Is the Cost of Ironman Worth It?

Bikes at IM Frankfurt. That's a lot of money right there. Rupert Ganzer/Flickr
Bikes at IM Frankfurt. That’s a lot of money right there. Rupert Ganzer/Flickr

$650 is a lot of money. It’s particularly a lot of money to sign up for one race. But, that’s how much an Ironman costs. Even the non-Ironman brand Iron-distance races cost $400-500. And, since races are filling up and private equity companies are getting into the business, clearly people are willing to pay. So, is it worth it?

There is plenty on the internet written breaking down by line item how much doing an Ironman costs — “x” amount for a bike, “y” for a wetsuit — but if you already do triathlon and don’t plan on Ironman being a one-off thing then those calculations are a little wasted. They also can get silly when people start adding gym memberships and food to their budgets. You possibly might go to the gym and eat even if you weren’t doing an Ironman.

Obviously there’s no question that you spend tons of time and money training, traveling, and competing in an Ironman. A fascinating story in the local Whistler paper about the business of IM Canada said that the average competitor spends between $7,300 and $26,500 doing the race. (Those numbers seem high to me, or else I must have done something wrong in my training/prep/race. But still.)

For all that it’d be easy to rag on Ironman for being so expensive and raking in the profit, the thing is it’s not cheap to put on these events. IM Canada took over Whistler ski village for a week with the finish area/expo/registration/awards. They shut down 50 miles of the highway for us to bike on, closed off the paths and side roads for the run, and blocked off the beach at the lake so we could swim. That costs money. It all came with police and officers to make sure you didn’t get hit by cars either. There was a large transition area at the beach and one in the village by the finish. The shuttle took people back and forth from those places. There were aid stations every 20 kilometers on the bike, including one where you could pick up your special needs bags sorted by number. There were medical crews out there and technical support. On the run, the infrastructure was even more intense. Every mile there was a fully stocked aid station, usually a few hundred meters long. All of this was staffed, even if the majority of it was unpaid staff. Think about the logistics and manpower there. Thousands of people making sure you have whatever you need to do an Ironman. And, of course there were crazy crowds cheering and yelling your name, urged and supported by a whole other set of Ironman staff. The race director for Western States once told me that if runners really paid the cost of what it takes to put on that particular point-to-point run the price would be closer to $800, not the $370 it is. People vastly underestimate the real price of these kinds of massive long-distance events. And, no one would put them on in a meaningful fashion if they couldn’t make money too.

For all that I don’t love Ironman or the World Triathlon Corporation, they know how to put on one of these. Yes, there were problems in the past with some of their franchised races. And, yes, my experience at the Ironman distance is limited to Canada, which is one of their oldest and premier events, even if it’s had a lot of changes recently. But, you pay Ironman more because you know that they won’t send you off course, they won’t run out of water or food, they’ll have enough staff to control cars and traffic, there’ll be medical doctors when you need them. You pay because it will run smoothly. That can’t always be said of every small race organizers.

You also pay for perks. Ironman knows that their races cost a lot of money, so they want you to feel like you get your money’s worth. At Canada, we got a fancy backpack with goodies: a poster, race program, t-shirt, coupons for a free meal at one of the local restaurants. There were samples and drinks and food to load up on. During the race, the live stream was projected on a huge monitor in the village so people could watch or track their athletes. There was a beer garden and food after you finished and got your medal — if you could swallow any of it. The morning after, they played a video montage of the race on that huge projector (which some poor intern must have stayed up overnight finishing) and served everyone breakfast sandwiches and coffee. And, of course, you could buy more stuff!

Ironman swag
Ironman swag

So, is the $650 worth it? Yes. If you want to do an Ironman, then you 100% get what you pay for. (And they’re even making some changes so you might not lose all your money if you sign up and then can’t do the race later.) But, would I pay Ironman again? Probably not. Because if your dollars are the method by which you make your opinion heard, then there are plenty of other things to consider besides getting your money’s worth. I have a hard time supporting some of the decisions the company is making and the direction they’re heading in. Unless I really want to take a shot at Kona — which is a whole other thing your money pays Ironman for: the dream of Kona — and I get at least 45 minutes faster, I’d probably give my money to Rev3 or Challenge instead. It’d be worth it.

18 thoughts on “Is the Cost of Ironman Worth It?

  1. So, after spending a summer in Colorado putting on 2 events at a ski resort, I think things may not cost them as much as we think. In fact, I’d bet that WTC is actually getting paid to bring the events to Whistler in the summertime. Or, if they aren’t getting cash, they are getting a huge tab at the resort that the majority of their “costs” come out of — if I had to guess based on what I see in my job, an event like that probably easily gets a $30,000-$50,000 tab. And, often the towns of these places also “sponsor” the event by paying for the police, etc. Ironman carries such a huge brand name and the towns know that they will absolutely sell these small towns out that weekend, so they usually go out on a limb and cover those costs.

    I’m not saying their insurance and some other costs aren’t large. But, other expenses probably aren’t what we think.

    1. Yeah, that local newspaper article really outlined how much the city was putting forward and how much the businesses expected to make. Interesting stuff.

      I guess I can just see how it’s not cheap to put on, though they’re definitely making a lot of money and taking advantage of every subsidy they are.

  2. I thought ironman UK, my first was good value of money and worth it. I also felt I was in safe hands and the event was professional and a great show for racers & spectators. I have done Challenge middle distance events and were good. In future will do a mix of events from different organisers.
    For a first timer doing a long distance I’d say you can’t beat the ironman buzz

  3. Been following your great blog for around 6 months. First time replying. First & most important, CONGRATULATIONS! Major accomplishments to be proud of.

    Loved the prior post about the “is it worth it”. I just signed up for my first IM next summer (Lake Placid). I take a different view of the cost of not trying is very high!!! Too high to pass on (I’ve done 2 70.3’s and have my next one on Sunday). Now I have to tell my food loving eating machine self I’m committed to the IM.

    Funny, watching a few minutes of US Open Tennis and they are making a huge deal that Caroline Wosniacki (sp) is going to “attempt the NYC Marathon” in the Fall. I’ve only done 1 marathon (one was canceled because of storm in NYC and registered for 3) but that is a sport that has expanded market to so many different abilities. And there’s no swim/bike before hand.

    Sorry for long-winded message. Look forward to hearing about you and Kona. Wish you success in journalism!

  4. Yeah, Ironmans are pretty expensive, but I agree that you do feel like you’re getting your money’s worth in the end (at least I feel that way). I honestly don’t think that for the majority of participants, the entry fee is a barrier. Even if there was no entry fee, I wouldn’t sign up anymore often! (yeesh, that was an awkward sentence)

    I actually don’t understand the bit at the end. You linked your post about IM taking prize money away from several of their events (which I think is a drag, although now that there are so many IMs I can sort of see their perspective). But then said you’d rather give your money to Rev3 in response to that (or at least that’s how I interpret it). But… Rev3 already eliminated their pro purse, so isn’t that supporting Rev3 for the same thing you’re disagreeing with WTC for?

    1. It’s a good point. I was really trying to link to the fact that it appears WTC leadership has gone crazy with the Slowtwitch postings and the things we was saying around the cutting of the pro purses. Seems to have totally lost any respect for (or just doesn’t care about) the sport. I also, perhaps inaccurately, don’t fault Rev3 as much for eliminating their pro purses. They had very generous ones and made an effort for pros, especially up-and-coming ones, and no one went to their events or took advantage because WTC has such a stranglehold on the market, so it was sort of a chicken-egg doomsday thing. My main issues with WTC are more in the general vein of cutting costs to make money, not working to develop the sport, and doing whatever it takes to pay their PE. I’m also concerned about the private equity, in general, because it seems to be following the general trend of PE: come in, expand rapidly, grow profits in the short term, sell and make money, and who gives a shit what happens to the company after?

      1. True. Things have changed SO MUCH since the first Ironman Jason did in 1992 and me in 2000. Will be interesting to watch. I think the one thing we can say though is obviously there’s a huge demand for WTC events, so even if they sell, someone can come in and pick up the pieces pretty successfully. Kind of like what happened with Ironman Canada in the early 90’s, and then Graham Fraser bought it. He turned it into a hugely successful event, so much so that WTC made him sell it to them almost 20 years later.

  5. Hi! Great post and great debate. I’ve just reblogged it to TriReview. Going to post it to our Facebook page too. Joe

  6. This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I would love to get started in Tris, but just the cost of equipment has stopped me. Yes, I know I could buy a junky bike and get cheap stuff, but I know if I get lowend things, they’ll have to be replaced so fast that it’s not worth it. So, for now I’ll stick to distance running, which itself isn’t cheap. Great blog, thank you.

  7. Thanks for sharing!
    It is expensive. But I think the Ironman events are very well produced. The support and organization are amazing.
    I’ve done Vineman 70.3 and I think they do their own event with backing from the ironMan publicity machine.

    1. Yeah, Vineman is a franchise, so it’s run by a local race company and then they pay Ironman some huge amount of money for the brand and the World Championship slots. I really like that race though.

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