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10 Questions With Ironman CEO on This Week’s World Championships Split Announcement

We sit down with Andrew Messick to get the inside insight on what went wrong in Kona this year, the reasoning behind “half announcements,” why the split world championship location could be a good thing, and more.

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Yesterday, Ironman reversed course on a previously announced two-day 2023 Ironman World Championship event in Kona. Instead, the women will race on October 14 in Kona, and the men will race in a separate location and date that will be announced in January 2023. As a result, hundreds of male age groupers who had already qualified for Kona are no longer going to race on the Big Island in October; the lack of a location and date for the men’s IMWC has caused confusion. We spoke to Ironman’s president and CEO, Andrew Messick, to see if he could offer any clarity on the decision.

Triathlete: What were some of the biggest challenges with the two-race format this year in Kona that resulted in the change of plans?

Andrew Messick: No one has ever organized back-to-back Ironman events before. Racking bikes on Wednesday, racing Thursday, then doing it all again 24 hours later is something new.

In fact, there’s never been an Ironman held on a Thursday before. We did what we thought was a lot of good work with the community to raise awareness on the disruptions, but you never really know how it’ll unfold until it happens. We were hoping that the athletes and their family and friends wouldn’t notice; we were hoping the community and the people who had to go to work on Thursday wouldn’t be affected. It didn’t work for the community.

We were hoping that the athletes and their family and friends wouldn’t notice; we were hoping the community and the people who had to go to work on Thursday wouldn’t be affected. It didn’t work for the community.

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Triathlete: Why the reversal from the previously announced two-day format in 2023?

AM: Our expectation was that we were going to be able to have two days of racing in 2023. We’d worked closely with the mayor and the county and the community when we announced two days of racing in 2023 in July. But when all of our best intentions came asunder on the rocks of the reality of the community’s response, we were left with being in a position where we’ve made two promises: a promise for men and women each to have their own day of racing, and the promise of everybody being in Kona in 2023. And we couldn’t keep both promises. We all wish we could, but reality is otherwise. And so we were forced to say, “All right, which one of those is more important?” And our conclusion is that it’s more important that there’s two days of racing. It’s more important that women get an opportunity to have their own race with the pure spotlight and attention, when the global triathlon and other endemic media is focused on them on their day, and then on the men on their day. And that there’s more opportunities for age-group men and age-group women to be able to qualify for a world championship.

That was a promise that was more important to keep than going back to a single day and a women’s race that is overshadowed and in some cases subsumed by a men’s race. We felt a day for the men and a day for the women even if it meant one of those races not being in Kona was better. And, and so that’s what we did.

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Triathlete: Why not announce the new world championship location at the same time as the announcement that the location would be split?

AM: We’ve got close to 1,000 men who’ve qualified for a race that they believe is going to be in October in Kona, and it isn’t going to be. And we feel that we’re certain of that. And so we need to tell people, “Don’t make non refundable flight and hotel accommodations. We can’t tell you where you are going to race, but we can tell you where you’re not going to.” And that is better than just saying, “Stay tuned.”

We also have three more qualifying races in 2022: We have New Zealand, we have Western Australia, and we have Argentina. And we need people to know there that the men at least aren’t qualifying for Kona. They’ll be qualifying for the world championship at the other destination to be determined. We know it’s frustrating to not be able to give everybody the complete story, but an incomplete story is useful to a certain group of people, and we felt a responsibility to let those people know.

Triathlete: What about the potential for two races on two different weekends? Maybe even weeks or months apart?

AM: It just didn’t work for the community. And despite us trying to be as creative and thoughtful as we could be, you know, if not Thursday, Saturday, how about Saturday and Saturday? How about one race in October in one race some time else? The feedback was: The community’s prepared to have the Ironman show come to town once a year. And look, you know, we live there, and our race is a guest in their community. And so, if the answer is one day of racing in Kona, then we can like it, or we can not like it. But we do need to acknowledge the reality of what it is. Even if we’d been able to do [two days on different weeks], that would not be perfect by a long shot.

The Ironman World Championships in Kona will be split into a two-day event. One in Kona, one at another location.
(Photo: Hannah DeWitt )

Triathlete: How close are you to securing the men’s IMWC location for 2023?

AM: I think we’re pretty confident that we’ve found a place and a venue that our community is going to like. And, you know, we’re in the event business, so it pays to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s before you’ve got before we make an announcement, because once you make the announcement, it’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle.

I think we're pretty confident that we’ve found a place and a venue that our community is going to like.

Triathlete: What about timing? Will the event fall close to or on the same weekend as the Kona 2023 race?

AM: We want it to be reasonably synchronous with the other major events we’ve got coming next year, including the Kona race, 70.3 World Championships, and even UTMB [Editor note: Ironman owns multiple events, including the Rock ‘n’ Roll  Running Series, the Singapore Marathon, UTMB World Series events, the Epic Series mountain bike races, and road cycling events.]

Triathlete: Who will be running the show at the men’s IMWC?

AM: The races will continue to fall under the responsibility of Diana Bertsch and her team.

Triathlete: Will the women’s race in 2024 be in the same location and same date as the men’s one in 2023?

AM: The women will be going to the same place in 2024 that the men did in 2023, and the same date, plus or minus two weeks, depending on the venue’s other obligations.

Triathlete: What was the reasoning behind freezing the World Championship slots for the male pros?

AM: We’re working through how we’re going to handle the qualification for pro male athletes who have qualified for a race in Kona, just like age groupers. So there are those pro athletes who believed that they qualified for Kona in 2023. We’re going to make a determination between now and January about whether we’re going to transfer those slots to the new men’s destination in 2023 or let those roll over into Kona in 2024. Part of what we’ll do in January is we will outline the rules of engagement for people who have already qualified for Kona in 2023.

Triathlete: In your mind what is the most exciting feature about having a split location by gender? What should athletes be looking forward to the most?

AM: There are two things that are going to be sort of interesting and compelling: One of them is that in the non-Kona venue, it’s going to be an opportunity for maybe a different type of athlete to shine. I was joking with somebody earlier today that this is the kind of thing that would bring Marino Vanhoenacker out of retirement [Editor note: Vanhoenacker previously held the iron-distance world record, but struggled in the heat of Kona in the ‘00s]. In other words, the ability to go to a world championship that wasn’t super hot and super humid. Kona is a very specific race with very specific conditions, and not everybody thrives in those. And so I think it’s gonna be interesting to see to what extent, if any, does the competitive landscape change when you have a different course and different climate conditions.

The second thing is, I just think having a Kona with only women this year is just going to be a blast. And I think it’s gonna be a blast for age groupers. I think it’s gonna be a blast for the pro women. This is a year in which we’ve seen a women’s rugby world cup sell out in Auckland. We’ve seen a women’s European football championship sell out Wembley Stadium in London. We’ve seen an extraordinary Tour de France Femmes. And women deserve their day. I think it’s gonna be awesome, and our expectations are super high. And I’m super confident that they’re gonna put on an amazing show.