Triathlon is more than Ironman

An ironman triathlon finish line | Boulder, Colorado
August 31, 2015

Mike Ricci



The last time I raced a USAT Nationals was 2003. The races were well run back then, but could not compete with the atmosphere of the Ironman events back in the day. After a weekend in Milwaukee at this year’s Nationals, and it’s Ironman that has some catching up to do in my mind.

Part of it was Milwaukee, but by no means all. The venue was exceptional. I suspect that some of the IM venues in Europe rival the fun of racing in the middle of a big city like Milwaukee, but none of the NA events are quite like this weekend. Even Boulder, which is an awesome location, does not have everything happening in the middle of town (it helped to have a lake downtown). A huge part of the event success was the atmosphere and organization. It was first class!

I missed out on the excitement of Kona this year (12x finisher!), but I did volunteer and watch the Boulder IM and had athletes racing in Canada, Arizona, Boulder and Chattanooga in the past year as well as a number of friends. I also raced in and had athletes racing in shorter events around the country. Looking at the faces of finishers in local races and at Nationals got me thinking why do we, the general public and many triathletes, feel that completion of an Ironman event is a mark of some extraordinary achievement and other races, while impressive, really don’t count much.

Consider this. Is this year’s male Ironman World Championship achievement more significant than his Gold Medal in the 2008 Olympics? Olympics are only once every 4 years and most athletes are at the peak performance in their lives for not much more than 4-6 years. So timing to reach your peak only comes around a few times. I think the Gold is more impressive.

Is anyone who decides to make a significant change to their health and fitness, and set out to not just finish, but finish well in a Sprint or Olympic race, and race at the National level any less inspirational? Here is some of the inspiration I got from the USAT Nationals this year.

Milwaukee The top men were running 33-36 10k with bike speeds over 26mph with even faster pacing in the sprint. The top women rode a bit slower, but Olympic winner Abby Levene (Boulder resident) was right up there with her male counterpart when she got her running shoes on, they went 34:53 and 33:47 respectively. The winner of my AG (65-69) in the sprint ran a 20 min 5k. If that was not enough we had 78-year-old Sheila Isaacs, a friend, winning the sprint and 85-year-old Winston Allen winning the 85+ category followed by 91-year-old Robert Powers. Winston swam 19 min, biked at 15mph and ran a 14 min mile. When Robert got on the stage I realized I had a good 20 more years in the sport.

Sheila incidentally set out in her late 50’s to race in a triathlon in every state of the Union. She finished that quest in grand style in Kona, in 2004. If you want to read more about Shelia go here.

Following are some other stats from the Olympic Nationals. To finish in the top 20% of an AG you would have had to go approximately under:

  • M85+ 3:30
  • M80-84 3:30
  • M75-79 2:43
  • F75-59 3:37
  • M70-74 2:43
  • F70-74 3:11
  • M65-69 2:35
  • F65-69 2:57
  • M60-64 2:28
  • F60-64 2:47
  • M55-59 2:21
  • F55-59 2:36
  • M50-54 2:16
  • F50-54 2:31
  • F35-39 2:24
  • M35-39 2:09

I did not list all AG because I think you get the idea, the performances are impressive. Can you complete an Olympic course (Nationals bike had a few short climbs, but was generally quite flat, the run was flat) at these speeds? This is no tea party!

Another way of looking at this is Ellen Hart, a very well known 55+ Colorado athlete finished 4th at Nationals and won her AG in Kona. The run course was too short for her always fast run splits.

So why do we put finishing an IM in such high regard? Ironman got its name by chance from the wonderful crazy Navy Seals in Hawaii who dreamed up the first competition. I don’t think any focus group has ever came up with such a perfect brand name. It also helped that the Championship evolved in Paradise, at least as far as a destination is concerned.

That brand name is polished hard every October and a marketing juggernaut has evolved over the years. Swimming, biking and running 140.6 miles is not enough in the minds of many, it has to be an Ironman branded event. But, I think many would be well advised to reset that thinking. You can just finish an Olympic or Sprint Tri as many set out to do when they tackle an Ironman, or you can set some serious goals to start moving that PR steadily upward in shorter events.

Doing that does not require the massive amount of time and resources it takes to tackle an Ironman. You can train and spend a good bit of the weekend with your family friends and kids! You do not have to drive yourself nuts, and those around you, as you make every second of your day count. Most importantly you are not stressing yourself so much that you are putting your health at risk.

And, when you do get to race at the levels I have been talking about, and you still want to do an Ironman, you may find yourself qualifying for Kona much easier than you might imagine. Shelia did on her first attempt!

Coach Simon Butterworth believes winning does not have to mean being first. It was never more clear to me  than  Hawaii 2009 when circumstances conspired to put me out on the run with many for whom winning was just finishing. Being first in a triathlon is great for the lucky ones.  I have been lucky at times, but “winning” for whatever reason can be just as much fun and many times even more rewarding.  So my goal for anyone I coach is to help them win!

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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