Sunday is the locally long awaited return of the Ironman Wisconsin triathlon after a pandemic forced hiatus in 2020. 

A quick recap for readers who aren’t sure of what exactly the Ironman is… it is a race that covers 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of road cycling, and 26.2 miles of running. In one day. Without stopping for 8-17 hours (with the average time around 12-13 hours). 

Yes, athletes do eat (some real food, some engineered sports nutrition, some liquid only calories). And they do drink a lot of water and other sports drink substances. 

NO, they are not superhuman. There is not a visible “type.” If you decide to spectate this spectacle of human endurance you will be amazed at the different triathlete body types, sizes, and shapes. Yes, YOU could do an Ironman distance triathlon as well if you really want to and put the long and hard training hours in. 

But, WHY do people choose to take on (and pay for) an opportunity to test their own physical limits? For many different reasons, each one personal to the individual athlete.

When I signed up for my first Ironman triathlon in 2009 I wouldn’t have been able to conceptualize or communicate a deeper “why” for choosing to conquer the distance. I had watched the race a few years before and made the decision based in youthful arrogance and learned confidence that I would find a way to compete in the future. Although I grew up loving and playing sports, I had never officially swam a lap in a pool, only owned a hybrid bike for pulling my kids on the local bike paths, and couldn’t run more than 1-2 miles consecutively. When I started training I was a stay at home mom of three kids ages 4, 5, and 6. My husband worked most of the time and we had fairly limited financial resources. The concept of me purchasing the needed gear and training for up to 16-18 hours a week to “just finish” a long distance triathlon didn’t make much sense to onlookers. 

But I felt a personal passion and desire that I could not deny. And with the overwhelming and unwavering support of my family, I met my goal in September of 2009. I became an Iron(wo)man. I fell in love with the sport and the rest is history, present, and future. 

My known and communicated why was that I wanted the challenge of the daily training and the excitement of the race. Looking back, I can guess that my deeper “why” was internally crafted while searching for my personal identity as a young mom and wife. I was and am driven and love sports and competition. I enjoy just enough pain. I was subconsciously aware that I needed to have a goal that took me outside of my comfort zone to help me grow. 

Triathlon (including Ironman) changed my life. 

Although I do believe this to be the case for all triathletes, no matter the distance(s) conquered, the levels of realization span between acutely aware of the life altering impacts of the training and racing to ambivalence to complete ignorance. 

People take on the full Iron distance to test their physical limits, to inspire those around them, or to qualify for the world championships in Kona, Hawaii. Others show up for finisher shirt and medal (included in the very high registration fee), or to earn the tattoo (not included 🙂 Some athletes choose this race years in advance and prepare for many seasons. Some may sign up over a last minute buzzed beer bet with a buddy and come to the finish line not having had a drink for months. Some athletes decide far into the training that this is not what they are searching for after all, and don’t make it to the start line. 

The athletes who have the most meaningful experiences know on some level why they are showing up. Not only on race day. Not solely for the finish line— the last ten seconds of the long race.. These athletes know that success has already been found in the journey, not only in the result. They stay present and grateful while still pushing themselves to new limits. They will learn from experiences. If they fail they will get back up and try again. 

I urge my athletes to reflect on this while they cover the 140.6 miles. To smile. To ride the waves of elation and exhaustion. In the lowest points to keep returning to that reason they are out there, that why

Never have/never will be Ironman readers—how can you be inspired to come out of your comfort zone to grow? Veterans—take some time to remember what you have learned from your Ironman experience. How are you going to challenge yourself next? Ironman finishers to be—in the days after you cross that finish line take some time to reflect on it all. Consider what you learned and how you plan to do things differently. Some of those might factor in to your why for the next one. 

And there almost always will be the next one.