This letter from the Ironman CEO to the pro athletes is weird on multiple levels. Obviously, the idea that they have to first build up the women’s field before they can add women’s pro spots at Kona has some chicken-egg problems. But, it’s nice that they’re trying to build the sport and making a media effort. The craziest part, though, is the section where he roughly outlines coming ‘social media guidelines.’ Like what? If you say something bad about Ironman on Twitter, they won’t let you race their events? (Yes, yes, that’s pretty much exactly what I think they’re going to do.) It’s part of the fundamental problem with a private equity company owning a sport’s world championship and its biggest brand events. A distinction no one outside the sport ever really seems to know. A very well-informed speaker came to talk to one of my classes the other day and among the many lists of national sports organizations and leagues he had worked with, he included Ironman. I so wanted to point out that it wasn’t the same.

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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.

Changes to Ironman

At some point in the next few days I plan to write a post about what I thought of The Ironman Experience and if it’s worth what you pay. But, in the meantime, Ironman/World Triathlon Corporation has been busy making news.

Obviously, there was the whole crowdfunding to pay 7th place at Ironman Lake Placid to shame Ironman and push the debate about professional prize purses into the public eye. (You can read my interview with the organizers of that.) Personally, I think the campaign was interesting and certainly achieved its goal of attracting attention to the issue. And, it seemed like a really stupid PR move for an Ironman Corp. VP to take the check away at the finish line — no matter what he personally thought about the campaign and the organizers. But, there’s also been a lot of blowharding of course.

And that blowhard bullshit has definitely come from all sides. I mean what kind of advice is the Ironman/WTC CEO getting if he decides to go on Slowtwitch and poke the beast? This string in the forum, which he started, was the craziest and most interesting thing I’ve read in awhile. It included this weird story.

(I think my actual favorite part of it was that here is the Ironman CEO starting a debate — or whatever he intended to start — about professional prize purses and what is necessary to grow the sport, and instead someone starts posting about putting the aid stations at IM Canada closer together. I THINK YOU MISSED THE POINT.)

There were a few interesting points in the string, though. A number of people pointed out that the races are clearly being diluted, right? If there are fields where there aren’t even as many professionals as prize money, then it’s safe to say that for whatever reason the incentives aren’t there to get enough pros to the starts of races — though at the same time even if there was $500 in prize money for 7th would it be worth it if it cost you $1500 to do the race? Probably not. Ironman is definitely causing that over-saturation in part with their massive scaling up, but they’ve also created some of the incentives that stop people from going pro in the first place.

Side note: one of the most interesting points someone made was that under the ranking Kona qualification system for pros, Ironman has made it so that top age group athletes have no incentive to go pro — they won’t make it to Kona as a pro, but they can just keep going over and over and over as an age grouper — so Ironman’s kind of shooting themselves in the foot in the long run. And, anyway, we all know what my opinions are about people staying age group long after they shouldn’t anymore.

Whether Ironman listened to the growing concerns or not, the announcement today about the changes they’re making for next year was fascinating.

By eliminating prize money from a number of races, they’re hoping to combat that dilution of talent and reward early season racing more. They’re also paying ten deep at the championship races and rewarding automatic Kona spots. In some ways this took into account the arguments people have been making, but how it’ll actually work out is definitely still a big mystery.

Witsup has a pretty good layout of what all the changes entail and how it will affect people. It seems like clearly the biggest problem is just that by eliminating the number of races that newer entry-level pros can earn any money at makes it harder for them to move up. When we don’t have a developing ground for athletes we don’t make it easy for the sport to develop. But, I don’t know that the system before really worked for the mid-level pros. They were never able to actually break-even.

So, is all this a step in the right direction? Is Ironman finally dealing with some of its problems? Some of them? Any guesses on how this’ll work out eventually?

New WTC Transfer Policy: How I Switched My Ironman Races

So, yes, I have officially switched from Ironman Coeur d’Alene to Ironman Canada in Whistler four weeks later. Guess I need to update my schedule.

Going from this:

Lake, mountains, masses of people.
Lake, mountains, masses of people.

To this:

Lakes, mountains, masses of people. Photos: Ironman
Lakes, mountains, masses of people. Photos: Ironman

TOTALLY DIFFERENT!

The problem — though it’s not really a problem — was that one of my editors asked me to cover the USA Track and Field Nationals in Sacramento this summer. Yes! Absolutely! I didn’t even think about it. Because 1. it sounds super awesome and exciting and I love track and field and 2. great opportunity, career, growth, etc. But, then a few weeks later, I realized it was the same weekend as IM CDA. Well, shit. There was no way to change Ironman races, so I figured I’d have to bail on the super awesome assignment.

Except. EXCEPT.

This past Friday Ironman (World Triathlon Corp.) announced a new transfer policy in North America. I probably would have missed the email, because I generally get a lot of emails and it was subjected something like “A Note from Our CEO” or “A New Change for Ironman.” But, Christi knew I’d been stressing about this and forwarded me the email and texted me. On Valentine’s Day evening. Thanks for thinking of me and ignoring Greg!

The new policy is very simple: If you have something come up (injury or work or life or whatever), you can switch your Ironman to another OPEN IM race or 70.3 in the same year. It has to be open, it can’t be sold out. And, it has to be at least 45 days in advance, I think. And, you have to pay any race difference + $50 transfer fee. And, you can only do this once. That’s it.

That’s all very reasonable and probably what people have been asking for.

I did a lot of Googling in the next 24 hours to make sure it was do-able and that I wasn’t going to lose money on housing if I changed and that I could change my training plan and travel and all that. And, by Saturday evening I submitted my transfer request. I was probably one of the first people to submit a transfer request. If you need to submit a transfer request, you can get all the information about Ironman race transfers at their website. It’s very easy. You don’t even have to give a reason or excuse or long-winded explanation.

WTC is not usually my most favorite company. I was nervous that I’d get denied or it’d be more expensive than they said or that they’d cancel my IM CDA registration but not give me the new registration. And, there were some very nervous moments when I got an email on Monday confirming the cancellation of my CDA registration 36 hours before I got the email to register for Canada. But, it all worked out. It actually was incredibly smooth and simple. SO, good job WTC!

Ultimately, they verify that you were in the initial event, check with the event you want to switch into, and send you a link to register for the new race under the transfer system. And, just like that I’m signed up for Whistler on July 27, I get to do the reporting job, and everything is perfect. (You know, sort of.)

If I was going to venture a guess, I would imagine that WTC had been getting terrible feedback on their ‘no transfers ever for anything’ policy. They were pretty hard-assed and the only reason you could ever switch events was if you were called into active military duty. Period. That was it. Obviously, with the growth of the sport and the growth of the Ironman brand/corporation, that policy wasn’t really working for them anymore. There are competitor events people could opt to do instead.

But, the other factor, I’d guess, is that they had created competition among their own events. There are so, so many Ironman events now. They used to be able to say no refunds, no transfers because there were like five North American Ironman races and that was it. Now, though, they have so many they’re not even selling out on them all. So, if you don’t need to anymore, why would you sign up a year in advance when there are so many things that can go wrong in that year? I’m guessing the policy was driving down their sign-up numbers and leaving their less popular events under-filled. Now, if they let you switch into an event that is still open, then you’re happy, that event that wasn’t filling up gets numbers, and they are perhaps able to sell your initial registration.

It’ll be interesting to see how — as the transfer policy becomes more utilized — it affects registration numbers overall and at the sell-out popular events. If people are encouraged to get their name down because they have less to lose, will it become even harder to sign up for Wisconsin and Arizona and then will there be huge numbers transferring out later? I’m sure they considered that, but Ironman triathletes are totally insane, so hopefully they don’t start doing crazy stuff like signing up for a bunch of races and then transferring out of them all later.

We’ll see. Overall, it’s a great change and super logical. I think it’ll make Ironman athletes a lot happier, should be good for the business, and is always nice to see things moving in the direction of reason.

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?