In an Ironman, it's part of the deal. "What the culture of the event embraces is, You keep going," Messick says. "It's all about not quitting."
Macca learned that the hard way. Before he won the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, twice, Australia's Chris (Macca) McCormack had trouble just finishing. In 2004, at Mile 19 of the marathon, he was suffering too deeply to take another step.
He quit, then hitched a ride in a passing car, which contained his hero, Mark Allen, who'd won Kona six times. In the car, they came upon an age-group racer, scraped and bloodied, walking toward the transition area with his trashed bike slung over his shoulder. "We pull over and ask him, 'You want a lift, mate?' " recalls Macca, "and he says, 'No, no—I'm finishing this race! It's Kona!' Then he looks in the backseat, and he says, 'Macca! You're out?'
"Here's this guy, epitomizing the spirit of Ironman racing, and I've pulled out because it hurt too much. I felt two inches tall."
Later, Allen told Macca that he was racing too much in Europe, that he needed to focus more on this, the Super Bowl of endurance sports. The Aussie took Allen's advice and went on to win the world title in 2007 and '10.
In those two words—It's Kona!—that bleeding age-group racer distilled everything this event stands for. In the endurance world the Ironman championship is as big as it gets. Which is why Messick has no use for false modesty: "We sit at the pinnacle" of endurance sports, he decrees. The company's bottom line bears him out: 65,000 people crossed an Ironman finish line last year. Of the WTC's 30 full-distance races around the world in 2013, 23 have already sold out, at entry fees of more than $600; five of the remaining seven are expected to sell out quickly.
The Color Runs and Tough Mudders, the half-marathons and XTERRA off-road tri's, the Gran Fondos and CrossFit competitions—the entire smorgasbord of endurance events—all lead to Ironman, according to Messick. Whichever gateway diversion you've chosen, "eventually you notice that you're racing next to or in a training group with someone wearing an Ironman hat or an Ironman finisher shirt," he says. "And you look at them and size them up and think to yourself, Wow, I wonder if I could do that?
"Can I do it after I've had a baby? Can I do it when I'm 40 years old? Can I do it after I've had cancer? I want to know what my limits are."
Of course there are whippets at the front, racing with a Ricky Bobby mind-set: If you ain't first, you're last. But for the vast majority, an Ironman is a personal challenge. Always has been, says Messick: "Talk to the guys back from 1978 and '79, when there were a dozen finishers. It wasn't a race, it was a can-you-do-it event. The culture of Ironman has never fundamentally deviated from that. It's about finishing."
NINETEEN EIGHTY was the third Ironman ever," Bob Babbitt was recalling. "I did it with my roommate, Ned Overend, who would later become a world champion in mountain biking, but mountain biking hadn't been invented yet."