Because a Real Israeli Is Made of Iron

It's no wonder the Israman triathlon bears the slogan 'Are you tough enough?'

First you swim 4 kilometers through possibly choppy Red Sea waters, then cycle 180 kilometers into the desert, ascending for 15 grueling kilometers before traversing the rolling hills that overlook Eilat and the Arava Valley. Then you run a full 42.2-kilometer marathon through the desert as the sun goes down. And you spend NIS 50,000 a year to do it. No wonder the Israman event bears the slogan “Are you tough enough?”

Twenty two years have elapsed since Dr. Micha Kanitz flew to Hawaii to make history by becoming the first Israeli to compete in (and complete) the intimidating Ironman World Championship held in Kuna since the late 1970s. The 55-year-old former national water polo team goalkeeper decided to “find a challenge greater than the triathlon that I’d done until then, although many people thought I’d gone crazy.”

The Wingate sports institute physiologist swam the 4 kilometers in 1 hour and 15 minutes, pedaled 180 kilometers in about seven hours, and then ran a 42-kilometer marathon in just under five hours. It was, he admits, a nightmare that continued for almost 14 hours. “I was just happy to finish,” he recalls.

To his disappointment, in the Israel of those days there was still no one to share the Ironman experience with. But in recent years, Kanitz’s fantasy is coming true, as more Israelis take up this ultimate challenge.

“There are already close to 400 Israeli Ironmen,” estimates Nir Barak, one of the organizers of today’s annual Israman competition in Eilat.

The numbers at the event speak for themselves: In the inaugural event in 1999, only 26 participants completed the course. A decade later, that figure was 55. On Friday, a record 150 wannabe Israeli Ironmen will take to the starting line. Five to seven percent of them are expected not to complete the course.

“Many people are attracted to the competition purely because of the challenge,” explains Lior Zach Maor, coach of the Zone 3 Ironman team. “If now we’re seeing hundreds of Israelis, in the future there’ll be thousands.”

Zach Maor says an inseparable part of the sex appeal drawing Israelis to the sport is that moment when they pass the finish line and the announcer proclaims their name with the title “Ironman.”

“It’s far more than a symbolic title – it changes something in how that person sees himself from that moment,” he says.

Completing an Ironman becomes part of their curriculum vitae: Potential employers are inevitably impressed by their achieving such as tough target, and the ability to overcome physical and mental hardships and crises over a long training period and during the event itself.

“People simply want to belong to this select club,” says Barak. “Ironmen are like the top thousandth – 500 out of a population of 7 million. A small community of select people to whom others ascribe supernatural powers.”

Most of them are athletes who have had enough of the conventional marathon or triathlon – but not all of them. According to Zach Maor, some are reformed couch potatoes. Zach Maor usually recommends they complete a two-year period of intensive, regular training and a total lifestyle change before attempting this challenge. Those who want to tick the “done-it” box (“There are many of those,” he says) usually end the adventure with an injury.

“You have to be a bit crazy,” says Barak.

“The secret to succeeding in an Ironman is maintaining respect for the distance,” says Nina Pekerman, 35, a professional Ironwoman who finished 12th in the 2011 Ironman European Championship. “It’s quite a challenge to complete such a distance and you should by no means take it lightly.”

Anything can happen during 12 and a half hours, the average time it takes to complete the course – from a cycling accident to an ill-structured nutritional regime that could put you out of the competition. In order to reach the starting line in prime condition, participants need to train for at least 15-25 hours weekly. Most of that time is devoted to cycling, the longest section of the course.

“My trainees swim for close to three hours a week, run for four and cycle for at least eight hours,” Zach Maor says.

Kanitz says that when he prepared for the Ironman in Hawaii in 1999, the training was so demanding that he had to take a sabbatical year. “Whoever gets into this should know what to expect. Those who do not prepare fully will get injured or fail to complete the course.”

So who is prepared to take on such a demanding lifestyle? “The average age is about 45,” says Zach Maor, “people from the middle- and upper-socioeconomic classes whose children are old enough and they’ve reached the stage where they’re ready for a change.”

Recent years have seen a sharp rise in the number of CEOs and businessmen participating in Ironman events both in Israel and worldwide. “The values of this sport are similar to business values based on perseverance, ambitiousness and triumphalism,” says Barak.

The average outlay of an Israeli Ironman is between NIS 40,000 and NIS 50,000 – taking into account traveling to overseas competitions (Israelis’ favorite competitions are in Germany and Austria), expensive equipment (especially the bicycles), nutritional supplements, fuel costs on the way to and from to training and competitions, and registration fees.

“Often an indivisible part of a choice of product is how friends will view it. It’s a status symbol,” says Amit Levinson, who owns a bicycle store chain that specializes in equipment for triathletes. “In the past year we’ve sold quite a few bicycles that cost NIS 50,000 or more,” Levinson says.

The average Ironman, he says, will suffice with a bike that costs a mere NIS 15,000, and will add special wheels and a designated helmet.

Levinson says that in recent years Ironman competitors have come to comprise at least half his customer base, which shows how much the sport has taken off in Israel.

Over 50,000 people complete an Ironman course somewhere in the world every year. In Israel, Barak estimates, “The number of participants is rising at a steady 10-15 percent annually. The Ironman is the opera of the sporting world – a sort of new high-culture.”

Over 1,100 competitors from 17 countries have registered for this year’s Israman competition. In a couple of years this number could reach 2,000.

As the Eilat municipality has realized, this could have tremendous tourism potential.

Not that the participants are blinded by this prospect. “We still have much to learn from others,” says Pekerman. “Most people are dumbfounded at the prospect of cycling from Haifa to Tel Aviv and back, and then running to Hadera – and that’s without mentioning the swimming stage at the beginning. Every Ironman participant will tell you that the first question he’s asked is: ‘You can do all that in one day?’”

“To become an Ironman demands following a long and intensive road,” says Dr. Kanitz, “and it isn’t suitable for everyone.” 

Moti Kimche
Moti Kimche
Moti Kimche