Monday, October 12, 2009

2.4+112+26.2 = ?

No, this isn't going to be another installment in my "Banker's Math" series. The numbers above are the lengths of segments in the annual Ironman Triathlon held in Kona, Hawai'i each year. Imagine swimming in the ocean as fast as you can for 2.4 miles, then without a break hopping on your bike and riding 112 miles, then (again without stopping), dropping your bike and running a 26.2-mile marathon. That's the Ironman and you can see why its name is appropriate.

Of the roughly 1,800 athletes who compete all but about 150 are amateurs ranging in age from mid-20's to 80 (!). The older athletes aren't competing realistically against the young pro's, but rather within their own age group. Not just anyone can enter the Hawai'i Ironman. With only a few exceptions, all athletes must have finished in the top of their age group in at least one qualifying triathlon in the last year.

This is truly an endurance test. The professional triathletes complete the race in about 8-9 hours. Most of the amateurs take 12 to 14 hours, with some going right up to the cutoff of 17 hours. Imagine 17 hours of constant physical effort !

In case you're wondering, I haven't done the race and never will (but thanks for thinking I might be capable of it). However, since my wife and I live in Kona, we volunteer most years to help put on the event. It is really quite an experience, one that I find very inspiring and rewarding.

One reason I like it is that our normally sleepy little tourist town is transformed for about a week each October into an international festival. The athletes come from over 50 countries, and besides hearing them speaking different languages, they are easy to spot -- just look for the slender hardbodies zooming around on their hi-tech bikes and effortlessly jogging up the steep streets. Another reason is that some of our volunteer duties give us an opportunity to meet athletes and talk with them one on one. This can be particularly rewarding and inspirational, because we learn that in many respects they (not the pros, those in the older age categories) are fairly ordinary -- they have families, jobs, financial worries, etc., just like the rest of us. But they are also very different in their level of commitment to a goal where the main reward is deeply personal and the sacrifice to reach that goal is tremendous.

It would be very wrong to conclude that what these people are doing doesn't benefit anyone but themselves. They provide a positive model of dedication and effort in an age where positive models are in short supply. Inspiring others is a benefit to society we should recognize and appreciate.

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