October 07, 2010

Introduction to Ironwoman, a novel

As an author of three non-fiction books and a soon-to-be-published collection of poems, I have written very little fiction, and certainly none that has been published.

But in 2005, after quitting my job as a reporter for Bloomberg News after more than seven years to take time off and compete in three Ironmans in Australia, Germany and New Zealand respectively over a period of 11 months, I felt inspired to try fiction.

What if a woman were to win the Ironman World Championships outright?

The idea was sparked in part by the performances of women ultrarunners Ann Trason and Pam Reed.

I began writing, using both my vivid imagination and my experience with the sport I’d been involved in as an age grouper since 1999. After creating 12,747 words I stopped.

Two years later, I was in Kona to watch my partner Tim compete in his first Ironman World Championships. That was 2007 and I also watched a then unknown win the woman's championships title. She's since become a household name, having three successive wins in Hawaii. This Saturday she's poised to make it four.

At the time of my first fiction attempt with the working title Ironwoman in September and October 2005, the fastest Ironman time by a female was 8:50:53 set by Paula Newby-Fraser in Roth in 1994; this record was not bettered until the Dutch Yvonne van Vlerken did so in July 2008—a whopping 14 years later.

Since then women have sped up though none more so than Chrissie Wellington who has made Ironman even more exciting, as she redefines what’s possible—not just for women but also for men. At Roth in July this year, she improved the fastest Ironman time for women to 8:19.

Now women are within half an hour of the men. The men’s Ironman record is 7:50:27, set by Belgium’s Luc van Lierde in 1997, also in Roth. When I saw a Daily Mail article on the Xtri.com website yesterday, in which Chrissie is quoted as saying that it is only a matter of time before the women beat the men, I thought of what I had written five years ago, revisited it and decided to publish this unfinished draft in short instalments, before fiction becomes reality.

I want to re-emphasize that I wrote this two full years before I, and most people in the sport, had heard about Chrissie. I want to make clear that the character I chose is entirely fictional and has absolutely nothing to do with any specific female triathlete.
At the time I simply wanted to explore a story about something that seemed impossible—a woman taking the overall crown in Kona and what impact that would have on the discussion of the sport. My inspiration was the eternal quest for improvement in sport, as in humanity.

I believe that in the young sport of triathlon, Ironman, athletes have so much more potential. And in 2005 I believed that women particularly had a lot more to offer to this sport. I still do.

I wanted to explore how we look at athletic performance, especially that of women. It was only 1972 that women were first allowed to run the Boston Marathon, the world's oldest, and only 1984 until women could compete in the marathon at the Olympic Games.

I also wanted to explore how our perceptions of performances have been cast into doubt by the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs in any sport. Most of all I wanted to explore how I, as both a writer and an avid female endurance athlete, would approach the subject.

If I let her win in the opening scene, would I as the author allow her to be a superb athlete, a hero, or would I turn her into a villain?

Disclaimer: Although inspired in part by true incidents, the following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event. And I repeat, I wrote this draft in 2005—long before I had heard of a woman who I believe has the possibility to turn my fiction into non-fiction.

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