The name may be different, but the Des Moines Triathlon is still expected to draw thousands of participants and bystanders to the downtown area during the Labor Day weekend and bring in millions of dollars in revenue to the metro area.
The triathlon, which takes place Sept. 6, will remain an Olympic-distance event. Organizers have also added a sprint triathlon this year, which they believe will draw more participants. The sprint is a 400-meter swim, 20-kilometer bicycle ride and 5-kilometer run.
“This allows more novice athletes to get involved in the sport,” says Bill Burke, who is the race director and owner of the event.
The tradition of the triathlon began June 2007 when Hy-Vee Inc. started the Hy-Vee Triathlon. It was immediately a nationally — if not internationally — recognized event, with the largest prize winnings of any triathlon in the United States, and for its ability to drawn world and Olympic champions to participate.
Hy-Vee officials announced in February that they would discontinue the triathlon. Some questioned whether the large-scale event would continue, but Bill Burke, who has served as the only race director the triathlon has known, announced his company, Premier Event Management, would continue the event.
Premier had produced the Hy-Vee Triathlon since its inception.
“I helped them build that event, and when they decided to get out of the triathlon, I wanted to keep it going,” says Burke, who got his start in 1979 organizing the Crescent City Classic running race in New Orleans. It started with 912 runners and has grown to be the largest road race in the United States with more than 34,000 particpants.
Premier is the same company that produces the New York City Triathlon, the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, the Ironman 70.3 New Orleans, the Nation’s Triathlon in Washington, D.C., and the Hy-Vee Road Races during the Drake Relays.
Organizer says the quality and excitement of the race will not change with the switch of title sponsor.
But Burke knew the event needed a new name even if it found a new title sponsor, a name that recognized the host city, Iowa’s capital city.
“That’s why I came up with the name ‘Des Moines Triathlon,’ ” he says. “The Hy-Vee Triathlon could have been held anywhere.”
Businesses join forces to raise money to keep triathlon in Des Moines
As soon as Rick Tollakson, president and chief executive officer of Hubbell Realty Co., heard that Hy-Vee Inc. would no longer sponsor the annual triathlon, he was on the phone with Burke.
“I called a lot of my friends and said ‘If we wanted to keep this here, would you help?’ ” Tollakson recalls.
The help came through in the form of $150,000 raised from local businesses to hold this year’s triathlon. Transamerica, an insurance, retirement and investment company in Cedar Rapids, called Burke the day after Hy-Vee’s announcement and became the title sponsor. Principal Financial Group is sponsoring the Des Moines Triathlon IronKids race.
“That’s really how we were able to keep it going,” Burke says. Tollakson “is the guy honestly, who said: ‘Bill, I’ve done the race several times. What do you need to keep this going in Des Moines?’ He made the calls.”
Not only did Tollakson know the triathlon was important to Des Moines from a business perspective, but they’re personal to him, which is why he immediately offered to help. His son is a professional triathlete. Tollakson credits triathlons and long road races for helping him transform his own health and lose weight about three years ago.
“I need the challenge of the race to keep me motivated,” he says.
Hubbell will have several of its employees, including Tollakson, compete in this year’s event. The company has a competition among departments.
The triathlon also has had a major economic impact on the Des Moines metro area since its inception. The Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that about $4.5 million is generated for the metro in the form of hotel visits, restaurant meals, shopping and from the event itself with rental items, paying police officers to work and more. The bureau also estimates that 4,000 people attend the triathlon with 3,200 of those being visitors from outside of the metro area. An estimated 6,800 hotel room nights were booked during the triathlon each year.
“We’re hoping to keep it going and that it will have that kind of impact,” Burke says. “Probably this first year, but we’re hoping with future years and more sponsors the race will continue to develop positive economic development.”
Although organizers and others expect the Des Moines Triathlon to be scaled back this year, Greg Edwards, president and chief executive officer of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, says he still anticipates huge economic impacts from the event.
“It’s is a major event for the metro area,” Edwards says. “It’s a signature event that has Des Moines on it, like the Des Moines Marathon or the Des Moines Arts Festival. “It’s one of the larger major events annually, and we hope it continues to be that way.”
Race’s finish will return to Capitol; Kids’ race resumes after several absent years
Racers will notice two new aspects of this year’s event.
The triathlon will begin at Gray’s Lake Park with transitions at the park like it has in past years, but the finish will return to the Iowa Capitol. There also is the return of the IronKids event, which hasn’t been held for several years.
“I’ve always loved finishing at the Capitol,” Burke says. “Now that I own the event, I’m moving it back.”
Tollakson says he’s very excited about having the race’s finish at the Iowa State Capitol. Des Moines’ triathlon is different from any others in which he’s competed in that it’s not in a large park or on country roads.
“It’s so cool to have an urban triathlon,” Tollakson says.
Sign-up for the triathlon ended before publication of this article, but as of early August, there were athletes from 23 states registered to participate, including several professional triathletes.
There were about 2,400 participants last year between the kids’ race and the triathlon. Burke says he was hoping for about 2,000 this year. There were at least 30 professional male and female triathletes who had signed up for the race. Participation was expected to be down because this year’s advertising budget was significantly reduced without Hy-Vee at the helm.
The male and female winners of the triathlon will receive significantly less money than they did with the former title sponsor — Hy-vee gave away $500,000 to winners — but the $20,000 total purse is still the fourth largest in the United States for a triathlon, behind $53,000 in St. Petersburg, Florida and $30,000 for the New York City Triathlon, which Burke’s company also produces.
“Relatively speaking, Hy-Vee was head and shoulders above anything in the world,” he says.
Triathlon means street closures, needs hundreds of volunteers to have successful event
Residents who live in downtown Des Moines and the surrounding area and those who plan to travel there will find street closures on race day as a result of the triathlon. For a map of street closures, go to www.tridesmoines.com and click on “course maps” and “road closures” under “athlete info.”
Street closure and detour signs will be posted, so residents and spectators should expect delays. Runners will use the Meredith Trail to get downtown as they pass Principal Park. Locust and Walnut streets will be closed Sunday morning. Finkbine Drive near the Iowa Capitol also will be closed. Burke says a full list of street closures will be available on the triathlon’s website closer to the race.
Burke encourages spectators to come to the race and various locations on the route throughout the course of the triathlon. The event is free. Spectators can be at the swim start, the transition areas, along the bicycle and running courses and at the finish line. They cannot, however, cross the barricades.
A shuttle bus will operate for both spectators and triathlon and sprint triathlon racers between the Des Moines Business Park on Thomas Beck Road and the Iowa State Capitol.
Between 400 and 500 volunteers are needed on race day to make it a success, Burke says.
“I have seen world class events turn into disasters without volunteers,” he says. “They make the event happen. They make it safe in so many ways.”
Volunteers are needed to check in bicycles, marshal the bicycle course, perform crowd control and clean-up, help at the triathlon expo the night before, set up and tear down the triathlon, serve as a door greeter, help with registration packet pick-up, give out water from the water stations and run the set-up and tear-down for IronKids.
“All of those positions are important on race day,” Burke says.
Anyone who is interested in volunteering, can sign up on the website: www.tridesmoines.com and click on “community” and then “volunteer.”