How Can You Make Your Race an IRONMAN?

In 1977, at a small race in Hawaii, a few athletes got together and created one of the most legendary endurance events in history. It started as a friendly debate about who was the better athlete, and it became something much bigger. Its name is IRONMAN.

What makes IRONMAN so special? How about the concept of combining running with other sports? Nope. Biathlons have been around forever. Was it the first triathlon in America? Not quite. A few years before, the San Diego Track club had hosted a triathlon event for 46 participants (trivia: the admission fee was a dollar).

IRONMAN’s popularity could be due to the massive distances covered, couldn’t it?  It could be, but it’s not anymore. Today, IRONMAN is no longer the only “ultra-triathlon” in town.

Where does that leave us? The reality is that IRONMAN’s incredible rise happened due to a combination of things, the least of which is luck, and the most of which is passionate leadership.

Take out the passion and there’s still a special sauce that helped IRONMAN become larger-than-life. It’s a unique event, combined with a great story, in a great setting, followed by fantastic marketing. Athletes were looking for a new event that would push them in new ways. The story (a challenge thrown out about who was the better athlete), followed by inspirational tales (like Julie Moss crawling the last 20 yards of the 1982 race), are marketing gold.

So what can you do to make your event an IRONMAN?

First, make it something special. The easiest place to start is the setting. If you’re near the ocean, provide a short run along the beach. If there are mountains or hills, add an uphill climb—something that makes your race unique. That special something is one reason why obstacle course racing has become more popular. Once again, racers are looking for something different. But don’t be fooled. Your event doesn’t have to have scenery. All it needs is a local landmark and a good story.

But where does a good story come from?

While a few precious stories like Julie Moss’ land on your doorstep, most have to be found. Ask your runners for stories. Engage them on social media and reward them for it. Good stories can come from unexpected places. When you’ve found them, deliver them to the local news. Then step out of the way.

Finally, build the maironmantatrketing behind them. Yes, it may require some capital, but it will be worth it. Give the event a creative name, but don’t stop there. Brand all parts of your race. Call that stretch along the beach the “quicksand” leg. Create a logo that’s tattoo-worthy. If your race is medal-worthy, make sure the medal’s worthy.

Even if you do all of these things, it’s still possible that your event won’t blossom. Other factors like logistics, price and timing are all important, as well. But if you build the right structure, your chances of success are infinitely greater than if you don’t.

One other bit of advice: don’t hold on to your event so tightly that you stop it from taking on a life of its own. The direction it takes may surprise you. IRONMAN certainly had that effect on its founders, John and Judy Collins.

Look for these elements when you watch for yourself. The triathlon, powered by ACTIVE Network, will stream live at on Oct 11th. Then, you can watch the edited version on NBC on November 14th.