Ironman At 40: Part 2 of 3 The Present
In 1989 the dream of IRONMAN took on a harder, more competitive edge. Up until then there was an element of survival in the race.
Make it through the swim. Hunker down and stay upright in the winds on the bike. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other in the marathon. Push the slowdown up the road as far as you could then just hold on when it hit. That put us all in the same boat. Cross the finish line and it was a great day.
On October 14th, 1989 what was possible at the IRONMAN got redefined.
We saw for the first time that the IRONMAN World Championship could be raced the entire 140.6 miles with no slowdown woven into the mix. It was guts and glory, no holds barred, start to finish, battle it out competition. It was the head-to-head, side-by-side duel between Dave Scott and I that ignited the present era of IRONMAN.
Dave came into the race with six IRONMAN World Championship wins in his back pocket. I was sitting at zero. I could lead early. He was the closer. I was the one slowing down the most for sure!
Pick any comparison you want. Ali vs Frazier. Federer vs Nadal. Johnson and Bird. This was up there with the best. We were within seconds of each other slugging it out through the closing seconds of the 15th round. No backing off allowed. No slowing down acceptable. One hundred percent and then some until one of us cracked.
The divisive move came with just over a mile to go in the race. I made it. Scott was unable to answer. My acceleration on the final uphill before dropping down Palani Hill and the last stretch to the finish was the moment that earned me my first IRONMAN World Championship victory. I outraced my fiercest competitor by a scant 58-seconds.
Both of us shattered Dave’s previous world record. He broke it by over 18-minutes. I bettered it by over 19. But most important was that for the first time we saw that IRONMAN was a competition that could be raced, not merely survived. It could be strategized, paced and accelerated all the way to the finish rather than something in which you hoped to stave off heavy legs and an empty gas tank for as long as possible.
The present era of IRONMAN had begun.
Things shifted to being me against you, me against the clock. It boiled expectations. Athletes were crushed because they didn’t place as high as they had hoped to. They beat themselves up because their finish times were slower than their training logs said they were capable of.
The new era of IRONMAN said goodbye to the innocent toddler of a race we were watching grow up. Fewer and fewer were ecstatic simply because they crossed the finish line. From that day forward it became a result earned rather than an experience had that was the measure for many.
IRONMAN had became a brash 20-something charging forward making its presence known to the world. It had graduated into a full-fledged world-class sporting phenom dripping with all the outlandish glory stature can bring as well as the potential for abysmal disappointment when the dream gets punctured.
Being competitive seeped into every aspect of the present era of IRONMAN.
The next years would see Erin Baker and Paula Newby-Fraser duking it out for the top of the podium. Then Newby-Fraser and Karen Smyers. Tim DeBoom and Peter Reid. Lori Bowden and Natasha Badmann. It was all business, all racing.
Then top Olympic distance specialists crossed the divide.
Michelle Jones worked her way into the ranks after winning silver in Sydney. She notched her IRONMAN World Championship title six years later in 2006. Jan Frodeno did the same winning gold in 2008 at Beijing then buttering the other side of his bread with two IRONMAN World Championship victories: the first in 2015 and then again in 2016.
But even today in the present era of IRONMAN it still has roots deeply planted in the mother tree, feeding it with the same stuff of years past. Even with dreams of success and top placings and personal best finish times, the Island of Hawaii is reminding us why the IRONMAN at its core is a dream with worth and value even if the end result is crossing the line before midnight.
It’s about something that no stopwatch can measure, that no finishing place can define. It’s about revealing a part of your deepest self that would have never come out otherwise. The present era of IRONMAN still uproots our weaknesses and replaces them with strengths. It teaches us how to unify our efforts to overcome the impossible.
You may get that top spot or that faster time you wanted. You may not. Either way, IRONMAN still asks you the same questions it has for 40-years.
Are you going to quit? Will you just give up because what lies ahead is more than you want to deal with? Or will you choose to take the next step? Will you keep going with everything you have even though the numbers are now in someone else’s favor?
Yes, the present era of IRONMAN is different than the infant years. But we will still must answer the same questions that have been posed to the heart of every athlete who has ever done the race. Regardless of the outcome, I can guarantee you there is not one person who decided to continue who has ever said they wished they had quit!
If you missed any of the other two posts in this series here are the links to them: