By Dana Willett
As you drive along Boulder's Foothills Parkway you see... warehouses. So many, in fact, that they all start to blend together. But there's one that should stand out. Not only does this facility hold a special significance to Boulder-based races, but it's known throughout North America and even internationally. All the magic happens here at the Ironman Boulder offices. Last week, Ironman Boulder Race Director, Dave Christen, invited 303Triathlon inside.
Before we begin our tour, it is important to clarify Dave’s role . . . Yes, his official title is Race Director, but in a nutshell his duties are best described in one of his favorite quotes: “You can always spot a race director. He’s the guy who’s doing the job you couldn’t pay a 20-year-old to do.” (That, from fellow RD and good friend Lance Panigutti of Without Limits). Yes, though Dave has the front office with the big window, and he’s the one who loses sleep when his name or his brand get bashed in social media, he’s also the first one on a race site, setting up the porta potties, and the last one on a race site, picking up the trash.
But he loves his job. They all do, the hard workers in his office. “It’s not your average job. We’re one step away from ‘carnies,’” he says with a laugh. “But we love it. We really do.”
What looks like a run-of-the-mill warehouse from the outside houses all the logistical, marketing and merchandising functions for Ironman North America (including stock piles of fascinating IM treasures). While the IM offices in Tampa, Florida act as the true headquarters for the company, overseeing legal, human resources, sales and administration, the Boulder location includes 20,000 square feet of storage servicing about 30 semi trailers that travel around the continent, carrying everything from swim caps to finish lines.
Inside the warehouse boxes and crates are stacked to the rafters with compostable cups, brand new backpacks (yes we were allowed a sneak peak – cool looking and much more durable than last year!), all the materials for a spare finish line (in case, for example, the one returning from Panama gets hung up in customs), cases of sports drink, traffic cones, road signs – everything you might need to host an Ironman, the greatest show on earth.
At this point in our tour Dave pauses to tell a story (a great story teller, he is). If you’ve ever raced an Ironman you know the sport drink bottles handed you on the bike have sport tops – the kind you can pull open with your teeth. Well, turns out the sport drink manufacturer (to remain nameless, ‘cause what’s the point?) only provides bottles with flat, screw-off lids (discovered after the contract was signed). So guess what IM workers and volunteers spend quite a lot of time doing? That’s right – replacing lids. “It’s important to us,” Dave says. “This is the product we have, and we need to use it. And it’s important to make sure our athletes have what they need, down to the types of lids on their bottles.”
In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy, it was 16 hours before Ironman Florida was scheduled to start, and the boxes of sport tops had not yet arrived. Dave recalls being on a hike with his wife, Lindsay, and receiving the call on his cell. “We were too late for Fed Ex. The only option was for me to hoof it back to town, jump on a plane with 12 cases of lids, and fly to Florida,” he tells us. He arrived at 11:30 p.m., grabbed a rental car, and arrived on site at 4:30 a.m. On a whim, he borrowed a bike and jumped into the competition, completing his first-ever full Ironman on no sleep and little training. Perhaps that’s what makes him such a good race director – he has experienced just about every scenario possible at these races.
Though most race directors are contracted by Ironman, Dave is an anomaly, being a full time employee. The large office houses a fluctuating work force, anchored by a handful of smiling folks we were fortunate to meet during our visit.
Our favorite occupant of the IM office is Stella. She must be a great swimmer, because she belongs to Zach Ukich, who is officially the “Swim Course Guy” (according to his business cards). But his artwork tells a different story. A master woodworker, Zach has furnished the IMB offices with custom, recycled fixtures, including a coffee table repurposed from whiskey barrels, and what is known as the “Pallet Wall,” branded with the iconic M-dot.
When he’s not rendering furniture, Zach is in charge of all swim course safety. For all Ironman events. North America, and worldwide. Yes, even European race directors call on Zach for protocol and advice. With a background as an EMT and a firefighter, and a degree in recreational sports, Zach’s move up the IM chain began with an internship with the Coeur D’Alene Chamber of Commerce, then a small role with IMCDA, and the rest is history. All the swim safety initiatives undertaken by Ironman over the last couple years? That’s all Zach. Right here in Boulder. Look for Zach as the official Race Director for the Boulder Sprint Tri in June.
Walk a little further down the hall and you’ll encounter Ashlie Nalls, whose business card simply states, “Boulder Race Series.” Kind of a big deal. You’d think that would be enough. But in her spare time she clothes the poor in Africa, too. You see, after a race has concluded and all the race shirts, hats and “swag” have been distributed, there are always leftovers. As any athlete who has ever completed an Ironman will tell you, not just anyone is qualified to wear a Finisher’s item. It’s a point of pride in the M-dot world. So, what to do with the extras? Ashlie, formerly of the IM headquarters office in Tampa, came up with a solution: donate the shirts and other items to those who need them abroad. Today we find her boxing up items for Africa, sharpie in hand, a smile on her face.
As the new Race Director for the Boulder Peak, she is also hard at work mitigating the bike course on Old Stage and preparing to manage one of the highest-profile Olympic distance tris in the country.
Next up we meet Alex Harden, Marketing Services Coordinator. The feather in Alex’s cap is sustainability. Ironman Boulder events represent the pinnacle of recycling. Locals are savvy in reducing & reusing, and the infrastructure of Boulder County services ensures a high success rate in the goal of zero waste. The hardest part to mitigate is the waste spectators bring on course, and disposing of it properly. Still, other IM events strive to be more like Boulder, and that’s where Alex comes in. Overseeing recycling efforts in all Ironman events, she encounters completely different parameters at every race. She says, “The waste we produce at events is predictable. We’re consistent in our products – we know we have compostable cups, plastic bottles, etc. The tough part is training all the volunteers and race directors at various sites. Every city has different resources and different protocol for recycling, so I spend a lot of my time researching.”
Our last stop on our magical mystery Ironman tour makes our tidy little triathlete hearts sing. This is the office of April Dickerson, Manager of Athlete Services. We don’t care what she does – we are too busy admiring her neatly labeled and categorized binders, maps full of precise push pins, and pens atop her blotter perfectly aligned . . . She does have a pretty important position, though: basically, all documentation for producing Ironman events nationwide. That’s right – for every piece of paper and electronic missive related to a race, from course maps to Athlete Guides, April is your gal. We’re glad she’s so… well, buttoned up. Hers is a position of clarity, concision and specificity. She describes her role as “quarterbacking,” saying, “It’s a matter of putting it all together in a way that’s understandable and accessible to everyone.” Have you ever had a question about water temps, course cut-off times, or lost your swim cap? Then you have likely found yourself at the “Solutions” tent – that’s her baby, along with the six team members she manages. “They are the people who solve problems,” Dave says. Wow – we are in good hands.
All of these staffers travel extensively, especially during the busier months of August through November. Here’s the thing about working for Ironman: you have to be willing to pick up and go, wherever you are needed. Dave says, “For IM Boulder, we’ll use a lot of local staff, but we’ll also fly in about 30 people. The race director from IM Louisville will come here and take over our bike course – that’s a great source of confidence for me, because he’s been trained the same way I was, and we have similar experiences. There is continuity, and control, within the company, kind of like standard operating procedures.”
As our tour ends Dave gestures to empty offices down the hall. Other staff members who call Boulder home are off on the road, scattered to places like Puerto Rico, New Orleans, and further, lending a hand where needed.
And of course, picking up trash.
Coming Soon: Complete Ironman Boulder Resource Page
In conjunction with IM Boulder, 303Triathlon is bringing you every bit of information you might want to know about training-staying-racing-eating-playing related to Ironman Boulder! Look for it in the coming weeks.