Just as George Plimpton had his proverbial cup of coffee in the NFL as the un-recruited and certainly unwanted fourth-string quarterback for the Detroit Lions, so, too, did Will McGough immerse himself in a sport he had no business trying. Like Plimpton, whose football folly turned into the bestselling Paper Lion, travel and outdoor writer McGough writes of his participation in, around, and over the course of the one of the world’s premier triathlons, the annual Ironman 70.3 in Tempe, Arizona.
McGough chronicles the Ironman’s history, his unorthodox training, the pageantry of the race weekend, and his attempt to finish the epic event. The narrative follows not just his race but also explores the cult and habits of the triathlete community, beginning with the first Ironman competition in Hawaii in 1978. This is a light-hearted, self-deprecating, and at times hilarious look at one man’s attempt to conquer the ultimate endurance sport, with a conclusion that will surprise and delight both dedicated triathletes as well as strangers to the sport.
Thanks to NetGalley for this review copy!
I’m going to say right off the bat that this book is not for the faint of heart. The author talks frankly about peeing and pooping himself during training/racing, as well as how his sex life is suffering during his 3 months of intense training. If you don’t mind the gory details, read on.
The premise behind SWIM, BIKE, BONK is simple – the author signs up for a triathlon. However, it’s not just any old triathlon: he chooses an Ironman race where you swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, then run a marathon (26.2 miles) immediately afterwards. In the beginning, he is very laissez-faire about his training, thinking that since he is young and in shape he won’t have any trouble. Everyone else around him speaks differently though. Eventually, he realizes that it won’t be that easy as his training miles mount up and he experiences the joy of a numb butt (and other parts) during a long bike ride.
The main part of the book consists of his training miles and his thoughts about same, interspersed with stories on buying just the right bike for the job, which Gatorade flavor is best, his fears about taking on too much, and how his endeavor is affecting his personal life. At times I skipped through some of the training miles because I wanted to get to the racing part to see what happened. Once the racing part started, he accurately captured the emotions and struggles of those involved. He writes about the bonk as he sees those experiencing it:
“With every step, another drop of life falls from their eyes”.
That is a great way to sum up how the bonk feels to a racer. I’ve only run in half marathons, but I have felt the bonk – and this book brings back memories of how it felt. There are some poignant emotions described at the end of the race, as well as afterwards. To finish a challenge such as this brings a wide range of feelings that can only really be understood by those who have done it. The author does his best to convey those feelings, however, and does a good job.
He also adds some thoughts about race volunteers (there was a failed lawsuit where they sued because they wanted to be paid) and how big the Ironman corporation really is. That part was surprising because I didn’t realize how fully corporate Ironman was. There is a lot of profit generated from these races.
SWIM, BIKE, BONK was a fun little read about one human’s desire to push himself to the limit. I think anyone who is interested in competing in the Ironman will love it, and those who run or bike competitively will also enjoy the author’s self-deprecating humor that shines through in most situations. As I mentioned, it’s not for the squeamish, but you can skip over those parts and still get the gist of the story. You can pick up your own copy here.