This week on ‘The Road To St George’ I got to sit down with Andrew Messick, the CEO of IRONMAN Group, to talk about how the company navigated through the pandemic and how the 2021 IRONMAN World Championship landed in Utah on May 7.
The IRONMAN World Championship has a new (temporary for now) home in St George on Saturday May 7.
The journey to that new home has been a long and complicated one, born of a two-year global pandemic which has gutted the triathlon calendar.
No race organiser has been affected more than IRONMAN by COVID-19 and dealing with the Kona question has been a constant hot potato.
Did IRONMAN wait it out and pin everything on the hope that the World Championship would soon be able to return to Kona? Or did it blink first and make the move to just get a World Championship on the scheduled – whatever the venue.
After more than 18 months of adopting the first position, IRONMAN pivoted to the second late last year and the decision was taken to head for Utah.
IRONMAN in a pandemic
When I spoke to Andrew, he explained the journey IRONMAN had been on to arrive at that decision. And the wider background of navigating that pandemic.
“We’ve been through a lot in the last couple of years, without doubt the most difficult period in our company’s history,” he explained.
“It included six months between March of 2020 and August 2020 when we didn’t conduct a single in-person event anywhere in the world.
“It was extremely difficult not just for our company but for all of our athletes who take great satisfaction in training and racing and the structure of preparing for races and organising your life around events is a really important thing for our athletes around the world.
“To walk right into the pandemic and to have no sense of when racing will be back or what it will look like is very challenging for our athletes, for our communities, for the company, for everybody.”
That decision to put Kona on hold and move to St George came when clearly COVID was not going to budge on the ‘Big Island’ any time soon.
“St George has been a fantastic partner for us for years and years and years and they’ve been accommodating and flexible, always willing to help.
Switching to St George
“When it became clear the 2021 IRONMAN World Championship wasn’t gonna be able to happen, we thought briefly that we’d be able to have it in February 2022 in Kona, COVID had other plans.,
“When that race started to wobble, we were able to start talking to our friends in St George and were able to say let’s take what was then going to be the North American Championship – but largely an age-group race in May of 2022 – and turn it into the 2021 IRONMAN World Championship.”
Messick believes the switch to St George has many positives – notably that the local area really embraces the event, and that the course itself is a worthy venue for the IRONMAN World Championship.
“It really required the goodwill of the Utah Sports Commission and everybody in the greater St George. We think it’s an elegant and fantastic solution because we’re going to be able to have a World Championship race on a course and in a community that is really worthy of it.
“For those of you who haven’t been to St George, it’s not unlike Kona in that the physical environment casts a really long shadow over the race. The racing is very much integrated to the environment.
“We think that people are really gonna love that and appreciate not just the physical beauty of St George – which is tremendous – but it’s a legitimate World Championship course in swim, in bike and in run and we think that’s a really component of the race and of St George.
“It’s gonna be a challenging day for everybody and we want that. We think that a World Championship should be a little bit harder, it should require a little more from the athletes. And that, combined with a much higher level of competition – the field of athletes both professional and age-groupers is gonna be exceptional – it will create a worthy and legitimate World Championship experience for everybody who’s there.”
Back to Kona for good?
The obvious next question was whether this move is a window into holding future IRONMAN World Championships away from Hawaii. Messick says as of now there is no fixed answer.
He told me: “I think the answer to that is maybe. The World Championship for the Ironman is so historically linked to Hawaii and there is an allure and a myth and it’s a really vital and important part of what IRONMAN is all about.
“But being able to try and see what a World Championship outside of Hawaii looks like is going to be really interesting for us. We’ll have an opportunity to gauge the reaction of athletes, to see what kind off racing takes place, to see what kind of athletes are able to compete successfully.”
There is already something of a blueprint for a World Championship being rotated to different venues on an annual basis with the 70.3 distance.
“Part of what we’ve learned over the years, and it’s coming up a decade that we’ve had 70.3 World Championship rotating to different parts of the world, and we’ve seen that be enormously instrumental in the growth of the IRONMAN 70.3 brand.
“To see different types of athletes competing on different types courses in different parts of the world I think has added a lot. The 70. 3 Worlds has never been associated with a place the way that the IRONMAN World Championship has been associated with the ‘Big Island’ of Hawaii.
“We’re gonna learn a lot in May and I think it’s gonna give us a lot of really good information to have some interesting conversations about what’s the future of the IRONMAN World Championship.”
2022 unique for many reasons
While the venue change is a major step into the unknown for IRONMAN this year, there are other reasons for 2022 being unique.
Messick explained: “We’re gonna have five days of World Championship racing in 2022, and we’re going to be in St George for three of those with 70.3 Worlds coming later in the Fall, and then we have two days of the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona.
“That also is going to represent some really profound changes – a two-day Kona with professional men and professional women each having their own day – with all of the women racing on Thursday October 6. That represents a big change for us too.
“I think at the end of 2022 we’re going to have a lot to talk about and a lot to think about, about what does World Championship racing look like in the IRONMAN ecosystem.
“It’s going to be really exciting, big steps forward for our ability to welcome and host women and create really compelling racing experiences for people from all over the world.”
You can watch the whole of my conversation with Andrew Messick by clicking on the video embed below. I hope you enjoy it!