The impact of Ironman

Local entries are up, and the city - even with the price tag - wants the event to remain here for years

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Mike Martin runs along the Centennial Trail Wednesday near Coeur d'Alene Lake Drive.

Andrew Evenson, like every other Ironman, has a story.

The 39-year-old Coeur d’Alene chiropractor lost his mother three years ago and in her memory Evenson will compete in the mammoth race for the first time.

His goal is just to finish. To cross the finish line on Sherman Avenue in downtown Coeur d’Alene and hear the announcer boom his name over the public address system and say: “You are an Ironman.”

“That’s the goal,” he said.

Five years ago, Evenson would have thought the idea crazy.

The 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike course and 26.2-mile run seemed impossible.

“Out of my league,” the runner put it.

“I didn’t see myself doing it. It was just too much,” Evenson said. “I never considered myself the athlete. I was the high school golfer.”

That was then.

Today, Evenson is eight months into training and one of the many locals who’ve become inspired to compete in the race that comes through their backyard every year.

Call it the rub-off effect.

Since Ironman Coeur d’Alene landed in the Lake City in 2003, more locals take part each year.

The first year, 38 Kootenai County residents raced. Heading into this year’s event — the 10th anniversary — around 100 from North Idaho have already registered, according to race director Mac Cavasar.

“It becomes a lifestyle for a lot of people,” Cavasar said of the local impact. The local competition “is significantly more, and it’s become a younger generation.”

For Evenson, seeing up close the spirit surrounding the race — which draws in thousands of spectators each June including its party-like last finisher at midnight tradition — kicked his inspiration into high gear.

“Just amazing,” he said. “The event itself is inspiring.”

5 more years?

The 10th anniversary race launches from Independence Point on June 24.

But for the race to continue in Coeur d’Alene past this year, Ironman, the city of Coeur d’Alene, The Coeur d’Alene Resort and Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce must agree to a five-year contract extension.

All sides say that’s close to happening, and should be secured before race day.

“Ironman would be thrilled to continue the event pending everything works out with the discussions and community support continues to be strong,” Shelby Tuttle, public relations specialist for World Triathlon Corporation, which owns Ironman, said in an email to The Press. “Ironman’s relationship with the city of Coeur d’Alene has been wonderful.”

While many in the community consider Ironman a boon, it comes with costs.

Hospital supplies and staff, emergency response personnel and police officers are required for the event.

“Ironman does not come without a price tag,” said Steve Wilson, Chamber CEO.

The Chamber pays $75,000 every year in sponsorship fees for the event. To help cover that cost, it tacks on a $10-per-room-per-night hotel fee for hotels willing to participate. But with the growing popularity of residents opening up their homes to athletes coming in town for the race, that pot has shrunk. In the early years, it brought in $44,000 a year. Last year it brought in $27,000, and years prior it’s dropped as low as $18,000.

“It’s savvy,” Wilson said of residents earning extra income because of the event. “There’s an opportunity to make a couple of months mortgage in one week.”

But at the same time it leaves the chamber’s $800,000 general fund footing the rest of the race’s biggest bill.

This year, Wilson suggested Ironman add a user fee, similar to an Ironman tax, to help pay for sponsorship costs, but Ironman turned down the idea.

“They have the bigger stick,” Wilson said. “What does the chamber have to negotiate?”

Finances gained,

finances put out

The race’s last leg shoots down Sherman Avenue in downtown Coeur d’Alene and ends near City Park, where Ironman Village, with its staging area and vendors, sits.

Each year Ironman sets up for the week, it spends around $1 million for bleachers, portable toilets and other on-the-ground costs spread between roughly 20 local businesses, according to Cavasar.

One year, Ironman even paid out $5,000 to Little Caesar’s Pizza for its pie bill.

Overall, the economic impact of Ironman in the region has been touted at roughly $7 million, according to the chamber of commerce in 2005.

The World Triathlon Corporation estimates today’s impact at $10 million.

Whatever the final figure, few would say the race — which started with 1,900 racers and has grown to just over 3,000 — doesn’t have a big financial impact on North Idaho.

While some businesses experience inconvenience from proximity to the course on race day, they haven’t suffered on a whole from the swell of early summer visitors, according to City Administrator Wendy Gabriel, who is part of the contract negotiations.

“Have businesses claimed they’ve lost money in the last eight years from Ironman?” she said. “I have not had any of those complaints come to me.”

Instead, the benefit the community sees from the race can be best traced by the hundreds of volunteers who sign up to help. Both for volunteer support and race participants, it’s one of the fastest Ironman races to fill, according to race directors.

“It’s a benefit to the community on a whole,” Gabriel said. “The measure of support that goes into this race is a direct measure of the value the community sees in it.”

Ironman also donates money to community organizations every year. Last year, it spread out $55,000 locally.

For its part, the city provides EMT, police, street and park services. Last year, it paid $15,800 in overtime hours for its fire department, 20 percent of its overtime total for the year. The city added $10,000 in overtime police hours, according to city records.

The department said it could handle it if the race grew even more.

Coeur d’Alene police said likewise, and that it’s one of the easier events to monitor in a summer packed with events, especially in comparison with the Fourth of July, which can be more stressful for officers.

But providing medical help isn’t an easy undertaking for Kootenai Health.

Julie Hoerner, director of critical care and captain at the medical tent for Ironman for three years, said the provider has pitched in “thousands of dollars” of medical supplies over the years, in addition to roughly 100 medical staff for a makeshift emergency room along the course.

“The first year there was a great deal of excitement, and we had lots of volunteers,” she said. “Over time, the interest has waned a little bit. It’s been much more difficult to fill the volunteers.”

Last year, Kootenai Health aided 543 athletes. Only 10 were sent to the hospital, but healthcare providers are a pivotal service to provide. While Kootenai Health works with local race directors, it isn’t a part of the contract negotiation.

Hoerner said it’s created a significant financial impact for the hospital.

“That’s a pretty big expectation,” she said of the medical care. “But it is the hospital’s job to ensure care is provided for the community, and the athletes are a part of that.”

How big of a boon?

Some businesses swear by the economic boost the race brings.

Managers at the Beacon pub, which sits on Sherman Avenue and gives patrons perfect viewing of the finishing sprint down Sherman Avenue from its big windows and sidewalk seating, said the restaurant stays busy all week, while specialty athletic spots like Vertical Earth bicycle shop notice and appreciate the bump, too.

“There’s a lot of indirect” benefit, said Theo Propst, Vertical Earth employee, on the carryover after the event ends. “Local athletes have to live and train here, but also there are local folks who watch the event and are inspired and start riding (casually), which is what I like to see.”

Still, some feel the financial impact may be hard to gauge considering it’s a summer weekend in Coeur d’Alene, which is prime tourism season anyway.

“I think the economic impact of Ironman is somewhat overstated when you use that number,” Wilson said of the $7 million to $10 million estimate. “There’s no question that it is a positive economic impact. But without Ironman would the hotels be empty?”

The Idaho Department of Labor does not have its own estimate, according to the department.

AmeriTel Inn is one Coeur d’Alene hotel that doesn’t pay into the Ironman fee. General Manager Nick Rahlf said that’s because the 118-room inn doesn’t seem to gain more reservations Ironman weekend any more than on other summer weekends.

“There never was incentive to pay it,” Rahlf said.

He said downtown’s annual outdoor art show in August is a busier time.

“All things considered, Art on the Green is a busier weekend,” he said.

Health and mishaps

It’s not just first-time competitors like Andrew Evenson that the race inspires. One of the biggest benefits Coeur d’Alene has experienced in 10 years is an improvement in health among its residents.

Race numbers suggest as much. But perhaps the best gauge is going outside and looking at all the cyclists, runners and swimmers.

The Coeur d’Alene Triathlon has seen participation rates increase 5 to 10 percent a year over the last few years. Ironman helped make triathlons more popular regionally, said race director Scott Ward.

“It’s what running was in the late 70s,” he said.

Every race is affected because every race is a progression of sorts, he said. The Coeur d’Alene Marathon and half-marathon, too, have seen an increase in participation, which its director said Ironman has helped.

It’s not just race numbers.

Mike Martin, out for a jog this week, said he believes Coeur d’Alene is a very active area. Even without Ironman, locals are outside, but the race probably adds that much more.

“I see a lot of people out in June,” said Martin, an Ironman finisher. “I’m sure it pumps them up. Sort of like how people go to the gym after New Year’s, you get a similar thing here in June.”

Cycling, too, has increased. The city of Coeur d’Alene has doubled the amount of bike lanes over the last 10 years to nearly 66 paved miles. It’s also established a ped/bike committee. But with the increase in biking comes an increase in tension between motorists and bicyclists. Navigating the two together is something everyone needs to improve upon, race and city officials said.

“It’s fine except for the bikers who don’t get out of the middle of the road,” said Joe Gilliland, who lives uphill from Coeur d’Alene Lake Drive, where cyclists train in droves leading up to the race. “Every once in a while they can be arrogant about it, like ‘I own the road.’”

According to Idaho Department of Transportation stats, June is the month with the most bicycle-vehicle accidents in Kootenai County and in Coeur d’Alene.

Eleven of the 45 accidents in Kootenai County in 2010 were in June. The second most in a month was eight each in July and August.

Another resident who didn’t want to give her name said the race day is fine; it’s all the training neighbors find distracting.

“If it was just race day, we would be able to tolerate that,” she said.

But this year Ironman has turned its bike course south along U.S. 95, partly out of neighborhood and business concerns, Cavasar said. Ironman is paying around $70,000 for road extensions along the highway to make travel safer for the cyclists.

Others along the old route said they’ll miss the race going by.

No matter which way the course goes, Coeur d’Alene wants to keep it here. One of its biggest supporters has been Mayor Sandi Bloem, who’s been mayor as long as the race has been in town.

Every year she can be spotted cheering from the stands at the finish line, and the event has helped Coeur d’Alene keep its sense of community while teaching a lesson about striving for the impossible.

Regardless of personal or political differences, people come together that day and cheer the finishers.

“It’s taught all of us we can set a goal, a little beyond what we think we can do, a little out of the box and beyond our comfortable level,” she said. “And when you get to the end you celebrate.”

Ron Loghry, of Ogden, Utah, races down a sweeping section of English Point Road during the bicycle leg of the 2009 Ironman Coeur d'Alene. The course will no longer run through Hayden Lake.

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