Posted October 3, 2017
You know them. They’re your friends, neighbors and work colleagues, men and women, who in their spare time are “Ironmen.” For shlubs like yours truly, summer is about relaxation – trying not to break a sweat. For more than 2,000 Ironman triathletes, summer was about training and qualifying in races around the world for the Big Daddy of Ironman competitions, the 2017 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii on Oct. 14.
Swim, bike, run. Ironman competitions were conceived as the ultimate test of athletic prowess. Competitors must consider the gear they wear, ride and bring during each of the three legs. In each phase, natural gas and oil play important roles to help the athletes get over the finish line.
Dreamed up by U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Collins in 1978 to settle an argument over which athletes were more fit – swimmers, cyclists or runners – he proposed the first Ironman triathlon. Fifteen men participated in that first race, which includes 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike race and the 26.2-mile marathon. Only 12 completed it. Today, athletes from more than 50 countries compete.
For the world championship, competitors will make their way to Kailua Pier in Kailua-Kona, on the western coast of the Big Island of Hawaii to start the elite race’s arduous, 140.6-mile trek. To start, the triathletes will swim across Kailua Bay, with the sun rising over Mt. Hualalai in the background. As they line up they’ll adjust swimming goggles before diving into the bay’s warm, blue water.
Everyone who has watched Michael Phelps knows that goggles are a must for the competitive swimmer. The polycarbonate lenses, the plastic frame and the stretchy rubber straps all are produced from natural gas or petrochemical feedstocks derived from the crude oil refining process. Each help make this small but indispensable piece of equipment stronger and more durable, with the qualities needed for an ultra-intense dog-paddle. Polycarbonate is a naturally transparent thermoplastic with high-impact resistance that lends itself well for use in equipment like swimming goggles or bullet-proof glass.
Only eligible participants over the age of 70 are allowed to wear wetsuits for the swimming part of the event. Sounds unimaginable – right? – yet 46 individuals over 70 competed in 2016, including an 84-year-old from Japan. While not all of them wore wetsuits, those who did donned outfits that most likely were made from a blend of neoprene and butyl rubber (both synthetic rubbers), with a fabric lining made from nylon, polyester or spandex. Like rubber, these various fabric alternatives are also made from (or produced from a chemical reaction involving) petroleum.
For the other competitors, they’ll be clad in a standard swimsuit when that set out into Kailua Bay. According to the rules, these must be made of a 100 percent textile material, which most often means nylon or Lycra® (a type of spandex fiber). Some swimmers also choose to wear a swim cap, which can be made from varying materials including Lycra spandex. This repeated use of spandex in swimming gear is due to the material’s light weight and its ability to not break down when exposed to body oils, perspiration or lotions.
After this long swim will come the even longer bike ride along the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, which will take the athletes past black lava fields and green pastures. Everything from the Kevlar in their bikes’ tires to the dry chain lubricant riders use to keep their bikes moving in dusty conditions are made using petroleum.
The riders also will wear sunglasses, which, like swimming goggles, are made from polycarbonate, a plastic produced from natural gas or crude oil feedstocks. This lightweight material provides the best impact resistance for cyclists who are kicking up dirt as they ride at high speeds against the intense “ho’omumuku” 45 mph crosswinds hitting the Big Island.
Legging It Out
The final portion of the race will see runners following a meandering path along Ali’I Drive before climbing up Palani Road to the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, finishing the race at the Natural Energy Laboratory Hawaii Authority.
Athletes preparing for these final hours of the event will inevitably make sure their water bottles are filled and shoe laces tied. Many popular water bottle brands, like Camelbak, use polypropylene, a thermoplastic derived from petroleum. Runners also often use a layer of Vaseline® Jelly on their skin to help guard against chafing. This moisturizer is a petroleum jelly, or petrolatum, that has been purified three times. It’s the same jelly doctors and moms have been using for years.
Since Gordon Haller won the first Ironman in Hawaii in 1978, thousands have flocked to the state in the hopes of following in his wake, cycling tracks and footsteps. Over the years, competitors have represented 88 different countries. The Hawaii Ironman World Championship is the best-known competition, but there are more than 210 Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races taking place all over the world.
What was a small event between a few friendly competitors now is an international phenomenon. Natural gas and oil help the strongest men and women swim, cycle and run in as much comfort as possible in their quest to stake a claim to being one of the world’s greatest athlete.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.