The recent Olympic Games have drawn extra attention to Olympic-distance racing this year, including to the Hy-Vee Elite Cup, which will be seeing perhaps its strongest ever field of pro triathletes. The Des Moines, Iowa, race, which is known for having the largest prize purse in the sport (with $151,500 going to the first-place male and female), will be held on Sept. 2. Triathlete.com caught up with Darin Hirl, the director of event marketing for Hy-Vee who oversees the event operations of the Hy-Vee Triathlon. He shared with us what other Olympic medalists we’ll see next weekend, why the increase in age grouper registration numbers and how the community of Des Moines is embracing the Labor Day weekend events.
Triathlete.com: Alistair Brownlee confirmed this week that he’ll be racing at Hy-Vee—did he reach out to you guys, or did the race contact him?
Hirl: Actually we reached out to him. We reached out to the gold, silver and bronze medalists for both the men and women. We sent them a special invite less than a week after they won their medals.
Triathlete.com: Do you think other pros will be eager to take on the reigning Olympic gold medalist?
Hirl: Oh absolutely. We can say without a doubt we have the best field of pro athletes we’ve ever had. We’re excited about it. I’ve talked to our race director Bill Burke every day, multiple times a day, and he hears not only calls to him but from WTC from pro athletes that are extremely excited about going. He even gets calls from athletes wanting to get into the race.
Triathlete.com: Are there other Olympic medalists that confirmed they would be racing?
Hirl: Yes, the silver medalist for the men, Javier Gomez, has confirmed he’d be going. And on the women’s side we have confirmation from Lisa Norden—she won last year. She’s the reigning Hy-Vee Elite Cup winner and Olympic silver medalist. We haven’t had confirmation from the women’s gold medalist—she’s still on the fence. I think actually I still have her on the start list. She actually, by points, through the 5150 series, has qualified to come anyway. We have three for sure, holding out for four. We have not heard from Erin [Densham], and we know Jonathan [Brownlee] is not coming.
Triathlete.com: Do you think it being an Olympic year has helped to draw more attention to the race?
Hirl: You know what I think it is—with our race being so close to the Olympics, the community around the United States, close to Des Moines, it just makes them a little bit more aware of the Hy-Vee Triathlon. Internationally, as we start to hear some communication out there, I think it brings a little bit more attention to it. It’s always had a lot of attention in the past because it has the largest prize purse in the sport, so it’s always had that kind of attention to it. It was an Olympic qualifier back in 2008, so we’ve had some attention there as well. But we’ve always, it seems like, we just have a great pro field every year. It seems to keep getting better and better. And having Alistair, who’s just a superstar now in the sport, knowing he’s coming I think we’re going to have quite a bit more attention on the race because of the Olympics.
Triathlete.com: How do you think the dynamics of the race have changed since it became a non-drafting event?
Hirl: I think what it’s helped us do is bring in more non-Olympic-distance triathletes. So last year we were able to see 70.3 and Ironman champions come and race this race, which is great. I know that WTC has worked very hard on having some extra bonus money out there for people that race 5150s, 70.3s and Ironmans. The non-drafting side of our race has had a little bit more attention, and it’s changed the dynamics a little bit—not only the change from drafting to non-drafting, we added this 5150 bonus line, which is basically a race within a race, similar to what a lot of people refer to as “bonus laps” in Nascar. But we pay out two bonuses for the swim portion, four bonuses for the bike portion and run portion. So the first athlete to cross the 5150 line receives an extra $5,150 in bonuses. It’s a lot in the sport of triathlon—sometimes that’s a first-place paycheck.
Triathlete.com: How does Hy-Vee continue to have the largest prize purse in the sport?
Hirl: Relationships with our sponsors and with their help, we’re able to raise the money to not only grow a world-class event but also to give back to charity. The Hy-Vee Triathlon in the last five years has given back over $1.2 million back to charity. So we’re very proud of that, and we’re proud of the relationships we have with our sponsors. It’s just a very unique situation because most of our sponsors are our everyday partners in the grocery world.
Triathlete.com: There’s also a big age group race—who many age groupers will be racing?
Hirl: There is. We’re looking at a little over 1,000 in the Hy-Vee U.S. Championship. That compares to about 390 from last year, so we’ve almost tripled the U.S. championship, so we’re really excited about that. And then the regular Hy-Vee Triathlon age-group race will be close to 2,000. We’re actually very, very close to selling out the race. We’ll probably sell out the race by the end of this week—our limit is 3,000.
Triathlete.com: Why the high registration numbers?
Hirl: I think that part of the reason our numbers are up is the qualification process changed a little bit from year 1 to year 2, and I think that played a major role in it. And I think our Hy-Vee Triathlon numbers are up as well because of the price—we dropped our price. And even the attention on the Olympics this year and a year’s worth of talking about the Olympics helped people get excited about getting into the triathlon world. I think the third thing that we did is we put a lot of effort behind a new website called Trimatchup.com. And what we wanted to do was help those individuals that are intimidated by doing a full triathlon, giving them the opportunity to go out on the website and fill out their information if they’re a strong swimmer, biker or runner. And that allowed them to find others in the sport that they could team up with. And our team numbers are up quite a bit this year because of Trimatchup.com. As you know, that’s just on the Hy-Vee Triathlon side of it—that’s not on the U.S. championship side of it.
Triathlete.com: Do you feel like the community has embraced the race?
Hirl: I think so. Going into our sixth year of the race, we continue to see our spectator numbers increase. We’ll have 30,000-35,000 this year watching the race. An area of the pro bike course and the pro and amateur run course is in an area of Des Moines called the Historical East Village. And that area has put together what they call “East Village Bazaar,” an outdoor expo. The city of Des Moines and Michelob Ultra are putting on a free concert for the community and for all those traveling in for the Hy-Vee Triathlon on Friday night before the race. We have a farmers’ market on Saturday that a lot of athletes go to on that same street. Sunday night the Court Avenue District is having an outdoor street dance afterward to celebrate the Hy-Vee Triathlon. So a lot going on on a holiday weekend here in Des Moines.
To watch live streaming of the race on Sunday, Sept. 2, visit Hy-veetriathlon.com.