Monthly Archives: April 2012

Drills to Improve Speed, Agility, and Quickness

By Pete Williams

How often do you train for speed, agility, and quickness? Even if you do interval training, you’re not necessarily becoming quicker and more agile, moving in all three planes of motion.

In this video, which we shot for ABC Action News with the help of some of my training group friends, we show two simple drills you can do to improve your “SAQ.” The 5-10-5 drill is a shuttle run that might look familiar if you follow the NFL combine. The box drill incorporates running forward, backward, and laterally, as well as cariocas, which really open the hips.

Try incorporating some SAQ into your routine at least once a week.

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Filed under ABC 28 TV Fitness Tips, Training

Goruck Challenge: Embracing the Suck

By Pete Williams

TAMPA – They assembled in the waning hours of Good Friday along a windy stretch of Tampa Bay at the end of Bayshore Boulevard called Ballast Point Park.

Thirty-two athletes clad in black, mostly in their thirties but ranging in age from early twenties to late forties – 20 men and 12 women – gathered in the parking lot packing the rucks they would hump for the next 8 to 10 hours, possibly more, as they got a taste of Special Operations training. The Goruck Challenge, created by 30-year-old Jason McCarthy as a way to promote his $295 rucksacks modeled after the ones he used in the Middle East as a Green Beret, quietly has overtaken Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and probably even Ironman to become the most challenging event in endurance sports.

That’s because participants must fill their packs with water bladders, supplies, and bricks: six if you weigh more than 150 pounds, four if you weigh less. The rucks rarely come off during the event. “I trained my ass off to get down to 148,” says one male competitor, who has brought along a scale in case he needs to produce evidence.

His colleagues use the scale to weigh their packs. One six-brick pack comes in at 44.5 pounds, the next at 30. Apparently there’s a big difference between regular bricks and “patio” bricks.

This group is the 143rd “class” to take the Goruck Challenge since it debuted in September of 2010 and the event now moves all over the world. McCarthy and his fellow eight cadre have military backgrounds, most as Green Berets, but the Goruck experience is as much Fight Club as military.

Even after 18 months, the event still flies under the radar. Tampa is a hotbed of endurance sports – triathlon, obstacle racing, trail and road running – but Class 143 consists mostly of members of a CrossFit gym who drove over from Lakeland. Goruck has a Web site – actually two, one for the challenge, one for the ruck – but there is no advertising. Even the cadre retain the shroud of mystery from their Special Forces days.

Cadre "Lou"

At 11:55 p.m. I get a text. “I’m in the silver Jeep Liberty. You here?”

The cadre is among the athletes but yet invisible, setting the tone for the evening. He’s letting me hang with the group for the night as a journalist. As I approach the driver’s side window, it becomes clear his name – Lou – probably is an alias, perhaps left over from his Special Forces days. He’s a dead ringer for Lou Diamond Phillips, a 6-foot-4, Rock of Gibraltar version, and his age and ethnicity are impossible to peg.

Classes begin at 10 p.m. or, like this one, 1 a.m. Nobody knows how long it will last or what exactly it will entail, though the GRC almost always involves carrying tree trunks and telephone poles. Long distances. You will get wet. Often.

It sucks. “They will learn to embrace the suck,” Lou tells me, getting out of the Liberty. “You have to focus on the task at hand, not the next 10 or 14 hours or you will fail.”

For this joyride entrants pay between $120 and $160 depending on how far in advance they register. The official Goruck packs – the GR1 is recommended – costs $295, though participants can bring whatever pack they want at their own peril. About half go for the GR1.

At 1:11 a.m. Lou appoints a team leader. This guy will relay Lou’s missions and keep his finger on the pulse of the group. Mike has the group fall out into the “PT Pit” in four lines of eight, then eight lines of four. Lou walks around, inspecting open packs.

“Do not call me sir,” Lou says. “I’m Lou. I work for a living. I have 18 years in Special Operations, two years with Wounded Warrior and a Ph.D in chaos. I’ve traveled the world thanks to the U.S. Army. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Lou!”

Crab walking to the water

“If you have to go to the bathroom, go now. Only go somewhere with a battle buddy. Your safety is my primary concern. You may not think so, but I’ll be evaluating you constantly. We’re not out here to crush you. There’s no training value to that. You will get out of your comfort zone but your safety is my utmost concern.”

Lou paces slowly. “Bags will never touch the ground. Bags touch the ground, bad shit happens. Don’t try to be an individual. Be an individual, bad shit happens. Milton Bradley calls me for fucking games.” More pacing. “Most importantly, have fun. Smile. It’s not that bad. I only have you for 12 to 14 hours. Cadre did it for three weeks just to get into Special Ops. So smile, embrace the suck, and you’ll have fun.”

At 1:29 a.m., Lou tells the group to put their packs on. Flags, including the one the group must carry for the duration, snap in the wind whipping off Tampa Bay. The group is facing the water, just 20 yards away, but there’s a dock 100 yards to their right through the parking lot. Lou orders them to the dock and into the water.

One minute later, they’re back in formation. Twenty push-ups and back into the water. The next hour is spent shuttling back and forth to the dock. Flutter kicks, more push-ups, mountain climbers. Crab walking to the water, bear crawling back. The packs never come off. Lou never raises his voice, but his nicotine baritone expresses disgust with every effort.

At one point, Lou asks, “Who’s familiar with monkey fuckers?”

Remarkably, two hands go up. The guys come to the front of the class and demonstrate a deep squat, grab-your-ankles move that looks like, well, it doesn’t meet with Lou’s approval anyway. “You guys suck. Thirty count monkey fuckers.”

Back to the water and then more mountain climbers. “Everyone, drink water,” Lou says. “Team leader, it’s up to you to monitor water. When you get low, let me know. Now back in the water. All I want to see are heads.”

More trips into the surf, crab walking and bear crawling. An additional 25-pound pack is shuffled among the group, the mandatory additional team weight that must be carried. GRC 143 has filled its team pack with cans of beer. Lou approves. Lou loves beer. It’s one of the few things Lou will outwardly approve of all night. Lou dislikes moving slowly, indecision, drunks, and a certain breed of man.

“I’m on a quest this year to save the American male from the European invasion,” Lou announces shortly before 2 a.m. “Be on the lookout tonight for men in Spandex and tight jeans. Our No.1 rule is to always look cool. Men in Spandex?” Lou pauses, shaking his head. “Nobody wants to see your junk.”

More crab walking back to the surf. The rucks are shuffled to the chest for crab walks. “We’re building six-pack abs, getting you ready for beach season,” Lou says. “Some of you are thinking of paying for the fucking Brazilian Butt Lift. Now you won’t have to.”

At 2:10, Lou assigns the group a mission. There’s a nuclear submarine under the dock that must be retrieved. Actually it’s a hunk of tree with jagged branches. The group pulls it out quickly and returns to the PT Pit for a 20-count set of military presses with the rucks. More push-ups and water.

“Anyone cold?” Lou asks.

“Yes, Lou!”

“Bullshit.”

Lou has the group pair up with partners of comparable size. It’s time for the fireman’s carry, a tough move in normal circumstances, let alone cold, wet, tired, and wearing a pack.

The women execute it well and head to the surf. Two pairs of men go down hard. Packs smack and heads hit asphalt. The buddy carry exercise ends as Lou orders everyone into the surf. This time they stay a while, huddled together for warmth. “If you have to pee, go now,” someone says.

It’s 2:28 a.m. Lou summons six of the largest guys. Beyond the dock is a six-foot length of railroad tie. It’s a downed pilot that must be transported to Tampa’s SoHo District about eight miles away. While the six get a handle on the pilot, Lou lights a cigarette and orders the rest of the group out of the water.

“Mass together and take advantage of the body heat,” Lou says. “There’s nothing sexual going on; you all stink. Someone’s getting a rise out of this, you’ve got issues.”

At 2:35 comes the first casualty. A guy has tweaked a chronic right knee injury. A buddy offers to drive him home. The group is down to 30.

Ten minutes later, the group finally leaves Ballast Point Park, running down Bayshore. They have 30 minutes to get the downed pilot to SoHo. The six guys up front have the railroad tie in a litter of sorts, but they can’t hold it for long. Another group of six moves up to take the pilot.

“We’re jogging, not walking,” Lou says. “You want to walk, do Warrior Dash.”

Lou miscalculates the time necessary to get to SoHo. No matter. Not his problem.  The next two hours are spent crawling up Bayshore, often literally. Lou moves the group onto the grassy median strip and onto their bellies. The front six push the pilot. Each group lasts about 20 yards before moving to the back. Shadows fall over Bayshore from streetlights and the accent lights of mansions.

They pass a sign: easterisnear.com. Twenty-one hours, actually.

Lou takes note of the group commando-crawling up the Bayshore grass in two columns. They’ve grown close, literally, with 18 men and 12 women remaining. “Some of you don’t have a good view,” Lou says. “Oh well. Some of you have a good view. You’re welcome.”

At 3:48, Lou asks if anybody knows the depth of the water off Bayshore. A brick comes out of a pack and is lowered. Unfortunately for the group, it’s only two feet deep. Lou orders everyone over Bayshore’s Corinthian column wall and into the water. This doesn’t happen quickly enough and soon the group is getting an even better/worse view of one another, aligned ankle-to-shoulder on the sidewalk for inchworm push-ups.

“You didn’t take a course of action,” Lou says. “Let’s see if we can light a fire under your ass and make shit happen. This is what happens when we don’t act as a team and get scared over two feet of water.”

At 4:10, the group is in the water, walking single file along the wall up Bayshore – quietly. They’re behind enemy lines now.

Lou walks along the sidewalk and lights another cigarette. “They’re smiling, which is good,” he says. “They’re learning to embrace the suck and how you have to have a sense of humor. The mind controls the body, not vice versa. I love the sense of accomplishment people get out of this and that’s one of the major things they take out of it.”

The group is doing well, Lou says, but breakdowns in communication typically take place around 5 a.m. when sleep deprivation really kicks in and athletes completely lose track of time. (Watches and cell phones are not allowed.)

At 4:30 the group approaches a staircase out of the water. Not an option. They must lift everyone over the wall, which they accomplish quickly. As a reward, and to warm-up, they do 15 push-ups.

Two women and a guy run by. “What are you guys doing out here?” the guy asks.

“It’s the Goruck Challenge,” Lou says, in a tone that suggests the crazy ones are the ones up at 4:30 on Saturday to go for a jog. He shakes his head as they fade into the darkness. “Good luck training for the 5K.”

At 4:46, they finally arrive at Howard Ave. Mike is relieved of his team leader duties after nearly four hours and gets a round of applause as Angie, a petite blonde takes over. Another change comes as they must carry their rucks – no use of shoulder straps.

By 5:15, they’re in the Bern’s Steakhouse parking garage. “This is a weird place for a parking garage,” Lou says, struggling to grasp that the white warehouse-looking building across the street actually is one of America’s finest restaurants. Lou orders the group up the five flights of stairs. Each time down, they’re challenged to guess Lou’s age. Three times back up.

Finally, at 5:58 a.m, a pitstop at a SoHo convenience store. Water bottles are refilled, additional snacks purchased, restrooms used. “What are you guys, a flash mob?” somebody asks.

“It’s the Goruck Challenge,” Lou says.

The Inchworm Push-Up

Heading down Platt Street at 6:35 a.m., Lou points out a downed telephone pole. It’s unclear how Goruck positions such items conveniently along the course. McCarthy and Lou are vague on how they prepare. Just another part of the Goruck mystery.

Smiling even though Bern's is closed

The group struggles to get a convenient handle on the log. The women are the issue. They’re plenty strong, but the height differential is throwing off the balance. It’s decided the girls will carry the guys’ packs as the guys deal with the log. They head down Plant Street toward downtown, log on one shoulder, periodically shifting shoulders in a three-count move that requires some choreography.

At 6:45, Lou drops to the ground and does 20 push-ups. No particular reason. In the last 90 minutes, he has consumed Budweiser, coffee, a Monster energy drink, and a number of cigarettes.

At 7:29, the sun is up and we’re in downtown Tampa. Lou lets the group ditch the log and it’s time for a group photo along Ashley Street. It’s also time to lose the writer/photographer. I had set up a 10 a.m. group training session at Dirty Foot Adventures in Fort Meade, site of both the Dirty Foot Adventure Run on June 9 and Tough Mudder in December.

Tough Mudder. That event suddenly didn’t look so tough. McCarthy and some of his Green Beret buddies went to one of the first Tough Mudders and field tested the Gorucks, weighted down with bricks, after drinking beer all night.

After I left, the group did countless lunges along the Tampa Riverwalk, advanced to the Florida Aquarium for another group photo and headed back to Bayshore, going back into the water. There were Indian drills where the person in back had to run to the front, and Lou’s dislike of the European male influence became a factor.

Men in Spandex or biker shorts were deemed threats and the group had to drop to a knee whenever one was spotted. If Lou saw the threat first, that meant casualties. The 12 guys had to fireman’s carry the women and the remaining eight guys had to carry all the packs – for nearly two miles.

The group eventually made it to MacDill Air Force Base and the memorial for special forces units before Lou declared it a day at 12:15 p.m.

Just five hours left to go!

Eleven hours and 15 minutes, covering more than 23 miles.

For their efforts, team members received 2×3 inch Goruck patches and some crazy memories of a guy who would disappear in his silver Jeep Liberty and reappear at Ballast Point Park later that evening for a 10 p.m. class.

Class 143 wouldn’t soon forget their night with Lou.

Or whoever the hell he is.

(Listen to Fitness Buff Show interview with Goruck Challenge founder Jason McCarthy)

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The Unlikely Vegetarian

By Pete Williams

I’m 36 hours away from making it through Lent without eating meat and consuming only trace amounts of dairy.

I’m by no means a by-the-book-Catholic, but in recent years I’ve used Lent as a challenge to make lifestyle changes. In 2010 and last year, I went without television. Not one minute. While I went back to watching TV on Easter Sunday both times, I found the experience cut down my television viewing considerably.

For years I’ve wanted to try a vegetarian or even a vegan diet. In January of 2011, I dealt with a kidney stone and even after cutting back on protein intake, tests last fall showed I still was consuming too much animal protein, which can lead to more stones. That’s incentive enough, but I also wanted to improve my performance in endurance sports and feel better overall.

A vegetarian diet can do all of those things and I figured Lent would offer a good 46-day challenge. I would drop meat altogether, but would eat fish and consume the occasional Mix1 protein recovery drink, which contains whey protein, a byproduct of cheese manufacturing. Other than that, no dairy, which wouldn’t be much of a stretch for someone who rarely consumes any. Jack LaLanne, who never consumed dairy and lived to 96, stressed that humans are the only animals to consume dairy after the suckling stage.

One of the salmon salads at Fitlife Foods

My Lenten experiment confirmed what I’ve long suspected. A vegan, vegetarian or “pescetarian” (vegetarian with fish) diet, like any other nutrition plan, is mostly about planning and habits. Most of us eat bad stuff not so much because we like to but because it’s ingrained in our lifestyles. In recent years I’ve cut out bread, pasta, and beer, realizing I consumed that stuff out of habit, not because I loved it. It’s easy to substitute things you prefer, especially when they’re better for you, such as additional veggies and the occasional glass of wine.

I figured the same thing would happen with giving up meat and that proved to be the case. I didn’t miss it at all and found it easy to resist, even last weekend at our neighbors’ annual pig roast. Of course, I had a few key weapons:

Vegan and vegetarian friendly

1. CHIPOTLE: I love eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill, which makes it easy to justify consuming meat since theirs comes from only farm-raised, grass-fed animals not injected with hormones and antibiotics. I typically get a burrito bowl with brown rice, black beans, fajita vegetables, chicken or carnitas (pork), along with mild and corn salsas, a sprinkling of cheese, lettuce, and guacamole. The chicken version comes to 805 calories, including 57 grams of protein and 2,150 mg of sodium. That’s a lot of protein and salt for anyone, especially someone who has had a kidney stone.

Eliminating the chicken and cheese, however, brought the burrito bowl down to 515 calories with just 17 grams of protein and 1,600 mg of sodium. My bill with a cup of water also dropped from nearly $9 to $6.69. That’s an incredible value. People spend more than that at fast food restaurants for 1,000 empty calories. Chipotle CEO Steve Ells has said he’s cut down on his meat consumption lately and after eating veggie burrito bowls, I can see how it’s an easy transition to make.

2. FITLIFE FOODS: Fitlife Foods, which has three locations in the Tampa Bay area, provides nutritious, ready-made meals packed full of nutrients. They cater to busy professionals and recreational athletes – company founder David Osterweil is a marathoner – and the nutrient-dense meals chef Andrew Ruga creates are designed for the high-performance athlete and professional.

I had been enjoying Fitlife’s chicken and beef dishes before Lent, but found the large versions of Miso Salmon (650 calories, 47g of protein), Citrus Salmon Salad (360 calories, 21g), and Lemon Pepper Tilapia (430 calories, 57g) made me forget about the meat.

Fitlife Foods founder David Osterweil

The tilapia, which comes with a side of green beans, packs a lot of protein. But since I usually went with one fish meal and one vegan dish a day, I didn’t worry about that.

The rest of my diet stayed intact: breakfast of oatmeal and a smoothie consisting of fruit, almonds, and almond butter; a lunch or dinner of black beans, sliced tomatoes, and lots of asparagus; snacks of Clif or Lara bars, fruit/almond butter, and my cheat treat of anything chocolate.

The results have been dramatic. The weight dropped from 163 to as low as 156.6, a figure I haven’t seen since the late 1980s. (I’m at 158.8 today). I fared well at two obstacle races in the last five weeks and despite getting a late jump on triathlon training for next weekend’s Escape from Fort DeSoto race season kickoff, I’m biking and swimming almost in mid-season form – not like someone who virtually ignored both all winter.

Best of all, the mysterious migraines I had in January and February have disappeared.

Nutrition plans are most effective when you can link them to feeling and performing better, not just looking better.

That’s why I just might make this Lenten experiment a permanent thing.

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Tackling the Goruck Challenge

By Pete Williams

At 1 o’clock Saturday morning in downtown Tampa, a group of 80 to 100 people will begin a grueling, all-night physical challenge consisting of Burpees, push-ups, hauling logs, and non-stop running while wearing heavy-duty, military-grade backpacks containing four or six bricks apiece.

They will spend the next 8 to 10 hours covering 15 to 20 miles and the trip could take them virtually anywhere from Ybor City to MacDill Air Force Base. Watches and cell phones are not allowed. Headlamps and layers of clothing are required, though the latter is less of an issue in the Florida heat.

These people have nothing to do with the military, though the cadre accompanying them have Special Operations backgrounds, most as Green Berets. The participants have paid between $120 and $160 apiece to get a taste of Special Ops training, pushing their mental and physical limits, and serving as walking billboards for the backpacks they wear.

It’s all part of the Goruck Challenge, which began as a way for Jason McCarthy to market his $295 Goruck ruck sacks, high-end, indestructible backpacks modeled after the rucks he used as a Green Beret fighting in the Middle East.

The Goruck Challenge typically includes famous landmarks.

McCarthy, who graduated from The Bolles School in Jacksonville and recently earned an MBA at Georgetown, figured his U.S.-manufactured rucks would be difficult to market at that price point. He and some fellow Green Berets competed in one of the first Tough Mudder races in the weighted Gorucks. The gang had fun, but McCarthy figured he could create his own challenge that more closely mimicked Special Forces training.

Obstacle races give competitors the option of working together but there’s no choice in Goruck, where one cadre works with teams of up to 30 people. Each has a weighted backpack and teams must collectively haul additional weight. A typical challenge is carrying a 1,000-pound tree trunk for up to a half mile. Another staple is running Indian style, where the last person in line must sprint ahead and become the leader. If a team member can’t go on at any point, s/he must be carried.

“The rule that matters the most is that they work together,” McCarthy told us this week on The Fitness Buff Show. “For the individual it’s a rollercoaster. You give 1,000 percent for an hour, but maybe for the next hour you don’t have that stamina and that’s when your buddy has to pick you up and vice versa. It’s every bit a team event and showing their failures as an individual so they can see the power of working together. The challenge is a metaphor for life.”

The cadre are not drill sergeants but rather assign missions, appoint group leaders, and dole out penalties. McCarthy himself is among the eight cadre in the mix, though he won’t be in Tampa this weekend. With 62 events scheduled the rest of the year, some with multiple “classes” over the course of a weekend, McCarthy can’t make all of them, which include Florida stops in Orlando (May 19-20), Fort Lauderdale (Nov. 17-18), and Jacksonville (Nov. 24-25).

Getting wet is expected in Goruck.

The events typically stick around urban areas, but given their overnight scheduling don’t tend to disrupt traffic and only attract a few curious onlookers. The event has a 98 percent completion rate, but McCarthy says the non-finishers include a man who had completed six Ironman triathlons. A number of people return for multiple Gorucks, to the point where McCarthy has created Goruck Selection, a 48-hour-plus version of the Challenge designed to mimic the Special Forces Qualification Course.

“There’s a feeling  at the end of the challenge that you’ve accomplished something,” McCarthy says. “Camaraderie is so high in the military because you spend time being miserable with people and there’s no substitue for that. People want to see how they respond under mental and physical stress.”

Listen to our interview with Goruck Challenge creator Jason McCarthy

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GoPro Cameras and Endurance Races

By Pete Williams

We’re big fans of GoPro cameras, which might be the most popular gadgets on the market without an Apple logo. Skiers, surfers, and race car drivers strap the cameras to their helmets, chests, or equipment and the result is a dazzling first-person viewpoint.

Not surprisingly, GoPro cameras have become especially popular among the obstacle race crowd, to the point where some races have contracted with vendors who will rent cameras and then provide an edited video of your race experience.

Last month I ran with a group of two dozen friends at the Savage Race in Clermont. For $52, we got a camera for the duration of the race and the edited video above. Anyone who edits video knows how time consuming that process can be, so this was a tremendous value, especially when you have two dozen people involved. (It no doubt helped the editor that most everyone in our group was wearing a green kilt.)

I’ve seen GoPros at Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and Muddy Buddy, along with some trail runs. They haven’t caught on with triathlon yet. Wearing a GoPro would be cumbersome in the swim and you’d lose some transition time between the bike and run unless you had two cameras. But somebody will figure it out.

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One-on-One with Ironman Chief Andrew Messick

By Pete Williams

WTC CEO Andrew Messick

TAMPA – When Andrew Messick spoke to the Triathlon America trade organization last month, the CEO of the World Triathlon Corp., parent company of Ironman, prefaced his address with “I come in peace.”

It was a reference to Ironman’s historically stormy relationship with the sport’s governing bodies, race directors, sponsors, media, and even the athletes themselves. Under the company’s former leadership of eye surgeon owners James and Pit Gills, and former CEO Ben Fertic, the company developed a reputation of being secretive at best, arrogant and tone-deaf at worst.

Messick, installed as CEO last May by the Providence Equity Partners’ Group that purchased WTC from the Gills family in September of 2008 just days before the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy triggered the recession, has spent his first year mending fences and boosting a brand that for all of its financial success remains under the radar in the sports world.

A two-time Ironman finisher, the 48-year-old Messick came to WTC after four years as president of AEG Sports, where he oversaw such iconic endurance events as the Amgen Tour of California cycling race and the Bay to Breakers running event. That followed a seven-year stint working for the NBA.

We never had any luck getting an audience with the previous WTC regime, even when writing stories on the growth of triathlon and Ironman in 2007 for The New Year Times and SportsBusiness Journal. So we were pleasantly surprised when Messick accepted our offer to have an hour-long conversation about all things Ironman at the WTC offices in Tampa on Tuesday.

EnduranceSportsFlorida: Were you surprised at how disliked WTC was among triathletes?

Andrew Messick:No, because in my former life I was a lousy age grouper (from 2004-2006) when I was racing a lot. I had a clear point of view of how WTC was perceived even then. I did Ironman Canada and Ironman Lake Placid and those were great races, races that had soul and great community and people who were happy you were there. Even then people didn’t like WTC and it wasn’t clear to me exactly why, but that perception existed and there was the usual things you would see on message boards. “WTC didn’t care about athletes,” the usual stuff. It’s been there a long time and I knew it would be one of those things that would require effort, energy, and attention. It’s frustrating to a lot of people in this organization. People don’t acknowledge how much work and effort goes into the athlete experience. It’s easy for people to just assume that all the stuff that happens at a race – registration working, volunteers are there, having swim/bike/run courses that are safe – that all of that miraculously happens. It’s WTC people who do all that. I don’t think WTC as a company ever spent very much time focused on talking to athletes. The folks that used to run the place didn’t feel like they had any obligation to communicate to their customers, which I don’t agree with. I would much rather communicate and have disagreements now and then than never say anything, which is kind of what used to happen. There was a culture around here of you do what you think is right, you announce it, but you don’t explain why and eventually people will get over it. That’s not the way I was taught to do things.

Messick at Ironman Melbourne last month (Photo courtesy http://www.FinisherPix.com).

 

ESF: How much progress have you made on that front?

AM: We’re getting there. Whenever you’re running anything, you’re faced with lots of decisions and you have to choose.  Either we’re going to keep the way we do Kona qualification the same or we’re not and that’s a decision. Keeping it the way it is perpetuates the things that don’t work and it also perpetuates the things that do work. Changing it introduces new ideas and thinking but also upsets the status quo. No matter what you do there’s a choice involved. We’ve got super-smart, super-motivated athletes who do our races and there’s a super high level of engagement. If you explain what you’re trying to do and why you made the choices you did, by and large people understand. Not everyone will agree with you, but at least people understand why you did it and they don’t think you made a decision in a vacuum or made a decision without consulting any of the other shareholders and stakeholders. Understanding why you did something is very important and I don’t think we did a very good job historically of doing that. We’d say, here’s the new procedure and that’s it.

ESF: You’ve talked about expanding the Ironman customer base from 66,000 athletes annually to 150,000, and also bringing more races into the mix. Are you suggesting getting involved in races of shorter distances?

AM: We’re really good as an organization at producing – not necessarily destination races – but sort of the key races on athletes’ calendars. That’s what we’re good at. I was in Galveston (Texas for the Ironman 70.3) this past weekend and Melbourne (Australia) the weekend before. Those are great events, expensive, highly produced events that are the key races for our athletes that year. And we have a cost structure that is really designed to be able to deliver those kinds of events. I don’t think we have a cost structure that’s designed to deliver the Olympic distance. You can charge a premium for fulls, for 70.3s. It’s harder to charge a premium for Olympic distance events. Athletes want an event that’s at a certain price point and the Olympic distance race that’s more than $100 – there’s a lot of resistance to that. One of the things the 5150 experience taught us last year is that if you’re going to charge a lot more than $100, what is the additional value added? And if you can’t provide that, it’s a hard sell. So we’re in the process of trying to figure out if we can deliver the level of service of a 70.3 and an Ironman at an Olympic distance race at a price point that works for our consumers.

ESF: So this is the year to figure that out?

AM: Yeah. We’re a premium brand. BMWs struggle to hit Volkswagen price points. There’s nothing wrong with Volkswagens. I love ‘em; I’ve driven them my whole life. But you have to have a Volkswagen business system to make Volkswagens. We have a BMW business system to make BMWs.

Ironman athletes haven't always been at peace with WTC.

ESF: You have Iron Girl and IronKids. Are they in the same category as 5150 or is that a different conversation?

AM: That’s a different conversation. Iron Girl and IronKids are very different animals. With Iron Kids, we have a good partnership with HyVee, and HyVee supports our Midwestern Iron Kids series. We have a strong skew to the midwest. Most of our non-Hyvee Iron Kids races are attached to existing events. We leverage the fact that we’ve got a 70.3 in Boulder and we have a staff, team and infrastructure so there’s a ton of things we don’t have to replicate. Without a partner like HyVee, it would be pretty hard for us to have separate standalone IronKids events because it’s a low price point. With Iron Girl, we’ve got 16 North American events this year and we have a separate operational marketing and management team and they live the Iron Girl brand and that’s different from beginning to end in terms of what we deliver and how.

ESF: There seemed to be a point last year where Ironman was chasing every popular endurance trend such as half marathons and mud runs with Primal Challenge, which you canceled before it started. Was there a concern that you were getting away from your core business?

AM: I think that we may have lost sight a little bit of what we do and what we’re uniquely good at. We’re uniquely good at long distance triathlon, creating these very hard, very important, life-changing events for our athletes and I worry that by focusing on other stuff, we run the risk of not being as good as we need to at our bread and butter, the core of our business. We don’t have as many 5150s this year. We don’t have Primal Challenge. We don’t have our own timing business anymore. There’s a whole series of things we were getting into that in my mind took our eye off achieving real excellence at the things we need to be excellent at and that’s creating these extraordinary athlete experiences. Ironman Canada and Ironman Lake Placid changed my life. As an age grouper, training for those events, being part of the Ironman community, and crossing that finish line – it indelibly marked me like it does for a lot of our athletes. This organization is fiercely protective of that experience for our athletes and we need to make sure we stay laser focused on creating great races and treating our athletes the way they need to be treated and making sure the journey of our athletes is as good as it can be. To be that focused you have to be pretty systematic about getting rid of distractions. We had a lot of distractions and still have a lot of distractions. But we have fewer than we had nine months ago and we’ll have fewer a year from now.

ESF: What if you purchased a race registration site? Would that be a distraction or would that fit with your business model?

AM: That’s a big question for us. Active has been a great partner of ours for a long time. But at the same time there’s lots of other registration solutions out there and it’s clear we need to have more versatility in terms of what happens when athletes sign up and the ease of athlete sign-up and how we manage these incredible spikes in demand. It’s a complex set of choices we’re trying to figure out right now in terms of the whole race registration process. We need to have a better solution for our athletes and figure out what we’re going to do to handle demand. Melbourne sold out in less than five minutes a week ago. We’ve always had this situation for our races. Ironman Florida sold out in 11 minutes, Arizona in six or seven minutes. Our full Ironman races are selling out really quickly. Somewhere in the next year is a real serious conversation about what’s the fairest thing for our athletes. Is it at noon Eastern Time, Active registration opens and the fastest guys on the mouse get it? That’s fair if you live in the U.S. maybe but if you live in Australia and it’s three in the morning, I’m not sure that’s fair. I’m not sure it’s fair for people who are at work. There’s a whole question of how you handle demand and our registration partner is an important part of that. Is it a sign-up, a lottery, first in, best-dressed, which is how we do it today? Should there be an advantage to those who did it last year, to those who do more races with us? There’s a whole bunch of ways you can go and so we need to be pretty thoughtful in the next year about how that whole thing comes together.

ESF: Could you go the route of buying a system like Competitor did?

AM: The RaceIt system that Competitor has is a really good one. It’s designed for race registration and a lot of the problems we have. The system isn’t fully built out yet and it hasn’t been fully beta tested for all this stuff, for the unique things we have. To the best of my knowledge there aren’t any other systems, with the exception of concert systems, that have the kind of super high immediate demand. Trying to register thousands of athletes in three or four minutes creates a unique set of challenges.

The always dramatic Ironman swim start. Ready for increased television exposure?

ESF: What was your own Ironman experience like?

AM: I did Ironman Canada in 2005 (time of 12:34) and Lake Placid in 2006 (11:07). I did Canada with a broken arm, which is not recommended and completely blew up on the run. I did the Boston Marathon in 3:09 in 2006 and I don’t think I did a single mile at Canada in less than 11 minutes. I started cramping coming off Yellow Lake  (bike course) and my Ironman Canada run was 5:24. I’d walk 100 yards, jog 100 yards, just five and a half hours of severe pain. I had crashed my bike five days before in Central Park on my last tune-up ride. Someone stepped out in front of me, I went over the handlebars and had a radial head fracture in my elbow. The doctor said there was no risk of it getting worse unless I crashed again. So it was just a pain management exercise. I had played rugby and wore a rugby mouthpiece during the swim, which was very painful. What I hadn’t planed for was that I usually reach for bottles with my right arm (on the bike), and couldn’t do so because it was broke. I could only reach with my left, which screwed up my nutrition and I started cramping. That was my first Ironman experience. Lake Placid was the makeup race.

What impact will the biggest name in endurance sports have on triathlon? (Photo courtesy of http://www.FinisherPix.com)

ESF: You spent seven years (2000-2007) working for the NBA, which perhaps more than any other league leveraged its brand around superstars. How important is it to build bigger names in triathlon?

AM: Triathlon is unique in that its beating heart isn’t pro athletes; it’s age groupers. That makes it different than most other sports. When you go to an NBA game, you’re going to see Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or back in the day Michael, Magic, Larry, or Dr. J. People sign up for Ironman Lake Placid to do Ironman Lake Placid; it’s their journey. That said, there’s a huge opportunity for us to use pro athletes to talk more broadly about our sport, to increase awareness of our sport, to talk about the benefits, the things that triathlon uniquely delivers in terms of quality of life, setting goals. All of those are broader messages and benefits that our lifestyle promotes. Our pros are super smart, articulate, and motivated and by and large there hasn’t been the kind of connection between the company and professional athletes that you’d like. One of the big insights for me was seeing how disconnected pro athletes are from the rest of the business compared to cycling, running, or the NBA. It’s a huge untapped opportunity and I think we can do much better with our pros to build better relationships, to have them be stronger, more powerful advocates for our races and the sport and for us in return, to give them a better platform to make a living and attract sponsors. There’s an integration that hasn’t occurred, but we’re making progress and it will take some time. That was one of my bigger surprises, how much professional athletes weren’t integrated into what we do.

ESF: So how do you integrate them more into the company?

AM: When we go and pitch a sponsorship to Company X, we don’t do anything with our professionals. We don’t introduce our pro athletes to companies; we should. When we’re pitching an automotive company, we don’t say we have four pro athletes you should put under contract, and we’ll guarantee that you have six days a year for athletes A, B, or C. They can go to the regional dealer meeting in Tucson and talk to a group of your dealers about setting goals, working toward objectives, and telling their stories. Those types of things are really powerful and yet we’ve never viewed professional athletes as an asset. By doing that, you can introduce your athletes to important companies and they become ambassadors for you. So there’s really low hanging fruit there that we’re only now becoming organized enough to capture.

ESF: Do you need a dominant performer like Mark Allen or Dave Scott to emerge?

AM: Stars help in every sport and having people who have the ability and the charisma to take a sport off the sports page – or in our case to take the sport out of the endemic media – and get broader distribution is helpful. If you look at what Tiger Woods did for golf or what Magic, Michael and those guys did for basketball, those are transformative personalities. Look at Lance Armstrong and cycling in terms of television ratings, interest in the sport, and bikes sold. No question it’s helpful.

Armstrong considers the run his weakest leg of triathlon. (Photo courtesy www.FinisherPix.com)

ESF: Speaking of Lance Armstrong, if he’s only a top 10 finisher and not a contender in Ironman races, does that lessen the impact he has in triathlon?

AM: If you’d told anybody two months ago that Lance Armstrong at the age of 40 will go pro, finish top 10 in his first two (70.3) races and go under 3:55 in both of them, people would have said you’re out of your mind. Or if you flip-flopped Panama and Galveston and he went seventh in his first race and second in his second, we’re talking about an entirely different story. He came off the bike first in Galveston, was fourth until mile 12 (of the run) and like a lot of people who race, he had a bad last mile. It happens. It’s going to be exciting to see what happens, in Haines City (Fla.) and Nice and later in the year. It’s a great opportunity to get people focused on the sport of triathlon, people who wouldn’t ordinary be interested.

ESF: People love the NBC Kona package and watch Ironman races online. Obviously there are logistical challenges to broadcasting triathlon on television. But in 2012 shouldn’t there be live coverage of Ironman events somewhere on TV?

AM: We won’t have live television in 2012. We’re live online everywhere in the world. Our production and product is getting better. We’re seeing increases in traffic and viewership. We had more than 250,000 watching (Galveston 70.3) on Sunday and there are a lot of TV shows that don’t get that many watching. Whether it will be on TV or not, that’s hard. From a production/logistical perspective, it’s super challenging and we need a pretty compelling reason to do it. The races are long. You need big windows and you need to be on a network that has broad distribution and that’s not easy.

ESF: Is there anything in your NBC contract that precludes it?

AM: No. Between Universal Sports and NBC, contractually we’ve got the right to do all kinds of stuff. Whether NBC is going to create a multi-hour television window for us, I know the answer to that.

ESF: What about any of its sister networks?

AM: It’s a conversation but not one for 2012. For 2012, we’ll continue to have a strong relationship. Universal Sports will broadcast recaps of our races. Kona will be on NBC and we will have a live package that will get better over time that will largely be focused on our site (Ironman.com), not UniversalSports.com.

ESF: How important is it for Ironman to get more mainstream media coverage?

AM: I think it’s really important and what we have to do is find stories that mainstream media finds compelling enough to cover and without stars it’s really hard. There’s a lot of competition for writers’ time and column inches and you need to have a compelling story to tell and we’re trying every day to do that.

ESF: Can you answer the off-asked trademark question regarding Ironman and Iron Man? Is it simply that WTC owns the trademark as it applies to triathlon and Marvel owns everything else?

AM: It’s more complex than that. We’ve got areas where we can play and they can play. There are things we can and can’t do and things they can and can’t do. It works and has been heavily negotiated over many years.

Tough Mudder: Competitor or Complementary?

ESF: Obstacle races such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race are drawing huge numbers of people looking for a life-changing accomplishment. Do you view them as competition?

AM: I don’t think so. I haven’t been presented with any evidence that suggests someone wakes up and says, “I’m going to do Tough Mudder or an Ironman 70.3.” If anything I think it’s good for us. Ultimately, the more people who are out racing and competing in events – and I feel the same way about the Rock ‘N Roll marathon series – the more people eventually will move into our wheelhouse. The real base of the pyramid is signing up for events, whether it’s a local 5K or Tough Mudder. Getting people into the process of signing up and preparing for an event, doing a race and finishing, puts people on the way. The broader the base of participants, the broader the base who find their way to our events. We’re at the very top of the pyramid in that, if you’re a marathoner, someone doing Gran Fondos, or a competitive swimmer, at some point, Ironman is in the back of your head. If you’ve had a transformational life experience – you’ve had a heart attack and recovered or lost 50 pounds and you attribute it to achieving your goal – even if it’s only a 5K, you start thinking of your next goal and we’re part of that.

ESF: You’re a Southern California guy. Triathlon has strong ties to that region. There’s no longer anything tying Ironman to the Tampa Bay area. Do you plan to stay here long term?

AM: We’re about to expand to the other side of this floor and will have the whole floor. There’s a lot of other things to be focusing on right now. We’ve been in Tampa a long time; the staff is from Tampa and I have no plans to leave Tampa. I sold the house in Los Angeles. It’s been a really busy eight months and it will be a really busy next year. When I think of all the things we have to do and priorities and all the stuff that needs to happen, there’s a ton of mission critical stuff we have to tackle. That’s not mission critical. We’re fine here and have no plans to move.

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