Sadly, due to unavoidable levels of smoke in the area from the huge King wildfire, the decision was made – at the very last minute as it happened – to cancel the 2014 Ironman Lake Tahoe race. Although everyone due to race, support and otherwise be involved in this big event was bitterly disappointed, nobody was under any illusion that cancelling the race was the wrong decision. Put simply the levels of smoke in the air, and which only worsened during the course of the day, were hazardous to human health and assuming athletes weren’t forced by the conditions to drop out of the race – something that no athlete ever wants – then finishing such a grueling feat in such horrendous conditions would likely have resulted in serious health issues long after crossing the finish line.
As a first-timer who has, like every other athlete pursuing the Ironman dream, devoted themselves wholeheartedly to training and preparing for this epic endeavour over the course of the last year, including sacrificing elements of a normal social life and everything else that goes with ensuring you turn up to that start line in the best possible mental and physical fitness, I was gutted to hear the announcement, even if it had been a significant possibility in the days leading up. I guess what made the eventual result more crushing was the fact that we were literally about to start the swim, with many athletes already in the water awaiting the start canon, and there was, for a good while afterwards, an air of disbelief and hope that someone would jump back on the tanoy to tell us that actually they had made a mistake and the race would indeed go ahead afterall. Alas that wasn’t to be and so thousands of us simply collected up our meticulously prepared kit and wandered off to collect our bikes and ultimately await the response from the WTC, which was due a few days later.
Although everyone was disappointed, not one person I have spoken with believes the decision to cancel the race was wrong given the poor air quality. However, everyone also agreed that anything other than a free pass into next year’s event or, possibly, the option to race elsewhere sooner, given the fact that athletes were all fit and race ready now, was the most obvious and expected course of action from the WTC, the organisers of the Ironman races. There had, however, been mutterings of cynicism and some suggesting that it was not in Ironman’s style to offer free anything and that the T&Cs that we would have all agreed to in signing up for the race in the first place would allow Ironman to do as they pleased. Regardless of whatever any T&Cs may or may not say – and let’s be honest, who actually ever reads those things now anyway? If we did then I daresay most of us would never actually sign up for anything, ever! – the general consensus was that we could trust Ironman to do the decent thing by us athletes and our supporters, especially given the huge level of out of pocket expense that we have all suffered, especially those traveling from abroad for the event, such as I did coming all the way from Dubai, a not-insignificant 15 hour flight away!
So, it was with a deep sense of frustration, further bitter disappointment and ultimately anger towards the WTC and Ironman that I read the ‘Options email.’ We have been given the option to either sign up, on a first come, first served basis (fair enough given the limited slots available) for one of several upcoming alternative races, or to sign up for next year’s IM Lake Tahoe race, but at a cost of $100! For those of us who have traveled from outside of the US we also have the option of registering for one of a selection of non-US races at 50% discount to the normal (very high) registration fee. Oh, and if we do go ahead and take them up on their oh-so-generous offer then we get to be entered into a lottery for a handful of Kona, Hawaii slots, the Holy Grail of Ironman and something that many of us would have been racing our hearts out in pursuit of on race day anyway. The email was worded to sound as though Ironman are being incredibly generous and gracious to us all by not simply charging us full price to return to race, as I am sure they ultimately have every right to do. They miss the point entirely though.
Here was a prime opportunity to turn bitter disappointment into a positive force and for IM to come out smelling of roses as opposed to charred wood, and they have choked, like most of us still here in Tahoe have been doing each day since the cancellation. I fully expect that IM Lake Tahoe was insured against such an unlikely but ultimately costly eventuality as a cancellation, with many speculating that the reason the decision to cancel was only made at the very last minute in spite of it being blatantly clear that the smoke was awful and was not about to go anywhere anytime soon, was that they would then be able to claim on any such insurance policy. As such, I strongly suspect that the hugely profitable corporate machine that is Ironman will not end up too much out of pocket, unlike the thousands of us who have poured time, effort, sweat, tears and a large sum of cash into this race over the last year. I alone shudder at the mental total I calculate when I tot up the amount spent for everything from air fares, to accommodation, to car hire, to kit, to coaching (money extremely well spent I hasten to add!), altitude preparation, to food, to, well, everything. Not to mention the fact that I have been fundraising for charity, with donors supporting me and my chosen charity, the WVS (Worldwide Veterinary Service), in racing an Ironman, not getting to the starting line of one and having to then walk away. Ironman’s stance seems to be that it is ultimately up to everyone else to bear the financial burden of what was ultimately their decision – again, made in good faith but still their decision – whilst they walk away with limited downside and knowing full well that we have all worked too darned hard and have too much invested, both physically, fiscally and emotionally, to just walk away from our Ironman dreams. As such they know the vast majority will pay, even if it is with a deep sense of disgust at the powers that be, in order to realise that dream. To me that simply smacks of callous, corporate profiteering in stark contrast to what I personally hoped and did previously believe was Ironman’s true priority: athletes and the sport.
What do I think should have been the response of the organisers to this year’s cancellation? Simple: the option to automatically register for next year’s IM Lake Tahoe race at NO additional cost. As many athletes would not be able to commit to a return to Tahoe then the option to apply for one of the limited spaces in other races on the Ironman calendar again, at NO additional cost, would have been the right thing to do. Ironman can certainly afford to do this if they so choose. What I feel they can’t afford to do, or would be well advised not to do, is add insult to injury by charging even a dime for athletes to continue pursuing their dream, especially given how astronomically expensive it is to sign up for their races. I have emailed the organisers in reponse to the option email we received and am currently awaiting a reply, although the cynic in me expects that either the response will not be to my satisfaction or that it will be delayed until the deadline for taking up their ‘offer’ approaches and I am effectively forced to cough up (again, ironic considering where I am writing this) yet more cash for Ironman. I have already said I wish to return to Tahoe as I have unfinished business with this race, and owe it to my coach and supporters, especially those who have supported me through charitable donation to WVS, to complete this race. Ironman, I believe, know this and are choosing to exploit this fact. Shame on them.