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The Unbearable Lightness of Ironman

The large amateur group of Ironman triathletes compete in the early morning 2.4 mile swim in Kailua Bay during the Ironman World Championship Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. AP Photo/Chris Stewart
AP Photo/Chris Stewart
The large amateur group of Ironman triathletes compete in the early morning 2.4 mile swim in Kailua Bay during the Ironman World Championship Oct. 9, 2010 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
AP Photo/Chris Stewart

Ken Glah has competed in the World Ironman Triathlon Championships for 27 straights years. He has never won this event and he never will. But there was a time when he stood on the stage with the top 10 finishers. Glah has raced through illness, injury, childbirth and funerals. Some days I admire him. Other days I feel pity. But it's hard to be ambivalent. His streak is more than a connected series of sunrises and sunsets bracketing his endurance training. It is more than a footnote on some obscure blog or a rumor passed around the Boston Marathon expo. It is an inhered part of his identity, of who he is to himself and to the world in which he lives and trains.

Ironmen and women love numbers. The quantification of everything from GPS'd miles to power-metered rides to races logged and feelings felt all help create a distinctly numeric relationship with sport. People are ascetically-introduced by their 10k PRs and plans for 70.3 races. Sometimes it appears as if there is little room left for the subjective, the intuitive and the uncalculated. The very notion of reaching balance is done on an excel spread sheet.

Still, one person's balance is another's fall from the high wire.

There is little balance here in Kona, Hawaii for the Ironman. Extreme is the status quo. Everyone loves excellence and if you don't feel important well...you just aren't trying hard enough. The average income for triathletes is reported at well over $80k per year. Obsession and compulsion are not diseases but requirements for entry.

Few are immune.

Someone once told me that I'd competed in close to fifty ultra-distance triathlons. Most days this number means little more than a cursory nod to a former life, a footnote of entries on a tattered bank book. Other days, when the tired bones rise only with caffeinated-convincement, I am sorry for the naivete that allowed that many trips to the iron well. Leave any kind of meat out too long and it will turn bad on you.

But there are times, mostly in the fall when the sun dances on the equinox and the shadows show themselves like a small dog in heat, that I'm more than okay with those miles skirting up and down the asphalt ribbons. If I allow myself, I might feel something like accomplishment or even success. And I might be surprised that Ironman come in all shapes and sizes.

Still it seems that lots of Ironman athletes want to chock up the events like poker chips in their corner. But if at some point the weight of that engagement pulls you under its own tabled-tyranny of excess, will it have been worth it? If you don't age well enough or long enough to regale in your own memories pouring down like diamonds from an unpaved sky...will it have been worth it? If you won twenty events but walk on titanium knees and chromium hips, will you walk as tall under the weight of your success? Probably so.

As endurance athletes we have a tendency toward a kind of physical bootlegging, forever trying to stay below the radar and trade discreetly our pain for pleasures. But that pursuit and desire can turn into a wistful refrain and soon enough something hurts for longer than we remember it hurting. Ice and aspirin become under-the-table transactions. We might not look old but our genie is young out of the bottle.

I don't know how many Ironman races an Ironman makes. But I do know that if we say that we love something and we don't mean it then what are we? Long races hurt for a long time. Maybe into our next lives. Short is the data proving this thesis but many are the anecdotes of excess. Fifty-some ultra events seems like a good number for a 20 year career. But for some reason, the idea of numbers in sport never seemed to pencil.

It's tempting now, with a health-conscious five miler behind my day and a few old friends saying they remembered when to pull the holier-than-thou rabbit out of the swim cap. It easier now to take that revisionist weight off of my shoulders and say, "fine, you want to roll the ball uphill, knock yourself out." Because as endurance athletes we sometimes forget that we all risk the chance of growing long in the tooth and gray in the beard, of retiring to the barstool to bask in our own righteousness.

The new kids? They are alright. And the dream of being an Ironman has never been more vividly widespread.

Our over-arching achievements in sport must be contextually-bound by how we perceive their value. One person's M-dot tattoo is another's skin cancer. Lest we forget the races bring with them their own kind of bearing, their own signature and stamp on our lives. And we won't really know what that will be until we wake up from the dream. You might feel younger for the rest or you might finally realize that rust never sleeps and that you were caught red-handed with desires exceeding assets.

Either way, the burden and blessing of excess is a way of being in the world. And if you never go, you'll never know.

Somewhere, Sysiphus and Ken Glah must be happy.


Scott Tinley, a retired professional triathlete and two-time Ironman World Champion, writes about fallen heroes and teaches sport humanities courses at San Diego State University. His book Racing the Sunset: An Athlete's Quest for Life After Sport explores the world of pro athletes in transition.