An iron will is required

The Ironman triathlon is one of the toughest physical tests around, writes Desmond Kane.

Triathletes Frank Vytrisal, left, hugs Uwe Widmann, both from Germany, after finishing the Ironman World Championship triathlon in Kona, Hawaii, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2006. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
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By hook or by crook, by beach, sea and by land, they will set off at dawn Saturday among their privileged hundreds and attempt to drag themselves home by dusk, but it can be a bloodying and chastening experience. A cleansing and purging of body and mind, if you like. The fixation comes in the finishing. In the great sporting digest of the world, it seems the Ironman Triathlon, the World Championship of endurance competitions, in wind speeds of 45mph at Kailua-Kona in Hawaii has no peers.

This is the survival of the fittest, where the clock is invariably a worthless timepiece. This is a sporting event that is you against yourself, which makes for its broad appeal. More than 140 miles of swimming, cycling and running. More than eight hours, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, of blood, toil, tears and sweat. Over the hills, and far away. Back to a time when fleshy US armed forces men saw a 10km race before breakfast as standard fare, or perhaps even a wimpish way to spend your time, and longed to challenge themselves some more.

Anyone, male or female, who gets involved in such high-octane jinks must stretch every sinew to drag their mortal coil to the finishing post. There is nothing about which to feel shamefaced in failing to find the reserves of power to get by. This is an ordeal of a sporting melodrama that makes for award-winning television in the US. It has garnered millions of viewers, and multiple Emmy awards In this year's movie Ironman, Robert Downey Jnr plays a tin superhero who can fly. That appears to be the only thing missing from the make-up of the event's subjects. The endurance event Ironman is strictly non-fiction, but it boasts a background that has a silver filter.

Originating from a group of US Navy Seals, the Ironman in Hawaii was originally a combination of a rough water swim and trekking over rough terrain on a road bike. This is not an event that conjures up romantic images of those Colonel Tom Parker-inspired Elvis Presley movies of the 1960s. The Ironman is a 3.8km swim through an ocean, a 180km bike ride and a 42km marathon run through a lava-coated surface on the Kona coast. The course record in Hawaii was posted in 1996 by Luc Van Lierde of Belgium who managed to end his day in around eight hours, but there are astounding stories of enraptured amputees returning before the 17 hours that is allotted to finish the event.

Scott Rigsby became the first double amputee to complete an Ironman distance triathlon with prosthetics in 16 hours and 43 minutes in 2007. Rigsby used false legs to navigate the circuits in darkness and unedifying pain. There are others. "Ironman is full of inspirational stories, but there is one particular story I wish to share with you tonight," said Peter Henning, a TV producer working on the event two years ago.

"In 2005, an athlete suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis completed the Ford Ironman World Championship and that athlete returned to Hawaii in 2006 in a wheelchair as a spectator. Tonight, Ironman athlete Jon Blais is fighting for his life. I'd like to dedicate this year's Emmy to the Blazeman and his family." The Ironman mantra is said to be "Anything is possible". Sean Swarner began watching the Ironman World Championship on TV at the age of 13 when he was fighting cancer in a hospital bed.

Swarner, from Colorado, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. He was given three months to live. At 16, he was diagnosed with Askin's Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. He was given two weeks to live. After three months of intensive chemotherapy, and another round of 10 months of chemotherapy, he came out the other side standing. Treatment that saw him put into an induced coma gave him the chance to scale Mount Everest, and this is his latest challenge.

He is alive to the demands, but is happy to suffer in the Ironman. After 22 qualifying events around the world, the Ironman year concludes with its meatiest event. The hundreds willing to be out there are all as rigid as girders.