The Ironman race is, without hyperbole, the world’s toughest triathlon. Participants are challenged to consecutively swim 2.4 miles in open water, bike 112 miles and then run a marathon (26.2 miles) – and they only have 17 hours to do it all.
It’s the ultimate competition for even the most elite athlete, but it takes an entirely different breed of individual to attempt this race while maintaining day jobs and family life. In his new book, author Jacques Steinberg set out to discover who these everyday people are and why they’re chasing the Ironman.
What made you interested in this topic?
There were a bunch of people in my town in Westchester County, New York, who were either doing these or training for them. I would ride and swim with them – not with an eye on doing an Ironman, but just to get into shape. It hit me that it would be fun as a writer and important to explore what makes more and more people every year take on this challenge.
Why did you choose to follow weekend warriors as opposed to elite athletes?
I wanted the book to be relatable. It’s an unbelievable thing to be able to finish these races in a ridiculously fast time. For most of us, it’s not relatable to follow a Chrissie Wellington who won the women’s race at Ironman Arizona recently or Jordan Rapp who won the men’s. I wanted to follow people like my friends – men and women in their 30s or 40s who had jobs and families, yet who had somehow chosen to set this incredible goal.
One of the things that struck me in the book was when you were talking to people signing up for the next Ironman and some of them told you that they lost marriages to their training. It did damage to their personal life.
… And you always wonder which came first. Did the race training damage the marriage or was the marriage damaged and the race training was an escape? It seemed to me as an observer that it’s six months of very intensive training, although you sign up a year in advance. At a certain point, you may be a parent or a spouse and you’re disappearing for an eight-hour bike ride on a Sunday, having done a three-hour run and an hour-and-half swim the day before. Even when they’re physically present, their minds are elsewhere. They may be sitting at that dinner table or in a meeting, but they’re thinking about that race. The good thing is that it’s not some deadline you can keep kicking down the road. There is a race date. You know it’s coming. Your family knows that they’re getting you back the next day. Of course the trick is how soon until you want to do this again because a lot of them aren’t satisfied to do it once.
That’s another interesting part. For as grueling as this competition is, you’ve got people, as soon as it’s done, signing up again.
There’s that rush of coming across the finish line, hearing “You are an Ironman”, which everyone gets to hear as they come across. Then immediately [they’re thinking] ‘Wouldn’t it be great to hear that again? Maybe I can do it a little bit faster. It would be fun to do one some place else.’
You studied people from various walks of life and ages. What was the one thing they all had in common?
All of them were trying to rewrite or expand the definition of themselves. For many of them, they never defined themselves as athletic. Growing up, maybe they were chunky, out of shape, not really sports-oriented. Then suddenly, middle aged, there’s a chance to call yourself an athlete. You can buy the gear. You can put yourself on a regimen. You can cross the finish line, if you’re ready and fortunate. It’s this idea of: 'I’m not just somebody who had cancer. I’m not just a mother of five. I’m not out of shape.' It’s how you define yourself at the midpoint of your life.