How the Ironman Works

Cyclists make their way along the desolate lava fields at Kona. See more Olympic game pictures.
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It was once the pinnacle of human endurance sports, a grueling distance that pushed athletes to the very edge of their limits: the marathon. But today, that 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometer) race takes a backseat to an even more daunting endeavor, a multisport trial so difficult that anyone who even manages to complete it will be known for the rest of his or her life as an Ironman.

How tough is an Ironman triathlon? Imagine yourself running a full marathon. Unless you're in great shape or have trained for it, that probably seems pretty difficult. An Ironman race starts out with a 2.4-mile (3.9-km) swim. Following that, the competitors take a 112-mile (180.3-km) bike ride. When they finish that leg, they hop off their bikes and run a full marathon.


The competitors have a total of 17 hours to accomplish this feat. Top male Ironmen can finish in eight-and-a-half hours, while female winners generally take just more than nine hours. But the Ironman isn't just a race for superhuman beings in the peak of physical health. People with physical disabilities have completed the Ironman, including amputees, people in wheelchairs and one man who carried or pushed his disabled son the entire way. People in their 70s and 80s enter Ironman races (and finish them). There are a few professional triathletes who actually make a living running in Ironman events, but the vast majority of competitors are amateurs who fit their training schedules around work and personal life.

Since the original Ironman in Hawaii in 1978, triathlon has spread around the world. There are officially sanctioned Ironman events on every continent (except Antarctica), plus hundreds of other triathlons. Triathlon is even an Olympic event.

In this article, we'll meet some of the amazing (some say insane) people who compete in Ironman races, learn about the history of Ironman, and find out what it takes to train for one of these competitions.


History of the Ironman Competition

The start of an Ironman can be rather chaotic.
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An Ironman race is actually a triathlon of a specific distance. While a triathlon is technically any event that combines three different sports, in the modern sense it refers to events that include a swimming, cycling and running portion. Triathlon was born in southern California in the mid-1970s. Several athletic clubs in San Diego participated in fairly informal events that included swims in Mission Bay. One of the participating athletes was a man named John Collins, an officer in the U.S. Navy. His deployments later took him to Hawaii, and it was there that the Ironman was born.

Hawaii was host to three endurance events: the Honolulu Marathon, the Waikiki Rough Water Swim and the Around-Oahu Bike Ride. Local athletes frequently engaged in good-natured arguments about whether runners or swimmers are the best, fittest athletes in the world. Collins suggested combining all three events into one incredibly difficult endurance race, the winner to be named "Ironman." At the end of the first race, in 1978, 12 Ironmen were born.


Media coverage by Sports Illustrated and ABC Wide World of Sports drew attention to the unique event. Within a few years, the number of people at the starting line had grown from dozens to hundreds to more than a thousand. In 1981, the race was moved to Kona, Hawaii, which actually made the Ironman even harder. The move placed the cycling leg through lava fields that are perpetually wracked by fierce winds. The combination of heat and wind can make cycling at Kona a brutal experience.

Triathlon gained in popularity. The United States Triathlon Association was formed in 1982, and triathlons of varying distances were organized throughout the United States. Officially sanctioned Ironman events quickly spread worldwide. However, the Ironman race at Kona remained the pinnacle of the sport, the true test of endurance. While each Ironman course has its own challenges, Kona holds a mystique for triathletes that no other event can match. Today, the Kona Ironman is the Ironman World Championship. Entries are limited to 1,700 people, earned by qualifying in another sanctioned Ironman or through a lottery system. It's sponsored by Ford and televised in hi-def. The Ironman races are owned and trademarked by an organization called USA Triathlon (USAT).

Triathlons have continued to grow in popularity as well. In 1994, the International Olympic Committee announced that triathlon would be added to the Olympics as a medal event. The first Olympic triathlon was held in 2000 in Sydney, Australia.


Triathlon Legs and Transitions

German Christof Wandratsch leaves the water and heads into the transition area.

Each Ironman event begins with the swimming leg. At Kona, that's a 2.4-mile swim through Kailua-Kona Bay. The water temperature varies depending on the location of the event. It's actually better for the swimmers if the water is colder, because if it's below a certain temperature, the competitors can wear wetsuits. Wetsuits add buoyancy to a swimmer, which makes the swimming leg easier.

Ironmans with many entrants group the competitors to space out their start times. If they started everyone at once, it would be chaos, and people would probably drown. Even with the staggered start, the swim can be hazardous. A large number of swimmers make the water very choppy, and the close quarters lead to frequent unintentional kicks and elbows. Professional (also known as elite) triathletes usually go first, followed by the various age groups.


Upon completing the swim leg, competitors enter the transition area. This is where they switch from one leg to another. There's usually just one transition area, because the cycle course is a loop, but in events where the cycle leg isn't a loop, a separate bike-to-run transition area is required. The swim-to-bike transition is known as T1. Racers must find their bike in rows of racks with hundreds of other bikes, put on whatever clothes and footwear they need for the bike leg, walk their bike to the start of the bike course and start riding. At some point, they also need to put on a helmet, grab a water or sport drink and possibly eat an energy bar.

Both the biking and running legs take place on paved roads. However, some Ironman courses have more hills than others, so the terrain can be an obstacle.

The transition from bike to run (T2) isn't as difficult, but some triathletes experience leg cramps when they start running. Ironman races have support crews along the run leg that provide water, sports drinks and sometimes food. The only thing after the run leg is the finish line and the post-race party.


Triathlon Training

Cameron Brown from New Zealand leads Ainalar Juhanson from Estonia during the running leg of the Ironman New Zealand held at Lake Taupo.
Jeff Brass/Getty Images

There are dozens of different training guides and plans for everyone from professional triathletes to beginners just thinking of trying a sprint distance event. Training programs can range from a few months to an entire year, depending on the type of triathlon and the competitor. There are a few training guidelines that are generally a safe bet.

  • Build endurance, not speed. In other words, you're going to spend a lot of time swimming, biking and running.
  • Rest. If a training cycle has no rest period, your body will eventually break down.
  • Train to your weakness. If you're a marathon runner, focus on biking and swimming for a large proportion of your training.
  • Don't forget about your strength. Especially as the event gets closer, work on the aspect you're strongest in.
  • Find someone to train with. It's a lot harder if you're alone.
  • Use the proper equipment. It doesn't have to be top-of-the-line, but you should train with the gear you'll use in the actual event.
  • Ironman training is hard. You need to be in pretty good shape just to start an Ironman training regimen.

There have been some reports that extreme endurance athletics can cause heart attacks or even cancer [source: Seek Wellness]. If you're not in good physical condition, you should talk with a doctor before beginning a training program. Some endurance athletes have suffered heart attacks, and there is evidence that the buildup of free radicals in the body during extended bouts of exercise can increase the chances of developing cancer. However, these risks are considered slight, and far greater than the dangers of not getting exercise.



As far as race injuries, USAT doesn't release specific statistics, but anecdotal evidence would suggest they're quite common during these grueling events. The 2003 Lake Placid Ironman had what was considered an unusually low number of injuries. Just 14 people were hospitalized [source: North Country Public Radio]. Common injuries include dehydration, heat exhaustion, various leg, knee, foot or ankle injuries, and injuries sustained in bike accidents.

This brings us to the question: If it's so hard, why do people put themselves through it? Ironman competitors know that, in the course of the race, they'll experience great suffering. But the sense of accomplishment and the pure physical feeling of overcoming that suffering makes it worthwhile to them.

On the next page, we'll meet some notable Ironmen. 

For more common questions and expert answers on sports and athletic performance, visit



Notable Ironmen

Paula Newby-Fraser may be the greatest triathlete of all time.
Tracy Frankel//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

There are several Ironmen notable for their exemplary accomplishments, such as course records and number of wins:

Luc Van Lierde holds the Kona course record, completing it in 8:04:08 in 1996. Paula Newby-Fraser holds the course record for women, 8:55:28 in 1992. Van Lierde also holds the all-time Ironman record, completing Ironman Europe in 7:50:27 [source: Outside Online]. Newby-Fraser is widely considered the greatest triathlete ever. Her other records include: most Ironman victories ever (24); most victories at Kona (8); and most consecutive victories at Kona (4) [source:]. The men's record for most Kona wins is shared by Dave Scott and Mark Allen, with six each.


Then there are the Ironmen notable for their courage and perseverance, for whom simply completing the race is a monumental triumph, whose stories are truly inspiring.

The legend of Ironman really began with Julie Moss. In 1982, she ran at Kona as part of her thesis in sports physiology. It was one of the first Ironmans televised by ABC. Toward the end of the race, Julie found herself in the lead. Within sight of the finish line, her body gave out. No longer able to stand, she was passed by Kathleen McCartney, who won. In a truly unforgettable scene, Julie crawled across the finish line on her hands and knees to take second place. It cemented in the American consciousness the idea that just finishing an Ironman is a victory.

Marc Herremans was an Ironman before a bike training accident left him paralyzed. Although he must be carried to the starting line, he never stopped training and has completed several more Ironmans in a wheelchair.
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Sister Madonna Buder may not be the only Ironman who is also a nun, but she is in a class all her own. Every year that she competes in an Ironman, organizers have to create a new women's age group for her. She completed the Ironman Canada as well as Kona at the age of 75 [source: Online Gonzaga Bulletin]. In the men's division, Jim Ward ran at Kona when he was 80. He had completed the race at age 77.

Team Hoyt is a father and son pair that competes together. Rick Hoyt has cerebral palsy and was born with brain damage due to a problem at birth. He is unable to talk or walk, but a device that allows him to communicate helped him reveal that he loves sports. When a schoolmate was paralyzed in an accident, Rick asked his father, Dick Hoyt, if they could run in a 5K benefit race. They did, with Dick pushing Rick in a wheelchair. They moved up to marathons and eventually triathlons. Rick sits on a raft that Dick tows as he swims. Then, they ride a bike with a seat in front for Rick. They are both Ironmen [source: Team Hoyt].

In 2007, Scott Rigsby completed the Kona race on two prosthetic legs [source: WALB News]. Ten years prior, Australian John MacLean completed the Ironman in a wheelchair, using a hand-cranked bike for the second portion of the race [source: Ironman]. Sarah Reinertsen became the first female amputee to enter the Kona race in 2005.

For more information on triathlons, marathons and pushing the human body to its limits, see the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Ardell, Donald B. Ph.D. "Can Exercise Kill? Sure, But Not As Often As No Exercise!"
  • Edwards, Sally. The Complete Book of Triathlons. Three Rivers Press (November 6, 2001).
  • Fitzgerald, Matt. Triathlete Magazine's Complete Triathlon Book: The Training, Diet, Health, Equipment, and Safety Tips You Need to Do Your Best. Wellness Central (March 2003).
  • "The complete history of the World's most famous Triathlon."
  • "Paula Newby-Fraser."
  • NCPR News Archives. "Despite Ugly Weather, Few Ironman Injuries."
  • Roberston, Sebastian. "Sister Madonna: Triathlon nun keeps on running." Gonzaga Bulletin, Sept. 15, 2006.
  • Tereshchuk, David. "Racing Towards Inclusion."
  • Thom, Kara Douglass (ed.). Becoming an Ironman: First Encounters with the Ultimate Endurance Event. Breakaway Books (October 1, 2002).
  • "Two-time Ironman World Champion Van Lierde to compete at the Ralphs California Half Ironman."
  • USAT. "The History of Triathlon."
  • USAT. "History of Triathlon Timeline."
  • WALB News. "Double Amputee is Ironman."