When people willingly tattoo a company logo on their person

Fans of Apple, or Nike can queue for hours, or even days when a new product is released. In addition to the products themselves they might zealously slap stickers with the logo all over their belongings, but even advocates of these brands are unlikely to tattoo the company logo on their person. However, there is one brand where this happens. The company doesn’t pay these zealots, in fact you could even argue the zealots pay the company.

Ironman is an organization that runs endurance events. They are responsible for the Singapore Marathon, the Bordeaux Marathon, and in 2017 they bought the company running the Rock n Roll endurance races. However, it’s for triathlons that they are best known, and their swim-bike-run event in Kona, Hawaii is the race all the top athletes want to enter and win. Merely qualifying for the Hawaii event is a crowning achievement.

The full distance triathlon, with which their name has become synonymous, will usually begin at 7am with an hors’ d’oeuvres of 2.4 miles of open water swimming. You’ve little time to digest that before moving on to the main course, a 112 mile bike ride. Dessert, if you have the stomach, is a full marathon. The total distance is just over 140 miles, or 226 kilometres. Cut-off time is midnight, or 17 hours.

There are plenty of full distance triathlons around the world, but only those run by Ironman can officially call themselves an “Ironman triathlon”. You know a brand has truly made it in the minds of the public when the company name or product line has replaced the more generic noun or verb. Think Scotch tape instead of sticky tape, to Hoover instead of to vacuum, Kleenex, Xerox, etc. If you are a man going through a midlife crisis then you refer to a “full distance triathlon” as an “Ironman” regardless of whether it is run by the Ironman organization. (It trips off the tongue more smoothly than the alternative, and it has the added bonus of sounding Marvel-cool.)

Participants don’t take the event lightly. Anyone who is serious about successfully completing an Ironman triathlon will start formal training for a September event in April, and should already have some base level of fitness. There are days they need to train twice, and as race day nears the weekends become almost wholly given over to ever longer bike rides and ever longer runs. (The swimming will commonly be during the week.) By the time of race day participants might expect to have run over 500 miles in training, and biked in excess of 2,000 miles.

The financial cost is not light either once you’ve paid for: triathlon clothing, a separate wet suit, goggles, bike, bike shoes, bike helmet, replacement bike parts, bike maintenance, running shoes, coaching fees, physical therapy, massage, anti-chlorine shampoo, anti-chaffing cream, expensive go-faster sunglasses, energy bars, energy gels, energy drinks, and probably dental bills as well considering all of that sugar. The race fee itself is not inconsiderable, and since races are rarely on your doorstep you may also need to incur air fare, car rental, bike shipment costs, and accommodation all before the requisite trip to the tattoo parlor. Write out a check for $2,500, but be prepared to pay more.

It’s no wonder, after such commitment, such sacrifice, and such expense, that finishers want to brand themselves with evidence of their achievement. It’s common to find the Ironman logo painted on a bulging calf, but there are many body parts selected for the ink, and even more variations on the logo design, perfectly reflecting the diversity and individuality of those undertaking the journey.

It would be easy to think the participants are all lean, muscled men with too much money, too much time on their hands, and too much testosterone but in truth the participants are a glorious pot pourri of age, gender, race, nationality, faith, political persuasion, ego and physique. What they do all share is their commitment to the journey and a desire to test themselves in this way. I would also speculate that the majority are competitive, over-achievers and I wouldn’t be surprised if even their blood is type A.

However, few compare their finish times — they just want to make the cut-off — because everyone is on their own journey. The support for one another at such events is palpable… and addictive. Although not always visible, it’s understood that each has their own obstacles to navigate and so comparing times is an exercise in futility. Comparing is not the point. Whether you have five children or none, one kidney or two, one leg or two, this diverse group of people just want to come together and see what they themselves are made of; everyone trains and races to the beat of their own drum. There is even room for my friend, Don, who definitely does not have type A blood.

Knowing that my friend Don was doing such an event later in the year, but knowing little about these undertakings at the time, I naively asked him if he had a finish time in mind. He quipped, “I want to cross the line at 11:59pm”.

I had heard the largest cheer is reserved for the last person to make it across the line before the midnight cut-off, but Don is not a seeker of the limelight. I was confused. He continued, “If I finish earlier then I have probably tried too hard.”

He went on with his dry assessment of the day, “There is also the added benefit of value for money; these things are exPENsive! The longer I spend on the course, the more of their food and drink I consume, the more I will have got for my dollar. It’s all about dollars per hour.”

Don didn’t win but he did finish. I don’t know his time either but it was probably too fast for his liking, although in a ranking of value for money I expect he was way up there. When anyone asks him his time he might shrug, or he might tell them, it probably depends on their blood type. The time is irrelevant anyway.

He has earned the label without needing to mark himself. He said it wasn’t necessary because HE knew what he had done, and that was the most important thing. When he said that, I thought about our hidden allegiances, our hidden tribes, and I thought about Don’s humility.

He smiled. “Some of those tattoos are really pretty cool though. They just aren’t for me.” I looked back at him, standing there in his Ironman hat, his Ironman t-shirt and his rather pricy Ironman finishers’ jacket, drinking coffee from his Ironman mug, and I found myself nodding.

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When we cheer on marathon runners, are we applauding the right thing?

A few years ago I returned to my parents’ home after a long run. I was training for a marathon. Early one Sunday morning and covered in sweat and spit (but having taken off my shoes) I shuffled into the family living room. My father and brother were seated on comfy furniture engrossed in the newspapers. My father looked up, smiled, and asked me, “how far did you go?”

“Seventeen miles, I replied.”

My brother casually dipped the top of the broadsheet he was reading and without missing a beat inquired, “did you take my car or mum’s?”

We can always rely on family and close friends to keep our feet on the ground, and to remind us that sometimes what we do is not normal. 

I’m writing this on the eve of the 2018 Chicago marathon. Most of those taking part will have been in formal training for over four months. Chicago has a large number of group training programs, which is lucky because it helps to have coaching, it helps to have peer support, and because misery loves company.

Towards the beginning of training the athletes may run 15 miles a week. As they progress through the program this can climb to peak in excess of 40 or 50 miles. Their bodies are being pushed beyond what were once were limits. As new thresholds are breached, successes are celebrated. As unexpected injuries arise, they are navigated… or commiserated; simply getting to the start line in something close to one piece is a huge win.

On their journey they will learn more about physiology and anatomy than they ever wanted to know: which muscles work in tandem with one another, which joints suffer when a body is out of balance, and how to address weakness in stabilizing muscles through cross-training. They will learn a foreign language with words and expressions such as ‘plantar fasciitis’ and ‘iliotibial bands’. The risk of over-use injury increases with each week if the training isn’t measured. You can’t cram for a marathon. Consistency is key.

In addition to their muscles they are training their gut to absorb an amount of sugar that would make a dentist weep. Post race showers perform a cleansing role – vital to their loved ones – but the hot water also serves to inform them, painfully, which parts of their bodies they need to lube in order to head off sometimes bloody chaffing. And all those miles on their feet will build the calluses needed to protect them on race day; you don’t want to lose this hard-won armor during a pedicure.

What each runner puts into a race is beyond impressive, but this is only part of the story. 

A successfully completed marathon training program takes self-discipline, and it takes sacrifice. The opportunity cost, as economists refer to it, of training for an endurance event is immense; it’s not what you do in order to achieve success, it’s what you give up.

Near constant tiredness means prioritizing sleep wherever possible. If the runner has a family and only a small support network then this is not always an option; there are many days they are flying on vapor. 

Nights out with friends are curtailed, or even put on hold in order to be able to wake up for the weekly long run that can begin at 6am. The alarm goes off even earlier to allow for the obligatory morning movement – one’s bowels must not be rushed. Restrooms are not always an option on some routes, and if your run lasts for 20 miles then…

Other hobbies, past times, and responsibilities are put on ice to accommodate what quickly becomes an inflated time commitment because in addition to the core event listed in the training program, the runner needs to factor in the travel to and from, and stretching immediately following. What the training program also fails to mention is the time required for sports massage, physical therapy, buying new running attire, nutrition,… and the list goes on. Running becomes they only thing they can talk about.

Finally, the role of the support network can’t be understated. It’s not just the runner who is giving up time with their friends, it’s also the friends giving up time with the runner. At home a partner may be taking on more of the chores. And don’t forget the emotional wringer; it’s a roller coaster of joy and misery, delight in hitting goals, doubts when they are missed, or when the athlete needs to start all over again after an injury. It takes a village.

If a marathon takes place in your city, please cheer these people on. Please also know that marathon running is very much like the proverbial iceberg and it’s not just for that one day you’re cheering but also their hidden effort, their hidden sacrifice, and their hidden village. Thank you for your support.