Friday, December 9, 2011

Why I'm Running the HITS 70.3 Next Summer

Like many people new or newish to the sport of triathlon, I found myself looking at the 70.3 distance after having successfully completed multiple races in the Sprint and Olympic categories. Also, like many others, my initial focus was on an event run by the World Triathlon Corporation. That is to say, something called an Iron Man (or Half Iron Man more accurately).

That seemed like a fairly easy choice. WTC acquired a local race series in Boulder and added the 70.3 distance this year. Boulder is a natural choice for such an event in Colorado. It is home to top professionals and age-groupers alike. Laura and Greg Bennett recently graced the cover last summer’s USA Triathlon magazine running through Chatauqua Park with the Flat Irons in the background.

So as my first full season came to a close, I began to look at this event as the one I would target. Given that it would be my first 70.3 event, I liked the idea of doing it locally and not dealing with the difficulties of travel. I may want to do that for a future event, but not my first. No problems, right? It seemed pretty easy.

Well, not so easy after I found out about the HITS Triathlon Series.

HITS is an organization that has up-to-now been involved in putting on equine show jumping productions. Yes, you read the correctly: horse jumping. From what I read, they’ve been very successful in this arena. But what does a company associated with horse jumping shows have to do with Triathlons? Well, it turns out that the company’s founder is a bit like you and me. Tom Struzzieri is an amateur triathlete who became addicted to the sport. Unlike most of us, he already had a company that was in a position to stage the events. Combined with coach and USAT Certified Race Director Mark Wilson and Ironman legend Dave Scott, they’ve set an ambitious schedule of 12 races plus a championship.

Each race will consist of five distances. Since WTC owns the Ironman trademark, the 140.6 and 70.3 races are referred to as full and half respectively. There are also Olympic and Sprint races as well as something they call the Open. The latter is a very short race consisting of a 100 meter swim, a 3 mile bike and a 1 mile run. With a minimum entry age of just 7, you may see a lot of kids in this race, but they are encouraging any curious first-timers to participate as well. Given the number of events, the races are staged over a Saturday and Sunday at the respective locations with the two longer races taking place on Sunday. All races are also USAT certified so there is no question about authenticity or legitimacy.

Due to some construction being done at the water venue for the Galena, Illinois event, HITS announced on October 12 that they were moving it to Fort Collins, Colorado. The dates for it are July 28-29, 2012.

All right. Now you have the background. So why would this appeal to me. Well, initially it didn’t. I wanted to participate in the big, brand-named WTC event in Boulder. I even drove around the bike course one Saturday just to see it in person. I was, at that time, more convinced than ever that the Boulder event on August 5 was the one for me. However, not wanting to rush to judgment as well as not being faced with an imminent decision, I decided to give it some thought.

Part of the process meant researching a little more on the event via their website. Within a week or so of hearing about the race from my brother, they had their course maps available online—and if you’ve read me before, you know that is a major plus in my mind. Unlike its Boulder competitor, the HITS course is a single loop. It also goes through some steep but scenic territory in the mountains west of Horsetooth Reservoir and then down the Poudre Canyon. There is something to be said about not having to ride multiple laps (though the full course racers will do the circuit two times).

I also started thinking about some of the things I discussed in my post about the racing industry and the importance of getting a good value for the fees you pay. I had always associated WTC with that, but I had to question if that perception was not the result of good branding on their part as opposed to really earning the reputation. Given the fact that WTC and the Ironman brand are so highly showcased in Kona each fall, you have to ask yourself if that isn’t playing a role. Shoe companies, airlines, computer makers and many others enjoy great market share because of brand awareness. But does that actually make them the best?

Then I read this post on DC Rainmaker’s site about how WTC had been preemptively cancelling events to avoid a “sizable loss.” I didn’t really think that would be a concern for the sold-out race in Boulder, but the practice sticks in my craw. It’s the kind of thuggish behavior a company that dominates a market ought to avoid if for no other reason than there will come a day when they won’t be the only player in that space.

Ironman Boulder to make a point would be disingenuous. In fact, I am planning on participating in another WTC production: the local version of the 5150 series, the Boulder Peak Triathlon. If the HITS had not come to Colorado, I probably would also be looking to register for the WTC event. I’ve also had my eye on doing some of their out-of-town races in the future. Ultimately, this is a decision I’m making as a consumer, not as an advocate for better treatment of triathletes.

That point leads me to a philosophy that Tom Struzzieri expressed in this interview with He’s approaching this race series with a focus on customer service and meeting the demands of those customers. He’s not deigning to “let” racers participate in his vaunted event, but rather doing all he can to earn their patronage. To quote from the interview:

We do and will endeavor to treat each customer as if he or she is the most important.

As I said, I’m not about making statements or standing up for a cause. If that’s your thing fine, but it’s not really my style. However, participating in HITS does provide what I would call ancillary benefits. First, I get to participate in an inaugural event. Should this take off, I get to be one of the ones who was there first. Second, while it’s not a cause, I do believe in a competitive market place and if the benefits of participating in HITS align with my demands, then I’m happy my participation promote that competition. If nothing else, it might help keep entry fees in check. Third, I’m an admirer of the scrappy upstart. Nearly every successful company today has that story to tell—just think of Apple Computer. I can’t help but respect the audacity of a firm that has essentially decided to go head-to-head with the 800 pound gorilla that is WTC.

All this said, there are certainly some risks including some that might be so critical as to cause me to end up registering for another race instead. While the first event went off successfully in Palm Springs on the weekend of December 3 and 4, that is no guarantee that future events will run as smooth. Nor is it an assurance that field of 1000 participants will show up at every race. If the Fort Collins event were canceled in a few months due to low registration, there’s a pretty good chance that the Ironman Boulder event will already be sold out and to the best of my knowledge, there are no other 70.3 events in the state again until September.

So…yeah…there’s some risk involved. But on balance, I think the potential rewards outweigh the risks. The Boulder event sported some 1300+ athletes last year and even with a wave start, that makes for a pretty crowded swim. By comparison, the two longer distance events in the Palm Springs HITS race totaled 139 finishers. No doubt that will grow if the race is successful and a summer event may also draw more participants, but it’s still likely to be a less crowded start and transition area. Additionally, this course looks remarkable. Challenging, but remarkable. Horsetooth Reservoir’s site between steep hills is far more scenic. The bike course is steep—dauntingly so. But it’s also through some of the most beautiful land in the entire country. How often do you get to do any part of a tri in the mountains?

So for now, count me in. I’ll be watching with interest to see of the January 6 and 7 event in Naples, Florida is as successful as Palm Springs was. Assuming it is, I’ll be ready to pony up my $250 and set my sights on Northern Colorado in late July.

I plan on talking a lot more about this event including a post that will (hopefully) include the video I shot of the bike course.

For now, thanks for reading and happy training!

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