The race finishes on a mountain top—Gaustatoppen—but this finish is not for everyone. Even within the tiny field of this race—it caps at just under 300 entrants—there is a further mid-race cull. Because the last 3 miles is essentially a scramble up a rock-strewn trail—in many places the trail is hardly even identifiable—and because of Norway’s fickle weather, only the first 160 racers to reach the checkpoint at the base of the mountain are allowed to vie for the mountain summit and the coveted black T-shirt. The remaining athletes are given white T-shirts, a rare symbol of different levels of achievement in a sport where the universality of finisher medals and finisher gear is now a given.
The above selection is from this month’s edition of Jordan Rapp’s column, page 70, as he offers some thoughts on what constitutes the primal force driving triathlon. In this particular piece of the column, he’s talking about the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon and later draws a comparison to the early days of multisport. As counter-intuitive as it can seem, the hardest races, where athletes get culled, as Rapp puts it, are attractive to certain personalities. This attraction to testing oneself in a sufferfest was triathlon’s original heartbeat.
We human beings are fickle characters. We have both a need for the security of the known but also the mystery of the unknown. Speaking for myself, part of the reason I signed up for my first triathlon, a half-Ironman back in 1983, was because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I knew it would take me at least six hours. I wasn’t altogether certain I could finish the swim. It made the thing nerve-racking in a way I found intoxicating.
A mystery of endurance sports is why they exist at all. Biologically, humans are wired to be as lazy as we can be and expend only enough energy to run down dinner with a spear and occasionally have to fight off saber-tooth creatures. Our cavemen ancestors would think a triathlon is about the dumbest thing someone could think of to do.
Endurance sports don’t exist for mass spectatorship. In other words, it’s not made for TV. No, the reason triathlon exists is the attraction of putting oneself on the line while escaping a world saturated with TV and computer screens. In a hard endurance race we might fizzle, implode or slowly, physically and publicly break down.
As Rapp points out, this is at the roots of the sport. In 1999 I spent a few days with Ironman creator Commander John Collins in the port city of Portobello, in Panama. He and his wife Judy were putting on a triathlon, the swim in a harbor where I was told there were sunken pirate ships. I learned from the two of them how the gang that put on the first Hawaii Ironman in 1978 really weren’t sure at all what was going to happen. It was a mix of a gamble and an experiment. How long would it take? A day? Several days? How many ambulance rides might happen? It took a while before the emerging tri world fully comprehended this was a one day event. When legendary tri journalist Bob Babbitt packed his bags to participate in the 1980 Ironman, he brought a sleeping bag. Then there was hod-carrier Walt Stack who took well over a day to finish the 1982 Hawaii Ironman, hauling six-packs of beer with him on the 112-mile bike.
But what was it about the Ironman, written about in Sports Illustrated and broadcast on ABC, that acted like a homing beacon to a new generation of endurance athletes? I would suggest the draw is staked in how the endurance life is a sharp countermeasure for how comfortable it’s possible to live life in modern times and how much marketing we’re bombarded with to make things more convenient than they already are. I live in Boston, where there is no escaping Dunkin Donuts. It’s not uncommon to be driving down a road and see a Dunkin Donuts on one side of the street and a second Dunkin Donuts store on the other side. I experience distress in seeing long lines of cars at the DD drive-throughs, people not even interested in saving some time by walking across a parking lot to buy a box of munchkins.
Convenience and ultra-comfort. Former Running Times editor Scott Douglas once wrote about being a high school kid leaving his house to go for a run on a scorching summer day and noticed a next-door parent sprinting out to start a car and turn on the air conditioning as her unbudging kids defiantly waited for the car to cool inside the air-conditioned house.
Death on a plate, as another running writer, John L. Parker Jr., might have described the scene. Indeed. Thanks to the Norseman and other hard-edged endurance events, there will always be a place we can escape to.
This article appears in the September 2017 issue of LAVA Magazine.