The Costs of Triathlon

The other day I was so tired I forgot to pay for daily parking. Literally just forgot. And it’s not like it’s secret that you have to pay a day fee for parking. I walked out of the lot and didn’t think about it again until I got back. Which made me think the $45 ticket is part of the cost of triathlon, since I was just so wrecked my brain was fried.

What else would count as part of the cost of triathlon? (Besides all the clothes + shoes + equipment + travel + races + hotels + doctor’s appointments + gym memberships. Ugh.)

  • Lots of pairs of headphones — now that I’m running on the treadmill 1-2x/wk I am frying headphones at an alarming rate
  • Which means you can also add the long-term effects to my hearing to the list of eventual triathlon costs, because you have to turn up the sound really high on the treadmill
  • Food, so much food, all the food, and since I’m too tired to make food I have to keep buying it already prepared
  • Lost income from the work I don’t do because I fall asleep on the floor
  • The super amazing magazine/producer/angrier-version-of-Oprah job I don’t have, obviously, because of triathlon
  • Healthy relationships. Hah.

David Foster Wallace, on professional tennis

Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think.

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.

Can You Buy Event Participant Insurance for an Ironman?

In a word: No.

Who’s to blame for that? WTC or Active or Allianz — depending on who you ask.

Despite the fact that last fall Active unveiled a much ballyhooed race registration insurance program for all races on its platform, it does not appear to be possible to buy it for World Triathlon Corporation (commonly known as Ironman Co.) Ironman events. That is to say: I don’t know if you can buy it for Ironman-distance events put on by other race organizers and some people have reported success buying it for WTC’s 70.3 and 5150 races. But, when I tried to purchase the insurance for IM Coeur d’Alene, it was not possible.

In an interview with Slowtwitch, Active explained that the when athletes registered for races on Active’s system, they would have the option of purchasing a $7 insurance plan through Allianz insurance. This was something Allianz and Active were providing — NOT the race organizer. If the athlete then had to pull out before the race and never started, they could make a claim — and would have to go through a normal claim process like with any insurance — and get their registration money back. Obviously, for a $670 Ironman (once you pay the extra “convenience fees” from Active) that you have to register for nearly a year in advance, this is a deal. Active told Slowtwitch at the time that it would be available for all races and that, basically, they were counting on a lot of people paying the $7 for smaller, cheaper races and that it would balance out. They explicitly said, at the time, that it WAS available for Ironman races.

Now, not so much.

Checking around it seems that some people were able to purchase the insurance when they registered for Ironmans right after it was announced. But, then that stopped.

When I registered for IM CDA, the insurance wasn’t an option in the registration process. So, I called Allianz to purchase it directly. The Allianz rep told me it was only a product offered through Active, so I needed to call Active. He transferred me.

The woman at Active told me if it wasn’t an option in the registration process online, then that meant that the race organizer (in this case: WTC) wasn’t offering it. If the race organizer hadn’t decided to provide this option, then I couldn’t buy it directly through Active. (Which, on a side point, doesn’t even make any sense, because it’s an Active/Allianz insurance product that has nothing to do with the race organizer. The race organizer carries no risk for the product or cost, so why shouldn’t you be able to purchase it directly.)

The Active rep then said that no Ironman races offer the insurance option, because of a policy of USAT. I said you mean WTC, because USAT is USA Triathlon and why would a national governing body have a policy that doesn’t allow athletes to insure their most high-risk race registrations?

And, she said, nope, USAT has a policy.

Um, ok. Phone call ended.

Then, I emailed WTC/the race organizers and asked them. I got a perfectly nice email back that said:

We are not mandating that type of insurance for our events, but I am sure you are more than welcome to purchase it through Active if you want their coverage.

So, right. Obviously, I emailed them back saying that wasn’t exactly what Active had said. But, I haven’t gotten a response.

The more I think about it, the more it makes no sense. In theory, Allianz and Active are third-party providers. Their plan, all along, was to sell insurance, take on that risk, and make money. The race organizer gets the registrations either way; they don’t have to offer the refunds. It seems the options for what happened then are limited: Either Allianz and Active realized they weren’t going to make money on Ironman races, so they came up with a fake policy. But, why couldn’t they have just charged more for Ironmans and then the business model would make sense again and most people would pay $40 to insure that expensive a race? Or, USAT really banned them from selling it, which, I dunno, doesn’t seem logical. Or, WTC, which does a whole LOT of business with Active, basically came up with a policy and told them that was not going to be an option for their races. I don’t know why they’d do that, but I do know WTC signs a whole lot of contracts with vendors and cities and hotels and every part of the experience that they can sell you, so it seems like they must have some reason up their sleeve?

Have you been able to buy registration insurance for a race?

USAT Elite Triathlete Bulletins and the 2013 Prize Money Calendar

When you’re a registered “elite” triathlete with USA Triathlon (what most people call pro, but pro sort of denotes that you, like, make money), you receive monthly Elite Beat newsletters. I received my last one this month, since I absolutely did not renew my license for 2013 and really only did two local triathlons in 2012.

There was a big debate last year when the Olympic qualifying for the US triathlon team turned into a bit of a shit show, with some high-level athletes saying they never knew they needed to officially submit their names for such-and-such qualifying race, as opposed to just telling the coordinator they wanted to be on the list, or they didn’t know that the start lists procedures had changed. The counterpoint, at the time, was that USAT communicates with it’s elite athletes every month, so they should have known.

I’m pretty sure that we all get the same bulletin every month. I’d kind of assume there’s some other communication with US Team athletes or people living at the Olympic Training Center. But, the fall back is supposed to be that all 400-or-so of us get this same bulletin every month. I, generally, read the bulletins, because they’re fascinating. But they’re also usually a few thousand words long with lots of lists and odd information (ie. Want to try out for Olympic Sprint Team Triathlon? A new sport hoping to premier in 2016!) and it’s hard to pick out what might be relevant to you or what you absolutely need to know.

I thought other people might be interested, so here are most of the topics covered in the January bulletin, with each having a heading and some having multiple sub-categories underneath it in the email:

  • 2013 Elite National Championships
  • 2013 Non-Olympic World Championships
  • MEDEX International Insurance
  • 2013 Membership Renewal
  • 2013 Elite Money Calendar
  • Venue Change for ITU Santiago Continental Cup
  • ITU PanAmerican Cup Events
  • 2013 ITU World Cup Schedule
  • 2013 ITU World Triathlon Series Schedule
  • ITU World Cup and WTS Series Start List Creation
  • ITU Rolling Points Calendar
  • 2013 ITU WC, WTS, and PATCO Calendar with entered names listed for each event and deadlines to enter each event.

The most relevant of these — if you want to make money, I guess — is the money calendar. It’s a round-up of all the races with big prize purses this year. The PDF is too big to embed in the post, so here is the 2013 Prize Money Calendar.

The thing to keep in mind is if it says $50,000 prize purse, that means $25,000 per men and $25,000 per woman (yay equality!), which then  is broken up typically like this:

  1. $10,000
  2. $5,500
  3. $3,500
  4. $2,500
  5. $2,000
  6. $1,500

So, if you get 7th at a big $50,000 race like Vineman or Oceanside, you’re walking home with no money. And it’s not like 7th place is easy — 7th woman at Vineman was Joanna Lawn and 7th man at Oceanside was Chris McDonald. No slouches!

(And, yes, sure, they may get sponsorship deals depending on who they are and who they know and all that. But, remember, this is triathlon. It’s not like companies are paying out lots of salaries.) I’m not saying you should feel bad for anyone; I’m just saying this is how it is. Thought some people might find this information interesting.