By Mathias Eichler
Winter, trails, darkness, and all the weather.
One last hurrah before the end of the year. Runners, get ready for a fun and festive holiday treat along the trails of Squaxin Park.
I asked a friend of mine who runs triathlons and Ironman races for her take on Ironman entering our trail running sport. She had, of course, heard about the Whistler kerfuffle over the last couple of weeks and has her thoughts on it all. This is just one person’s opinion and experience as a triathlete, but given that most of us trail runners cling to that one tweet John Kelly posted when Ironman first announced their partnership with UTMB it might help to add a few more perspectives to that mix.
I’m posting this email exchange only slightly edited with some of my comments below.
Yeah, no way has Ironman killed triathlon. They certainly have a near-monopoly on the 140.6 (“Ironman”) and 70.3 (“Half Ironman”) distances. The copyrights on the word Ironman, Half Ironman, 70.3, and 104.5 certainly have the impact of that impression you have, but it’s not reality. Any sprint distance or Olympic distance or off-road tri you do is locally organized or put on by a small non-m-dot company. And organizers still hold halves and full Ironmans, you just have to call it something else due to copyright, but we all know you did an Ironman lol.
In some ways the media has made triathlons appear to be exclusive Ironmans, but in reality there are a lot of ways where athletes can enjoy the sport without participating in an Ironman branded race.
In a number of ways, I do agree with the sentiment you’ve heard. Some really special races have gone the way of the history books thanks to Ironman either directly competing with them or buying them out. But I have to respect that Ironman is a business and frankly they can put on one hell of a race.
While some competing races definitely have disappeared and lost to Ironman, the perception seems to be that the Ironman experience is a spectacle and worth the price of admission. And going even further:
In my experience, and this is in smaller communities in Wyoming and Utah, local races experience volunteer fatigue and small volunteer pools. So getting enough people to do it all, year after year, can be a bit challenging, especially for long events. Ironman makes deals with their host cities that they have to provide volunteers, so they know they will be fully staffed without having to go ask their neighbors for help like you and I. An Ironman is also a fully supported event so they require a lot of volunteers for a long time. Infrastructure travels with them and higher entrance fees cover all those expenses that add up to a more “polished” event, if you will. So if your non-Ironman races are always offering better experiences than Ironman can on the same date nearby, they won’t be able to drive existing races out, unless it’s a matter of qualifying for something, but even then most racers aren’t seeking that.
So, not just for racers, but the overall volunteer experience seems to be better at an Ironman event compared to a locally run event. My friend hints at how Ironman solves the volunteer challenge: getting the local communities to commit to proving volunteers. This was really surprising for me to hear, as I’ve been projecting that this might be the achilles heel for Ironman, but maybe they have ways to approach this that I haven’t thought about.
I encouraged my mom to do an M-dot 70.3 instead of a race by any other organizer, because as a woman in her 60s, she was going to be back of the pack and needed a race where aid stations stay stocked and the finish line volunteers are fresh. There are more races available than there have ever been, which is cool for so many people around the world. The races are very well done (pricey, yeah, but you do get what you pay for). The recognition of the sport has grown, as has participation. So while we have our frustrations, Ironman has done a lot for the sport and I still participate and still try to qualify for championship events.
Again a surprising and fascinating perspective. An Ironman seems to actually be a BETTER experience for an average athlete, compared to a local event. None of us in the trail running world would be considering this as of now.
They cannot seem to figure out their World Championships qualifying process. They kept adding so many races that eventually you pretty much had to win to KQ. Now they’re trying to address that with bigger championships, but of course people have feelings about that, haha. And you know Ironman won’t stop buying/creating new races so the problem will repeat itself. To be fair, there are some unique challenges in triathlon they’re going through right now with championship locations and splitting up the mens and women’s races, but it’s been a mess. And it doesn’t instill confidence in a UTMB World Series system set up by Ironman. Expect frustration and changes with the wind.
This seems to track. As these races are getting more popular, more people qualify, and this creates challenges to the lottery and qualification system. I bet that’s not an easy thing to project and solve. Not wanting to defend UTMB/Ironman here, but if their models don’t work, then their qualification system falls apart and that creates understandable frustration among the runners trying to collect stones.
They pack races with too many people, which makes business sense but creates risks (and deaths) for racers, especially racers who toe the line unprepared. The size of all their events also undermines the sense of community in some ways.
Something we’ve not seen here in the US, but I could easily foresee this to become an issue in the Alps. People are already lamenting that Chamonix feels like a complete zoo during UTMB week.
I think Ironmans are generally a great experience for amateurs in most regards, except cost and sometimes crowding. Amateurs at the pointy end trying to KQ have complaints about that process (and about the crowding on multiple-lap courses), but that’s always going to be a difficult thing to make everyone happy on, tbh. Pro payouts and support are not great, which is a big part of why the PTO started.
Again, kind of shocked with my friend’s response. Ironmans seem to be a positive experience for most athletes? Not something we as trail runners would want to believe.
I’d do what you can to preserve your local races, to support competition to Ironman, and to empower your pros. Take a look at what the Profession Triathletes Organization is doing. They just started up a couple years ago with better support for racers, intentional programming for female racers rather than willy nilly perks, and a healthier take on a world tour (which Ironman is now trying to replicate next year lol). I hope they can stay in the game, and I hope the Challenge Family maintains a presence, but as racers one of the biggest things we can do is help our small, local events (even if they aren’t 140.6 or 70.3 distance, which Ironman has basically copyrighted most organizers out of providing).
I think trail running can take a look at the things triathletes don’t love about Ironman’s approach and play a role in preventing them while still enjoying what Ironman can do for your sport.
I don’t think we’ll see the issue of copyrighting a specific distances arise in our sport, for that it’s too established. But clearly leaving Ironman, the one corporation, to run away with it all would be fatal and silly. But we’re also very far away from this in trail running. And yes, competition is healthy, if it comes from local event organizers or from competition global organizations that are trying to address different issues, or approach solving a problem from a different angle.
My friend’s overarching feeling is that Ironman, as the big player in her field, needs to continuously be checked, held accountable, and encouraged to improve and do better. But the overall racing experience at an Ironman seems to be not just good enough but actually worth the higher prices and worth the existence of an Ironman organization in the sport. That, Ironman hasn’t proved to us in trail running. Outside of holding the key to Mont-Blanc they haven’t given us racing experiences that were a step above the local grassroots events. Aside from the need of “stone collecting” there’s no need to run a ‘by UTMB’ race. If we want to be enchanted by that UTMB experience beyond Chamonix we need a bit more than HOKA banners and a big merch tent.
Finally, it doesn’t seem to be all doom and gloom. It seems Ironman’s contribution to triathlon seems to be a net-positive. Maybe it is okay for them to exist after all in our trail running world, and contribute their version and vision of our sport. We’re standing by and keeping watch.