Swim 1.9km through rough open water, cycle for 90km and run for 21.1km, all under eight and a half hours: That’s the Ironman 70.3 challenge. And 850 triathletes and their families, from 62 countries, along with 1,500 crew will converge in Colombo on 25 February for one of the world’s most challenging endurance races. Florida-based World Triathlon Corporation, which organises, promotes and licenses over 260 grueling triathlon events the world-over under the Ironman brand has included Sri Lanka to its list of qualifying events for the world championships. It’s the first time an Ironman triathlon is being held in South Asia. The Ironman 70.3, or half Ironman, is a series of around 111 races worldwide. The 70.3 is the total distance in miles consisting of a sea swim, cycling and running. The Ironman Triathlon is twice that distance.

It’s not just a one-off sporting event for Sri Lanka to showcase its tourism and MICE (meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions) offering. There are two reasons why it’s much more than that: The contestant profile and the global brand’s business model both hold amazing long-term potential for Sri Lankan businesses, and careers. Triathletes are endurance junkies who always return for more. The average age of participants worldwide is a touch over 40 years, and they tend to be high spenders at the pinnacle of their corporate and professional careers. They are not professional sportswomen or men, just ordinary people with an inordinate love of pain, driving their bodies through six to ten months of training, perhaps a few injuries along the way, and willing to spend hundreds of dollars to take part in an Ironman triathlon.

“Training can be extremely challenging, and there are times I’ve been reduced to tears,” says Rajan Thananayagam, race director of Ironman 70.3 Colombo, who has participated in 15 triathlons so far.

“Breaking through the pain barrier is the hardest thing,” he says. It’s physically impossible. Your legs burn because they’re full of lactic acid, your lungs scream for air, your heart is pounding so fast it just freaks you out. All you want to do is stop. Your body is refusing to take it anymore. “That’s when you make a conscious decision to keep going, and your mind will make the decisions for you, not your body,” he says.

Why do they do it? For bragging rights, because it makes them feel like a part of a global community? But there’s something deeper. Many Ironman contestants are at the pinnacle of their careers, looking for self-actualization; or they are people who have gone through personal tragedies and turned their lives around, demonstrating to themselves that anything is possible; or they want to prove that being differently abled is a source of strength; or that ageing is fun. Once they’ve done it, some cross it off their bucket lists, but often times, many are hooked and become endurance junkies. Hundreds of these highly motivated people, among them corporate decisions makers and their families, will be in Colombo. “They come with open wallets, and they will also be quick to identify investment opportunities if they see them,” he says.

BORN AND RAISED IN SRI LANKA, Thananayagam lives in Sydney. He worked in senior management at listed John Keells Holdings before migrating to Australia where he worked in management and finance at several global firms in the business of education, finance and pharmaceuticals. He is the only Sri Lankan Gold Status Ironman All World Athlete for three years in a row.

Thananayagam is a director at Pro-Am Serendib, the franchisee for the Ironman 70.3 Triathlon in Sri Lanka, and says he never considered himself a sportsman until he decided to participate in an Ironman Triathlon in Australia. Fifteen years ago, life was all about achieving professional success and climbing the corporate ladder. “When I reached the top, I realised I wasn’t fulfilled, and the worklife balance everyone is talking about was missing.”

Ironman is more about being mentally prepared. Around 10 hours of training a week for six months will get most people in shape to complete the 70.3-mile course. “You’re always fit to take part, there’s no doubt about that; but what will get you across the finishing line is your mental strength—mind over body,” he says.

“The mental discipline transformed my professional career in amazing ways,” he says. “Tasks at work that took me eight hours or even several weeks to complete, I now finish in a matter of hours and end up with more time on my hands, which I spend looking for the next challenge.”

Former Sri Lankan Olympian Julian Bolling is impressed by the Ironman values. The swim coach director for Ironman 70.3 Colombo, Bolling became a household name when he bagged six swimming gold medals at the South Asian Games in Colombo in 1991. He is the only swimmer to thrice represent Sri Lanka at the Olympics. He is the director of Rainbow Swimming Academy and head coach at Rainbow Aquatics in Colombo.

For Bolling, competing and coaching was all about winning medals, but he realised early on that there was more to sports. “It’s all about being the best you can be for your family and community. This is why I try to be a life coach, going beyond the transactional model of coaching people to swim fast for me and win medals.” The Ironman values synched with his own, which is why he became a director at Pro-Am Serendib.

THE IRONMAN BRAND celebrates personal achievement. Yes, there are winners, rankings, titles and championships. Like any race, timings are taken seriously at Ironman, but the brand differs in that everybody is celebrated. The business model is based on giving people the experience of pushing beyond their own limits: crossing the finishing line is just the culmination of a journey that begins months in advance.

The first Ironman Triathlon was held in Hawaii in 1978, but it became famous after college student Julie Moss crawled across the finish line at second place in 1982. That was when completing the race, not winning, became a cause for celebration. “Ironman is not about racing to the finish but everybody racing to finish. Your biggest competitor is you,” he says. The Ironman brand is aspirational, life changing, a lifestyle even. Ironman is an experience the World Triathlon Corporation has successfully built into a business model: A growing community of satisfied customers, many who return for more pain. Just showing up at the starting line is a big deal. For many competitors, it’s the culmination of self-actualisation and beating personal demons. This is the experience the Ironman brand is selling.

“It’s not the race itself, but the dedication and life-changing training regime that brought you to the starting line,” Bolling says. “How you pulled yourself from the TV so you can sleep early, or how you tore yourself from bed although you were too tired so you can train. That is the story you make for yourself.”

Bike and run coach director, Yasas hewage, also a director at Pro-Am Serendib and Founder of Strategy College of Business and Marketing and Spinner Cycling, couldn’t agree more.

He left a corporate career in banking and marketing to pursue his passions of teaching management, and recreational and competitive cycling.

“The amount of physical pain people force themselves into just to take part is just crazy! But, they all do it for a reason close to their hearts,” he says.

Ironman is about stories, ordinary people overcoming tremendous odds: Aron Anderson is partly paralyzed and has battled cancer four times. He was the first to participate in an Ironman event in a wheelchair.

Kirsten McCay suffered from eating disorders as a youth and slept for months in her car with her dogs after separating from her husband. Indigenous Australian Roderick Whittle brings up nine children with his wife. A teacher, he says he finds time to train after work and when “the children are under control”. Sharn McNeill, diagnosed with motor neuron diseas,e had a friend pull her on a kayak for the sea swim and help with the wheelchair for the cycle and run legs of the triathlon. Kyle Pease was born with cerebral parsley, but competes on a wheelchair with his elder brother Brent. “It doesn’t work without Kyle, it doesn’t work without me. I give Kyle my legs and he gives me his spirit,” Brent says.

PRO-AM SERENDIB was overwhelmed by the response, selling out the event and closing registrations two months in advance. All 850 slots were filled and a hundred more are wait-listed. Applications came in from 62 countries, led by the UK, followed by France, Australia, Hong Kong and Qatar.

The Ironman franchise conducts over 200 races across cities worldwide annually. “They all chose to come to Sri Lanka when they could have gone anywhere else,” Hewage says. World Triathlon Corporation makes an annual turnover of $50 million, according to a 2015 Reuters news report. That year, China’s Dalian Wanda Group acquired the corporation for $650 million. The Group is investing to expand the Ironman franchise and diversify into a lifestyle brand by introducing shorter races and events for kids.

“They’ve been interested in Sri Lanka because it’s a tourism hotspot. Sri Lanka has what it takes to attract participants for an Ironman event,” Thananayagam says. “Ironman wants to give people new experiences and they want them to come back for more; that’s why they chose Colombo.”

There’s a big opportunity for businesses not just in tourism both during the race week and in the long term. But not everyone sees the opportunity, according to Hewage.

“Shangri-La closed the hotel partnership deal within two days because, being a global brand, they know what Ironman is all about. Sri Lankan hotels couldn’t decide, they had so many boxes to tick, and when they can’t tick a box, they can’t make a decision,” he says.

Pro-Am Serendib estimates triathletes and their families will spend $4 million in Sri Lanka during the week of the triathlon, which is a huge opportunity for the local economy. Triathletes and their families will want to shop, dine and visit places.

“They are a niche segment open to spending as long as their needs are looked after,” Thanayagam says. “Even tuk-tuks will have a piece of the pie,” the passionate cyclist says with a sarcastic grin.

Shangri-La will host an expo for Sri Lankan companies to showcase themselves to the hundreds of top professionals and corporate executives converging in Colombo to take part in the triathlon.

Pro-Am Serendib was overwhelmed by the response, selling out the event and closing registrations two months in advance. All 850 slots were filled and a hundred more are waitlisted. Applications came in from 62 countries, led by the UK, followed by France, Australia, Hong Kong and Qatar. The Ironman franchise conducts over 200 races across cities worldwide annually

The average age of Ironman Sri Lanka contestants is 40 years old, and professionals at the height of their careers with an annual average income of $250,000. “These are people taking part in Ironman because they’re looking for bigger mountains to climb than a balance sheet,” Hewage says.

“They are an amazingly motivated bunch of professionals and corporate decision makers who will grab an opportunity if they see one. Is corporate Sri Lanka ready to tap into that potential?” he asks.

“Ironman offers participants an affiliation to a global brand that recognises and celebrates personal achievement. Sri Lankan corporate execs and professionals taking to the gym or cycling in an endeavour to improve and boost their personal and professional lives will be exposed to a whole new league of ‘corporate athleticism’ when Ironman comes to town, and they can be part of something bigger,” Hewage says.

“When the sheer scale and pageantry of Ironman opens up before their eyes, Sri Lanka’s professionals will want to take up the challenge and compete in next year’s event,” he says. “By the way, the oldest contestant taking part in the Colombo triathlon is 81 years old. So what are you doing in the gym on that treadmill!” he laughs.