In 2005, no one could have predicted the explosive growth of the Ironman 70.3 series.
This article was originally published in the Sep./Oct. 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
When Ben Fertic took over as president of World Triathlon Corporation in 2004, the company actually owned and managed just two races: the Ironman World Championship and the Honu Triathlon, both on the Big Island of Hawaii. Between 2004 and 2012 (Andrew Messick became CEO of WTC in 2012), that number grew from two to almost 200 across Ironman’s multiple brands.
Fertic wanted to come up with a new Ironman product for a few reasons. First, he despised the term “half-Ironman.” “I just didn’t think Ironman should be associated with half of anything,” he says now. “Also, at that point there really wasn’t a developmental circuit for professional triathletes who wanted one day to race an Ironman. I wanted our professional athletes to be able to race more often and to make a living. The distance was a logical choice, but we had no idea if people would travel to these events and fill them up.”
Educated as an engineer, Fertic loves numbers. As he and his staff struggled to come up with a term for the new races, Fertic jokingly talked about how 70.3 is short, it rolls off the tongue and they could have fun with the number.
After a few weeks of discussions and with countless other ideas for a name on the table, Fertic realized that everyone in the office had started referring to the events as the 70.3s. The first Ironman 70.3 was to take place in England. If anyone was going to have a problem with an event series that was 70.3 miles, it was going to be the Europeans, who live and breathe kilometers. They had no idea what 70.3 actually meant. “The way we explained it was that the Ironman in Hawaii, our iconic event, was 140.6 miles and those distances were basically created by John and Judy Collins back in 1978,” Fertic remembers. “All we were doing was continuing on with the Ironman tradition, cutting the distance in half and coming up with a name that was absolutely perfect.”
When they ran that first Ironman 70.3 in England in August 2005, 75 slots would be made available for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. However, the 70.3 world championship wouldn’t be held until the fall of 2006, at least 13 or 14 months away, and the location for that event had yet to be determined.
“It was funny,” recalls Fertic. “I figured not many people would pull out their credit card and commit to a world championship event that was over a year away in an unknown location. I called the race director afterward and asked him how many people took the slots. He goes, ‘75.’ I’m like, ‘I know you had 75 qualifying slots. I’m asking how many actually took the slots.’ He repeated, ‘75.’ Every single person took their slot and put down their credit card. I was blown away!”
Ironman had caught lightning in a bottle, and the 70.3 series grew from 16 events with 15,000 registrants in the first year of the 70.3 world championship to 58 races with 80,000 registrants today. “It was a crazy few years,” says Fertic.
The Ironman 70.3 turned out exactly as planned. Age groupers loved it. Olympic-distance professionals like Australians Craig Alexander and Mirinda Carfrae parlayed wins at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, Fla., into Ironman World Championship titles in Kona, Hawaii. Ironman was creating more awareness for its elite athletes, and Ironman athletes were going head-to-head with ITU and Olympic-distance stars at this brand-new distance. More racing meant more excitement for both the athletes and the Ironman brand. Compared to the 68,000 registrants in full Ironmans per year, WTC knew from its 80,000 Ironman 70.3 registrants that the company was doing something right.