Independent Iron Distance Races Flourish in Canada

In triathlon, it seems that athletes are fascinated with doing the Ironman distance. It is to endurance sport what marathon was in the 70’s and 80’s. It has gotten on the life “to do” list for many.

While MDot branded Ironmans have done a really great job bringing the dream of becoming an Ironman finisher or going to Kona to the rank and file triathlete, the smaller independents have had a tougher go of it. Typically the number of participants that sign up for an MDot branded event and does not show up, is larger than the entire field at most independent events.

Many independent races have come and gone with meager participation. A few have survived and thrived. Races like Embrunman, Challenge Roth and Almere (one of the fastest races in the world), come to mind.

So what is it that makes North America Sport and the international MDot branded Ironmans so much more successful than many independents? Certainly having slots to Kona to hand out is a compelling reason. But this alone only effects a small proportion of the field. At best only 20% have a realistic shot at a Kona slot, with less than 4% of the field actually punching the ticket. What makes the other 1700 people sign up in less than 24 hours?

The bottom line is that North America Sport and the WTC branded events worldwide strive to package up the event into a Tier 1 pro sport event. The difference between most independents and MDot is like the difference between high school football and NFL, perhaps Challenge Roth being the notable exception.

In MDot events, the athletes are treated like rock stars for a day, whether they finish in 8 or 17 hours. It is all in the product, positioning, place, promotion, and yes price. Bottom line is that the marketing of the event, from product definition to pricing is first class.

This is a look not at MDot, but at a few independent long distance races, specifically in Ottawa and Montreal, Canada that seem to be doing quite reasonably well despite smaller participation numbers.

The Esprit Iron distance in Montreal is a well established event running along the circuit Gilles Villeneuve Formula 1 track in Montreal. It has been on the go since back in 1991. This is the course to set a PB on over all distances and event director Danny McCann does not hide this fact. It is always discussed verbally by former participants, however the organizational team would do well to promote this fact more aggressively. Since its inception back in 1990, it has been hosting approximately 50-200 athletes every year. It even survived the introduction of Ironman Lake Placid, geographically only 2 hours away back in 1999, by adding a half Iron distance and collapsing the Olympic tri that the organizers also put on, during another weekend all into the same way as a means to leverage the same infrastructure over multiple races. The Montreal Triathlon Festival now boasts over 1500 athletes over multiple events, ensuring the financial viability of putting on an Iron distance event with a small number of people.

In Ottawa, 2 hours away by car in Canada’s Capital, the “Canadian” half Iron distance event has been in existence since 2001. The Iron distance now, in its third year was added in 2004. After much debate on race course, it was decided that the Iron distance would be held over “double” the half Iron distance course. This turned out to be an excellent decision as it allows the organizers to leverage the infrastructure and volunteer support already established in the shorter events, ensuring that the Iron distance athletes compete with some level of comraderie through the day.

The Canadian Iron distance is run by Somersault Promotions, an Ottawa based race management company that puts on approximately 15 events, that cover running, duathlon and triathlon. Typically, most Somersault events have multiple events, catering to athletes of all types. In fact, although they provide a “tougher” event at each weekend for the hard core athlete, race director Terry McKinty himself states that his bread and butter client is the recreational athlete, getting introduced to triathlon and doing just a few races a year. Yes, there are lots of fast hard core guys in the front end of the field, but that is not what lets him cover his costs. Terry has always been mindful of this, and on the weekend of the Iron distance event, there is enough revenue coming from the half Iron and sprint to make putting on the full Iron distance a financially viable proposition. Terry has no plans to compete with MDot branded events. Instead, his event offers an alternative proposition to the 2500 person mass start events. No drafting, no 5 night minimum, beautiful setting in the heart of downtown Ottawa in Canada’s Capital, the option of “race week sign up”, and little things like your own support crew being allowed to pass you special needs on the bike and even riding beside you during the run.

The Courses

In 1999, Graham Fraser took the template of Ironman Canada and deployed it across North America at Ironman USA Lake Placid and subsequently moved it onto Florida, California, Wisconsin, Utah, and Couer d’Alene. In doing so he also deployed the multi loop Ironman concept. The Race directors of the Iron distance events being discussed have taken things to another level, with multi loop segments in each event. Let’s examine the courses.

The Esprit in Montreal is run on a Formula 1 auto racing track, made famous by the Canadian Grand Prix. This is likely the fastest Iron distance course anywhere. At the half and Olympic tri distance, universally, most athletes in the region have set their PB’s on this track. The swim is a 2 loop course in the 1976 Montreal Olympic rowing basin. There is not a wave to be seen and navigation is no issue. The swim venue is better than a pool. The bike course consists of 41 loops of the smooth as silk F1 track. If the wind is blowing the right way, athletes are sheltered from the headwind and get 90K of tailwind. It is not uncommon to see bike times that are over 40-50 minutes faster than what one might expect to post at Ironman Lake Placid. While the sound of this many loops sounds mentally taxing, interview any athlete and they say that the course goes by very quickly. The lava fields and the trade winds of Kona provide much more mental anguish than anything this track can throw at an athlete. The run consists of eight flat loops around the Olympic Rowing basin. Like Ironman Florida, although this course has no hills, the fact that athletes are using the same muscles for the entire bike and have no uphills and downhills to break up the run can make it quite difficult. The bottom line is that any day you cover 140.6 miles will be tough, but this course is fast. This is where you come to set a PB

Finally the transitions are bullet fast with the Iron distance athletes getting prime bike spots close to the water and close to both exits, ensuring even faster times. For example, athletes can expect combined transition times that are 3-8 minutes faster than those typically seen at NAS venues.

Now, let’s look at the course for the Canadian in Ottawa. As mentioned above, this race doubles the half Iron course which is a 1 loop swim, 6 bike loops of 15K along the historic Rideau Canal and 2 loops of 10.55K again on the Rideau Canal path system. The Full Iron goes twice that distance. While there are no appreciable climbs, the times are not always as fast as one would expect for a flat course. If the wind is blowing the correct way, athletes can expect fast times. The transition zone and finish line is at the 400m track at the Terry Fox stadium which adds some additional ambiance to the entire event.

At the surface, one might expect the multi loop courses to be boring and repetitive, but they end up being anything but that, likely because athletes can keep tabs on competition, and their personal cheering sections are never very far away, which also means that “personal aid stations” can be accessed each loop. There is also some action provided on the various courses by athletes competing at the shorter events.

The Extras

Like they say, you get what you pay for. The entry fee for both events are several hundred dollars cheaper than North America Sport events, and with that comes a bit less support on course in the form of aid stations (however, you get to have your own personal aid stations if you wish with no fear of DQ, which frankly can be an even better option). Clothing given out to finishers is on par or superior. There is less of an expo for each event, and purchase of race related gear is obviously less extensive. However, it is expected that both aspects will grow over time

The Marketing

Both events substantially miss out on using marketing channels available to them in the mainstream triathlon media. They could easily be putting out press releases through all the on line publications. Coverage in mainstream triathlon publications is spotty to non existent at best, largely because the race directors perhaps have not forged the necessary relationships with those channels. With their fast courses, one of these years, they really need to get a nice prize purse and get a bunch of Tier 1 pros to try and put down a sub 7:50 time. This would put either of these races on the map.

So how are they doing?

It seems that the formula to the survival of these events has been to stay reasonably small and leverage revenue from the various other events during the same day, creating a festival atmosphere, while making the Iron distance financially viable. Rather than going big with big prize money and casting the net wide with respect to trying to gain exposure and potentially take on the big MDot brand, these smaller events are thriving by catering to the athlete that wants to go the 140.6 distance, but does not care to sign up a year in advance, nor race on a route with 2000+ athletes and could care less about the overall “packaging and productivity” of the event. While both events have significant room for growth, they have been successful working with “what they are” rather than trying to hop straight into the big leagues of long course race production. It certainly has proven to be a robust strategy, servicing both the athletes, organizers and volunteer. For additional information about there events go to and Next year they are on deck for Aug 30 and Sep 20 respectively and as mentioned, there are shorter race options for those wanting to ease into the multi loop race formats.

About the Author: Devashish Paul is a masters triathlete based in Ottawa Canada. He’s done 15 Mdot branded Ironman events including Kona and for the past three years has raced back to back half Ironmans 2 weeks apart in Ottawa and Montreal while watching the full iron distance events at both locations unfold. This year he was 7th and 10th overall in the two events in 4:27 and 4:17 respectively.