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In true New York City fashion, the inaugural Ironman U.S. Championship delivered plenty of drama, action and energy. First there was the sewage spill scare two days before the event. Then came the ridiculously fast swim times (some pros under 40 minutes, with an average of 51 minutes for age groupers), followed by news of a tragic death during the swim. The day after, the inflated price tag (now $1200, up from $900 last year) and new 15-hour cutoff provoked plenty of chatter in multi-sport circles.
We talked with race director John Korff, the man behind both this first-year event and the New York City Triathlon, to get some answers. Note: this interview took place before Ironman announced it was suspending registration for the 2013 Ironman U.S. Championship. We’ve provided an updated reaction from Korff at the bottom of the interview. Check back to Triathlete.com for more information on if or when registration will re-open.
PHOTOS: 2012 Ironman U.S. Championship
Triathlete.com: What’s on your priority list today?
Korff: Getting rid of the [special needs] bags that have stinky tuna fish sandwiches in them that are all in our office. It’s amazing what athletes will stick in these bags that they think are the most crucial things in the world. And then they never come pick up their bags. We give people a few days to call us and reclaim their oh-so-precious 25-year-old sneakers or their “can’t live without it” T-shirt that says they did the Fat Ass 5K a few years ago. Or the guy who wants his tuna fish sandwich back.
Triathlete.com: Two days before the race, there was a sewage spill north of the city that could’ve potentially affected the swim portion of the race. What was going through your head?
Korff: The sewage spill happened 30 miles north of us. The DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] does all of our water testing for us. We collect the samples, they test them and tell us if we have a swim or not, based on what the standards are. When we took our water down, they said “you guys will pass, because it’s too far away, it’s not as bad as they think” and 12 other reasons. But I said, Please, let’s take the test. It’s like someone saying 10 miles into the marathon, “you look great.” You know, I don’t want to hear that. Or, “you’re almost done” with five miles to go. I’m almost done when I can see the finish tape.
We thought we were going to pass it all along but you have to go through the drill. We would’ve 100 percent called the swim off, with great reluctance, but we would’ve called it off if we missed it. DEP would’ve called it off for us.
From a promoter’s point of view, we got 24 hours worth of insane media coverage. [Laughs] I had a guy from one of the small suburban papers ask, “So do you know anybody in the Westchester Department of Health?” I said, “No, we don’t normally deal with them.” He said, “Oh you don’t have a friend there?” I said, “No, why? Do you want to call somebody?” He said, “No, I just wanted to know if you had a friend and this was a set-up.” I said, “Dude, I’m not that good. I don’t think anyone is going to fake a sewage spill and freak everyone in the tri-state area out just to help his buddy John. But thanks for thinking I’m that good.”
Triathlete.com: Overall, how do you feel the race went?
Korff: From a production point of view, and as far as I can tell, it was a fabulous race. People were crying going across the George Washington Bridge. I know that because I stood there for two hours greeting people at the “Welcome to Manhattan” sign. People see that sign and they just start to cry. Granted, they’re about to finish an Ironman so they would probably cry if they saw a squirrel.
Most people are just in awe that we could pull it off: two states, separated by a river, three distinct counties, Manhattan, the George Washington Bridge, all this complexity. The swim was fast—okay, big surprise it’s the Hudson River. The ferry was flawless. Of course, we as organizers see 10,000 little things like, “the signs should be here and not there, the bathrooms should be here and not there, too many volunteers at one place and not enough in the other”—you know, the usual first-year stuff that we can fix easily.
The other thing that we feel very strongly about is that New York City doesn’t give you a break. You don’t get a chance to screw up, you get a chance to do it right the first time. And we knew that. We told Ironman that this race can go through internal growing pains, but it can’t go through external growing pains. It has to be as perfect as it can be. It was, as far as we can tell, amazing.
Triathlete.com: So let’s talk about the new $1200 price tag.
Korff: I didn’t come up with it personally, Ironman did, but I’ll tell you what I think it is. What we originally did last year when we priced this race, because we knew it was going to be the most expensive Ironman ever produced, was to price it to break even. I said we have no idea about sponsorship or any other revenue streams, and this will be a very expensive race because it’s in the New York market.
When people are in New York City, they expect to pay more money for things, but they also expect a New York experience. They expect amazing. It’s the same reason someone will pay $1500 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. We have to deliver the experience, and that was our mantra for year one.
Triathlete.con: Do you think the high price tag mainly reflects what it takes to put the race on? What’s more expensive for event production in New York City?
Korff: Everything. First of all, you get nothing for free in the tri-state area. If Ironman goes to Lake Placid, Lake Placid may pay for them to be there. Or they go to Mont Tremblant and the whole community repaves their roads. No one is doing that for you in New York. You pay for everything. Everything is retail. Right now there’s a moratorium in New York City on new events on the street, by the police department, by the parks department. We are the first new major event in seven years. Just pulling that off is no small miracle.
Triathlete.com: Are permits generally more expensive as well?
Korff: The Palisades Parkway has never been closed in 72 years, except for on 9/11. Most Ironman races are two miles in some place and 138 miles in no place. But we have no “no place” in New York. Every place is some place. Even when you ride up on the Palisades, these are some of the most densely populated, wealthy communities in America, so nobody’s giving you “free.”
To close the Palisades costs hundreds of thousands of dollars; we had to build a whole swim infrastructure in the middle of the Hudson River, which costs a couple hundred grand. Most of these races start on a beach—a beach is free. We had to lease ferries for the transportation, including spectator transportation all day long. You name it. The thing is, none of this is optional cost. I used to produce a women’s professional tennis tournament and you can decide, “Do we want to pay to have Serena Williams show up?” That’s an optional cost. When you’re talking hard costs to stage an event, nothing’s optional. You either pay the police or you don’t have a race.
When you’re dealing with enough different police departments and municipalities as we are—we not only have the New York City Police Department for the last 10 miles, we also had to deal with Port Authority who control the George Washington Bridge, then you deal with the Fort Lee Police and the Englewood Police and the Alpine Police and every town going up the Palisades. Then you have to worry about state police because you’re closing the access to 287, a major artery around here. It’s no disrespect to any other Ironman, but the complexity of New York is just so much more intense than any other city.
At another Ironman race, the community might feel that the economic impact is big enough to pay to have them bring an event to town. We did our numbers on what we thought the economic impact on New York City would be, which is obviously tourism, and came up with $35 million. The city confirmed, they said our numbers were right, our methodology was right. That’s when I said, “That’s good, right?” and the person on the phone said, “Yeah that’s good, but remember a Yankees game is $16 million for a home game.” But they said that for five days, you hit a home run. This is New York, where tourism is a $250 billion industry.
Triathlete.com: The bike course only allowed for one true spectating area, but how was the rest of the spectating at the event?
Korff: We had undoubtedly more spectators on this course than have been at any other U.S. Ironman. That’s not to say, “oh we’re so wonderful,” that’s just to say there are that many more people that live in New York … We had no idea how many people would want to buy a ferry pass [to watch the swim start], but we sold out, I think about 2000 people. I’ve been to a lot of Ironman races, and if you get 2000 people the whole day you’re lucky, and we had that many at swim start. But it’s New York, there’s probably 100,000 people sitting in Starbucks doing the Sunday crossword puzzle thinking, “there’s nothing to do today.”
We could’ve had 8,000–10,000 people at our finish just because there’s that many people by Riverside Park. Just by putting up bleachers and stuff happening, we instantly had a crowd. I had a friend I saw at the finish. I said, “Hey what are you doing here? I didn’t think you were into triathlon.” The guy’s like, “I’m not, but I live across the street.” How many Ironmans can you say, “I live across the street”? There’s easily 30,000 New Yorkers within two blocks of the finish.
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Triathlete.c0m: You’ve been known to personally email athletes before the New York City Triathlon and someone on your staff even calls each person directly as the race gets closer. How do you respond to athlete feedback?
Korff: We solicit athlete feedback—it’s my passion. Athletes are your secret shoppers because they had the experience. It’s one thing for me to ride my bike through Riverside Park and see things, but it’s another to have athletes tell me what they experienced.
For the New York City Triathlon, I put my email address right on the homepage. After the race, we’ll get 800 emails in 36 hours and it’s like the greatest secret shopper in the world. And most of them will say, “I love it, but that third bathroom from the left at swim start at 6:15 ran out of toilet paper.” I save every email I get from an athlete and go back through those comments. When we make a change based on feedback, we’ll email the person to tell them.
I don’t understand this, but for some reason with Ironman, people are used to lashing out at them. And I don’t get it. There’s so much passion when you see someone cross the finish line. They’re crying, they’re so passionate, it’s like their life has changed. Then you see some of these postings and it’s as if they’re talking to the devil. It’s like, “Who are you? What happened?” And I get a couple of those emails and I respond to people immediately. Clearly I take your concerns very seriously. It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m replying to you—so here’s my phone number, give me a call. Every single person who was upset, with big or little concerns, we turn them around. [It helps] because you reply. And you’re not scared of your athletes.
Triathlete.com: You’ve unfortunately had recent tragic deaths at the New York City Triathlon and one athlete passed away at Saturday’s race. What was your approach for swim at the Ironman?
Korff: We did what we did in New York City Triathlon with a modified time trial. Rather than the typical mass start, we had 5–10 people go in the water every 5–10 seconds. Because the Hudson is tidal, we knew everyone would make the swim cut-off. We divided the swim into zones and each one had its own personnel responsible for that specific area. We had personnel who could see athletes in their area almost one by one, so if there was a problem—if some guy says his wetsuit is too tight or he got water in his goggles—he could hold on to a boat or kayak and catch his breath. For bigger issues, if you put your hand up, we could get to you in two seconds. We were that close.
Having had swim deaths at the New York City Triathlon with the reason being the same—a pre-existing heart condition—you want to make sure you’re on people who have an issue as fast as humanly possible. With these kinds of issues, there is no time. You can be on them in two seconds and it’s still too late. In the case of our athlete, I can only assume that it was a pre-existing heart condition.
Triathlete.com: How do you deal with these tragedies?
Korff: It’s so sad—I can’t even say it’s sad, sad is not even the word. It’s something that changes your life that you don’t get over, you just move on. Every time that this has happened, the first person that has called me is Mary Wittenberg [the president of New York Road Runners, who can empathize after losing runner Ryan Shay during the 2007 Olympic Trials in Central Park]. As a race organizer, no matter what else you say, the only thing that matters to you is that the athletes that showed up to start your event go to bed in their beds that night. Even when she called me yesterday, she said, “You know everybody thinks I’m riding the course with the mayor, I’m talking to the pros, I’m talking to the media. But in the back of my mind, all I’m thinking about is that one guy.” I’m like, “Oh my god, don’t I know it.” I think as a race director, if you have any level of sensitivity, that’s the one thing you think about all the time.
Triathlete.com: There’s concern about the new 10 p.m. cut-off, which would cap the race at 15 hours, versus the typical 17-hour midnight finish.
Korff: I haven’t talked to anybody at Ironman, but I think it’s for two reasons. First, this is the U.S. Championship, and the European Championship has a 15-hour cut-off. They want a level of an athlete. So good or bad, that’s one thing.
The second, which is kind of unique to New York, is that there’s a 10 p.m. noise ordinance. No amplified noise after 10 p.m. The only day of the year that the police don’t enforce that is New Year’s Eve—because how are you going to shut down the ball dropping? They made it very clear to us: Look, you can do whatever you want but at 10 p.m. you have to turn the noise off. Well, how do you have a finish with no Mike Reilly shouting, “You are an Ironman”? I was sitting [at the finish] thinking, “How does an athlete feel?” I talked to a friend who finished [after 10 p.m.] and he told me, “Oh I didn’t even notice. I was so spaced out. All I know is Mike hugged me and said I was an Ironman and I thought that was great.”
The third reason, and I don’t think anyone at Ironman knew this, but as a guy who rode up and down in Riverside Park on his bike, there are certain sections of Riverside Park that after 10 p.m. at night, you’d want every athlete to be escorted. Just because it’s the upper portion of Riverside Park. I don’t think that played into it because I didn’t see anything going on. And look, I would’ve been the first guy riding my bike at 900 miles per hour telling some athlete to jump on the back.
Other than the random…well, this was the first time I’ve ever seen an Ironman where there’s a park bench with a couple on it, getting it on. I thought, “God this is so New York. They’re so oblivious that an Ironman is happening that they’re consummating their relationship on this park bench.”
Update after Ironman’s announcement they registration is being suspended.
Triathlete.com: Ironman just announced they’re suspending registration for the race to “improve the logistics for our athletes and supporters.” What did you think about the decision?
Korff: This has all been very fast. Believe me, this is not something they were thinking about for weeks, because weeks ago we were worried about how the George Washington Bridge was going to work. I actually think this is a good move on their part. Remember, my whole connection to Ironman is one race so I can’t comment on all of it, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
They’re recognizing the consumers’ pushback. What they’re saying is, the consumer spoke. This is not about race problems—there were no problems. I think what they’re doing is saying, “We’ve listened to the consumers’ pushback on the price, we’re going to go back to the drawing board, and we’re going to try and figure this one out.” I assume that means the price is too high, so let’s see if we can dramatically adjust the consumer experience so people can say, “Oh my god I have to be a part of this.”
I have to follow their lead because they’re the experts. New York is far, far and away the most difficult Ironman race to physically stage. But we all knew that coming into it. So you counterbalance that against the business and try to break even. No one was trying to make a gazillion dollars, we were all trying to break even. So what do we have to charge to break even, and that’s what it comes down to. I think it’s a good thing to take a month as a breather and ask, “How do we reload?”
The typical Ironman model is to open registration the day after the race and it sells out in a day or two. Maybe in hindsight, we would take a month to look at this and then open up registration. So this is probably a good thing. Maybe the consumer was the alarm clock that caused the wake-up call.
Triathlete.com: How long do you think this decision will take?
Korff: Well first everyone’s gotta get some sleep, they have a bunch of races this summer. You have to really think this through because nobody wants to give up a market like New York. If I’m Ironman, I don’t want to give up New York City because it makes a statement about your brand when you’re in a city like this. On the other hand, Ironman isn’t Prada or someone else who can afford to lose a ton of dough to say they have a concept store on Fifth Avenue. This is triathlon, this is not a multi-billion dollar business. So they have to be smart business people and have to ask what’s good for their brand and good for the consumer. If we’re going to charge X dollars, can we deliver an X-dollar experience?