An Endurance Test that Puzzles and Inspires


Moritz Kosinsky / Wikimedia Commons

MADISON, Wisconsin — A glorious September day is breaking over scenic Lake Monona, but nearly 2,500 people are about to have perhaps the most miserable experience of their lives.

You may not feel sorry for them, since the entrants in the Ironman Wisconsin are all volunteers. Actually, "volunteer" is an understatement. Each of them has expended huge sums of time and money—and even bigger quantities of sweat—for the privilege of putting themselves through hell.

It's an odd place to do it. Madison is as close as human beings get to paradise in this world, being blessed with three of the critical requirements for happiness: used bookstores, ready access to nature, and college football. The Ironman participants, by contrast, seek out three bottomless sources of suffering.

The athletes waiting to plunge into the chilly water at 7 a.m. will swim 2.4 miles around the lake, strip off their wetsuits, don shoes and helmets, and mount bicycles to pedal 112 miles through the Wisconsin countryside. Then they'll kick back with an ice-cold Leinenkugel.

Just kidding. Then they'll run a marathon, which if you have forgotten is 26.2 miles. After that, I assume they will retire to their hotel rooms and stick needles into their eyeballs, to make sure no pain receptors go to waste.

The average finisher needs more than 12 hours to navigate the course. I consider 12 hours of —driving—to be a grueling endurance test. I am here because the apple falls 140.6 miles from the tree. My elder son, Ross, is one of those people waiting for this exercise in self-torture, not for his first time.

I would like to say that he inherited his athletic fortitude from me, but I must admit, that time I did a 5K I found it really exhausting. I alternate between feeling paternal pride and wondering how I could have him involuntarily committed. It is puzzling to discover that some people like pain better than most of us like pleasure.

My first awareness of this strange event came in 1982, thanks to TV news coverage of the finish of the Ironman Hawaii, when one Julie Moss staggered and collapsed repeatedly as she approached the finish line, looking as though she would die in the process. She did finish and didn't die—and did more Ironman races.

Back then, I would have guessed they were as likely to catch on as oral surgery without anesthesia. In fact, there are now 35 Ironman races a year (not counting the Ironman 70.3 events, which are half the distance) around the world, attracting 85,000 participants.

The phenomenon makes for a diverting spectacle. Most of the athletes have sinewy bodies, but a few look as though they trained by sitting on a couch and eating donuts. A few sprint to the finish line, and some walk. Some arrive at the end smiling, most grimacing and a few weeping.

Many have supporters on hand. A few boast groups as big as a family reunion, dressed in matching T-shirts, waving signs and ringing cowbells.

Ross' friends Chip and Julian Harkleroad will not find their father, Lee, loyally cheering them along the route—because he'll be following them. At age 60, the Lake Bluff, Ill., resident and cancer survivor has completed 10 Ironman races, including four in 2014, but he has the good sense to take a break before his next one. It's not until Sept. 27.

Unlike in big-city marathons, the crowds for this race are small enough to make it easy to see the competitors—or even to jump out on the course, high-five your favorite ones and bellow encouragement as they go by. Don't ask how I know this.

But the question remains why all these people insist on putting themselves through such a pitiless ordeal, which is merely the endpoint of months of exhausting preparation. Their rewards are a medal and an amplified announcement as each one crosses the finish line: "You're an Ironman!"

They get no money, little recognition, and a lot of sore muscles and joints. They do it just for the reward of doing something that pushes the limit of their capacities—and then breaks through. There is something inspiring in the effort.

Still, if I were asked to advise them, I would suggest they rethink their priorities. I would tell them that life is short, that moderation in all things is wise, that they need to achieve a sensible balance in…

Oh, like hell I would.

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  1. Madison is as close as human beings get to paradise in this world, being blessed with three of the critical requirements for happiness: used bookstores, ready access to nature, and college football.

    Jesus christ, I think Chapman gets dumber as he gets older.

    1. Madison is a hellhole of communists, progs, statists, etc…

      1. I assume it’s cold as shit too.

        1. So what you’re saying is all men in Madison have small dongers.

          1. “I was in the pool! It shrinks in the pool!”

        2. I lived there for two winters. I visit for a weekend nearly every August. Guess which is the way to go?

      2. Amen to that. Worst place I ever lived, and those include Cleveland, Portland, and Sioux City (IA).
        Gah. Madison reeks of prig-privilege and smug arrogance. And they could teach Chicago a thing or two about political corruption and rampant crony-ism.

        1. Cleveland, Portland, and Madison. Jesus Christ, you are a masochist.

        2. Why did Portland suck? I’ve heard nothing put good things.

          1. Portland has good restaurants/bars. I liked it.

          2. I actually liked Portland and Cleveland. The list is drawn far more from popular perception of prog-tastic crapholes than from my personal experience. Madison was the horrific exception. (And mind you, this was Portland in the 90’s — it’s gotten a metric fucktonne worse.)

      3. Also a dirty dump.

      4. I’ve lived in Madison. Lived in Austin. Lived in San Francisco. Do I get some kind of tolerance award?

        Actually, MAD was pretty nice- I’d happily move back there. -40 degrees doesn’t bother me.

      5. I think he was just trolling his Tribune readers.

        The Chicago-ites and ‘Sconnies hate each other even more than us Minnesodans and ‘Sconnies do (mostly because we pity them).

  2. I know a bunch of people who have done these events. Their discipline, focus and dedication is admirable.

    However, all of them are also raging egomaniacs and narcissists.

    1. I’d add idiots to that list, personally. I don’t work hard to spend my money doing what kids in Ethiopia do on a daily basis.

    2. Same with people who do adventure races, none of those people are what I would call normal

    3. Only dude I know that does this stuff is retired Air Force….I think he misses something, and uses this to fill that void.

    4. Concur on the dedication since that’s a lot of monotomy and uncomfort to put up with, but I just don’t get why they are placed on a pedestal (by some) as the pinacle of athletic achievement. They are one dimensional athletes training in a single domain: endurance. I’ve always thought decathaletes make better examples/role models. That’s my personal training philosophy: be able to out-run lifters and out-lift runners.

      1. but its so much fun watching people trying to induce premature heart attacks?

        1. ha, I did a sprint triathlon a few weeks ago (for grins) that the wife did the year before. At that one a guy died right there at the completion of the swim. Unlike a lot of these hardcore endurance athletes who’ve simply enlarged their hearts to the point of death, this guy was clearly fat, out of shape and no-doubt signing off a (final) bucket list item.

  3. I went to Madison once. I saw The Who at Alpine Valley, and then stayed at my friend’s apartment. It was cold, wet, and miserable. We got drunk, and were thrown out of a couple bars. Still drunk, we started driving back to Columbus at about 4 in the morning. My friend Brian almost killed us when he drove the rental car off the transition ramp in Indianapolis. It was a good road trip. But I fucking hate Madison.

    1. Alpine Valley is not in Madison. You drove all the way to Madison after the show was over?

  4. Off Topic: But has reason done any recent articles on the whole Scott Walker vs Democratic Prosecutor with rage on.

    1. No I believe they will troll John on that like they did with pakistani rape cases in england.

      1. I’m guessing that means that John has brought the issue up in the comments before?

  5. I did a triathlon during grad school some 25 years back. My backside was sore for about 2 weeks from riding a bike that far in wet shorts. Never even considered doing it again.

    And no, it wasn’t an ego thing. A bunch of us decided to try it for a lark. We “trained” for about a month, which since we were young and possessing the kind of conditioning you possess when you are young mostly consisted of riding our bikes to get used to riding long distances.

    Well, Ok, there was a chick thing involved. A couple of the girls were former division 1 swimmers and they were pretty much what you’d expect for a single former division 1 swimmer in her early 20’s. Of course the guys agreed to join them on their quest.

    Just like we all said “sure, let’s bike the Blue Ridge Parkway! That sounds like fun!” (hint, no it isn’t. Even though it looks pretty level, there are steep climbs that go on for mile after mile after mile. Just miserable. The fun of coasting downhill at breakneck speeds for miles in no way makes up for the misery on the way up.)

    1. Doing it for chicks is the best reason to do it

      1. The only reason.

  6. Madison is a dump.

  7. If you think doing an Ironman is crazy, just imagine doing an Ironman while at the same time bringing your physically disabled adult son along for the ride.

    1. NO, see. That just goes on to badassery. The crazy doesn’t matter. Also, it makes my eyes sweat.

  8. I frankly don’t understand why anyone would expend any energy on something so useless. I scoff at people who walk up escalators.

    1. Because they derive pleasure from it.


  9. I lived in Madison for four years. What constitutes the East Side is older/blue collar. The West Side was yuppies and DINKS. Downtown gave Berkeley a run for it’s money (Madison has been called Berkeley Central). Had some nice restaurants back in the day – 4 star type places on down to a mess of jerk chicken/beans/rice.

    As for being a socialist hell-hole, what Madison was circa 1996 is what the whole country is now.

    1. East side is now hipster central. I just moved from there last month to McFarland. 6 miles difference but a world apart. Restaurants are good in Madison though and the beer is improving (I’m originally from Michigan, which has better beer.)

  10. 1) Finishing an Ironman 140.6 is one of, if not the best moment of my life. I cannot describe how immensely satisfying it felt.

    2) I could be a raging egoist & narcissist. Most people in the tri community are part of the cult of triathlons. They spend every waking minute trying to find a way to gain an edge while training, setting a PR, or to lose a few grams from their bicycle.

    3) It is very expensive, so why the hell would one do WI when ID is available? Or maybe New Zealand?

    1. It is a cult. And that’s fine, but when the cult members start looking down on people who only do halves or Olympics, or bike but don’t run, or just prefer to hang out with their kids instead of wasting hours training, well then the cult goes from weird to stupid.

      1. I won’t defend the cult at all. I enjoy movies & doughnuts too much to ever be part of the cult…except for perhaps buying an excessively priced bicycle.

        1. I’ll give you that. The bikes are cool technology.

      2. Oh, cyclists look down on triathletes. Tri people usually have sketchy group riding skills- they spend most of their time riding alone and haven’t ridden in packs like at road races. They are to be wary of when passing on the road.

        That said, I’m a swimmer and a cyclist, not a runner, I’ve done triathlons, a few 70.3s and most of a IM included (bad day).

        Ironman is seen as the goal in triathlon for amateurs, (like runners have a goal of completing a marathon) but that is largely due to marketing I think. There is a big company behind the IM (140.6) and half-IM (70.3) races. The race fees are about, say, $500 for an ironman.

        The Olympic distance is 1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run- much shorter. Much less wear and tear on the body, can be raced more often, cheaper entry fees (maybe $75), and is the distance of many regional tris you do year after year and compare your times for improvement.

  11. The Ironman is more boring than the Iditarod.

    MUCH more boring. Dogs are cool.

  12. Madison is such a paradise that Hawaii is actually changing it’s state slogan to “The Madison of the Pacific”.

  13. *Madison is as close as human beings get to paradise in this world*

    Nonsense. It was a nice place to snag a couple of degrees, but it’s frozen stiff half the year [the winter wind galing down the Isthmus reminds one of what it must have been like to be in the 6th Army in Stalingrad], totally infested with statist/commie scum and crawling with bums and the mentally ill.

    Go visit in summer when 90% of the college kids are gone, but avoid at all costs any other time.

  14. three of the critical requirements for happiness: used bookstores

    How quaint.

    Here in 2014, the last place I need to go to get a book – even a used physical one – is some godawful used book store with horrible inventory.

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