IRONING OUT IRONMAN: How to Improve the World's Toughest Race

4/2006

Don't get me wrong: I love Ironman. I wouldn't actually do one even if wild crows were pecking out my eyeballs, but I love the sport nonetheless, in much the same way I love, say, crocodile wrestling or Fear Factor 13: Flirting with Plague. Which is to say, as a spectator.

But I understand Ironman better than most active non-participating fans, being married to someone afflicted with MESS (Maniacal Endurance Sports Syndrome) and knowing an awful lot of MESS-ed up athletes. Having watched otherwise level-headed people compete in Ironman races around the world, I think I'm eminently qualified to comment on how the sport might be improved, if only those pig-iron-headed know-it-alls in WTC would wake up and smell the VOG.

Herewith a sure-fire set of ideas for ensuring that our favorite sport doesn't go the way of Gigli.

 

1- The first idea is so absurdly obvious it's hard to fathom that no one's thought of it before:

Make it shorter.

I've thought about it a lot, and have come to the conclusion that just about everything that's wrong with Ironman is due to its length. What kind of sense does it make to stage a race that's so long some people can't even finish it? King Kong is too long also and there's nothing that can be done about that now because it's a one-shot deal (okay…one-shot and two remakes), but Ironman can still be edited. Just think of all the benefits.

For one thing, you can get rid of the medical tent, relieving psychic turmoil and buying back some finish line space. Upwards of 13% of all entrants end up in the medical tent, making the finale of the world's most prestigious athletic event look more like an NTSB airplane crash investigation than a sporting contest. A cot and a puncture wound in a M*A*S*H tent is why 90,000 people a year compete for a slot?

The cost savings alone would be enormous, starting with a lot fewer bananas, water bottles and support personnel. Then there's the reduction in wear and tear among spectators, something race directors have failed to take into consideration from the very beginning. Not to mention equivalent (and sometimes even more severe) wear and tear among the athletes, despite their much-ballyhooed conditioning. Basic corporate economics here, WTC: Why pummel your prime customer base so badly that they can only do business with you once or twice a year? Get the distance down low enough to where an athlete can do thirty, forty races a year and we're talking some serious entry fee revenue here, my friend.

As an added benefit, you foster better relationships with the community. Let's be honest: Not everybody in the deceptively tranquil and purportedly Aloha-soaked Kailua-Kona looks at the annual World Championships the way Kirsti Alley looks at a Mallomar. For one thing, they don't like their main roads getting shut down, a frustration they like to vent by inventing their own sports, like the perennial, week-before-race-day favorite, "Let's see who can drive his 40-ton semi closest to a cyclist without getting a ticket." If the Ironman were entirely confined to a four-block area surrounding the corner of Ali'i and Kuakini Highway, and set up so that access to the Blockbuster and Starbucks on Palani remained uninterrupted, why, I’m just guessing that there'd be one or two fewer dirty looks from the guy hawking timeshares from that little booth down by Pancho & Lefty's.

 

2- Another one I can't believe no one's thought of yet:

Let's beef up the aid stations.

Mine is not a sophisticated palate, and has been described by various snobby acquaintances as roughly akin to a hockey puck when it comes to culinary discrimination. But even I can see that slurping some sucrostic glop out of a foil packet hardly ranks among the world's great gustatory experiences (although I'm told that, when mixed with a goodly dollop of sweat, a certain intriguing piquancy may be achieved.)

Try to imagine another event where you pay hundreds of dollars to enter, thousands more to travel there, and all they serve you on the "Big Freakin' Day" is glorified candy bars and sugar water. Out of disposable bottles, no less.

It doesn't have to be this way. What would be so hard about a slight upgrade in the menu? And speaking of menus, why does every athlete have to ingest the same stuff as every other athlete? We've got people from Ghana, Liberia, Ecuador and Detroit, and we feed them all the same stuff. What happened to this joyous celebration of multiculturalism the Ironman is supposed to represent?

At a lot of golf courses on the Big Island, there's a telephone mounted on the tee box of the ninth hole that's connected to the restaurant at the club house. There's also a printed menu where the phone book would normally go. You use the phone to place an order before teeing off, then pick up your food as you make the turn to the back nine. Simple, effective, and greatly appreciated by patrons.

So here's what I’m thinking. You know those giant Timex mileage markers? Replace them with menus. Then, a hundred yards later, have a bank of telephones. After athletes pass the menus, they'll have plenty of time to mull over their choices and be ready to call them in when they get to the phones. (Revenue-generating idea: Make them pay phones.) By the time they hit the aid station, their orders will be ready to go.

I keep reading in all these triathlon magazines that there's no reason a healthy diet can't be appealing and delicious as well, so even the kind of limited offerings one expects in the middle of a race should reflect that. What exhausted and numbed-out athlete wouldn't appreciate an appetizer of pate foie de gras garnished with sprigs of parsley and radish curls, followed half a mile later by a little roast venison with mint sauce accompanied by julienne of potatoes and epinards d'Seville?

Which brings me to another thing: Is there anything in the Ironman rule book about alcohol out on the course? Because it seems to me that washing all of this down with a glass or two of '87 Montrachet would be just the ticket in more ways than I can count. The beneficial effects of red wine are well-established and need no elaboration here, and for athletes, the upside of quaffing in general is even more pronounced: You think Power Bars give you a nice glucose jolt? Slam down a few quick brewskis and you'll get an instant chemistry lesson in the three-step conversion of methyl alcohol into glycogen. There's a reason for that line-up of 5,700-litre beer trucks at the finish line of Ironman Frankfurt and it isn't to keep the oompah band happy.

And, finally: You know how elite athletes don't worry too much about three-minute penalties anymore, having discovered that using the time to stretch a little and collect themselves can actually improve their overall times? Well, why not make the aid station meals sit-down affairs? White tablecloths, lightstick candles after sundown, table-side salad prep? If Ironman is eighty percent mental, I can't think of anything that would better prepare the mind for those last difficult miles than a relaxing dinner with fellow competitors, topped off with a short snifter of Hennessey and a choice Montecristo stogie.

 

3- What's the biggest problem for Ironman racers other than not dying? I'll tell you what it is: It's boredom. Mind-numbing, will-sapping tedium. Hawai'i is gorgeous, but when you're dragging your butt along the Queen K at barely the speed of smell, it's just one damned chunk of lava after another.

People play all sorts of weird mental games to keep themselves in the moment. Or out of it, depending upon your point of view. They count stripes in the road, or try to recall all the lyrics to "Louie, Louie," or attempt to resolve intricate scientific conundrums, like, "Why does my left quadriceps feel like I've just been bitten by a great white?"

None of this is necessary, which brings me to this suggestion: Issue every participant an iPod, a Blackberry, and a Bluetooth headset.

Think of it: You're running along feeling like Dick Cheney in an aerobics class. You reach down to your belt and suddenly you've got Bob Marley wailing "You can make it if you really try…" right in your ear. Is that motivational or what?

Concerned that friends and family back home don't know how you're doing because Ironman.com is on the fritz and all they can get is an endless loop of Mark Allen doing Guido Sarducci impressions? Call 'em up! Or check in at the office! Or find out how Brad and Angelina are doing! A few years ago when my wife was having a particularly tough time at Mile Nine of the run, I filled her in on the O.J. verdict. Boy, did she appreciate that timely update. Properly equipped, though, she wouldn't have to be so dependent on me for news.

Did you know you can play on-line poker on a Blackberry? Tell me there could be a greater rush in this world than going all-in with two-seven off suit while heading down into the Energy Lab.

And, hey…I just thought of something else: You wouldn't have to stop at those chintzy pay phones to call in your food order!

 

Next time: Neutralizing the unfair advantage of stronger and faster racers and other ideas for improving Ironman.