CHANGING COURSE: Fear Factor Meets the Ironman

4/2006

I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little tired of hearing what a tough sport Ironman is, how the World Championship is one of the toughest endurance races in the world, and what an awful toll it takes on the body.

Come on. The only major injuries you ever see in the medical tent are exhaustion, dehydration and sunburn. Hate to point this out, but that's the same list the U.S. Health Department publishes under the heading "Dangers of Mowing Your Lawn." Maybe this is why Ironman is the 427th most popular spectator sport in the country, somewhere between lawn darts and trying on gloves at K-Mart. It certainly explains why rodeo riders who work 8.7 seconds a week earn millions while triathlon professionals have to bag groceries to make ends meet.

You know why the Ironman consists of swimming, biking and running? It's got nothing to do with the something-or-other Rough Water Swim or a bike race around Oahu or a standard marathon. It's because swimming, biking and running rank #1, 2 and 3 as the most boring sports in the history of western civilization.

The spectators at an Ironman share something in common with the spectators at a Little League game: Every one of them has a friend or relative competing. Who would spend all day standing around watching strangers go numb with tedium? Isn't that what we have jobs for?

If this keeps up, Ironman is going to go the way of curling and rhythmic gymnastics.

Overcoming all of this might sound daunting but it really isn't, because the whole thing boils down to a single problem: The course is all wrong.

Think about it. First thing that happens, everybody swims into the ocean where nobody can see them and, candidly, who'd want to? Then they pedal off on a perfectly paved road where nobody can see them, then they run along the same place they just biked. All the spectators cram into the finish area because, after 140.5 miles, the last two hundred yards is the only thing worth watching, because it means your loved one is finally in and you can go get that shower and a cold beer.

Who designed this course…an accounts receivable clerk? Doesn't anybody at WTC watch reality TV?

The course needs a complete re-design. I'm talking serious out-of-the-box thinking here. The only elements worth preserving are the fixed distances, because of tradition. Nobody remembers just what those traditions are but, whatever they are, I'm sure they're swell.

First thing we do, we put the swim last. Try to visualize this. They've just biked 112 miles and run a full marathon. Then they jump into the ocean. Now you've got some real drama when they swim away and disappear into the distance, because it's no longer a question of when they come back; it's a question of if.  I'm just guessing here, but I'd lay some big money that you'd see a lot fewer double lattes and gin rummy games on the pier while that clock is ticking.

The run would go first, because there are few better ways to kick the living daylights out of your mind and body than with a full bore marathon. Which brings us to another sore point: Where did this business of "running through the brutal lava fields of the Big Island" come from? Did I miss a reel somewhere?

Nobody runs through lava fields in the Ironman. They run on a road so perfectly flat and smooth you could iron laundry on it. The only people on the lava fields are the spectators.

What I propose is putting the spectators on the paved road and the runners out on the lava. And not pahoehoe, either, that swirly, creamy Pollyana-smooth stuff. I'm talking a'a, those chunky rocks the size of Coleman coolers with edges so hard and sharp you could shape titanium fighter jet wings with it. Tell me you couldn't get a thirty share on Thursday prime time with 1,800 people doing 26.2 over that kind of terrain. Offhand I'd say the medical tent staff might have to seriously re-think the supply cabinet inventory a little.

Whoever's left now gets to hit the bike course, which brings up another bit of "literary license" in the Ironman media handouts. Who dreamed up this "athletes cycling up the side of a volcano" business…James Frey? I'm amazed Oprah didn't go all depressed and betrayed again. Kohala Mountain is a volcano like Barbara Bush is a Rockette. The last time Kohala erupted, Cro Magnon was the future of human development.

What the bike course needs is a real volcano, and wouldn't you know it:  The most active volcano on Earth is right there on the Big Island and has been erupting continuously for over three decades.

Now, some people might think that dodging potholes, stray water bottles and overly-aggressive Italian motorcycle cameramen is the height of excitement, but can it really compare to weaving your way around pools of magma hot enough to vaporize uranium? And, unlike potholes, this stuff doesn't stay still. An extra pound or two of subterranean pressure here or there and a white-hot jet of lava goes arcing into the sky, turning a pleasant little spin into flamethrower hell. This is made-for-television drama and gives a whole new meaning to "You're fired!"

Of course, it might require a little fiddling with the race schedule, because of the volatility of Kilauea's eruption cycle (not unlike my wife's). Back in the old days, the race date was selected to coincide as closely as possible with the full moon, because of how dark the Queen K gets. Now, we'd have to time it with the predicted flow rate of the race volcano.

Small price to pay. If they could move the entire race back a week to accommodate the S.S. Seventeen-Meals-A-Day in 2004, surely they can do it for a volcano.