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November 16, 2005

Iron Envy

Yesterday's small dose of mojo came at a price - today one of my hamstrings was so sore that I could barely hobble through 4 flat miles.

So I might as well talk about the Ironman.

I watched the Ironman Triathlon World Championships over the weekend, and as always, came away with mixed emotions.

First, let me say for the record that I LOVE the Ironman. Just adore it. It's probably the most demanding athletic event in the world. It's been on my athletic "wish list" for several years now, the same way the Boston Marathon used to be before I finally qualified and ran it.

But NBC's coverage of the event drives me bonkers. Here are my main gripes:

1. Al Trautwig's completely over the top dramatization of every aspect of the event. Sure, his delivery is great for the stories of athletes who have overcome hardship to compete, but seeing athletes moving through the transition area doesn't always have to be presented like Greek theater.

Thankfully, for portions of the telecast NBC utilized the services of Phil Liggett, otherwise known as the voice of the Tour De France. They don't make commentators any better than Liggett. He's knowedgeable, passionate, and enthusiastic about the events he covers. He could be working the National Barbecue Cookoff and make you excited about it. His style is dramatically different than Trautwig's, and very refreshing, so - nice move, NBC.

2. Last year NBC made a big deal about saying all the competitors were just a number (like a bib number) until they crossed the finish line in Kona, at which point they became Ironmen. The point was that no matter who you are, you have to deal with the same circumstances as all the others to get to the starting line and compete at Kona.

Which would be a nice thought...if only it were true. However, if you happen to be a former professional football player, television reporter or Baywatch star, there's a slot with your name on it at the starting line, just for the asking.

I understand that this helped increase exposure for the sport in the early days. But I don't get why they still use this gimmick. Is there anyone out there that really doesn't know what the Ironman is, or not respect how demanding it is to finish? It seems like they have an established audience now, and aren't reliant on celebrities to increase their viewership.

3. The overriding sentiment throughout the broadcast is usually something along the lines of, "These are everyday people who had the ambition and drive to take on the Ironman." In other words, if you had the same talent and drive, you could be there with them.

And yet, triathlon's crown jewel excludes vast numbers of people. To start with, it's extremely cost-prohiitive, when you consider the expenses of equipment and race entries beforehand, and travel to Hawaii (usually with family) for the event. It's even expensive to particpate in the lottery proces each year, which is the primary means of entry for many of the athletes.

Qualifying slots for the race are brutally difficult to obtain, and only the top fraction of athletes gain entry this way. I know that the event can't beome much larger than its current size, but wouldn't a qualifying system based on age-graded times, like the Boston Marathon uses, make much more sense? It seems that too many gifted competitors are being left at home, especially in light of the whole celebrity-entry issue I mentioned above.

So in addition to being courageous and determined, you also have to be rich and/or very lucky to get into the Ironman Hawaii. Somehow that doesn't get mentioned too often.

Yet despite all these things, I watch that darn show year after year. And I always go through a similar progression, from cynicism, to envy, then admiration, then inspiration, and finally come away marveling at what a fantastic event it is.

There's just no way to see those athletes taking on an ultimate challenge, struggling to continue as the day stretches into night, and not feel completely inspired to challenge yourself in a similar manner.

Watching the Ironman always reaffirms my appreciation for the ability of the human body to persevere and overcome tremendous hardships - a lesson many endurance runners eventually discover and cherish.

So congratulations to everyone who participated. I was thankful for the opportunity to watch you on TV last weekend. And hopefully someday many years from now, I'll be there competing alongside you.

That way, I won't have to watch it on NBC.


robtherunner 11/16/05, 9:42 PM  

Now if ultra-marathons only got the same respect. I know there is a debate about whether those people who run ultras would want that kind of publicity, but what percentage of the general population even knows that 100 mile runs take place?

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