How Ironman Triathlons Plan to Endure the Pandemic

Two months ago, Andrew Messick, the chief executive of Ironman, figured his company had diversified pretty well by organizing endurance races for fervent fans and participants all over the world.

On any given weekend, an Ironman-owned event was happening somewhere. The company’s sprawling operation included more than 235 races in over 50 countries. There are full (140.6 miles) and half (70.3 miles) Ironman triathlons, as well as marathons, cycling races and trail races.

Messick was pretty certain the geographic spread was a good thing, because while natural disasters or some other kind of calamity — fires, civil unrest, a war — might be happening in one region, surely there could not be a circumstance that would shut down live events in every part of the world.

Everyone knows what happened next. Ironman, which is largely dependent on live events, has postponed or canceled nearly all races through the end of June because of the coronavirus pandemic. The summer schedule is in flux, with some races still on the schedule and others canceled or postponed, but the company has little control over what happens next. Ironman Mont-Tremblant, scheduled for Aug. 23 in western Quebec, for example, will not happen as planned, because the Canadian province prohibited all sports and cultural events until September.

“To have literally everything go wrong everywhere in the world at exactly the same time is unprecedented,” Messick said recently from his home near Tampa, Fla.“A situation of indeterminate length is really hard if you are in the event business.”

Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has forced the leaders of virtually every sports organization, from the International Olympic Committee to Little Leagues, to cancel or postpone events they had planned years ago.

Ironman’s struggles illustrate the uncertainty of this moment as the company tries to placate its passionate customer base.

That got more complicated last month as Ironman’s parent company, the China-based Wanda Sports Group, announced that it would sell Ironman to Advance, owner of the media company Condé Nast, for a reported $730 million. The deal is scheduled to close next month.

That leaves Ironman in an awkward purgatory, during which the seller wants to spend as little money as possible and the buyer wants the company to do everything possible to maintain its value.

“My fiduciary responsibility is to operate the business normally,” Messick said. “I don’t exactly know how to do that right now.”

More than one million people registered for one of the company’s events last year. Social media is full of athletes complaining that the company is, for the most part, not issuing refunds for postponed or canceled events and instead is shuffling entries toward races later this year or in 2021. Some of those athletes have lost jobs during the pandemic or are facing financial distress made worse because they committed anywhere from a few hundred dollars to around $800 to register for an Ironman race — and possibly bought airline tickets and put down deposits on hotel rooms.

Ironman has more than 800 employees in 26 offices around the world. The company has not laid off or furloughed anyone. It is considering salary reductions and any other maneuvers that can help keep the organization intact.

“We’re trying to get through the night, that’s our objective,” Messick said. “None of us knows how long the night is going to be.”

Messick said the company is simply trying to give customers the chance to participate in an Ironman event, even though no one can say for certain when that will happen again, and to let the best athletes qualify for the world championships held each October in Hawaii.

Consider Johan Bosman, 60, a minister with the Reformed Church of America who lives in Niskayuna, N.Y. He was scheduled to travel to his native South Africa for the African championships on March 29. When they were postponed to November, he signed up for the North American championships in May in Utah, figuring life would be back to normal by then. Ironman has postponed that race to September.

Now Bosman is training for both races, as well as the Musselman Half-Ironman in Geneva, N.Y., on July 19, though he said that observing the endless suffering from the pandemic had sapped his motivation.

“I train, but not with the same intensity,” he said.

Will Rogers, 61, a primary care paramedic and triathlete in Vancouver, has seen the suffering up close, but his training continues. He technically retired three years ago but works 80 percent of full-time hours to finance his racing schedule. He has participated in 150 full and half-Ironman distance races over the past 30 years.

He is awaiting word on the Ironman Canada, scheduled for late August in Penticton, British Columbia. The race is part of his training for the Ultraman Arizona, a 320-mile triathlon. He is not optimistic. He is considering doing the Ironman on his own, virtually, an option that the company is offering.

Kristen Hislop, a triathlete and coach who lives near Albany, N.Y., said she was pessimistic about two New York Ironman events she had signed up for: the half Ironman in Geneva and a full Ironman in Lake Placid, both in July. “That timing right now looks very tough,” she said.

Entry in next year’s events might not work for her, with one of her children graduating from high school and heading off to college and her schedule in flux.

“It’s really hard,” Hislop said. “You’re training and you just don’t know when you’re racing.”

Since March, when everything was put on hold, nearly 100,000 athletes have signed up to complete Ironman events virtually, reinforcing how important the structure of regular training and racing is for people, Messick said.

“You can control your physical state and your attitude in this crazy Covid world, but maybe not that much more,” he said.

The company is also streaming cycling competitions between elite athletes going against each other virtually from their living rooms. Down the road, the company may delve further into online coaching and nutrition, but Messick said it was just as likely to expand its portfolio of endurance events.

Advance, Ironman’s soon-to-be owner, is fine with that. Janine Shelffo, Advance’s chief strategy and development officer, said her company had been eying Ironman for a year and believed it would always be, at its core, an event-based business, despite the peril that live events face right now.

Advance, she said, acquired Ironman as a long-term investment because it admired the company’s growing global presence, its passionate customers, its management team and its commitment to long-term health and fitness. That outweighed concern about this pandemic or any other in the future.

“We went in with our eyes wide open, knowing there might not be live events for much of 2020,” she said. “And that’s fine.”

Messick doesn’t anticipate that Covid-19 will cause “a fundamental disruption to the appeal of people doing these challenges, like running a marathon or doing an Ironman.” It’s just that providing those opportunities safely is an evolving challenge. He has no idea whether small local companies — providing timing, traffic control or photography — that Ironman uses for an event will still be in business after six months of no races.

“We’re all scrambling,” Messick said. “Whatever happens, there is this one and there is the next one. One of the things this one has taught us is that there is going to be a next one.”

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