Recalled: The One-and-Done Ironman in New York City
Nine years ago, Ironman came to New York City for what was the world’s most expensive triathlon. Here’s a look back at this once-in-a-lifetime—and one-time—event.
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That’s the amount of time it took for the very first Ironman to take place in-and-around New York City to sell out. The date? June 15, 2011. The cost? $895—making it, at the time, the world’s most-expensive triathlon and some $300 more than a typical Ironman race entry. But the higher price tag did not deter 2,500 people from forking over the fee for the chance to swim 2.4 miles down the Hudson River, bike 112 miles in both New York and New Jersey, and then run 26.2 miles from Fort Lee, N.J. to Riverside Park in Manhattan.
After seven years of planning, the race, which took place on Aug. 11, 2012, created a palpable buzz in the already fully-charged city. Not only was it the inaugural Ironman in New York, but it doubled as the U.S. Championships. So, aside from the age-groupers seeking to check off a box on their bucket list (or, perhaps, gunning for the 75 qualifying spots for the 2012 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii), a select crew of big-name pros turned up, too.
So what was behind the hefty entry fee? Logistics and red tape, mostly. First, there was the cost of staging the event, including permits to close the busy Palisades Parkway for the first time in 72 years, save for 9/11, for the bike leg, and the construction of a swim infrastructure in the Hudson River (price tag: hundreds of thousands, according to race director John Korff). Then there were the leased ferries, which shuttled competitors to the start and spectators back and forth across the Hudson all day. All that, plus the price of police presence across several departments, including NYPD, Port Authority, and three crews in New Jersey.
“You get nothing for free in the tri-state area,” Korff said, in explaining the cost. “If Ironman goes to Mont Tremblant…the whole community repaves their roads. No one is doing that for you in New York. You pay for everything. Everything is retail. It’s no disrespect to any other Ironman, but the complexity of New York is just so much more intense than any other city.”
Race directors also anticipated that a majority of the competitors could afford to enter: In 2010, some 66% of the New York City Triathlon field worked in the financial services industry, and the typical Ironman participant had an average annual income of $161,000, according to World Triathlon. Others, they figured, would be still willing to pay for the New York experience.
“When people are in New York City, they expect to pay more money for things, but they expect amazing,” Korff said. “It’s the same reason someone will pay $1,500 for front row seats to Jersey Boys on Broadway and they’re happy. It’s because they got to see an amazing play from a great seat, on Broadway, in New York City. Price is not the issue, it’s the experience.”
So did the experience deliver? It depends on who you ask. It certainly did not start off smoothly, with a break in a sewer line 30 miles north of the city that dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage in the Hudson just days before the event. This sparked headlines like “Sewage may drain triathlon Hudson swim,” but in the end, after clearance from the Department of Environmental Protection, it did go on. And swiftly, with the current pushing athletes to staggering splits never seen before in an Ironman swim. (Eventual winner Jordan Rapp, for example, emerged from the water under 42 minutes. To put that into perspective, the swim record at the Ironman World Championships is 46:29, set in 2018 by German Jan Sibbersen.) There was also tragedy, with the death of 43-year-old competitor Andrew Naylor, who was pulled out of the swim unconscious after a heart attack. The race was also difficult from a spectator’s standpoint, and the post-race was a bit of a slog for racers, who had to return to New Jersey to pick up their bikes after finishing in Manhattan.
Otherwise, the race went off without major issue, and Mike “The voice of Ironman” Reilly ushered finishers as they streamed into Riverside Park in front of cheering crowds—although a noise ordinance meant those finishing after 10 p.m. did so without the amplified welcome—with Rapp and Mary Beth Ellis taking the tape and the U.S. Championship title.
To continue the momentum, Ironman immediately opened up registration for the 2013 event with an increased entry fee of $1,200 and a 15-hour cutoff, making it even more cost-prohibitive (and a dealbreaker for back-of-the-packers). The sticker shock resulted in instant pushback from the triathlon community, and within two days, registration was suspended. One month later, Ironman announced that it was permanently discontinuing the race, citing logistics and their bottom line.
While the Olympic-distance New York City Triathlon continues to take to the streets each summer, no one has tried to bring back a long-course race. In New York, there’s nothing you can’t do—except have an Ironman.