What do temperamental Chef Ramsey Gordon, Formula One driver Jenson Button and former Florida Marlin Jeff Conine all have in common? They have all competed in an IRONMAN triathlon – one of the most difficult, demanding and famous one-day sporting events in the history of the world.
Before I explain the rules and parameters of this incredibly challenging competition, let me describe how the event came to be with a little help and a lot of bravado from the United States Navy…
A Brief History of the Ironman
Picture this: at a banquet for the Waikiki Swim Club in 1977, a US naval officer stationed in Hawaii named John Collins and his fellow sailors, were debating over which athletes were the fittest: runners, cyclists or swimmers. Collins, who had competed in triathlons in San Diego, California before, declared that the only way to settle the argument was to combine the three long-distance competitions that were already happening in Hawaii: the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, which was a 2.4 mile-long open water swimming competition, the Around-Oahu Bike Race, which was a 115 mile two-day event at the time, and the Honolulu Marathon, which was the standard 26 miles.
They all agreed with Collins, due to the grueling training that would be necessary just to complete the triathlon,
“Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Iron Man.”
On February 18, 1978, despite the harsh weather conditions, fifteen people, most of whom were U.S. servicemembers, set out to complete a race that otherwise was thought to be impossible. They had to swim, bike and run for 140.6 miles in a single day. Gordon Haller, a US Navy Communication Specialist, was the first one to achieve the title of “Ironman” with a total time of 11 hours and 46 minutes. Without any marketing efforts, the race reunited 50 athletes the following year and hundreds by the third year.
In 1982, the entire world saw through a televised broadcast of the triathlon how college student Julie Moss, who was severely dehydrated and fatigued, crawled to the finish line. Her performance created the competition’s mantra, “Finishing is a victory!”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Ironman Race Distances
Today, the Ironman competition has two different formats. the Ironman Triathlon and the Ironman 70.3, also known colloquially as the Half Ironman. Both formats include the same three stages, swimming, cycling and running, but differ in length.
The Ironman Triathlon is:
- A 2.4-mile swim (3.9 km),
- a 112-mile bike ride (180 km),
- and a 26.2-mile run (42.2 km)
The Ironman 70.3 is:
- A 1.2-mile swim (1.9 km),
- a 56-mile bike ride (90 km),
- and a 13.1-mile run (21.1 km)
There are cut-off times set for each stage of the race that disqualify a competitor if they are not moving fast enough. They usually (though may vary locally) go like this:
- Swim: The swim course will close 2 hours, 20 minutes after the official start of the Age-Group field.
- Bike: 10 hours, 30 minutes after the official start.
- Run: 17 hours after the official start.
- Finish Line Cut-Off: 17 hours (or 12 midnight)
The average time needed to complete the full Ironman triathlon is 12 hours and 35 minutes, though this varies according to the location that hosts the competition and the age of the competitor; factors such as terrain, weather, and elevation also affect the performance of the participants. Because Cozumel is “pancake flat” finishing times can tend to be a little faster here.
Swimming in the Ironman Triathlon
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The first stage of the race is swimming, therefore the swim start also marks the beginning of the competition. Half an hour before the swim starts, participants are required to leave their transition bags (containing their clothes) with race volunteers and then they proceed to line-up preparing to enter the water. The professional athletes start first and then the age groups follow five minutes afterward.
Each athlete swims with a group with similar swimming skills and their times are individually recorded. This reduces anxiety and also increases the level of safety, which is taken very seriously. The single lap of 2.4 miles (3.9 kilometers) can be traveled using the athlete’s preferred stroke. Racers are not required to use a wetsuit if the water temperature is above 76 degrees Fahrenheit (24.5 degrees Celsius), but wearing one is mandatory if the temperature is below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius) Thankfully, the water never gets below a balmy 78 degrees here in Cozumel.
If you’re thinking of participating and are afraid of what will happen if you get extremely tired, there are kayaks, boats, and paddleboards than can be used as an aid to rest without incurring a penalty. This clever thinking if you consider that most people who are nervous about competing in an Ironman event worry most about completing the swimming stage of the race.
Biking in the Ironman Triathlon
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After competitors finish swimming, they rush out of the water to recover their transition bag (previously given to race volunteers.) They proceed to change into their biking attire and hop onto their bicycles to begin the second stage of the triathlon.
Remember how I mentioned safety? Competitors are not allowed to mount their bikes unless their helmet is on and buckled!
Experts claim that the fluid and calorie intake during the cycling stage is crucial, not necessarily because of the 112-mile (180 kilometers) bike ride ahead of them, but because of the marathon that will still have to run when they’ve finished riding. Here in Cozumel, they had better hydrate because even in November, when they run the Ironman here, factoring in heat and humidity the “real feel” temperature averages about 92 degrees Fahrenheit!
The fastest cycle stage completion record is held by German athlete Cameron Wurf, who traveled the distance in only 4 hours and 12 minutes.
Did you know? If a competitor gets tired of cycling, or their bike suffers a mechanical failure, they’re allowed to finish the race running or walking as long as they carry or push their bike with them.
Running in the Ironman Triathlon
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If burning over approximately 5,000 calories during the swim and cycling stages has not taken a toll on the athletes yet, the most grueling stage of the triathlon, running, is next.
Once again, the triathletes go for their transition bags where they grab their running shoes and head out in search of the race’s elusive finish line.
The running stage usually consists of several laps around a course. Each lap is counted by the timing chip participants wear on their ankle. Volunteers also hand over different color rubber bands for each lap to ensure that the runner complete the entire course. There are stations strategically located along the route that offer cold refreshments such as isotonic and energy drinks (like Gatorade or Red Bull) and water.
The last 100-meter section is called the finish chute; only triathletes are allowed into the area and across the finish line. There are no family or friends allowed with them at this point.
Oh yeah! If you were picturing runners being inspired by the Rocky soundtrack or their InnerJam app at this point, think again! Headsets, headphones, audio playing devices, smart devices, and cameras are not allowed. You’ve got to tough the Ironman out with only the sounds of your competitors’ suffering, the cheers of the onlookers and the agonizing voice of regret in your head.
Ironman Triathlon Locations
In addition to Ironman Cozumel, there are over three dozen Ironman Triathlon races throughout the world that enable qualification for the Ironman World Championships which is always held in Hawaii.
Cozumel also hosts an Ironman 70.3 race every year. I was proud to get media credentials this year (2018) through which I was able to get some pretty incredible drone footage.
As you can imagine, every location has its perks and challenges, yet, experienced triathlon athletes pretty consistently mention several destinations as their favorites. Believe it or not, there are even Athlete’s Choice Awards for Ironman competition locations. Talk about a great fan base!
Here are some of the most beloved spots and the reasons why as quoted in the 2017 awards:
Best Swimming Experience
Cozumel, Mexico. Marvelous white sanded beaches, unforgettable blue landscapes and 14 miles of reef with a fantastic marine biodiversity make athletes feel at paradise. One of the contestants said: “I will swim with fish any day.”
Best Overall Satisfaction
Sydney, Australia. The 112-mile bike course is flat and fast – perfect for a personal record! The setting is famous for its calm turquoise bays and beautiful forests.
Best Biking Experience
Muncie, Indiana USA. Participants praised the safety of the bike course; there are hardly any cars!
Best Running Experience
Cour d’Alene, Idaho USA. Triathletes keep returning to this classic resort town for its natural beauty and a community that shows up to support the participants.
The sum this all up, perhaps Collins said it best when he trademarked the famous Ironman phrase,
“Swim 2.4 Miles. Bike 112 miles. Run 26.2. Brag for the rest of your life.”
Maybe I should give it a try.