All is well. I’m back from Washington, and counting down the final days until my triathlon this coming weekend. Miraculously, I didn’t even catch a cold after a week of air travel.
I also finished the final Harry Potter book quite a bit earlier than anticipated – there’s nothing like a 2-hour airline delay and a missed connection requiring an additional overnight stay to help a guy tear through a book ahead of schedule.
And as far is the book is concerned … all I’ll say here is, wow. I’d love to write a whole post about it, but I made an Unbreakable Vow that I wouldn’t reveal any spoilers on this blog, so I can’t elaborate any further than that - except to say that it completely lived up to all expectations. And I’ll probably have the whole story on my brain for a long time to come.
For today’s post, I’m starting with a confession: after this Saturday’s 140.6-mile triathlon, I won’t really be an Ironman. At least, not an officially sanctioned one. That’s because even though the Vineman is an Ironman-distance triathlon, it doesn’t bear the official Ironman logo - known affectionately throughout the sport as the M-dot.
To casual observers, there wouldn’t appear to be much of a distinction, but within the sport of triathlon, it’s a topic of contention. The question has been asked in countless training groups, magazine columns, and online forums – should someone who completes a non-M-dot event be allowed to wear the official Ironman logo?
It shouldn’t shock you to hear that the answer from the World Triathlon Corporation (the company who organizes the Ironman) is no. However, it might surprise you to learn that many age-group triathletes feel the same way. And I actually wouldn’t have a problem with accepting that line of reasoning - if only it weren’t so hypocritical. Or if the sport of running hadn’t already traveled down this road in a much more accommodating manner.
The M-dot was born back in the days when the Hawaii Ironman was the only event of its kind. As triathlons grew in popularity, the logo came to represent the absolute pinnacle of the sport, attainable by only a select tier of talented competitors. Today, the Kona race remains the universally acknowledged world championship of long distance triathlon, with the M-dot its most easily recognized representation.
So if the sport of triathlon wanted to keep the M-dot logo exclusive to the championship event, I’d completely sympathize. The problem is that they’ve sabotaged their own exclusivity to the point of ridiculousness.
Over the past decade, the WTC decided to expand its brand, and created a series of “Ironman-sanctioned” races to give more athletes the opportunity to challenge the distance. It was (and remains) a noble idea, but it was executed with an abundance of arrogance. They created Ironman races in a handful of cities, and made contractual agreements with some existing triathlons to become trademarked Ironman events. Those sanctioned events would be the only means of qualifying for the annual world championship in Kona.
Some races agreed. Others – most notably Wildflower – didn’t want to play along, and immediately lost their allocation of Kona slots. The not-so-subtle message to triathletes was that if your next event wasn’t an M-dot event, it wasn’t a real Ironman race or official Kona qualifier. Consequently, you wouldn’t be authorized to wear the official M-dot logo.
So in a strictly legalistic sense, I’m not allowed to say that I’m doing an Ironman this weekend. It’s really a long-course triathlon. And when I finish, I won’t be allowed (at least, not in the company’s eyes) to wear Ironman gear or sport the M-dot logo.
Now, I’m a reasonable guy. I understand the appeal of logo protection. You don’t wear the unicorn logo if you haven’t run the Boston Marathon. You don’t wear the silver mountain lion belt buckle if you haven’t run Western States in under 24 hours. You don’t place the Dark Mark upon your forearm if you’re not a follower of Voldemort (sorry, I’ve still got Harry Potter on the brain). Unquestionably, exclusivity carries a certain prestige.
On the other hand, I’ll compete in this weekend’s race with no fewer than 4 M-dots already on my person: one on my Timex wristwatch, one on my sunglasses from Target, and one on each of my Wigwam socks. If I wanted to, I could wear the official M-dot endorsed wetsuit, or bike helmet, or display the logo on a singlet or visor or a myriad of gear that is available from almost any triathlon-related website.
I guess what I’m saying is, if any fat slob can purchase a handful of M-dot logos at the neighborhood store, the luster of prestige takes a significant hit. To put it more bluntly: if you want your product to be exclusive, you probably shouldn’t sell it at Wal-Mart.
Earning the right to wear that M-dot supposedly carries so much prestige that I’ll go out of my way to make my next triathlon an Ironman-sanctioned race. But consider my situation: I’m participating in the oldest Ironman-distance race in the continental United States. Vineman was around long before the cities of Tempe and Madison and Panama City Beach even thought of hosting triathlons. It’s one of the most beautiful, best-organized, and most historically successful races in the country, and it’s less than a 3-hour drive from my house. Oh, one more thing - it costs about $200 less than an M-dot Ironman.
I mean … is there ANY logical reason why I would pass over this race just so I can earn an M-dot? Is the right to wear the logo really worth that much?
I mentioned the Boston Marathon earlier, with good reason. For the first 50 or so years of that race’s existence, during every non-Olympic year – and especially before the advent of World Championship meets – Boston was the universally recognized world marathon championship.
(It wasn’t an entirely accurate designation - given travel expenses and the relative difficulty of going overseas for races – and it’s no small wonder that so many “World Champions” from the first 50 years were Northeastern white guys. But that’s another post for another time.)
The Boston Marathon is organized by the Boston Athletic Association, whose unicorn logo is now synonymous with the race. The entire running community respects it – even novice runners know that it’s completely taboo to wear the BAA unicorn if they haven’t run Boston.
The stature of Boston as a championship event has diminished significantly over the past 20 years. The race remains the only marathon with qualifying standards, although qualifying times have softened in the modern era. There are well-established world-class marathons in New York City and London and Chicago attracting (and paying) the top talent that would have raced at Boston in years past.
But the BAA never tried to gobble up all of its competitors or worried about making endorsement partnerships with other cities. If another city wanted to host a marathon - great. If runners could use their local marathon to qualify for Boston – even better.
Through the years, the BAA logo remains a symbol of significant achievement in the sport. One big reason is that everyday slackers can’t just buy the unicorn at Wal-Mart – runners have to earn it.
That’s why I wouldn’t mind if the M-dot folks decided to restrict the prevalence of their logo to the Kona championship. But if they continue slapping their name and logo on any race or product that helps increase their market share, it sends a mixed message. And hopefully, you can now appreciate my confusion.
So when you hear from me next week, you can think of me as an Ironman, or a Vineman, or a long course triathlete, or whatever the heck you want. Honestly, I’m not going to lose sleep wondering about what my label should be.
Because I know what I am. I’ll know what I’ve done. And it doesn’t really matter to me what you choose to call it.