The Ironman tag line is “Anything
Is Possible”. Competitors in the Bonita Banana
Ironman New Zealand learned a different interpretation
of this tag line on Saturday morning, March 4, 2006.
Dangerous high winds made swim conditions
significantly different than was expected. The unusual
weather was extreme enough that many competitors reported
difficulty even riding a bike. Internet forums and news
outlets covering the event in Taupo, New Zealand ran
photos of the normally placid Lake Taupo covered in
wind driven white caps.
Race directors faced a decision on Saturday
morning: Start the race or move to another solution.
Given the fact that this decision hinged on competitor
safety, the future of the event, the integrity of the
venue and the interests of the sponsors it wasn’t
a tough decision: The swim was cancelled. The race was
shortened. The show went on. Anything is possible. Anything.
Race directors may take issue with me
saying it was an easy decision to cancel the swim and
shorten the course. I’ll argue it was, and this
The decision to cancel the swim wasn’t,
in and of itself, difficult. The difficult part was
developing a strategy to address the ramifications of
the decision. People and organizations would be disappointed.
They would argue the race was represented to them in
one format, and conducted in another. And they would
be right. However, this being sport there is a hefty
element of risk and unpredictability. Some may argue
that is for the athletes to bear: The sport is dangerous.
The risk belongs to the athlete along with the decision
to accept or deny it.
But that is wrong.
We live and function in a society. Our
society, the microcosm of the broader athletic society,
is the society of Ironman competitors. There are many
members within our society. Decisions that affect a
major event like Ironman New Zealand affect every member
of that society, and they affect them as a society not
just an amalgam of individuals. The decision must be
made firstly for the greater concern: The society. Secondly,
a very close second and nearly on the same level- the
decision must be made for the individuals within that
society. Ultimately the decision prevails for the common
good. That means some will be left wanting, some will
Another issue is that, while you ultimately
pay the penalty if your roll of the dice comes up snake
eyes during a dangerous swim, not every person in our
society is so diligent about accepting risk. Some feel
the risk needs to be “shared” and that if
someone drowns on race day, the race organization needs
to “share” in the loss; usually financially.
A particular feature of our society is
a high incidence of independently minded competitors
who see themselves as risk takers. This is the segment
of the society who argues, “It is an Ironman and
it is supposed to be fraught with adversity. Bring it
on!” But that is only one segment of the Ironman
society, and the decision affects more than just them.
It also affects the sponsor who doesn’t want a
drowning on their hands; it affects the host city who
doesn’t want hospitals looking like a disaster
relief center with hypothermic near-drowning victims,
it affects race organizers who want to return next year
to host an event again and it affects less daring competitors
who are looking for some guidance.
So the decision to cancel the swim and
shorten the event was an easy one and the right one.
Dealing with that decision is not easy.
A similar looking circumstance occurred
years ago here in North America at Ironman Utah. The
wind picked up, the white caps came up, the swim went
off and one man died. The circumstances remain clouded
in some degree of uncertainty. The only certainty is
the race is gone and one man is dead. That is the legacy
of the race. The legacy of Ironman New Zealand is completely
different. It is one of the oldest Ironman races and
a splendid event. I did the race in 2004 and I can ell
you first hand it is on par with the Ironman World Championships
in Kona, Hawaii. The legacy of Ironman New Zealand is,
and will continue to be, a well run race managed by
a responsible race organization.
Now that we’ve settled that, there
remains another question, perhaps the greater question
hovering over all this. Even asking this question removes
the lid from a can of worms that will never be closed.
What has become of our beloved Ironman?
A recent poll on our website offered several
trend-oriented choices that ranged from serious marketing
perception questions to whimsical trend questions. One
choice was, “Ironman is the new marathon”.
As of about 210 responses over three days, 36% of the
respondents picked “Ironman is the new marathon”
over the other six choices. The other six choices were
reasonable alternatives too, but people flocked to the
response that Ironman is the new “Gold Standard”
of participation endurance events.
As a businessman involved in selling goods
and services to the Ironman crowd, I say “Good”,
the more Ironmen the merrier.
As a competitor (Hawaii, Canada twice,
New Zealand) I also say, “Good”. More competitors
equals more events.
There are those in our Ironman society
who argue to the contrary though, and I do see an element
of truth or insight to their argument, but only an element-
and a diminishing element at that. This part of the
Ironman society argues that Ironman has been somehow
diluted. That it no longer has this ephemeral spirit
or pioneer, endurance, explorer feel to it that it once
had. This argument doesn’t hold water with me.
Although the World Triathlon Corporation has introduced
a new series of shorter races called “Ironman
70.3” which is the half-Ironman distance, The
Ironman distance is still 140.6 miles, each mile still
contains 5,280 feet. They haven’t shortened it,
diluted it, pasteurized it or in any way diminished
the difficulty of it.
Ironman remains an extremely challenging
endurance event. It hasn’t changed in that regard
since the very first Ironman.
Ironman is a perishable phenomenon. Just
as trends come and go the popularity of Ironman is likely
to wax and wane. The good people at World Triathlon
Corporation recognize this and have done well to start
the Ironman 70.3 Series, an international series of
½ Ironman events. This enables more people access
to the Ironman experience in a less difficult, but still
very challenging format.
Anything is possible at Ironman. The tagline
is appropriate. The race can turn any direction. On
Saturday in New Zealand it turned sideways. The way
the majority of competitors handled the conditions and
the way the race organization handled the challenges
is a credit to the sport. It wasn’t perfect, far
from it, but some version of the event did go off for
the competitors assembled. More important than that,
every competitor who crossed the start line survived
the day. When anything really is possible, that is something
to be thankful for.
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