Tampa, Fla.-based Ironman employees and the 151 Florida athletes who participated in the weekend’s Ironman 70.3 World Championships will now turn their attention to one of the biggest hurricanes in the history of the state.
With the fierce eye of Hurricane Irma beginning to barrel down on Florida Sunday afternoon, thousands of evacuees seeking refuge from the chaos in the safe and sunny confines of Chattanooga, Tenn., are glued to the reports predicting the path of destruction already set in motion more than a week ago.
The evacuees are not alone. Hundreds of Floridian triathletes in town to compete in the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship are also keenly aware of the dire situation facing many of the homes and businesses of their families and friends. But, again, they are not alone. For Ironman headquarters are also located in Tampa, which within the last 24 hours has realized it may receive a direct hit.
The storm, which has been downgraded from the extreme level of a Category 5 to a more manageable Category 2, is set to rake Florida’s west coast throughout the night and into Monday morning. Ironman, which recently moved its headquarters across from Raymond James Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, employs approximately 550 full timers globally, with a third of that nearly 200 based in—and around—the danger zone.
Triathlete already reported a story over the weekend of age-group athlete Nicole Erato, whose home island of St. Martin was devastated on Wednesday leaving the 26-year-old now stranded as the country’s Princess Juliana Airport is currently destroyed.
But Erato, who finished the women’s half-iron distance race on Saturday in a time of 5 hours 36 minutes 57 seconds, will not be the only one affected by the catastrophic cyclone.
Age grouper John Strait also talked to Triathlete just seconds after he crossed the line on the brutal non-drafting long course event on Sunday.
“All I know is what I’ve seen on the news, my wife, couldn’t come because she had to work, so she is still there,” the 71-year-old manufacturing sale rep breathlessly told Triathlete after finishing the half-Ironman event in a time of 6:08:04 to take third in his age group (M70-74). “We live on the water, so we are obviously concerned. Luckily, she has a good friend that has high ground and she is staying with her. God willing we will be safe.
“The consensus was it was going to be on the east coast, then it started up the middle, then shifted up the west coast, which is where we’re at.”
When asked what’s next, Strait said a call to his wife, Cindy, was first on the post-race agenda.
“I will get on the phone with my wife right away and let her know I survived the race and get the news from home about the storm,” he said. “I drove up, so I will drive home, hopefully tomorrow, but it remains to be seen. There are so many variables, we just don’t know.”
Thirty-three-year-old Orlando Arias turned lemons into lemonade, using the evacuation order as an opportunity to watch friends race. “They told us to evacuate from the hurricane also,” said Arias, who works in the hospitably industry for the Marriott Grande Ocean Resort in Hilton Head, S.C. “It’s better to be safe than sorry, especially because last year we had Hurricane Matthew and it completely destroyed the island. I have some friends from Hilton Head that are racing today, so it worked out perfectly that they are already here.”
Arias told Triathlete he was so inspired by the event, he wants to return to triathlon and vows to race the world championships one day.
“While I’m terribly worried for everyone in harms way, I am so happy to be at this amazing event in Chattanooga,” he said. “I started triathlon four years ago and have done two half-Ironman events, but I was going to stop this year. But now seeing all these wonderful people racing from around the world, trying to be the best they can be, I feel inspired.”
With all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the world championships, one could be remiss in overlooking the employees and local volunteers critical in the operation of a race of this size.
The employees of Ironman successfully put on the first two-day event in the history of the Ironman 70.3 World Championship, and will now turn their focus to the status of their homes.
“We just take it little by little and we know we have a job to do right now,” said Dan Berglund, Ironman’s senior manager of public relations. “Obviously we have staff that have family and friends back home and we have concern about that, and you make sure that part is taken care of—safe and secure.
“When it comes to your home and property, you do the best you can,” he told Triathlete. “But some things are out of your control, so you just have to turn your focus to things you can control and that’s the job at hand and that’s the race that we’ve got.”
Ironman chief operating officer Shane Facteau echoes Berglund’s comments in a chat with Triathlete following the pro men’s race won by Spain’s Javier Gomez.
“Certainly it’s a big concern,” said Facteau. “It looks like this hurricane is headed for right where we live. That being said, there are some things we can control some we can’t, but by and large we’ve done a good job. We’ve talked to all of our employees, employees that are there have gotten out, those that haven’t are safe.
“But at the end of the day, we are professionals at what we do,” he continued. “It wouldn’t do us any good to sit in our hotel rooms and worry about what we can’t control. This is our business, and our athletes, and whether they live in the path of the storm are going to face travel issues returning home in the aftermath, we have an obligation to them. They’ve trained an unbelievable amount of time for this event and other events.”
As for Ironman’s affected employees, Facteau says a contingency plan exists and is ready to be implemented immediately.
“We’ve got Florida people working in the field over the world at the moment,” he said, referring to the 10 global events held this weekend—four in the U.S. alone. “We’ve already had hotels extended where they are and access to whatever they need. They are all accounted for.
“Look, a lot will happen in the next 24 to 48 hours. We have a full Ironman here in Chattanooga in two weeks, and if we have to house staff here until then we will do so. But we also have events Atlantic City, China and other locations before that.
“At the end of the day, stuff you can replace, but people you can’t,” Facteau concluded. “We have a lot of experience helping each other and we will continue to do that. We will see what we are going to do once we sort out our personal lives.”