By Raymond Britt author of 'Qualifying for Kona: The Road to the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii'
The Journey. It's the extraordinary test of endurance: the Ironman Triathlon. It's the ultimate test of will, determination and spirit: swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and capping it all off with a 26.2 marathon run. It's a journey you never expected to make, let alone complete: 140.6 miles. Just you, the day, the course, the challenge, the fight, and finally, the finish.
Admit it. At one point in our lives, you, me, and each and every competing triathlete -- from veteran pros to near novices -- thought the idea impossible, even ridiculous: 140.6 miles, an Ironman Triathlon.
A Very Long Day. Yet there you'll be, starting at 7am: racing an Ironman. You and your fellow triathletes will have up to 17 hours to complete the race. That's the goal for each triathlete: finish. A few will finish before 5pm, most will cross the line between 7pm and 10pm, and a very persistent few will be on the course until nearly midnight. They are there to finish, to be called an Ironman. For most, that's enough, as it should be.
Race Within the Race. But there's another race going on simultaneously: the race to qualify to participate in the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii. It's the Olympics of Triathlon, where the best of the best go to compete each October. At the end of race day, a very select and worthy few triathletes will have raced fast enough to be among the best in their age group, fast, determined and unyielding enough to qualify for a coveted spot at Ironman Hawaii.
High Hopes. It's not a stretch to say that up to 20% of those in your Ironman race have thoughts that they might have a chance to qualify for Kona, from three different perspectives: Some will have trained endlessly with high expectations; others will know they are fit enough to have a good chance; many of the rest will tell you, if all goes really, really well, they expect a finish time that maybe, just maybe, might possibly be good enough to qualify for Kona.
Scenarios. With perhaps 500 or so triathletes starting the race thinking there's a chance to qualify for Hawaii, at the end of the day, some athletes in each of three groups will have qualified. Some of the 'Sure Bet' qualifiers will deliver on their promise; some of the 'good chance' triathletes will put it all together; and, yes, some who harbored only a small hope of qualifying will have the race of their life, and make that hope a reality.
The Test. What makes the difference for each of those 500, the difference that determines who qualifies and who doesn't? Each triathlete will be faced with more challenges, unexpected problems and more moments-of-truth than they ever expected. That's the nature of triathlon; it's why finishers get to call themselves Ironman.
The Difference. The difference for the triathletes who will ultimately qualify: the ability to deal with anything and everything, to never surrender until they cross the finish line.
The difference is all about the will, the power, the mental strength, the attitude to take all that the day throws at them, the measured patience to make smart decisions when faced with adversities, and the instinct to strike when positive opportunities arise. There will be plenty of chances for Kona dreams to die on the race course; those who qualify are the ones who navigate around, and even through them, literally and figuratively.
Where it Matters. To be far more direct: it's all about the run. Those who ultimately qualify will earn it during the marathon.
The 2.4 mile swim is short enough that most will finish it within a few minutes of everyone else. A solid 112 mile bike ride -- doesn't have to be perfect, just consistent -- puts the athlete in contention. A lot of triathletes will have a good, impressive performance on the swim and bike; many will enter the run with roughly the same opportunity to qualify for Kona.
Think about it this way: in a race with 65 Kona slots available, as many as 180 might begin the run with a fighting chance. Two-thirds will meet disappointment at the finish line.
So, which ones will make it in the end? The difference will occur somewhere in those 26.2 miles. Watch the runners; watch the runners watching the other runners as the miles tick by. Each of them has the opportunity to decide that they've done good enough. It's a matter of attrition, it's just a matter of who will decide to settle, and when.
Slowing Down Slower. Settling is not about walking versus running beautifully. The Ironman marathon can, in fact, be a fairly ugly thing. Run, walk, you do what you can to keep moving.
It's simple: the fastest marathoner will be the one who slows slowest.
Keep moving forward; slow down slower.
Temptations. Many will ultimately falter, in one way or another. For some, the body may truly not have anything left, they've given it all they've got. That's rightly a success in and of itself.
And for many others, settling will be a devilish temptation, an opportunity to pack it in. It's extremely attractive, this opportunity. Everyone will tell you. And many will succumb, before, I'll venture, they really need to. That's when The Difference kicks in.
Never Settle. Those who really want it bad enough, those who have the combined fitness and determination and the benefit of a strong consistent race -- those will become the few who get that ticket to Kona.
Never surrender, keep moving, slow down slower, make every second count.
Let the others settle; for that matter, forget what others do. Give it everything you've got. Give it everything but the chance to give up.
Never surrender, never settle, if you don't have to . . . not until both feet cross the finish line.
Victory. At that moment, yes, you are an Ironman. At that moment, you have no control over your destiny, whether you earned the right to go to Hawaii, or not. At that moment, all you need to know is that you never settled, that you made every second count, that you did the very best you were able to do.
That's the best victory of all.
But don't forget to check race results. If it all came together, there may be a good chance you're going to Kona, home of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship, to race with the best, to race with your peers, to race with the ones who Never Settle. It's quite a group.
Contact Me. Let me know how your race went . . . let me know how you never settled . . . let me know so I can congratulate you on an extraordinary effort and achievement, finishing, setting a PR, or, perhaps, qualifying for Kona.
Raymond Britt, 3-time Kona qualifier, 29-time Ironman finisher