On the Thursday before the 2012 Ironman World Championship in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii, Troy Ford stood in the lobby of the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. Around him were several gaunt men with shaved legs, hands steadying their composite bicycles costing upwards of $10,000 each. Ford is the director of the Ironman Executive Challenge program, or XC, as everyone calls it. For $9,000, or about 10 times the regular registration price, XC provides a way to VIP the Ironman, which, for the uninitiated, is a 2.4-mile open-water swim followed by a scorching 112-mile bike ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon run. It’s the hardest major endurance race in the world and the ultimate status bauble for a certain set of high-earning, high-achieving, high-VO2-max CEOs.
Ford, a sinewy 43-year-old with a shaved head, was waiting for two of his client-athletes: Jim Callerame, regional general manager of International Paper (IP), and Luis Alvarez, chief executive officer of Mexican fuel tank manufacturer SAG-Mecasa. Both needed their bikes tuned. For non-XC athletes, a bike tune-up requires a sweaty, anxious wait at an overburdened cycling shop and lost sleep over whether a year of training will be lost to some stoner bike mechanic who fails to true a wheel. Not so for Ford’s guys. Expected wait time: zero. “We’re going to walk right in,” Ford said, smiling.
XC provides its 25 athletes with what it refers to as “high-touch” service: breakfast with the pros, a seat up front at the welcome banquet, Ford at your disposal. He books your travel. He’ll find out your favorite snack is Oreos and have a pack waiting in your suite. When your kids get bored in the hotel restaurant, he’ll improvise with an entire box of Coffeemate creamers that they can use as building blocks.
Ford found his men and set out walking down Ali’i Drive. Callerame said he’d been to West Point, then flight school, then made a tidy pile in the paper industry. “It’s not that flight school is fun,” he said. “You just feel compelled to do these things, you know?”
The stated rationale for XC is that CEOs with demanding jobs have less time to deal with logistics. That fails to account for the fact that most entrants in Ironman races have demanding jobs (the average income is $160,000 per year), and to nab a spot in the XC program you have to have a demanding job that’s of interest to race organizers. Half of the XC athletes hold the title of president or CEO. (“The CEO of a lawn mower shop is not really a CEO, in my opinion,” Ford said.) “Once you reach a certain level of success,” said Callerame, “you become a brat. You don’t want to wait in the line anymore.”
Callerame was in Kona to clear an item from his bucket list. Just getting to the start line had been a feat. World Triathlon Corp. (WTC), which controls the Ironman brand, metes out slots for its events on a scarcity model. The 2,500 spots for the 2013 Ironman in Arizona sold out in less than a minute. The 2,500 slots for the 2013 Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship Melbourne sold out in five. There are 30 such events each year. Most Ironman customers hate to be denied. Andrew Messick, the CEO of WTC, describes them this way: “When you tell them about the hardest one-day endurance event in the world, they think, ‘I could do that!’ ” What makes getting a bib number for Kona even sweeter is that no berths are openly for sale. This year 84 of the nearly 2,000 spots went to pros, 1,668 to people who qualified by placing at the top of their age groups at earlier Ironman events, 205 were doled out through a lottery, and six were auctioned on EBay (EBAY). The top bidder paid $45,605.
Alvarez, 50, a regular in the XC program, wore a red and black Timex race kit, and his gait was lightly pigeon-toed from his Vibram five-finger shoes. He stopped frequently to kiss people hello. The Mexican fuel tank executive prides himself on living his entire life as an endurance event. This was his 91st Ironman, his 10th out of 11 in 2012 alone. Ironman—and mountaineering and skydiving—are constants in his life. “If you think Ironman is tough, try running a business in the global automotive industry,” he said. The day after the race he was going to fly home to Mexico City, where his driver would be waiting at the airport with one of the three suitcases he’d packed before this trip. He’d then fly to Detroit. After Detroit he’d fly home again and retrieve his second suitcase for Munich and Australia. Finally, home again for the third suitcase and his sister’s wedding.
“Ironman takes the stress away from working, and work takes the stress away from Ironman,” Alvarez explained between his warm greetings. “I do business with these people. They’re my family. Ironman is the new golf!” To succeed at both, he said, you need stamina, discipline, grit, and a plan. “If you know someone through Ironman, you know they have commitment, you know they are for real. They are not just talking, not a hot-air balloon.”
Ford guided Callerame and Alvarez through the deafening beat of the Ironman expo—a carnival of metal-tube and tarpaulin tents hawking everything a triathlete could want—to a backroom with a mechanic, who immediately put Callerame’s bike on a stand. Given that nobody at the expo or on Ali’i Drive wears much clothing, one of the few ways to decipher status between Ironman aspirants is by the color-coded security bracelets on everybody’s wrists. These look like little hospital bands, and they’re in the registration packets. Orange means racer, yellow means family member, purple volunteer, and blue VIP. None of the athletes swarming around the mechanic seemed to notice Ford’s high-touch service, which is just how he likes it. Lots of big egos; best not to ruffle feathers.
Later, back at the King Kamehameha, Ford confessed that there was one perk he couldn’t guarantee: a VIP port-a-potty at the race start. “It would start a riot,” he said. “We’d need a full-time security person.” Not that all XC Ironmen wait in line for the loo. “We did have one XC guy a few years ago who was staying down the road at the Four Seasons. He rented a room at the King Kam, too, for the full three-day minimum, just in case he needed to poop.”
Considering the race’s origins, it’s odd that Ironman now involves $1,000 pit stops. Early on, the archetypical triathlete was not a rich, Spandex-wearing Master of the Universe but a seaside bar owner named Tom Warren, who in 1974 rode a beach cruiser from Canada to San Diego wearing surf trunks.
The first Ironman was proposed in 1977 by U.S. Navy Commander John Collins to figure out who was the fittest among his friends: the swimmers, the bikers, or the runners. Twelve guys competed in the race, which consisted of the 2.4-mile Waikiki Rough Water swim, the 115-mile Around-Oahu Bike Race course, and the Honolulu Marathon. The runners-ups’ crew drained its water supply early in the marathon; they rehydrated their athlete with beer.
The first race directors, too, lacked a killer instinct. In 1979, Collins tried to sell the Ironman to a gym owner named Valerie Silk, who bought it despite initial misgivings. “Frankly, I hated the event,” she later said. “It made no sense to me why anyone would care if a small contingent of men wanted to abuse themselves in that way.” But Silk grew to love the Ironman—for many years she sent all finishers birthday cards. In 1990, with aging parents to care for, she sold the race for $3 million to James Gills, a God-fearing, fitness-obsessed ophthalmologist. Gills created the ominous-sounding World Triathlon Corp. In 2008 he sold it to Providence Equity Partners, a private equity firm, for an undisclosed sum. Since then WTC has kicked into moneymaking gear, raising registration prices, refusing refunds or transfers (even when an athlete’s father died suddenly and he needed to attend the funeral the day of the race), and buying up companies around the globe that hold Ironman-distance events.
Along the way, the triathlon transformed from being a pastime for peripatetic endurance freaks into the consummate spreadsheet sport. Even the pros present themselves as dispassionate data-crunchers, talking at the pre-race press conference at the King Kamehameha not about strength, power, or psychological edge but hitting their numbers perfectly to execute their race plans. (Jordan Rapp, the 32-year-old American favorite, who graduated from Princeton with a degree in engineering, was expected to spend the entirety of the 112-mile bike ride staring at his power meter to make sure his output, measured in watts, never wavered.)
“It’s a never-ending optimization problem,” said Sami Inkinen, 36, who two weeks earlier had made $49.5 million (based on the value of his remaining shares) in the initial public offering of the real estate company Trulia (TRLA). He regularly finishes as the top amateur in Ironman and Half Ironman races. “There are so many little details that you can influence. It’s a system with many little levers to pull.”
In addition to measuring his success in dollars, Inkinen is completely caught up in the quantified-self movement. Each day he records on a spreadsheet and in his diary nearly everything in his life: how long he sleeps, his mood, the number of minutes he does core exercises each morning, his resting heart rate, the duration and the paces in his workouts, the number of push-ups he can do, what he eats, and major life events. Then he looks for patterns. “Triathlons appeal to people who like puzzles,” Inkinen said. “Running a race is easy. It’s very, very simple. An Ironman is complicated.”
Given all the opportunities for geeking out in triathlon, it’s little wonder that cycling shoes have replaced wingtips and golf cleats in the tech world. One XC athlete, Mark Watt, a managing director of San Francisco-based investment bank William Blair, said, “You can do more business in Silicon Valley on the bike than anywhere else.” (Pro tip: Because deals can’t be done if you’ve dropped your riding partner, the best way to show dominance up, say, Old La Honda Road is by taking long, hard pulls pedaling in front, reducing wind drag for the others.) Masters swim practice in 50-meter pools at Stanford or UCLA isn’t bad for networking, either. According to Wesley Hein, management consultant for Idea Den in Los Angeles, “You have 15, 20 seconds between intervals. A lot gets covered.”
In 2011 WTC hired Messick, then president of AEG, a company that put on events ranging from the Amgen Tour of California to the Grammys, to be its CEO. Ironman had already achieved the pinnacle in brand loyalty: racers having the M-dot logo, the equivalent of the Nike (NKE) swoosh, tattooed on themselves. But the company wanted to grow. So Messick, now 50, focused even more on overachieving execs. He added Ironman races in North America and overseas. He expanded the Half Ironman, or 70.3, program. Although the WTC won’t release financials, the company, based on its growth, sellouts, and raised prices, appears as healthy as its clients.
Right now it’s keeping an eye on a new class of races, obstacle-based events that require far less conditioning than Ironman. Joe DeSana, a former Wall Streeter and serial Ironman himself, grew fed up with WTC’s super-controlled ethos and started Spartan Race, which features cold-water dunks, crawls under barbed wire, and climbs up greased walls. His idea is that endurance tests get interesting when you hit the wall or freak out. “In a Spartan Race, we fast-forward, we rush that moment,” DeSana said. That doesn’t mean Spartan aspirants need to train longer and harder. “Ironmen, they’re very self-consumed; they spend all their time biking, swimming, and running. It’s a serious commitment to yourself, and your family suffers. For a Spartan Race, you’re not putting in 40 hours a week of training. You’re not buying a $5,000 bike, all kinds of heart-monitoring equipment. You’re not screaming at the competitor next to you because he got in the way when you’re trying to eat your Gu.” Races put on by Tough Mudder, the fastest-growing of the obstacle-event companies, aren’t even timed.
For the most part, Ironman has kept itself novelty-free, although last year some thought it was growing too fast. WTC that year planned the first New York-based Ironman U.S. Championship, for August 2012. The idea of a New York Ironman sounded promising: The inaugural event sold out in 11 minutes with an $895 price tag. Then, two days before the race, 3.4 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the swim course, the Hudson River. WTC assured athletes the river was safe, but a 43-year-old man died during the swim portion. Still, Messick opened registration for the 2013 Ironman U.S. Championship the following day, this time with a $1,200 fee. Racers balked. The event did not sell out. Messick pulled down the registration website. A month later he called the race off.
As the sun rose on race day in Kona, an emcee worked the crowd to a backdrop of trance music and Hawaiian drumming. Callerame, Alvarez, and the rest of the XC athletes wore purple swim caps. Inkinen wore blue, along with the rest of the male amateurs. The women wore pink. The race starts at 7 a.m. Pros finish the course in a little over eight hours; stragglers sometimes come in 17 hours later.
Ironman forbids coaching along the course. Ford can’t swim out from Dig Me Beach to pace his athletes. Yet on race days, the high-touch service really kicks in. Earlier, Ford distributed frozen water bottles, to leave with their bikes in what’s known as the transition zone, for athletes who asked for them. He also arranged for XC families to head out from Kailua-Kona Pier in Zodiacs. While the masses squinted to see from Ali’i Drive, out on the water the XC spouses and children at least made confirmed sightings of their racers, though they quickly grew bored. A minute after the Zodiac captain tracked down a purple-capped XC swimmer, his wife had snapped 10 frames and was done. “There’s only so many photos you can take with one arm up,” she said. The next wife, after finding her spouse, said, “Whatever. We saw him, so …”
For everyone, VIP families included, the rest of the race was nearly unwatchable. For the bike and the run, you can stand on what’s known as “hot corner,” the intersection of Palani Drive and the Kuakini Highway, where athletes pass six times. For your commitment to roasting in the sun all day, you’ll see your racer for a combined total of two or three minutes. By 11 a.m., the poolside bar was full of spouses drinking and watching The Price Is Right. Kids were spun out on sugar and heat exhaustion, ordering second rounds of milkshakes.
Deep into the race, near hot corner, at mile six of the run, Ford handed Callerame a yellow sheet cake. He jogged it over to his grandmother, who was just about to turn 100 and was sitting in a wheelchair on the median of Palani Drive. Everybody sang Happy Birthday. Callerame continued on the course.
Out on the Queen K Highway, Pete Jacobs, an Australian marathoning machine, took the lead, going on to win with ease. Finish line crossed, victor’s garland on his head, he finally cracked. “Those last two miles, I was just repeating to myself, ‘Love. Love. Love. I’m in love with the sport. I’m in love with my family. I’m running home to my beautiful wife, Jamie.’ ” Other pro finishers were less coherent. Just after Dirk Bockel, who came in fourth in 2009, crossed the finish line, his body became rigid and he crumpled to the ground. Caitlin Snow, an American, reached the end and kept running, finally stopped by a volunteer.
Inkinen didn’t have his day. He was the first amateur to finish the bike and head out on the run, but he’d been sick, and his heart rate was higher than he expected for much of the race. Ten miles into the run he was still leading the amateurs, but, he said, he “knew things were falling apart and felt extreme fatigue and discomfort.” He dropped out at mile 13 and walked home.
Alvarez took an opposite approach, optimizing the race for pleasure, setting a pace several hours slower than his “PR,” or personal record. Still, his XC coup de grâce awaited him. If you’re just a regular Ironman at the finish line you receive a lei from a volunteer “catcher” and an escort to a tent for pizza, ice cream, and flat Coke. About 10 hours into the race, one such athlete crossed, clinging proudly to his newborn son. It was a beautiful scene, the triumph of tenderness over exhaustion. But his wife didn’t have a blue bracelet, so she and the baby couldn’t join her husband in the reception tent. He had to find her in the crowd and return the child before he could get a drink.
A few minutes later, the first XC athlete crossed: Dan Foehner, Facebook’s (FB) vice president of sales operations. Waiting for him, positioned by Ford across the threshold, were his freshly bathed children and pretty wife. For $9,000, the Ironman fell into their arms.