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How and why the Ironman Triathlon got started in Hawaii and why 17 is such a magic number

Posted Jul 25 2009 10:03pm

Ironman_World_Triathlon_Championship5 There is no magic in the number 140.6. It represents a very random distance that several guys in Hawaii came up with in the winter of 1978 to determine if a swimmer, cyclist, or runner is the best endurance athlete.

U.S. Navy Commander John Collins (one of the Hawaii guys who began it all) is widely quoted as saying, "Whoever finishes first, we' ll call him the Iron Man."

And so the first Ironman race took place on the small island of Oahu in the winter 1978 with a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike (the distance around the island) and traditional marathon of 26.2 miles.

From Wikipedia, “Of the fifteen men to start off the in early morning on February 18th, 1978, twelve completed the race. Gordon Haller was the first to earn the title Ironman by completing the course in a time of 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 40 seconds.”

It is worth noting here that athletes were completely self-supported and more importantly that handwritten on the last page of the very sparse three sheets of paper listing a few rules and a course description was this exhortation: "Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life" This is now an Ironman registered trademark.

It is also the heart and soul of the Ironman. Over the last decade as Ironman racing has expanded throughout the world, the distance of 140.6 has become etched in stone as the mystical number that represents an Ironman.

It has become so synonymous with the Ironman that the number, divided by half, and now trademark (70.3) represents it own racing series. Athletes around the world aspire to complete both the shorter and longer distance as a way to prove their status as the top endurance dog.

Ironman Triathlon But to me the real magic is not in this random number, but in the journey and ultimate goal to complete the Ironman. Let’s just pretend for a second that Oahu was 20 miles bigger or even 20 miles smaller. Would the numbers 120.6 or 160.6 be any more or less significant than 140.6?

Or we could easily imagine that during the marathon at the 1908 Olympic Games in London the course was NOT extended at the last minute by 385 yards from its set 26 miles so that the runners would cross the finish line in front of the Royal family’s viewing box in the Olympic arena.

If the course extension had not happened in 1908 that would make today’s Ironman only 140.4 miles long. Is this number any more or less significant?

The answer is that the number in itself is really irrelevant. What counts is what was written on that last piece of paper almost 20-years ago before the start of the first Ironman: “Brag for the rest of your life”

When you think about it, the vast majority of us age-group athletes will never even come close to matching or even breaking that first self-supported course time of 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 40 seconds.

It is not about a winning time.

It is not about the distance.

It is not about the number 140.6

It is about the last hours of the journey of reaching to what many age-group triathletes seems like an almost unattainable goal of finishing an less than 17 hours. That why I would argue that the number 17 is really the magic number in any Ironman.

It is the last 17 critical hours of all the weeks, months and perhaps years of training that only matter in the end. All of the other previous hours spent in the pool, on the bike, on the run are now just so much water under the bridge.

It is the 17 dawn to midnight race hours when your hopes and dreams are final realized, or dashed on the jagged rocks of the swim, bike run.

Ironman-winner-normann-stadler-public-domain It is those 17 magical hours that all of your daily worries, cares, concerns fade into the far background and you become laser focused on just one goal…finishing before midnight.

It is the 17 heroic hours when you feel your body rise to the challenge of pushing yourself longer than you have ever imagined possible.

It is the 17 wonderful hours when life and limitless energy course through your veins, chiseling your body into the ultimate endurance machine.

It is the 17 dreaded hours when emotionally you climb the highest of highs and fall with huge thud into the lowest of lows.

It is in the 17 unbelievable hours when pushing yourself beyond the breaking point is just the start of your day.

Those 17 crazy hours when time simultaneously expands and contracts. When seconds become hours and days turn to minutes.

It is the 17 momentous hours that to a great extent will define all of the following hours of your life.

It is in the 17 crucial hours when you really learn if you are made of Iron or not.

When I completed my first Iran distance race I told my buddy how far I swam, biked and ran. He kind of just stared at me. I could tell the distance numbers were pretty meaningless to him.

Unless you’ve actually swam, ridden, or ran for fairly long way (which he had not) 10 miles or 100 miles are pretty much the same to you. So instead, I mentioned that it took me almost 17 hours to finish the race.

His eyes exploded open in disbelief. “You mean you raced for an entire day and night,” he said, stunned as the idea of exercising all day and night really sank in.

It was only in those 17 unforgettable hours that I had earned the right to brag for the rest of my life!

Follow on twitter @ everymantri

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