The Rapidly Changing Scene of Pro Iron-Distance Racing

I did my first triathlon in August, 2006, and first Ironman in June, 2007.  I earned my professional license by winning the amateur title at Ironman Coeur d’Alene in 2011, and I’ve been racing as a professional ever since.  Over my last 4+ years in the pro field, I’ve gone from “clueless rookie” to “less clueless veteran”, and have witnessed a rapid evolution in professional long-course triathlon.

(note:  I’m writing this with a bit of slant/perspective of someone who lives & trains in North America… deal with it.)

What’s changed?

  1.  Increase in Ironman’s market share

When I came on to the scene in 2011, there were options if you wanted to race “iron-distance triathlons”, at the professional level, in North America.  There was, of course, Ironman.  But Rev3 also offered a nice option at Cedar Point, Lifetime Fitness had a growing series of “unconventional distance races” in their Leadman series, and Vineman & Beach2Battleship offered independent options.  Now?  It’s just Ironman, (Beach2Battleship is still around, but only attracts a tiny pro field).  Between Ironman buying up races, and the KPR forcing pros to race exclusively Ironman events (covered in the next section), there just aren’t really any other options in North America anymore.  Challenge does offer some races overseas, but travel expenses make those prohibitively expensive for all but a few North American pros.

2)   Creation of the Kona Pro Ranking (KPR)

This has had a tremendous impact.  Kona qualification for pros used to be the same as age-groupers:  each race had a certain number of Kona slots for pros, and if you placed high enough at that race, you’d earn a Kona slot.  Very simple.

Now? Kona qualification for professionals is based on a year-long rankings process, where there is a certain number of points available at each race, and you earn your share of those points based on where you finish.  At the end of the qualification cycle, the top 50 men, and top 35 women, are offered Kona slots.  (there are a few more ‘ins-and-outs’, but those are the basic details… if you’re really interested in point distribution, rules, etc… you can start here:

Ironman’s intended effect was to force us to race more of their events.  And, from Ironman’s perspective, it’s been a rousing success.  We, as pros, are so locked into the process of chasing Kona points, that we really don’t have the time, or energy, to race any other events.  And as long as Kona remains the “premier” event in triathlon, and as long as we (and sponsors) are willing to continue with that narrative, then Ironman will be able to continue to force pros into racing almost exclusively Ironman events.  At this point, Kona qualification (for all but a few), requires racing 3-4 full-distance Ironman events per year.  This has had 2 main effects:

a) Pro fields at races put on by other companies have shrunk rapidly, and as such, contributed to the discontinuation of many of those races.

b) Pros are often “racing tired”.  The days of Mark Allen & Dave Scott being able to only race 1 Ironman per year are looooong gone.  We can no longer build an entire season around 1 race, then take a 2 month break after that race, and still have 9-10 months to build towards another peak.  It’s far more typical now to do 3-4 Ironmen over a 6-8 month season, fully knowing that there’ll only be a “true peak” for 1 of them.  You can win a 2000-point Ironman now, and that only gets you about 50% of the way towards all of the points you need for a Kona qualification.  You need to race often, and race hard.  Some choose to spread out their races evenly, or it’s also fairly common now to do the “dirty double”, i.e., race an Ironman, and then quickly race another, 1-2 weeks later.  The idea being that you use one taper, for two races.  But whatever way you choose to distribute the races, most folks are now racing 3-4 Ironmen at 90-95%, instead of 1-2 Ironmen at a “true” 100%.

3) Elimination of some Ironman Pro races:

Over the last year, Ironman has removed the pro field from approximately half of it’s North American races.  The effect here is to consolidate the pro fields at certain races, to make the races deeper, and more competitive.  I’m all for deeper, more competitive, more exciting racing.  But the downside is that the money isn’t going significantly deeper.  When I started racing pro in 2011, it was fairly typical to see a race with 20-25 male pros, and 12-15 female pros, where the money went 6-8 deep for each gender.  Now, the money goes 10-deep for each gender, but the field sizes have ballooned to the point where it’s typical to see 45-60 guys, and 35-40 women, on the starting line.  That means, at any given Ironman, the vast majority of the pro field is going home with a large net loss of money.

Another effect of this reduction of races is that travel for races has become much more expensive.  When there were more pro race options, it was feasible to race an entire Ironman season within driving distance (if you lived in certain areas of the US).  Now, with fewer domestic options, that is no longer an option.  In order to get to enough races to accumulate Kona points, you have to do a lot of flying (either within the US, or internationally), and those airline tickets & airline bike fees add up quickly, especially if you’re going to races where 80% of the field is losing money on the event.

This brings up that each race, essentially, is “taking a gamble on yourself”.  Let’s say it costs $1000 to travel to a race.  So, you’re betting $1000 against your odds of finishing in the money.  If there are 20 guys racing for money that goes 8-deep, then your odds are pretty decent.  But if there are 55 guys racing for money that goes 10-deep, then the odds are significantly shifted against the athlete.  These odds shift even more if you have to go race internationally, where travel costs can easily hit $2,000.  Gambling!  Fun!  Exciting!  And bankrupting… :-/

Now, I get it, Ironman is trying to be more “worldwide”, as opposed to being “US-centric”.  And I don’t blame them, as I’d probably do something similar if I was in charge.  But, these changes do have a large impact on US-based pro triathletes, which is the most common training location for all long-course pros (regardless of nationality), from April – October.

4) Increase in the number of fast, well-trained, athletes:

As triathlon continues to grow in popularity, we are seeing more and more fast, strong, athletes.  More athletes, means more competition.  No more explanation needed there…

Also, we’re starting to see more and more kids who were “raised” on triathlon.  I had no background in swimming, biking, or running, before I did my first tri in 2006.  Now, we’re starting to see more kids who have been training specifically for triathlon since they were 11 or 12 years old.  Again, it’s shouldn’t be hard to see how that raises the bar even further for the pro field…

All of this feeds into he general trend that we’re seeing in these large pro fields: 20-30 guys will absolutely drill the bike.  Of those, many will have too much taken out of them by the effort, and they’ll end up dropping out, or walking the marathon.  But, maybe 10-15 will get through the bike with their legs intact, and they’ll be able to run strong marathons.  There are very few races remaining where you can be 30 minutes behind the leader at T2, and then do a 3:01-3:05 marathon to “backdoor” your way into a paycheck (I’ve used that tactic to get myself quite a few paychecks, haha!).  Now, if you’re not within shouting distance of the lead at T2, there are just too many guys to run through in order to get a paycheck.  This is why you’re seeing more and more pros taking risks on the bike, and then not finishing the race.  The predominant mindset is, “I need to be there at T2.  I’ll worry about my run legs when I put on my running shoes.”  And then, if they can’t run effectively, they just drop out, and give it another shot at another race, because the points and money are so top-heavy, that there isn’t really any net difference between finishing 11th, or 30th. (I’m not saying everyone races this way… just that it’s become a very common strategy)

Now, there are exceptions, as there are a couple of races that still remain “less competitive”, with fields of only 20-25 male pros, and 12-15 female pros.  But these races are the races in areas that are generally expensive to get to, and therefore traveling for them is a gamble most of us are unwilling to take (IM Japan, IM Wales, & IM Western Australia, for example)

5) Increased opportunities for Pros to gain exposure:

While many folks complain about Ironman’s race coverage, it has improved a LOT, compared to 5 years ago.  Could it be better?  Absolutely, and I think it should be better.  But, we did have live GPS tracking at most races this year, and live video coverage at the continental, and world, championships.  These are moves in the right direction, and give us more chances for exposure.

Also, with social media becoming the main avenue for people to interact with the outside world, we have infinite new opportunities to get our voices out and connect with sponsors, and fans.  We all have the ability to create engaging, original, content, using nothing more than our laptops, phones, and an internet connection. Also, these developments have allowed us all new ways to connect with each other, and make ventures like the Pro Triathlon Union (PTU) plausible.


What does all of this add up to?

Well, for one thing, I think it’s more critical than ever for pro triathletes to generate revenue streams outside of prize money, whether it’s through sponsors, speaking opportunities, putting on clinics, or anything else you can think of.  There is an ever increasing number of talented pros, racing for a relatively static amount of prize money, at fewer races where money is available.  The net effect is a growing division between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, as those at the tippy-top are making more prize money than ever, but there is less prize money to go around for other folks.

The field is getting so fast that in order to compete, you have to be living a lifestyle of “full-time” training, and that’s just not possible unless you’re making significant prize money, have significant sponsor support, have built a great network as a coach/speaker, or have a wealthy relative/spouse willing to support you.  This makes life particularly difficult for developing pros, and I suspect a lot of the younger ones are only able to compete due to having a lot of their bills paid by mom & dad.

So where is all of this going?  I have no idea.  A lot depends on a few things:

  1. Will the PTU have any real unifying, and negotiating, power?
  2. Will Ironman actively pursue, and set up, live television coverage for races?
  3. Will another race series (Rev3, or Challenge) be able to mount a financially sustainable challenge to Ironman’s dominance?
  4. Will Dalian Wanda push Ironman in one direction, or another, with regards to pro races, pro race locations, and pro prize money?

Anyways… that’s enough rambling for now.  If you’ve made it this far, and are planning on shopping on Amazon, please help support my articles/coaching/racing by going to Amazon through this link.


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