You know that famous Rodney Dangerfield catchphrase, “I don’t get no respect”? It kept running through my mind as I reveled in the sports heaven that was this past Saturday.
Saturday marked the Super Bowl for triathletes, the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Once a year, the very best of the best assemble on the Big Island to swim 2.4 miles in the rolling swells of Kailua Bay, bike 112 miles in gale-force winds through a scorching black lava desert, and then run 26.2 miles beneath a relentless equatorial sun in pursuit of the world champion title. It is one of the toughest endurance races on the planet, and it is the Holy Grail of triathlon. The course record was set by Australian Craig Alexander in 2011. He crossed the finish line in 8 hours, 3 minutes, and 54 seconds.
Who is Craig Alexander? Craig “Crowie” Alexander is a 3-time Ironman World Champion who also captured the title in 2009 and 2008. In 2012, he raced the Melbourne Ironman in 7:57:44. He was out of the water in 50 minutes, 33 seconds—or the equivalent of 39 seconds per lap (Olympic pool) for 2.4 miles. He hopped off the bike in 4:24:43, logging an average speed of 25 miles-per-hour. To cap things off, he demolished the run course with a 2:38:26 marathon. Some have called Crowie’s race in Melbourne the “race of the decade.” Craig Alexander is one of the greatest athletes of our time.
Yeah. Never heard of him.
Enter last Saturday. I had just finished a particularly successful 20-mile run and could think of no better way to reward myself than by turning on every television in the house, piling a plate (or two) with food, and plopping down for an afternoon of uninterrupted sports heaven. Football. Baseball. Hockey. I even grabbed my laptop and streamed live coverage of the Ironman World Championship. I watched the race unfold as Mizzou beat the #7 Georgia Bulldogs, the Cardinals shut down the LA Dodgers, and the Blues defeated the New York Rangers. (Yes, the Ironman continued through all of these events.)
In the midst of my ideal sports setup, Rodney Dangerfield’s voice cut through the cheers: “I don’t get no respect.” Why?
My laptop, perched precariously on a tiny coffee table next to the sofa, the muffled audio trickling from the speakers utterly consumed by the surround sound blaring play-by-play of the NLCS, provided a literal representation of the plight of endurance athletes. There I was, watching on a tiny, pixilated computer window a small assembly of some of the world’s greatest athletes challenge the very limits of human endurance, while all around me the glitz and glamour of major sports drowned them out. I was watching something extraordinary. I was watching the world’s elite endurance athletes pour out their talents, their bodies, and their souls in a fantastic arena. But according to media coverage, Mirinda Carfrae’s record-shattering performance of 8:52:14 was far less significant than rumors of Rob Gronkowski's return from the IR. Or ESPN’s exclusive feature on LeBron James. Or SEC football dominance in the AP Top 25.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” you may say. “Who in the world is Mirinda Carfrae?”
Now, I get it. I understand the inherent difficulties of marketing endurance sport. I understand the challenges of converting live coverage of an 8 – 10-hour pro Ironman race—or even a 2 – 3-hour elite marathon—into viable and compelling television. I also get the history and lore and mania and drama of professional sports. I mean, I’m a huge traditional sports fan. Football. Baseball. Hockey. Basketball. (College, not NBA. Sorry.) Golf. NASCAR. Indy Car. I love every nail-biting, name-calling, fist-pumping, clock-watching, tear-inducing, nerve-racking, jersey-wearing, trophy-lifting moment.
But as I sat there, captivated by this race of superhuman endurance, I was struck by the staggering imbalance of media attention in the sports world. I get it. I understand why it is. It just suddenly felt very… strange.
Less than two weeks ago, Wilson Kipsang of Kenya set the world record in the marathon when he ran a mind-blowing 2:03:23 in Berlin. For those of you keeping track, that’s a 4:42 minute-per-mile pace. No human being in the history of the world has run a faster pace over the course of 26.2 miles. Kipsang ran for the ages.
Yet how many people even know that the marathon world record was broken, much less the name of the guy who did it?
Sports are a fertile forum for comparison and argument. In a weird, convoluted way, sports fans live for debate and controversy. We love to determine speculative outcomes to hypothetical matchups. We love theorizing which sport is the most difficult or takes the most athleticism—in fact, the Ironman was birthed from such a debate. We love statistics. We love making lists. We love crunching numbers.
(Here’s an interesting numbers crunch: Major League Baseball’s minimum salary is $490,000. Kipsang, who is now in the record books as the fastest marathoner in the history of mankind, won $54,000 for his first-place finish in the Berlin Marathon, plus a $68,000 bonus for breaking the world record. So, technically, you could be the worst player in MLB, sign a 1-year deal at the league minimum, not make the team the following year, and still pocket $368,000 more than Kipsang. I’m not sayin’ it’s wrong. I’m not sayin’ it’s right. I’m just sayin’.)
Even though I was a bona fide sports enthusiast, until I joined the world of distance running, I had no idea who some of the world’s greatest endurance athletes were. I probably couldn’t have named a single professional marathoner or triathlete. I had never heard of Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi, Kara Goucher, or Shalane Flanagan. I knew nothing about Paula Radcliffe. I had never heard the names Chrissie Wellington or Dave Scott or Mark Allen. I didn’t know who Craig Alexander and Mirinda Carfrae were.
Now I do.
No, this isn’t a jeremiad about the astronomical prominence placed on professional athletes in major sports. It isn’t a rebellion against ESPN’s love affair with LeBron James or Tim Tebow or New York or Tom Brady. It isn’t even a petition for equality of coverage.
It is a simple acknowledgement of those who are defying the limits of human endurance and athleticism, often beneath the shadows of bigger, flashier sports. It is recognition of their history-making performances and record-breaking careers. It is a simple tip of the cap.
Because the fewer people who say, “Never heard of him,” the better.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.