After taking a year off from Ironman racing to chase Olympic representation, I've become the go-to guy for comparing the distances. It has been funny to constantly hear the same question: "Which is harder: Ironman or short course?" As one of the few athletes who has been successful at both ITU racing and Ironman, I can weigh in on this debate from a position of experience.
I was a short-course star more than a decade ago (I won a world championship in 1997) and moved to Ironman racing in 2002. Many of the preconceptions I had about short-course racing still ring true today. The pace of the athletes up front was amazing, and the skills they had developed to be successful were remarkable.
I always saw the governing body, the International Triathlon Union, as the primary weakness. The ITU had failed to make the courses difficult and technical enough to put an athlete's abilities in three disciplines on show. The swim and the run were key. The attacking style of the Brownlee brothers is changing this, but the ITU needs to see that this sport will become more interesting with courses that allow athletes to shine and excel in a "balance" of the three disciplines.
It is interesting to listen to athletes talk from a position of perception and not experience. I've just had to smile when the ITU guys call Ironman a "long training day." My Ironman mates would joke about my lack of bike work in my new style of training or about being "the oldest guy at college." Sure, they had huge respect for the swimming and running abilities of the top ITU athletes, but in the same way that the ITU guys believed there was a lack of depth in the Ironman ranks, the Ironman guys believed a big portion of the ITU athletes were rescued by bike packs.
There is no dispute that the popularity of Ironman has diluted the depth of many professional fields. It has become relatively easy to "cherry pick" your way to success. But the dispute can be held both ways, as the draft-legal component of the sport and the sheer size of the ITU fields has, in many cases, nullified the bike leg in many of the World Cup events. The top dogs still come out on top, but unlike Ironman racing, many of the athletes who fill the lower places of the field in ITU races copped a free ride in the peloton. There are no free rides in the non-drafting stuff. Regardless of how you swim, you better have the bike strength to hold your position going into the run.
Some ITU athletes have the perception that their speed will directly correlate to Ironman. The greatest ITU athlete ever (this may change with the Brownlees in the next few years) was Simon Lessing. He was a four-time ITU world champion and considered the best short-course triathlete in history. His transition to Ironman racing was a difficult one. He struggled with the sustained power and the aerobic strength required for the last hour of the marathon. He was semi-successful at this style, but not compared to his dominance in ITU racing. Lots of ITU athletes have moved to Ironman racing over the past few years, and all of them will attest that the perception and the reality are completely different.
The same can be said about Ironman racers and their ability to race short. Some of Ironman's greatest, including Peter Reid, Normann Stadler and Tim DeBoom, showed none of the success in ITU racing that they did in Ironman. Even Craig Alexander could not cut that speed on the ITU circuit. When he moved to Ironman, many of the guys he was destroyed by in ITU were left in his wake.
Trying to decide which style is toughest is like comparing a mile race to a marathon. Both events are challenging in their own ways, and the best in both styles are exceptional athletes. I can honestly say that short-course racing has challenged me athletically as much as any Ironman ever has. It is tough, tough racing and just as difficult to prepare for. Trying to maximize your speed is a hard, arduous process.
The one thing ITU racing has not given me, that Ironman has, is the journey -- the discovery of not only your strengths as an athlete, but also your character as a person. To some degree the short-course event is won by the guy with the biggest punch, so preparing for this style of event is all about getting that punch to be as powerful as possible. The athlete with the most strength of character wins Ironman. Short-course racing will challenge you; Ironman racing will change you.
For the age-group racer who is racing short course and has aspirations of racing Ironman, take this to heart: If you underestimate the brutality of 140.6 miles, the distance will remind you of that at some point. Take strength in knowing that if you're not getting the results you're after in short-course, jumping up in distance might be the answer. We all possess different strengths, and sometimes without knowing we discover those in distances we are not currently racing.
I had two sporting idols when I was growing up. One was Sebastian Coe and the other was Robert Decastella: a miler and a marathon runner. As a kid I never felt the need to split the two on the basis of how far they ran -- I just loved to watch them excel at racing and marveled at their excellence. The same mentality should be applied to triathlon racing.
Chris "Macca" McCormack has more than 200 race wins to his credit and is widely considered one of the best athletes the sport has ever seen.