In 1978, the first year the Ironman triathlon was held in Hawaii, an intrepid 15 people attempted it; by 2008, the number of people participating in Ironman and half-Ironman races had surged to 100,000, as dozens of races modeled on the original sprouted across the country and around the world . Last year, the number had jumped almost 50 percent to 143,000, 50,000 of whom participated somewhere in what is arguably one of the most physically and mentally demanding competitions in any sport: the full Ironman.
In “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN: How Six Weekend Warriors Chased Their Dream of Finishing the World’s Toughest Triathlon,” Jacques Steinberg, New York Times reporter and author of the bestselling “The Gatekeepers,” creates a compelling and suspenseful portrait of six people pursuing this life-defining goal: a 2.4-mile swim (the equivalent of about 175 lengths across a typical, 25-yard community pool), followed by a 112-mile bike ride (the length of the trip from New York City to past Philadelphia), followed in turn by a 26.2-mile (marathon-distance) run—all of which must be completed in no more than 17 hours.
Steinberg follows each athlete in lakes and health-club pools, on the roads and in “tune-up” races as they experience triumphs and setbacks along the way. We meet a businessman on the verge of a heart attack; a schoolteacher eager to set a good example for his daughters; the director of a fitness center at an Air Force base who survived a bout of cancer; a woman inspired by the tenacity of her husband, a triathlete himself who was the recipient of a rare double-lung transplant; and two California mothers, one who had dreamed of becoming a runner since she was an overweight young girl and the other who signs up for the Ironman on a dare. These are the weekend warriors we come to know over the course of the year they spend training for the Ironman and as the athletes quickly discover, as grueling as Ironman training can be physically, it also entails personal sacrifice.
Some of the featured athletes cross the finish line; some do not. But as they prepare for the Ford Ironman Arizona, one of several dozen races at the Ironman distance around the world, Steinberg shows why they would undertake the challenge one race official refers to as a “Poor Man’s Everest.”