Ironman triathletes; Personification of self-actualization

The article presents self-actualization (the process of self-fulfillment and reaching one’s ultimate potential) in relation to the unique group of individuals who commit to the 140.6-mile multi-sport event that is Ironman Triathlon. There is no doubt that the typical profile of an Ironman triathlete as well as the Ironman mantra ‘ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE’ exemplifies the theoretical prototype of a self-actualizer. The article aims to provide answers to the following questions; 1) What is self actualization? 2) What are the characteristics of a self-actualizer, and how can examples from Ironman Triathletes be used to contextualize self-actualization? 3) I want to reach my potential, should I sign up to an Ironman?

What is self actualization?

Self-actualization sits at the top of Masolw’s (1943) hierarchy of needs. The 5-stage model depicts a pyramid of requirements that we are intrinsically motivated towards satisfying. Successfully fulfilling the needs at a lower level allows an individual to move onwards and upwards. Ultimately reaching a state of self-actualization, coined as ‘realizing personal potential, self fulfillment through an active process of seeking personal growth and optimal experiences’.

Individuals can only move up to the next layer of the pyramid once the lower levels are satisfied. The needs reflected within Maslow’s theory are as follows;

  • Physiological needs–the most basic needs to survival; water, air, food and sleep. All other needs become secondary until these are met
  • Safety needs – The need to feel secure and safe include; a stable job, health care and a secure home and environment.
  • Love / Belonging needs –the need to feel affection and form relationships. Whether these are friendships, romantic attachments or within the family, there is a need for companionship and social acceptance.
  • Esteem needs – After the first three needs have been satisfied, the need for self-esteem, personal worth, and accomplishment become increasingly important.
  • Self-Actualization – The journey of ‘becoming’ and finding a meaning of life. Self-actualizing people are self-aware, concerned with personal growth and interested in fulfilling all they are capable of being.

It is a widely held belief that every person has the innate desire and capability to move up the hierarchy towards achieving self-actualization. Nevertheless this process is often disrupted by life experiences causing a deficiency at lower levels. An ongoing recursive process of fulfillment between the lower levels means that only 1/100 people achieve the active state of self-actualization.

Characteristics of a self-actualizers and examples from Ironman Triathletes.

The 8 characteristics presented below are by know means an exhaustive list of attributes. Furthermore in order to become self-actualized one does not need to conform to all these characteristics, self-fulfillment is about a unique continuous journey, not the achievement of a singular state at one moment in time. However individuals on the road to ‘becoming’ do tend to share some commonalities and athletes on the road to becoming an Ironman seemingly embody the majority of these.

  1. Acceptance and Realism – A fundamental characteristic of unlocking one’s potential is to remain grounded, accepting one’s fate for what it has been, is currently and will be. During an Ironman race this attribute distinguishes between those who finish and those who flourish. It is detrimental during the ultra-triathlon event to speculate; ‘what if’ or ‘what next’? Instead remaining logical, rational and well reasoned will allow the athlete to overcome the inevitable mental battles that accompany the race and thus allowing continued progression up the hierarchy towards self-fulfillment.
  2. Autonomy and Solitude – Reaching one’s potential is ultimately a journey of individual discovery. This concept is complimented through the hundreds of hours of solo training Ironman triathletes do. These athletes embrace independence and the notion of free will, enjoying their own company and being at ease with themselves and there thoughts.
  3. Continued freshness and appreciation – Ironmen athletes have an irrefutable ability to live in the moment and appreciate life for the small things. Athletes recall moments whilst racing or training where they became overwhelmed with the love for turning the pedals, or running in the most beautiful places in the world. The ability to practice mindfulness and value the world is commonplace for an individual concerned with achieving their potential. Thus it is also routine for the Ironman athlete.
  4. Peak experiences – It is fundamental that a ‘self-actualizer’ demonstrates engagement in ultimate experiences. Ironman athletes consistently describe the euphoria of crossing the finisher’s line, or the overwhelming emotional experience of being re-united with their family after completion of the race. Additionally peak experiences are often achieved during the training process for Ironman. Some athletes combine the whole Ironman process as a collective peak experience, indicating that the nature of the challenge as a holistic experience to both be endured but enjoyed. It is a ride, which will allow you to learn far more about yourself and extract your deepest capabilities more than just one moment in time such as retrieving your finisher’s medal.
  5. Highly Creative – The ability to be creative and think out side the box reflects the necessary skill of an Ironman athlete to be able to adapt to uncontrollable situations. Over the 140.6mile race there are many obstacles, which cannot be accounted for. Nutrition strategies, mechanical failures and weather issues will undoubtedly require creativity if they don’t go to plan. The ability to adapt especially in a state of physical and mental fatigue is unequivocal in the successful Ironman and the self-actualizer.
  6. Taking of responsibility and hard work – Many athletes on their way to completing an Ironman recall how the training demands and strains are often harder than the race itself. Months of relentless swim, bike and run sessions require an unequivocal commitment to the end goal. An Ironman will simply not be achieved on the back of inadequate and irresponsible preparation. During this journey the athlete accepts accountability for the tensions put on themselves and their relationships. Such a profound ability to work hard, as well as accept the costs, reflects the drive towards reaching ones potential.
  7. Avoiding pretense and being honest – The need to be truthful with yourself and others is fundamental of the Ironman. To remain committed over such an extensive training and racing period, keeping the mind and behavior straightforward is key to success. These characteristics and the forthright behaviors that follow allow athletes to complete the race and ultimately realize there potential as individuals when they break the finishers tape.
  8. Strong moral and ethical standards – Self-actualizes are commonly seen as the ‘do-gooders’ of society. Mirroring this image is the generalization that Ironman athletes often emerge from professions in which moral obligation and ethical guidelines must be adhered to (for example; educational, law and order and emergency services). However above and beyond the employment sectors Ironman athletes represent they also reflect the most active members of communities. Ironman athletes are commonly the un-sung voluntary heroes, engaging in activities that demonstrate equality for all and high moral functioning.

I want to reach my potential, should I sign up to an Ironman?

Before you hastily spurge on copious amounts of lycra, sports nutrition and a race entry to complete an Ironman triathlon (2.4mile swim, 112mile cycle, 26.2mile run) it is worth considering the fact that 1% of the population achieves self-actualization, whereas a substantially smaller amount complete an Ironman. Indicating that there is a magnitude of other ways for individuals to embrace the journey of self-fulfillment. As highlighted in an article by Kenrick and colleagues (2010) an individuals own interests such as; literature, education, the arts or business success provide more than adequate motivation to drive them towards the highest point on Maslow’s hierarchy. So let your own inhibitions guide you, however adoption of the Ironman mantra ‘ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE’ is certainly a great place to start.

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