The first “Iron-Man” triathlon was held 39 years ago today, on the island of Oahu, conceived from a debate regarding who were the fittest athletes: runners, swimmers, or cyclists.
The first modern triathlon actually occurred a few years earlier in California — modern because there are documented instances of tri-sport events in France as far back as the early 20th century — but it was diminutive in comparison to the goliath distances proposed for that first Hawai’i race: 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run, so chosen because the race essentially combined three long-distance events already on the island.
Those ambitious distances have become the standard for “iron distance” races today, including those under the ubiquitous Ironman brand (owned by World Triathlon Corporation), as well as other organizations who put on iron distance events (e.g., Challenge Triathlon).
There are shorter races that appear under various names and brands, the most common distances and names of which are the half Ironman (just like it says: half of a full ironman), the Olympic (roughly half of a half), and the sprint (roughly half of a half of a half). I’ve done all but the sprint distance many times over, and from my first Ironman in 2010, through to my seventh Ironman in 2016, I can say categorically and unwaveringly, the iron distance is my favourite.
Why? Well, as I’ve said to many a colleague who’s asked, Because of the day, man! Sure, Olympics and halfs can hurt like a muthafucka, but they’re over quickly, comparatively speaking, and that level of hurt doesn’t come close to the feeling you get when you’re simmering in the full furnace of a summer afternoon on the marathon portion of the Ironman. Olympics and halfs allow you to flex your physical muscle, so to speak, but Ironmans require you to flex your mental muscle as well.
To be sure, you need a lot of mental fortitude to perform well in the shorter races, but, for me at least, the iron distance requires orders of magnitude greater. At the risk of sounding cliché—primarily because I haven’t yet figured out a way to exact a more precise description—you go places during an Ironman you’d never go during anything shorter. And you get a full day of it! There’s so much more contour in the mental trajectory of an Ironman, starting from that gun at 6:30 a.m., and ending in that finishing chute late in the afternoon. I’ve got vivid memories from every Ironman I’ve done; I’m not even sure I can name the halfs and Olympics.
So, on your 39th birthday, a little toast to you, “Iron-Man”.