Review: Ironman US Championship – New York, NY

Published on August th, 2012

When we put together a race review we usually try to stay as objective as possible, remaining an impartial participant, so as to deliver a narrative untainted by one’s personal performance. But, as you can imagine, when that race happens to be an Ironman in your own backyard, it’s nearly impossible not to put on the rose-colored goggles—especially when that event happens to be the inaugural Ironman US Championship. So, here goes nothing.

The subject of much debate, hype, praise, and malaise over the past 10 months, IMNYC (or IMNJ or IMUSC, whichever you prefer) has had its fair share of criticisms. First, it was the $895 entry fee. Then it was the course design. Then it was the logistics. Now it’s the suspension of registration for 2013. For whatever reason, for almost a year now this race has taken some serious knocks in the endurance racing community. But after racing it for ourselves this past weekend, even with its logistical issues and expenses, we’re officially landing on the sunnier side of things.

Athletes  found themselves on a course spanning two states and countless municipalities. Let’s start with the swim. Yes, it’s in the Hudson River and it is absolutely the most unattractive part of the course due to the recent sewage related events (luckily, the race was deemed wetsuit legal for age-groupers, allowing us to wear our XTERRA Vendetta for an extra layer or protection from said sewage). With the exception of the ferry ride to the start, which we admit was kind of cool (especially with helicopters circling overhead), it was a leg with a “get it over with” atmosphere. Few, if any, will be commenting on what a beautiful swim it was other than to be thankful for the awesome current that carried us down-river. Especially considering the last 25 meters found racers coping with ZERO visibility, due to murkiness and a disturbingly sludgy bottom, which made standing nearly impossible. Those in the know (namely anyone that race Urban Swim’s expertly run Hudson River event, which was a perfect tune-up), swam all the way up to the exit, beaching themselves belly first on the steel ramp.

PR's abound thanks to the The Hudson River current!

From there it was a quick dash through a changing tent (again, we found this to be well-supported), through transition and onto a closed southbound side of the Palisades Interstate Parkway. As an athlete who raced Ironman Lake Placid last year, I found this two-loop course to be significantly less scenic, but in better condition than the Placid course (and also significantly easier, but maybe that had something to do with our new Karbon Speeds). Yes, there are cracks and pot-holes, but for the most part our main challenge was a crowd of athletes that didn’t dissipate much until the second loop (not terribly unlike Placid).

Riding on a highway is awesome, but even that can get tedious after 112 miles.

There are absolutely some great descents, and subsequent ascents, but for the most part this was a course on which a mentally tough and focused rider could easily nail a PR. Focus remains the key as the Palisades is a fairly nondescript highway on which the aid stations became the highlights.

Moving on from the bike was fairly uneventful (just what you’d want for a transition) and put us on a run course that we, as well as many others we spoke to, may have underestimated. Certainly harder than Placid, the run took racers back and forth on River Road in Fort Lee for about 14 miles. Ironically, in the months leading up to the race, it seemed that most of the hype was about the stairs being the last obstacle crossing the GWB when really it should have been about the many hills that athletes faced prior. Best characterized by deep bowls and alternating ascents and descents, the double out and back traverse on River Road made the sight of those stairs a welcome one.

Forget the stairs, what about these hills?

Finally, after some hill-induced slogging up those stairs, athletes hit what is probably the most distinguishing feature of the tri – a run across the George Washington Bridge via the northern pedestrian path. Yes, this was awesome and provided what was one of the most memorable moments for many of racers, us included. There’s something to be said about crossing one of the most recognizable American landmarks during the course of an Ironman. Regardless of your physiological state, it will inspire you to run with you head held high and your heart will pound with pride when you begin making your descent off the bridge into Manhattan.

Speaking of Manhattan, this proved to be the “easiest” section of the course due to its flat profile, but it was also the strangest. The strange part was as a result of Riverside Park (and its pathways) remaining open to the public during the race. This meant that many locals still went about their day as iron runners came flying by. This left us with mixed feelings. It was cool to run through and see this part of NYC in its natural state (BBQ’s, volleyball games, etc,), but it had a “training run” feel at times. Not something you want during an Ironman. Luckily, aid stations at this point were plentiful (with surprisingly enthusiastic volunteers), which helped to remove those thoughts as soon as they crept in.

One of the better spots to spectate: Riverside Park around 110th St.

Closing in on the finish also brought us a few more memorable moments. Miles 22-25, dubbed the “conga line” by local tri clubs, was a prime area to see your spectators multiple times as they crawled up and down Riverside Park before being spit out to the final mile (look for this to be a hot spot if this race comes back in 2013).

Finally, it was on to the finish line. With less real estate to occupy than IM finishes we’ve seen, the vibe – though still rowdy and enthusiastic – was slightly subdued when compared to Ironman Lake Placid–especiallyafter 10PM at which all music and amplified sounds were cut off due to NYC’s noise ordinance. Reactions to this from athletes we spoke with were mixed. Some (like us) didn’t mind and found the atmosphere more intimate as only the cheers of the crowd (and Ironman sponsored cheerleaders) carried them down the chute, while others were disappointed to not hear Mike Reilly’s booming voice anoint them as an Ironman. And judging by the recent news that next year’s event (if held) would end at 10PM, we’re guessing more athletes and spectators fell into that latter camp.

Music or no music, moments like this can't be beat.

Which brings this to this race’s challenges. Finding 140.6 miles to race on anywhere is a challenge. But when your desired venue is the NYC metro area, the word “challenge” takes on new meaning.

Transition was located at Ross Dock in Fort Lee, NJ (just over the New Jersey side of the GWB). The swim started 2.4 miles north, in the Hudson River. The bike segment ran through New Jersey and back into New York State, while the run took athletes back from NJ to Manhattan’s Riverside Park by way of the George Washington Bridge. The important thing to note in all this is the start, transition, and finish were in three VERY different places.

Because of these geographical limitations (and unlike the last Ironman we covered – Ironman Lake Placid), some of the more minor tasks associated with a tri become much more daunting. For starters, getting to transition (to drop off your bike/gear as well as arriving on race morning) required the use of a ferry for most, as the majority of athletes stayed in Manhattan. This meant a commute to the ferry, a ride on the ferry to transition, and then everything in reverse to get home again. This takes time and can be overwhelming for both athletes and spectators (spectators were also required to purchase individual tickets). The additional task of getting your bike back after the race was also a burden, as athletes had three options to choose from: go back to transition to retrieve your bike (that would hurt), have a friend retrieve it for you (sucks for them), or use the TriBike Transport valet service to bring your bike and gear to you the following morning. And since we New Yorkers get everything delivered, we opted for the latter and it went surprisingly smooth – definitely worth the $50 price tag.

Bear in mind that accomplishing all of these things would be a complete nightmare if they weren’t so well supported by race organizers. Over the course of the day, we found that John Korff, Victoria Brumfield and the rest of the Korff Enterprises team did a very solid job in getting athletes where they needed to be. While we’re sure that were some issues, we hobbled away pleased with their efforts and optimistic that things will get even better in years to come. We even heard Victoria chirping into a radio asking a fellow staffer to take a note that race-morning ferries will need to leave even earlier next year to allow athletes more time in transition.

There were indeed other organizational issues including things you might expect from a first year event: more volunteers needed and lights would have helped at certain points (between run miles 18-22) after the sun went down. Better “crowd control” on the Greenway (locals unaware of the event cycled, walked or ran amongst athletes at times), more mechanical support on the bike course, better marking of pot holes North of Route 87, and a shortage of ice at some aid stations.

A closed course would do wonders.

There were also things they got completely right: the Northern section of the run course, near the Little Red Lighthouse, was well-lit and staffed with plenty of volunteers and police officers. The majority of aid stations were well staffed with exuberant volunteers, as were special needs and changing tents. Also, the medical tent (yes, some of us wound up there) seemed very well equipped, with this author getting the individual attention of no less than four doctors!

As for spectators, we should also emphasize that they too had to deal with the complicated logistics of NYC/NJ. Supporters hoping to catch a glimpse of their athletes were at the mercy of ferries (passes were about $50 for a full day), and also at the mercy of a course with very limited areas on which one could set up camp – a major issue for some if this is your first IM and your supporters want to see you every step of the way. In fact, our recommendation for anyone looking to spectate next year would be to say on the NYC side of the course, enjoy the day in the city, and catch your athlete once out of NJ and into the Riverside Park area.

All in all, the day had its ups and downs, as you might expect in the inaugural running of any race. Your opinion of this race will vary based on what you feel your perfect Ironman experience should be. From our perspective, Saturday went shockingly well. We were excited to race in a hometown event on a course right in our backyard and left extremely optimistic with what the future might hold.

Here’s our breakdown:

Course: B

Fittingly, like the cast of Jersey Shore, the swim was rough and dirty. And, though a bit boring, the bike was fast and well supported and catered to mentally tough athletes who don’t want to be distracted from the task at hand. The run was a mix of shaded hills, city grit, park jogging paths, and one heck of an iconic landmark to conquer.

Organization: B+

Call us jaded New Yorkers, but we definitely had our doubts going in and were pleasantly surprised with the end result. The ferries were a breeze to use, the aid stations were pretty well equipped (with the exception of more ice) and all the other admin stuff went off without a hitch. A big improvement can be made with more staff on course (especially from miles 18-24) to herd runners and keep locals at bay, or even a semi-closed course would be a big boost.

Atmosphere: B-

Not too shabby for the first year event, but also not too great for a premier race in the “city that never sleeps”. We think more marketing efforts would do wonders in getting more people out there is key areas. The limited crowds that were out there were great, but it really gives us goose bumps when we imagine Manhattan’s west side crammed with spectators, lining the course mile after mile.

Logistics: C-

If you’re part of the NYC’s huge tri community this isn’t too bad (there’s something to be said about sleeping in your own bed before and after the race), but if you’re from out-of-town be warned: getting in, around, and out of NYC is never easy. Sometimes it can be just as exhausting as the race itself. Plus, NYC ain’t cheap, so buyer beware.

Overall: B

WTC and Korff Enterprises are definitely onto something here. Not as strong a race for first-timers as IMLP, this race will only appeal to a certain type of triathlete. In its current state, it’s probably best fit for a local athlete less concerned about hype and hoopla, one who brings a “just another day at the office” mentality to the race.

Bottom line, if you’re the type of athlete that is okay going it alone early in the day and then getting support from friends and family on the run (after crossing the GWB) then you and THEY will be happy campers. Plus, NYC is a heck of a place for your posse to hang out until you arrive. Just be sure to do those hill repeats so you don’t keep them waiting too long.

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Comments

  1. Posted by Jen on August 15th, 2012, 14:05

    Totally agree with you on all counts. I hope it comes back in 2013 because I want to volunteer!!

  2. Posted by Adrian on August 15th, 2012, 16:47

    Same here! Plus, more community support would really make this race standout!

  3. Posted by Lars Ostergaard on August 15th, 2012, 17:13

    I participated in the race and had a great experience. Your review is excellent and well reflects my feelings and observations. When I passed the finish line (12:23 still feeling fine and very happy) I was escorted by a young woman to a chair and asked several times how I felt, whether a massage should be booked, and what food I would like to be brought etc. Another woman asked for my race number in order to bring me my gearbox! What a high level of service. In summary a truly great experience. Yes the logistics wass a nightmare. I would have liked to be able to get back for the bikepick up a bit easier. I spent 160 USD on a cap taking me from the finish area to the bike pickup area and back to the Sheraton race hotel. Once we came for picking up the bike, the police had closed the entry and we were trying to find another way down to the transition area. However in summary I indeed look forward doing this race again some day (Lars, Denmark, 5 x Ironman finisher)

  4. Posted by Maxim Almenas on August 19th, 2012, 08:14

    Hey Guys/Gals,
    Great review. I did the IMNY or as I like to call it, IMFL (Ironman Fort Lee) in home hometown and had an incredible first IM experience.

    I agree with most of your points. You touched on all of the key issues.

    But as for where spectators should spend your time, while the spectator bracelet should have offered more viewing opportunities, I think with some tweaking, this issue can be resolved.

    Assuming it is, I think spectators are better off watching the race in Fort Lee.

    Maybe I’m a bit biased because I live here, but if spectators know where to go in advance, as opposed to just showing up only to get turned away at certain intersections, they’ll be able to catch portions of the swim, bike, and run.

    There’s nothing like seeing a thick crowd of people cheer you on at the finish line, but the spectator support is really needed earlier in the race.

    The volunteers did an incredible job in this regard. But seeing friends and family earlier on the course was a big boost for me and gave me the second wind I needed it get to the finish line.

    Let’s hope it the IM returns. Whatever they call it, I plan on being there. Hope you will be to.

    Great job,
    Max Almenas
    TriTrekker.com

  5. Posted by gunnar on September 2nd, 2012, 21:22

    Excellent review and generally consistent with my experience. I did IM Frankfurt the year before – the European Champion race – and generally enjoyed the NY race more

    I think the organizers did an awesome job, considering the challenges of NYC. Expo location etc was great.

    My suggestions would include:

    1. The run course should be different. I never saw so many people walking during an IM (myself included). More of the run could actually be in NYC (think NYC Marathon, Times Square, The Park). Doing weird loops in riverside park did not make it a better run course.

    2. Work with local NJ police to allow spectators to areas of bike course. Here, I heard police threatened to ticket and even arrest people who would park on 9W to climb over the fences.

    3. Get the families and kids on bikes off the run course.

    4. Mike Reilly, this is the second time you did not announce me, and I came in WAY before the lights went off at 10pm!!!

    5. Tri Bike Transport : THANK YOU. Organizers you should just make that part of the ticket.

    6. Hudson River – we all swum fast because (i) current and (ii) we wanted to get out of the sh**y water

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