October 18, 2007

The Wishy-Washing of Ironman

I was standing at the counter of the coffee shop. They were unusually slow in their barista activities so there had accumulated a little bit of a line. I was in front. There were maybe four or five folks behind me, no doubt tapping their feet, checking their blackberries and acting curiously antsy despite the fact that they hadn't yet gotten their morning caffeine fix. But that's what people usually do in Los Angeles coffee shops, they act jittery and rushed the moment they step in the door. Caffeine is just an excuse.

It was somewhat of a cold day - or at least cold in terms of Los Angeles standards (keeping in mind that we have very low standards). The temperature had dropped down to a frigid 57 degrees, just cool enough to dust off the light sweater or throw a long sleeve on top of your sun-tanned arms. I was mighty happy that a chill was in the air, reason enough for me to wear my Ironman finisher fleece. Any excuse to gallivant in my Ironman fleece is good enough for me.

Whenever I wear my Ironman fleece, my pride collides with my embarrassment. It all revolves around the back of the fleece. There, stretched from shoulder to shoulder, are eight very large letters, shining forth in bright red stitching. It says: FINISHER.

In my mind, the eight letters mean so much more than the sum of its parts. If you read between the lines of those letters, what it really says is, "Look at me, I'm important. I'm better than you. And, by the way, your mama wears army boots."

Honestly, I just doesn't feel right to cop that attitude. I'm not comfortable with overt arrogance. The fact is, I'm not better than you and I'm not that important (though I'm pretty sure your mama does wear army boots).

At the same time, I suppose there's a fine line between arrogance and pride. The fact is that I am damn proud to be an Ironman finisher. I had dreamed of finishing an Ironman and, gosh golly, I want to share my excitement with the entire world. Being an Ironman finisher makes me feel special. It makes me feel like I joined an elite club. This fleece cost more than money, it cost hard work and perseverance and a fair bit of pain. For goodness sakes, I earned the right to wear this fleece.

So, anyway, there I was in line at the coffee shop ordering some sort of hot beverage to warm my fleece-covered bones in this God-awful frigid weather. The happy helper took my order and informed me that I may want to get a bank loan to pay for my flavored water. I declined and handed over my Ironman credit card, because in Los Angeles we use credit cards for everything. If gumball machines took credit cards, I'd be spending my days chewing. As for the reasons I use my Ironman credit card, its pretty much the same as the fleece. I earned it, goddammit.

As I'm waiting for the receipt and my expensive cuppa joseph, I casually glanced behind me. The line stretched back into the store, but my eyes stopped at the people who were standing right next to me. It was a man, about 45 years old and slightly paunchy. Overweight might even be a better term. Sure, maybe he jogged a few miles every now and then, perhaps lifted some weights in the gym, but he didn't look like the endurance type of athlete. Next to him was his wife who definitely doesn't exercise - and if she does, it's not working.

The thing that really got me intrigued, though, was the fact that they were pushing their child in a stroller. A yellow stroller. A yellow stroller with a great big IRONMAN logo on the side.

I stared at the Ironman logo, partially in disbelief, partially in an emotional bond. I looked back at the parents, almost expecting to see the Ironman glow in their eyes.

There's no way, I thought. I mean, sure, you don't have to have six-pack abs to finish an Ironman, just look at me, but.... This just didn't feel right. If they had really completed an Ironman wouldn't they at least say something to me? Here I am standing not but 2 feet in front of them, with the big bright red letters of "FINISHER" smacking them in the face. Wouldn't it be natural to strike up a conversation? Isn't that what we do in this exclusive Ironman club of ours? We enter into conversations with other Ironman finishers about random Ironman events.

Which Ironman did you finish? we say to each other. Oh, I hear that's a great event, we inevitably respond. I've always wanted to do that one, we continue. There's an unwritten script that we follow in Ironman introduction conversations. It's required. It's like a secret handshake.

But these people - these Ironman phonies - they didn't even bother to say anything to me. Not a hello. Not a "when did you race that one." Not even a simple smile of recognition.

I turned my back slightly to make sure they saw the back of my fleece. I wanted to blind them with the brightness of my FINISHER stitching. That'll get them to talk. That will weed out the true Ironmen from the posers.

I waited for their comments, but there was nothing.

Clearly they can't be Ironman finishers. I felt disgusted. These people are wannabes. They are stealing the Ironman logo from those that have earned it. Don't you have to qualify to buy one of these baby strollers? Don't you need a finishing time? These people, they're thieves, robbing me of my pride. I can't stand them. I want to rip the M-Dot logo right off of their baby stroller and expose them for the fabricators they are.

I grabbed my coffee and huffed out the door.

What has become of Ironman? I think to myself. What was once a select club of the most fiercely determined athletes, is now just another logo in the marketplace. Do you remember when the Ironman was recognized as the most difficult one-day athletic event in the world? What became of that? Where did it all go to?

As people flock to Ironman events like it's another weekend road race, the power in the symbolism has begun to fade into banality.

Ironman merchandise abounds. There are Ironman bikes, Ironman sunglasses and Ironman watches. Ironman scales and medicine balls and jump ropes. For $1100 dollars you can by an Ironman elliptical trainer on eBay and for only $450 you can pick up the Ironman recumbent bike. The World Triathlon Corporation just announced the new Ironman coffee. I don't know where it's going to be sold, maybe in the Ironman section of Target. Or perhaps it will be next to the Ironman baby strollers crammed onto the floor of REI.

When I raced Vineman 70.3 this year, the finish line announcer was calling people Ironmen. "Joe Schmo," he'd say as they crossed the finish line. "You are an Ironman!"

Wait a minute, you're telling yourself, Vineman is only 70.3 miles. And you are right. But Ironman is no longer a distance, it is an attitude.

Since 1978, the Ironman brand has stood for endurance and passion, dedication and perseverance. It has represented the best and strongest. Ironman is inspiration.

Unfortunately, the great irony of the Ironman brand is that, as participation in the sport popularizes, the power of the brand diminishes. If everybody claims to be "elite," than nobody is.

Ironman is no longer simply a 140.6 mile event, it is a symbol of determination. It is no longer an endurance event, it is a consumer brand - and one that generates a butt load of money. Ironman is about determination, and now, for a few dollars, anybody can buy in.

We are in the midst of the gentrification of Ironman. Today it is much easier than anytime in history for anybody to experience the Ironman attitude. You don't have to swim, bike or run. You don't have to train for 7 months - to sacrifice family and friends. You don't have to battle the physical pain and emotional destruction. You don't have to bring your body to the very edge and confront the demons burning inside you.

All you have to do is open your wallet.

As somebody who is highly passionate about the sport of triathlon, I want everybody to feel it's power. I want the sense of accomplishment to spread like a virus and fuel the fire of inspiration in all corners of the world. I want everybody to experience the joy of triathlon. At the same time, I want to feel special. I want to be an Ironman elite.

Ironman is a dream.
I hope our dream doesn't get sold down the river.


Trihardist said...

I totally agree. It's one thing to have a couple hundred people sacrifice a weekend at a tiny, grassroots race (like CSULB's little tri) so they can be triathletes. It's something completely different when you can buy your way into Ironman; Ironman is something apart. The stuff of gods. And as tough as a half might be, it's not the full 12 hours of grueling work that the full 140.6 miles gives you.

But it's always been like that in major sports . . . take a bunch of teenage kids, for example. Some of them sport $200 basketball shoes or $60 soccer shorts, but they're just wannabe athletes; they couldn't make the team. And in triathlon, there have always been the slow crowd on ridiculously expensive bikes. I see this as an offshoot of that.

And, living in L.A. of all places, you know that gentrification goes in cycles (Venice Beach, anyone?) . . . hopefully, in a decade or two, the hype around Ironman (and triathlon in general; I'm no Ironman yet) will settle down and those of us who truly love it can go back to doing what we love.

Until then, I guess we just have to cope with them. I think triathletes as a group are too nice and welcoming to turn away the newbies and pretenders. We're endurance athletes, after all; we'll just outlast 'em.

jbmmommy said...

I always enjoy reading your posts, but I have to disagree with you here. First, I have a pair of Ironman socks, you know why? Because they fit well and they were on sale. I'm certainly not trying to pose as an Ironman, and it's only visible on the bottom of the sock, but I don't feel I'm stealing someone else's thunder by wearing the socks. That stroller is a well made stroller, that's probably the only reason they bought it. As a baby gear item, not a life statement.

If you think that "normal" people doing Ironman events somehow diminishes your accomplishment then I think you're taking it way too personally. Not everyone can become the superfit perfect specimen of health and fitness but that doesn't mean they're tarnishing Ironman. I have a dream to some day go the distance but I'll likely be fighting the cutoff. I know I'm not out there competing with anyone but myself and I think that's good enough. Sorry if you'll be embarrassed to share that title with someone like me.

j. said...

To the contrary, jb, I'm extremely happy to share the "Ironman title" with you and everybody else who toes up to the starting line (I don't think it's a finishing time that makes somebody an Ironman... it's the courage to train and actually start the race that defines the Ironman). As mentioned, I'd love for the whole world to experience the joy and growth I've had through triathlon.

I am not a model of fitness...trust me. There are people of all shapes and sizes who do Ironman, and I'm not talking about that either. Again, God bless everybody who gives it a shot - whether you cross the finish line or not.

My point is that Ironman used to be such a lofty goal. And the Ironman logo represented the achievement of that lofty goal. (I completely understand that "lofty goal" is subjective. A sprint distance race may be a lofty goal for somebody while a double-Ironman is lofty for another.) But regardless of your subjectivity, Ironman represented a specific distance, an attitude and an achievement. As more people display the logo, it somewhat dissipates in meaning.

I can only compare it to American Express and their Gold or Platinum Cards. If everybody was walking around with Gold and Platinum AmEx cards, wouldn't it completely defeat the company's purpose of trying to create a "special" brand? All of the sudden it wouldn't be special and they'd have to create something new.

Hopefully I'm making sense.

stronger said...

First, I must say I'm happy to see a new IM coffee. Not because I drink it.

For argument sake- it's a logo.

If for the love of triathlon- what's the need of a logo to swim/bike/run 140.6? Why not go out one day and do 141.6miles? Or even stop short at 140miles?

Posers? They're consumers. Maybe even fans. Why do they make sports jerseys? So someone can pass off that they are John Elway? Doubt it.

momo said...

i don't have any great insight here, except to say that i understand where you're coming from. when i was training for my first im - i refused to buy anything - anything AT ALL - with the logo. i felt somehow i was jinxing myself. even at the athlete's village, i didn't buy anything until after the race. i missed out on some good stuff, but it just didn't seem right until i knew i had crossed that line and could call myself an ironman.

i am definitely one of those people that starts up a conversation with anyone who is wearing the m-dot and i'm always disappointed when people say, oh, i've never done one. it just doesn't seem right.

the only thing i can think about the couple at your coffee shop is that maybe they don't even know what ironman is. its entirely possible. i have friends who'd never heard of it before i started training. maybe they just thought they were buying a simple stroller. you never know.

Chuckie V said...

Amen! You took the words right out of my mind, J.

Seen by Mercy said...

I know what you mean, J. I'm not an Ironman (just someone who's done a few sprint tri's), and I have tons of respect for you who are. I hope the dream doesn't get sold down the river either, because I'm hoping that someday I will be able live it myself! If I never have to actually push past the "no-you-can't," the "yes-you-can" won't mean anything at all.

Here's hoping that Trihardest's idea of the hype being cyclical does in fact happen!

Andra Sue said...

Did you know they have an Ironman branded mattress now? Maybe it's called the T3 (ha ha). Seriously, it exists though. Anyway, I think it's horribly ridiculous branding, but you can't keep everyone who's not finished an ironman from buying the stuff. And if that stuff was only marketed to finishers, they wouldn't have a very big customer base, would they? WTC is greedy just like all other businesses. It's the nature of the beast, I guess.

CVSURF said...

I am in Momos corner. I refuse to buy anything Ironman until I knock my first one out. Even then I may not wear any of the gear. As far as Ironman gear being quality, not so much. They sell plastic bike helmets at Costco with the m-dot logo. Helmets that I would not use even at the low low price of 19.99.

TriTurtL said...

Sad, but true. It's a logo that means SO much to some of us, and nothing at all to others. Frustrating when some of us work so hard to sport it.

Thanks for the kind comments about anybody that toes the line. From a back of the packer, it's really refreshing to hear comments like that.

p.s. Your finisher fleece is way cooler than their baby stroller.

No Wetsuit Girl said...

I hear you, brother! I would absolutely, positively NEVER put on anything with the Mdot logo until I go the distance. But someone who knows what it means, knows that it's kitsch for Joe Walmart to put on an ironman watch. Hey, they don't sell those FINISHER fleeces at Target, do they?

No Wetsuit Girl said...

I just read through all the comments in more detail, and I think there are some really good points in there. And I guess I don't mind so much if someone has ironman brand goggles, or maybe ironman socks or a heartrate monitor or something. It IS a brand. I draw the line at tee shirts. Wearing an ironman tee shirt, or jacket, or something that has absolutely no functional use beyond keeping you warm (or cool) on the couch should NOT be worn by someone who has not completed an ironman, as it is tacky to wear a t-shirt from ANYTHING you haven't finished (except maybe spouses and supportive family members). However, if the Mdot logo ever becomes FASHIONABLE outside the triathlon community, I will start rallying right along with you. One day I was in an H&M in Europe and I saw a shirt that said "University of California" just because American-looking t-shirts were in style, and California was a cool place. "I GO to University of California," I said, "and that is NOT their logo!" You would think it would be trademarked or something. God help us if Ironman ever dips so low.

ChrisM said...

Well, you could always do a double... or even a triple ;)

emmseebee said...

So here's a question for you: I trained for IM Canada '07. I did the training -- 10 months of it, countless hours in the pool and open waters, over 2,500 miles on the bike, lotta miles in running shoes, 8 months of personal training sessions at the Y, did the fundraising -- almost $9000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training, got to the start on that beach in Penticton to the starting line in Canada, started the swim and finished the swim, albeit 6 minutes after the swim cutoff (yes, I'm a really slow swimmer, but I had hoped to make the cutoff). Obviously, I don't deserve to wear "finisher" gear, but do I deserve to call myself an Ironman?

j. said...

Very good question, emmseebee. In my mind, yes. You are as much of an Ironman as anybody else you toed the line. As much as the person who maybe was a stronger swimmer but couldn't finish the run. And that person is as much of an Ironman as the person who finished the course but didn't break the 17 hour cut-off. And that person is as much of an Ironman as me (who finished within the 17 hour cut-off). And I'm as much of an Ironman as the person who one the damn race.

It's the transitive property of Ironman. If A=B and B=C then A=Ironman.

My guess is that, with all the work you did, you're probably going to try the distance again some day. And when you try again, you will cross the finish line. In the meantime, I hope there's pride in all the things you did to get to the start.

Anonymous said...


I feel your frustration with not finishing the swim, especially such a beautiful course as IM Canada, but I have to disagree with J. You have the heart, determination, and desire of an Ironman. The journey that we embark on when we endure countless hours of training is certainly part of being an Ironman. However, I dare say that until one finishes a race, you cannot truly call yourself an "Ironman."

triathlonmom said...

Once I tried to have a triathlon conversation with a woman sporting a San Clemente Triathlon tee that was oh-so-cute and she told me she hates to excersize and bought the shirt at Old Navy. (Here's the post if youwant to read it http://triathlonmom.blogspot.com/search?q=old+navy)
So, I know what you mean, BUT I think you get into deep do-do anytime you try to judge someone based on their appearance alone. That is what really bothers me about your post.
I constantly feel like I'm judged on my appearance -- but more than ever when I'm at a big race. I am 5 foot 9 and weight about 225 lbs. Yes I am a triathlete. Yes I am a back-of-the-packer, yes, I've completed a half ironman and yes, I'm FAT. Do I look like I exercize? Well, to me I do, but I could see you looking at me and the Starbucks and calling me a couch potato based soley on my looks. That sucks. Because I've put in plenty of 7 and 8 hour training days.

One day, I will finish an Ironman and I'll have somebody like you judging me from afar and thinking that I'm just a poser. And THAT is what weakens what the Ironman symbol means.

Triathpete said...

Nice column/post. I understand your perspective and your points. As brands expand, they by definition lose their exclusivity. Of course this is a conscious decision - Ironman doesn't have to license their logo to baby strollers, they chose to. From a branding perspective, I think it's a mistake actually. They have a very special brand and they should be careful to protect its integrity. I personally believe that the Ironman brand should be a bit out of reach. My bike came equipped with Ironman brand aerobars and I have to say, having never completed anything longer than an olympic distance race, I've always been self-conscious about that.

Tony said...

In some ways I'm on-board with you, but for me it's those 8 letters. If what you're wearing, or carrying, or pushing, doesn't say finisher then it doesn't matter to me. I volunteered at 3 Ironman races prior to racing my first one and I have shirts and hats from all three that I'll wear without a thought - and none of them say finisher. While the M-dot logo can be plastered on just about anything, I've never taken it to mean that someone has done the race simply because they wear the Timex IM watch. But you wear a shirt that reads "Ironman {fill in race} Finisher 200x" - then yeah, you better damn well have crossed that little white line. I wouldn't worry about it too much, just enjoy the experience when you do get to go through the 'script' with someone else who's been there.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know how to get rights to the m-dot? My dad has completed over 15 and I have some great marketing ideas that I would love to market and advertise in athletes village. It's time that stuff was cute and true to size!