Could these changes make Ironman a better racing experience?

Age-groupers were asked what they would change to improve their Ironman experience. Their answers ranged from the serious to the downright funny, but one cropped up more than others…

An athlete celebrates crossing the finish line during IRONMAN Finland on August 13, 2022 in Kuopio, Finland

‘Adapt or die’ goes the famous quote. It’s one Ironman should pay particular attention to given the current grumblings of thousands of their athletes, who are unhappy with hefty entry fees, questionable refund policies, ruthless upselling, monopolising tendencies and general corporate mindset, to name but a few grievances.

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The recent world championship’s location split news has only emboldened some athletes’ view that Ironman doesn’t care about its customers enough. This should be a serious concern for Ironman, who will be facing renewed competition from the likes of PTO and Challenge Events in 2023.

Clearly, Ironman must adapt, and what better way to do this than listening to their athletes’ concerns before making the appropriate changes.

Which is why, in a recent post from Ironman Wales on Facebook, triathletes were asked ‘If you could change or add one thing to improve your full-distance Ironman experience, what would it be? Any and all crazy ideas welcome.’

The Ironman community did not disappoint, flooding the post with comments about entry fees, gender parity, race-day experience, Kona slots, cut-off times and Brompton bikes.

So, here are the top eight changes triathletes want to see Ironman make to their races in 2023.

Triathletes are pushing for change from the Ironman brand. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images for Ironman)

1. Lower the entry fees

Unsurprisingly, athletes’ number-one gripe with Ironman is their hefty entry fees. Triathlon is an expensive sport, and it isn’t made any more accessible by Ironman charging extortionate amounts to race the iconic 226 kilometres.

For example, in the British Isles, Ironman Bolton is the cheapest Ironman-branded event with a £502 entry fee, whereas Ironman Cork costs €588 (£518) and lining up in Tenby for Ironman Wales will set you back £554.

Compared to other long-distance triathlons, like Outlaw Nottingham (£315), Midnight Man in Kent (£195) and The Northumbrian (£305), it’s no wonder athletes’ top request was to lower the entry fees.

Mark Thomas commented: “Easy. Lower the price. And I’m not one to moan about costs generally.” While Jeff Partridge asked for “Change from £500 please.”

Lowering the price might also make the quality of racing better, a point Scott Hill highlighted: “If the entry fee was lower, Ironman World Championships would be the top athletes of each Age Group, and not just a roll down to whoever can pay the entry fee, plus other expenses.”

The entry fee for the 2023 Ironman World Championships in Hawaii is a whopping $1,600, about £1,400. Clearly, entry fees are one of the key areas Ironman need to rethink.

2. Improve refund and cancellation policies

Another financial grievance, this time concerning Ironman’s refund and cancellation policies.

Alex Thomas said: “Be more forgiving with refunds. Especially in case of injury. I couldn’t get back my £500 fee which I could have put towards one of my 6 operations.”

Sophie Spiteri added: “Your refund policy. I asked for a transfer rather than a refund due to injury and was told it was too close (6 weeks) to cut off. Myself and 3 friends were all in the same situation. Left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.”

Finally, Steve Williams ventured: “If I can’t make the race because I’m racing 70.3 worlds, have the decency to let me race the following year.”

Evidently, unforgiving refund policies create a fair amount of ire amongst the triathlete community.

3. Change the roll-down system

Athletes want changes to the roll-down system, which currently sees places at World Champs ‘rolled down’ until someone takes it, no matter how slow their time.

Stephen Hulme took issue with this and said: “Qualification for World Champs should be free for the allocated slots and no roll downs, otherwise you’re just a ruthless money-making machine.”

Kyle James Davies added: “Stop rolling down slots 90 places or however far it goes because then it’s all about money, not the quality of racing.”

There’s an interesting debate here. On the one hand, the achievement of qualifying for a world championship would be greater, and the quality of racing higher as only the strongest athletes attend.

However, racing a world championship is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and having a slightly weaker age-group race is surely better than having no age-group race at all, which would happen in some categories if the slot didn’t roll down.

4. Improve the day for spectators

Spectators provide some much-needed relief/alarm during Ironman Louisville. (Credit: Getty Images)

Spectators are a hugely important part of any Ironman, something that was reflected in the comments section.

Fiona Betts suggestion gained the most support: “A big screen where supporters could put up messages of encouragement. It detects your number when you approach and shows your personalised message.”

Other ideas, such as Gareth Law’s suggestion of: “Better GPS trackers to help supporters be in the right place at the right time,” also gained traction on Facebook.

This would be an easy way for Ironman to win kudos from thousands of fans who support their events.

5. Change the Ironman name

Some triathletes also took issue with Ironman’s name, arguing it isn’t inclusive for women.

The main gripe is that women become Ironmen when they cross the line. For example, Lesya Liskevych said: “There should be more inclusivity for women – especially when crossing the finish line and they shout, “You are an Ironman.”

Melanie Ratcliffe agreed and added: “Call it ‘iron human’. I dislike that my fabulous female human friends are Ironmen.”

Sadly, I fear Ironman are highly unlikely to change the name of their brand given how iconic it’s become.

6. Provide more and better nutrition at aid stations

A volunteer hands a bottle of Gatorade to an athlete during the 2022 Ironman World Champs. (Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images for Ironman)

This is a difficult one as every athlete’s nutrition wants are bound to be different.

But what most commenters agreed was a shift away from Gatorade, especially on the bike course where the Gatorade bottles don’t fit into most bottle cages, which is exactly what happened at Ironman Wales this year.

Lewis Bowen said: “Ditch Gatorade for Lucozade and better savoury snacks on the run course,” whereas David Coe suggested: “Bring enough food so the people who finish in the last hour or two get a decent hot meal.”

Ironman will never please everyone with their nutrition choices, but no doubt a wide selection of food and drink, and larger quantities of it, wouldn’t go amiss.

7. Change the cut-off and start times

Interesting suggestions emerged concerning timings of Ironman races, notably the cut-off points and the early-morning start time.

Martyn Rich suggested: “Get rid of cut-off times for the bike and run and let people use the full amount of time. If you allow 15hrs to complete it…. give people that 15hrs!”

It’s an interesting proposal, but one I feel Ironman would likely veto given the number of athletes who would keep soldiering on despite having no realistic prospect of finishing in 15 hours and ending up somewhere out on the course.

Start times were another area up for debate. Tony Harper said: “How about a 10am start so we don’t have to get up at silly o clock, and our digestion and morning routine isn’t so screwed up. As long as everyone’s off the bike before it gets dark, why not.”

It would mean an even later night for volunteers, spectators and slower athletes on race day, but would that be counteracted by a longer night’s sleep the night before?

8. Best of the rest: mandatory Brompton Bikes, more DJs and less swimming!

And finally, here are some of the whackier suggestions for improving Ironman:

Two ideas – “Making the swim course flat” and “Playing thunderstruck louder”– applied to Ironman Wales in particular, but calls were also made for “Complimentary e-bikes for the hills”, “More DJ’s on the run courses,” “Less swimming” and “pizza at aid stations”.

My personal favourite suggestion came from Peter Hutchinson, who proposed: “Brompton bikes only. Saves space in transition as no need for racking.”

The Brompton World Championships already exists (it was held in Singapore last year), so why not start an Ironman equivalent? There could be mandatory armbands for the swim and a fancy dress marathon. I’d watch it.

Ironman replies

“Creating unparalleled experiences for our athletes and bringing the joys of racing an IRONMAN or and IRONMAN 70.3 triathlon to more people is at the heart of what we do. After every single race, we collate detailed athlete feedback which we use when planning for the following year’s race (within the permitting parameters and host venue agreements). We will continue to put our best efforts towards creating memorable and life-changing events that bring together our IRONMAN family from all corners of the world as we have done for over 40 years.”

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Top image credit: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images for Ironman