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What it Takes: The Movie
By Tom Demerly.

“Highly motivated, intelligent endurance athletes are committed to doing What It Takes to attain their goals.” 

It’s written on page 23 of the bible for Ironman training, “Going Long” by Gordo Byrn and Joe Friel. It is also the undeniable truth.

Harvard Graduate Peter Han translates this axiom to film in his excellent documentary What It Takes. The 96 minute independent film follows four world class Ironman specialists for a year while they prepare for the 2005 Ford Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

As a documentary, Han’s What It Takes is objective and unflinching. It strips the illusions from professional triathlon and tells it like it is. The sport is hard, there are disappointments and setbacks, the athletes wrestle demons both physical and personal. What It Takes shows us what athletes go through to get to the finish line at Ironman in the top 20 places. Han’s film does not explain why they do it, and if this documentary is deficient at all, it’s that it falls short as a motivational piece. The truth about our sport is a tough inconvenient reality that Han shows well in What It Takes.

What It Takes is an ambitious documentary project that unfolds on five continents over the course of a year. As such, it is subject to the pitfalls of a project this big executed with an independent film’s set of (and lack of) resources. I wager the concept for the script may not have included the fact that the main characters would be fraught with marital and relationship discord, get injured, fall short of performance expectations and generally be human. Those pitfalls may provide the stark relief that makes the film so real.

Or perhaps- this is the film’s major success. I tend to think the latter. If you like good reality TV, you will love What It Takes. This is reality, Ironman style.

There has been a lot written recently about the pasteurization of Ironman: A new culture of frequently under trained people are entering Ironman and barely finishing, not finishing- or never beginning at all. This is a similar argument to the one made by John Krakauer about Mt. Everest in “Into Thin Air”. People are trying to buy their way to the top of the sport. In triathlon “Mt. Everest” is the Ironman. An emerging group of athletes hit the “Register Now” button on a year before their Ironman race figuring they will do the training over the next year and get ready. When the full gravity of the experience settles on them they either don’t show up on race day, show up poorly prepared and wing it for a long and unpleasant day, or don’t get to the finish line. What It Takes is mandatory viewing before you hit “Register Now” even for a back-of-the-packer. What It Takes is the first real truth about Ironman. The question is can you handle the truth?

The authentic nature of What It Takes comes through in the first scene. You learn the plan is the first casualty of Ironman training. Ironman World Champion Peter Reid tries to go on a four hour ride in a blizzard with predictable results. The opening scene shows Reid up-and-at-’em for his early swim workout only to learn his town’s two pools are closed due to bad weather. Welcome to Ironman training, where it is all about the “Plan B”.

It is heart breaking and voyeuristic to watch Reid candidly describe his motivation for the sport like he was on the therapist’s couch. He openly laments his crumbled marriage with Ironman Champion Lori Bowden, another character in the film. Bowden is pregnant with her new boyfriend’s child after Reid and Bowden’s divorce. It’s a sad reality for Reid who comes through as a conflicted but likeable loner who races out of angst. His ex-wife, Lori Bowden, is shown with new beau Keith and later in the film with their new little boy. Like friends of yours who have been through a divorce it is tough to see all the sides since Han’s film does a fair and accurate job of showing that each of these characters are real people, likeable and frail. This part of the film is more than a little sad, even though Han treats it with dignity and care. You wish it was a warm and fuzzier story, but this is a documentary called What It Takes, not a fiction piece about How It Should Be. Welcome to reality. Welcome to Ironman. The distance to the finish is measured in more than hours and miles.
The irony of the stories told in What It Takes is that, while relationships between people are strained and broken, strained and strengthened, the relationship with the sport of Ironman and the characters is the most prevalent one- and the most unshakeable. All other relationships seem like an accessory. What It Takes is the story of how top pros integrate their lives into Ironman, and it tells the true story that shows varying degrees of success with that integration. While the movie shows Peter Reid doing his best to keep a stiff upper lip it also shows Roch Frey and Heather Fuhr in a stable, healthy relationship with a burgeoning business related to their Ironman involvement. The take away is that it isn’t training or the race that determines the level or success within the sport, it is the person themselves and the choices they make. At Ironman you can’t let the race own you, you have to own the race.
Another contrast to the story of one relationship ending and another beginning is the story of Luke Bell and his commitment to his family and fiancée, a story with quite a different conclusion you’ll see in the film. I’m glad Han included that part of the story in the film and I hope you don’t miss that part of the message.
Human relationships aside this film is about more than personal dramas projected onto the screen of Ironman training. It is also about the unswerving devotion required to make it to the most difficult line in our sport: The start line. Ironman as a race is graduation day. Except for the looming specter of luck, our Ironman experience- whether we’re a pro or a cut-off time contender- is determined well in advance of race day. While NBC’s Emmy award winning coverage is loaded with touching vignettes of personal triumph shot in alluring sepia tones, What It Takes does a much better job of showing the reality of the entire Ironman experience. Ironman is an experience much bigger than 140.6 miles, and What It Takes is a big enough documentary to show it all like it’s never been shown before. If you want to know the real Ironman, the inner working of how athletes make it to the start line you must see What It Takes.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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