Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Holy Grail of Endurance Sports

I have been in a kind of on-and-off, and then on-and-off again, debate with a friend about the one sport that deserves the title of The Holy Grail of Endurance Sports. He is of the opinion that the Ironman Triathlon is the ultimate challenge in endurance sports because it consists of 3 different disciplines, i.e. swimming, cycling and running, and all made of punishing distances in themselves. There is that insinuation that if one can conquer the Ironman, he would have been able to conquer all the rest! Or at the very least, the Ironman title is of higher class than the rest.

I'm convinced that there are many people who can swim 3.8km, or cycle 180km or run 42km. But perhaps substantially lesser people who can do all three consecutively within 17 hours. Yet, I don't agree that the Ironman (distance) triathlon deserves the title of The Holy Grail of Endurance Sports.

I am not born to be an elite athlete. If I trained hard and long enough, maybe I can achieve a little faster finish and would qualify for an average athlete; maybe slightly better than that recognition, but certainly not much more. Since I started running seriously in mid-2008, I have run a fair number of 42km marathons, ultra marathons up to 100km, and triathlons ranging from sprint distance to the Ironman distance. In between races, I have lost count of how many half marathons and beyond that I've run during my training over the weekends.

Having experienced the wide-ranging endurance sports above, I still disagree with my friend—I don't consider the Ironman triathlon as the ultimate challenge. I don't agree with the popular argument that the Ironman is the "final frontier" on account of "lesser people have completed the race" when compared to, say, the 42km marathons. I think if one were to make a fair comparison, then that comparison must be made on a "level playing field", but we all know that is impossible in this case, don't we?

Firstly, a typical Ironman race limits its number of participation to about 2000 only, whereas a decent marathon event can easily have 20 or 30 times that number, if not many times more. Even if all those who sign up for the Ironman race can finish the race within the cut off time, that number is bound to be much smaller than the marathon finishers.

Secondly, the cost to race the Ironman is substantially higher than that of the marathon, so much so that even if the limit of participation is raised, not everybody can afford to join due to financial constraints. To join an Ironman, the entry fee alone can be up to 20 times more than the entry fee of the marathon. Then there is the cost of a decent bike. I guess it's entirely possible to use the cheapest steel bike in the market that weighs a ton more than the average tribike, but let's be honest, how many people would go to that extent even if they're not aiming to win?

Thirdly, one can quite comfortably finish a 42km marathon with say 6-8 hours weekly training. That is still manageable for many people. For an Ironman race, however, requires about 13-15 hours minimum weekly training; the bike session over the weekend alone can consume up to 6 hours. If one has a money-printing machine at home, then perhaps 13-15 hours of training per week is no big deal. But if he has a full time job with occasional extra hours to meet clients' deadlines, family obligations etc, 13-15 hours is quite a challenge in itself—and that is just the minimum requirement!

A challenge is a challenge—whether it is a 42km marathon, or 100km trail run over hilly terrains, or 3-discipline Ironman race, or an eco-themed race comprising 10 different disciplines, I don't think it is fair to rate the difficulty level based on how many people have conquered the race. Therefore, I don't think it is fair to say that any single event, when conquered, can be construed as having overshadowed all the other endurance sports. Sorry, it just doesn't work that way! At least that's not how I see it.

There is, to me, no such thing as The Holy Grail of Endurance Sports.

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