The Last Ironman Race in Louisville, KY

In light of the recent debates about professional prize purses, I’ve read more than a few people opine that long course triathlon is boring, even unwatchable. Sure, most people don’t have the attention span to watch 8 hours of exercise, but there are many of us that would relish the opportunity to track our favorite sport more closely. It’s nothing for golf fans to watch 12+ hours of golf in a given weekend, and a lot of people watch many hours a day of bike racing for 3 straight weeks in July.

On Sunday, I found myself checking in on Ironman Louisville quite often via twitter and Ironman Live. Louisville was my home for a few years and I did the race in 2009. The year prior was my first Ironman and Chris McDonald won that race in Wisconsin. He was probably the first pro I ever heard of. Living in Louisville, I used to see the quiet Mike Hermansen in the VO2Max Bike Shop. He couldn’t pick me out of a lineup, but I knew who he was. Now, he’s racing pro, taking a stand relative to the issue of pro prize purses, and racing for a team, Maverick Multisport, run by Chris Hutchens, a good dude who I had a few beers with at Ironman Texas in May. In fact Thomas Gerlach joined us after he DNF’d and we had a really good hang. Add to that the fact that #IMLP7th legends Ray Botelho and Rachel Jastrebsky were racing, and you can see why I was personally interested in this race.

The beauty of watching a full weekend of golf is that, if you’re lucky, there’s some great drama in the final 9 holes,. Maybe it comes down to the final hole or even the last putt. Most of the time there isn’t a big payoff in the end. In that case you will just have enjoy watching ridiculously talented people do what you only dream you could do. Iron-distance triathlon is similar. It’s rare that there’s a really close finish, but when there is, it’s amazing, and that’s what we were treated to this weekend. Gerlach closing in the final miles. An exhausted Big Sexy hanging on with every fiber of his being, passing out after he crossed the line with Gerlach finishing just 17 seconds behind. It looked for a second like McDonald might pass out before he crossed the line, there was so much weaving. The crap coverage didn’t do this battle justice, but I was glad to have “witnessed” it anyway.

Today, the Godfather of Slowtwitch, Dan Empfield, published an opinion piece regarding prize money and he said something that struck me as quite profound. “When a farmer pays a “tax” to the warrior it’s not because he feels the warrior deserves to be paid. It’s not philanthropy. It’s not because he feels sorry for the warrior. He pays the warrior because he, the farmer, benefits. My thesis is that the chief beneficiary of the prize money is not the pro. It’s you and me.” I agree with this. It’s amazing to race the same course, under the same conditions on the same day as the professionals. On a course like Louisville, it’s a thrill to see them on the out and back run course, and the fact that there are pros out there passing out for prize money and glory elevates your accomplishment because it legitimizes the event.

Thousands of people will participate in Ironman Louisville next year. but their experience just won’t be the same. During race week, the defending champs won’t be on the local morning shows hyping the race. Big Sexy and Nina Kraft won’t even be in town. The age group athletes will not wake up in the morning to read about a dramatic finish in the Courier Journal. No one will care who won. The event will feel less legitimate. Quite frankly, it will feel more like a century ride. It will be a mass participation endurance event for bucket listers, NOT a legitimate race. Louisvillian Mike Hermanson won’t be back. He finished 4th this year. His absence will be a loss for both Mike and the Louisville community that has embraced Ironman all these years. Big Sexy won’t be going for a 5th IMLou title. Sad.

I’m not convinced that there has to be a pro prize purse at every single race, but I AM convinced that the events without pros will suck in comparison to what they were. For a small amount of money, WTC could support developing pros and preserve the atmosphere that we’ve grown to enjoy at WTC events. There’s nothing wrong with century rides, but they’re not nearly as cool as a Gran Fondo where you are timed and ranked. Moreover, a Gran Fondo sucks in comparison to an actual road race. Sadly, we’re going the way of the century ride.

RIP Ironman Louisville.

photo credit: Pink and Purlpe via photopin (license)

About the Author

BH is Publisher of TRS Triathlon and host of TRS Radio.