Ironman races are not events for Marvel fans. They’re horrible and painful and expensive and so intrusive on your life you’ll feel like you’re having the world’s worst affair. Then, on the day, as payment for the contract you entered into months ago, you get a free backpack and all the energy gels, bars, snacks you could ever wish for.
I was roped, or should I say goaded, into one of these in my early twenties, as a direct result of a testosterone-fueled comment by a friend that turned, via stubbornness, into a bet: That I couldn’t finish one the following year. Six years on, aside from a couple of injury breaks, I’m still stuck in that baffling cycle of excitement, self-loathing, suffering, elation, and post-race emptiness. Just like the literal bicycle I spent far too much money on, it’s something I’m always thinking or talking about.
First, it feels necessary to rule out the notion that I love them, in the typical sense. I know this because I have a friend, Danny, who evidently is in love with the sport and, though I have an immeasurable amount of respect for him and his commitment to it, it is clear I don’t feel the same way. Whenever we’ve trained together in the past, this gulf in both dedication and ability is highlighted in cold water, in rain, on hills, and on any run longer than 10K. While I become a caricature lost in some abyss of misery, he maintains the amazing focus and optimism I am at once resentful and in awe of.
From this, there is the eroding, existential discussion I have with myself in the lead-up to races: Do I enjoy them? This is too loaded a question to answer, even to myself, but would admittedly provide a direct and sensible reason for the time and effort they require.
Surely, some part of me must enjoy the fear and anticipation of it all, even though I bet my nervous system disagrees with me. Perhaps, if I was a caveman or born instead into some overtly primal setting, unable to avoid confrontation as much as I do, I would be the reckless person throwing stones at some vicious predator so I could run away from it. Instead of a finisher’s medal, I’d get survival—until I probably got caught. Am I doing the same with Ironmans?
Maybe, like a modern day Vitruvian Man, my parents procreated with the sole purpose of bringing the next great triathlete into the world. They laughed, however, when I asked this, which tells me far more than I ever wanted to know. In truth, I am, by no means, genetically designed to compete in endurance events. My shoulders are too broad to be aerodynamic, my weight frustratingly high despite low body fat and decent definition, my sporting history marked by sprint and power events—in school, I competed in 100m and jumps. In contrast, my younger brother is taller, leaner, and more suited to long-distance running, but instead chooses, impressively, to commit his time to powerlifting and beard-growing.
To dispel any ideas of pretentiousness, I should clarify that I have no lofty motivations or honorable intentions in participating in triathlons. As much as I would like to create and sustain some narrative about a greater purpose driving me to work and spend and suffer, I’m unable to do anything other than be honest and admit that, most likely, it comes down to some juvenile insecurity balanced equally in the search for intrinsic and extrinsic praise. I am, probably more so than the average person, concerned with how other people feel about me. Equally, I am reminded in times of success or failure of how my younger and older self would view my response to a given situation, propelled to a higher effort level in the avoidance of shame or regret. In this sense I am judged from all angles, forced to perform in a cage of my own making. However, I must admit, during races, it’s rarely these people or versions of myself I think of.
A very close friend of mine, himself a far, far better runner than I have ever been or will be, passed away last year on my birthday. Our plan was to complete the Ironman 70.3 Dubai together, which would have been his first long-distance race. We were both training hard and, much to my annoyance, I was certain that he would beat me, even if I fed him some lie about having to use a child’s tricycle or run in flip-flops. Regularly, we spoke at length about the mutant joy we achieved through a session so painful we would collapse or vomit, laugh at our ability to gorge on chocolate ‘as fuel’ and wear lycra (relatively) judgement-free. It was the relationship between the first two—training and diet—he focused on and he always had the same mantra to explain it. In his nonchalant Irish tone, so final and endearing you could never disagree with it, his reply would always and without fail be: “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”
Now this might sound trite or even twee, but to me it encapsulates the internal bravado associated with these events. I am not an arrogant or even a confident person, and would never laud the completion of an Ironman over anyone, but there is, admittedly, a part of me that glows with the knowledge that I can do it, can finish it. In 2014, I held that feeling as my carrot, reaching for it like Bugs Bunny in the weeks and months leading up to the day where my family and (now ex-) partner supported me so absolutely, exhibited such palpable pride I actually cried during the race. The stinking, slurring dopamine drunk I was hit with in the finishers’ area was fleeting, and it left me with an emotional hangover so severe I swore to my ex-partner, slumped in a Subway because it was the only thing I thought I would be able eat, “Never let me do that again.” She, rightfully so, reminded me of this during any discussion of a new race.
I did train for and complete that race in Dubai in his memory, earlier this year. It was obviously a day consumed with emotion and one I’ll remember forever: images of support, memories of the heat, and soundbites, both of the aforementioned aphorism and also his stock phrase whenever he’d a lead a running session for our group of friends: “Like a train!” I miss him.
Ultimately, maybe it’s that cycle of emotions, of logistics, of fitness, and of satisfaction, that I’m craving all the time. Completing a race like this is a project, not dissimilar to writing a novel or whatever it is people do in offices while wearing suits and giving out business cards. Joan Didion once compared writing to raising a child. In my one moment of literary blasphemy, I’d like to make a small adjustment to what that absolute powerhouse of creativity said: the Ironman process is about the bit before the rearing of a newborn—the pregnancy and labour. The conception is fun and abstract and feels immediately personal; the training is a slog, a gestation period with trimesters and an end date; and the race, quite obviously, is the period in a controlled environment with the inevitable agony and prospect of joy, of achievement, of acquisition, at the end. Could it be that in some bizarre, subconscious recess of my mind I participate in long-distance triathlons to empathize and assimilate with that experience I’ll never—at least, physically—have myself? Almost certainly not (because that’s bizarre), but the opportunity to be consumed by something, to have some distraction from monotony and also to feel something so completely yours, is so enticing it almost makes the whole endeavor make sense. Until the start of the horribly long run that is.