If you think racing an Ironman is difficult, try organizing one.
It takes a full-time crew of 10, around 30 seasonal workers and another 20 part-timers, backed by a cast of thousands of volunteers, to organize the Ironman Western Canada Series, which includes five shorter-distance events as well as the full-distance Ironman Canada in Whistler on July 26.
That's not to say it's a walk in the park for anyone who signs up.
For the athlete, getting to the finish line before the 17-hour cutoff can represent a full year of training — thousands of hours making laps in the pool, riding a bike and pounding pavement in running shoes.
Typically you'll also sign up for a few Olympic distance or Half Iron distance triathlons to get in some competition and transition experience, and to test out your fancy, new gear — thousands of dollars worth of bikes, wetsuits, running shoes and other equipment you'll rely on to get you to the finish.
You need to experience being in the water surrounded by thousands of other flailing bodies, something that's particularly difficult for many newcomers to get used to.
You need to practice peeling off a wetsuit and pulling on your biking gear with one hand while shovelling food and nutritional drinks into your body with the other.
You need to spend hours of time on your bike riding in all kinds of weather, climbing steep hills on the Sea to Sky Highway and Callaghan Valley Road, and making steep descents on narrow shoulders that have steep ditches on one side and cars on the other.
But while Ironman is largely a personal battle — one hopefully made easier by cheering friends, supportive volunteers, and supportive fellow athletes — there's an Ironman machine that whirs year-round in the background with thousands of moving parts. Athletes do get to see some of it in action — the core of volunteers is impossible to miss — but, like an iceberg, the larger part of it is invisible.
It's an elegant clockwork of partnerships, people and plans, backup plans and contingency plans for every conceivable thing that could happen on a course that includes 3.8km/2.4 miles of water, 180km/112 miles of road biking, and a full 42.2km/26-mile marathon course.
Everything has been planned to be as seamless as possible. Your gear is sent where it needs to be, there's water and food when you need it, and the entire course has been cleared and managed for your day. There are medical teams everywhere if you happen to need them, and helpers ready to support athletes in any way possible. If something happens, there's a plan for that — either because somebody anticipated it or, more likely after 36 years with dozens of events around the world, it's happened before.
There's no question that a lot goes into hosting an event like Ironman. But a lot comes out of it as well.
The man with the plan
According to Ironman Canada race director Evan Taylor, there's no one document or checklist that encapsulates the entire scope of Ironman Canada — it's much too complicated for that.
The affable Aussie cut his teeth organizing Cirque de Soleil tour performances before making the shift to music festivals that cater to tens of thousands of fans. Ironman has some similarities, but the course requirements and the number of stakeholders involved do increase the logistical stakes significantly.
"There's just a huge range of things to consider," Taylor says. "Obviously we need to coordinate with the local municipalities, and with the Ministry of Transportation to get all the traffic stuff sorted. There's BC Parks, our conservation officers, the RCMP, fire rescue, ambulance, our own medical suppliers. There is some overlap with Whistler Blackcomb, so we talk to them regularly as well. There's BC Transit. There's all of our suppliers with the forklifts, light towers, catering, and all the permits we require for local parks and events.
"We have tents, scaffolding, 30 box trucks to move things around, a huge number of Porta-Potties put into place. We have our staff, and have to arrange meals and accommodation before, during and after the races. We're supplying something like 7,000 meals over the course of the week. We also have our sponsors, and ensuring they're represented properly and supported. There's CN Rail, which is closing the rail line for the day — which is quite a big thing for them and for us because we couldn't host the race without that detail. There's all the signage and course marking, including pre-race signage to let drivers know about closures.
"It's quite a list, really."
Ironman also hosts an IronKids run in Whistler the day before Ironman, an event that has its own logistics and branding to support, as well as another core of volunteers.
"What I'm telling you might seem simple, but really it takes me a year to figure it all out," says Taylor. "Of course, it does get easier and easier every year, but even one slight change can have a ripple effect that causes a thousand other changes."
For example, this year the run course is being changed slightly, with the result that a different stretch of road — representing just 500 metres, or about 1/84th of the total run course (1/452n of the total route) — will be used.
"Just that one small change requires consultation with the transportation ministry, with the RMOW and its engineers, with our road contractor Miller Capilano, with emergency services... one small change has a massive effect on other parts of the plan," explains Taylor.
"Everyone needs to be consulted. We have to communicate the change to the athletes so they can train on the new course. We have to re-evaluate the location of all the aid stations before and after that new section. We have to change the locations of things like light towers and coordinate that information with the companies delivering all our tents and equipment along the course. We have to tell the volunteers and coordinators and ensure everyone knows how to get there, and of course BC Transit has to know because it will affect their buses. Oh, and you have to let residents and visitors know, and change the guide for spectators.
"And there could be 10 of those changes every year, and we have to go through the whole process again for each and every change. Still, our goal is to put on the best event that we can, and if a small change makes it better for the athletes or volunteers, then there's no question we'll make it."
After 30 years, Ironman Canada moved from Penticton to Whistler for the 2013 event, with event organizers signing a five-year contract. This is the third year of that contract, something Taylor says makes it a little easier — "we know them, and by now they know us," he says. "The support we get is amazing."
Some of the statistics for hosting the event are mind-blowing. For example, the race requires two semi-trailers full of different types of water bottles, plus over 50,000 pounds (22,700kg) of ice. Organizers also bring in crates full of carbohydrate drink mix, fresh fruit, 10 huge tureens full of chicken soup broth, and all kinds of other foods, from cookies to potato chips, that athletes like/need to eat during the race.
Planning what to provide is actually kind of easy, with Ironman races following a similar formula.
"We know athletes will hit various aid stations a certain number of times, and then we try to figure out what the athletes will consume at each one. We pump that estimate into a formula, and see what comes out," says Taylor. "We also get more than what we need, we don't want to run out of anything out there. Our goal is to get as many athletes to the finish line as possible."
Preparing for anything and everything
"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns — there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know."
With massive forest fires impacting the air quality in the southwest corner of British Columbia just weeks before this year's event, Taylor says they monitored the situation daily and will take whatever steps they need to ensure the safety of the athletes — even cancelling the race if that's the only option.
Contingency planning, and planning for the unknowns, is a huge part of Taylor's work behind the scenes. The organizers have to be ready for anything.
For example, at Ironman Coeur D'Alene in Idaho on June 28, temperatures broke 40C — a record for the event. That triggered a contingency plan that took into account the need to order more ice and water, as well as equipping medical teams with more equipment to treat ailments heatstroke and dehydration, while training volunteers how to recognize the symptoms.
"We doubled our ice order immediately when we saw the forecast, and probably added another truck with water bottles," Taylor says. "We used almost all of it. The medical teams were on alert for anyone who looked ill out there, or might need some assistance. We had to watch out for our volunteers as well."
People who are dehydrated or heat-stroked don't always know it, he says.
On the flipside, Taylor points to Ironman Lake Tahoe in 2013 — an event where temperatures were hovering around freezing at the start.
"We equipped the change tents with heaters, and brought in towels for athletes to dry themselves off," said Taylor. "The lake water was actually warmer than the air temperature that day, and we didn't want the water to freeze on the athletes. Everyone was dried off before they headed out on the bike, and our medical teams were trained to spot and treat hypothermia."
Almost anything that could happen in a race has happened, Taylor adds, and anything that hasn't happened has probably been considered.
"Honestly, we've all gone through this so many times now that we're getting good at adapting to the situation — extreme heat and cold, wind and rain. We're always looking ahead."
As for other contingencies — accidents and emergencies, natural disasters, road closures, etc. — Taylor says that a lot of time is spent reviewing the course while considering every possible issue.
"This is a large beast, and everything in it happens for a reason," says Taylor. "We do plan for a lot of these things that can happen, and there's a lot of preparation that goes on that people don't see.
"For example, for the swim leg I'll go out on the water with a GPS and a paddleboard to make sure the course distance is accurate, and to see if there's anything we can do to improve the race — maybe we'll switch the direction from clockwise to anti-clockwise if that makes sense. I'll drive the bike course two or three times a year and look at the quality of the roads, see if there's any damage that's occurred, and look at things like whether we can put our aid stations in better locations. The run course changed this year because it was better for the athlete experience, and we've looked at things like the volunteer experience as well."
Even when he's not working, Taylor is still thinking about the race.
"Whistler has been my home for the last five years, so I'm constantly reviewing the course any time I leave the house. If there's gravel on the side of the road, I'm on it. I'll look for safe places where a truck can pull over when delivering equipment. I'll go out at night to see how things look on the run course after the sun goes down, and whether there's anything that might affect the athletes that we wouldn't notice during the day."
More than anything, Taylor believes in being prepared.
"I don't want to ever be caught in a situation where I'm saying, 'I wish I thought about that,'" he says. "People have always told me through my career, 'Good luck with your event,' but I try to refrain from saying it because I don't believe in luck. If you rely on luck then you're not prepared."
A volunteer for everything
"You can't take part in an Ironman and not notice the volunteers, they're everywhere," says Christine Suter, an endurance athlete coach who runs C2Sky Multisport, and is a nine-time Ironman finisher.
"From the moment your arrive to the moment you cross the finish line, there's someone there. There are volunteers at the transitions when you drop your gear off the day before. On race day you hand your stuff to someone at the start line. When you get out of the water there's someone there to help you take off your wetsuit. They'll dry you off, and help you get your shoes on, if that's what it takes. Every aid station has volunteers. Any time you're having a low point, there's someone there to give you some encouragement. The volunteers really make the race."
The Whistler event requires between 1,500 and 2,000 volunteers with shifts running over seven days. To boost numbers, the Ironman Foundation will donate up to $1,500 to any community group that can supply 25 volunteers for the race. Last year some $45,000 was awarded to more than 40 local non-profits, ranging from the Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association to Whistler Minor Hockey to the Whistler Museum and Archives (www.ironman.ca to volunteer).
Christine Cogger, the volunteer coordinator for Ironman Canada this year, just completed her third Ironman event in the unforgiving record heat of Coeur D'Alene, finishing seventh in her age category. She knows firsthand how important volunteers can be.
"Volunteers are, without question, the heart of the event," she says. "They are everywhere on course, and from my experience always seem willing to go above and beyond to make sure you have a great day out there.
"More than once, I've had a laugh with a volunteer when I've been at a low point. For example, in Coeur D'Alene, I was about three miles from the finish and I was cooked. A volunteer looked at me, walked over and held my hand. He jogged with me, told me to turn off my brain and just go, that I had this. And you know what? I did. I just needed the reminder."
There are literally volunteers for everything. The list of volunteer shifts includes dozens of different positions doing every conceivable job. Here are a few of the more interesting jobs:
There are also about 20 aid stations that run multiple shifts, environmental teams that help clean up garbage, water bottles, and marking, runners who deliver meals and water to other volunteers, and more. To see the list, and sign up for a shift, do a Google search for Ironman Canada Volunteers to find the page.
Volunteers can put in as little as four hours, while some — like Grace Blok — put in a 21-hour shift at the 2014 event. And she's back again this year.
"Blok is an employee of Glacier Media, Pique's parent company."
"I worked from 4 a.m. until about 1 a.m.," says Blok, "and it was wonderful. I didn't have to be there that early, but I was the captain of the second transition (bike to run) and I felt there was a need there."
Blok is a three-time Ironman finisher, but what's motivated her most of all was her first attempt where she had to pull out.
"It takes a lot of work for people to get to an Ironman, and most people do get a lot of support from family and friends," she says. "I also know it's important to have great volunteers. I actually think that volunteering is a lot of fun, and it's always rewarding to encourage people to do something that's part of a dream — and not everybody gets to fulfill that dream the first time around. (By volunteering) I get to encourage people who didn't finish that there's another opportunity — I didn't finish my first race either. For me it was an experience thing."
As for what she gets out of it — besides a chance to help people realize their dreams and cushion the blow for people who didn't make it this time around — Blok says she finds the athletes inspirational.
"It's encouraging to see people working as hard as they do," she says. "Most of the racers are just ordinary people, which encourages me to do things that I also think are beyond me."
Cogger says that Ironman works hard to ensure volunteers are supported and appreciated, with the result that more than half of volunteers return year after year.
"It's a real mix of people," says Cogger. "Some people do it because they like to be involved. Some are curious about the event, and then end up signing up to race (next year). Others are accompanying an athlete and want to help out. Some groups do it as a way to give back and earn a grant from the Ironman Foundation."
As for what volunteers get back? Cogger says the volunteers feel like they're part of every athlete's success.
"I've loved seeing the athletes push themselves when I have volunteered, and knowing that I've contributed to them achieving their goals, or helping through a tougher time," she says. "I've said it over and over: volunteers can make your day out there. It's a pretty special experience."
Making a list and checking it twice – how racers plan for the big event
Christine Suter coaches other Ironman and distance athletes through her company, C2Sky Multisport, but she's also an accomplished long-distance athlete herself with nine Ironman finishes. And when it comes to an event like Ironman, she says she's a stickler for logistics.
"That's part of the role I play as a coach," she said. "I record everything. When athletes I work with go off on a long ride or training run, I'm not only logging what they did, their time and distance, but what they ate, what they drank, how many calories, when they consumed those things, and how they felt. What was the sequence of events beforehand if they had a bad time out there? For example, did they bonk (hit a wall)? Did they not get enough nutrition? Did they have a stomach breakdown? That way we can try to figure out what went wrong, and try something else next time. It's a bit of trial and error, figuring out what works for you. And sometimes nothing works, in which case it becomes about managing the pain or the discomfort."
Suter is also fanatical when it comes to familiarizing her athletes with her gear. She wants everyone she works with to know how to change a flat and use a CO2 cartridge to fill a tube, so they practice those things.
She also watches her athletes on the bike, the longest leg of the journey, to see how they make out when it comes to doing things like pulling food or gels out of a back jersey pocket. Some athletes aren't comfortable taking a hand off a wheel and reaching back when cruising down the road, she says, and if that's the case they look at other options for ensuring the athlete can get to food — such as feed boxes between the tri bars, and even food taped to the bike.
If an athlete is new to the sport, Suter will work with them to ensure they're getting the right gear for their body type — the right wetsuit, the right fit of swim goggles, the right shorts and tri suits, the right swim cap, the right-sized bike with components fitted to their physiology (length of arms, length of femurs, curve of spine, etc.) and riding style, as well as the right running shoes for their arch and the shape of their foot.
And if she's not sure about something — whether it's nutrition or the proper bike fit — Suter always directs her athletes to experts with more knowledge. Even a small amount of discomfort with a piece of gear can result in an athlete not finishing, she says.
"The first thing I do when an athlete comes in with their bike is to hook them up on a wind trainer, and look at their biomechanics to see if we can tweak a few things," she says. "For example, some bikes will put an athlete into an aero (aerodynamic) position, but if they don't have the flexibility to get down there — not in their hips or lower back or body — they're not going to get through the ride," she says.
"They need a setup that works for them. In some cases, athletes will do better with basic road bars than aero bars. Some athletes will ride in their mountain bike shoes because they're more comfortable than road shoes, and if it works for them, I say go for it. I raced like that for years. It's not all about how much money you spend."
When race day draws nearer and athletes start to peak, Suter says she starts to talk more about race day, and gives athletes checklists of all the things they'll need — a plan for pre-race, their nutrition plan, their gear list, and more.
While it's important to be prepared, she says her lists help the athlete to visualize the race day as well.
"You get nervous before a big race like this, you're training a lot so you have a lot of energy and you're probably not sleeping, so I'll always have a meeting to make sure they have all the little things. It's easy to forget something important."
Suter says she's only forgotten small things over the years, but was at a Half Iron race once when an athlete forgot running shoes. "You think, 'how can someone forget their running shoes after training for all those months?' but it's easy. You get nervous and scattered, there are a million details, so you need a checklist."
And while her mission is to prepare athletes for the distance, Suter also believes in preparing for the contingencies — weather extremes, gear issues, disruptions on course, health problems, and so on. That's why she likes athletes to train in different conditions, and to visualize the race as much as possible.
However, she says a lot of your performance on race day still depends on your own mental and physical toughness — especially if you're a slower athlete who is going to be on course for 14 or 15 hours, or longer. Some athletes won't reach the finish until the 17th hour.
"In this recent heat, I went out with an athlete for a long swim and about two kilometres in she just looked at me – she was in a bit of a low – and said 'how am I going to do this?'" Suter says. "I asked her if she wanted to get out (of the water), and she said, 'Nope, I'm finishing.' You can do all the preparation you want, but in the end it really comes down to your own resiliency on race day. You're going to have a lot of moments like that.
"While racing (at Ironman Canada) in Penticton one year, the announcer said, 'You can control only one thing today, and that's your attitude – pick a good one.' I loved that. The volunteers are great out there, but a lot of the time it's the other athletes that tap you on the shoulder and tell you to keep going. There's a lot of camaraderie out there, and it's pretty cool."
What comes out of Ironman
While a lot does go into racing and hosting an Ironman, a lot comes out of it as well. That's why Whistler bid on the event, which moved from Penticton after the 2012 race. Other communities in the bid included Huntsville, Ont. and Kelowna, but in the end Whistler had the strongest proposal based on things like support from the Resort Municipality of Whistler and proximity to the airport.
Each year of the five-year contract, the municipality contributes about $250,000 to the race from Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funds, with this year's contributions adding up to approximately $265,000. The RMI is a portion of hotel tax money that's granted by the province to municipalities in support of tourism initiatives.
Most of that money goes towards logistical support of the event, including waiving user fees at local parks, facilities, staff time, and the execution of the transportation plan.
According to Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, it's a huge undertaking — but worth it.
"It's such a massive event that there are a lot of staff requirements for things like setting up and taking down, as well as working with partners to ensure that everything goes ahead appropriately," she says. "There's a tremendous amount of work involved, although that said, this being the third year everybody is getting more efficient. It's running much more smoothly than it did in the first few years."
An economic impact study after the 2013 race revealed that the weekend results in over $17 million in economic activity for the province, including about $8.4 million in revenues within the resort — room nights for 2,500 athletes and 10,000 family and friends, restaurant meals, and more. That figure doesn't include all the funds that are spent by athletes in the weeks and months leading up the race as they come to Whistler to train on the course.
There are no statistics on how much Ironman athletes will actually spend in Whistler before an event, but Wilhelm-Morden says that anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of racers do come here to train.
"We know they're coming here and spending money, but as far as I'm aware we don't know that actual number," she says.
In addition to the economic value of hosting the event, the mayor says the event brings a lot of exposure to the resort.
"It's really an internationally renowned event," she says. "We have athletes from every state in the U.S. and every province in Canada, and from many countries around the world. A lot of them will bring their families with them and they will do activities here, and it really builds the recognition of Whistler as a resort destination."
Another benefit is building Whistler's volunteer base. People who get involved stay involved, adds Wilhelm-Morden, and are more likely to help volunteer at other events as well. The fact that so many non-profits will receive grants is another bonus.
There's also a more intangible benefit to hosting an event like Ironman, in the sense that it inspires a healthier community.
"It's not hard to be inspired to see these people," says Wilhelm-Morden. "The competitors and participants come in all shapes and sizes, and it's inspiring just to watch and maybe get out there and do our bit to stay healthy and active."
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