You Are an Ironman Book Review

When I bought You Are an Ironman: How Six Weekend Warriors Chased Their Dream of Finishing the World’s Toughest Triathlon by Jacques Steinberg, the cashier asked me if I’ve completed this grueling endurance event. (“One day!” I told her.)

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Using the 2009 Ironman Arizona as a lens, Steinberg delves into the lives of seven age groupers (or average Joes) and “attempts to bore deep into the lives, minds and souls of these athletes” (Steinberg 6).  I enjoyed following these weekend warriors in their path to 140.6 (the total mileage of an Ironman), and this book is definitely a niche read—it’s catered to those who have soft spots for swimming, biking, and/or running—so I would recommend it to a very specific reader.

Brief Summary

From Amazon.com:

As he did so masterfully in his New York Times bestseller The Gatekeepers, Jacques Steinberg creates a compelling portrait of people obsessed with reaching a life-defining goal.  In this instance, the target is an Ironman triathlon-a 2.4-mile open-water swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride, then finally a 26-mile marathon run, all of which must be completed in no more than seventeen hours.  Steinberg focuses not on the professional who live off the prize money and sponsorships, but on a handful of triathletes who regard the sport as a hobby.  Vividly capturing the grueling preparation, the suspense of completing each event of the triathlon, and the spectacular feats of human endurance, Steinberg plumbs the physical and emotional toll as well as the psychological payoff of the participants of the Ford Ironman Arizona 2009.  His You Are an Ironman is both a riveting sports narrative and a fascinating, behind-the-scenes study of what makes these athletes keep going.

Product Details

Publisher:  Penguin Books

Publication date:  6/26/2012 (reprint)

Pages:  304

My Review

For a triathlete to hear Mike Reilley’s legendary voice that proclaims, “You are an Ironman,” they must complete a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run in no more than 17 hours.  Arguably the world’s most challenging endurance event, an Ironman appeals to a small demographic, so Steinberg aims to answer why these athletes “choose to put themselves through so much agony and effort in pursuit of a single goal” (Steinberg 4).

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In order to keep the focus on the seven age-group athletes, Steinberg heavily quotes their blog posts and training journals to illustrate the hurdles they face—getting into sufficient shape, remaining injury free, and completing the first two legs before the cutoff time.  Even with background information sprinkled in when appropriate, the author’s reliance on these texts didn’t work for me.  Don’t get me wrong—I value and appreciate the amount of training (and suffering) the individuals endured, and rhetorically, I understand why Steinberg shared their first-person narratives.  However, the sheer amount of extended, wordy quotations severely downplayed what should’ve been a series of awe-inspiring stories.  Concise writing could’ve effectively conveyed what it’s like to overcome a fear of open-water swimming, to spend six hours in the saddle, to cross the finish after 15 hours of non-stop work.  Again, the text highlights the individuals, but I think a professional writer who could draw on personal Ironman experience (Steinberg concedes he hasn’t completed one) would find a way to effectively summarize these emotions and struggles, making for a more powerful book. (Wait, did I just come up with my book idea?  Train for and complete an Ironman and fuse my experience with those of others?)

Even though the book fell short from a rhetorical standpoint for me, there were some quotations that I found relatable:

“Such training alone has also been known to enable people to rewrite their long-standing definitions of themselves” (Steinberg 14).

“‘…I never give up, and this is a fun way to prove it.  I want them [my daughters] to see the pained expression on my face as I run by and know I am suffering but not giving up … I want to see how far all that training can take me physically and mentally.  That, and swimming, biking, and running on a regular basis is damn fun.  And, I can eat a lot of chocolate and not feel like a slob.’” –Tom, a 42-year-old high school English teacher from Glendale, AZ (Steinberg 23)

“‘Note to self:  you shouldn’t plan to train for both a marathon and half Ironman at the same time.  You will become the jack of all trades, and master of none.’” –Leanne, 30-year-old nurse from Wilmington, NC on training for the Boston Marathon and Ironman Arizona (Steinberg 96)

“‘This was my first-ever BRICK like this, and wow, was it challenging,’” Leanne wrote in her journal.  ‘I am more and more starting to appreciate and understand what IM and IM training is all about.  It’s mentally challenging as well and I realize how those ‘tired’ miles are when training.’” –Leanne (Steinberg 178)

“‘The journey is the reward’ … Laura had always felt that it was ‘a privilege’ to be able to train as she did, ‘not a burden or chore.’” –Laura, 46-year-old retired social worker from Sacramento, CA (Steinberg 203)

Discussion Questions:

1.  Has a personal hobby (running, reading, baking, etc.) helped you reframe or “rewrite” how you see yourself?

2.  Have you experienced a “journey [that] is the reward?”   

3.  Have you ever thought about doing a triathlon?

30 responses to “You Are an Ironman Book Review

  1. I was disappointed in this book too. I wanted to like it a lot, but it was only mediocre in writing. It definitely lacked the passion like you metioned. You should definitely read IronWar, soooooo much better!

  2. I haven’t read this but i don’t know how I feel about reading something like this, these kind of books are always tough for me to get through

  3. Most of the reviews I’ve seen on this book have been negative. What a shame! I definitely feel like backpacking has redefined who I am. The transformation is incredible to me.

  4. You should totally write a book and make it better! I’d love to write one some day. I think one of the best parts about books is discovering what and how to make it better. I’d love to try a triathlon one day too!

  5. I love watching the ironman each year. They’re so inspiring. Disappointing that this book didn’t have that great of reviews 🙁 you could definitely write your own story!

  6. I’ll be your co-author for the book. I can hook us up with all the right people to talk to.

  7. That’s a bummer about the book. With a title like “You Are Ironman” you just expect to be inspired. Direct quotes in the right context can be incredibly inspirational but an entire book of them loses the effect. It sounds like you could have just gone to their blog posts and skipped buying the book. Sorry, Carrie.

    Running has totally redefined me and allowed me to be much more comfortable with myself. The times that I have the most self confidence are when I’m soaked from head to toe in sweat and have no make up on.

  8. Yea, with a title like that you should have wanted to sign up right after! I’m more of a motivational movie girl, but maybe that just means I’m too busy ;-p Running with asthma has been a huge courageous journey for me personally. I’ve shown myself that I can get out of my head and just run and not think I’m held back just because it’s what I’ve been told. I can push through walls and get better and better. I’m a terrible swimmer, though, so if I do a triathalon it’d be another year…this year, is marathon year 😉

  9. Have you read Chrissie Wellington’s memoir, A Life Without Limits? I loved it! It made me want to do an Iron Man, which, um, craziness since I haven’t even run a full marathon yet. But she was just so inspiring! Iron men are amazing 🙂

    You should definitely write that book! I think it’d be great to read a book similar to Chrissie’s, only more relatable because it’s someone balancing Iron Man training with a job, personal life, etc.

  10. Thanks for sharing this review! Right now, I can’t even fathom an ironman, but I will say that the seed is planted. A journey that I’m on right now that is turning out to be the reward is training for my first half marathon. Training for a long-distance race has taught me discipline and that when the motivation is there, I can really talk myself into doing something I never thought possible.

    • The half-marathon is such a solid distance. It’s long enough that it requires motivation, training, dedication, etc., but short enough so you don’t have to give up your entire social life for logging miles.

  11. I would definitely have to say that my recent weight loss and journey to becoming more fit has been worth the reward. I couldn’t believe that I was able to complete a half-marathon last year when just eight months prior – I could barely run a mile. Needless to say, I was on cloud nine after the accomplishment and I would love to see where I can go with my running this year 🙂

  12. Too bad Christopher McDougall didn’t write this book – I feel like he captures awe and ambition really well 🙂

  13. Great review Carrie! Thank you for being a loyal virtual book club member!

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