How the 1% Runs an Ironman

Half the people who finish an Ironman cross it off their bucket list and never do it again. XCers, meanwhile, always seem to be training for the next race, and the race weekends feel more like a reunion of alpha-achievers — the kind of people who approach an ultraendurance race as if it’s a giant escape room. They get hooked, not just on the challenge but on solving it together, and then the next goal becomes not merely finishing the race but placing high enough to qualify for the Ironman World Championship, held every October in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. Few words all weekend in Mont-Tremblant will be uttered with more frequency, and more hushed reverence, than Kona. Qualifying for Kona is like getting into Valhalla.

Ironman dates back to 1978, when John and Judy Collins, Hawaii transplants and avid triathletes, proposed a three-leg, swimming-biking-running 140.6-mile endurance race around the perimeter of Oahu. “Whoever finishes first,” John declared, according to legend, “we’ll call him the Iron Man.” The turning point for the sport occurred just four years later in 1982, captured by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports”: a 23-year-old amateur named Julie Moss, who trained for the race at the last minute, leading until the final yards, mile 140.5 out of 140.6, when the muscles in her limbs seized up, and she soiled herself and crumpled to the ground. She kept staggering to her feet, kept collapsing, then finally crawled to the finish line and touched it in second place. Thousands of viewers witnessed this on ABC and said, “Sign me up.”

Ironman XC began in 2009, or more accurately it was rebooted and rebranded from a program called the CEO Challenge, Ironman’s original attempt to capitalize on the executive class’s booming interest in the sport. Since then, the parent company has flourished, spinning off fresh categories, subsuming established distance races and hosting multiple events every weekend all over the world. (Advance Publications, which owns Condé Nast, bought the Ironman Group in 2020 for $730 million.) Over the same period, effective leadership has undergone a rethink similar to Ironman itself, a shift from the original metaphor — unbending, unstoppable, indestructible — to a kind of radical mind-body balance, the seemingly paradoxical notion that the right kind of not working holds the key to improving your work. Take sleep, which used to be for the soft and weak, a thing lazy people did while the masters of the universe were busy crushing it around the clock. “A lack of sleep used to be a badge of toughness amongst high-performing people,” Dixon says. “Now it’s a badge of stupidity. Every single high-performing C.E.O. that I work with prioritizes sleep. Every single one. I don’t work with a C.E.O. who doesn’t sleep at least seven hours every night.”

Ironman is no one’s idea of a spectator sport, and the XC hosts can only do so much about that, but without proper guidance it can be miserable, like chasing mirages in a desert. So by dawn on race day, Ford’s attention shifts to the XC families. It helps turn one of the most solitary, all-consuming, self-prioritizing pursuits in sports into a family vacation. The XC treatment, in fact, was the main reason Le Jamtel’s wife and son tagged along.

At 6:15 a.m., long after the athletes had left to inspect their bikes, Ford escorted the XC families around the lake to a V.I.P. hut on the beach for a quick final rendezvous with their loved ones. On a slender patch of sand outside, the rest of the Ironman field stood around shaking out their limbs and waiting — 2,000 queasy warriors in black wet suits, bracing themselves to charge into the water through a giant inflatable arch presented by Subaru, like a reverse amphibious assault on Normandy.

Minutes before the opening howitzer blast, Ford led the XC V.I.P.s through a special lane, past a small pen of spectators, past the public-address tower and out onto a spatula-shaped gray pontoon that stretched 100 feet into the water, where they joined about 20 Ironman officials and former champions and race photographers. This might be the only good angle from which to watch an Ironman start, which is too bad because so few people get to enjoy it, and what a sight. The morning sky like blue lacquer on porcelain, the breeze off the Lac, and mere feet away, the thrash of dozens of racers tearing through the water.