Ironman is a privilege and a responsibility

Ironman Lake Placid triathlete Lynn Byrne of Credco, Pennsylvania, is greeted after she crosses the finish line Sunday, just before the midnight cutoff. (Enterprise photo — Antonio Olivero)

When Lake Placid resident Brian Barrett wrote a well-reasoned Guest Commentary in this paper about your local Ironman, I thought I might be able to add some color. I’ve earned my living from triathlon for 30 years, and I raced the first Hawaiian Ironman held in Kona, Hawaii, so I’ve observed the whole arc of Ironman’s history.

I’ve produced a lot of races myself, national championships, Olympic qualifiers, and there’s a formula for success. What you want in a host venue is a town not too large, sports-animated by nature, with an off- or shoulder-season, with a tourist infrastructure. You want an area that’s scenic, has controllable roads, with a population that’s proud to host city folk who need a shot of authenticity, nature and perspective.

Sound familiar? Anyplace come to mind?

When people ask me how I know I’ve found a perfect venue for a mass-participation outdoor event, I often reply, “Let’s consider as an example the qualities of Lake Placid.” There are dozens of Ironman races worldwide, but very few are contested in a place made for one. I’ve been a triathlete since the 1970s, and I tell you truly, most communities have inferiority complexes when they think of what they can offer compared to what Lake Placid has.

But you know that already. What you want is a symmetric relationship with events you host. That’s reasonable. Mr. Barrett notes that Ironman is a for-profit corporation and became Chinese-owned. Yes. I interviewed the Chinese who bought Ironman. Do you know why they bought it? They want to offer to their rising middle class the incomparable experiences you and Ironman conspire to provide to your visitors, and this was the only way they knew to do it.

Ironman has always been a for-profit corporation, and most fixtures of popular culture are (like the Yankees, the Patriots and your local newspaper). Ironman’s current owner really isn’t, in my opinion, an owner — just like the owner of the Patriots, whoever holds the pink slip, is a temporary custodian of something more durable than himself. Owning the Ironman is a privilege and a responsibility (a notion I often publicly voice to them).

There is nothing like watching someone cross the finish line of an Ironman, and I don’t mean the winner. It’s the person who arrives at the finish several hours later, in the dark, shuffling along with a glow stick hanging from his or her waist. I never tire of seeing years of average people’s dreams concentrated into those big moments as they run those last steps to the finish. You host that. It’s you who have to find an alternate route to church on that day so that a person can realize his or her dream. This is your charitable work, and please don’t think I and mine don’t understand the sacrifices you make by lending us your streets, your volunteerism and the acceptance of your inconveniences.

I’m not advocating on behalf of Ironman. I will say simply this: It is the recognized worldwide leader — no one comes close — in producing and scaling complex mass-participation sporting events. They are expensive, intensive events to produce; they give a lot to a community; they require consideration from the community. That consideration — that’s what Mr. Barrett refers to. I see his point.

Just, it’s been almost 20 years. Ironman Lake Placid is now a cultural institution. That’s Big Medicine. People in far-off cities and states lay their heads on their pillows months before your race takes place, dreaming of crossing the finish line in your town. What animates me are these dreamers, and the towns that host them, the volunteers, residents, businesses. You enable that. In case no one has said it to you in a while: Thank you.

Dan Empfield is the publisher of Slowtwitch magazine, based in Valyermo, California.