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Chris McCormack: Ironman Is Becoming Like McDonald’s

  • By Paul Moore
  • Published July 16, 2013
Photo: Paul Phillips / Competitive Image / @CompImagePhoto

Global Challenge Ambassador Chris McCormack took the small German town of Roth by storm at the weekend (again). The four-time Challenge Roth champion not only announced that he would be racing in the 2014 edition of the race, but spent time working with age groupers and new Challenge Events alike. In the midst of a busy weekend we managed to grab the Aussie for a quick chat about the business of triathlon.

First off, what are you doing in Roth?
This is Challenge’s biggest event and as a global brand Ambassador it’s a must be place for me. I’m working a lot with people who are here for the first time and there are a few nervous faces.

You really have to be here – it’s the epicentre of the brand – meet a lot of the new races that are coming along, help them to design the courses that they are thinking of which is interesting. You see it from a different perspective when you start talking about designing bike and run courses.

When you advise people, what do you see as the ideal course?
The biggest issues that I see at a lot of races is how you set up the swim course – knowing where the sun rises and things. A lot of the time people don’t think about that. I was speaking to a few of the guys here and saying ‘so this lake, where will the sun rise? Will it be in the athletes faces?’ And they always say ‘we haven’t thought of that’. And it’s imperative. People are apprehensive about the swim anyway.

The direction of the swim is important. So if you have a two lap swim it’s better to have a small lap first and then a big lap so that people aren’t swimming through people. That’s easy to design. Distance from transition and how that flows is key.

I think that a course should be challenging – we’ve been arguing this all week. Maybe these guys are right – they believe that they should be really fast now and that people have started to shun challenging courses. I’m always like ‘wow that sucks’. I would like the event to be a challenge. A bike course needs a good hill – it doesn’t need to be a mountain, but at least something that gets the heart rate up a bit. On the run, you’ve got to build things around the spectators – this is not really a spectator sport but trying to make it as spectator friendly as possible. But not having that as you grow an event out so that it becomes limiting on the people who are competing. I know that Frankfurt as a professional is a disaster. It’s a beautiful course but on laps two and three of the run you’re missing your aid stations. I know that a lot of the high-end amateurs find it the same way.

So when you’re designing a course the challenge is to capture the place that you are in. I hope that the events we pick and choose and design are in cool places and I hope that we don’t become like the McDonald’s of endurance racing – which to some degree is what Ironman is becoming. Everything is the same. I hope we can always hold this uniqueness. You know, with Roth and the beer garden you really know you’re in Germany. In Penticton I hope you know you are in Canada. The person who has never been there can taste that.

So for me, the perfect course should be challenging, although a lot of people think time is important.

Why do you think that is when 10 years ago the tougher races were more popular?
The obsession with time. And I wonder whether there is a curve with that as a lot of people go to these 100 mile races now and there seems to be an ultra arm that has grown off from the sport. I wonder if they are the same people who used to do Lanzarote and have now started looking at other events like Norseman. I know I am – I was talking to Tim DeBoom about it just because it’s bloody hard and a must-do bucket list race.

I’ve never really measured performances on time. You know I’ve said ‘I broke eight hours’ and that’s great. But I take more from the performance and the effort from the race. You ask me what I won Hawaii in and I couldn’t tell you – it does not matter. The fact is that I won and I executed it.

People these days are so driven by numbers it’s a different way of thinking. Be it watts, calories-consumed – and time is obviously such a critical thing. And if they’re going to do one they want to be able to go to the office on Monday morning and say ‘I did 9:30′. It gives people a ranking system but it’s sad.

I don’t need my effort to be measured by what other people perceive it as. I’m hoping with time that will change and people start picking challenging events again.

Would you ever be tempted to tackle ultra events?
I was seriously discussing doing Norseman – I know it’s an Iron-distance race but it’s seriously difficult. It looks really interesting. And there’s always been a desire to run Comrades.

You know, I’ve never netted or boxed-off endurance racing by swim-bike-run. Sure, swim-bike-run is where I did what I did, but I’ve always been looking for a challenge that is unique to me. And there’s all this talk about Ironman and Challenge and this brand and that brand but the experience of endurance racing is mine to own. It’s not Ironman’s or Challenge’s. They provide the canvas but I paint my own pictures. Same with Norseman. I’m like ‘that sounds fascinating’.

I just wrote an article for Triathlete Europe about a conversation that I had with a bunch of college guys in California. I was chatting to them and asked if they were ready and they said ‘it doesn’t count – it’s not a real race if it’s not an Ironman – nobody cares if it’s not an Ironman’. And I spoke to them and said ‘its not whether people care – it’s about whether you care, whether you’re out challenging yourself and want to have fun.’

I asked them where they were from and they said California so I told them about Wildflower – the biggest half in the world. But they said ‘that’s not an Ironman 70.3 is it? If I’m going to do a 70.3 it needs to count.’ And I said ‘what do you mean it needs to count? It counts more than any other race!’ And I was thinking ‘this sport has changed!’ It’s more about the stamp now. I’m trying to get my head around why that is the case – maybe that’s because Ironman are so good at marketing. But I feel that people have missed the whole reason they’re here. Is it just to tick a box and move on to the next thing? If so you’re here for the wrong reasons.

How do you read the Ironman / Challenge business relationship?
It’s really aggressive. In any other business in the world it would probably be illegal as it’s an oligopoly. I’ve said this to the guys at Challenge: Ironman is fantastic and they inspire people every day to come to this sport. But most people in the English-speaking world came to the sport through Kona. That’s why it’s so big.

Roth was the birthplace of that in Europe and it’s as big amongst the Europeans. So they have both been able to stand on these two events.

But this killing each other…

And you see these people at the events. You know, guys who used to be Mr. Ironman and persecuting people who did this race and now they’re here singing ‘we are the Challenge Family’. I mean, come on have some integrity. I will sink with a ship. I’ve stuck with Roth since I was world champion – before I was world champion. I was here when the world hated me for doing it – Ironman were saying ‘how dare you?’. Now those people who used to make my life miserable are now floating around here and I just think ‘come on!’

I just don’t think it’s good for the sport. At the end of the day they’re both wonderful. They both offer unique experiences that are different and difference is good. As I said, I see Ironman very much like McDonald’s. McDonald’s is good – it’s a very successful business. You know, I walk into McDonald’s in Germany and it tastes like the one I have at home. To me that works and everything can be the same.

My push with Challenge is to not be like that. To make sure that every experience is a unique one that is unique to the venue. You really sell that and embrace the region. So the hamburger here tastes different to the hamburger in Penticton or Taiwan. But it’s under a familiar umbrella of people. I just hope they listen to that and we don’t become a fast food chain like Ironman has. But Ironman has to do that to keep up with the demand and they have been very successful.

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Paul Moore

Paul Moore

Paul Moore is the Online Editor for Triathlete Europe. When not glued to a computer he can be found writing books - most recently Ultra Performance: The Psychology of Endurance Sports and The World's Toughest Endurance Challenges. Both are available on Amazon. Paul has also written Ultimate Triathlon: A complete training guide for long-distance triathletes which is also available on Amazon.