$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!
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.