How the 1% Runs an Ironman

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Jerome Le Jamtel likes to watch movies while he swims. He says it just like that, too — “I like to watch movies while I swim” — as if it makes sense. In the basement of his house in suburban Mamaroneck, N.Y., from which he commutes to his job in the city as chief risk officer for Natixis Americas, part of a multinational investment firm with $1.25 trillion in assets under management, he has created a miniature Ironman training facility, complete with a Vasa Swim Ergometer, a dry-land simulator that retails for $1,900 and resembles an inverted rowing machine. He puts an iPad on the floor beneath him, and voilà, he’s watching “John Wick” while he works on his freestyle.

Le Jamtel does all his training indoors now. His fellow regulars with Ironman XC, which stands for “executive challenge,” a small subcategory of Ironman that caters to high-achieving, time-strapped business executives, call him the hamster, because he’s always spinning on some kind of wheel. Several of his friends have nearly died on their bicycles in recent years, including one whom he introduced to XC, Nicholas Baddour, the chief executive of the Publicis Groupe in Switzerland, who got tossed over the hood of a car and was lucky to need nothing more serious than eye surgery. Le Jamtel did the research and crunched the numbers (chief risk officer), and he concluded that if he kept cycling Ironman distances on open roads — 112 miles for the bike leg, which in the race is sandwiched between a 2.4-mile swim and a full marathon — there was a 100 percent chance he would be killed. So he snaps his favorite race bike, a Dimond Marquise ($10,300), onto a stationary Wahoo Fitness KICKR ($1,300) and uses his Rouvy app on a mounted 30-inch screen to train on virtual simulations of actual Ironman courses. Le Jamtel bikes outside only when he’s racing, and when he’s racing, it’s almost always with Ironman XC.

A typical Ironman race field has about 2,000 competitors, and the entry fee is between $475 and $675. The XC pool in such a race is 10 to 15, and the fee ranges between $5,700 and $15,000. In addition to being a C-level executive, applicants are generally referred for consideration and sit for an interview, though it’s less onerous than it sounds, more of a jerk filter than an admissions process. “There’s a real community element to it, and that’s why people do it,” says Matt Dixon, the founder of Purple Patch Fitness, who has coached several XCers. He describes the program as “a coming together of people who are like-minded, navigating vastly different but very similar challenges” — like managing a group of car dealerships in Vermont, he adds, or running the security side of Microsoft.

“I loved the camaraderie of these people who I hadn’t really known before,” says Marc Harrison, until recently the president and chief executive of Intermountain Healthcare, which is based in Utah. Harrison is a cancer survivor who in two years went from his deathbed to his first Ironman XC event, where he found himself at a prerace dinner seated beside the chief financial officer of Rolls-Royce. “Warm, intelligent, funny, generous,” Harrison recalls. “And there were a bunch of people like that. Usually those are horrific affairs — you know, terrible food and people talking about their own triathlon adventures.”

Jerome Le Jamtel, an XC athlete and the chief risk officer at Natixis Americas.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

Among the perks of XC is a choice room at the hotel closest to the starting line, and so in late June, Le Jamtel brought his wife, his 21-year-old son and his son’s girlfriend to Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, in the Laurentian Mountains 90 minutes northwest of Montreal, to watch him compete in the Mont-Tremblant 70.3. The 70.3-mile race format used to be known as a half Ironman, but Ironmen don’t like to think of themselves as doing half of anything, so the company rebranded it “Ironman 70.3.” In Mont-Tremblant, the hotel nearest the starting line was the Ermitage du Lac, a rustic lodge nestled at the base of the stone footpath that bisects Mont-Tremblant’s candy-colored ski village, just a few hundred yards from the swim start on the shore of Lac Tremblant. There was a more luxurious hotel, the Fairmont, at the crest of the hill, but the Fairmont’s luxuries — spa services, swanky bar, fancy bathroom products — hold little appeal for the kind of people who spend their very limited leisure time competing in an Ironman. You’d have to schlep your gear all the way down that hill at 5 a.m.! That’s inefficient. That’s poor optimization. XC runs the way XCers like their businesses to run. For them, true luxury is everything in its right place, operating like clockwork.

What else do XCers get for their thousands? “White-glove level of service,” says Troy Ford, XC’s tireless, unflappable master of ceremonies. XCers travel thousands of miles to put themselves through hell, the kind that makes muscles fail and bladders empty, and Ford’s job is to make this experience as fun and frictionless as possible. What they need most is for him to be the C.E.O. “We take all the logistics, headaches, hassles and hurdles out of it, and make it really easy on them,” Ford says. For an endurance athlete, that means arriving to a minifridge in your suite stocked with all your favorites — red bananas, a six-pack of Upside Dawn nonalcoholic craft beer, a box of chocolate ChocXOs. It means an on-call bike mechanic to resolve any prerace emergencies — and there’s always something. If you’re not in XC and you packed your 162.5-millimeter crank instead of your 167.5, you’re pretty much screwed. Ford will drive back to Montreal to replace it, if that’s what it takes.

Le Jamtel competing in the 2022 Ironman World Championship race. Among the perks of XC is a choice room at the hotel closest to the starting line and a minifridge stocked with your favorite snacks.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

Business leaders are drawn to Ironman for all kinds of competitive, self-actualizing reasons, but according to Dixon, this particular expression of psychopathy is the ultimate test of problem solving. That problem could be mechanical, like a blown tire, or it could be physical, like mismanaging your hydration and needing to adjust your race plan, or it could be mental, like your brain’s instructing you to lie down and die. Part of finishing the race is a mind-set that comes naturally to gifted executives: Every problem has a solution. XCers, though, tend to be “on the outlier fringe,” Dixon says. What distinguishes them is their ability to maintain this mind-set under extreme duress. Ironman XC is like catastrophe practice. “By going on that journey,” he says, “you are going to draw a whole bunch of lessons about overcoming challenges, adversity, etc., and you don’t have to be that smart to join the dots to the same lessons that come in life.”

Half the people who finish an Ironman cross it off their bucket list and never do it again. XCers, meanwhile, always seem to be training for the next race, and the race weekends feel more like a reunion of alpha-achievers — the kind of people who approach an ultraendurance race as if it’s a giant escape room. They get hooked, not just on the challenge but on solving it together, and then the next goal becomes not merely finishing the race but placing high enough to qualify for the Ironman World Championship, held every October in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. Few words all weekend in Mont-Tremblant will be uttered with more frequency, and more hushed reverence, than Kona. Qualifying for Kona is like getting into Valhalla.

Ironman dates back to 1978, when John and Judy Collins, Hawaii transplants and avid triathletes, proposed a three-leg, swimming-biking-running 140.6-mile endurance race around the perimeter of Oahu. “Whoever finishes first,” John declared, according to legend, “we’ll call him the Iron Man.” The turning point for the sport occurred just four years later in 1982, captured by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports”: a 23-year-old amateur named Julie Moss, who trained for the race at the last minute, leading until the final yards, mile 140.5 out of 140.6, when the muscles in her limbs seized up, and she soiled herself and crumpled to the ground. She kept staggering to her feet, kept collapsing, then finally crawled to the finish line and touched it in second place. Thousands of viewers witnessed this on ABC and said, “Sign me up.”

Ironman XC began in 2009, or more accurately it was rebooted and rebranded from a program called the CEO Challenge, Ironman’s original attempt to capitalize on the executive class’s booming interest in the sport. Since then, the parent company has flourished, spinning off fresh categories, subsuming established distance races and hosting multiple events every weekend all over the world. (Advance Publications, which owns Condé Nast, bought the Ironman Group in 2020 for $730 million.) Over the same period, effective leadership has undergone a rethink similar to Ironman itself, a shift from the original metaphor — unbending, unstoppable, indestructible — to a kind of radical mind-body balance, the seemingly paradoxical notion that the right kind of not working holds the key to improving your work. Take sleep, which used to be for the soft and weak, a thing lazy people did while the masters of the universe were busy crushing it around the clock. “A lack of sleep used to be a badge of toughness amongst high-performing people,” Dixon says. “Now it’s a badge of stupidity. Every single high-performing C.E.O. that I work with prioritizes sleep. Every single one. I don’t work with a C.E.O. who doesn’t sleep at least seven hours every night.”

Ironman is no one’s idea of a spectator sport, and the XC hosts can only do so much about that, but without proper guidance it can be miserable, like chasing mirages in a desert. So by dawn on race day, Ford’s attention shifts to the XC families. It helps turn one of the most solitary, all-consuming, self-prioritizing pursuits in sports into a family vacation. The XC treatment, in fact, was the main reason Le Jamtel’s wife and son tagged along.

At 6:15 a.m., long after the athletes had left to inspect their bikes, Ford escorted the XC families around the lake to a V.I.P. hut on the beach for a quick final rendezvous with their loved ones. On a slender patch of sand outside, the rest of the Ironman field stood around shaking out their limbs and waiting — 2,000 queasy warriors in black wet suits, bracing themselves to charge into the water through a giant inflatable arch presented by Subaru, like a reverse amphibious assault on Normandy.

Minutes before the opening howitzer blast, Ford led the XC V.I.P.s through a special lane, past a small pen of spectators, past the public-address tower and out onto a spatula-shaped gray pontoon that stretched 100 feet into the water, where they joined about 20 Ironman officials and former champions and race photographers. This might be the only good angle from which to watch an Ironman start, which is too bad because so few people get to enjoy it, and what a sight. The morning sky like blue lacquer on porcelain, the breeze off the Lac, and mere feet away, the thrash of dozens of racers tearing through the water.

Troy Ford, the director of the Ironman XC program who takes care of logistics for the XC racers, including escorting the athletes’ families to different points in the race.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

No time to linger, though. In about 30 minutes, the XCers would begin to emerge from the other end of the lake. Ford marched the families back toward Mont-Tremblant village, arriving just in time to see Le Jamtel dash out of the water and into the bike transition area, smiling, waving his arms, hyping up the other competitors, all of whom just stared at the ground and peeled off their wet suits with the same grim visage, as if they’d made a terrible mistake.

If you’re wondering how a bicycle can cost $15,000, or $20,000, or $30,000, Le Jamtel has assembled a Google doc with the relevant figures that he would be glad to share. It helps, though, to think of it not as one bike but as 100 distinct mechanical parts that assemble to form a bike. One such bike hitched to a parked S.U.V. outside the Holiday Inn in Mont-Tremblant was equipped with an Argon 18 Electron Pro TKO Pursuit frameset ($8,400), an Enve SES Disc carbon tubeless wheelset ($2,700), Wahoo Fitness Speedplay Nano pedals ($450), Rotor Aldhu direct-mount crank arms ($345) and a Profile rear-mount water-bottle cage ($80). The bicycle helmet of choice in Mont-Tremblant, meanwhile, was the Smith Jetstream TT ($380), which makes its wearer look like a Conehead riding into a derecho.

There are few paupers at an Ironman — except for the actual professional athletes, who often work a second job to support their racing careers — and there’s no schadenfreude quite like watching a bike that costs more than a car get smushed by the automatic door at a Holiday Inn. But even in the rarefied air of triathlon, the privileges of Ironman XC can be a sore subject. “You can imagine what the perception is,” Dixon says: “All these people are just paying a bunch of money to be in some private club.”

Which, of course, is exactly what they’re doing. “I’m sure you have noticed we are spoiled kids,” Le Jamtel confesses, laughing. For the first four decades of his life, he was no Ironman. The only sport he enjoyed was sailing. Then the financial crisis crushed his sector of the banking industry, and by the time Le Jamtel lost his job, he weighed 245 pounds. He started walking laps around his block in Mamaroneck, then running laps, and soon he was doing a handful of XC races a year. If you’re doing the math, his annual Ironman budget is closing in on six figures. “I mean, there is no way around it — we are pampered,” he says. “I can understand seeing from the outside where it feels unfair, or there is a shortcut. That’s completely understandable, and true. But it’s missing the point.”

Dina Altayeb, 52, has been baffling people across Saudi Arabia with her stubborn independence since she was a girl in Riyadh forcing her family to get up on weekend mornings and take her to tennis lessons or horseback riding. All her life she’s been doing things that Saudi women of her generation simply don’t do, like playing sports, learning martial arts and commuting from one side of the planet to the other — from Tufts University in Boston to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — to complete her periodontics degree while raising three children. In 2005, she became the first Saudi woman to compete in an Ironman, and the first Saudi of any gender to finish a full Ironman, which she has now done 18 times. She owns one of the largest dental clinics in Jeddah, she’s on the board of advisers at Tufts dental school and she feels no guilt about dropping a fortune on her bikes. “I worked hard,” she says. “I deserve it.”

Dina Altayeb, an XC athlete, with her medal at the 2022 Ironman World Championship. She owns one of the largest dental clinics in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

Altayeb doesn’t need help occupying kids during an Ironman — hers are grown, and they’re done watching her race. For all her independence, though, she likes company, and no matter how many Ironmans you complete, it’s always a bit deflating when there’s no familiar face at the finish line. XC has become her racing family, and Le Jamtel has become one of her XC besties.

Almost by force of gravity, XC has come to replicate the social and structural dynamics of the corporate world: white and male, plus one or two women who’ve been the one or two women in a roomful of men their whole lives. While a trio of 40-something pals from Moncton, New Brunswick, whom the global XCers quickly nicknamed Team Canada, looped through the Laurentian Mountains, their wives kept the kids hydrated in the shady XC V.I.P. area above the Lululemon store and talked about sacrifice and making it work. Team Canada signed up for the Mont-Tremblant 70.3 in 2020, but the pandemic led to its cancellation, and then again in 2021, so they decided that if they couldn’t go to an Ironman, they’d just make their own. They contacted a well-regarded Ironman coach and explained their plan, and he thought they were so crazy that he agreed to help them set up a course around Moncton — 70.3 miles, a full dress rehearsal, with the bibs and the inflatable starting-line arch and water bottles stashed along the course, all for a competitive field of three. By the time Team Canada showed up for their first official Ironman, they’d already finished one.

In 2005, Altayeb became the first Saudi to finish an Ironman competition. She has completed 18 full Ironman races in total.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

For the first two legs in Mont-Tremblant, Nick Hansen, a Team Canada member who runs a large family-owned sign-making business, was in solid shape, sticking to his race plan. And then, about a mile into his run, he said afterward: “I went to a dark, dark place. I was in the box.” “The box” is a term coined by Team Canada’s coach, Paul Buick, a champion triathlete from New Zealand, and it describes a mental state of total despair — the moment in a race when the mind begins to turn on itself, like an immune system attacking healthy organs. “This constant screaming and yelling in my ear,” Hansen explained. “Why are you doing this? Why don’t you stop? You’re not gonna do it anyway. Just stop.

Hansen is soft-spoken, reflective and very hard on himself, which makes him particularly susceptible to the box. He was on the brink of surrender, in fact, when a few yards up ahead, the guy in front of him began to veer off the course and walked straight into a shallow riverbed, as if he was blindly following Google Maps, whereupon he lay faceup in the cool, refreshing water and did not get up. “I’m, like, laughing inside,” Hansen says now, “but at the same time I totally get it, because I understand that conversation that goes on in your mind, right? It’s like this very powerful struggle, and it’s tough to be stronger than that voice.” Watching someone else surrender unlocked something inside of Hansen, though. Just like that, the box seemed to open up on its own, and he finished the race.

Shortly after Team Canada signed up for Mont-Tremblant, Hansen, in his capacity as chief executive of Hansen Signs, found himself in the box. His company had underestimated the budget for a two-year, $600,000 project to such a degree that merely breaking even on it would be next to impossible. He gathered his team and told them: “We made a mistake here, and we’re going to have to fix it, and the way that we’re going to fix it is by finding opportunities in every step of the process.” This problem would not be solved in a day, or two days, or two months. This problem was Ironman-size, and so they would all have to be Ironmen to solve it, and so that’s what they did. They finished the project. Hansen’s family business survived an existential crisis.

Once you’ve pushed your body and mind to race all those miles in a single day, the crises of normal life become speed bumps. As Pasquale Romano, the president and chief executive of the electric-vehicle infrastructure company ChargePoint and a frequent XCer, puts it: “You can’t rattle an Ironman.”

A professional Ironman finishes a 70.3 in about four hours, and so by 10:30 a.m., Mont-Tremblant’s cobblestone path was lined with spectators eagerly awaiting the race leader, Lionel Sanders. Among the race organizers at the finish line, a rumor was making the rounds that Sanders, the LeBron James of the sport, had snapped out one of his front teeth midrace while trying — unsuccessfully, it turned out — to bite off the top of a water bottle.

Joachim Gemmel, an XC athlete and the chief operating officer for Asklepios, is greeted by his family after crossing the finish line at the 2022 Ironman World Championship race.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

The first XCer finished about two hours later: Trevor Katelnikoff, the chief executive of the same H.R. outsourcing company, PEO Canada, where he first started working 30 years ago as a van driver. Everyone knew Trevor would finish first. He always finishes first. The XC winner at each race, and often the runner-up too, earns a bid to the world championship, and for many XCers this is the program’s top lure: It improves their chances of qualifying from about 100-to-1 in the open field to better than 10-to-1. Katelnikoff, for what it’s worth, also finished second in his Ironman category, Men 50-54, meaning he earned his slot outright. After him, the XCers began arriving in clumps. Le Jamtel crossed the finish line with the same exuberance he had at Mile 2. Forty minutes later, freshly showered, he was back at the finish line waiting to greet Altayeb with a hug.

For the XC awards dinner later that night, Ford reserved the entire second floor of the steak restaurant at the summit of Mont-Tremblant village, and during the ceremony he shared some unexpected good news. Because of Covid-related race cancellations earlier in the 2022 season, XC hadn’t been able to award several of its allotted qualifications for the 70.3 world championship, meaning now they had a large surplus. And so, Ford declared, all of the remaining XC finishers at Mont-Tremblant were now bound for the 70.3 world championship in St. George, Utah, as well.

How you feel about this may depend on how you feel about privilege’s habit of becoming self-perpetuating, like compound interest, and whether it makes XC sound like an exclusive social club, or as Dixon described it, “a great case study of what real leadership is now.” But if real leadership is all about setting an example, projecting a mind-set that inspires people to do their very best, to do things they didn’t know they could, well, here’s a postrace email report from Le Jamtel, the self-admitted spoiled one, who also qualified for the full-distance world championship with a boost from XC, on his experience in October at Kona:

“Very tough race. I truly learnt again about ‘Iron Will,’” he began. “Got stung by a jellyfish midway. Current, wind and waves picked up over the last 3rd of the swim. All against. I must have absorbed too much seawater. I also had a cold, and that didn’t help. I was blowing my nose every [few] seconds during the bike and marathon, losing lots of water and salts.” Things got grim. “At the end of the bike, I had major gastrointestinal issues and nausea. I could not run without vomiting and could not absorb liquid or food. I had to manage on a very narrow line to move forward without collapsing.” His family was waiting for him at the finish line, though, so “no scenario for me to quit. My 20th Ironman, 4th Kona, my slowest and hardest but great memories! Never DNF as we say!”

Some of the athletes’ bikes can cost as much as $30,000.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

Devin Gordon is a writer based in Massachusetts. He is the author of “So Many Ways to Lose: The Amazin’ True Story of the New York Mets — the Best Worst Team in Sports.” Philip Cheung is a photographer based in Los Angeles. He has worked extensively around the Middle East and has documented the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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