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70.3, 101, 140.6 and The Numbers Game.
By Tom Demerly.


Picture at Triathlon One O One

There’s a new race series for 2007 and it’s called Triathlon One O One.
This new series comes on the heels of this year’s Ford Ironman 70.3 Races. Both new series pull from the growth we’ve seen in the Ironman Triathlon World Championship round of events. Do we need another new race series? Yes, and I think Triathlon One O One is a good fit.

Triathlon One O One is a 1.86 mile (3 kilometer) swim, 80.6 mile (130 kilometer) bike and an 18.6 mile (30 kilometer) run. It is an interesting distance that falls between the1/2 Ironman Ford 70.3 distance and the full 140.6 mile distance of the Ford Ironman World Championship Series.

Triathlon One O One is not intended to be a stepping stone from the 70.3 distance to Ironman’s 140.6 mile distance. Triathlon One O One is “Pepsi” to Ironman’s “Coke”. Let’s think about the prospects for
Triathlon One O One:

There are a few so-called “immutable” rules to marketing and Triathlon One O One is implementing all of them. The first one is that all competitive markets eventually turn into a two horse race. Long distance triathlon has been a one horse race since the late ‘70’s when Ironman was invented. The most significant thing the Ironman series has going for it is brand recognition. The growth of this recognition comes from two decades of history, good media and a very sticky name. “Ironman” rolls off the tongue well. People want to be an “Ironman”. It is the “Kleenex”, “Xerox”, and “Coke” of triathlon. There is no defeating or competing with the recognition of Ironman and Triathlon One O One knows it. Ironman will always be the most recognizable brand in triathlon and one of the most recognizable trademarks in the world. I doubt anyone will want to become a… “One O One”.

Triathlon One O One is intended to be the triathlete’s triathlon. It is the longest distance we can really “race” with any level of competition amongst ourselves. If we’re honest, hardly any of us “race” Ironman, we simply survive it the best we can. That is part of the allure, but part of the problem. The new shorter Ford Ironman 70.3 distance is a sinister distance since raw speed is still a very real aspect of the 70.3 race. If you want to have a good day at 70.3 you have to swim, bike and run very fast. It’s a racer’s race. Triathlon One O One strikes an interesting truce between endurance and speed. You’ll need both to have a good day at One O One, but not a preponderance of either. It’s the long distance race for the “everyman”.

We follow our customers’ progress at Ironman on ironmanlive.com during race day. One thing we consistently see is that our customers have a good race through 9 hours. After about 9 hours the wheels start to fall off. There are probably a few reasons including nutrition and the amount of training time most people have. The fact remains that up to 9 hours we are in control of the race, after 9 hours the race is in control of us. Since most people will finish a Triathlon One O One event in around 9 hours this is likely the high water mark of what most athletes can really handle.

I did a One O One race inadvertently when I did the IsoStar Nice Triathlon in Nice, France in 2004. This was the last edition of this race before it was swallowed up by the Ironman machine and lengthened to become Ironman France. The 2004 IsoStar Nice Triathlon was the One O One distance by coincidence. I can tell you it is a good and race-able distance that can be contested more than once a year. I probably have a couple “One O One’s” in me a year. The next day you feel it, but you’re not hobbled by fatigue for a month.

If a 9 hour event is about the competitive limit for us mortal 40 hour a week people then Triathlon One O One fits that need quite nicely. A similar circumstance on a smaller scale has changed adventure racing. So-called “Expedition” length adventure races such as the old version of the Raid Gauloises and the now defunct Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge died partially because the distances and time involved were too much for the average participant/athlete. These events got great media and that ignited a brief spat of interest in adventure racing. Adventure racing has since settled on shorter events more accessible to the 40 hour a week crowd. With Triathlon One O One we may see a similar shift in triathlon away from events that finish at midnight to events that finish for most people when the sun is still up.

Triathlon One O One has also latched firmly onto the possibilities presented by Ironman’s Achilles. There are too many athletes and too few races. Entry for domestic Ironman North America events fill so fast a significant number of potential participants are left out in the cold. Will some of those people be happy with Triathlon One O One as a surrogate? No, Triathlon One O One isn’t a substitute for Ironman. But I wager that once enough athletes experience Triathlon One O One as it is being depicted there will be a natural gravitation of athlete/participants to the series. And that brings me to how Triathlon One O One will gain a foothold on the marketing beachhead and expand and consolidate their position despite the fact that this is likely the first time you’ve heard of it.

The twenty years that have elapsed between the birth of Ironman and the conception of Triathlon One O One are pivotal years in how anything new is brought to the public’s attention. The Ironman brand has taken almost all of two decades to reach its current level of recognition. Triathlon One O One will likely achieve a decent percentage of that recognition, mostly among athletes, in a fraction of that time. The difference is the evolution of the media.

If Triathlon One O One can become 20% as recognizable as Ironman in 5% of the time it took Ironman to achieve their brand recognition they will have arrived as a viable competitor. In round numbers that means Triathlon One O One must have about 7000 participants to Ironman’s 36,000 in 2007. Ironman has about 20 events worldwide; Triathlon One O One has four on the schedule for 2007 right now. There is no science to these numbers other than to suppose that 7000 participants in Triathlon One O One, give or take a thousand, will create enough of a buzz in the popular user-generated Internet media like forums and blogs for the event to gain acceptance.

Don’t underestimate the power of the participants to drive the growth of Triathlon One O One. Time magazine named anyone using the Internet as “Person of the Year” and heralded the power of the user-generated “digital democracy”. The best selling book “The Tipping Point” mentions several factors that help a trend start and then grow quickly. Triathlon One O One is using strategies documented in “The Tipping Point” and will benefit from experiences had and shared on the Internet by participants. Whereas Ironman was reliant, and still is to a large degree, on traditional network print and television media to inspire new participants Triathlon One O One relies on a much more reactive and faster media: The Internet. Word about Triathlon One O One will spread like flame in a windy brush fire once the first group of athletes experience the race and report their experiences in forums and blogs on the Internet. The Triathlon One O One guys know this and will make a full court press to knock athlete’s socks off in the initial year.

Another savvy tactic for Triathlon One O One is to control its own media. This has worked for the military and will work for Triathlon One O One. Triathlon One O One will cover their own event themselves live on the Internet through the Slowtwitch web site. Slowtwitch features the most active and volatile triathlon user based Internet forum. Many Triathlon One O One participants will come form the ranks of Slowtwitch users and lurkers, the same group who participates in, but is openly critical of the Ironman events.

This is a great plan, and is likely to work. The Internet is a double edged sword. It can giveth and taketh away. If Triathlon One O One misses a beat in their opening events they will face an impossible battle trying to get people into their races. There is no margin for error in the first Triathlon One O One races: There can be no drafting in the events, the swim courses must be perfectly measured, well-marked and filled with playful dolphins and mermaids. The bike course must be smooth and there must be a tail wind on every draft-free part of the course. The aid stations must feature sports drinks chilled to your taste and served by agile, smiling volunteers. If Triathlon One O One doesn’t have people to wipe our bottoms in the Porta-Potty someone will bitch on the Internet. They can’t afford to miss a swing on their first time at bat. Ironman is a great series and they have set the bar very high for Triathlon One O One. A failure anywhere during the first races will be exposed and embellished on the Internet forums in the grandest “trial by Internet” style.

Two advantages Ironman enjoys over Triathlon One O One is the detachment of the network telecast and a broader audience. If something goes wrong during the race there is plenty of time to practice “perception management” with the editors before the telecast is aired a month and a half later. Even though Ironman is carried in a webcast on Ironmanlive.com the audience is predominantly participants and enthusiasts in the sport. The future athletes and the casual viewers are the network audience. That is the crowd that Triathlon One O One will miss, especially at first.

Triathlon One O One also has a few other tricks up their sleeve. The men behind it are the sports “A” team of event management and promotion. These are guys and girls who have already produced and hosted hundreds of endurance events. They know what athletes want in an event and how to deliver it. They wield the Internet media with consummate skill. They have deep enough pockets to float the event without a major sponsor until it gains traction. And perhaps most importantly, they have all been part of other series that have died on the vine, like the attempted resurgence of the United StatesTriathlon Series, the old Bud Light USTS.

The success or failure of Triathlon One O One won’t depend on a conflict between governing bodies or a tussle of what pro athletes attend which “Championship” event. The make-or-break of Triathlon One O One will come when your buddy comes back from one of the races and sends you an e-mail raving about the course, the finish line, the goody bag and how much fun it was. That infection of enthusiasm will spread across the triathlon Internet community. One athlete at a time Triathlon One O One will grow. The Ironman moniker will likely never loose steam but the Triathlon One O One logo may begin to emerge as the mark worn by the athlete who is in the sport to stay and has moved beyond the conspicuous status of being an Ironman.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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