Non-MDot Iron Races: Death Spiral?

The facts are pretty clear.  When it comes to non-Ironman branded 140.6 races, there are simply not many options in the United States.

By my count, in 2015, there were 31 full iron distance races in the US, excluding Kona.  Approximately 28,000 athletes finished those races.  That sure seams like a lot of races and a lot of athletes, right?

This graph shows the distribution of athletes finishing each of the iron-distance races in 2015.  Note that I was unable to find results for a few races (Vineman, Redman and Bear Lake Brawl) and one race was canceled (Michigan Titanium), therefore the overall numbers are likely a little skewed.


It’s pretty clear from looking at the chart above that the vast majority of athletes who did iron distance races in the US in 2015 did them as a branded M-Dot race.


The bottom line here is that the options for athletes wanting to do an iron-distance triathlon that is not an Ironman brand race are severely limited.  And even shrinking.

Well documented is the fact that Ironman purchased the historic Vineman race earlier this year and discontinued the iron distance race.  The pool of race candidates appears to be shrinking even further, with the rumored sale of Setup, Inc’s Beach to Battleship (a popular independent race in North Carolina) to Ironman.

This leaves not even a full handful of non-Ironman branded races for an athlete to consider:  Rev3 Triathlon’s Cedar Point race, Sommer Sports’ Great Floridian Triathlon, Michigan Titanium, and the full distance races that HITS puts on at each of their venues.

Here’s the issue:  if you read Triathlon bulletin boards, blogs and websites, tons and tons of athletes bemoan the race experience and product that Ironman puts on.  They complain about entering the water with close to 3000 other racers.  They hate the blatant drafting that happens at some races.  And they complain about the cookie cutter approach taken for race medals and swag.  All that being said, athletes still sign up for Ironman brand races as if they are going out of style.  Many races still sell out within minutes or days of opening to the public.

Certainly one could argue that first-timers personify the word ironman with the brand Ironman.  Why wouldn’t they?  M-Dot does a hell of a job marketing their races and brand.  They have an awesome TV show that inspires lots of newbies to take up the sport. They put their logo on everything from watches to mattresses to people’s leg.

But if so many people talk about not liking M-Dot and hating certain aspects of their races, I don’t understand why people don’t sign up for other brands’ races?

I mean, seriously?!  HITS races averaged just 28 athletes per full distance race – and that average was skewed by Palm Springs (which had 129 athletes).  Most of their races had fewer than 20 athletes!  Neither Challenge Atlantic City nor Rev3’s Cedar Point race had more than a couple of hundred athletes.

The two biggest independent races were Beach to Battleship and Great Floridian – both with slightly less than 500 athletes each.

I just don’t get it.  People complain about M-Dot, but don’t sign up for other brands.

And therein lies the problem.  Without a sufficient athlete population at a particular venue, putting on an iron distance race just isn’t an economically viable proposition.  I have no idea what a break-even point might be in terms of the required number of athletes at a race, but I’m positive that said break-even is higher than 20 athletes.

If we athletes really do want an alternative to Ironman branded full distance triathlons, then we need to step up and support some of the independent races.  Go sign up for Rev3’s Cedar Point race.  Go do Great Floridian.  Do a HITS race.

Because if you don’t, in just a few years, I am not positive that there will be such a thing as an independent iron distance race.  The smaller races will likely fold.  The bigger races may get gobbled up.

And that lack of race diversity makes me sad.

6 thoughts on “Non-MDot Iron Races: Death Spiral?

  1. Joel I understand and agree with a lot of what you stated here. I want to share why I chose an Ironman race over another brand’s for my first full triathlon. For anyone who doesn’t know: I was a Rev3 team member in the 2013-14 season and really enjoyed their races. I would have preferred a Rev3 full to an Ironman full but since they only put on 1 a year, Cedar Point, I had no desire to go there. 1. Cedar Point is in Ohio (not scenic, not pretty, not too accessible). I’ve been there and for someone with no kids and an adult family, this area does not speak to me. 2. Time of year. I chose Ironman Mont-Tremblant for the August date which is hard to find. Being a Floridian, training through the summer plus September and October for the Great Floridian or B2B would be tough. August is also my birth month 🙂 I thought a taper for part of August would be better than full distance training mode. 3. Pomp and circumstance. I have raced HITS before and they do a very good job of race directing but they are lean for a reason on the “fan fare” if you will. I couldn’t imagine doing a full distance at HITS with the lack of people, energy and racers. If I was a chronic full distance athlete that would be different. 4. With Atlantic City being the only other major contender on the East coast, there just weren’t many viable options once you put in other factors. I hate seeing the independent races being gobbled up as I fully support small business, local etc. I do agree that we need to support the “other” guys if you will and show them the love. With regards to the full distance, this is just my opinion and thoughts. I hope Setup isn’t selling B2B as I very much want to do the half. Thanks for letting me share!

  2. Thanks for reading & responding, Jaclyn! All great points – and I don’t have an issue with people doing an Ironman brand race. I’m also not saying that I wouldn’t do one myself. What I am saying, though, is that it’s a shame so many people belly ache about Ironman but then don’t support independent races. It’s a dichotomy. And ultimately, everyone will lose. Monopolies are bad – and that’s what long-distance triathlon is becoming, unfortunately.

  3. Here is why I don’t do non-Ironman branded 140.6 races. For me the goal is Kona. So if I never get fast enough to qualify, I would at least like the opportunity to go via the legacy slots. Also, Ironman puts on a great event! I always enjoy my races and don’t regret any of the money I spend of my race fees.
    I think you have one thing wrong. They didn’t cancel the full Vineman. They canceled the aqua bike and Barb’s Race. The full and 70.3 are both on this year and will be run by Ironman I am pretty sure. I am signed up for the 70.3.

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  6. “The facts are pretty clear. When it comes to non-Ironman branded 140.6 races, there are simply not many options in the United States.”

    Except that there are a lot more non-IM races listed in your graph then IM races.

    There are a lot of reasons people do Ironman branded races…they do a good job. You know the product that you will get. It will be polished and well oiled.

    True, if you do several, they all start feeling the same (but all of my marathons were run by independents…and they are blurring together as well).

    And, I disagree that “everyone” is complaining about Ironman event. I enjoyed them all. Most people that I know (in person and online) have had great experiences at IM branded events. I would say that there is a small (but vocal) minority that have a passion against Ironman and fill the blogosphere and Facebook with their opinion.

    It is very hard to put on a successful 140.6 event. Much harder then doing a marathon. My experiences at independents (sprints usually) is poor. It is typically not well run or organized. It is tolerable for a sprint. It isn’t for a 70.3 or 140.6.

    Is it a shame that a few of the truly great independents are being taken over by IM? Yeah, it is. But the nature of the 140.6 makes it hard for an independent to be successful. The only alternative is another series like HITS (which is just awful…and going to Palm Beach is not comparable to qualifying for Kona), and Challenge/Rev3 which I would like to try someday.

    But, I disagree with your conclusion. Ironman isn’t the problem. They are the only ones successful and thriving at this distance. Hell, they invented it. They are the only ones keeping the distance alive. They are the strongest promoters of triathlon at ALL distances, and the main reason for the triathlon boom that we are currently experiencing. I doubt that triathlon would be nearly as big as it is today without the Ironman brand. I know I would not be in the sport without their aggressive marketing…

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