Ironman is a classification of triathlon, and is the longest of the three main classifications: sprint, Olympic or International, and Ironman. The word's use is so exclusive to triathlons (in an official capacity) that often the word "triathlon" is dropped from the title, and the event is referred to as an Ironman.

But what is one? Sprint and even Olympic length are descriptive of triathlons with varying lengths, but the Ironman is not. Technically, in order for a race to be considered Ironman length, the three legs must be the following distances:

  • Swim: 2.4 miles (3.86 km)
  • Bike: 112 miles (180.2 km)
  • Run: 26.2 miles (42 km), otherwise known as a marathon.


You may be wondering where these seemingly arbitrary distances came from. Well, great sporting event origins all tend to involve a dare...

In 1978, after a running race, an argument arose over who were the greater athletes: swimmers, runners, or others. John Collins, a Navy Commander and arguer, dreams up a race to settle this debate. He proposes combining three existing races together, to be completed in succession: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 miles), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (112 miles, originally a two-day event) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles).

"Whoever finishes first we’ll call the Ironman," said Collins.

On February 18th of that year, 15 men competed in the first ever Ironman. 12 of them completed the race, with George Heller earning the first official title of Ironman. His time was 11:46:58.

Word about the extraordinary race spreads by mouth. The following year, there are 50 participants. However, due to another small turnout, Collins considered abandoning the solo format and making it a relay event. Luckily, a writer for Sports Illustrated just happened to be on the island at the time covering a golf tournament. This writer, Barry McDermott, was so enthralled by the race he wrote a 10-page article on it for his magazine, and got the cover story. The Ironman was world famous overnight.

The Ironman triathlon movement grew tremendously over the next few years. In 1980 ABC Sports broadcast the event, despite Collins's insistance that it was far from enthralling television:

"Watching the race is about as exciting as a grass growing contest."

Nonetheless, ABC aired it and further spread the gospel of the Ironman race. In 1982, Bud Light became the first title sponsor. It was also the first year that cutoff times had to be instituted, further testament to the swelling crowd who wanted to become Ironmen. Crowds would eventually swell to the point that similar races were started all over the world, and continue to be held on an annual basis.


Over the next 15 years, the annual Ironman race that was started in Hawaii became the world championships for triathlons of that qualification. The following are Official Ironman championship qualification races. Most are Ironman length themselves, the ones that aren't are half-Ironmans, and are noted.


Obviously, with a race this long, keeping absolute records for it is pointless due to the variation in terrain and conditions between, say, Canada and Brazil. Thus, the only official records that are maintained are course records. The course records for the world championship race are as follows:


The tremendous distances for each leg of the race tend to scare away the casual athlete. With good reason: the training requirements to complete such an event are upwards of 20 hours a week. That is like working a part-time job, only in most cases you pay to do it.

However, the common person can do it. In fact, even uncommon people can do it. Lindsay Nielsen, a lower-leg amputee, was the first female with such a condition to complete an Ironman last year. Rick and Dick Hoyt, a non-vocal spastic quadripalegic and his father, have completed a number of Ironman length races, including the world championship race in Hawaii. Carlos Moleda and Randy Caddell are both wheelchair bound athletes who have completed multiple Irons as well, and dueled in Hawaii. The distance does not discriminate. It is hard on all.

Due to the incredible amount of resources and officials it takes to conduct and monitor a race like this, there are often cutoff times that you must beat to finish each leg in order to finish officially. These times vary from race to race, but the cutoffs for Ironman Hawaii are as follows (times represent the time from the beginning of the race):

  • Swim: 2h 20min
  • Bike: 10h 30min
  • Run: 17h

Keep in mind that these are for the World Championship Ironman Triathlon, but cutoff times are a part of most Ironman length races none the less. This seems like the cruelest part of the race to most people. Clearly, in order to even attempt a race of this length you must have trained for quite a while and/or be insane. But, if you don't finish the bike leg before the clock ticks 10:30:00, you are disqualified. Even if you have a great run.

So, do you want to do one? Do you yearn for the day that you can casually drop into office conversation, "So, I did an Ironman this weekend. What'd you do Tom?" Most people would recommend that you start with a shorter triathlon, and work your way up. And make sure you can complete all the legs seperately (in separate races, of course) before attempt the whole enchilada. And don't forget to save something for the run. It is a marathon, after all.

But, if that length of multi-sport race isn't enough for you, even longer events are categorized by multiplying the length of the Ironman legs by integer values. World records for double, triple, and so on up to 10x Ironman exhibitions do exist. Really. Do to the ridiculous amount of resources needed to put on an exhibition such as this, fields are usually limited to less than 50 competitors.
Swim Bike Run: technique, training, racing, Wes Hobson, Clark Campbell, Mike Vickers.

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