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What Is an Iron Man Competition?

By Shannon Kietzman
Updated May 23, 2024
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An iron man competition is a triathlon, an athletic event that challenges competitors to complete three legs of a race: one swimming, one biking and one running. Although the term "iron man competition" might be used to describe any triathlon, particularly those that involve certain distances for each leg, the official Ironman is a trademarked series of events. The main event is held each year in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, where competitors must complete a 2.4-mile (3.86-km) swim across the Kailua Kona Bay, then a 112-mile (180.2-km) bike ride from Keauhou to Hawi and back again before running 26.2 miles (42.2 km) along the coast from Keauhou to Keahole Point and then to Kailua Kona. Other Ironman triathlons are held at other locations around the world.

To compete in the main Ironman event, an athlete must earn one of the slots that are available in a number of domestic or international locations. Some locations that host the qualifying events include Japan, South Africa, the Canary Islands, Europe, and the United States. Each location has a different number of available slots, and the way they are won is different from one location to the next. Some slots are also made available through a lottery drawing.

iron man competition

The Ironman competition was first run in 1978 and has been going ever since. It was born from a debate among athletes as to which were the most fit — swimmers, bicyclists, or runners. Although the competition has been running every year, it was moved to October of every year rather than February, which is when it originally took place. The transition period was in 1982, and as a result, there were two competitions that year.

iron man competition

From its humble beginnings, this competition has grown dramatically. In fact, the first competition was host to only eleven competitors. The following year, approximately 50 competitors showed up for the chance to win the prestigious iron man title. Only fifteen of these athletes actually competed, however, as the competition was postponed due to inclement weather. Today, iron man events see over 1,500 competitors annually.

iron man competition

The number of iron man competitors would be even greater if they did not have to first pass through the rigorous qualifying event. In fact, more than 3,000 hopefuls enter the lottery every year in hopes of finding a slot. However, only 150 spots are awarded through the lottery to United States citizens, and 50 are awarded internationally.

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Discussion Comments
By aplenty — On Sep 05, 2010

I have the utmost respect for anyone who competes in Iron Man Hawai'i. The area is beautiful, but parts of the race can be extremely hot. The marathon leg of the triathlon crosses through volcanic desert, and the beautiful sunny weather can make the marathon that much harder.

I used to live on the island, so the Iron Man event was a big deal. It was like the Superbowl for Hawaii. All of the hype surrounding the event lasted for days, and when the Iron Man Triathlon finally started, it lasted until midnight. Any racer that did not finish by midnight was disqualified. This is the ultimate endurance test. Maybe the only thing more grueling is the Badwater Ultramarathon; a 135-mile race through the 130-degree heat of Death Valley.

By nightlights — On Feb 07, 2010

I didn't realize there were qualifying events. Probably better that way for both the general level of competition and their health.

I've watched it on TV and it's totally grueling! Beautiful scenery though!

Kind of funny the reason behind the competition starting!

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