Who crawled is not the point, it is “the crawl” itself and the meaning that has been attributed to it that is the focus of this post. From a business perspective the event known as “the crawl” was undoubtedly the best thing to happen for the Ironman brand and the Corporation. From a health perspective, I will argue that it is the worst thing to happen to the sport of triathlon.
In 1982, a college student by the name of Julie Moss had a senior project to complete in order to be able to graduate from Cal Poly. ABC’s telecast of the Ironman race from Hawaii (back then there was only the one original Ironman event in Hawaii) served as the inspiration for Julie to sign up, as she proposed the event as a study in physiology to her college advisor.
Back then, there were no sources for ‘how to’ train to complete an iron distance triathlon event. With a nascent sport, there were neither coaches specializing in it, nor were there former athletes who converted into coaches to guide novices. In short, with no formal coaching, using a couple marathons as test events in the months leading up to the Hawaiian Ironman, Julie Moss completed the race but not before stumbling and staggering from exhaustion, ending with “the crawl” to the finish line. It was “the crawl” that was televised to the world, and was televised year after year, for years, and on occasion still makes it into the annual broadcast of the Ironman World Championships.
“The original Hawaiian crawl by Julie Moss set Ironman triathlon as a mainstream sport and launched the race as a must-do event in the minds of a generation.” IM website
College is a period where most teenagers have their first true freedoms in life: freedom from home, from mom and dad, free to suffer the consequences of their decisions without a life line to dig them out. That is part of what makes college or university life what it is, making decisions without the safety net of parents. As with all things that we are new at, few of us get all the decisions right the first time, and sometimes we make decisions which are simply irresponsible.
Julie Moss’ decision to compete at the Hawaiian Ironman was and should have remained as one of those “what was I thinking” college decisions, one never to be repeated (along the lines of partying the night before final exams). It should have served as a warning, a caution to anyone contemplating racing an iron distance triathlon that these events are not to be taken lightly, training is a must, proper preparation is needed if you do not want to end up crawling to and across the finish line.
Instead, the crawl became a defining moment in triathlon that led to the rise in popularity of the sport as the thought of an endurance event being so difficult that competitors are brought to their knees became an experienced that those watching, wanted for themselves.
It was a defining moment for the sport of triathlon as it changed the sport from one challenged by athletes, to an ‘experience’ pursued by thrill-seekers, a bucket list item for those willing to risk their well-being, their health by “winging it” in hopes that they too can cross the finish line. The risk of ending up like Julie Moss for thrill seekers is no risk: the story of a near death experience is exactly what they’re after. Whereas thrill-seekers are willing to “ER or PR”, true athletes are unwilling to take such risks. True athletes do not take such risks.
As a case study in business, the images of Julie Moss’ struggling to make it across the finish line are undoubtedly revered as pure gold in advertising and marketing. For those seeking to emblazon a corporate brand, a corporate identify into the minds of millions… this was and still is the jackpot. It must still be recognized as a stroke of pure genius to re-frame what was nothing more than a student’s attempt to complete a college project into a metaphor for the struggle of life. To parallel the enormity of an iron distance triathlon and the obstacles and challenges we endure in life by suggesting that completing a triathlon is proof of your ability to conquer in life… must be a MBA course in itself in how to herd the masses into a meme.
What business would not want its brand associated with such a message? To own a piece of a brand that communicates that you are a winner? A conqueror of life? A champion? Who doesn’t want that? All it takes is a sizeable fee and crossing one of their corporate finish lines!
Its no wonder why Ironman races [the ones with easy courses] sell out in no time, or why triathletes get Ironman tattoos… its the message behind the brand: cross the finish line and you are branded a champ, a winner, a conqueror, not only of triathlon, but life itself.
Prior to “the crawl“, the Ironman was reserved for those who chose for themselves what it meant to cross the finish line. It was reserved for athletes. It was reserved for those who had a respect for the event, for themselves, for training, for competing, who respected the effect the effort would have on mind, body, and soul, who competed in the spirit of John Collin’s triathlon manifesto.
Post “the crawl“, Ironman became a magnet for thrill-seekers: those who think they are athletes because they complete or survive the event, failing to understand that the becoming occurs in the process of training over years and years, not in the fleeting moment of crossing some arbitrary line temporarily lit up with sponsor banners, spectators, and cameras.
Another byproduct of “the crawl” was that ill preparation, insufficient training, ambition, sheer excitement and enthusiasm were pronounced as “enough” to get you to the finish line. Crossing the finish line became all important, not how you crossed the finish line. Instead of advising years of preparation, individuals posing as coaches saw an opportunity to ‘sell’ iron distance triathlons to be within anyone’s reach, with as little as a few months of “training”. Why not? If a college student could take a stab at it, and after crawling end up not only celebrated but on the podium, well then… how hard can it actually be, right?
In the not to distant past, the good ol’ mid life crisis was solved by a Harley Davidson and a ponytail. Today, iron distance triathlons are the solution… having sacrificed health as a desk jockey in pursuit of fame and fortune, completing an iron distance triathlon has become the ticket to regaining an image of vitality, longevity, health, wellness, and anything else you want thrown in. Whether you achieve any of these is not the point, its looking as if you have that matters to thrill-seeking bucket listers.
With the fitness craze just starting in the ’80s, “the crawl” was the PED triathlon needed to vault it into the dreams of all those aspiring to the extremes of endurance sport, to the persona of athlete without having to put in the years and years of commitment, effort, dedication, sacrifice.
Echos of “the crawl” can be read online at triathlon sites today where amateurs ask pros what it would take to beat them (cause it cannot possibly have anything to do with training). The belief that “the crawl” instilled is that pros win because they have better equipment, more aero or hydrodynamic apparel, or their sports nutrition (i.e. adult candy) is more ‘dialed in’. With pharmaceutical and mechanical doping now verging on commonplace amongst age groupers, the reverberations of “the crawl” continue, echoing the desperation of the masses to regain the health of their youth, or at least look the part as ‘cosmetic health’ passes equally in our society for true health.
In fact, “the crawl” has perverted training to the point that proper training, training that builds unshakeable physiology and psychology and which takes years to develop is looked down upon. Its all about short cutting the process to a minimum. The mindset has been corrupted to where those who train least and still manage to cross the finish, irrespective of how, are the ones celebrated as champs. Training technique, training skill, gaining aerobic and anaerobic capacity through energy system development… has become the losers approach to sport.
As an athlete, a coach, and health professional it both saddens and infuriates me what the sport of triathlon has become. Being involved in the sport in its early years was a time when the joy of training was found in the simplicity of the challenge of excelling in three distinct disciplines. There was a child-like excitement at the opportunity to enjoy a new sport, to play in a new way. Now, to see the sport become a contest between credit cards – i.e. carbon fiber equipment – and impoverished training reveals a desolate landscape where the innocence and beauty of a sport has been strip mined for every possible ounce of profit. It should not be a surprise to anyone that the sport is losing participants and interest… how long could “the crawl” remain significant? Today, Ironman Corp is launching a reality series in hopes that it will revitalize interest, spark another wave of athletes. Will it?
As a parent, I believe the glorification of thrill-seekers is irresponsible. What are we teaching our kids? That ill preparation, slogging through relying on NSAIDs and painkillers, suffering to glorify excessive effort has anything remotely to do with mental or physical health? That gambling with your health, rolling the dice on life are acceptable in the process of striving, achieving, and living? Its not just careless, its downright irresponsible for a generation to be so consumed with itself that it fails to realize the imprint they are making on those watching. You really think your kids admire you for coming home injured, ill, broken, ‘destroyed’ after a workout? Do you really think the medal matters when your kids just want to be with you, spend time with you, enjoy a bike ride or run at a reasonable pace where you can talk about life, enjoy each others presences, and the beauty that surrounds. If the medals are that important to you, don’t worry your kids will be sure to bury you with them when you pass on.
I believe the sport needs to return to its roots. Back to a time when equipment was secondary, and the basis of competition was identifying the athlete who was able to master all three disciplines, and able to deliver on any given day. It was the demonstration of sheer brilliance in physiological supremacy and psychological superiority that was the inspiration. It was a time when an athlete’s effort would leaving all those watching, and those competing motivated to seek a new level within themselves. It was a time when we played triathlon (as in the words of triathlon pro Eric Langerstrom).
Finish lines are sought after today as some sort of ‘holy grail’, that once obtained will release the finisher from their inner turmoils and distress, proclaiming to the world that they are ‘good enough’. It doesn’t. Its an illusion. An illusion sold because it profits business. Don’t believe me, then read the memoirs and the autobiographies of Olympians who stood on the podium crying not in joy but disappointment that with gold medal in hand while their national anthem played they remain unfulfilled, realizing their pursuit was empty from the start. Finish lines pursued with the wrong motivation always feel that way (problem is, if you don’t believe anyone telling you different, you have to experience it for yourself to awaken to the truth).
Think it was last year when CNBC polled to find out how much money was “enough”. Those with $1million stated $5million in the bank would be enough to feel safe and secure. Those with $5million had no plans to stop working as they responded $10million was needed. Guess how those with $10, $20, and those with $50million responded? Consistently, the need was for double of what was their current bank balance. Yet double was never enough when they got there. How can the solution be more, if more never satisfies?
If you are not enough to start, there are not enough finish lines in the world to make you enough. Those that realize this after crossing a finish line, but are unable to accept it, deny it and either change sports claiming that triathlon wasn’t challenging enough, or live in denial. To avoid the lingering emptiness, upon completing one goal they immediately sign up for another and another hoping that next time… will be different. It never is.
Training, triathlon, sport in general are all beautiful when used and pursued properly, when the starting point is a search for enlightenment into oneself, as a form of self expression.
When abused, when pursued by thrill seeking addicts, sport becomes ugly. It loses its value as a source of inspiration, motivation, because turned into a battle of conquest, there never are winners.
There is an healthy way to train and compete, and there is most definitely unhealthy ways to train and compete.
Today, triathlon has become u-g-l-y, ugly and it has no alibi. It doesn’t need cosmetic surgery, it needs a fresh start, a do over where fun, play, learning, and training are the starting points, and where thrill-seeking is left to amusement park rides and bucket lists are for those who are dying, not living.
Reference and Links:
- The Most Famous Finish in Ironman History
- The DIfference Between Trainee and Athlete
- You’re Not An Elite Athlete, So Stop Acting Like One
- Strength and Skill: How To Become the Ultimate Athlete
- Motor Control and Movement Patterns: A Must Read for Athletes
- Everybody Wants to Be a Lion…
- Can Fit Athletes Really Be Unhealthy?