On Aug. 7, 2022, hundreds of Juneau residents and athletes from across the globe swam 1.2 miles in the frigid waters of Auke Lake, biked 112 miles out the road in the pouring rain and ran 26.2 miles through the Mendenhall Valley all in under 17 hours.
That race was the first-ever Ironman Alaska, and for now, it’s set to be the last.
In mid-December the Ironman Group announced its decision to end its three-year contract with Travel Juneau, the Juneau contracted host for the event, effectively cancelling the Ironman Alaska races for 2023 and 2024. The group cited impacts from global inflation and economic pressure.
Having already opened the registry for what would have been the second Ironman Alaska on Aug. 6, 2023, many residents and outside athletes were left with a decision of whether to race elsewhere, or not race at all.
During the time the Ironman Alaska race took place in Juneau, it had an estimated $7-8 million economic impact on the city, according to City and Borough of Juneau Finance Director Jeff Rogers. However, for many of the hundreds of Juneau residents and athletes who shared their reactions to the cancellation via social media or other platforms, the race’s impact on the community members who volunteered and the local businesses who opened their doors transcends the money it generated.
“Despite having a wonderful host community, we have made the difficult decision to discontinue IRONMAN Alaska,” stated the Ironman Alaska event page. “We would like to thank our athletes, volunteers, and local partners, the City of Juneau, Travel Juneau, the University of Alaska Southeast, the local Tlingit people and the entire Juneau community. Not only did Alaskans come out to take on the inaugural race, but local culture and community was an important aspect in the creation of and huge race day support for IRONMAN Alaska. We would also like to thank all of our sponsors for their partnership in helping to ensure race experiences lived up to the destination.”
The Ironman Group declined a request from the Empire seeking additional comment beyond the original cancellation statement.
“Of course I am disappointed, I don’t think I’ve spoken to a community member who isn’t disappointed,” said Liz Perry, the president and CEO of Travel Juneau.
Perry, who helped bring Ironman Alaska to Juneau, said the decision to cancel the race was not mutual and was strictly a financial decision by the Ironman Group. She said the race will be missed in all aspects of Juneau’s community and businesses.
“The economic ripple could have been felt not just in Juneau but across the state and Southeast Alaska community,” she said. “That will be a missed opportunity for us.”
According to recently released budget documents, the city’s hotel bed tax revenue during the three-month-long summer quarter of 2022 totaled approximately $1.36 million — the highest ever recorded — and rose $500,000 over its original budgeted amount. At a recent city Assembly Finance Committee meeting, Rogers said that the single summer quarter amounted to approximately 65% of the entire year’s expected revenue and prompted him to update the remainder of the year’s forecast.
During that period as well, Juneau collected more than $20.2 million in sales tax revenue — $2.3 million more than originally expected, according to budget documents.
Rogers said there are a number of factors that led to the record-setting hotel bed tax quarter this summer, citing inflation, the return of the cruise industry, independent traveling and Ironman Alaska as some of the major contributors. The period also included Celebration, a biennial gathering that celebrates Southeast Alaska Native arts, culture and peoples.
Because of the unexpected influx in hotel bed tax, the city is considering a request by Travel Juneau to receive an additional $75,836 in grant reimbursements for its financial obligations toward the Ironman Alaska — minus the $50,000 licensing fee — along with requesting $17,500 in funding for an economic analysis of the race’s impact for CBJ.
On Wednesday, the Assembly Finance Committee moved forward with the request and a vote on the ordinance for the allocation will be decided on at an upcoming Assembly meeting, according to Assembly member and Finance Committee Chair Carole Triem.
Impact on local businesses
Cleveland Mitchell, the hotel manager for the Frontier Suites Hotel near the Juneau International Airport, said as soon as the race cancellation was announced in mid December, the hotel saw an influx in callers canceling hotel reservations during the week of the expected 2023 race.
“We were disappointed because it was good for Juneau and the economy of Juneau, I do believe we benefited from it,” he said. “During that week we were running more full than what we would do in a normal year.”
Mitchell said that he is disheartened that the race is not expected to return as the hotel is already seeing the impacts of it as people drop their reservations. He also said he’s disappointed that its positive impact on the community won’t return either.
“I think a lot of people who were coming into town came to enjoy the race and a lot of people doing the race were at the hotel,” he said. “I think we can bounce back, but it may not be as nice as it could have been if they did come.”
Ken Hill, the owner of Juneau Bike Doctor, said the news of the cancellation took him by surprise.
“We were disappointed,” he said. “We met a lot of really great people and we had a lot of fun, so we are certainly bummed.”
As just one out of the two bike shops located in the capital city, Juneau Bike Doctor took a lead in providing shop assistance to the hundreds of athletes and their respective bikes that came to town for the race. During the week of the Ironman, Hill said his shop saw a significant spike in the number of people needing various types of assistance and gear, which he said his shop worked hard to address.
When shipping bikes to Juneau prior to the race became an issue for many athletes, the shop even opened its doors as a location to ship bikes to and offered bike storage to athletes.
“We definitely saw a spike during the week of the event,” he said. “I think communitywide that week brought in a ton of revenue and it was a nice bump during a time when we’re just getting out of COVID.”
Looking to the future, Hill said he hopes a similar type of race can come to town and still provide that revenue boost and community support that he saw during the week of the Ironman Alaska race.
“If we can get a group that is maybe more appropriately sized for us I think we can do some real magic,” he said.
Impact on athletes
Jamie Bursell is the head coach of the High Cadence Triathlon team and one of the nine Juneau residents who qualified for the VinFast Ironman World Championship thanks to their efforts during the Ironman Alaska, which offered 45 age group qualifying slots for the championship.
Bursell aided dozens of Juneau and Alaska athletes to prepare for the Ironman Alaska back in August, and before the cancellation was announced, she and her team were already training for the second race.
“I was surprised that Ironman made the decision to not come back, I understand that it was a financial decision, but yet we’re all very disappointed and my athletes are still trying to figure out what to do,” she said.
After the news of the cancellation, she said many people stopped their training and took the race registration refund the Ironman Group offered after the cancellation, but many are still trying to utilize their training and race elsewhere. She said a lot of Juneau racers signed up for the Ironman Alaska because they wanted to accomplish the race in their own backyard. Now that it is not an option anymore, she said she and her team will continue to train and hope to build Juneau’s triathlon community for future Juneau-based races.
“Training for a full Ironman takes a lot of preparation, and there’s been a definite dropoff in athletes who are doing training,” she said. “We’re looking for other avenues to race.”
• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.