Friday, October 7, 2011

eMail to CBC re: Don Cherry

Dear CBC Sports,

When is enough, is enough for you with Don Cherry? I know that it's all about the ratings and the numbers as, I know that Cherry's, Coaches Corner segment is perhaps the most watched 5 minutes on CBC TV all week. However, it's reached the point that he's an absolute disgrace and embarrassment not just to you, but to the whole sport of hockey.

The man has lost all touch with reality. At one time, many years ago, he was remotely funny, but now he's just sad, and pathetic. Do the right thing and get rid of him, now! He's supposed to be a HOCKEY ANALYST - so get someone on there that really knows hockey - today's version of hockey, not how they played 30 years ago!!! Don lives in a time bubble and he's NEVER moved on from that. The game moved on from where Don is at, years ago.

How much does the back-lash against his offensive, and bewildering tirades (often not even about hockey), have to go on, until you take action. I always turn off the TV, or leave the room whenever Don comes on now - and I know that I am not alone in my disgust for his diatribes.

Best regards,

Steve Fleck
Aurora, Ont.

Hardest Job on Race Day

The zebras gather for a final briefing.

It's stressful. It's pretty serious. It may be the hardest job on race day. You could impact the outcome of the Pro and AG races or take someone right out of the race. It can get dangerous. It's a thankless job. It's a volunteer position. It's being a draft marshall on the bike.

After every one of the big, really competitive Ironman races it's often the number one complaint - the drafting on the bike. Thousands are often racing, yet a small handful of volunteer officials and moto drivers, also donating their time, and bikes, are used to rule over all of this.

For two years in Hawaii at the Ironman World Championships I was a draft marshall on the bike. One year I was assigned to the very front of the Age-Group men and the next year I worked closely with Head Race Referee Jimmy Riccitello working the front and main group of the Pro Mens race.

Many of the complaints for Ironman Hawii (IMH) stem from what goes on in the first 20 kilometers of the race. However, I don't think many athletes listen at the pre-race meeting when they are told, that due to the tightness of the course and the volume of traffic, that loop that they do around Kailua town proper, will not be marshalled. This is for their safety and the safety of the moto drivers and the draft marshalls. It's not until the race get's out onto the Queen K Hwy. proper and starts heading north to Hawi that the draft marshalls will start to scrutinize what's going on. Personally, I think this is a fair way of doing this, as it gives athletes a bit of a neutral buffer zone to sort things out before they really get down to business

The picture at the top is of Riccitello, going over a few last minute details and instructions in the Draft Marshall staging area on the Queen K Hwy just as the race starts to head north to Hawi.

The day before the race all the race officials meet up, and Riccitello goes over a number of details and makes sure that we are all clear on the rules, and that we are all working from the same rule book. Since officials are coming from all over the place to work at this race, it's interesting to hear the minor variations in the drafting rules from place to place. However, it's imperative that here, at the Ironman World Championship that we are all working from the same rule book. We are also assigned a general area/place the race that we will be working - main Pro men pack, main Pro women pack, lead wave of age-group men, 10 mins back from that . . and so on. For the Pro races we work in tandem with another marshall.

Riccitello also goes over a few things with us regarding our own safety - it can get very hot out there on the backs of the motorcycles. Make sure that we always keep our driver's, our safety and the athletes safety top of mind. It can get surprisingly hectic out there, with all the athletes, other race support vehicles, media vehicles and motos. This is particularly so at aid stations. Keep your head up.

On race morning we have time to watch the start of the swim, but shortly after that we need to make our way to the place in town where we meet( The Firestone Station at the foot of Palini Hill in town) We are then matched up with our drivers and we head out as a group to the main staging area on the Queen K. Again this is where Riccitello goes over a few last minute details. Then as the first of the Pro man start to stream by, we roll out on the road with our drivers and start following along.

The first year I did this I was assigned to the first major group of Age-Group men. The next year I worked with Riccitello on the main group of Pro Men. While being in the midst of the Pro men's race was very interesting, and actually watching the dynamics of it all, you have to stay focused on the task at hand. For the most part, all the Pro men get it. They stay almost exactly the legal 10m apart. They are helped by the little cat-eye reflectors running along the white line that separates the main road from the shoulder as these are almost exactly 10m apart. I also use them as a guide-line as well. For the longest time on the way out to Hawi, other than a few riders off-the-front, it's a long, legal line of 25 - 30 men. It's an impressive site. From time to time, there is a shuffling of the deck as riders move up or back, but again these guys know the rules and they know that they have roughly 25 sec. to sort things out and at the end of the 25 sec. count, they are all back in the legal line.

I wish that I could say that the situation amongst the lead Age-Group men was the same. Unfortunately it is not. That being said, it's fairly easy to pick out the flagrant and abusive drafters, vs the ones who are caught inadvertently in a bad situation. I am looking for intent - that's key. 25 seconds is a long time if you count it out and a lot can happen in that 25 sec. What I am looking for is movement - specifically, purposeful movement relative to the riders around other riders over the course of that 25 sec. This is why, the only way that you can fairly asses and marshall drafting in a triathlon race is from the back of a motorcycle, close to the riders moving along at roughly the same speed as the riders. It can't be done from the side of the road. Static pictures or even video from a stationary position on the side of the road is useless. Even moving along with the race from arrears of a group of riders - you can't really tell what is going on. In fact, that was a common complaint I would hear. "Look at them", a lone rider 75m adrift of a small group of riders ahead would shout at me. "They are drafting like crazy up there". Yet, when I would get up there, all was perfectly legal. You can't tell from that far back. You need to be almost beside the riders moving along at their speed and see how things evolve over 25 sec chunks of time.

Of course, when penalties were handed out there was all kinds of complaining and even verbal abuse - the latter was noted as well. Then there was the "I don't understand English", with a shrug of the shoulders! Most penalized riders had, "a story", but a few got it. After giving a four minute penalty that needed to be served at the next penalty tent on the road, I would always wait, and make sure that the rider clearly understood that they had a penalty, and that they were clear where the next penalty tent was. Only then would I leave them and move on. Failure to stop would mean a DQ.

After nearly 6 hours of that, we are more or less done. Except the one year, when just coming back into town, the motorcycle I am on, get's a flat tire and we need to wait on the side of the road for help. Once back into town I head to the officials tent and hand in my penalty note book. This is then cross-referenced with all the people that stopped for penalties at the various penalty tents along the way to make sure that they actually stopped.

My day was done!

What are your feelings regarding the draft marshalling that you have seen at either Ironman Hawaii or other races that you have been to?

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Really Crazy Side of Ironman Hawaii - The Under-Pants Run

The annual gathering of the Under-Pants Run Tribe at Pacific Vibrations

Full disclosure - I did my first Ironman, at Ironman Hawaii (IMH) in 1989 wearing a Speedo bathing suit the whole way for swim, bike and run. Not sure what I was thinking. Perhaps I had lost my mind, in that I thought that the 30 or so seconds that I would save in transition, would be a factor in a 9 hour race!! However, I was not alone - I seem to recall many competitors in that race going all the way in the Speedo.

On the race course was one thing, but around town during race week was something else. I kind of got this, but there was a group of triathletes back then that seemed to think that living in the Speedo full-time was acceptable/normal - going shopping, hanging out at coffee shops, running to/from the pier for a swim, all in the Speedo. Unbeknown to these folks the local Hawaiians were taking great offense to the Haole's behavior. I didn't see anything, but I had heard that there had been some confrontations and incidents.

In 1998 during IMH race week, Ironman vets and good friends Paul Huddle, Tim Morris, and Chris Danahy, wearing only white briefs, set out to set the record straight and change the mind-set, with the first Under-Pants Run. (Be sure to read over "The Rules") The three of them started out in front of a modest crowd gathered at Lava Java one morning for coffee & breakfast with a cheer and a few laughs. They wanted to point out, by sending up and lampooning the typical race and casual garb of more than a few triathletes that they were offending the locals!

And so it started. If you scroll through the postings at this link, you'll see a number of posts by Huddle re-counting with a great deal of hilarity, various Under-Pants runs at IMH over the years, and at other Ironman races around the world. Some others, such as the ones at Ironman Lake Placid and Ironman Canada have become very big deals. Even though these runs have nothing to do with the race, or have a formal relationship with the WTC or Ironman , they now often get put in the official schedule of each IM race, and for many they are a must-do event during Ironman race week! Forget that silly little World Championship race on Saturday! I kid you not, that there will be people there in Kona who have traveled there - just to do the Under-Pants run!!

As fate would have it, this year's Under-Pants run it is this morning in Kailua-Kona. The crowds both taking part and watching, have grown over the years, and I would say that over 500 people take part now and 2 - 3 times that watch along the roughly 3km route( GPS'd down to the last meter of course!).

Leading this year's run at IMH, despite recent hip-replacement surgery, is the other key founder, ring-leader, keeper-of-the-faith and reader of the always important, "Oath" of the Under-Pants Run, Roch Frey.

The message is still important - wear the Speedo on the pier and while swimming and no where else. However, if nothing else it injects a good bit of fun and frivolity into a week where there are 2,000 completely stressed out, deer-in-the-head-lights-looking triathletes, taking just about everything way too seriously all gathered in one place. You'll see lots of compression socks, heart rate monitor straps, giant GPS units on the wrists being worn and all manner of underwear being worn, but the "official" attire is white Y-Fronts (BVD's Fruit-of-the-Loom etc . .) for the men, and I don't think they have ever figured out what the "official" woman's kit should be.

These days beyond the message, and the silliness of it all, it's about raising money for great causes. No entry fee is asked for, but donations are gladly accepted, and there is cool Underpants Run merchandise for sale! I know that several thousand dollars is raised each year for charity with the generous donations that these nearly naked people pitch in.

What does the Under Pants Run mean to you? Do you take part in the Under Pants Run, when you go to an Ironman Race?

2013 Edit: The UP Kona Run Charities this year will be VASH & Ahu' ena Heiau. Mo' info here -

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Business of Ironman Hawaii

This is not so much about the actual business of Ironman Hawaii itself, but about the businesses that are focused on the triathlon business and how they make use of Ironman Hawaii to advance their businesses.

It's pretty clear, that within the sport of triathlon that the #1 race and event each year that most triathletes pay attention to is the Ford Ironman World Championships, aka Ironman Hawaii (IMH). Therefore, it makes sense that there is so much focus on this one event from a marketing and promotional perspective for brands and companies, that work within the triathlon market or brands and companies that want in, and want a part of that market.

In yesterdays blog I talked about how Quintana Roo bike founder, and now Slowtwitch Publisher Dan Empfield, in a very grass-roots and basic manner went about promoting his new triathlon specific bike at Ironman Hawaii many years ago. This is how I first met Dan - with bare QR frame slung over his shoulder, at the pier one morning, pumping me up on this new frame geometry that he had come up with that would make me cycle faster and run faster off the bike. He was very passionate about this. I was convinced right on the spot!

The triathlon crowd at IMH is somewhat unique and novel in that trying to market and promote to them is a bit of a mixed blessing:

1. This is for the most part a best-of-the-best group, who tend to be set in their ways, have their favorite gear, and brands, might already be "sponsored", and are sophisticated in their choices. In other words, it takes a lot to move them one way or the other.

2. The best that could be said about many of these folks is that they can be major influencers and ambassadors back home in their own communities. So if you do get them on board, you have a great mega-phone at a local level.

Many companies continue to do what Dan did years ago - just show up and informally, start to spread the word of their brand or product. The Pier at the morning swims is the perfect location for this, because within a couple hours each morning all week long, you'll have 500 - 1,000+ athletes and the many other folks in town converging on the Pier. It's a rare morning when you do go down to the Pier and not walk away with some promotional literature, possibly a little give away shwag, or a sales pitch on something. In fact, I am drinking my coffee this morning out of a coffee cup that was part of a cooperative marketing effort on the pier at the morning swim two years ago between TYR , and Java-On-The Rock, a coffee shop along Alii drive.

A slight step up from this would be the companies like Coffees-of-Hawaii who to the best of my knowledge have no official status with IMH, other than that company owner Albert Boyce is a regular competitor at the event - but they know that triathletes love their coffee! Coffees-of-Hawaii promote themselves in a very unique way by mooring a large catamaran about 400m out from the pier and anyone out there swimming can swim-up and get a shot of Coffees-Of-Hawaii espresso, and if you are very nice they might put an extra shot of something really nice in it for you!( If you know what I mean!!) That's me in the picture at the top downing an espresso + Baily's two years ago!

Another level up from this is the more aggressive guerrilla marketing that can go on amongst the bigger brands and players in the business - typically with brands trying to move on in, on the space that a WTC or IMH sponsor has. I recall years ago, when Gatorade was about to launch their new energy bar. The launch location was Ironman Hawaii and at the time Gatorade was the official sports beverage. PowerBar had had an informal relationship with IMH for several years. The exact details of which I don't really know. I just know that in 1993, PowerBar was suddenly not given any formal allowances with IMH, because IMH wanted to do everything it could for Gatorade in helping them get this new energy bar off the ground. This prompted the marketing team at PowerBar to shift into high-gear and they immediately signed up a bunch of the top Pros in the month prior to IMH and then they also went room to room at the King Kam Hotel and gave people( probably in exchange simply for a box of PowerBars) a PowerBar banner to put over their balcony. When you came along Alii drive right by the finish line and race registration all you could see was about 100+ PowerBar banners flapping on people's balconies of the King Kam Hotel.

Gatorade dug deep and it got a bit nasty - at the Pro Meeting that year, they went so far as to say that, some of those neophyte PowerBar sponsored athletes would get limited, or no camera time for the NBC show - even if they were placed high up!! Of course years later, this is all moot as the Gatorade energy bar never caught on and now PowerBar/Nestle is a world-wide partner of WTC/Ironman and Gatorade is no longer involved!!

Another perhaps not as dramatic or guerrilla-type of marketing, we have been witness to just this past week - but no less impactful based on the strategy and some good fortune that fell in a key players lap.

Specialized started to build up hype about a new super triathlon bike, a month ago at Interbike. "Top-Secret - wait till Kona", the promotional material said. At exactly the same time, two time winner of IMH Craig Alexander decided to part ways with his bike sponsor Orbea. At the WTC's 70.3 World Championship four weeks ago, Alexander was riding on a Cervelo P4 with the logos blacked out! Alexander won that race, in convincing fashion and had perhaps his best bike leg ever against this level of competition. Speculation was starting to build. Then a grainy, "spy-photo" of Alexander came out, of him training in Kona two weeks ago - It was hard to tell from the photo what bike or brand he was riding. The the speculation and rumors shifted into over-drive. On the Slowtwitch Forum several of the threads with the biggest page-views of the year, where on this topic - "What Bike is Craig Riding". Specialized had their launch a few days ago of this new triathlon specific bike - the new Shiv in Kona, and then a day later, it's announced that Alexander's new bike sponsor is . . . . Specialized!

Specialized was savvy about this. They knew that for many triathletes, it's all about the bike. I am sure they also knew that, with the new media, and the social networking tools that are out there now, that word and news, spreads very quickly ounce you plant those viral seeds. Then of course, the #1 favorite for the most important race in the sport, literally falls right in their lap, and BAM - well, you could not have planned it any better! Or might this have been part of some grander master marketing plan??

Of course, if we are talking bikes and IMH, we need to talk about Cervelo. Ironically, in both triathlon and in road racing, Cervelo has been very successful. They have won just about everything. The one "major" that they have not won is the mens race at IMH - and it may have just slipped through their hands for this year! But does it really matter? Cervelo dominates in the one category that really matters - the most bikes in transition at IMH and many other big triathlons around the world. They crush it in the bike counts. Strangely, Cervelo arrived at this point a number of years ago, by doing things in a somewhat non-traditional manner, with far less traditional marketing than normal. Does who wins IMH riding a Cervelo matter to Cervelo these days?

Finally, there are all the real IMH sponsors. It costs a lot of money to be formally and directly associated with the WTC and IMH as a sponsor, partner or licensee. These relationships can be hugely successful - think of the Timex Ironman watch. The Timex/Ironman relationship is generally speaking regarded as one of the most successful co-branding relationships of all time. And it all started at Ironman Hawaii. And Ford seems to be getting good value for it's title sponsorship of not just IMH but almost all the Ironman races in North America. But there are many other smaller brands that so have a relationship that we rarely hear about. Is it worth it for them?

How influenced are you, by who the sponsors are of Ironman Hawaii and by the marketing that other companies do during Ironman Hawaii race week?

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Monday, October 3, 2011

Ironman Hawaii - Then and Now

When I first went to Kona for Ironman Hawaii in 1989, the sport of triathlon was tiny and the group of athletes in it, was this small, obscure group of fitness fanatics and endurance junkies. Everyone knew everyone else. The sport even today, compared to many other sports is rather small, but back then it was really small.

Comparing Ironman Hawaii today to the race back then, there were some major differences:

- No UnderPants Run. Most triathletes did the whole race, and practically lived in their speedos while in Kona for the race, with great offense to the locals. Hence the need for the UP run to bring attention to this bad habit.

- No internet. Seriously. You had to wait at least a month until Triathlete Magazine came out with the story of the race to actually find out what happened. Or even longer to watch the race on TV on NBC. Believe it or not back then they actually covered the race

- No Cervelo and a host of other main-stay brands in the sport. Cervelo co-founders, Phil White & Gerard Vroomen had just started their Master's in Engineering at McGill University

- No Slowtwitch (see No Internet) Hard to imagine!

- No Ford. The sponsor back then was Bud-Lite!

- No wind. Every few years, Madame Pele gives a calm year with gentle to no winds. Mercifully '89 was one of those years.

- No Ironman Lake Placid, Ironman Florida, Ironman Arizona etc . . In fact the only other Ironman in North America was Ironman Canada!

- No 70.3 races. Back then it was simple - you called them half-Ironmans

- No timing chips and no Sportstats. Results were all manually done and analog.

- No compression socks, super swim suits, power meters, super-aero bikes, salt pills or complicated nutrition strategies. How did we do it?

I recall getting the hand-book that the race organizers mailed to you about a month before the race( Mail, remember that?) I was floored when I read the recommended weekly training distances to finish the Ironman. It was something like 8 miles swimming/300 mikes cycling/60 miles running. Good Lord help me, I thought. I was averaging about half of those totals!!

As mentioned in yesterdays blog, '89 was the year of Dave Scott & Mark Allen's now famous and epic Iron War. Given the closeness of that race and given modern day's really live coverage on, I would think that this titanic battle between those two giants of the sport, would have made for some very compelling viewing.

My only memory of it all was on the way out to the turn on the run, and with Dave & Mark barreling along back along the same lane of road, I was forced off into the shoulder to run for about 100m, by the phalanx of followers on bikes, cars and media people following the Dave & Mark show along. That was the live coverage of the race back then! Watch it yourself!

Another completely personal, but potential change-the-course-of-history incident was when a few days before the race when I was coming out of the drive-way of our condo on Alii Drive, for a bike ride and nearly taking Dave Scott out, while he was out for a run! Of course Dave would unfortunately, go on to loose that battle with Mark, that day, but in retrospect, I could have potentially robbed the triathlon world of the Iron War!

Final anecdote from '89: There was a guy walking around town that week with a strange looking bare bike frame slung over his shoulder. It was a new bike company with, what the man called, a "triathlon specific" geometry. He said it would make you cycle faster, and run better. That man's name was Dan Empfield, and the bike company had taken the name of one of the states of Mexico - Quintana Roo My only thought at the time, was, we are in Hawaii, why not name the company after one of the Hawaiian Islands?

If you raced Ironman Hawaii, "Back in the day", what are your memories? What's different now in your view?

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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Kona Crazy

It's that time of year. Time to go crazy for Kona - Ironman Hawaii in Kona, Hawaii. I'll admit that I have a soft spot for Ironman Hawaii. Did my first Ironman there in 1989 - year of Dave Scott & Mark Allan's "Iron War" (read on). Raced it again in 1993 - didn't go well. Returned 15 years later when my wife Paolina Allan raced in 2008, and then again the following year.

Within the sport of triathlon, it's the biggest race of the year. It's the race that for the last week, and for sure next week, will have the Slowtwitch Forum humming along with some of it's biggest traffic of the year and every second thread will be something relating to Ironman Hawaii. It's the race that everyone wants to talk about. Every triathlete has a feeling about. Every triathlete wants to do. Why are we all crazy for Kona?

Clearly the World Triathlon Corporation(WTC) know this and it's the center-piece of a world-wide series of Ironman races and central to the Ironman brand. I talked a bit about this - the significance of Ironman, and where the brand is at and it's importance in the sport in a blog from last year - "What Now for Ironman".

This week before race week, has been rather interesting. Controversy has been swirling around one of the race favourites - two time winner, Craig Alexander, over speculation about, of all things, what bike he'll be riding on race-day! Seriously - it's important stuff, because, if you know anything about this sport , it's all about the bike. There has been one, lone, grainy picture circulating around the internet that's taken on a Zapruder-Film like aura to it of Alexander riding on some mysterious new bike along the famous Queen K Highway (aka Highway 19 - picture at top) out training earlier this week. No one seems to be exactly sure what this bike is. Race day will reveal all!

Next up was the revelation that, the details of Dave & Mark's Iron-War had been significantly distorted in a just published new book by Matt Fitzgerald, called, fittingly enough, "Iron War" I learned of this, in an eMail that Dave & Mark had sent out explaining in detail their disappointment with Fitzgerald's accounting and in particular his portrayal of them as being mentally unstable. A defamation law-suit had apparently been launched.

Speculation is that triathlon's prodigal son, 7-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, may drop in for a reconn and a look-see. Armstrong recently made his much talked about return to the sport of triathon at the recent Xterra USA Championship triathlon in Utah. Of course the one triathlon race course, that everyone wants to see him on is . . . . . . Ironman Hawaii! Not this year, but possibly next year.

I am sure that other big news will pop up as race week unfolds - it always does. Last year's bomb-shell was that on race morning. 2-time defending Champion and the undisputed absolute favourite for the woman's race, Chrissie Wellington had pulled out do to the Flu.

Stay tuned. I'll try and blog a few times this week to comment on various happenings and events at Ironman Hawaii - viewed from afar in the comfort of my own home in Aurora, Ontario! With so many people I know over in Kona, and following along their Twitter, Facebook and blog feeds, it feels like I'm there!

Why are we Crazy for Kona?

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