Status Bauble or Self Discovery
Written by: Jordan Rapp
Date: Mon Dec 17 2012
The majority of XC athletes are repeat Ironman athletes. There are few "bucket listers," who simply use the program as a way to check another item off of their list, to collect - as Weil calls it - "the ultimate status bauble." In my experience, most XC athletes are diehard triathletes who pay the extra money for XC not because of the perks it provides for them but for those it provides to their family members, especially their wives who may feel like they are losing their spouse to both work and play. When you run a big company and race multiple Ironmans in a year, well, there are still only 24hrs in a day. In talking with the XC athletes, many of whom I have been enjoyed seeing at race after race, XC makes Ironman - admittedly one of the world's most boring spectator sports - more palatable to the "support crew." XC is not like the programs that have sprung up to escort unprepared executives to the top of Everest so they could claim to have conquered the high peak; it's a program designed for hyper-prepared executives to help their families, who were unprepared for just how all-consuming triathlon can be.
The XC program was started in 2009, when Ironman decided to take over from CEO Challenges, an independent company founded by Ted Kennedy (ironically, though, obviously, not that Ted Kennedy) that runs this sort of service for various race organizers around the globe, because the addiction of high-achieving executives to high-achieving athletic pursuits is only growing. I was first invited to participate in an XC event - the breakfast with the pros that is normally held two days before the race - at Ironman Arizona in 2009, when the program was just getting going. While there are some indisputable facts in Weil's article, my own sense of the XC program differs a great deal from the "1%-ers have corrupted this once pure and crazy sport" tone of her piece. It is, clearly in my opinion, the sort of piece that was written with a certain slant in mind, and one which I felt deserved a response. Not to call out any particular inaccuracies, but rather to present a different take on the program, and, more specifically, what I believe Ironman really is all about, something which I don't think has changed nearly as much since that original race in Oahu as Weil implies. While I have myself only been a triathlete in the modern, aka WTC, era - I did my first race in 2003 - I hope that I have cared enough to learn about the history and roots of this sport to at least channel the words and wisdom of some of the old dogs, like Dan Empfield, our founder and publisher.
With Slowtwitch.com being a largely virtual affair, Dan and I do most of our communication via email, which we send to each other almost daily. We talk on the phone about once a week. And we see each other face to face about once a month. It's been a bit longer than a month since I last saw Dan, at somewhere around the 15 mile mark of the marathon at the Ironman World Championships. Dan was spectating. I was racing. When I saw Dan, I did the most sensible thing I could think of at the time. I gave him the finger and cursed at him because, as best as I could figure, Dan was one of the people most directly responsible for suffering at the time. When I first met Dan in 2005, I was a newbie pro who was barely scraping by. Now, thankfully, I earn enough to support my wife and I and our first child, but I do have to run marathons after biking 112 miles and swimming 2.4 miles. I blame Dan for all of this. I blame Dan for a lot of things. This because he has figuratively broad shoulders and can take it. And because he very often deserves it. When Dan did his first Ironman, in 1981, it was not the "World Championships," it was just THE Ironman, because it wouldn't be until 1983, when New Zealand, Japan, and Canada joined the party that there was more than one Ironman. At the time, Ironman wasn't yet a commercial affair in any meaningful way. It wasn't presented by anyone. There were not triathlon companies yet. So what did Dan do? Like a less capitalistically visionary Steve Jobs, Dan decided that people needed stuff they didn't even know existed - because it didn't - so he created it. He created the first "triathlon wetsuit" and the first "triathlon bike." Would that he knew how many more people would want to carry their music around with them than would want to ride a funny looking bike with aerobars...
Dan was part of the commercialization of triathlon. And I think that's a good thing. Dan figured that making a living doing what you love beats making a living in order to do what you love. And that's how Quintana Roo got founded. If this seems like a rather random tangential walk down memory lane not at all related to Ironman XC or Weil's article, I'll blame Dan for that too. My ability to tell stories has been permanently corrupted by him. Given that Dan has served as my guide and my historian, I thought it was appropriate that he came back to Kona after an absence of several years, as his return to the Island coincided with a new presenting sponsor for the race. The 2012 Ironman World Championships was presented by a little known company called myList. myList is an application built entirely within Facebook and which serves as a tool to collate and organize links from around the web into lists. Think of it as a digital scrapbook. It's the brainchild of CEO Rob Wight, who I know through Ironman XC. Rob is a veteran Ironman triathlete, and when Ford Motor Company and Ironman parted ways, Rob saw a chance to merge his business and his passion. And, while he was at it, like a lot of triathletes, he also saw the chance to do some good; the oldest of Rob's children has Down Syndrome, and he used his sponsorship of the race to help another athlete - Brady Murray, who also has a son with Down Syndrome - raise money and awareness; myList presented Brady with a check for $10,000 for Reece's Rainbow, a charity supporting the adoption of children with Down Syndrome. Rob chose to have myList sponsor the Ironman because it made good business sense. He's an unabashed capitalist in that regard. But he also chose Ironman because he loves the sport of triathlon.
I'm particularly biased towards the myList story, because I am sponsored by myList. Why did Rob choose to sponsor me? I have no idea, but he did. And he sponsored five other pros as well. Two of the pros - myself and Linsey Corbin - Rob knew because we are XC "regulars." In speaking with Linsey - but hopefully not speaking for her - one of the things that we both enjoy about XC is that you get the chance to really get to know the athletes involved in the program. I'm honored - truly honored - when people come to a pre race meet-n-greet. I'm still baffled that people ask me to sign posters of myself. But it's rare that I get a chance to really get to know folks in that situation. Or that folks really get to know me. And that's what I think makes XC special. Through a combination of a little bit of hard work, a lot of luck, and some good genetics, I'm privileged to be fast enough to earn a living as a professional triathlete. I find it fascinating to be able to sit down and find out about other people who are clearly successful - by more traditional measures. While I will say that, in general, triathletes are an unbelievably diverse group of interesting people, I'd also say that when you have a hand-picked group of ultra-successful businessmen (and it's about 95% men in the XC program, just like in the corporate world, which is a topic I won't even begin to try to broach here) who are also passionate about triathlon, and you're given a chance to have a real conversation with them, it's rewarding and insightful and it is - I think - a real opportunity. There are legions of complaints that pros make about the current state of the sport and how it has - and has not - progressed. But I think it's a positive thing for the sport that it is on the radar of executives - I know of at least one company where the corporate wellness program was overhauled because of the endurance interests of some senior management. And I think it's certainly a positive thing for pro triathletes to be given access to these sort of folks, since even the most successful triathletes need to find something to do with themselves after their racing careers are done. And I think XC provides opportunities to make life connections, the value of which I expect I may not realize until I stop racing. And I'm grateful that WTC has taken the time to organize it and manage it the way that they have.
A big part of that management is that it's not simply a "pay to play" program where anyone who can afford the extra cost can participate. The 10% acceptance rate for applicants is not just about making sure that athletes are "really CEOs;" it's also about making sure that the athletes who participate realize that competition is reserved for the race course. We all know that triathlon is an incredibly ego-centric and solipsistic endeavour; the joke, "how do you pick out the triathlete in a room? You don't have to; he'll tell you!" is funny because it's true. And yet I think we also have experienced incredible acts of selflessness in and through the sport. And I think XC does a great job of keeping these two forces in balance. It could be the most combative and aggressive group of triathletes in existence, but thanks to great management, it's a program that takes some of the most Type-A people in the world, puts them with other people who are equally Type-A, and turns it into something that is actually enhances the experience and has - yet, anyway - to lead to threats of hostile takeovers after the race is over. Troy Ford, who runs the XC program, is depicted by Weil as both an elitist - "The CEO of a lawnmower shop is not really a CEO, in my opinion." is the only thought attributed to him in the article - and also a glorified butler who bathes and cleans your children so that they are presentable for finishline photo-ops. But just like the athletes who participate in XC, Troy is a passionate triathlete. He races Ironman himself. He loves this sport. He loves our sport.
The cynical view is easy to take. I hesitated to write this article because of the comments I know that will come which accuse me of being an apologist for WTC, of trying to suck up to the rich and powerful XC athletes in hopes of collecting some of their scraps. The truth - my version of it anyways - is simply that I'm trying to express a different side of a program that I'm grateful for and that I think was mischaracterized by an article with an agenda. I struggle a lot with the social ramifications of the growing income disparity in America and the world. I have benefitted from enormous privileges in my life (12 years of private schooling, four years at an elite college, the freedom to take a chance on being a pro triathlete because I had no debt and parents that believed in my dream). That is an enormous part of why I feel compelled to do the work I do with World Bicycle Relief, work that has been supported very generously by a lot of the XC athletes I've met. At the same time, there is a part of me that resonates with the utilitarian capitalists that seem to worship Ayn Rand (which weirds me out). And I think that XC as a program manifests all those same internal debates, focused in within the sport I love. I think we all groan at the rising cost of entry to races, the increased size of races, and the rest of the growing pains as our sport expands via capitalist means from a niche sport into something approaching the mainstream. But I think it's wrong to inject politics where it doesn't belong in this case. The XC athletes aren't trying to buy their way to a faster finish. Out on the race course, the thing that makes triathlon special (in my opinion anyway) still thrives. On the race course, all athletes are equal. We all swim the same salty water, ride the same barren blacktop, and run through the same lava fields. We all cross the same finishline. We all hear that same powerful phrase, "You. Are. An. Ironman." We are all peers. And I don't think XC takes away from that in any way. I think, in it's own way, XC is about the same thing that Ironman is still, truly, all about - that anything - ANYTHING - is possible, and helping people realize the truth in that for themselves.
Everyone has their own motivation for suffering through an Ironman. I sometimes think mine is that I love giving speeches afterwards. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to do so again in NYC. 8.13.12
After posting my speech following Ironman Canada 2011 here, I was stunned by the reception it received. While I can't promise to fill my own shoes, I hope this resonates with at least some of you. 5.21.12