If you saw “Avengers: Endgame,” you know what happened to Iron Man. This isn’t about that. Different type of Iron Man. This is about the Ironman coming to the Roanoke Valley in 2020 — more formally the Carilion Clinic IRONMAN 70.3 Virginia’s Blue Ridge triathlon, a name that’s nearly as long as the 70.3 miles the participants will aim to cover by swimming, biking and running. There are three ways to look at this event, which was announced with much fanfare Tuesday — as it should be, because this is billed as the biggest sports event to ever descend on the Roanoke Valley.
The first way to look at this is the spectacle of it all: 2,500 or more participants. There are some softball tournaments that attract that many players, and they stay for longer periods of time. The difference here, though, is one of national — scratch that, international — recognition. There are only 113 official Ironman 70.3 events in the world this year —and only 37 of those in North America. (The 70.3 signifies it’s half the length of the full Ironman, of which there are just 41 in the world, with 14 of them in North America.)
That 37 figure roughly tracks the number of teams in most pro sports leagues (30 in baseball and basketball, 31 for now in hockey, 32 in football) or the number of races in NASCAR (36) or number of tournaments at the highest level of golf (46). The point: This is akin to getting into the major leagues. The event rolls in with 12 tractor trailer loads of gear and requires 60 school buses and 1,000 local volunteers. The best comparison would be with the old Tour DuPont bike race that came through the New River Valley in 1993 and both the New River and Roanoke valleys in 1994, 1995 and 1996. That event aimed to be the American version of the Tour de France and saw a fellow named Lance Armstrong ride through all four years. Those of a certain age remember how big a deal that was — be it in terms of civic pride or the number of people who lined up to catch a glimpse of cyclists whirring by. Here’s a comparison: the Tour DuPont involved a maximum of 125 cyclists; this Ironman will involve 2,500 or more competitors — so it’s at least 20 times bigger.
Here’s the second way to look at this: When you hold the Ironman up against the Tour DuPont, you can see how far we’ve come as a community. In 1993, the Tour DuPont bypassed the Roanoke Valley. Why? Because in the words of sports columnist Jack Bogaczyk at the time, the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau only “lamely inquired” about the event and never put in a bid because the bureau feared the number of hotel rooms required would displace existing visitors. After the tour went around us, many local leaders wanted to know why. “We can’t get this event because we don’t try,” complained then-city council member Mac McCadden. “We’re too conservative.” The tour’s bypass did something unusual for the time: It united Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem, all of whom were unhappy to be left out of the action. Things changed: The next three years the tour came through the Roanoke Valley, until the tour went kaput. Over nearly three decades, things changed in an even bigger way.
In 1993, local politicians had to complain after the fact. This time, though, it was City Council member Michelle Davis who first alerted everyone to the Ironman opportunity (after, she, in turn was tipped off by Carilion Clinic podiatrist Randy Clements that Ironman’s contract with Williamsburg was about to expire). This time, instead of “lamely inquiring,” the modern version of the tourism bureau — Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge — made a major push to win the event. Instead of being reactive, now we’re being pro-active. (Credit also due to local triathlete Scott Moir and Carlion sports medicine chief T.K. Miller who were involved).
In 1993, the Roanoke Valley consisted of separate governments who were still grappling independently with an economy in transition. Today, the valley still consists of separate governments, but they are generally united in understanding that they must work together to build a new economy: The competition isn’t on the other side of Peters Creek Road; it’s on the other side of the world. We can’t say everything worked perfectly smoothly behind the scenes here because it didn’t, but let’s look at the big-picture results.
The Western Virginia Water Authority — in 1993 there was no such regional entity — gave permission to allow the swimming event in Carvins Cove. Given the authority’s historic opposition to swimming there, that’s a big deal. (There’s really no reason to ban swimming at the cove. Don’t like the thought of people swimming in your water supply? Then don’t think about what the bears are doing out there in the water.) More contrasts: In 1993, the tourism bureau didn’t cover Botetourt County. Now it does, and this time it was Botetourt County Administrator Gary Larrowe who delivered a major assist by offering to host the cycling leg. He understands why it’s important to say “yes.”
That brings us to the third way to look at the Ironman event. Forget the hoopla. Forget even the economic impact of 10,000 or so people coming to town to spend their money. (Think your taxes are too high? Think local governments should spend more on schools? Then you want all those Ironman people in town so they can pay sales taxes, meals taxes, lodging taxes and whatnot.) Here’s why this really matters: It’s a branding exercise. The economy used to be based on natural resources — mines, ports, and the like. Today, it’s increasingly based on the labor pool — a very mobile labor pool. The best jobs go to where the workers are, which means communities are competing not just for potential employers, they’re competing for their potential employees, as well. That’s why quality-of-life amenities have become as important as industrial parks. One of the biggest challenges facing local governments is how to attract and retain a skilled workforce that could easily go elsewhere. We can’t say that by hosting the Ironman the Roanoke Valley will attract XYZ Corporation. Things aren’t that clear-cut. But by hosting the event, the valley does burnish its growing reputation as a progressive, outdoors-oriented community. This becomes part of the talking points for every locality in the valley — because each one faces the same problem and ultimately has to find the same demographic solution, whether it’s Botetourt developing the Greenfield Center or Roanoke County redeveloping the 419 corridor. Building a new economy isn’t a sprint. It’s not even a marathon. It’s more like, well, you ought to be able to figure out what it’s more like.