In 1978, 15 of the world's roughest, toughest hombres made the start in the world's first iron-distance race. In 2007, around 30,000 of this planet's citizens, some of them decidedly less rough and tough, started an iron-distance race. That first Iron Man Triathlon was generally regarded as the worst of the worst-the longest swim, the longest bike, the longest run, with no stopping. Today's iron-distance race is still impossible to contemplate, but by fewer and fewer people.
Bets laid down by military men in smoke-filled bars do not generally work well as trends of mass consumption. It is not likely that Navy Commander John Collins meant for his wager to be within arm's reach of tens of thousands of people per year.
I believe that not everyone is meant to be an ironman. Further, not everyone is meant to be half an ironman.
I am the race director of a half-iron-distance race. I have every reason in the world to encourage you to Go Big, to enter my race early and often and for many years into the future, and to be joined by your spouse, your kids, your neighbors and a few poker buddies from Thursday night. My paycheck doesn't depend on you getting to the finish line.
But I don't want you to do it if you're not ready for it.
Each year I stand before a room of aspiring half-ironmen and half-ironwomen during the Musselman Triathlon pre-race briefing. Each year I ask who is doing his or her first half-iron-distance race, then who is doing a first triathlon. Each year the number of hands remaining in the air terrifies me.
So I recruit more kayakers for the swim, more volunteers for the bike, more water for the run. Too many folks start the bike without any water bottles, with bikes that don't shift and with no idea what they're going to eat during the race. Too many start the run by walking, in the heat of the day, without having once completed a stand-alone 13 miles.
For the world's best professionals, an Olympic-distance race takes only slightly less time to complete than a marathon-which is generally considered the ultimate in distance running. Two to four hours of continuous competition is not to be taken lightly; for most of America, this challenge is like climbing Everest. Yet year after year, and with more and more frequency, triathlete beginners bypass the sprints and intermediate distances and head straight for the holiday buffet table, loading up their plates with richer and meatier fare.
The sport of triathlon has been conflated with the world of Ironman in popular perception. Folks get into the sport to complete an iron-distance-race, fast-track to the big race, then get out when that's checked off. Not only is this not healthy for the individual, it's not healthy for the sport; too many beginners feel the pressure to race beyond themselves, too many of them don't yet know their own bodies or how to properly prepare them. Races are drawing bigger and bigger fields, but race directors are staring down the line at athletes who are less and less prepared.
Last year, I was asked by a volunteer to assist in a transition area "situation." Five participants had missed the bike cutoff and stood angrily before me, taken aback that their timing chips had been taken off. They had had five and a half hours to complete the swim and bike; now, I told them, they could continue with the run, but their participation would henceforth be unofficial.
One individual, who had missed the cut by a full 38 minutes, was particularly nonplussed.
Her exasperation grew as we discussed the issue; very little of what I said was heard or understood. More energy was spent in pre-race anxiety and post-race angst than had she chosen to complete the race itself, albeit unofficially. As is often the case, she had never come close to making the cut on prior training rides, without the swim. Months after the race, I continued to field letters exploring and debating the minutiae of cutoff times.
All I'm saying is: It's OK. You don't have to be an ironman. The world will still love you, even if your body is not yet ready to take such punishment. I will still love you, even if you don't compete in my half-iron-distance race. That's why we have a sprint!
There is compunction in America to overdo it. Double Ironman. Run across the Sahara. Bag Of Burgers for $1. Much of America might be sufficiently prepared for the latter, but very few are ready for the former.
This holiday season, be honest with yourself. If you're not relishing the thought of putting yourself through what was originally meant to settle a bet, don't do it. Your body will thank you, your spouse will thank you, and your dog will thank you-he hasn't been enjoying the runs, either.
Jeff Henderson forsook the world of competitive swimming for triathlon in 1997. Since then he has busied himself competing, officiating, writing, and race directing. He directs the Musselman Triathlon, the Fly by Night Duathlon, and the City of Portland Triathlon. To stay sane, he cares for Ophelia, Dixie, and Wyan, three charismatic yet remunerative backyard chickens
So what do you think?