stuck at 140.6.

There are longer races, there are harder races; Marathon des Sables is one. But without the mega promotion and the TV deals and the brand licensing they have remained off the everyman’s radar.

Iron Cowboy ran around the outside of the licensing fees that have been attached to the use of any reference to The Full Distance and made a mockery of dots and “M”s and tattoos. And in doing so he undid, in 50 days, what has taken nearly four decades to do. He reminds us that human limits exist only in our minds. That, unless we continue to push our concept of limits, that wet blanket we call “impossible” begins to settle heavily over us.

When Ironman Hawaii started it was also thought to be impossible by some, injurious by most. Now finishing Ironman is commonplace. It isn’t easy, but it is common.

So The Cowboy just raised the bar. And while Ironman, just one, lowly Ironman done in good conditions after months of training, good nutrition and careful tapering, is somehow made “smaller” in context by James Lawrence, the “Iron Cowboy”, it also remains a significant challenge.

But now we are reminded that there are many accomplishments beyond the finish line at Ironman, and that there is much more to our capabilities than logos or tattoos.

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James Lawrence, 38 years old from Utah, completes 50 consecutive Ironmans in 50 days in 50 states on July 26, Sunday.

 

 

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1999, #223, Marathon des Sables, the 55 mile stage, with members of the British SAS and the Queen’s personal security detail.

In reflection on the endurance lifestyle following the bombing at the Boston Marathon I thought about what I’ve been given from endurance sports and running.

When I was a kid I was so overweight they put me in a special education phys ed class. I started running. I lost weight. Running made me thinner and more fit. It gave me self-esteem and taught me to believe in myself. More importantly running taught me that what you put in, you get out in roughly equal measure. There are few bargains in life more straightforward than running. As a young teenager that was a valuable life lesson. Running gave me that.

When I couldn’t run in my early 20’s following a ski accident running taught me to keep going so I bought a bike. I won four state cycling championships and raced bikes in Europe. So running gave me that.

When I joined the Army and went to basic training I had an easier time than the other guys so I was able to help them out in training. I already learned that the toughest part of completing anything is simply not giving up. I was the honor graduate from our basic training and AIT class. So running gave me that.

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Left, somewhere in Ohio, 1986. Right, Kona pier, Bud Light Ironman Hawaii, 1986.

After I left the Army I started my own business and learned what it really meant to work, something I knew how to do from running. So running gave me that.

When I met people who had never exercised before and didn’t know where to start I could help them and inspire them and empathize with them. So running gave me that.

When I saw a story in a magazine about a 152-mile running race in the Sahara desert it sounded impossible. Running taught me there usually is no such thing as “impossible” so I went there and did it. The Discovery Channel followed me during the race and put me in their documentary about the event. So running gave me that.

Over the next 20 years I raced endurance sports on every continent, from Africa to Asia, America to Antarctica. I saw things people only see on TV and movies, did things people only read about in books. I travelled the world. So running gave me that.

When I climbed the highest mountain in the western hemisphere I was the only person on our climbing team to make it to the summit. My guide told me it was because I was fit and moved fast. So running gave me that.

When my best friend was killed on his bike by a drunk driver riding home from my bike store I was depressed and thought I had lost everything. My friends Mike and Kim said maybe I should go for a run. I did. It took more than a few runs but I realized the friend I lost would have wanted me to keep going, so I did. So running (and my friend) gave me that.

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The wire and plastic spider that lives inside my heart. Installed by Dr. Samir Dabbous of Baghdad, Iraq to prevent another stroke. It works perfectly.

I had a stroke when I was running and suffered brain damage and vision loss. The doctors told me that if I hadn’t kept running the damage may have been worse. I may have even died. They fixed the problem that caused the stroke by putting a patch inside my heart and said the procedure was easy on me because I was in good shape and it may have saved my life. So running gave me that.

After I had my stroke and a patch put inside my heart I was afraid I was permanently broken and couldn’t run anymore. But I remembered that sometimes when you are running and you feel the worst you simply have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, so that is what I did. Soon I was running again and I knew having a stroke did not change me one bit. So running gave me that.

When the recession came I lost everything and had to start over on the other side of the country with nothing in a new place and a new job. I learned you are only as good as your last run and, since my business didn’t end very well partially from my mistakes and partially from the recession, I learned I better keep running. So I did. Running gave me that.

When I wanted a new job and a better life I remembered that, in running, sometimes you have to go out of your comfort zone so I did. I got a much better paying job and moved to a nicer place to live. So running gave me that.

I’ve never been a very fast runner or a very good runner, but I’ve never given up. That was one of the first things I learned about running: don’t give up.

So running gave me that.

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Left, Ironman New Zealand, right, Ann Arbor Triathlon.