Triathlete.c0m: You’ve been known to personally email athletes before the New York City Triathlon and someone on your staff even calls each person directly as the race gets closer. How do you respond to athlete feedback?
Korff: We solicit athlete feedback—it’s my passion. Athletes are your secret shoppers because they had the experience. It’s one thing for me to ride my bike through Riverside Park and see things, but it’s another to have athletes tell me what they experienced.
For the New York City Triathlon, I put my email address right on the homepage. After the race, we’ll get 800 emails in 36 hours and it’s like the greatest secret shopper in the world. And most of them will say, “I love it, but that third bathroom from the left at swim start at 6:15 ran out of toilet paper.” I save every email I get from an athlete and go back through those comments. When we make a change based on feedback, we’ll email the person to tell them.
I don’t understand this, but for some reason with Ironman, people are used to lashing out at them. And I don’t get it. There’s so much passion when you see someone cross the finish line. They’re crying, they’re so passionate, it’s like their life has changed. Then you see some of these postings and it’s as if they’re talking to the devil. It’s like, “Who are you? What happened?” And I get a couple of those emails and I respond to people immediately. Clearly I take your concerns very seriously. It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m replying to you—so here’s my phone number, give me a call. Every single person who was upset, with big or little concerns, we turn them around. [It helps] because you reply. And you’re not scared of your athletes.
Triathlete.com: You’ve unfortunately had recent tragic deaths at the New York City Triathlon and one athlete passed away at Saturday’s race. What was your approach for swim at the Ironman?
Korff: We did what we did in New York City Triathlon with a modified time trial. Rather than the typical mass start, we had 5–10 people go in the water every 5–10 seconds. Because the Hudson is tidal, we knew everyone would make the swim cut-off. We divided the swim into zones and each one had its own personnel responsible for that specific area. We had personnel who could see athletes in their area almost one by one, so if there was a problem—if some guy says his wetsuit is too tight or he got water in his goggles—he could hold on to a boat or kayak and catch his breath. For bigger issues, if you put your hand up, we could get to you in two seconds. We were that close.
Having had swim deaths at the New York City Triathlon with the reason being the same—a pre-existing heart condition—you want to make sure you’re on people who have an issue as fast as humanly possible. With these kinds of issues, there is no time. You can be on them in two seconds and it’s still too late. In the case of our athlete, I can only assume that it was a pre-existing heart condition.
Triathlete.com: How do you deal with these tragedies?
Korff: It’s so sad—I can’t even say it’s sad, sad is not even the word. It’s something that changes your life that you don’t get over, you just move on. Every time that this has happened, the first person that has called me is Mary Wittenberg [the president of New York Road Runners, who can empathize after losing runner Ryan Shay during the 2007 Olympic Trials in Central Park]. As a race organizer, no matter what else you say, the only thing that matters to you is that the athletes that showed up to start your event go to bed in their beds that night. Even when she called me yesterday, she said, “You know everybody thinks I’m riding the course with the mayor, I’m talking to the pros, I’m talking to the media. But in the back of my mind, all I’m thinking about is that one guy.” I’m like, “Oh my god, don’t I know it.” I think as a race director, if you have any level of sensitivity, that’s the one thing you think about all the time.
Triathlete.com: There’s concern about the new 10 p.m. cut-off, which would cap the race at 15 hours, versus the typical 17-hour midnight finish.
Korff: I haven’t talked to anybody at Ironman, but I think it’s for two reasons. First, this is the U.S. Championship, and the European Championship has a 15-hour cut-off. They want a level of an athlete. So good or bad, that’s one thing.
The second, which is kind of unique to New York, is that there’s a 10 p.m. noise ordinance. No amplified noise after 10 p.m. The only day of the year that the police don’t enforce that is New Year’s Eve—because how are you going to shut down the ball dropping? They made it very clear to us: Look, you can do whatever you want but at 10 p.m. you have to turn the noise off. Well, how do you have a finish with no Mike Reilly shouting, “You are an Ironman”? I was sitting [at the finish] thinking, “How does an athlete feel?” I talked to a friend who finished [after 10 p.m.] and he told me, “Oh I didn’t even notice. I was so spaced out. All I know is Mike hugged me and said I was an Ironman and I thought that was great.”
The third reason, and I don’t think anyone at Ironman knew this, but as a guy who rode up and down in Riverside Park on his bike, there are certain sections of Riverside Park that after 10 p.m. at night, you’d want every athlete to be escorted. Just because it’s the upper portion of Riverside Park. I don’t think that played into it because I didn’t see anything going on. And look, I would’ve been the first guy riding my bike at 900 miles per hour telling some athlete to jump on the back.
Other than the random…well, this was the first time I’ve ever seen an Ironman where there’s a park bench with a couple on it, getting it on. I thought, “God this is so New York. They’re so oblivious that an Ironman is happening that they’re consummating their relationship on this park bench.”
Update after Ironman’s announcement they registration is being suspended.
Triathlete.com: Ironman just announced they’re suspending registration for the race to “improve the logistics for our athletes and supporters.” What did you think about the decision?
Korff: This has all been very fast. Believe me, this is not something they were thinking about for weeks, because weeks ago we were worried about how the George Washington Bridge was going to work. I actually think this is a good move on their part. Remember, my whole connection to Ironman is one race so I can’t comment on all of it, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
They’re recognizing the consumers’ pushback. What they’re saying is, the consumer spoke. This is not about race problems—there were no problems. I think what they’re doing is saying, “We’ve listened to the consumers’ pushback on the price, we’re going to go back to the drawing board, and we’re going to try and figure this one out.” I assume that means the price is too high, so let’s see if we can dramatically adjust the consumer experience so people can say, “Oh my god I have to be a part of this.”
I have to follow their lead because they’re the experts. New York is far, far and away the most difficult Ironman race to physically stage. But we all knew that coming into it. So you counterbalance that against the business and try to break even. No one was trying to make a gazillion dollars, we were all trying to break even. So what do we have to charge to break even, and that’s what it comes down to. I think it’s a good thing to take a month as a breather and ask, “How do we reload?”
The typical Ironman model is to open registration the day after the race and it sells out in a day or two. Maybe in hindsight, we would take a month to look at this and then open up registration. So this is probably a good thing. Maybe the consumer was the alarm clock that caused the wake-up call.
Triathlete.com: How long do you think this decision will take?
Korff: Well first everyone’s gotta get some sleep, they have a bunch of races this summer. You have to really think this through because nobody wants to give up a market like New York. If I’m Ironman, I don’t want to give up New York City because it makes a statement about your brand when you’re in a city like this. On the other hand, Ironman isn’t Prada or someone else who can afford to lose a ton of dough to say they have a concept store on Fifth Avenue. This is triathlon, this is not a multi-billion dollar business. So they have to be smart business people and have to ask what’s good for their brand and good for the consumer. If we’re going to charge X dollars, can we deliver an X-dollar experience?