Lee Gruenfeld looks back at this year's Ford Ironman World Championship

October 13th 2009

Lee Gruenfeld looks back at this year's Ford Ironman World Championship

Experience is a harsh teacher -- she gives the test before she gives the lesson – and once in a while we need a reminder that toeing the start line at Ironman isn’t an automatic ticket to a lifetime of bragging rights.

We’re creatures of adaptation, we humans. We become quickly inured to repetition, treating patterns as normalcy, routine as status quo. But whenever our natural human tendency toward complacency seems poised to redefine the comfort zone, a snap back to reality seems, in retrospect, almost inevitable. This explains the collapse of our economy, spacecraft crashes, Kansas City beating the Yankees and disappointing outcomes on the Ford Ironman World Championship course.

The race in Kona isn’t some pre-fab reality show with a guaranteed fairy tale ending. What start out as heart-warming stories often result in heartbreak and, despite our attempts to put the most positive spin on plot lines we’ve been cheering for, the hard fact is that Ironman can be nasty, brutish and long. The heart transplant recipient isn’t following a script provided by a sentimental producer and ends up in tears on the swim exit stairs, frozen to the spot because nothing in his pre-race visualization told him what to do if the unthinkable happened. The double amputee’s race isn’t choreographed for the benefit of a television audience, and he never got to the part of the race that worried him the most because side winds on the return trip from Hawi conspired to ensure that he’d never even get to put his run legs on. A big guy who used to be bigger wants to celebrate his hard-fought weight loss with a hard-fought Ironman win, but he’s a few minutes late and doesn’t make the cutoff.

In a way, these disappointments are a good thing. We stand at the finish line cheering for hundreds of athletes as they cross the final timing mat with their arms in the air. After hours of this their faces blur together in our minds, the gestures become clichéd, the various flavors of expressed pain and achievement become indistinguishable…we become numb and complacent. Finishing becomes routine. What’s another body across the line after the hundreds who came before?

It’s the disappointments that snap us back. They remind us that starting is no guarantee of finishing. They drive home that every one of these people has suffered, sacrificed and striven. They help us to understand that dreaming is not enough, that Kona is not Disneyland and that none of those briefly spotlighted faces got here by wishing upon a star .

Disappointments underscore the effort of the seemingly effortless Chrissie Wellington. They make us think hard about the fact that 70-74 isn’t some "Isn’t that sweet?" infomercial but one of the most fiercely competitive age groups in the race. They make our eyes widen in wonder at the ones who crash, puke and cramp but only long enough to shake it off and keep on going.

They help us understand the immense achievement of challenged athletes like Sarah Reinertsen and Scott Rigsby and David Bailey, with one good leg among the three of them.

I’ve watched several dozen Ironman races around the world and it never gets old for me. Part of the reason is that, as a total non-athlete myself, I have learned that the you-can-do-anything-you-set-your-mind-to mantra is nonsense of the first order. I couldn’t do this race if the fate of the entire galaxy hung in the balance. Very, very few people could, but it doesn’t seem that way to us who are close to the sport because we’ve been privileged to witness that vanishingly small percentage of the populace who can.

I hope that I, and you, never lose that sense of wonder at these aliens who walk among us.

[Ed. note: Lee’s traditional photo essay of the race will appear here in a few days.]

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