Long Distance Love: The Rise of Ironman

Ironman has come a long way since its humble beginnings in Hawaii in 1978 – and it’s still growing…


Posted: 4 October 2010
by Julie-Anne Ryan

The history of a sport can be a matter of contention – the who started what, and when and where, has fuelled many an impassioned debate. With Ironman, things are much clearer: in 1977 a group of athletes in Honolulu were discussing the relative skill and endurance demands of cycling, running and swimming. A proposal was made: combine three existing races into one event. “Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Iron Man,” said US Navy Commander John Collins, one of those present. And there it is. Fifteen men lined up for that first Hawaii Ironman race, in February, 1978. Gordon Haller was the first of 12 finishers, in a time of 11:46:58. A sport was born.

Nowadays, the Hawaii race is the Ironman World Championships in Kona; competition for the slots is so fierce that qualifying is itself seen as a prize. Since 1990, the Ironman brand has been owned by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), and the growth of the organisation has reflected the worldwide development of long-distance triathlon. There are now 24 Ironman races – the newest is Ironman Texas – across the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australasia, but the term Ironman has become synonymous with even non-WTC events of the same distance.

Racing against time

So keen are athletes to take part in the races that many events are sold out within hours of places becoming available, so triathletes have been turning to independent Ironman-distance races, rather than missing out on the chance to test themselves to their limits

There are presently no organisers with the franchise capabilities of Ironman, but many single events are making a mark on the long-distance triathlon map, including:

Embrunman, in France, with its breathtaking peaks and killer climbs.
One Step Beyond has whipped up huge support for The Outlaw, which takes place in Nottingham.
Enduroman is synonymous with ultra-distance triathlon, and is now running a single-length long-distance event alongside its double and triple Ironman-distance events. There’s also a Deca Enduroman


If the Ironman brand has a main competitor it is Challenge, which has a growing family of big events that rival the Ironman package for organisation and experience. The Challenge flagship event is Roth, in Germany, but that’s just one of the organisation’s seven events in Europe and New Zealand. Roth is huge, with more than 4,500 individual and relay starters from more than 50 countries.

Is there rivalry between Ironman and Challenge in the eyes of competitors? It seems that as long as the organisation and atmosphere are there, the finisher’s medal is highly prized whatever the brand. Alison Ashbolt has raced under the Challenge and the IM banners over the past few years. She says, “If I had entered Roth blindfolded, I would not have known the difference between that and an IM-branded race – the organisation and atmosphere were just as good as in the official IM races.”

For Andy White the support at Roth was special, particularly the atmosphere on the bike leg up Solarer Berg. “I would gladly go back to Roth,” he says.

Nick Rose, who has a drawer full of finisher’s medals, including one from Kona and one from Norway’s Norseman, says, “The best races look after the competitors and get them involved in the surroundings. So a race that takes over a town, with that town embracing the race, works best.”

Richard Melik adds, “Most of the official Ironman races I have done have had a real buzz, especially the swim start with 2,000 other athletes. The crowds, the music and the colour of the events mean they leave
a lasting impression.
“Conversely, I also love the smaller races, like Norseman or The Ibiza Long-Distance Triathlon. Smaller crowds, a tougher course and less fuss make them feel much more personal. My favourite race, however, is Kona, the thrill of racing the same course at the same time as the best in the world is like nothing else.”

Distance yearning

Every year the list of Ironman-distance races around the world grows, and people who have been bitten by the bug now have a wide choice when deciding what race to do. The UK has few such events at the moment – Ironman UK is trying to establish its true home; The Big Woody has a small but loyal following; and there’s Forestman and The Outlaw.

While the classic MDot image will be keeping tattoo parlours in business for years, there’s a wider long-distance world out there, and experienced athletes are busy writing their ‘must-do’ lists. Emma Rand is a confessed ‘triathlon nerd’. “Increasingly, the races I want to do most are those that have iconic status in the sport,” she says. “So to me the ‘best’ are those with history: Challenge Roth, Embrunman, IM Lanzarote, IM Germany, Alp d’Huez, IM Lake Placid, Hawaii, IM France, Challenge Wanaka. However, I’m also interested in the newer formats that are appearing, such as the Tristar events and the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon.”


More and more races are achieving that ‘must-do’ status, and for different reasons – some for their history, some for the beauty of the course, and some for their toughness, which is, of course, a relative term when it comes to a race of 140 miles. Some people do one, some do 101, but the demand for long-distance triathlon seems insatiable, and that’s good news.


Top Ironman Races

The cagey folk at Ironman wouldn’t give us a definitive Top Five list, saying, with eloquent diplomacy, “Each athlete has their favourite races and considers factors such as location, course or uniqueness.” However, judging from our readers, such a list might look a little like this:

Hawaii
It’s the birthplace of Ironman, and it’s the site of the World Championships so it has to be number one.

Florida
It’s flat and it’s fast, and Florida is a terrific place for a holiday once you’ve put your bike back in its box.

Switzerland
Beautiful scenery, brilliant support on the hills during the bike, a crystal-clear lake, and a multi-lapped run leg that means you get the best support when you need it, many times over.

Lanzarote
If you’ve done Lanzarote, you’re tough. It’s a gruelling course across miles of featureless volcanic landscape, with a killer wind. Extra respect for the Lanzarote medal.

Frankfurt
Like Challenge Roth, Frankfurt embraces its annual influx of endurance athletes. The finish is in the charming city centre, which is set up with a grandstand that rocks ’til midnight. It’s the European Championship, too.


Top Independent Races

Derek King, whose K226 Triathlon website (k226.com) keeps tabs on independent and Ironman races around the world, says, “It would be difficult to gauge events by popularity as the races have various participation limits for safety and enjoyment.” But he believes such a list would include:

Challenge Roth, Germany
Race director Felix Walchshöfer’s enthusiasm is matched by that of the 200,000 fans who line the course.

Silverman, Las Vegas
Six-time Ironman champion Dave Scott branded this race the toughest course in North America.

Norseman Xtreme, Norway
The Finishers’ Black T-Shirt is fast becoming the most sought-after triathlon trophy. Norseman has a limited field – fewer than 250 – and a unique setting. Elite Ironman Chris ‘Macca’ McCormack has said it’s on his list.

UPC Holland Triathlon
The second-oldest competition of this distance, second only to the Hawaii Ironman. This competition’s longevity – it started in 1981 – tells you they are doing something right, and when you enter you are a part of triathlon history.

Rev3 Triathlon, Cedar Point, Ohio
Bursting onto the scene this season the Rev3 series has had very positive feedback from age-group and pro athletes alike.


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