Cook: Frozen Ironman

Cook: Frozen Ironman

September 10th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

It was 11:40 last Wednesday morning and Chad Rucks was logged onto Active.com, eagerly waiting for high noon and the online registration for the 2014 Ironman Chattanooga to begin.

Rucks, a 32-year-old Chattanoogan and five-time Ironman, had to be fast. There were only-so-many spots, and across the country, thousands of triathletes were eye-balling their laptops, just like he was.

"Right at noon," he said, "it clicked."

Rucks fast-typed his contact information through the first page, then clicked to the next page to begin paying, thrilled and moments away from getting a spot for the first-ever Ironman in his hometown.

Then a new screen popped up.

"It said on hold," he said.

For several minutes, Rucks' registration on Active.com was frozen and on hold. And the same thing was happening to plenty of other triathletes.

A new screen then appeared, showing two words that have become a source of anger and controversy for triathletes, especially here.

"Sold out," said Rucks.

The news spread quickly: the 2014 Ironman Chattanooga had sold out in record time. Around 12:30, World Triathlon Corp. CEO Andrew Messick sent a breathless tweet.

"Ironman Chattanooga just sold out," he tweeted. "3 minutes."

But how? What exactly happened in those three minutes? How did triathletes like Rucks who were logged on and halfway through the registration process get frozen out?

Had the online registration actually been a physical line, it seems Rucks and others would have had a spot; Active.com had already begun taking their info, but then whammo! -- the site froze, crashed, whatever tech-lingo you want to use -- and when the website re-animated and unfroze itself, Rucks and others like him now saw the ticket window slam shut.

The next day, Rucks, who works at U.S. Xpress, got an email from race officials.

"There was an issue with our registration system that resulted in a number of athletes like yourself being unaware that the race was sold out and unable to complete your registration," it read.

The email also said the race had not sold out in three minutes, but much faster.

"In reality, the race sold out in less than a minute," the email reads.

Most existing Ironman races take anywhere from five to 15 minutes to sell out online, say Rucks and another triathlete I spoke with. And that's after certain groups have early access to registration -- like last year's racers, race-day volunteers, or triathlon clubs across the U.S., which were reportedly given early registration spots to the Chattanooga Ironman. (At press time, no one from Active.com had returned calls; neither did a top-ranking race official.)

If that many triathletes 60-second-swamped the Active.com site to the point of frozen failure, this clearly means three things.

First: Active.com needs to get its act together.

Second: Ironman Chattanooga is going to be crazy-huge.

Third: Rucks and others got a bum deal.

"I probably had 40 phone calls on registration day from people cussing," said Andy Sweet, of HUB Endurance on Frazier Avenue, who also trains Ironman triathletes. "That level of emotion is because they were so excited about the race."

Officials couldn't reopen slots for everybody that had been frozen out; the race would be too unwieldy and big. So they went back and studied the order in which triathletes had logged onto Active.com. For some of the earliest registrants, they opened up some additional slots to Chattanooga Ironman. To others, like Rucks, they gave preferential registration to races in Arizona, California or Florida.

"I sent them an email back saying I appreciate it, but I want Chattanooga," Rucks said. "Give me Chattanooga 2015."

Absolutely. Take all the frozen-out triathletes that had rightly begun to register and guarantee them a 2015 race spot.

"I would have crawled to the [starting] line if I had to," Rucks said.

That's the nutso beauty of all this. Rucks and other triathletes are willing to pay the $650 entry fee, and then commit to months of hard training. You'd think the registration for such a grueling race would take weeks -- please, please, we beg you to sign up! -- instead of three minutes. Or 60 seconds.

But Ironman finishers talk about how effective and well-organized the race is, how much meaning and accomplishment one gains from finishing, how it's unlike any other race around.

It's going to be outrageously good, having this race here.

We just have to make sure the challenge comes during the race, not on registration day.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.