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July 30, 2007

I've Got Your M-dot Right Here (And Here. And Here ...)

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.


Annette 7/30/07, 10:52 AM  

Dang! Who knew there was so much political garbage surrounding IronMans?! If someone can complete it, they can call themselves whatever the heck they want! So, wear that IronMan gear proudly - you will have earned it! (Excuse me while I hide my watch from you true IronMen!) :)

Good luck! I can't wait to hear how it goes.

a.maria 7/30/07, 1:10 PM  

GREAT post. as a newb to triathlon, i've yet to decide how i feel about this issue, but you bring up some GREAT points.

especially considering i've got a big fat Mdot on my watch. i've never thought about it but yeah.. totally hypocritcal.

not of me.. of THEM! i'll def'ly keep this in mind next time i find myself engulfed in the issue!

Robin 7/30/07, 2:17 PM  

I think that the addition of the Ironman 70.3 (as opposed to "half") series has made this much worse. Oh and lets not forget the M-dot jog strollers for all of your iron babies.

Having done Canada twice I find it really sad that anyone completing any 140.6 tri would not be considered an Ironman, especially by their peers.

I do still hold reverence for Kona though, my dad was in Hawaii two years ago and bought me a Kona Ironman t-shirt. And to this day I have never worn it. I just couldn't stand getting asked the inevitable question.

Best of luck this weekend, what you gain, no legal team will ever be able to take away, no matter what you call it.

Anne 7/30/07, 4:40 PM  

I'd venture up to a quarter of some Boston fields now are made up of non-qualifiers -- slower members of New England track clubs that get free numbers; charity runners; and bandits. We tend to forget the BAA and Ironman franchises are in it to make money by promoting their events as "exclusive" and therefore prestigious. They also have a brand to protect, or pummel to death as Ironman appears to be doing.

Addy 7/30/07, 6:25 PM  

hi. I've stumbled over from Michelle's blog and wanted to say that I really enjoyed your post. I had no idea that there was so much controversy surrounding the Ironman logo (though I did know about it's easy access as I have ironman sunglasses and my dad has the ironman watch- just because it was the cheapest waterproof one available!). The exclusivity definitely seems damaged by that alone. I had thought that any 140.6 distance tri was an ironman by default, but I didn't realize the extent to which politics (and, I guess capitalism) plays into effect here.

In any event, good luck next week!

rick 7/30/07, 8:20 PM  

I agree with Robin, the addition of the 70.3 series confuses the whole issue even further. You could complete any of those and proudly wear the mdot too. My first and only Ironman distance event was a non mdot event in Florida. After that event I had no problem calling myself an Ironman but I felt weird wearing any of the mdot stuff. The following year I did Oceanside 70.3 in San Diego and now I have no problems at. I still won't be branding my body with that logo though. It has been in the back of my mind for awhile now that I'd like to finish one of those official mdot races. They just seem so big, festive and "official".

Anyway have a great time at Vineman.

Bruce 7/31/07, 3:47 AM  

Well written post Donald. You raise some good and fair points. Totally agree that the logo has pretty much lost its exclusivity to the mass product sales.

robtherunner 7/31/07, 10:09 AM  

It certainly seems quite arrogant that you can complete a 140.6 mile course, but not be considered an official IM finisher because it is not sanctioned by an organization out to profit from the brand name, or whatever you want to call it. It seems even more arrogant that a peer in the sport would not consider you an IM finisher unless you competed in a sanctioned IM event. All I can say is shame on them.

Have a great race!

Phoenix 7/31/07, 12:23 PM  

140.6 requires a will and body of Iron to complete. Finishing it makes you an Ironman. They can't own that label any more than USAT (which is an organization I support and am grateful for) can own the label "triathlet". Like you're only a triathlete if you carry the card.

Have a great race.

Backofpack 7/31/07, 4:39 PM  

Wow, this was pretty interesting to read. As a non-tri person, I had no idea - I thought Ironman was all about the distance, I had no idea that it was a corporate thing. My first watch has the mdot on it and I've never thought anything about it. No one will think I did an Ironman because of it though - because I only use it to time my naps! The rest of my stuff is Polar or Garmin. Anyway, thanks for the great commentary - and in my eyes, when you finish Vineman you will be an Ironman - because you did the distance and I am sure it will take a will of Iron to do it!

Laurie 7/31/07, 4:43 PM  

Very well put. I haven't heard it argued this way before and I completely agree with you.

Good luck with your race this weekend!

Matt 8/1/07, 6:48 AM  

I agree. I look forward to earning the right to wear the Unicorn logo, but feel I have the right to call myself an Ironman if I ever complete the distance. I will consider you an Ironman sometime on Sunday. Let's hope it's early right?

Robb 8/1/07, 7:12 AM  

I say get the tattoo anyway...or the personalized license plate that says I-Man.

At least, get the logo shaved on your back.

stronger 8/1/07, 1:55 PM  

I once told someone re: the m-dot, that only one man died on a cross but many people wear crosses around their necks...presumably because it means something to those who wish to adorn it.

Mdot is a logo- not rights into an exclusive club imposed by elitist a-holes.

Dying Water Buffalo 8/1/07, 7:22 PM  

I'm just gonna label you a badass. And a nutjob :)

21stCenturyMom 8/2/07, 9:39 AM  

Right on! When rA did the poll regarding whether or not finishing any 140.6 made you an Ironman I was the one who pointed a finger and remarked about all of the brand name hos in the audience (over 40% said no, much to my surprise). You go the distance you get the title - period.

I've heard a rumor that my race club is handling one of the water stations so maybe I'll see you there! Good luck!

Megan 8/5/07, 9:09 PM  

Right on, right on. Well-written, well-thought out. I couln't agree more. 'Nough said.

World of BRi 9/9/08, 12:55 PM  

I stumbled on your blog on accident, but loved what you had to say. I'm actually getting my m-dot tattoo this weekend after completing Ironman Coeur d'Alene this summer. In the eyes of those of us that race, you're an Ironman. Just as much as the people that finish in 17:01:00 and don't officially earn the title. But I do agree that the Ironman sanctioned title is important to the logo- but I will do some "iron distance" races in my future- much cheaper!

You should make the jump to official M-dot status, not just Ironman. I can highly recommend the Couer d'Alene course.

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