When COVID canceled live events, Ironman built the next best thing virtually

Ironman used tech and teamwork to find a new way to engage athletes during the pandemic.
March 6, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC
The virtual finish line—imposing a runner’s completed race under a computer-generated finish line—after completing the Rock ’n’ Roll VR17 in 2020.
Courtesy of The Ironman Group

Some of the most determined athletes in the world train for months, if not years, to build the endurance and mental fortitude to compete in an Ironman triathlon.

The grueling race involves a 2.4-mile swim, followed by 112 miles of cycling, and, finally, a marathon 26.22-mile run to the finish line—all without stopping. The live events are held in locations around the world, from New Zealand to Norway to just about everywhere in between, enticing Ironman’s die-hard community of athletes to sign up for new races in exotic locations.

Those athletes are now racing from the least exotic place on earth: home. More than 1.5 million registrations representing 180 countries have signed up for the Ironman Virtual Club and the Rock ’n’ Roll Virtual Running Club, which is serving as a virtual substitute for the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series that Ironman also owns. 

“It became clear just in a matter of a few weeks that the pandemic was going to be not only more severe, but a situation of indeterminate length,” Ironman CEO Andrew Messick tells Fortune. “As the world was figuring [it] out, we had to think, ‘What is this virus, and how do we react to it?’” 

Ironman had been set for a record 2020 hosting races around the globe, and raking in the revenue from entry fees and merchandise sales. That’s not to mention the boost races can give to local economies, with people traveling from around the world to stay, compete, and, of course, eat.

“We were poised to have the best year we were ever going to have, and had an expectation that we were going to be operating around 250 events in 55 countries around the world, and that we were going to be welcoming a million athletes to race with us,” Messick says. “We were full speed ahead on all of the customer-centric and operational tasks associated with getting the organization ready to have events all over the world.”

Last March, Ironman was acquired by Advance Publications from Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group for a reported $730 million cash deal. Thus, Ironman found itself not only with a new owner, but in uncharted territory as a business.

Just as an Ironman race requires agility, the company applied the same principle to its business. Before the pandemic, employees had spoken about a hypothetical virtual racing platform, and decided their sudden office closure in March was the kick they needed to get moving.

“There was always a plan. We are always looking at what’s next and how do we innovate? How do we do something new? And looking at digital platforms was something on the list,” says Earl Walton, global director of training and coaching. “It was a coincidence because we had just started trying to dig into it, and then the next day we were told not to come back to the office for who knows how long.”

Designing a virtual racing experience

Ironman is headquartered in Tampa but has employees spread out around the world. After the corporate team decided to double down on its virtual racing platforms for triathletes and runners, the core Ironman team, encompassing coaching, content, brand, and marketing started brainstorming in their new work-from-home environment about what exactly a virtual race would look like.

“It’s not just the races. It’s everything they [the athletes] do that leads up to the races,” Walton says. “We recognize that we have to do something to help them out and to give them something to do. Knowing that we had this plan starting, everything just kind of got jump-started from that point.”

To fill the void of competition and sports, the Ironman Group provided athletes with access to curated workouts, training resources, and challenges that they could do virtually.
Courtesy of The Ironman Group

Ironman built its Ironman Virtual Club and Rock ’n’ Roll Virtual Running Club on software built by Sport Heroes, a French startup that specializes in connected racing. By April, the first iterations of the clubs were open to athletes, along with a lineup of digital challenges anyone was welcome to join.

The barriers to entry are low. Anyone can sign up using their email account, name, age, and even add their triathlon club association, if they have one. After that, it’s all about connecting with the community, updating followers on training, and opting into challenges. Competitors can opt in with their fitness trackers to see how they performed compared with other people after an event, the same way they would by wearing a tracking number at a real-life race.

The accessibility of the virtual platform, coupled with perhaps the boredom of people stuck at home, has turned the platform into a hit for Ironman. The company is retaining its usual athletes, but they’re also welcoming new ones. 

There are 68,028 new Ironman athletes who have never participated in an in-person Ironman. That accounts for 53.4% of people on the platform, according to data provided by the company to Fortune. On the Rock ’n’ Roll side, there are 28,715 new athletes, making up 45.07% of the virtual running community.

“That’s been another great strength of the platform,” says Jena LaMendola, Ironman’s global marketing manager. “Not only is it solving for the current issue of COVID, and what everyone is kind of trying to navigate, but it solves for a lot of others, such as bringing in someone who might not have otherwise taken the plunge and registered for one of our races.”

With events postponed around the globe, Ironman’s brand team worked around the clock to launch the Ironman Virtual Club, a project that was underway pre-pandemic but was accelerated to meet the needs of athletes.
Courtesy of The Ironman Group

It also worked out perfectly that Ironman’s tagline, “Anything Is Possible,” was easily adaptable to its new virtual approach, which tells athletes, “Anywhere Is Possible.”

Replicating a sense of real-time competition

Before the pandemic, Ironman had a robust schedule of events broadcast on Facebook Watch, where anyone could tune in and see some of the most elite athletes in the world swim, bike, and run their way to the finish line. 

Ironman’s team had to think about what to do with that audience, and how to adapt their broadcast plan to offer programming that would keep competitors safe, but also make it exciting enough that people would still want to watch. 

“With the void of no one racing, we knew that our community was really missing that connection, that outlet,” says Julia Polloreno, Ironman’s director of content. “We thought, ‘We need to be sensitive to what’s happening in the world but also provide people with motivation, inspiration, and entertainment.’”

Last April, Polloreno launched the Ironman VR Pro Challenge, pitting two professional athletes of the same gender against each other. The competitions use local broadcast partners for filming and follow the two competitors of the week in their head-to-head battles to cross the finish line first and win prize money. 

It also meant, with the help of referees, figuring out how to put everyone on an even playing field when one athlete might be cycling in Australia and battling it out with a competitor in Colorado.

“We started with a virtual bike race, and then we were able to bring in the run and the swim. So then we had, for the first time, a true triathlon competition competed virtually,” Polloreno says. “It took a lot of trial and error, and working with our broadcast partners, to really just learn as we went and see what was working, what wasn’t working, and what people were into. We really had to write the playbook as we went.”

What athletes have to say about virtual racing

Jacqueline Morell, 24, started training in January 2020 for her first Half Ironman Triathlon. As a teacher at the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore, Morell says she was inspired by her students and wanted to find a way to push her own limits. By March, she found out her race was canceled.

“At first, I was really discouraged,” she admits. Morell signed up for the Ironman Virtual Club, and, “funny enough, on that same weekend I was supposed to do my Ironman, there was a virtual one. I was like, ‘Well, I have trained for it. I’m going to do it.’”

With pools temporarily closed in her area, Morell trained for the swimming portion of the race in open water at Gunpowder River from April until September to ensure she was ready to go for her big day.

She finished the entire Half Ironman on her own last fall.

“I had friends and family who still supported me and came,” Morell says. “I think the way that we benefit out of all of this is we live in 2021, where there are cameras and social media. Although a lot of the actual miles were done by myself, I never felt like I was alone.”

Christina Lam, 43, an optometrist based in Anchorage, is an avid runner. Before the pandemic, she was working her way toward a goal of running 50 half marathons in 50 states. Lam had already crossed 29 states off her list when her events were canceled last year. She turned to virtual races as a way to have race days to look forward to and still connect with the running community. 

“Since last May, I ended up doing over 107 Rock ’n’ Roll virtual races. It’s been helping with my training,” Lam says, adding that her lowest distance was one mile. “I never really thought about virtual running or any virtual races before this, but it’s also a way for me to connect with my friends in Lower 48, because they’re also doing the running club.”

Lam has even gained a following in the virtual running community, with people asking, “What Would Tina Do?” around a series of running questions, including how to brave the elements for an outdoor run. (As an Alaska resident, she is after all, the expert.)

“I try to get outside even if it’s snowing or even if it’s cold, and then I just keep photo documenting to show I’m still doing it, it’s snowing, there’s ice, and minus nine!” Lam says. “It just gives me something else to do in this time of trying to figure out what to do.”

The virtual Hoka One One Ironman VR Championship Series in July 2020.
Courtesy of The Ironman Group

Bertrand Newson, 51, a Rock ’n’ Roll San Jose ambassador and coach of a large running club in the Bay Area, loves the virtual races. He says the ability to still be able to put a race day on the calendar, even virtual, is an effective way to motivate runners. 

“These virtual race experiences are more cost effective on your pocketbook, so there’s some upside there. But [it’s about] having these events on your calendar, something to look forward to, something to train up to, and then being able to expand your social network,” Newson says. “The great thing about the Rock ’n’ Roll virtual experience is the interactive component, this sense of community, and the vastness of how frequently you can stay active, which is great.”

The Ironman team is interacting with its community of athletes to see their feedback and wish lists for features, as well as just how engaged people are with specific races. Having a real-time community living online offers a unique perspective for feedback, says Lauren Sokol, brand manager at Ironman.

“It’s truly week by week, because we’re offering weekly programming,” says Sokol. “If we come up with an idea, the beauty is that we can test it. If it’s not so hot, that’s okay, because we can try something new. If it sticks, then we’re like, ‘Oh, great. How do we make this even better?’”

Monetizing the virtual experience

The free racing platforms may be getting rave reviews, but at the end of the day, Ironman is a business. Ironman and the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series make their money from entrance fees and merchandise, but Messick, the CEO of Ironman, says it was important the team kept its virtual clubs free during the pandemic.

“We made a decision early on that this product was going to be free to our athletes and free to the community. That was something that we felt we needed to be able to look after our athletes, and that we were going to not move down a pay platform given the emergency nature of this,” he says. “We had a team that was really focused on ‘How do we really try to figure out how to pay the bills?’”

Ironman partnered with cycling specialist Rouvy, fitness equipment company Technogym, and athletic shoe company Hoka One One to sponsor its virtual races. While the races are free to enter, many people enjoy collecting medals and shirts to commemorate their big events. Ironman and Rock ’n’ Roll stores have launched over 300 products as of February 2021, including unique finisher medals athletes can order after crossing the remote finish line.

An Ironman athlete after completing Remix Challenge, which is open to athletes who choose to complete both the 10K and 6K distances.
Courtesy of The Ironman Group

While the business model has helped Ironman thrive, the company has also dealt with some blowback from customers who say they would prefer a refund instead of a deferral credit for a future race. In January, U.S. District Court Judge Tom Barber dismissed a class action lawsuit brought by two main plaintiffs, calling it a “simple case” and adding that “‘no refunds’ means exactly what it says.” 

Ironman and Rock ’n’ Roll refund policies vary depending on the location and terms of the race, and the decision to cancel the events was, in many cases, outside the team’s control. Ironman plans to communicate well in advance when races are being rescheduled and to work with people who may no longer have the availability in their schedules to compete.

A return to live events

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all timeline as to when most aspects of society, including racing, will return to pre-pandemic normalcy. Messick is quick to point out that while Ironman has a set of “safe return to racing” standards, the race organizers are “guests” in every community and will follow local guidance.

However, there is some semblance of normalcy on the race schedules, even if they look far lighter than usual. The current Ironman calendar includes races in New Zealand in March, followed by Galveston, Texas, Haines City, Fla., and Taiwan in April, to name a few. Rock ’n’ Roll is full of cancellations, but registration is open for an optimistic return to racing in Virginia Beach in September, San Jose in October, and Savannah in November.

While life will eventually return to normal, the Ironman team says its virtual racing platforms, which continue to gain new members every day, won’t be disappearing. The company sees this pandemic-era innovation as a way to strengthen its existing brand around the world.

“The coolest part of this is that, for us as an organization, this thing just exploded into life in front of us!” Walton says.

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