There’s more to triathlon than the M-dot, writes Jesse Thomas.

There’s more to triathlon than the M-dot, writes Jesse Thomas.

When I tell people that I’m a professional triathlete, the first question I usually get is: “Have you done THE IRONMAN?” Most people mean one of two things—either “an” Ironman, or “the” Ironman, the one they see on NBC from Kona that’s kind of a big deal.

Of course, my answer is no. As much as it may surprise my dozens of loyal readers, I haven’t done an Ironman. And while I’m a proud two-time finisher of the Kona Underpants Run, I’ve been unable to sell the rights to my hairy-chested tighty whities to NBC.

And answering “no” always saddens me a bit. Not because I haven’t done an Ironman, but because something in the question, or the tone or the look I get when I respond “no,” makes me feel like I need to justify why I haven’t done an Ironman.

I feel the need to give an explanation about being “new to the sport,” or “planning to do one next year,” or “but I still tri really hard I swear!” It’s like the many triathlons I’ve done, some over very hard courses at a fairly reasonable pace, simply just don’t matter until I’ve finished an Ironman.

So why have I gone five-plus years in the sport, four as a pro, without doing an Ironman? Well, why would I? If you look at it from a solely professional angle, there are some major disadvantages: more time training, higher risk of injury, less racing. Unless you are one of the top 3–5 guys at Kona, then it likely makes less financial sense as well. Most sponsor bonuses and prize money I’ve seen are 1.5 to two times more than the payout for a half-Ironman, but it’s a lot easier to race more than twice as many halfs in a season. When racing an Ironman, if something goes wrong, it’s harder to make it up with another race. Your season has less flexibility and it puts even more sponsorship/income pressure on a single performance on a single day. It’s a higher risk, less efficient use of time and money. (Please do not share this article with another pro or my entire strategy is blown!)

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You could argue the same thing for age-groupers. If your goal is to stay healthy and fit, training and racing shorter distances is probably more likely to keep you consistently healthy and fit than an Ironman will. If you’re doing it for fun and happiness, it’s easy to argue that preparing for an Ironman can venture past the fun/happy side to borderline cray-cray. Whenever I imagine training for an Ironman, I think of that YouTube video with the robotic-voice dude who says, “This is fun for me,” in response to why he has to go to bed at 6 o’clock. Many of my age-grouper friends say that training for an Ironman is hard—not just hard physically, but hard on their families, on their jobs and friends. It seems easy for that natural happy balance of life to sway a little too far into training mode.

Then why do so many pros and age-groupers focus on Ironman? My guess is it’s partly because triathlon, for better and for worse, is dominated by the Ironman brand. No single organization has done more to promote and grow the sport than its owner, World Triathlon Corporation. In some ways, I probably have WTC to thank for the sponsorship interest and income opportunities that pay Jude’s diaper bills. But the power of that growth has made the sport feel Ironman-centric. And more and more, people seem to be joining the sport specifically for an M-dot experience, and counting their accomplishments solely in Ironman stats.

I think this affects the way people approach the sport. More people feel like they need to do an Ironman to legitimize their triathlon pursuit, the time and money they invest in it and the sacrifices they make—myself included.

I’ve seen this on the professional side as well. My sponsors are mostly comfortable and supportive of whatever plans I make, but there is general industry pressure to be on the road to Ironman, specifically on the road to Kona, because of the real or perceived increase in marketing value of being there.

But the pursuit of Ironman isn’t just due to good marketing or sponsors. There’s a challenge in Ironman that makes it uniquely appealing, and I get that. It’s a perfect triathlon distance that allows the majority of prepared participants to finish in a day. There’s also an appealing overlap with the well-known distance of the marathon. Technically, there are longer, harder triathlons out there, but they are multiple day events and more logistically challenging. These factors help Ironman remain as the most universally sought after premier accomplishment in the sport. I feel a pull to Ironman that has nothing to do with sponsors. It’s my own need as a competitive athlete to toe the line on the biggest stage and see what I’ve got. And for that reason alone, I’ll do an Ironman some day, and I’ll try to qualify for Kona, even if it means sacrificing income along the way.

I understand the allure, and there’s nothing wrong with choosing to make that one accomplishment your focus (I probably will one day). But I also think that there are many other ways to challenge yourself, whether it be tough courses, like my favorite, Wildflower, or races with unique conditions and distances like Escape from Alcatraz. Or it could be just challenging yourself to go faster, finish higher in your age group, or beat that brownnoser from sales in your local tri (sorry, sales guys).

So while an Ironman is an admirable and worthy goal, you shouldn’t feel like it has to be the goal. There is plenty of other triathlon out there that can both challenge you and provide you with the healthy balance you’re looking for.

As my friend and mentor Stuart Smalley, whom I quote often in my articles, might say while looking in a mirror: “I’m NOT an Ironman … and that’s OK.”

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a four-time Wildflower Long Course champion and the CEO of Picky Bars (Pickybars.com).

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