Ironman deserves your vote

Updated: October 14, 2004, 10:28 PM ET
By Robert Alfert | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: Robert Alfert will be sharing his experience of preparing and running in the Ironman Triathlon World Championships with ESPN.com this week.

In a recent package on Page 2, ESPN.com worked excruciatingly hard to determine which sport is the most demanding, which athletes are best, and which athletic feat is the most impressive. The editors called upon the collective wisdom of sportswriters (not an oxymoron), sports scientists and you, the general, poll-voting public.

I'm still brooding.

Ironman wasn't even one of the sports given consideration as toughest of all.

Here's all you need to know about Ironman: It's the spawn of a drunken dare.

Only while under the influence would anyone suggest a competition that asks an athlete to run a 26.2-mile marathon. After bicycling 112 miles. After swimming 2.4 miles. In a Speedo. But that's exactly the adventure John Collins concocted while throwing down beers with some buddies back in 1978. They were at the Primo Brewery in Honolulu, arguing about which of them is the better athlete -- swimmer, runner or cyclist -- when Collins effectively said, sounding a bit like Ernie Banks, "OK, let's play three."

A total of 15 people showed up for that experiment, all entirely unsure of what to expect. One guy brought a tent strapped to his bike, assuming the race would take longer than a day. One guy hydrated on beer (and still came in second, by the way).

Ironman has come a long way since then. In fact, I'd argue that it has lapped every other sport in terms of toughness, earning respect as the studliest athletic endeavor of all.

I'm biased, of course, as a recreational triathlete who will be competing Saturday in the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona. But here are five arguments Page 2 should have considered on behalf of my sport:

1) Hard-core Ironmen urinate on themselves. Why? Because, unlike in football, baseball, basketball and virtually every other sport, we don't take breaks from the action. There are no halftimes, no time outs, no chance to run to the clubhouse bathroom between innings. It's eight-plus hours of non-stop physical exertion, and several hours more if you're an amateur like me. Stopping to hit a porta-potty might be more dignified, but it can cost you precious minutes - an unthinkable cost to the most competitive among us.

2) No other sport asks an athlete to completely expend himself physically. In baseball, I'm not sure they even work up a sweat. In golf, the caddy gets a better workout. The classic Ironman image is that of an athlete literally crawling to the finish line. While most of us actually finish on two feet, some of the best in our sport don't even get there. Former Kona winner Tim DeBoom had to drop out last year during the final event, disappearing into a medic's van and falling unconscious because he was running 6-minute miles while passing kidney stones.

3) Plato would have crowned Ironman as the ultimate test of athleticism. The philosopher had argued that pentathlon deserved that title because it encompassed multiple disciplines. In his day, that meant running, swimming, javelin, discus and wrestling. Now, of course, pentathlon has morphed into an aristocrat's beauty contest that includes show jumping and fencing, and the top decathlete has assumed the reputation as the "world's best athlete." But decathletes get two days to prove themselves, with breaks between events. Let pretty boy Bruce Jenner eat his Wheaties; Ironmen fuel on Red Bull.

4) Everyone, myself included, is impressed with Lance Armstrong. The man has helped Americans realize that a sport in which you sit the whole time does have its challenges. He has garnered enough respect that ESPN.com users voted him the world's best athlete. But let's face it, cyclists are the divas of the sports world. Team leaders like Armstrong are surrounded by "domestiques," teammates whose job it is to protect them from the wind, bring them water and food, and attack opponents. Armstrong doesn't even have to fix his own flats. In Ironman, you are disqualified if you receive any type of assistance. It's you against the elements and the competition.

5) The vast majority of us pay for this physical abuse. Even regional Ironman events such as Ironman Florida, which I did in November, have entry fees of up to $400. The pros may not have to pay in many cases, but amateurs do, and the upside for the pros isn't that great. The best athletes in our sport make less than Tiger Woods' caddy, and only a handful can actually make a living off the sport. The popularity of triathlon has grown around the world, to the point where it's now an Olympic sport (albeit in a shorter and slightly different form). But it is still dominated by those competing for nothing more than love of the sport. All but a few Ironmen will make enough money Saturday to cover their airfare.

Nike once ran a series of spots called "Bo Knows" that celebrated the exaggerated multi-sport heroics of Bo Jackson.

I'd have bought the premise if we saw Bo in a Speedo in the lava fields of Kona.

Robert Alfert is a litigation attorney in Orlando. He can be reached at ralfert@broadandcassel.com.

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