Ironwoman Eimear Mullan is going the full distance

No gender barrier for athlete who is the only Irish woman to break nine-hour mark for a full triathlon

Ireland’s Eimear Mullan has now completed 10 “Ironman” competitions including a personal best time of 8:56:51. Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images.

Ireland’s Eimear Mullan has now completed 10 “Ironman” competitions including a personal best time of 8:56:51. Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images.

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Not many sporting events have more legendary origins than the Ironman. Nor now sound more gender biased.

Because with the leading women fast catching up with the leading men – and in some cases actually surpassing them – doesn’t the title “Ironman” come across as marginally impertinent?

Eimear Mullan doesn’t necessarily think so. Last October, she improved her own Irish record for the Ironman, completing the epic triathlon distance of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile cycle and 26.2-mile run in eight hours 56 minutes and 51 seconds. And that’s not a misprint.

She’s the only Irish woman to break the nine-hour barrier, and check this out: she ran the 26.2-mile leg (yes, the full marathon) in 3:04:55, faster than the 3:07:14 that Bryan McCrystal ran when setting the Irish men’s Ironman record of 8:30:50 (and more on that later).

Indeed Mullan has now established herself as one of the leading Ironman competitors in the world, her 8:56:51 inside the top-50 all-time women’s list.

Before 2011, no Irish man had broken nine hours – and Mullan has stood on the women’s medal podium at several international Ironman contests, including Austria, Mallorca, and Ironman UK.

So, does it bother her to be considered an “Ironman” champion, when the title “Ironwoman” would surely be more apt? Especially after beating many a so-called “Ironman”?

“When I first started out I did think about that,” says Mullan. “I’d be standing on the podium, a woman, and everyone would be calling you an Ironman. But after a while you don’t notice it. It’s all about the event, the distance. And I just really enjoy it.”

And more on that later, too.

Fastest growing

Because the Ironman is all about the event, the distance – especially when it comes to the branding of it. Triathlon continues to be the fastest growing mass participation sport in the world, with distances now cut to suit the range of entries.

The so-called Olympic distance (.93-mile swim, 25-mile cycle, 6.2-mile run) has become the standard in international competition (including of course the Olympics themselves) but there is and only ever will be one Ironman distance – despite some attempts to cut that to suit the range of entries too.

It all began – as legend has it – after an argument between some endurance athletes at a bar in Hawaii, sometime in late 1977. US Navy commander John Collins had participated in some of the earliest triathlons around San Diego, in 1974 and 1975, which then consisted of much shorter swims, cycles and runs.

Collins had also read an article in Sports Illustrated which declared Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx the fittest endurance athlete in the world, due to his highest recorded maximum oxygen update – or VO2 max.

So began the argument: but what about Mark Spitz, the American swimmer who won nine Olympic gold medals, including seven in 1972? Or Frank Shorter, the American marathon runner who also won Olympic gold in 1972?

Collins decided to end the argument by suggesting he and his mates combine three long-distance competitions that already existed in Hawaii: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (of 2.4 miles), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (112 miles), and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles) – and the rest is sporting history.

Second Captains

What Collins didn’t realise was the Around-Oahu Bike Race was actually a two-day event.

Anyway, he convinced 15 endurance athletes to take part in his new venture, which took place on the morning of February 18th, 1978: “Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Ironman,” Collins declared, in his pre-race instructions.

Gordon Haller, also from the US Navy, won that inaugural Ironman in 11:46:58. The following year, Lyn Lemaire, a cyclist from Boston, placed fifth of the 50 overall entries, becoming the first “Ironwoman” of the Ironman, in 12:55:38.

The Ironman has certainly come a long way since then, as indeed have the winning times, although Hawaii – or rather Kona Island – remains its spiritual home.

Mullan has yet to compete there, although she was down to observe the event last October, shortly after she’d finished fourth in the Barcelona Ironman, in that Irish record of 8:56:51.

Immediate goal

Hawaii is certainly part of her ambitions for the season ahead, although currently nursing an upper hamstring injury (or “tendinopathy”) her immediate goal is to get back to the full training programme necessary to complete a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile cycle and 26.2-mile, all in under nine hours.

What is certain is that her own Ironman career has come a long way since Mullan decided to go full-time, at the start of 2013. Like most people, it seems, she discovered triathlon by accident rather than design. While growing up in Portstewart, she dabbled in the tetrathlon, essentially the modern pentathlon only without the fencing.

Later, when she moved to England to pursue a PE teaching career, she took up cycling for mostly recreational purposes, before a colleague at the cycling club asked her if she could swim as well.

“After that I joined a triathlon club, and it just took off from there,” she explains. “I raced at age group level in the UK, winning a few national age-group titles, across various distances, then tried a few professional races.

“I tried a few Olympic distances, as an amateur, and I still like the half distance as well (the “70.3”, as in 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile cycle, and 13.1-mile run). But the main reason I focused on the Ironman distance is because my swim is definitely the weakest of the three disciplines, but counts as the slowest part in the Ironman.

“So because the bike and run are longer lasting that just suits me much better. My swim just wasn’t fast enough for the Olympic distance, and if you’re not in that bike pack early on there isn’t really any point. So I’d rather focus on the distance I was good at, rather than struggle at one I wasn’t.”

The problem there is that only the Olympic distance is recognised for elite funding purposes by Triathlon Ireland, which meant Mullan effectively needed to fund herself.

For a few years she combined the PE teaching with her training, and in November 2011, entered her first Ironman competition, in Florida.

‘More inspiration’

“I just felt I’d give it a go. I’d never actually run a full marathon before, and it went quite well. I’d a tough time on the bike, but I actually got through the run okay.

“So that left me with plenty of motivation to try another one. The second time I entered, I did Ironman UK, in 2012, and I actually won. That gave me more inspiration to stick with it, and maybe make a career out of it, if I worked harder.”

That would also mean going full-time, so at the start of 2013, she left her teaching job: “It was a massive decision. I had no idea how far I could go in the sport. I knew I just wanted to give it a go. At the same time I had a good solid career, working full-time. It was the sort of job that you had to think long and hard about leaving.

“I just said, right, ‘go for it’. I was lucky though because around the same time I got in touch with a well-known coach (Brett Sutton), and his team (TBB), and he agreed to take me on. That’s really what allowed me to go full-time, the support of the team, and having them there for me, to get things going.

“I knew pretty soon I was on the right track with that coach.

“It was still a big shock to the system. I certainly didn’t know what to expect. The training moved up to a new level, and I’d very little money, enough to last me a couple of months, really.

“I just convinced myself I’d be fine, and I survived, somehow. I’d pick up some prize money, and that would keep me going, from one race to the next, basically. It went like that for 2013, away from home, spending the entire day training, resting, or recovering.

“But you can make a career out it, if you’re clever about it. I was careful to pick the races I knew would suit me, where I felt I could pick up money. They were usually the hilly races, because I knew they suited me on the cycle and the run.”

Still, it was make or break decision, in the literal and financial sense: if she didn’t break into the prize money the career was done.

By the end of 2014 that decision was perfectly justified, having won Ironman Mallorca, Ironman UK 70.3, and the Rimini Challenge 70.3, amongst several others, while also competing in the Commonwealth Games for Northern Ireland. Triathlon Ireland then named her female athlete of the year 2014.

She’s now completed 10 Ironman distances, the encouraging thing about her 8:56:51 in Barcelona last October being the fact she hadn’t targeted that race: “I’d started Mallorca the week before, but got a puncture, and lost a lot of time. So I just made that a training effort, then went to Barcelona the following week. I certainly wasn’t expecting to break nine hours. I hadn’t done much running training, and the plan was to just get around, really.”

Her 3:04:55 marathon leg was particularly impressive: again, McCrystal’s Irish men’s record of 8:30:50 (set in Arizona last October) finished with a 3:07:14 marathon, although his bike leg (4:16:34) was notably quicker than Mullan’s (4:48:44).

World record

Still, the world’s leading women continue to close the gap on the world’s leading men: Britain’s Chrissie Wellington finished with a 2:44:35 marathon when setting the women’s Ironman world record of 8:18:13, while Germany’s Andreas Raelert ran a 2:40:51 when setting the men’s world record of 7:41:33. They may never reach parity but the gap is closing.

Not that Mullan or any other “Ironman” or “Ironwoman” gets hung up on that. At the age of 33, her best years are most likely ahead of her. For the 2016 season she’ll be based in Greystones, Co Wicklow (training with the Base2Race team, under coach Eanna McGrath), and will compete internationally with the Alameda ON team.

“They’re actually based in Egypt, and part of their aim is to promote triathlon in the Middle East and North Africa, and especially to get more women involved. That’s something I am quite interested in too.”

Her average training week would approach 30 hours (“maybe six to eight hours in the pool, 12 to 16 hours on the bike, then five to six hours running”), but again, she enjoys it.

“It can be a very, very tough sport, and if you’re having any sort of off day, it’s not a very enjoyable experience. But there is something about that which keeps drawing you back for more, to improve. It’s an amazing sport in many ways. No two races are ever the same. Not when they last for around nine hours.”

Or indeed just under it.

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