Citizen Ironman? Yes! (No!)

I surveyed more than 400 North American race directors, coaches, retail stores and club officers to see what they thought of Ironman. Asked whether they thought Ironman, today, was a net plus or minus to the triathlon market and community their responses were published in several articles during the month of May.

Here's one erroneous assumption held by many race directors: Coaches are recommending to their athletes that local races should be bypassed in order to focus training for their Ironman or 70.3. Not only do most coaches not advocate this, they often advocate the opposite (in our surveys both coaches and their athletes confirm that coaches encourage participation in local races).

There is also a view among many that the Ironman University curriculum steers coaches toward this behavior: also not true. I queried more than a dozen coaches who've gone through the Ironman Coaching Certification program and they all agree: participation in local or smaller and shorter races are not contemplated at all in Ironman's courses.

What is true (coaches routinely state this): Athletes only have so much time and treasure. Of the 120 clubs I surveyed, half said that entering an Ironman or 70.3 means their members will race fewer of the local races than otherwise. Of the 76 race directors surveyed, 4 in 5 believe that Ironman has drawn people away from short course racing, and 2 in 3 believe Ironman's product swallows too many consumer dollars. Indeed, end-users I surveyed admitted their coaches recommend local racing as an adjunct to Ironman racing, but they tend not to take their coaches advice; they sidestep local races they used to enter back when Ironman wasn't on their schedules.

Coaches, clubs and race directors also agree that a lot of athletes today are entering triathlon and moving right to Ironman, bypassing the local race scene altogether, and very often leaving triathlon after their (short) Ironman journey is complete. I don't know whether this is true, but it is a widely-held view among the stakeholder groups I surveyed.

All stakeholder cohorts also believe that Ironman is bringing a lot of new people into triathlon, whether one-and-done customers or not.

While acknowledging that Ironman funnels people into triathlon, very few race directors I polled consider Ironman an ally. Only 3 indicated that “Ironman personnel have actively helped me in my business.” Only 2 said that as a result of an Ironman in their area, “I've got more available volunteers.”

Could Ironman be an ally to these RDs without sacrificing its own aims? Maybe. Example: Remember the coaches I polled, graduates of Ironman University – those who say that Ironman does not mention in any way local or smaller or sprint races? Could this coaching platform be an opportunity to advocate racing smaller, local races to prepare for the Big Show, and to knit oneself into the tri community? After all, when Ironman considers where to slot a race into a region one attraction is the existing community of athletes these local RDs grew and husbanded.

On a personal note, I find myself bifurcating the sport into Ironman versus all others, which is ludicrous because in the beginning Ironman was triathlon. It's what got us all triathlon-crazy, and fueled the growth of all the non-Ironman events. But the stakeholder survey results above explains why I and others see Ironman as an entity apart from the rest of the triathlon community.

As I contemplate the results of the surveys I took of triathlon's cohort groups, here is what comes to mind:

- Ironman provides the greatest source of new people into the sport of triathlon. Everyone in the tri community ought to acknowledge this and be appreciative of this effort and of this fact. Everyone owes Ironman a round of applause for the good it does.

- All non-Ironman RDs provide the Ironman the largest source of customers. Ironman ought to acknowledge this and be appreciative of this effort and of this fact. Ironman owes the fraternity of race organizers a round of applause for the good they do.

I don't see either side applauding the other side's contributions.

This series of articles had one mission: to determine whether Ironman, as it operates today, is considered by major stakeholder groups a net-plus for the triathlon community in the U.S. The answer changes depending on the group, but in general the answer is yes with a very large asterisk. Ironman used to be the unqualified champion of all triathlon; and then the champion of no-draft triathlon. Today it is neither. In a mature ecosystem Ironman is considered by many in triathlon's primary stakeholder groups less helpful.

But it remains the largest, most visible, most successful exponent of triathlon, and a trailblazer in world regions that are triathlon-underdeveloped. Ironman is an overwhelmingly robust and positive pioneer species. In a region barren of a triathlon infrastructure Ironman creates its own weather, spawning triathlon clubs, coaches, retailers. The model is not quite the same in North America, where Ironman largely relies on existing clubs and triathletes for the success of each discrete race, and where the lack of a sufficient customer base means Ironman pulls right back out (Boise, Lake Stevens, Muskoka).

Ironman hoisted the sport on its back in North America, not once but twice, in 1978 and in 1998, pulling the sport out of obscurity and then out of a decade-long slump. Four years into a second North American slump is Ironman still that force? Does it think it has a sportwide leadership mission and mandate in North America? That's a question I will need to ask Ironman directly.