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How Tough Is The Hawaii Ironman?

  • By Tim DeBoom
  • Published Apr 23, 2013
  • Updated Nov 18, 2013 at 8:52 PM UTC
Illustration by Hunter King.

A new book led Tim DeBoom to reevaluate how “tough” the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii really is.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

I love a good list. My house is full of them. They’re not on my phone or in my computer; they are the good, old-fashioned pen-to-paper written kind. Yellow sticky notes stacked one on top of another. They are on the fridge, counters and anywhere I know (or my wife knows) I’ll see them. There is my wife’s to-do list, the grocery list, the music-to-download list, the new gear “wants vs. needs” list, the great quotes list, and on it goes. I even have a list to help prioritize my lists.

One list is always front and center year after year, and it is constantly evolving. I have had one iteration or another of the list since I first started participating in this crazy endurance event-filled world. I call it the “Big List.” It is my dream list of athletic events to complete at some point in my life. It ebbs and flows as I check off the conquests and add the new endeavors that catch my eye.

The Big List started with just one event in 1991, the Hawaii Ironman. I knocked that one out rather quickly, and the list grew from there. For most of the past 20 years, it has been focused on triathlons around the world. Now, with a little more freedom in my career, it has expanded to include anything that sounds fun, challenging and pushes me out of my comfort zone.

I recently came across a new book, and by the title alone, I figured I would have to clear some shelf space for it. The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges profiles 50 of the most extreme endurance events from around the world. It suddenly made my list seem not so “big.”

As I scanned the table of contents that listed the world’s toughest endurance events, I read farther and farther down the page looking for the one I knew would be there: 48, 49, 50 … nothing. This couldn’t be right. “Blasphemy” was the actual word that came to mind. I scanned again. Nope, not there. How could the Hawaii Ironman be excluded from this list?

For years, the Ironman had been that crazy event only masochists ever attempted. In truth, I had a hard time admitting to people that I made my living racing Ironman events around the world, because most could not even comprehend completing even one of the three disciplines. They would only answer with an exasperated, “Why?”

Dare I say that the Ironman has become so commonplace and mundane that it does not rank among the toughest challenges anymore? Sure, its extreme spawn, the Norseman and Ultraman triathlons, are in the book, and I can definitely vouch for the former’s extreme difficulty having completed it in 2011. Still, no Kona?

I delved a little deeper into their list. I was familiar with plenty of the events already. In fact, several were on my own Big List. However, being a connoisseur of competitions in the endurance world, I was surprised by how many I didn’t know.

Understandably, I don’t know much about the sailing, rowing and equestrian events. Most of the other events involve swimming, cycling or running. Considering some of these events were probably inspired by the Ironman, I find it interesting that several are now considered tougher. Some of them could have even been classified as expeditions instead of competitions not long ago.

As I delved a little deeper into each event to understand what it takes to make their list, I came away with the feeling that Ironman did not belong there after all. At least not anymore. Ironman used to be the epitome of ordinary people undertaking an extraordinary challenge. Today, however, with the global growth of the brand, the sheer number of finishers each year, and the expansive 70.3 series, the mystique has faded considerably. If you take a room full of endurance athletes, chances are high that more than one athlete has completed an Ironman-branded event. I would find it hard to say the same about the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon or Yak Attack race.

I should have expected Ironman’s exclusion from this book. After dedicating 20 years of my life to the event, I don’t find it daunting anymore. I feel I could finish an iron-distance race without much training at all. Just as when I did my first Ironman in 1992, I am now looking for a new challenge that intimidates me.

For those athletes who are just getting started in the sport of triathlon, Ironman should be on your list. But for the veteran Ironman finishers who have been racing for a while, it may be time for that next challenge. You might even read this book and create your own Big List. Just know that I call dibs on La Haute Route and Race Around Ireland before they become too easy and popular and miss the next edition of The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges.

Tim DeBoom is a two-time winner of the Ironman World Championship and the last American to win in Kona.

Photos: The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges

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