70.3 Ironman Triathlon or Half Ironman, what's in a name?

By the Silver Fox*


Let me introduce myself to you. I am John Hellemans and Christchurch/New Zealand is my work and homebase. My involvement with triathlon dates back to the first one I did in 1983. Since then I have been involved as both a triathlete(semi-professional and age group) and coach to hundreds of triathletes from first timers to World Champions and Olympians as well as age groupers and multi-sport athletes across all distances. The main criteria used in accepting athletes was a willingness by them to do the work and the ability for me to look them in the eyes(the main reason why internet coaching has never worked for me). My trade is that of a Sports Medicine Practitioner and this has also helped greatly with insights as a coach.


Since the Beijing Olympics I have retired from front line coaching and feel that the time has come to put the acquired knowledge and experience into writing. In 1988 and in conjunction with the now legendary Erin Baker who I was coaching we co-wrote a book called “Triathlon, The Winning Edge”. Since then however the sport has moved on and changed to such a degree that an update is overdue. An invitation to provide a series of articles for this website seems a good opportunity to start this process. How long the series will go on for and which topics will be covered are probably dependant on the response by you, the reader.


The first few articles will be devoted to the half ironman, also called the 70.3 ironman triathlon. The distance covers a 1.2 mile (2 km) swim, a 56 mile (90km) bike and a 13.3 mile (21km) run totaling 70.3 miles (for the readers who are more metrically inclined and who wonder what the 70.3 stands for). The 70.3 event was introduced in 2005 by the WTC (World Triathlon Corporation) at which time there was a stand-off between the ITU (International Triathlon Union) and the WTC over the ownership of the name half ironman. The American owners of the WTC quickly solved the issue by patenting the name 70.3. That act well and truly sealed the fact that the sport of triathlon now has two separate ruling bodies. The WTC has the mother of all triathlons, the Hawaii Ironman, as their trump card with associated full ironman and 70.3 races all over the world. The ITU is in control of most of the more prestiguous standard distance events including the World Triathlon Championship Series and the Olympic Games Triathlon. Table 1 illustrates the fact that the ITU specialises mainly in the shorter distance events while the WTC rules over the longer distances.


Distance name

Swim (meters)

Bike (km)

Run (km)

Governing body
















Long distance **















Attempts to encroach on each others territory continue with the ITU introducing long distance world championship events in recent years and the WTC trying to break into the standard distance market. To add to the choice of events for the average age grouper there are a number of non-affiliated events over varying distances and some as famous as the “official” ITU and WTC events (Escape from Alcatraz springs to mind). Age groupers are not restricted in which events they can enter. As long as you pay your entry fee and make the qualifying criteria organisers are generally happy to take your money. For the elite athletes it is a bit trickier. For them it is not so easy to switch between ITU and WTC events as loyalty by this more prominent group of athletes seems to be rewarded by both camps and frequent switching between rival events is frowned upon.


For the elite athletes the times that you can do well in both shorter and longer distance events are over anyway. This is especially due to the different physiological and mental requirements for the now mostly draft legal, shorter ITU races and the longer non-drafting WTC events. But the divide between the two ruling bodies has certainly hastened this development. Would it not be fantastic for our sport if the WTC and ITU joined forces? Imagine having an Olympic Ironman event in addition to the standard distance and a team sprint event (don't worry, the yearly Hawaii Ironman will always remain the pinnacle event for the triathlon purist). And imagine having draft legal and non drafting ironman events cohabitating peacefully in our fragile triathlon world, thereby giving athletes more choice, at the same time pleasing both the for and against drafting brigades. But currently all that seems as unlikely as Lance Armstrong testing positive for a banned substance.


I have just had the privilege of witnessing the Bonita New Zealand Ironman and once again was struck by the sheer power of emotions affecting the competitors, supporters and spectators. It is an all absorbing spectacle, in particular when you follow the ironman warriors towards the middle and rear of the field. The desperate struggle to stay in control of mind and body and thereby the pace which can be sustained surfaces more towards the later stages of the race. Some athletes are better at it then others (Cameron Brown is a master at it). The obstacles and hardship overcome in the preparation period and during the race in my opinion make all ironman athletes winners regardless of their placing when they cross the finish line. The 70.3 ironman triathlon is a milder version of its full distance cousin. It is arguably healthier, more achievable but still very challenging. In the next few articles I will discuss the 70.3 events in more depth, how to prepare and how to race. I will distinguish between the novice participant and the more experienced competitive athlete. In New Zealand the autumn is fast approaching. That means that in the Northern Hemisphere the triathlon season is just around the corner. Let the fun begin!


* Silver fox comes from the name “the old fox” which is how the author was referred to when welcomed across the finish line by the race announcer when he won his first official New Zealand Triathlon title. Much to his dismay the athletes he coached soon turned the nickname into the grey fox. In more recent years they have respectfully changed it to the silver fox.

** The ITU alternates the two different long distance events at their long distance world championships race on a yearly basis



John Helleman's after a good day with a 1st and 3rd placed athlete in an elite ITU series race(Kitzbuhel 2007).

Photo by this pages editor, TriathlonShots.





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