Earlier this month the Wall Street Journal ran a story on the Ironman-branded 5150 race series that will launch next year. The shorter races will give athletes the opportunity to have the “Ironman” experience over the course of 31.9 miles, versus the traditional Ironman distance of 140.6 miles. The article, titled “Ironman to Get Less Exclusive,” stirs up an ongoing argument in the triathlon community: What constitutes the proper use of the term “Ironman?”
In other words, is the Ironman the only race in triathlon that really counts?
Whatever people are after—whether it’s who deserves the red M-dot tattoo, or whether the term Ironman can be used for generic 140.6-mile races—it all boils down to pride. We want to be recognized for our accomplishments.
It shouldn’t just be about 31.9, 70.3 or 140.6.
Ironman was the first race of its kind when triathlon got its start back in the late 1970s, and the brand should be credited for bringing so much attention to the sport. The WTC has paid close attention to the support and celebration of its athletes, making the Ironman brand one of the most sought after events in triathlon. But should Ironman be the only event that “officially” grants us access to that kind of experience?
At its core, the Ironman brand celebrates the human spirit and the will to survive. It may have been born in the 140.6 race, but its younger sibling the 70.3 has caught up, promising to deliver the same thrilling adventure in half the time. As noted in the WSJ article, only a small percentage of triathletes will complete a full Ironman—the time commitment and training volume is too overwhelming for most. The boom in 70.3 races has given “would-be Ironmen” the opportunity to dabble in hardcore triathlon without having to make the sacrifices to train for a full Ironman.
And while completing a 70.3 race won’t technically make you an Ironman, many people are coming from a background that includes only smaller triathlons and will never register to do a full Ironman. For them, the 70.3 is their Ironman.
As the leading triathlon brand, Ironman has an obligation to cater to the growing number of people getting involved in the sport. In that respect, the 5150 series is appropriate. Ironman is a brand after all, and in business brands need to listen to their consumers, and then provide relevant products and services. Ironman is doing that by creating events that fit better into our busy lifestyles.
We should respect Ironman for the distance it covers, not just for the M-dot chotchkies and logo-splashed playground the race provides. Crossing the finish line after 140.6 miles is impressive no matter what brand is stamped on it.
When someone completes a generic 140.6 or 70.3 race, and then calls himself an Ironman, does it dilute the allure of the title? USAT research shows that many of the athletes who compete in Ironman make over $100K a year, and work in professional jobs. As such, many are probably status-driven and feel the title “Ironman” should hold the same stature as a college degree or executive rank within a company—it’s something you earn. They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. If you are among the small percentage of triathletes who has covered 140.6 miles with an official time to prove it, then you are among the people that the sprint, Olympic, and 70.3 athletes look up to and respect.
If completing a 70.3 makes someone feel like they’re an Ironman, I say let them have it. Does it take your accomplishments away from you? Did it shorten your previous 140.6-mile races? Are you any less of an Ironman just because someone else is trying on the idea after a key race in their experience as a triathlete?
Look at it this way. A few years ago, Britney Spears got married in Vegas to a friend she was hanging out with during a drunken night on the town. Did her sham of a marriage dilute anyone else’s vows? Did her partying make you less of a partner in your marriage, or make your bond less meaningful?
What happens in Ironman is so much greater than the fanfare that comes with a $500 entry-fee and a full-fledged corporate sponsorship. It’s a life-changing conversation with yourself that you’ll never forget. If the WTC is doing things to make that bond more accessible for others, then we should all be happy for that.
Triathlon makes us strive to be better in all areas of life, not just swimming, biking and running. I’ve always believed that if everyone ran just three miles a day, the world would be a better place. If those three miles happen to be at the end of a Sprint triathlon, that’s even better. Let’s be happy that more people want to make themselves and their lives better, and stop bickering over who gets to celebrate it with a stupid title. Ironman may have become a bit of a numbers game, but it shouldn’t be about 31.9, 70.3 or 140.6. It should be about the commitment to sign up for the challenge and see it through, one step at a time.
Lisa Barnes has completed two full Ironman races, along with numerous shorter distance races. She’s a popular spin class instructor, aspiring coach, and passionate about introducing people to the sport. You can read more of her triathlon musings at www.everydaytri.blogspot.com.