An Ironman triathlon is widely regarded as the gold standard in triathlon racing. This post describes what is an Ironman triathlon. It traces the origins of the Ironman and explains how it is held today.
What is a Triathlon?
A triathlon is a three-sport race that begins with a swim, followed by a bike ride, then finishes with a run. Triathlons are held worldwide, in many locations and with various distances.
The full triathlon distance consists of a 2.4-mile (3.8 km) swim, a 112-mile (180km) bike ride, and then a 26.2-mile (42.2 km) marathon. The total distance is 140.6 miles. A half-distance triathlon is held over 70.3 miles.
There are also shorter-distance triathlons. The Olympic triathlon features a 1.5 km swim, a 40 km bike ride, and a 10 km run. Sprint triathlons include swims of 400m or 750m, bike rides of 10 km or 20 km, and 2.5 km or 5 km runs.
What is an Ironman Triathlon?
An Ironman triathlon is one of a set of triathlons that’s arranged or sponsored by the World Triathlon Corporation. For the full-distance Ironman, the first leg is a 2.4-mile open water swim in the sea or a lake, in which wetsuits must be worn unless the water temperature is above 76 degrees Fahrenheit.
Following the swim, athletes run to a transition area to dry off and put on bike gear. They then jump on bikes for the 112-mile ride. After that, they move to another transition area and then set out on a 26.2-mile marathon.
Ironman events are held at various locations, including Hamburg, Morocco, and Taiwan. The Ironman World Championship takes place annually in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Origins of the Ironman Triathlon
Though marathons have been held for over a century, the triathlon became popular starting in California in the mid-1970s. The first major U.S. triathlon was the Mission Bay Triathlon in San Diego on September 25, 1974.
The Ironman triathlon originated with Judy and John Collins, a California couple that moved to Hawaii in 1975. They had participated in the Mission Bay Triathlon and wanted to organize an event for endurance athletes on the island.
In 1977, they announced their Around the Island Triathlon, to be held the following year. In early 1978, the event was named Iron Man, in honor of a runner the couple knew.
“We knew a long-distance runner who could keep going and going,” Judy said. “His nickname was ‘Iron Man’.”
On February 18, 1978, the first Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon took place on Oahu. In 1980, the couple gave ABC’s Wide World of Sports permission to film the event, putting a global spotlight on the race.
The Ironman Triathlon Today
The name “Ironman Triathlon” is commonly associated with the annual Ironman World Championship. The race moved to Kailua-Kona in 1981, where it carries on today. The Ironman World Championship is infamous for its grueling length and harsh race conditions, including the searing heat of the black lava fields and the island’s unpredictable wind gusts.
Since Ironman started in Hawaii in 1978, the Ironman triathlon has taken hold around the world. There are officially sanctioned Ironman events on every continent except Antarctica.
The Ironman has contributed to making triathlons popular generally. In 1994, the International Olympic Committee announced that a triathlon would become a medal event at the Summer Olympic Games. The first Olympic triathlon was held in 2000 in Sydney, Australia.
Rules of Ironman Triathlons
Every Ironman event starts with the swim. When the water is below 76 degrees, participants can wear wetsuits. This is advantageous for swimmers, as wetsuits make a swimmer float better and make the swimming part easier.
When there are many participants, the competitors are grouped, with a different start time for each group. Even then, the swim can be hazardous. Many swimmers competing together makes the water rough, and there are often unintentional kicks.
After the swim, competitors go to the transition area to prepare for the bike ride. They find their bike among rows of hundreds, put on a helmet and biking clothes, and walk to the start of the bike course.
Often the bike course is a loop, so racers return to the starting line to transition to the run. When the bike course isn’t a loop, there’s a separate transition area for the run.
There is an overall time limit for Ironman events of 17 hours. At that time, the course closes, and anyone who hasn’t crossed the finish line isn’t allowed to finish, no matter how close they are. There are also individual cutoffs for each part of the event: 2 hours and 20 minutes for the swim and 10 hours and 30 minutes for the bike race.
To qualify for the World Championship held each October in Hawaii, you must place well in one of the other Ironmans held around the world. The Ironman qualifying series includes 28 events (23 full Ironman races and five Ironman 70.3 races) around the globe.
Race organizers sometimes give out prize money at Ironman events thanks to sponsorships and donations. Prizes can range anywhere from $10,000 to $500,000.
Who Participates in Ironman Triathlons?
Some of the competitors at Ironman events are elite and professional athletes. Top male Ironman athletes can finish in eight-and-a-half hours, while elite females generally take slightly more than nine hours.
But the Ironman isn’t a race just for superhumans. There are professional triathletes who make their living participating in Ironman events, but the vast majority of participants are amateurs who fit their training schedules around work and personal life.
People with physical disabilities have completed the Ironman, including amputees, those in wheelchairs, and one man who pushed his disabled son the entire way. People in their 70s and 80s enter and finish Ironman races.
These inspiring competitors redefine what is an Ironman triathlon and show us what is possible through determination and perseverance.