Silent Sports Column: Ironman Isn’t Everything

This weekend I am in Madison racing in Ironman Wisconsin. The race is considered by the uninitiated as one of the toughest of all endurance events, with Madison’s bike course boasting one of the hilliest on the Ironman circuit. It will be roughly a 12-hour day consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.

ironman logoPerhaps it is the poor timing at the end of a long summer serving hundreds of pizzas to the county’s tourists or the fact that I have to go to bed early while all of my summer friends are having going-away parties at the local bars, but I’ve come to the conclusion, contrary to most people’s opinion, it’s not a big deal.

Exactly one year ago, I was in a similar position on the eve of Ironman Lake Tahoe. It would be my first Ironman event and I had moved to the Tahoe basin two months prior to the race to get acquainted with the altitude.

As the race approached, wildfires raged across the state. Throughout the weekend, smoke covered the race course but race organizers assured us that they would inform athletes of any updates due to the weather – and they did. When we crawled into the cold Tahoe water, wetsuits zipped, and with swim cap and goggles, the race director came over the PA system and announced the event had been canceled three minutes before the start. Pick up your bikes from transition and grab your (undeserved) finisher’s medal from the finish line. No reimbursement, thanks for coming.

We were all pretty upset, not about the decision, because the smoke was billowing around us all, but about the way the race officials handled the situation. The event has now fallen into the greater narrative of how the Ironman Corporation built their brand to infer that you are not a real triathlete unless you complete an Ironman. At least, this is the sentiment of most athletes and spectators. With that, they are able to hike entry fees and create an authoritative environment that they can be sure people won’t turn their back on.

I don’t want a corporation to tell me which events are the most important. I’ll attribute that myself.

A week later race organizers sent participants an email with discount codes for other events. It’s unlikely that the man from Germany standing next to me in the water will make another expensive trip to the United States to participate in an expensive event.

They offered a spot in Ironman Wisconsin, a notoriously difficult race to sign up for due to high demand and a quick sell-out, for half price. By that time, I knew I would be living in Wisconsin so I took advantage of the opportunity to sign up.

I’ve now been on the eve of my first Ironman for about 18 months. In that time, I’ve come to truly understand what it means to make sacrifices for training. In a way, I feel like I’ve missed the Door County summer for training, when the excuse should have been working too much.

At the same time, Ironman will not be the greatest of my athletic accomplishments (I’m not quite sure what will be), so it doesn’t bring the dramatic climax as it does to other people. If I were to go out and swim 2.4-miles in the bay, bike 112 miles around the Door County peninsula and run 26.2 miles through Peninsula State Park, would the accomplishment be any less significant?

But instead, I will head down to Madison and compete with thousands of others for the title of “Ironman.” When I finish, I’ll go to bed with one more medal for my mantelpiece, but no more of a “real triathlete” than when I woke up that morning.

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