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.)
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.
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.
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication date: 6/26/2012 (reprint)
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).
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)
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?