Nell Martin loped between the glass towers of downtown Tempe and at last broke through the wide band of tape that had been stretched taut in front of her, snapping it as if she were popping the cork from a bottle of champagne. The watch on her left wrist read 10:34 p.m.— more than three hours after the sun had set over this gateway to the Arizona desert. High above her head the numbers 15:34:36 were illuminated in neon yellow, as bright as a Times Square billboard, signifying the 15 hours, 34 minutes, and 36 seconds she had taken to complete her day’s journey. Her skin was caked white with salt, the result of a continuous sweat that had long ago dried in the cool night air. Willing herself to a stop a few steps past the finish line, Nell allowed a volunteer whose hands were sheathed in latex gloves to wrap her in a foil blanket. He then escorted her toward a table piled high with pizza, of all things. There she could begin restoring her body to normal—including tending to the leg muscles that would soon begin to throb uncontrollably—a process that would ultimately take more than a week.
An anesthesiologist and married mother of three teenagers, Nell was in better shape than many of those recovering around her. Nearby, as if at a makeshift Red Cross disaster tent, several dozen men and women laid out on cots were receiving sugar water and other intravenous fluids through needles tethered to clear plastic bags. Occasionally a wheeled stretcher would be summoned to take someone by ambulance to a nearby emergency room for more intensive attention. But Nell needed no such intervention. For five years she had trained diligently for this day, as a way to mark her fiftieth birthday, which she had celebrated only a few days before. As her heart rate slowed, her mind kept returning to the ten words the announcer had said to the crowd assembled in makeshift bleachers on either side of the finish line.
“Nell Martin of Grand Junction, Colorado,” he had boomed, “you are an Ironman.”
On that Sunday before Thanksgiving 2008, as much of the nation contemplated gorging itself on turkey and stuffing with family and friends, Nell and more than two thousand others swam, cycled, and ran longer and farther in one day than many of us will do in a lifetime. Ranging in age from eighteen to seventy-six, they were competitors in the Ford Ironman Arizona, one of twenty-three officially sanctioned, 140.6-mile Ironman triathlons staged around the world that year. Eight were in the United States, including the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, the original and best known of such races. In an Ironman, the already formidable elements of a typical triathlon (known as an Olympic-distance)—0.9-mile swim, 26-mile bike ride, 6-mile run, all of which was sufficient to kill at least eight participants in 2008 alone—are supersized.
An Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile open-water swim (the equivalent of about 175 lengths across a community lap pool), followed by a 112-mile bike ride (imagine pedaling from New York City past Philadelphia), and then, as if some kind of cruel joke, a 26.2-mile marathon run. No physical exam is typically required, nor is any previous experience— other than for Ironman Hawaii, which is open mainly to top finishers in various age groups in prior qualifying races. Those who choose to put their bodies and minds through such a gantlet, nearly all weekend warriors with jobs and families, must complete the entire event in no more than seventeen hours—which includes any time spent recovering from the swim or changing from biking gear into running shoes. Nell Martin, for example, had emerged from Tempe Town Lake shivering so profoundly that it took sixteen minutes before she could mount her bike.
With the swim beginning at 7:00 a.m. sharp, the deadline that looms is the stroke of midnight. Even someone crossing the finish line ninety seconds late, as one woman did at Ironman Arizona 2008, is branded with the scarlet letters every Ironman triathlete dreads: DNF, or “did not finish.” Mike Reilly, the announcer whose hoarse voice has welcomed nearly 200,000 successful Ironman competitors across the finish line in more than a hundred such races since 1989, has a special message for those who have come up painfully short.
“You are an Ironman,” he tells them over the public address system, “in our hearts.”
At the previous Ironman Arizona, staged on an April day when temperatures soared well over ninety degrees, nearly 15 percent of the participants—about 300—had quit well before they were within range of Reilly’s voice. Even now, with Ironman Arizona having been moved to the cooler confines of November (the high temperature, just after midday, was eighty), 121 people had withdrawn mid-race.
Nell Martin, who had run a marathon at forty-three but had otherwise not considered herself much of an athlete for the first four decades of her life, had become a first-time Ironman with nearly ninety minutes to spare (and, no, the powers that be who preside over the Ironman culture, some of them women, have yet to accede to a gender-neutral designation). Like the more than fifty thousand others who completed an Ironman-distance triathlon somewhere in the world in 2008—and the hundreds of thousands of others who participated in triathlons of lesser intervals that year—Nell’s early-morning swims and runs and midday bike rides had paid off . Little surprise, then, that in her hotel room afterward she found she could not sleep—not because of the various aches she was feeling, and not even because of the adrenaline that still coursed through her veins, but because she was so filled with the sense of pride and satisfaction.
At five o’clock the next morning, she left her room, climbed into her rental car, and headed back toward the park adjacent to the finish area to celebrate her accomplishment in the only way that seemed appropriate. Taking her place in a line that was already about one hundred people long before sunrise—and would snake to nearly five hundred as the sun came up—Nell waited patiently for nearly two hours. Just after 7:00 a.m., barely twenty-four hours after she had descended into the sixty-two degree waters of Town Lake to begin her odyssey—and less than nine hours after she completed it—she strode up to a volunteer seated in front of a laptop.
Yes, Nell Martin said as she handed over her credit card, she was there to sign up for next year’s race.
After the race organizers had accommodated those who had shown up in person to register—including other 2008 participants and race volunteers, as well as some who had flown cross-country just to ensure they got a place—the registration process was opened to a national audience online. The computer system promptly crashed. Long before sundown, Ironman Arizona 2009, which was a year away, had sold out—and at no small cost to the participants. Though the stock market was still in the midst of its historic plunge that fall, each of the would-be competitors in Ironman Arizona had paid $525 apiece to enter. Some had withdrawn the money from the saving accounts of their college-bound children to reserve a slot, while others had deferred expenses like house repairs. The fee, they knew, was nonrefundable.
Why would so many people choose to put themselves through so much agony and effort in pursuit of a single goal? What toll does their training, oft en upwards of fifteen hours a week for months on end, exact on their families, their friends, their jobs? To what extent does engaging in such a grueling endeavor endanger their health, in the short term and beyond?
On the other hand, consider that one participant who completed Ironman Arizona minutes after Nell Martin was Ed Wolfgram, a seventy-six year-old psychiatrist from St. Louis. Less than a year earlier, Wolfgram had undergone an aortic valve replacement. He was also recovering from prostate cancer. I caught up with him just a few moments after he finished that race, out of breath and steadying himself on his wife’s shoulder near the food tables set up in a nearby park. Why, I asked him, would he embark on an endeavor as potentially life-threatening as an Ironman, having just emerged from so serious a medical ordeal? (At least five participants have died during Ironman competitions in North America in the last decade.)
“It has everything to do with how long you live and how healthfully you live,” Wolfgram said. “And if that’s not enough,” he added quickly, in reference to his rationale for swimming, biking, and running on a regular basis, “it has a lot to do with how you function sexually!”
Wolfgram’s accomplishment raises these questions, among others: To what extent is the role of the mind as important as that of the body, if not more so, in someone’s completing an Ironman? What is the payoff , psychologically and otherwise? For those willing to put in the enormous time and training, does it represent, in the words of Jimmy Riccitello, the head referee of the Arizona race, a “poor man’s Everest”—a feat of remarkable endurance that is for many people actually attainable? And what does it say about our society—three decades after we became a nation of runners—that for tens of thousands of Americans, a standard marathon no longer presents a sufficient challenge?
To feel fulfilled athletically and in other ways, these Ironmen (and would-be Ironmen) insist, they need to train simultaneously in three sports. More than a few participants in Ironman Arizona could be heard dismissively referring to the marathon portion of their race as “our cool down.”
In this book I examine the phenomenon of Ironman triathlons (and, by extension, triathlons in general) through the eyes of those who have chosen to participate in them. More specifically, I follow a small group of people from across the country as they prepare for—and then compete in—Ironman Arizona in November 2009, the year after Nell Martin became an Ironman.
Like her, each of the main competitors I profile in the pages that follow selected Arizona as the setting for his or her first Ironman attempt. The hurdles they face in attempting to cross that finish line are substantial. These include not only getting into sufficient shape and staying free of injury in the months leading up to the race, but also completing the first two legs of the Ironman event before the cutoffs imposed by the race directors.
Those interim benchmarks, which if missed result in automatic disqualification, are 2 hours 20 minutes, for the swim portion, and 10 hours 30 minutes (timed from the beginning of the swim) for the bike.
Though several dozen athletes in each Ironman race are professionals who live off their prize money and sponsorships, their stories are not my focus. Instead, the pages here will be given over primarily to the experiences of so-called age-groupers, people who, like most triathletes, regard the sport as a hobby, albeit for some of them an all-consuming one. One woman waiting in line to register for Ironman Arizona 2009 told me her triathlon training had contributed to the dissolution of her marriage, prompting knowing nods from others standing around her.