TAMPA — Avoid eye contact and never smile at the monkeys, reads a warning to athletes at Ironman Malaysia. In past races, the monkeys have gotten aggressive. There are sharks and crocodiles to contend with in the open water in Australia. And last year, a cliff gave way while athletes were cycling in Switzerland, leading to a dead end of mud.
Race organizers deal with such predicaments and more as they take Ironman triathlons global. Started in 1978 in Hawaii, the race has since grown seismically. The brand claims 85 percent of long-distance triathlons around the world, said Andrew Messick, Ironman CEO.
The M-dot logo, designed for just $75 in 1980, has become ubiquitous. Its races span six continents and 27 countries this year with 35 full-distance triathlons and a myriad of shorter races.
For each event, semitrailer trucks of ice and more than 30,000 gallons of water, soup and flat soda must get to aid stations.
And it's all orchestrated from Tampa.
"There's a global sports company based in Hillsborough County," Messick said. "My guess is no one knows it."
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The headquarters is in 12,000 square feet, a dozen floors up on Rocky Point Drive, overlooking Old Tampa Bay.
Between bites of a taco, Messick talked about the complexities of organizing the Ironman, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. A second version is half that distance.
Open water swims are held in lakes, rivers and oceans. Combining three dimensions and transition areas is a challenge. When the five-day forecast in Budapest predicts a hot race day, someone here orders more ice.
A staff of 110 in Tampa and 215 worldwide prepare well in advance to handle multiple emergencies at any time during a race.
"People don't appreciate the complexity," Messick said. "There's a lot of plumbing."
This month, he was in New Zealand for a race, and then Equador, where he pitched a race there to the minister of tourism.
"Promising indeed," he tweeted.
Messick was hired in May 2011 from AEG Sports, where he was president. He has completed three full Ironmans — one he raced with a 3-day-old broken arm. He and his wife recently remodeled a 1925 home in Golf View, in South Tampa. Despite a busy schedule, he tries to get home for dinner with their 5-year-old son.
Messick was hired to grow the brand.
"We're hiring like crazy," he said. "What limits us is not enough hours in the day."
Racks of race shirts, shorts and hats line hallways of the office. Plans are to display worn race bibs collected from around the world in the lobby.
In a back room sit 16 Emmy Awards that will soon rest on shelves just inside the office. The Emmys came from the coverage by NBC of the Ironman World Championship, held annually in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
There's also a binder in the back room full of notes of the early years. A map of the route the first year is sketched above a motto, now a registered trademark:
Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!
The handwritten print continues.
"Late entries OK, but may have to wait for trophies."
The trophy was a 5-inch man made of nuts and bolts.
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John Collins wrote those words after a lively debate in 1977 about which sport makes for the fittest athlete.
Collins organized the first "Iron Man," combining three popular races in Hawaii into one day. Fifteen men showed up at the start line in 1978. Twelve finished.
In 1983, the word "triathlon" was added to Webster's dictionary.
In 1989, James Gills, an eye surgeon and real estate developer, bought the Ironman brand, for $3 million, bringing the headquarters to his hometown of Tarpon Springs. In 2008, Gills sold it for an undisclosed amount to Providence Equity Partners, and the company moved to Tampa.
That year, the first Ironman 70.3 World Championship was held in Clearwater. The race continued annually there through 2011, and then moved to Haines City.
There are 190 events this year.
As the middle class grows and people have more time and resources to spend on fitness, all levels of endurance sports are growing, Messick said.
Some Ironman races sell out in seconds. The average age of participants is 40. Some view it as turning a midlife crisis into a midlife challenge. Others call it a mental game. It mirrors life. Others affectionately call it an addiction.
"As a grownup, you get a new challenge," Messick said.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.