“When are you stepping up to the full distance?”

Always that question. By “full distance” they mean, of course, Ironman, arguably the longest, oldest and most exclusive event in the sport of triathlon, and certainly the most storied. Running’s hallowed race, the marathon, inspires the same refrain.

Nearly a decade after my first running race and my first triathlon, I have yet to race an Ironman or a marathon. What’s more, I have no burning desire to tackle these distances in the foreseeable future. This response is often met with surprise, among athletes and non-athletes alike.

I view that innocent enough question as the product of an unfortunate mentality that pervades endurance sports—the idea that longer is better, the assumption that “stepping up” to the Ironman or marathon is every triathlete’s or runner’s ultimate aspiration, and that shorter distances are merely stepping stones along the way. I argue that the fixation on long distance events is misguided and counterproductive for many athletes.

Simon Whitfield winning the 2009 Hy-Vee Triathlon. He may be a four-time Olympian, but he’s not an Ironman.

Racing: The long and the short of it

Most of us are drawn to endurance sports for a challenge. While it may seem obvious, it bears repeating that going farther is only one way to challenge yourself. Focusing on improving your speed over shorter distances is also a worthy challenge, albeit the less popular choice these days.

Endurance veterans tend to scoff at shorter distances or fail to take them seriously. The general sentiment is something along the lines of, “It’s just a 5k/10k/Sprint. Hardly worth getting out of bed.” Even the common practice of referring to Ironman as the “full distance” implies that shorter races are somehow incomplete or inferior.

Many beginner triathletes and runners rush headlong towards the Ironman and marathon, missing out on valuable development experience in shorter distance racing. Due to genetics, available training time and other factors, we aren’t all ideally suited for the longest events, yet they have become the default goal.

As athletes flock to longer races, completing the distance has become the most important, if not the only, indicator of success for many. How hard athletes trained and raced, how they struggled and persevered, what they learned about themselves, and the results they achieved are devalued. These stories can’t be told merely in miles or medals.

In this reality, how can a short distance race—no matter how fulfilling and successful—ever match the prestige and sense of accomplishment of bagging your first Ironman, or even notching your tenth? When completion is all that really matters, the race distance becomes the only measure of success.

To me, the sole fact that someone locomoted 140.6 or 26.2 miles below some arbitrary time cutoff is unremarkable. The numbers are meaningless; it’s their story that intrigues me. What were their goals? Did they prepare as best they could? Did they race their heart out? In these questions lies the distinction between completing the distance and racing the distance.


What makes a racer?

Here’s my working definition:

1. Racers have goals and performance standards beyond completion.

2. Racers respect the distance and prepare accordingly.

3. Racers push to the limit of their ability on race day.

By this inclusive definition, everyone has the potential to race—as opposed to complete—some distance. But not everyone is ready to race an Ironman or a marathon, myself included. Some will never be, and that’s ok.

I am NOT an Ironman!

I could fake my way through an Ironman or a marathon tomorrow, but neither would qualify as racing in my books. My performance wouldn’t satisfy my goals and standards, and my preparation wouldn’t reflect my respect for these distances.

My progression in triathlon has been guided by this philosophy. After my first “Try-a-Tri” in 2006, I raced shorter distance events for several years before my first Olympic distance triathlon in 2012 and my first half distance triathlon the following year. In both cases, I moved up when I felt ready to race these longer distances, and not a moment sooner. I have years of unfinished business with the half distance before I’ll consider “stepping up to the full”.

Am I suggesting that my conservative, incremental approach is best for everyone? No way! We all have different goals, motivations and opportunities. But I do have a challenge for everyone…

Do you have what it takes to #RaceTheDistance?

It’s time we stop thinking of shorter races as stops along the road to the Ironman or marathon, but as challenging, rewarding and worthy pursuits in their own respect.

I challenge every athlete to explore their mental and physical limits, not by going longer, but by racing shorter. If you’re new to the sport, think twice before joining the mad dash towards the Ironman and marathon. If you’re a long distance veteran, try taking a serious crack at a 5k, 10k, track race or short course triathlon. The challenges and rewards may surprise you.

Join the discussion on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments below.