Just over a month ago race season was nearly upon us, and triathletes and the industry were gearing up for prime time. Sure, there was this Coronavirus deal they were talking about on TV, but none of us could have imagined the impact it would have across the world. As marketing manager at Wattie Ink, I was planning the company’s Ironman 70.3 Oceanside expo activations, excited like the rest of the triathlon world to see the 2020 race season kick off. Then we got pushed back to Ironman Texas. Then 70.3 Chattanooga. Then, I called Ironman to tell them we’d have to keep the expo funds in suspension, as the COVID-19 situation began to intensify.
The following weeks were a blur; California governor Gavin Newsom instituted a shelter-in-place mandate for all non-essential industries. The next day, Wattie Ink (and its partner road cycling brand, Eliel) were mandated to shutter. After a week of working from home, I received the fateful call: the entire marketing team was being eliminated, with the operation going bare bones in an effort to save the company. I was out of a job. I fully understand the company’s position. What makes it hurt more is that namesake Sean Watkins and his wife (and pro triathlete) Heather Jackson are close friends; I recognize how much it hurt them to make those hard decisions.
COVID-19 not only didn’t disappear, but it’s also changed our lives as we know it. Now, it’s six feet, please. And cover your face. And yes, your local pool is closed for the foreseeable future.
It’s not fun and we all recognize that race schedules are the least of our worries. There has been no haven from this pandemic, and the triathlon industry is certainly not immune to this global crisis. With the uncertainty of how long the pandemic will go, furloughs and layoffs are forcing some to get creative, and others are simply scrambling as they apply for unemployment access.
My employment challenges led me to think: What is the state of our sport? How are endemic triathlon brands responding, surviving—and in some cases, responding to—the threat that COVID-19 has dropped like a bomb into our world?
Everyone’s reality is different, and that’s true within triathlon too. While some are thriving, others are suffering amid the uncertainty of this medical and financial crisis. And all with no clear end in sight.
Like the NBA and NASCAR, triathlon event production companies are suffering as events are rescheduled or canceled altogether. In Germany, Challenge Roth president Felix Walschoefer decided to cancel the event for 2020.
For Ironman, it’s been a game of whack-a-mole, starting with the announcement that Ironman 70.3 Oceanside was being postponed. From there, the waterfall of event postponements grew. To its credit, Ironman has been providing event entrants options to participate in the rescheduled event, shift to another event among those provided, or defer to the same event a year later.
And with many likely on the fence about traveling in the fall for the Ironman World Championship (provided the pandemic lessens, travel restrictions are lifted, and it goes ahead) and the qualifying opportunities dwindling, Ironman opened the legacy athlete waitlist for Kona. For those queued to race up to four years from now have been offered spots on the start line this October.
“This is an extraordinary time, unlike any in our lives,” said Ironman CEO Andrew Messick. “There is uncertainty around health, the economy, and sport. Triathlon has to respect the epidemiological and economic reality, but must also provide a lifeline to those who need structure to remain physically and mentally healthy. So we have to walk a tightrope. We don’t know when racing will start again. Soon, we hope. But we must prepare for longer.”
To keep its consumer base engaged, Ironman recently began the Ironman Virtual Club. With virtual races every weekend (generally short-distance bike and run events uploaded to the event site) as well as a pro race component, triathletes have been able to have something to look forward to every weekend.
“Ironman’s Virtual Club platform and Virtual Racing Series is designed to provide training and competitive opportunities for our community,” said Messick. “We hope it will provide opportunities for athletes to cope with our present reality by training and racing and engaging with like-minded people around the world.”
Local race directors and the businesses that serve them, though, are continuing to take a big hit.
“We lost 10 contracts in the span of an hour,” DelMo Sports race director Stephen Del Monte told Triathlete earlier this month about how the pandemic has affected the production arm of his business. He’s also had to cancel two running races he was responsible for, but largely “we’ve been a little bit fortunate,” he said, because the bulk of their season in the Northeast doesn’t start until later. Hopefully, these organizations will be able to put on some races in 2020.
DelMo Sports will probably be OK, because of his size and history, but Del Monte worries about others. “This is going to end some race companies,” he said. It’s hard for the newest organizers, who likely don’t have any kind of reserve. If this had happened five years ago, he said, before he was more established, “there would have been no more DelMo Sports.”
In response to the crisis, some triathlon-related brands have had to pivot their manufacturing lines, to help stay afloat, and to help those on the front lines. There’s no more sought-after commodity right now than masks for those necessary trips to the grocery store.
Boston-based New Balance has pivoted to mask production. And in La Jolla, California DeSoto Sport namesake Emilio DeSoto was faced with the decision to furlough his team or find another solution. He opted for the latter. His answer? Pivot from making cycling and tri apparel to producing masks, both to satisfy a public looking for a barrier of safety (front-line doctors have said the value in masks lie primarily with their ability to prevent users from touching his or her face with potentially COVID-19-infected hands), and to donate to hospitals in need. In doing so, his entire team was made solvent again. The demand is such that he’s seeking more seamsters to sew masks for shipping.
“After a weekend of sleepless nights, I’m working 15-hour days—but I’m certainly not complaining,” said DeSoto. “We’re making masks available on our site for the public, but really, it simply allows us to make more for the medical industry in need. All we want is to keep our team employed, and cover production costs.”
In just over a week, he’s gone from delivering masks to the head of surgery at Sharp Hospital on Coronado Island, California, to producing 500 masks a day. It’s allowed him to continue to support the medical industry as he’s shipped them to hard-hit New York (“They said they’d take whatever they could get,” DeSoto says), and prepares to now make a donation of masks to the Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, and the Miracle for Kids nonprofit in Orange County.
“I believe when you do good, it comes back in other ways. We just want to pay it forward and do this as long as we can. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to help.”
As previously mentioned, Wattie Ink had to make the hard call to furlough or lay-off staff permanently to protect the company from total loss. Since then, they, too, got into the mask-making business. Selling in packs of five, they’ve partnered with the City of Vista to donate a five-pack for every five-pack they sell. They sold out the two runs they’ve produced in a matter of minutes, with more runs in the works.
“Having to lay off some of our staff sucked,” said Watkins. “When we’re making our goods locally, and they shut it down and say you can’t make it, it didn’t leave us in a great position. With the City of Vista, we had a donation proposition built that allowed us to bring a skeleton crew back in to produce our masks. I wasn’t sure about how impactful it would be, but we’ve made two runs and sold out each time, and we were hit up by Herbalife to do a run of 4,000 masks for their employees. With strict guidelines from the city, we’ve been able to bring back a few of our seamstresses to work. It means a lot to have the support of our community, to be able to do that.”
Italy-based 3T, the longtime maker of aerobars and stems, has seen a resurgence in the gravel bike segment (recently debuting a new Exploro gravel model in partnership with BMW), but saw COVID-19 hit home hard in the company’s base of Bergamo, when several colleagues lost family members to the virus.
General Manager Rene Wiertz said with his team reeling, he refused to shut down. “In extraordinary circumstances, we need to do extraordinary things, and priority one is saving lives,” he said. “It turned out we could produce valves for Decathlon diving masks, so we did. Now we stopped producing cranks and are making as many valves as we can in the 3D printer. I hope this helps to save lives.”
Keeping his staff employed became the side benefit. “Other than a human tragedy, this is also an economic disaster. We keep shipping bikes because, in the end, we need to save jobs, too. We hope we can turn the page on this terrible situation as soon as possible.”
Portland, Ore.-based pro triathlete Chris Bagg, the namesake behind Chris Bagg Coaching Group immediately saw one triathlon-specific challenge: Athletes that, with no race to target, began to flounder. Like many coaches, he’s trying to keep his cadre of athletes not only focused on staying healthy but also on using training as a focus and routine that releases those good endorphins we’re lacking amid a 24-hour news cycle packed with dour news. With gyms and pools closed, his refocus on home training took off. Launching a Twitch channel, he’s been able to deliver relevant at-home triathlon training (can you say swim stretch cords?) and stay connected with his athletes—all the while bringing new athletes looking for direction into a growing online community.
“Many coaches I know have had their facilities close, even my own facility, the CBCGym, closed during the shutdown,” said Bagg. “The biggest lesson for coaches is we aren’t simply endurance coaches. We’re sounding boards and advisors, and we can provide our athletes the perspective necessary to get through this period. And this period could be a great gift for coaches and athletes, as the pressure of racing has been removed a bit, and we can focus on limiters, aerobic conditioning, and strength training, using this time to work on the weak parts of an athlete’s game. They’ll come out of the crisis stronger, faster, and happier.”
Despite so many people losing their jobs and no races on the training plan, many triathletes are still paying for the services of a coach.
“We have seen some athletes take time off due to job losses or financial changes in their lives, but not too many yet,” said Molly Balfe, head coach at Chris Bagg Coaching Group. “Most of those athletes have worked in industries that have been hardest hit, such as restaurants and hospitality. A lot of what we focus on with our athletes is the idea that triathlon is a lifestyle and not a race. Because of that, we have been able to take a step back during this time to focus on limiters and injury prevention/management with many of our athletes.”
Balfe also reminded athletes that while the stress of this pandemic can cause everyone—including triathletes—to withdraw in panic, the structure of training is the perfect antidote.
“Making time in the day for training has also been really important for athletes who are navigating the challenges of working from home,” she said. “It provides a starting or stopping point that gives people the ability to step away from their work lives and focus on themselves. I think that a lot of people will emerge from this period stronger and more durable than they went into it.”
After closing for a week, RIDE Cyclery, a road and tri-focused retailer along Coast Highway 101 in Downtown Encinitas, Calif. was back open for business as the state of California designated bike shops (and their service centers) as an essential business, allowing them to continue operations. “A lot of people are out jobs, and it’s a weird deal, but I just wanted to keep my guys employed,” said general manager Brett Garrigus. “We’re losing money for sure, and we’re just not sure how long this is going to go on, because rent ain’t cheap along Coast Highway, but I’m depleting what I have.”
Garrigus said with so many working from home or laid off, there is a benefit—lots of people, especially families, out riding bikes. “It’s not our client per se, but we’re seeing a lot of families trying to get out with their kids on bikes,” he said, so he’s keeping his service bay as full as possible with derailleur adjustments and rusty chain swaps. Still, he’s seeing it even hit the service side of the sport.
“I saw a mobile bike repair company went belly up, and Bicycle Warehouse is having a rough time,” he said. “I imagine there are a lot of shops making a hard decision. Most don’t want to spend two years unburying themselves from the debt of a few months. The bike business is hard enough.”
As we roll into May, the reality of Coronavirus is beginning to change. For New York, the epicenter, the curve is flattening, but folks there are still hard set on social distancing for the sake of their own health and that of their families. Meanwhile, despite numbers that indicate the illness is still among the population, some states like Georgia and Florida are going against their own state’s move toward flattening the curve by opening non-essential businesses like hair salons and bowling alleys, and allowing beach access—certainly a reprieve for triathletes itching to get in the water and get their gills wet.
Which move is right? Does opening the economy open us to a second wave of hospitalizations and restrictions? Or is the worst behind us? Only time will tell, and nobody—least of those being triathlon event producers, pool operators, gymnasiums and the like—are ready to put a stake in the ground with a date. Whether it’s a swim at the pool, a race on the calendar, or the purchase of a new race kit, I’m hopeful we’ll see the resiliency of triathlon and its athletes on full display in the coming months.