Book Review: ‘You Are an Ironman’

You Are an Ironman: How Six Weekend Warriors Chased Their Dream of Finishing the World’s Toughest Triathlon
By Jacques Steinberg

For many the mention of Ironman triathlon conjures memories of the annual broadcast of the world championship race from Hawaii. Some may remember watching Julie Moss stumbling towards, and then crawling across the finish line in 1982. What has been described as, “a poor man’s Everest,” completing the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile full marathon in less than 17 hours is the pinnacle of endurance athletics. As anyone training for an Ironman will tell you they are asked two questions by those who have not raced these events: “How do you do it?” and “Why are you doing it?” The answer to the first question is easy: just swim, bike, and run, a lot. The second question is much more difficult to answer because the reasons as to why somebody would push their bodies to an extreme are as varied as the number of athletes competing in an Ironman – usually a couple of thousand — and when it comes to matters of the heart, explanations are hard to define. Getting to the heart of “why” is not easily put into a few words and true answers require knowing the athlete intimately as they train for their race. Maybe to get the answer you would have to be there with them along the way.


Being released today is a book that does exactly that, taking on both questions with special attention to the “why” while the athlete is training. After reading it twice in one week it is a book I recommend you read too.


I have to admit, when I first got wind of a book profiling a group of amateur athletes training for their first Ironman triathlon I was less than enthused. There are enough mini-biographical collection books dedicating a single chapter to somebody, famous or not, meant to teach, inspire, or awe me. It is a proven — and tiresome — format often spotlighting business leaders and sports heroes just like the dozen similar books already on my library’s shelves. My assumption was this book would be just like the others.


I could not have been more wrong.


You Are an Ironman by New York Times Bestselling author and reporter, Jacques Steinberg is anything but tiresome and predictable. For over a year he follows six everyday amateur athletes pursuing a common goal of completing their first full iron-distance triathlon, Ironman Arizona 2009. Steinberg writes in a fresh format portraying the athletes not in a single chapter for each but instead as a compelling and fast flowing story of their lives in parallel as they prepare for the big race. Steinberg introduces the athletes; a Texas business executive who hadn’t been in a gym for 30 years, a Phoenix school teacher, a health club manager in Colorado who survived cancer, a North Carolina nurse whose husband is a double-lung transplant recipient, and two California housewives; one a once overweight young girl with a dream to run a marathon and the other who signed up on a dare, one at a time as they individually, yet simultaneously; move from race sign-up to race day.


Steinberg is a master storyteller using his skill to narrate their stories in what reads like an epic novel — except they are true. Filled with supporting cast members of friends and family, the featured athletes’ personalities are developed into interesting and complex characters well beyond average Joes and Janes who like to exercise a lot. With just the right amount of detail without being overly dramatic, Steinberg tells of their training successes, setbacks, injuries, financial and family struggles along the way to the finish line for some. Not all make it to the starting line and one athlete’s race comes perilously close to an early end. Moreover, that is where Steinberg’s genius is on display. His way of adding suspense to the story is so subtle is sneaks up on you. I was hooked into the story from the very first paragraph of the first introduced athlete, the schoolteacher who almost chose to skip the race because his van’s power steering failed while driving to the registration site. Only because the garage was not open, and the encouragement of his wife, did he sign up. Next comes the Texas businessman an Emergency Room with back pain only morphine could subdue is eventually given a dire prognosis where his back’s ills are the least of his worries. Little did he know that two years later he would face the biggest challenge of his life. Each athlete is introduced with a dose of suspense and genuine appeal and I could not turn the pages fast enough to learn what happens next.


I could not read more than three pages before a certain phrase or turn of a word spoke directly of my very own experiences of training for Ironman races. It is hard to believe that an author who writes with such authenticity is not an Ironman himself. Perhaps that is to the reader’s advantage because if Steinberg had firsthand experiences he may have not dug into the lives of the athletes to get their unique stories. More than once I had visceral reactions to Steinberg’s spot on depictions of Ironman training and racing. His description of the athlete’s pre-race morning preparations and waiting for the starting cannon to fire was so accurate and so vivid my heart rate jumped as if I was wading into the water with the athletes myself.


Whether you are an aspiring Ironman athlete yourself or not you should read this book. Between the expertly delivered story and the authentic portrayal of the people and their training there is much you can learn from their life-affirming journey while being entertained from cover to cover.


You Are an Ironman is available for order HERE.




About the Author


Jacques Steinberg is the author of The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Processes of a Premier College, a New York Times-best seller. He is a national education correspondent for the New York Times and moderates The Choice the Times’ college admissions blog, which he created for the paper in spring 2009.

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