How Des Moines landed an Ironman triathlon
When she crosses the finish line, it's not just for her. It's also for the little girls with disabilities like hers. Humankind, USA TODAY
Matt Zepeda is being approached these days by individuals he hasn't heard from in 10 years.
"In the last few days we've been contacted by about seven new athletes," Zepeda, a triathlon coach with Zoom Performance in Des Moines, said last month. "That's just getting started for us. It will be significantly more."
The upturn in athletes returning to the swim-bike-run sport has been spurred by the announcement in late June that the Ironman 70.3 North American Championship will be coming to Des Moines from 2020-2022. The Iowa event will offer 75 age-group qualifying slots for the 2020 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in New Zealand that October.
The Ironman series, owned by the World Triathlon Corporation, is the recognized worldwide leader in long-course triathlons and hosts the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii each October.
Zepeda said that more than 150 athletes from Zoom and the Des Moines Triathlon Club have signed up for the 2020 North American Championship, scheduled for June 21.
"Overall there's a bigger excitement for the 70.3 than when Hy-Vee announced it was starting a triathlon (in 2007)," Zepeda said. "It's bringing back the individuals who did Hy-Vee, bringing people back into the sport. People who have lost their passion are coming back."
A $10 million impact
The Ironman 70.3 North American Championship will bring all levels of triathletes from across the continent to Des Moines next year. The race sold out of its regular entries in about a week. Only Ironman Foundation and charity entries are available. The economic impact for the Des Moines area is expected to be approximately $10 million.
"That's a huge amount for a three-day deal," said Greg Edwards, president and CEO of Catch Des Moines. "The NCAA basketball tournament would be higher. I'd probably put the Drake Relays at that amount or maybe a little higher."
Ironman's commitment puts Des Moines back into the triathlon spotlight internationally for the first time since Hy-Vee pulled the plug on its prestigious, lucrative triathlon in early 2015.
How did Des Moines land such a big championship just four years after landing in the triathlon wilderness following Hy-Vee's departure from the sport? The answer lies with a risk-taking organization and a small club and triathlon community that never gave up hope.
Hy-Vee and the explosion of the triathlon
Triathlon was a niche sport in Iowa for a couple decades, with popular races such as the Big Creek Triathlon near Polk City and Pigman Triathlon in Palo attracting top age-groupers from across the state and Midwest.
Interest in the sport, however, exploded in 2007 with the news that Hy-Vee would host a world-class triathlon at Iowa State Capitol. The event featured the largest prize in triathlon history, with $200,000 going to the men's and women's professional winners. A curious crowd of approximately 10,000 spectators flocked downtown to see what the fuss was all about. They watched and cheered as Rasmus Henning and Laura Bennett pocketed the wins in the Olympic-distance event: a 1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike and 10k run.
"When Hy-Vee came, it blew up," Zepeda said. "Hy-Vee's over a $2 billion company. It wasn't a niche sport anymore. Everybody wanted to do it. New people came into the sport. The thought was, 'This is amazing.'"
The impetus for the grocery store's support of triathlon came from Hy-Vee CEO and chairman of the board Ric Jurgens. Jurgens was an avid triathlete who was eager to promote the company's shift toward active and healthy lifestyles.
The 2008 Hy-Vee Triathlon gained the distinction of serving as a qualifier for Olympic teams later that summer in Beijing, China.
The event was held in West Des Moines again the following year, producing one of the greatest finishes ever in triathlon history. Canada's Simon Whitfield edged a lunging Brad Kahlefeldt of Australia and Germany's Jan Frodeno at the finish line of the men's event.
Hy-Vee made big changes with the 2011 race, forming a partnership with Ironman's World Triathlon Corporation to hold a new 5150 series. The U.S. Championships in Des Moines would have the largest purse in triathlon history — more than $1 million.
Months later, Jurgens announced that he planned to retire in 2012. A record $1.1 million purse remained for the 2012 5150 Series race.
But Hy-Vee officials announced the total purse for the 2013 race would be more than halved, to $500,000. The men's and women's winners would receive $100,000 each, still the largest for an Olympic-distance race.
The event was staged for the final time on Labor Day weekend in 2014. The following February, Hy-Vee announced it was pulling the plug on the big-money triathlon. The company would instead shift its efforts to the Pinky Swear Foundation by backing youth triathlons.
Triathlon's dark years
Bill Burke, race director for the Hy-Vee Triathlon, jumped in to keep a Labor Day triathlon going with his New Orleans-based Premier Event Management on short notice.
The next year, Des Moines was folded into the Escape Triathlon Series led by Burke's company. Entry numbers were poor again and the race vanished quietly with little fanfare.
"It wasn't ever going to be a sponsored windfall like what Hy-Vee was," Des Moines professional triathlete TJ Tollakson said. "It's like most things in life, you get out of what you put into it."
Des Moines went without a triathlon in its city limits in 2018 and 2019 as no company showed interest in committing to backing a triathlon. Likewise, no management company was willing to step forward to start a new triathlon after Premier Event Management's failure.
"We (Des Moines Triathlon Club) approached local race directors and asked can we get a triathlon back," Zepeda said. "We were trying to work with some people to get the ball rolling again and get a triathlon here again. We were looking at Olympic distance. The idea was that the Hy-Vee distance was popular, and it fit better with what we were trying to do."
Hy-Vee's withdrawal from adult triathlons coincided with the sport’s decline nationally. Membership in USA Triathlon, the national governing body in the sport, dropped about 25% during a five-year period.
The number of people who took part in triathlons (racing and non-racing) in America also declined after 16 years of uninterrupted growth. Participation was only at 35,000 in 1996, then grew steadily to a high of 540,000 in 2012.
By 2015, 475,000 people were participating.
'Risky' reputation brings hope
The Ironman organization was looking for a 10th full Ironman in the continental United States in the fall of 2018.
Frank Lowery, the Ironman Midwest Great Plains regional director, said Des Moines was on Ironman Triathlon's radar.
"Des Moines has a great history of triathlons, and Hy-Vee was a high-class event," Lowery said. "The community is very active in the triathlon world. It just seemed like a good fit in the region."
The fit included Des Moines' burgeoning reputation as a big-events city. Lowery knew Des Moines had successfully hosted two NCAA men's basketball tournaments and one women's basketball regional, among other events.
"You are known for being risky and that's what we like to see, " Lowery said. "We take over a large footprint and it's a big impact."
Top triathlon professionals such as Tollakson and Mackenzie Madison of Ankeny, along with many top age-group triathletes, came from the Des Moines area.
"We have a long history of strong triathletes coming out of this area," Zepeda said. "We had this smaller community who could go and compete anywhere in the world. It has been strong for 15 years."
Des Moines also has landed on several top-10 places to live in America. With all of that information at its disposal, Ironman targeted Des Moines as a logical host for its 10th full Ironman in the mainland United States
The bid process
A phone call to Catch Des Moines, the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, changed it all.
"Our initial conversation with them, we tried to flush more details," said Trina Flack, who is vice president of sales for Catch Des Moines. "There was a bunch of financial and time commitments with this group, a huge undertaking for our community. That’s why the bureau exists. The impact for the city is worth the risk.
"We thought it was for a 70.3 (Ironman race)."
Catch Des Moines was told it had to submit a letter of interest for the full Ironman by March 1. Flack was made the point person for the full bid proposal, which included initial meetings with the City of Des Moines and City of West Des Moines to gauge those communities' commitment to holding a full Ironman in late May or early June. Both the City of Des Moines and West Des Moines, led by City Manager Lucinda Stephenson, were eager to help land the bid.
"We were 100 percent behind Catch Des Moines putting in an application," said Jen Schulte, director of government relations and communication for the City of Des Moines. "Safety is always at the forefront and ensuring that we have a route that enables our police and fire to be able to respond. We're always happy to host those events."
The proposal included swimming sites at Gray's Lake in Des Moines and Blue Heron Lake at Raccoon River Park. Multiple courses for the 56-mile bike route were offered, including traveling south into Warren County, west into Dallas County and north into Ankeny.
"A lot of routes that were explored," Flack said. "It took the month of March to put together the full proposal. It was a collaborative effort by everyone."
That included Laura Smidt, who is the sports event coordinator for Catch Des Moines. Smidt has known Philip LaHaye, North American director for Ironman, from when he was involved with the Hy-Vee Triathlon.
"People still have a positive image of that race," Flack said. "So it wasn't like we were starting from zero."
The bid went to Ironman on April 1. Beth Atnapp, Ironman vice president for global operations, and Lowery told Catch Des Moines in a phone conversation that they wanted to schedule site visits in Des Moines.
Atnapp was Ironman's sole representative for the first 24-hour visit. Atnapp met with city leaders. Possible swim and bike locations were mapped out.
"They got a feel for what the capacity of the city was," Flack said. "Really meet the community and the key players involved. We're not a hassle to work with."
Lowery took Ironman's second visit to the Des Moines area. A former standout age-group triathlete, Lowery further delved into options for swim, bike and run courses.
"Catch Des Moines was a great host and was able to show me around, see the sights and areas," Lowery said. "They gave me a lot of options for courses. How it would impact the businesses on a positive note. It was well received. They (visits) went great."
Catch Des Moines' Flack wasn't so certain.
"We felt really positive about it, but they're looking at cities throughout the country," Flack said. "From minute one, there was a bit of nervousness. We were not what their bulls-eye was. I've been a nervous wreck for months."
Atnapp and LaHaye announced in a video May 20 that site visits were complete. They said bids by finalists Tulsa, Okla., Memphis, Tenn., Fayetteville, Ark., and Des Moines had been impressive. LaHaye mentioned a mid-June decision date.
'Let's win the race'
Catch Des Moines knew it needed more than financial and logistical prowess to impress Ironman. It needed to ignite the passion of the local triathlete community desperate to host a world-class triathlon again.
Trina Flack, who is vice president of sales for Catch Des Moines, looped in the Des Moines Triathlon Club, the Triathlon Racers of Iowa, Zepeda and Tollakson, to name a few.
"They came up with the hashtag #IMDSM," Flack said. "They ran with it. It was a truly community voice. It made a difference. It was loud and clear that Des Moines was supportive of this race."
Zepeda began to contact triathlon clubs from Omaha, Neb., Kansas City and in Illinois to ask for support. Zepeda suggested each one put together a video. Several did and the Des Moines Triathlon Club picked up the videos and posted them on its Facebook page.
"We said, 'Hey, guys, we saw the other cities do something,' " Zepeda said.
The Des Moines Triathlon Club decided a rally called "Bring Ironman to Des Moines' at the Iowa State Capitol was needed. A date of June 2 was chosen. WHO-TV anchor Sonya Heitshusen, a triathlete, was invited to serve as host. Des Moines deputy city manager Matt Anderson and Tollakson agreed to speak. Supporters were asked to make signs using the hashtag #IMDSM and wear their Ironman gear. Pep-rally music was played and donuts were offered. A run with Tollakson was planned after the event.
The Facebook Live show started live at 8 a.m. that Sunday with a cheering throng standing behind Tollakson, Heitshusen and Anderson on a bright, sunny morning.
"Ironman won't find resistance. They will find a smooth path through the city," Anderson promised on the show.
"I didn't get a final count on who showed up at the Capitol, but it was really a grassroots effort," Zepeda said. "There were several people locally who really helped rally the troops locally."
Lowery said he was impressed by Des Moines' fervor for triathlon.
"It was great to see that interaction," Lowery said.
It wasn't enough to land the full Ironman. On June 12, Ironman announced that Tulsa would be the site for the new Ironman race.
"I felt like we were an underdog," Zepeda said. "It was apparent we were an underdog from the beginning because of the location of the other three. They gave us an honest look."
Lowery admitted as much, saying 'We don't have a full distance (Ironman) in the Southwest area."
70.3 was already in the works
Flack said she knew before the rally at the Capitol that Des Moines wouldn't get the full Ironman bid. Ironman was planning a different agenda for Des Moines.
"We actually knew toward the end of May the direction Ironman was going," Flack said. "Beth (Atnapp) said we are awarding the full distance to Tulsa, but we are giving the 70.3 to you. We knew at the end of May that we were on."
Keeping that secret wouldn't be easy. Catch Des Moines representatives wanted Ironman to announce both the new full Ironman and 70.3 sites together. However, details and sponsorships needed to be hashed out and Ironman opted for separate announcements.
"There was a lot of back and forth after that call," Flack said. "The contract was in the works. We spent the next month flushing out the details for the 70.3, all that behind-the-scenes work."
A primary sponsor was found for the 70.3 triathlon. Certified Piedmontese Beef, a company that had become the official beef for the Ironman series in the United States for 2019, came on board. The Lincoln, Neb., company was co-founded by Shane Peed, who grew up in Webster City, Ia.
"He is the reason they are sponsoring the race," Tollakson said.
Word had begun to leak that Ironman might not be done with Des Moines. Ironman posted on its Facebook page June 12 - the day of Tulsa's win - that "Now that we know where our next full distance IRONMAN is going to be in the United States, stay tuned for more exciting news in the future."
The Des Moines Triathlon Club responded with the comment, "Mark your calendars! Keep up the marketing push! #IMDSM703 ??"
Then, on June 22, Ironman posted a gray video with no pictures on its Facebook page. Words placed on the front read "Stay tuned... and then 6.24.19."
By then, Catch Des Moines had already sent out an alert to the media and triathlon clubs of a special public event coming to Cowles Commons in downtown Des Moines on June 24. The announcement would be made at 5 p.m. as part of a thank-you celebration to the triathlon community.
The entire community learned on the following Monday that Des Moines had landed the 70.3 championships.
"We wanted a world class location for our 70.3 location," Lowery said. "Gray's Lake and Water Works are super cool areas. The downtown finish is going to be outstanding. Des Moines was at the top of the list, with its community support, outcry from tri clubs. It wasn’t a super hard decision from our viewpoint."
On June 12, Ironman announced that Tulsa would be the site for the new Ironman race. Ironman was planning a different agenda for Des Moines.
The plan finally became clear on June 24 during a celebration with the triathlon community: Des Moines had landed the 70.3 championships.
"We wanted a world-class location for our 70.3 location," Lowery said. "Gray's Lake and Water Works are super cool areas. The downtown finish is going to be outstanding. Des Moines was at the top of the list, with its community support, outcry from tri clubs. It wasn’t a super hard decision from our viewpoint."
'A lot of buzz'
Des Moines Triathlon Club memberships grew after the announcement. Members who paid the $50 fee earned a chance to enter the 70.3 championships before registration opened to the general public. Triathletes had to belong to a triathlon club or Ironman's All World Athlete program to gain early registration from July 1-8.
Zepeda said last month that between the Des Moines Triathlon Club and his Zoom athletes, more than 150 had signed up for the Ironman 70.3 North American Championship.
"We get Ironman in our community but because it's a North American championships, we'll also garner the prestige than a normal race," Flack said. "It's a higher purse for the athletes. I think that Ironman saw that there's an appetite for a triathlon in this community. There's still the interest, still the allure to have a triathlon in this community."
Ironman opened registration to the general public on July 9. On July 13, fewer than 50 regular spots remained. The race sold out on July 15.
"There's been a lot of buzz in the last week," Schulte said at the time.
"As a community, we won a race," Zepeda said. "We were in the race because of what the city did, the community did. We earned it."
Planning for June 21, 2020
Ironman representatives began nailing down specifics with Des Moines officials during site visits with local agencies Aug. 7-8.
Much of the general basics of the swim, bike and run courses are already in the works. A one-loop, counter clockwise 1.2-mile swim will take place at Gray's Lake. The one-loop, 56-mile bike course will push through Water Works Park to new and old roads in rural West Des Moines and the countryside before returning to Gray's Lake Park. The 13.1-mile run will feature a two-loop course that will incorporate Western Gateway Park and the state Capitol before an expected finish downtown on Court Avenue.
"I will be heavily involved from the outset," Lowery said. "We are pretty certain we are swimming out at Gray's Lake. We have some (bike) options out there. It all takes time. We want to make sure the experiences for the athletes is great. The city has put their best foot forward that we will be well-received."
The race sellout provides the first positive sign for Des Moines' three-year contract. Lowery estimates a total purse of $50,000 will be going to the professionals. Tollakson believes if Des Moines puts on a good show following the 2022, that a full Ironman race could be offered to Des Moines.
One option for Des Moines would be a rotating full Ironman. Ironman announced this year that Ironman St. George in Utah would return every three years starting in 2021 as part of a rotating series.
"I think if we show some good things with the 70.3, that we would have a rotating Ironman, like every four years," Tollakson said. "We could be in line for a lot of different things if we show we're a viable market."
"The rotating Ironman is brand new," Zepeda said. "They're not afraid to turn a 70.3 into an Ironman. I would agree with TJ on this point, that if we put out best foot forward, there will be discussions to have Des Moines put on the (full Ironman) circuit. I will be really surprised if the contract only goes for three years."
First things first. There's still a year of planning involved for the 70.3 race. Ironman will be hiring a local race director, Flack said.
"We have a deserving team that will stay involved," Flack said. "We will see it all the way through."
Edwards, the CEO of Catch Des Moines, said holding the race lands well on Father's Day weekend. The calendar has been void of big events that weekend since the Lutheran Women's Missionary League convention in 2015.
"It's a good time for us to bring that in," Edwards said. "(The race) being on a Sunday helps things too."
Edwards estimates 75 percent of the triathlon participants will be from out of town, spending hundreds of dollars each at hotels, restaurants and stores.
"That's huge for our city, especially with the passage of the local sales tax passage (to 7 percent)," Schulte said. "Hopefully our visitors will see what a great place Des Moines is and will come back."
June 21, 2020, will be arriving before you know it. Tollakson is beyond thrilled Des Moines is on the triathlon map again.
"It's a plus for the sport, for the endurance community, for my business," Tollakson said. "I am planning to race in the pro field. It's exciting to think I will be racing in a championships event in my home city."
When: June 21, 2020
The plan: A one-loop, counter clockwise 1.2-mile swim will take place at Gray's Lake. The one-loop, 56-mile bike course will push through Water Works Park to new and old roads in rural West Des Moines and the countryside before returning to Gray's Lake Park. The 13.1-mile run will feature a two-loop course that will incorporate Western Gateway Park and the state Capitol before an expected finish downtown on Court Avenue.