Features & Images » Feature Story

Men and women of steel

The ultra athletic culture of Ironman



"People do not lack strength; they lack will."

Their suits may not be of steel, but their bodies have been hardened from months of excruciating training. Tireless metabolic furnaces kick and paddle through the water, struggling to breathe in the wake of thousands of other neoprene-clad human fishes. Emerging onto the shore and shedding their second skin, they straddle ultra light bicycles and crank the pedals, their aluminum and carbon fibre steeds slicing through the air. Hours later, the final challenge remains. Down to a pair of running shoes, they prepare themselves for the final phase of this endurance gauntlet. Just feet stomping the pavement now, breathing. Soon the pain will end.

The triathlon is in many ways considered the pinnacle of endurance sport. The combination of swimming, cycling and running requires a multidisciplinary training regime. It tests participants physically and mentally through a gauntlet of three races combined into one.

Then, there is the Ironman.

Conceived in 1977 on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, athletes from the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race and Honolulu Marathon all debated over which race was the hardest on the human body. It was decided that the easiest way to settle the argument was to hold the three events back-to-back in a single day. The winner would be declared the "Iron Man."

The typical standard or "Olympic Distance" for triathlons is a 1.5-km (0.9 mile) swim, a 40-km (24.9 mile) bike ride and a 10-km (6.2 mile) run. What is known as "Ironman distance," — the original lengths from the first ultra triathlon in Hawaii — is a 3.8-km (2.4 mile) swim, 185-km (115 mile) ride and a 42.2-km (26.2 mile) marathon. Though it may seem superhuman to perform such a feat, it is actually possible to do with the right discipline and mentality.

"A lot of people come up to me and ask, 'do you think I can do it?'" says Christine Suter, an endurance athlete and coach who will be racing her ninth Ironman event this weekend, August 25.

"I just look at them and ask 'Do you think you can do it?' It more comes down to having enough time to prepare yourself, it's like having a second job. You can go into it kind of prepared and make it through, but it makes for a very long day. Yeah, some people are more suited to Ironman absolutely. But I do think anyone can do if (they) put (their) mind to it and take the time."

That's exactly what one local Ironman registrant has done. John Crehan, a 27-year-old bakery manager originally from Ratoath, Ireland, and now living in Whistler, has been training between five and six days a week for the last 11 months. He says that he has to constantly be thinking about his training schedule and balancing it around his work and personal life.

"It's a massive, massive commitment," says Crehan.

"Not a day goes by when you're not planning something or thinking about Ironman."

Having signed up and begun his training regime last September, there were months where Crehan found the cold weather and wet roads frustrating to train in.

"Throughout the winter it was definitely tough living in Whistler," he says.

That's not a statement you hear very often in a ski town.

"I spend a lot of hours in the pool, on the trainer in the garage and on the treadmill. But I'm so grateful that I live here because the course is here. Even though it was a bit of hindrance in the winter, it's been a definite plus in the summer."

This will be Crehan's first Ironman, having only taken part in a couple of sprints and Olympic distance triathlons in the past. With Whistler hosting Ironman Canada, he has been able to train on the course since the start of spring. He isn't expecting that to give him much advantage over the professional triathletes from all over the world who have descended on Whistler this week, but knowing the course could mean the difference between a strong finish and struggling to make it over the finish line.

"The bike back from Pemberton is probably the toughest part, it's a gradual uphill climb all the way back to Whistler," says Crehan.

"If the wind turns on the day you might be facing a strong headwind as well. It's a long grind on the bike, your legs are pretty heavy going straight into the marathon."