This Sunday, August 26th, all eyes turn to Penticton, as the Sports world bows its gracious head to Subaru Ironman Canada, one of the most grueling and yet awe-inspiring events in the world of sport. Ironman triathlon features a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a complete marathon (26.2 miles) all in succession without break. Athletes have 17 hours to complete the event (from the 7 a.m. start until midnight). Penticton’s Subaru Ironman Canada is the oldest Ironman race hosted on the North American continent and will see its 30th anniversary this year as it continues to be revered as one of the best Ironman events attested by its history and model course. With a population of only 30,000, Penticton’s community contributes over 4500 volunteers, nick-named the “Iron Army,” and is generally upheld as one of the most athlete-friendly cities. This year more than 2800 athletes will compete in the 30th annual triathlon. The large field includes athletes from each of the Canadian provinces, 44 U.S. states and more than 25 countries.
Like many great things, Ironman triathlon owes much of its greatness to the humblest of beginnings. In the late 1970s, a group of Navy Seals stationed in Hawai’i, argued the moot point of archetype athleticism, debating whether cycling, running or biking produced the best athletes in the world. Unable to concede, Navy commander John Collins suggested they put their theories to the test, by hosting a race that would combine all three sporting activities in succession. Hence, on February 18th, 1978, 15 competitors decided to put themselves to the test by swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles. Collins was quoted saying, “Whoever finishes first will be called the Ironman,” and thus, the Ironman Triathlon was born. Of the 15 men to start off in the early morning on February 18, only twelve completed the race. With no further marketing efforts, the race gathered as many as 50 athletes the following year, seeing its first female athlete, Lyn Lemaire, a championship cyclist from Boston, place sixth overall to become the first “Ironwoman.” Following a ten-page article in Sports Illustrated, hundreds of curious participants contacted Collins about signing up for the next year’s race… and it has continued to grow in world renown ever since.
Interestingly, of all the athletes to have competed in 2011 Suburu Ironman Canada, 70% were men and only 29.9% were female. Although the numbers of female athletes are growing, men generally dominate the sport. Surprisingly, the oldest women to compete in the 2011 Subaru Ironman Canada was Madonna Buder at 81 years of age, while the youngest was Ciena Calavitta, 21 years of age, both of whom were from the United States. While the top professional athletes exalt finishing times above and beyond what seems humanly possible, the female professional athlete’s finishing times fall short of their male counterparts by a mere half an hour. However, the women of the Ironman Triathlon have inspired some of the most enduring and memorable races throughout the event’s history. For example, in 1982, Julie Moss, a then college student competing to gather research for her exercise physiology thesis, collapsed just yards from the finish line after being the first-place hopeful. Despite Kathleen McCartney passing her to take the women’s title, Moss nevertheless crawled to the finish line, a performance that was broadcast worldwide and created the Ironman mantra that just finishing is a victory.
Today thousands of athletes worldwide compete at an Ironman event each year, the vast majority aim simply to just finish the course, or set a personal record if they’ve raced this distance before. People completing the event within the strict timeline, are thus recognized as “Ironmen” or “Ironwomen.” Apart from the Ironman mantra, many professional and amateur athletes alike compete around the world at Ironman Triathlon races to qualify for the annual Ironman World Championships. Although much has changed since the event’s humble beginnings with Navy commander John Collins and his group of sporting enthusiasts, the Ironman format remains constant, and with 28 full-distance races worldwide and more than 25,000 athletes, the franchise and brand has truly become a worldwide phenomenon.