Ironman: A Waste of Energy

4/2009

In a time when condo associations order the stoning death of residents who water their lawns during daylight hours, it's a wonder Greenpeace hasn't Zodiac'd its way onto the swim course at the Ford Ironman World Championship and jacked the turnaround boat. Could there possibly be a more blatantly nose-thumbing display of energy profligacy than the Ironman World Championship?

Two thousand of the world's fittest athletes churn, turn and burn their way over 140.6 miles, expending more energy in a day than Kilauea belches out in a year, only to wind up exactly where they started with nothing to show for it but a few blisters and some mumbo-jumbo about finding out who they really are. Oh, please. If you want to know who you are, ask yourself this: "What happened to all that energy I just used only to end up where I started?"

I'll tell you what happened to it. It got converted into heat, that's what. The net effect of all that effort was that you steamed up the ocean, fired up the air and nearly liquefied the pavement. In other words, thank you very much for your contribution to global warming, and now you know who you really are: Mr. Carbon Bigfoot Print, that's who you are. And you were so proud of yourself for not leaving foil tops from your PowerGels all over the Queen K Highway.

It doesn't have to be this way. You can still race Ironman even while doing your bit for the preservation of the planet while at the same time helping us to stop pretending we like people who hate us because we need their overpriced oil. It's easy. The technology exists. You can use your powers for good.

 

The Swim

Construction is already under way on devices to generate electricity from ocean waves. You have this big float resting on the surface hooked to a cable. The other end of the cable is wrapped around the axle of an undersea generator anchored to the ocean floor. Every time a wave pushes the float upward it pulls the cable which, yo-yo style, turns the generator.

"But Ironman swimmers don't generate big waves," I can already hear you saying.

Come on, people, think outside the box a little. What we do is unhook the cables from the floats and connect them to the swimmers using proprietary, WTC-licensed neoprene harnesses (complete with M-dot logo). As you swim, the cable turns the axle on the generator. The beauty part is that, unlike waves, which only generate electricity as the swell is cresting, the power output here is continuous, assuming the racer hadn't slacked off on his training and is paying for it now. Of course, a little energy is wasted because the athlete has to use some of it to overcome the weight of 2.4 miles of cable in order to, you know, stay on the surface (a major advantage in competitive swimming, so I'm told), but still, we're talking about enough surplus energy to run an Xbox through the first three levels of Grand Theft Auto IV.

The Bike

This one's even easier. Really, what's the point of actually pushing a 28-pound bike all over creation when we can use gadgets like Compu-Trainers to not only accurately simulate the course but recover energy instead of wasting it?

Trust me, the athletes will love this, especially the pros. One of their biggest problems is keeping track of where they are relative to the competition. With digital stationary bikes, there's no more guesswork. Real-time displays on every unit will show the precise (albeit virtual) "location" of anybody the athlete wants to look up, with a lot more information to boot. Just picture Chris McCormack punching up Craig Alexander and finding out that he's 240 yards behind and has been slowing down since Mile 57 because he's getting a little sloppy on his left-side power stroke. Macca could even send Crowie an instant message, like, "You're fading a bit, mate. Come on, dig down deep and let's make this a real race!" which is about as close as I can come to what he'd really say and still get past the censors.

The benefit to spectators is almost too obvious to mention. The Ironman people have been wracking their brains for years trying to make the event more spectator friendly but, the fact is, nearly all of it takes place in locations accessible only to mountain goats and Mars rovers. Imagine instead two thousand stationary bikes cheek-by-jowl in the King K parking lot with giant, PGA-style leaderboards scattered all over town. Even better, spectators could actually walk in and around the athletes, up close and personal. What could be cooler than to stand three feet away from Chrissie Wellington as she (virtually) blows past her closest competitors, all the while cranking out enough electricity to run all the margarita blenders at Pancho and Lefty's?

I know what you're thinking: With today's technology, racers wouldn't need to be in the same parking lot. They wouldn't even need to be on the same continent. It's a good point, but there's no way around hooking the swimmers up to those cables, so they all have to be in Hawai'i anyway.

 

The Run

I have one word for you: Treadmills. Not the ridiculous kind where a motor moves the surface under the runner -- seriously, what the hell is the point of that? -- but ones where the runner moves the surface.

Now, if you're picturing a treadmill like the ones in your local Sweat 'n' Strut, give it up. I'm talking about the kind in hamster cages, big wire wheels in which the runner stays in one place and the wheel turns around him. And, of course, the wheel shares an axle with a generator.

What I love about this is that it gives us a chance to finally get rid of one of the silliest aspects of Ironman, namely T2. In a sporting event where just a few seconds can separate the winner from the first loser, what kind of sense does it make for the better athlete to end up sucking hind whatever just because the other guy could change his shirt faster?

If we put the hamster wheels right next to the stationary bikes, there's no need for T2. You hop off the bike and step right onto the wheel. Spectators can look out over a sea of these things and know precisely what the status of the race is, as well as the condition of individual athletes if we bleed off some of the generated electricity to power hundred-watt bulbs atop the wheels. The brighter the light, the faster they're running. (If the light isn't on at all, politely avert your eyes and summon the nearest kokua.)

 

The Finish

The Ironman finish line is the most exciting in all of sports. We can't possibly expect that watching numbers flick by on a display fed by thousand of hamster wheels is going to be able to duplicate that scene.

Well, we don't have to. You know that arcade horse racing game where people roll balls up a ramp and little horses move along the wall to show who's ahead? We can do the same thing at Ironman. With a little clever wiring we can have a wall of Mini-Me athletes wearing numbers that match the real athletes. As the digital equipment continuously computes each athlete's status, his plastic avatar moves accordingly, except now we don't have to watch grown people crawling toward the finish line because they can't stand up anymore. Alarm bells mounted on the hamster wheels will signal volunteer catchers in time for them to run over and get a towel around the exhausted competitors and march them over to the medical tent. (Injuries, of course, will be a thing of the past, unless you count accidentally sticking a finger in a moving wire wheel because you went all hypnotic running in one place for 26.2 miles.)

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The energy recovered by this "green" approach to Ironman would be enough to power Cleveland for a year (assuming anyone would want to power Cleveland for a year). Do the same for all the Ironman and 70.3 events, as well as for all the training by the 90,000 triathletes trying to get to Kona, and we could send OPEC packing with enough cheap energy left over to bring back the Hummer.

Anything less is just plain irresponsible.