(Hint: It’s not about a brand)
I had an interesting discussion recently with a group of young athletes who were competing in an Olympic-distance race in Southern California. It was a serious point of reflection for me at just where this sport was heading, and more so where the foundation of its growth was coming from. Were people still as inspired by the racing like I was as a kid? Had this sport moved in a direction that I had missed, simply because I was paying attention to the things I thought mattered in endurance racing?
In the transition area on race morning, I was chatting away with the group and was pumped to know that most of them were new to the sport and this was their first season. I asked the question I would ask anyone on race morning: “So are you guys ready to race? Are you looking forward to getting out there?”
The answer I got was, “Yes, it will be fun, but this isn’t a real race like Ironman. We want to do an Ironman.”
I quickly told him not to underestimate this course. This event definitely was a real race. I appreciated that for many of these guys this was the stepping-stone to grander plans— to ultimately compete in our sport’s crowning distance, the Ironman. It was my dream as a kid as well, so I understood the vision that they all had. I asked them what they meant by this not being a “real race”—because I sure was treating it like one.
“Well this is not an Ironman, so nobody really cares,” one of them said. “People only care about Ironman and Ironman races.”
I was absolutely dumbfounded by this answer. In an instant where I thought we were connected by a common desire to test ourselves on a personal level in this sport and experience everything that racing and pushing ourselves in endurance racing can give us, this statement gave me the feeling that our reasons for being here were not the same. I couldn’t quite grasp the statement that nobody really cares and only Ironman matters.
“If nobody cares, then why are you guys here? Why are you racing?” I asked them.
“It will still be fun and a challenge, and this course is really hard,” they answered.
“So you are here to challenge yourself and to have fun in the process. Is that right?” I quickly asked.
“Yeah, of course,” they answered.
“Well why does it matter what other people think?” I asked. “Why does it matter that this is not an Ironman race?” And with that statement I saw in their eyes that they were grasping just how I viewed this sport, the reasons I was pinning on my number today and had done so in more than 300 races in my career. I was there for my reasons and my reasons only, and this is why I was excited to race, just like in every event I’ve ever done.
I will not deny that Ironman racing is tough, but this conversation opened up my eyes to the way the sport has changed over the past few years. It made me wonder: Is Ironman now the only race in multisport that people consider worthy? Was the entire foundation of the sport lost to a brand?
I told them about all the great races I had done around the world and all these events that over the past few years were never rated against a brand, but were measured by the challenge of the race and the experience that event gave you. It was these events, and the experiences of the athletes who competed in these races, that grew our entire sport and contributed to the mythical stories that are intertwined into its history. I told them about the great race in Norway called The Norseman, which is considered the toughest triathlon in the world. It is the race that two-time Ironman world champion Tim DeBoom rated as the greatest and most difficult challenge of his life. In his post-race interview, he said, “Norseman was like suffering through hell, in a backdrop of heaven. It is a race that will stay with me for my entire life.” The challenge and the mystique of the event, and the questions that these races present to any athlete during the event is what has motivated me for my entire career. I want to be inspired and challenged. This is why I race.
The entire group looked at me with wide eyes. It felt great to engage with them about what this sport meant to me, so I continued to talk.
I described the amazing race called Challenge Roth, which is considered by many the greatest multisport triathlon event in the world. This is an opinion that is shared by so many of the athletes who have raced this event, and by the greatest female endurance athlete ever: Chrissie Wellington. I told them about the amazing crowds of 400,000 people. I talked about the course, and the Bavarian region of Germany and the incredible history of this event that is solely responsible for introducing triathlon to Europe. I talked about my love of this race, and how my success on this course is rated personally as some of the greatest moments of my career.
I told them they had to race Escape from Alcatraz, simply because the race is so unique and amazing, and I told them of incredible races in Thailand and New Zealand that were must-do events.
As they listened, I felt great, hoping that my passion and energy for races all around the world would be obvious. My point was, you race for your own challenges and your own reasons, and nobody can dictate to you what is considered real. No race director or brand can dictate to anybody what is considered challenging. Events provide the canvas on which you can paint your own picture of experience. All forms of racing in this sport are relevant, and whether it’s Ironman or not, every challenge is worthy and special.
“So where are you guys from?” I asked.
“Santa Barbara,” they answered.
I said, “One of the best races I have ever done in my life, and one of the toughest events you will ever do, is a race that is almost as old as this sport, called Wildflower. You should do that race. It will change your life. It’s a half-Ironman distance and one of the best races in the world.”
Their response floored me. “Is it an Ironman 70.3 race?”
“It is half-Ironman distance,” I said, “and seriously one of the most amazing races you will ever do. It is a tough bike ride, and a really tough off-road run course that mixes all terrains. It has more than 6,000 people competing over the weekend and is one of the true jewels of triathlon anywhere in the world. You have to do it.”
One of them said to me, “Yeah, but is it an Ironman 70.3 race or just a half-Ironman? If I’m going to do a half-Ironman, I want to make sure it counts.”
I sat absolutely dumbfounded, and realized then that the sport was changing. I realized that people don’t view the sport in the way that we did a few years ago. I started to ask myself now, “Had the new Ironman assertion on the sport changed people’s perspective so much that they no longer view even the distance as counting? ‘It is not a real half because it was not branded as an Ironman race.’” I could not believe what I was hearing.
I replied with: “If you do Wildflower, I can assure you it will count. There is not a half-Ironman anywhere in the world that counts as much. It is the granddaddy of races.”
This conversation opened my eyes and inspired me to write this article. I grew up in an era where brands within this sport simply did not exist, and people were intrigued by the challenge of endurance racing because of what it asked from you, and not what logo was on the finish line. I have never measured any race in my career on this basis, and I was sure every athlete who came before me was the same. The Ironman in Hawaii to me is still the pinnacle of this sport, but if they changed the name tomorrow to Kona, or The Hawaii Challenge, it would not in any way change my perception of this event. I measured my effort on that island against the journey it took me to get there and the challenges that the event presented. I don’t care what you call the race, those experiences are mine to own. This is what makes endurance racing so special. But when you start to assess races not on the challenge but on a logo and “what others will think,” you start to miss the true spirit of the sport.
I have done races around the world that were branded by Ironman, and others that were not. The distances were the same and the experiences unique and enthralling. Don’t miss out on the abundant experiences and events that tie this sport together.