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Is An Ironman In Your Future? (Do It For The Right Reasons)

Yes, finishing an Ironman can be amazing—but there are also downsides. Should you take it on?

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For many, Ironman is the ultimate in triathlon competition. It can consume your life. It’s often the poster child by which triathlon is known to the world at large. When I began doing triathlons, almost every non-tri person I met would ask if I had done an Ironman (that’s all they knew), as if that’s the only badge of honor in our sport. Because of its status, the pull of doing an Ironman is strong for many triathletes. Putting in the training time, going the distance, crossing the line as an Ironman finisher, even qualifying for Kona (!), are all heady stuff that can act as a siren’s call.

You may feel this draw to become an Ironman even more strongly. But should you? Though training for and finishing an Ironman or Iron-distance race can be a positive, life-enriching experience, it can also be a source of personal, work, and social stress, a cause of injuries and other health problems, and a less than satisfying experience in which the costs outweigh the benefits. I encourage you to give careful thought to this question to make sure that, if you choose to do an Ironman, you do it for reasons that are healthy and beneficial.

To help you decide whether you should do an Ironman, I’ve written a two-part series exploring what I have found to be the most important issues to consider (you can read Part I here). In this second part of the series, I’ll explore the “wrong” and “right” reasons for wanting to be an Ironman.

The “Wrong” Reasons

We live in a ‘more is better’ society. Triathletes can get in that same trap: “If I feel good doing an Olympic distance, I’ll feel even better doing a half-Ironman. And if I feel that good doing a half, I’ll feel even better doing an Ironman.” But we often forget that, like most things, triathlon can have a point of diminishing returns; longer distances won’t necessarily give you greater benefits in terms of enjoyment, fulfillment, meaning, or fitness. Gosh, is Ironman even enough? Now there are double Ironman races, Ultraman, Eco-Challenge, Mt. Everest! There is always a greater challenge, harder course, tougher conditions, faster competitors, more demanding events. When is enough enough?

We also live in a society in which many people are looking for that elusive something—happiness, self-esteem, or inner peace. We meditate, practice yoga, and, yes, race triathlons. It is easy to be seduced by the allure of some magical life change through triathlon. Everyone looks so happy and alive! Yet you may not feel that way for any number of reasons and then you may conclude that you just aren’t going far enough: “If I’m not finding what I’m looking for at sprint or Olympic distances, I must not being going long enough!”

If you are looking for answers to your life’s questions at the finish line, you will probably end up frustrated and unsatisfied because those answers will, ultimately, not be found in an Ironman or any finish line really. Ironman will not stop you from running and biking and swimming away from your problems. Ironman won’t bring you contentment. It won’t make you a better person. You won’t love yourself more. You won’t be respected more by others. If you are doing an Ironman for the wrong reasons, it is simply not the answer to the questions you are probably asking yourself.

The “Right” Reasons

There are many good reasons for doing an Ironman too. It can offer you physical and mental challenges that can free you to test yourself in other areas of your life. It can inspire you, give you confidence, improve your focus, show you how to deal with emotions, and help you learn to overcome adversity. Training and racing an Ironman can teach you lessons about patience, perseverance, persistence, and resilience that can benefit you in your work, relationships, and other aspects of your life. And you can get great joy (the tri-high!) out of your experience.

Though the above benefits are important, they are not what Ironman triathletes talk about most when I ask them why they race the distance. With almost complete unanimity, they talk about the people: the camaraderie and the bond that they feel with other Ironman athletes. Ironman training is typically very social: Master’s swims, long rides and runs, track workouts. In non-COVID times, Ironman races are noted for their social activities: the pre- and post-race banquets, meals out, the athlete village, the race itself (misery loves company!), and the post-race war stories. Of course, the same sort of social benefits can be found in shorter triathlon training and races, though the bond and the shared experience may be less strong if you feel the investment and suffering wasn’t as intense. Of course, you could also put in more investment and “suffering” at the shorter distance too, if that’s your goal.

After the Race

In the weeks and months after their races, many Ironman finishers I have spoken with told me how it had changed their lives. They felt they were different people now who responded to their world in new and better ways. These Ironman athletes felt inspired, more capable, and ready to tackle their life’s challenges head on—as if you can do one hard things, then you can do others. Their appreciation of Ironman was heartfelt, and many spoke about doing another. Yet, others experienced a void post-race. They said they were depressed, listless, and felt rudderless and unmotivated. Some Ironman finisher find themselves questioning the value of the time and commitment—they didn’t find that magical moment that made it all worth it—and were uncertain whether they would continue with triathlon at any distance. For some, sadly, it was their last triathlon.

My Ironman races weren’t life-altering. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I did them. I conquered a great challenge, I met and became friends with some wonderful people, and I will always be an Ironman. But, having done two I have decided that, given my overall life, the costs overshadow the benefits and I won’t do another Ironman for a long time if ever. (Never say never.)

I don’t mean to sound like a downer trying to discourage you from going after an Ironman finish. Rather, I am trying to show you there are two sides to that undertaking, and you don’t often hear about the darker side. Only you can decide whether it’s worth it to you. Before you make that decision though, I want you to ask yourself two questions. First, do you want to do an Ironman for the right reasons? Second, within your overall life picture, will an Ironman be worth it?