Steve Chapman: An Endurance Test that Puzzles and Inspires

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Ironman
Moritz Kosinksy / 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.

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!"

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