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Triathlons Go Half-Crazy: The Emergence Of The Half-Iron Distance Triathlon

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Ironman 70.3 New Orleans had record participants in its inaugural year. Photo: Robert Murphy
Ironman 70.3 New Orleans had record participants in its inaugural year. Photo: Robert Murphy

Written by: Nan Kappeler

The half-iron distance triathlon has seen a growth over the last few years. Nan Kappeler spoke to race directors and athletes to learn why so many triathletes have decided to go half-crazy.

Soon after completing his first sprint-distance triathlon, Erik Birkholz, 34, stepped up to an Olympic-distance event, then a half-Ironman race, all with his sights set on completing a full Ironman. But as the founder of the Multisport Ministries triathlon team, and the father of an 11-month old, training 30 hours a week has been out of the question. Instead, the Foothill Ranch, Calif. resident has decided training 15 hours a week would be more reasonable and added another half-Iron distance event to his racing schedule.

In another example, Andrew Bell, 38, a real estate developer from Atlanta, Ga., decided he had completed enough short-distance triathlons and was ready to ramp up the distance. He has competed in five half Iron-distance events, with a sixth planned for this fall. With his 10K time not as fast as he would like, Bell feels the longer distance suits him better.

Across the world, an increasing number of triathletes are migrating toward longer distance courses. With Ironman events often selling out a year in advance and requiring a hefty time commitment, the answer for many has become the half-Iron distance triathlon made up of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run. Adding to the popularity of the distance has been the branding of the Ironman 70.3 name. Along with the 70.3 title, the races offer athletes a chance to earn a qualifying spot to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater, Fla., with some even offering spots to the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

“To have Ironman associated with that distance is huge,” says Bell. “I thought half’s were already popular, but when they added the 70.3 series and the M Dot, the race went crazy. There’s something about the M dot.”

The series has quickly grown, and now boasts 33 events worldwide.

“The demand was there. WTC (World Triathlon Corporation) just took it to the next level by providing more opportunity for racing and competing on a competitive level,” WTC spokesman Blair LaHaye explained.

Triathlon coach and Ironman race director Paul Huddle says he feels the evolution of the sport into the half-ironman distance is a natural progression.

“The half distance is more attainable. You don’t have to quit your job and get a divorce,” he says. “To me it’s a hard effort, but it’s attainable.”

One such race, the Oxford triathlon, located on Maryland’s eastern shore, attracted 125 athletes in 1992.  When race director Fletcher Hanks decided to retire, he handed the 2.4-mile swim, 20-mile run and 50-mile bike event to Robert Vigorito, with a handshake and a “good-luck” wish. For the next several years, the entries remained the same until 1996, when the Oxford triathlon became an Ironman 70.3 World Championship qualifier, attracting 500 athletes. Today the race, now called the Eagleman Ironman 70.3, is capped at 2,200 participants.

“In those days, and even today, the Ironman brand is a big thing, ever since Julie Moss crawled across the finish line,” says Vigorito, owner of the Columbia Triathlon Association. “With the lure of the Ironman name, people feel the race will be a cut above.”

Australian born professional triathlete Richie Cunningham, who lives in Boston, has six 70.3 events planned for 2009, plus several other non-Ironman affiliated half-Iron distance events. He began racing in 1997 in Olympic distances and remembers most professionals thinking of the longer course as a long endurance day. The field was not as competitive, with the best athletes entering the Olympic-distance races. He moved up to the longer distances after realizing the course was a better fit—balancing out his speed and endurance.

“Triathlons take up so much time in the average person’s life,” says Cunningham. “The half is a convenience thing—training is less, costs are less. The half course is still a challenge, but you can recover. It’s a hard event, with a good challenge.”

Even after completing three full Ironmans, Chris Elmore, 32, from Brea, Calif., isn’t surprised the half-Iron distance has become so popular.

“I do a half with typical training,” Elmore said. “I can’t do that with a full Ironman. It’s a good day after the half race—the race is more enjoyable and I’m still walking around later that day.”

The distance has also grown in popularity outside of the Ironman 70.3 brand. From old school races like the Wildflower Long Course Triathlon in Lake San Antonio, Calif. to newer races like the Revolution Three Triathlon in Middlebury, Conn. have taken on the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run distance and have seen success in attracting top professionals and large age-group fields.

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