Matt Butler: Why people take a neoprene and Lycra-clad journey to hell

View From The Sofa: Ironman 2013, Channel 4

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The Independent Online

Most sport is irrelevant to the real world. Not in the sense that the extensive pullout you may read in The Independent every Monday is without merit, nor should it mean that sport is not worth doing.

Sport is of course a good way to keep fit and healthy and to keep the masses entertained. But it is irrelevant in the what-makes-the-world-go-round sense; it is neither here nor there if Kevin Pietersen bowls a few overs for Surrey, or if Justin Tipuric is hard done by if he fails to land a Lions Test spot. Nor, for most participants, is there a sane reason for putting in years of training to kick a ball over posts, run an arbitrary distance or whack a small white ball with a stick at a hole.

Which brings viewers who got up to watch the opening Ironman magazine show on Channel 4 on Saturday to ask two questions: Why is Daniel Unger thinking about swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles and running a marathon in Hawaii, all in around eight hours? And who the hell is Daniel Unger?

To answer the latter question, Unger is a 35-year-old German, who was 2007 ITU (Olympic distance) triathlon world champion. He was featured in a 10-minute segment in Saturday's Ironman show.

The former was less easy to answer. But Unger (right) came up with one of sorts, when he told of the challenges in stepping up from a 1,500m swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run to the Ironman distance. He said: "It is a fight with yourself; you have to deal with pain management. My approach is an ambitious one. I plan to have maximum success at my first attempt [at the Ironman world championship]." If that doesn't make Ironman sound fun, then who knows what will?

As part of Unger's preparations for the world championship in Kona, Hawaii, he raced in a half-Ironman event in Majorca, in the opening race of the season. The programme was there to follow his fortunes.

The four-hour race was boiled down to clips of people grappling with wetsuits as they tried to exit water, jogging through transition zones and cycling at full pelt, with a voiceover rattling off names quicker than it was possible to digest them. We just managed to catch the names of the winners, Eneko Llanos of Spain and Austria's Lisa Hütthaler, but the show was concentrating on Unger, who finished 16th. After catching his breath, he summed up what would probably be the thoughts of many who attempt the race."I never really enjoyed it," he said.

Ironman is clearly an impressive race to do and the footage from various early-season events in New Zealand, Austria, South Africa and Spain, with equal airtime given to men's and women's events, showed that the sport is well patronised. Also, Britain can claim one of the greats of Ironman: Chrissie Wellington, the recently retired four-time women's world champion.

But the images of people in self-inflicted agony crossing finish lines meant the questions of "why?" and "what is the point?" were still nagging at the back of viewers' minds. And as more neoprene and Lycra-clad swimmers-cum-cyclists-cum-runners huffed and puffed across the screen, the answer, we realised, was simple: There is no point. It's sport.

But alert viewers would have caught the gravelly voice of the founder of the Ironman, John Collins, just after the opening credits: "Swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles, run 26.2 miles – and brag about it for the rest of your life." Now there's a reason we can relate to.