Entertainment on the move wasn't always as easy as it is today. Three years ago, when Bevan James Eyles was training for Ironman New Zealand, listening to the radio was his only option. His running and cycling routes stuck to town boundaries to keep him within the frequencies. Trying to stay entertained during those long hours made for tough training on boring circuits with countless traffic lights.
Fast-forward three years and Eyles is the co-host of one of the world's most popular triathlon podcasts, providing a weekly fix of all things Ironman. Every Tuesday he and triathlon coach John Newsom record their hotly anticipated podcast in their studio (Eyles's bedroom) in Christchurch, New Zealand.
It all started when Eyles was a top New Zealand age-group triathlete. He'd bought an iPod and began listening to running-focused podcasts. It was a simple matter of logging on to iTunes, finding a podcast he liked the sound of and downloading it. He could listen to it as often as he liked, wherever he liked, pausing when he chose to and stopping it not because he'd run out of the frequency range but because his session was over.
"That filled a gap - I could leave the town," he says. "I trained during the day, which often meant being by myself, and I found that really frustrating. I thought the podcast idea was really cool. At the time John was my coach and we sometimes trained together. One day I was talking to him about podcasts and I said I thought we could set one up."
Newsom wasn't keen to start with - he says he didn't want to "make a dick of myself", particularly as triathlon is his business. But they each committed NZ$500 to buy the necessary software and decided to give Ironman Talk, as they decided to name it, three months. Neither could have predicted how successful the podcast would become. Three years and more than 160 podcasts later they are going strong and show no signs of giving up.
"I didn't know who would listen to it," Newsom says. "How the hell would we keep going with content? There's only so much you can tell people. But it just started off and built from there. It's still relatively easy to do."
For the first show Eyles says he expected to get listeners only from New Zealand - and predominantly Christchurch, at that - friends who had been told of the podcast in person. "That first week when I put it up on iTunes, I realised for the first time how big Ironman was," he says. "We had about 400 downloads. I got an email from a guy in Mexico and it blew my mind to think that someone in Mexico was listening to something done from my bedroom at home."
These days they get anything from 10,000 to 20,000 listeners, depending on the topic. The Epic Camp series - in which they interview triathletes attending the Epic Camp in New Zealand, for which they put up podcasts more regularly - is their most popular.
They feature anything from news about the Ironman world, such as race reports, new races, developments in the sport, through to High 5 - the top five tips on any given subject, such as peeing when on the bike, and things not to stress about in a race. There's also coach's corner and the listener-nominated Age Grouper of the Week (and you don't have to be a star to win this accolade).
There are also interviews with those at the top of the sport (including world champions Craig Alexander and Chrissie Wellington) as well as triathlon legends such as Scott Molina, Dave Scott and Mark Allen.
"For the first two years we made no money and now we're making some, but it's the sense of community that's rewarding," says Eyles. "I get the most amazing emails every day of my life. Listeners feel they are part of a community. I enjoy the creative aspect of IM Talk. I enjoy laughing, having fun, but nothing beats getting these emails."
IM Talk's success goes hand in hand with the growing popularity of long-distance triathlon. Gone are the days of being able to pick and choose which race to do. These days entering requires stealth, plenty of planning and a speedy internet connection so you can sign up as soon as registration opens. The US races sell out within hours, some in minutes. European Ironman races are fast following suit.
A sport for all
The Ironman race distance is no longer the preserve of the elite few; the World Triathlon Corporation (the Ironman brand owner) has successfully marketed the race to ensure that anyone with enough determination can swim, bike and run the same course as their heroes. It has become an inclusive, welcoming event.
Newsom says that triathlon, and Ironman in particular, is the ultimate challenge. "So many people are doing Ironman now," he says. "It's really snowballed but people still see it as a challenge. In the 90s people thought it was an impossible task, but they now realise that if they try hard, they can do one. "
Eyles says that "people who are successful in one area of their life - high-flying people who are goal oriented - excel at the distance. I got into it because I was that kind of person. I would run or cycle but I didn't find that challenging enough."
There are now 23 Ironman-branded events and another 47 Ironman-distance races worldwide, with more announced for the 2010 season. As long-distance triathlon grows in popularity, so too does the IM Talk podcast. It has become part of its listeners' weekly routines, as important as updating training logs and making plans.
"I get 20 emails a week from people who say how important IM Talk is to their routine," says Eyles. "We hear from people who are having a hard time with their training but my favourite is when people say they look forward to the day the podcast comes out. It helps people get out the door and train."
One podcast listener makes a challenge of running on the treadmill for the length of the interviews; another told them he had cut two hours off his Ironman time thanks to IM Talk. The podcast also keeps triathletes interested in their sport. "It's a refreshing and positive attitude that I like or I may have become totally bored with my training by now," says New Zealand-based Scottish triathlete Andrew Kerr.
Talk of the town
Wellington-based British triathlete John Hancock, 40, has been listening to IM Talk since January 2008. He was talking to an IM Talk listener at Challenge Wanaka in New Zealand and decided to add the podcast to his iPod. That week he finished Challenge Wanaka in 13:11. This year, after listening to the podcasts during his long sessions, he crossed the Ironman New Zealand finish line in 11:19.
"I have a coach in Wellington and I've been doing triathlon seriously for about five years," says Hancock. "So it isn't so much the technical stuff - much of which is fairly familiar - more the buzz on who's doing what, how international races differ and particularly the interviews, which I enjoy for their depth, variety and insight."
When Eyles and Newsom started the podcasts, they were worried they would run out of content but it soon became obvious that the possibilities are almost endless, and the listeners have shaped the output, too, suggesting segments such as High 5 and Website of the Week.
"I sometimes think our listeners help us more than we help them," jokes Eyles. "I can see the podcasts going for a very long time," he says. "It takes six to eight hours of my week so it's not too massive an effort, and the rewards are worth my time: I get to live this life where I help others."
Yet despite their own passion for Ironman and several finishes between them (Eyles has finished seven races and has a personal best of 9:05:31, while Newsom can boast a PB of 8:51:30 - both at Quelle Challenge Roth 2008) the two have recently taken a step back from long-course triathlons. Eyles is now focusing on running while Newsom knows he has another Ironman in him, just not yet. He has two young children and wants to train for short-course events and enjoy being around his family rather than out on the bike for hours on end.
Recording the podcast means they are both still involved in the race distance that has given them media-idol status. If IM Talk was suddenly taken away, you'd probably find a mass of triathletes twitching with withdrawal symptoms. "Podcasting is hugely exciting for a global sport like triathlon," says Eyles. "Podcasts and blogs offer the opportunity to create a community and spread the word about a subject we love."
To listen to an IM Talk podcast, visit www.ironmantalk.com/Podcast.html.