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Ironman CEO Announces Major Change To Kona Start

An update with Ironman's Andrew Messick

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Ironman CEO Andrew Messick announces a separate age-group start for men and women at this year’s Ironman World Championship, fewer North American qualifying slots for 70.3 worlds, and talks doping and more with Triathlete magazine editor-in-chief Julia Beeson Polloreno.

Julia Polloreno: With this week’s announcements of two new Ironman events—in Barcelona and Taiwan—it begs the question: How do you grow the international Ironman event roster, while the number of Kona slots must remain the same?

Andrew Messick: The big challenge that we have in Kona is not in fact the size of the pier, which is what most people think, but rather the extreme concentration of gifted athletes in that particular race. It creates problems unique to Kona. Least year we had 1,100 athletes get out of the water in a 15-minute period, between 55 minutes and 1:10. That concentration of really strong swimmers, all of whom can ride a bike, is our operational limiter. What we’re most mindful of when we think about how we manage Kona, and we’re really focused on, is how can you have a world championship event with the best athletes in the world and yet still create a race that’s going to be fair for everybody. So we’re very thoughtful about that, and our ability to solve some of those operational problems is really what is going to govern the size of the race at Kona, and by extension, any slots we have at different races around the world. We are virtually certain to have a separate age-group men and age-group women start in Kona this year. That is largely designed to manage and reduce swim density. Swim density of course creates conditions where bike density happens because the rate at which people get out of the water and onto the bike course determines the extent to which we’re able to have a clean bike. The more direct answer is: we expect the size of Kona to increase.

JP: So you’re making operational changes to accommodate that.

AM: Right. We have to. The operational changes really relate to ‘how do you have a clean, fair race and still be able to accommodate the best athletes in the world?’ The best athletes in the world are coming from all over the place—and we have more and more of them. As we grow our footprint, we’re going to see increasing numbers of athletes from different parts of the world. We don’t want to have those slots come at the expense of slots from our historic strength countries—the U.S., Canada, Germany, Australia. That’s a balance we’re trying to find.

JP: You don’t anticipate reducing the number of slots at those marquee Ironman events?

AM: We hope not to, and we are de-emphasizing 70.3s that have Kona slots. You’re seeing a trend of more and more 70.3s that aren’t offering Kona slots. We expect that’s going to continue. We’re looking for other areas to find opportunities to preserve the slots that we have at as many races as we possibly can.

JP: At Oceanside 70.3 recently, I was talking post-race with Andrew Starykowicz, who told me a little anecdote about relentlessly heckling another pro racer who was in the field and who’d been previously busted and served a ban for doping. You told Lance he couldn’t race Ironman, which I know was a decision based on WTC being a WADA signatory, and others who have served bans are back racing, sometimes to a hostile reception from athletes like Starykowicz who feel they shouldn’t ever be able to race again. Will WTC be staying the course regarding its WADA status—and how do you navigate this obviously emotionally charged issue?

AM: I don’t anticipate us leaving WADA. We don’t have any plans to do it, and I think it would take a fairly dramatic set of circumstances for us to leave the one global organization dedicated to clean sport. For us to walk away from them would really require an unusual set of circumstances, and one that we don’t anticipate. This is difficult, because everyone has a point of view about whether the punishment fits the crime. There are those that believe that athletes who are sanctioned for doping infractions should be banned for life. I get it. I understand on an emotional level why people would feel that way, but I also think it’s fair that punishment be proportionate to the crime and that people who make mistakes—even serious ones—be given additional opportunities to live their lives and make their livings. There’s nothing simple about it, and I think it’s conceptually easy to say ‘first offense, banned for life,’ but when you really think it through you’ve got to deal with issues of justice, fairness and appropriateness. You have to live in that world if you walk away from WADA, and our belief is that the WADA code, which is very thoughtful and has been embraced by almost all sporting institutions—they’ve thought through all those issues. I think their point of view of the punishment and the crime is more thoughtful and nuanced than people might necessarily or immediately see. I get all the emails and see the social media and understand the frustration people have—one of the things that makes our sport even more complicated is that a lot of those doping bans happened when people were participating in a sport other than triathlon. That just makes all of that harder.

JP: With so many events and more being added all the time, it seems like we’re not seeing super deep fields at anything outside of the championship races. How do you create more racing opportunities for age-groupers and a window to the Ironman experience but still preserve that sense of excitement you get from watching a fiercely contested pro race with the sport’s top names?

AM: I’ll use the example of Ironman South Africa because I was just there 10 days ago. I would certainly not characterize the age-group race as uncompetitive. It was as competitive as it was extraordinary. And the pro race was extraordinary too. Nils Frommhold went to the front and Kyle Buckingham, the young South African guy, was in second all day and blew up and got passed by Faris Al-Sultan, then he passed Faris back to win second place. And in the women’s race you had Jodie Swallow who was out in front by herself all day long get run down in the last kilometer by Simone Brandli and Lucy Gossage. That’s one of your “uncompetitive” races and it was fabulous. Tremendous performances by two local South African athletes, finishes that were gripping. So I don’t fundamentally accept that the races aren’t competitive. I will say that we’ve really tried to structure the point system and the prize money to reinforce and provide opportunities for people who compete at Kona well to have chances to compete against one another. The Melbourne field was super deep, Frankfurt we expect to be super deep, Tremblant will be super deep, and we see the same thing on the 70.3 side. So, I think there are a lot of races, people compete in races for lots of reasons, and we do put a fair amount of effort and energy into trying to make sure we’ve got concentrations in our large point, large prize money events, but that there’s also a strong local flavor at other races too.

JP: With the announcement that the 70.3 world championship will be in Austria in 2015, obviously a dramatic departure from the Vegas venue, how different do you envision the field looking?

AM: We’re going to rebalance all the slots—that’s the first thing. Starting with the 2015 qualifying cycle, which starts in April 2014, virtually all North American races will have fewer slots and all European races will have more slots. We’re very much anticipating—and engineering in the process—that there will be more qualifying opportunities in Europe for the 2015 world championships than there were in 2014. I would expect—and this is broadly speaking—if it’s going to be a 2,500-athlete race, we’ll have 1,000 North Americans, 1,000 Europeans, and 500 from Latin America, Australia, New Zealand and Asia-Pacific. Roughly speaking. We want there to be more local opportunities for Europeans to race a world championship. What we don’t know, of course, is the extent to which Europeans are going to go elsewhere to get their slots. What we do see is, for example, a lot of Canadians are pushing to find slots for Tremblant because they want to be able to race a world championship in Canada. I think we’re going to see that a lot of Europeans are going to start searching for opportunities to qualify because if you’re a European age-group triathlete, being able to compete in a world championship is something that’s going to resonate.

JP: What has been the reception to the transfer program you launched earlier this year? Do you expect to expand on it, change it at all?

AM: It’s been extremely popular with our athletes. It provides a lot of opportunities for athletes who, for whatever reason, can’t participate in the race they originally signed up for to race later, earlier or shorter. We’ve seen hundreds and hundreds—probably in the 500 range—of athletes who’ve taken advantage so far, and they’re happy. Almost everyone who signed up for a race doesn’t want a refund or partial refund—they want an opportunity to compete.

JP: How has the SwimSmart initiative been working? You’ve tried a few different approaches at different Ironman events. Did one approach work better than another? Will there still be mass starts at some events like Ironman Arizona?

AM: There are still going to be mass starts, for sure. We’re going to expand rolling starts, which, by and large, we thought worked very well. The athletes like them a lot, and we got higher swim satisfaction scores for SwimSmart starts—higher scores than from the previous year’s race when they were mass starts. We also had fewer people who had to abandon the swim with SwimSmart starts, and our operational teams thought they were better able and in better positions to help athletes who needed help. By and large it was a success, and we will continue to expand it both domestically and internationally in 2014.

JP: Last week you tweeted that in a single week you’d been on 10 flights and visited 4 countries. And then you raced the 70.3 relay in Florida. Give me your best travel tip for triathletes.

AM: Don’t do that! I try to manage my effort—and my expectations—pretty carefully. What I try not to do is put myself in the position where I have unrealistic expectations given training and travel. We’re all competitive people, want to do well and have goals for ourselves, and I think it’s really important that all athletes who have busy lives have realistic expectations for what they can do, given everything else that is going on in their lives. If you’re not in the position to be able to deliver a triple-A performance, don’t let it get you down. Sometimes you’re just not going to be able to do it, considering everthing else that life throws at you.

JP: With Boston on everyone’s minds, it brings the issue of event security and participant safety to the forefront. I assume WTC has a rigorous safety protocol in place for all your events around the world, but can you speak generally about your efforts to ensure a safe racer experience for all your athletes?

AM: Boston, unfortunately, changed the way events have to be organized. At all races, you see bomb-sniffing dogs now and you didn’t used to. You have to be more careful—not just in Hawaii but everywhere—about packages, backpacks, just the basic blocking and tackling of event security. Everyone in our industry has to grapple with that new reality—it’s running races, cycling events, triathlons. We have to put more behind it, and we are. We wish it were different, but we’re operators, and if you’re an operator you play the cards you are dealt, and that’s what we’ve been dealt.