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The allure of Ironman: the ultimate triumph in triathlon

A journey of grit, endurance, and indomitable spirit

Ironman is the brand name for global, competitive, triathlon events that are held to be the pinnacle of achievement in certain sporting circles.

In a world where many sports are celebrated, sponsored, and followed, what is it about Ironman that creates this sense of allure for so many athletes and aspiring athletes alike?

From the moment I got into competitive endurance sports, the thought of completing an Ironman was a huge motivator but also a seemingly impossible task.. I was already into cycling and running. Wanting to compete in Ironman is what helped me (finally) work to overcome my anxiety and fear of open water swimming and to improve my swim technique to a competitive level.

At the time of writing this article, I have taken part in around 20 Ironman competitions around the world (combination of full distance and 70.3), and I am signed up to compete in another 4 in the coming months.

But what is it about Ironman itself that has this mystical feel to it?

There is no doubt that Ironman has done a fantastic job at creating a strong brand and a commercial success. Much more so than any other sporting events that I can think of.

So why has Ironman become a bucket-list thing for so many people since the late 1970s?

The simplest answer is that the distances are a challenge in themselves, although there’s much more to it than that.

Being able to complete a full distance Ironman is an impressive achievement: 3.8km swim in open water, followed by 180km bike and then a 42.2km run.

The professionals tend to finish this in under 8 hours.

Most athletes would consider anything under 12 hours a sterling result.

Many participants will finish in the 12-17 hours category.

And in every event, there are a lot who cannot finish and withdraw (DNF’s). There are often injuries, some that take months or more to recover. And sadly, there have been some fatalities along the way too.

Sounds crazy, right? And yet… the Ironman full-distance and 70.3 series offer about 150 races in 50+ countries around the world each year. And there are thousands of participants signed up each time.

As I mentioned before, there’s more to it than just completing the distances.

As a globally recognised brand, it means something to be able to call yourself an Ironman athlete. That in itself is a badge of honour. So much so that many people go on to get an Ironman tattoo, and there are even social media pages dedicated to sharing Ironman tattoo designs.

Even without going as far as having the logo etched into your skin, you just have to walk around the day after an Ironman race to see the recognition of the athletes’ accomplishments.

Many of the athletes will be seen out wearing their Ironman finisher t-shirts and getting literal pats-on-the-back, handshakes and nods of respect by the average person on the street, at restaurants and on public transport.

But what is it that drives people to want to put themselves through the Ironman experience?

Ironman’s slogan is “Anything is Possible”. That means that the normal, average person can participate if they set their mind to it and do the necessary training. And in every event, there are hundreds upon hundreds of first-timers who are setting out to do just that.

And for the experienced athletes, the allure continues. Each event is in a different location in the world, so no two events are ever the same. Weather conditions, altitude, different terrain and landscapes create a mix of variables that have to be negotiated and overcome in each event. Not to mention always wanting to improve on your personal best.

And the ultimate call for experienced athletes is KONA.

The very first Ironman dates back to a few guys getting together and running their own event on Kona in Hawaii long before the Ironman brand was formed. There is a degree of romanticism associated with what these guys achieved, the pioneers of our sport, and a lot of people want to try and replicate that in their own style.

When Ironman came along, they created the global competition aspect with Kona as the ultimate event which increased the prestige and dream of one day going to Kona. Athletes compete at any of the 50+ Ironman races around the world, with the aim of achieving finishing times that qualify them to participate and race at the Ironman World Championships which traditionally are held every October in Kona.

Some people dedicate themselves to achieving this goal. Not only do they need to finish an Ironman (a major accomplishment in itself), but they also need to beat most of the other athletes in the same age category to stand even the smallest of chances of winning a qualification slot for Kona.

It is extremely difficult to qualify for Kona, and for someone like myself in age category 45-49 I would need to finish in a time of less than 10 hours to stand even a chance.

The last point I’d like to mention about Ironman is all the stuff that happens around the event itself. The brand represents a sense of community, shared experience and adventure.

Training leading up to an Ironman is a gruelling journey. The phrase “train hard, race easy” is often heard. There are many groups on social media for people who are training for these events, sharing experiences, asking questions, encouraging each other.

And with all the different locations of Ironman events around the world, chances are that athletes and their supporters will travel to some amazing adventure locations along the way.

Whether you are a Bucket-lister, a Kona-dreamer or an Adventure-seeker there is something about being there on race day that stirs your blood.

And keeps you going throughout the long, long hours of physical exertion.

Pushing through fatigue, exhaustion and often pain to get to the finish line.

Entering the stadium to hear the announcement “(Name) YOU are an IRONMAN” has brought almost every athlete to tears – don’t believe them if they say otherwise.

And another thing, going home with that medal around your neck, most athletes are thinking of nothing else but rest, gratitude for having made it and … very likely… when shall I do my next Ironman?

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