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...And I mean anything.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.


Person signs in at Ironman New Zealand

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 is how:

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 be vilified.

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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© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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