While some locals focus on the traffic and detours that major races like the Ironman 70.3 North Carolina and the Wilmington Marathon cause, the economic impact they have on the region can make it worth the few extra minutes of drive time.
The YMCA Wrightsville Beach Sprint Triathlon, which will take place Sept. 24, is one of the longest-running triathlons on the East Coast.
The first event took place 43 years ago in September 1979 with 99 participants, and it’s still going strong today with 1,000 athletes expected to compete in this year’s event.
Tom Clifford, of Without Limits, serves as the triathlon race director, in addition to directing many others such as the Battleship Half Marathon and the Wilmington Marathon, and understands the impact these races have on the community.
The Wilmington Marathon has a $2 million economic impact alone, so Clifford estimates a nearly $10 million impact of all the races he directs.
With many people traveling to the area for the events, the hospitality industry can benefit from the boost. Last year, the Wilmington Marathon included athletes representing 48 states.
Clifford aims to have the race host 5,000 runners in upcoming years.
Public services such as traffic control, permits and police are all paid for the by race organizations.
“We pay for all the services separately. Nothing is donated by the city,” Clifford said.
In addition, the race organizers rent municipal facilities, including the Wilmington Convention Center and Wrightsville Beach Parks and Recreation areas, Clifford said.
“It is a great place to come, and we can continue to do better,” Clifford said. “We can be a good mecca for events to be held here.”
Clifford said he looks forward to a time when the races he directs have more consistency once construction projects are complete in the area.
“We have been maneuvering around city construction and growth, so we look forward to the ability to have some consistency in our courses. It will be great to have the facilities and the consistency to show off the best of what we got,” he said.
Clifford emphasized the need for education for the public on why these races are important for the people who race in them and the impact upon the community they serve.
“It brings people together and allows for people to set goals,” Clifford said.
The Ironman triathlon is the ultimate goal for many athletes, and Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach host a half Ironman each October.
The Ironman 70.3 alone has a potential impact of $4 million on the area each October, according to race director Sami Winter.
“It is estimated that each athlete brings two support crew and stays an average two to three nights, so between hotels, taxes, food and beverage and attractions revenue, it adds up,” Winter said.
Typically, an average of 5,000 people visit the area during the race weekend, bringing the opportunity for businesses to benefit from the surge of people in the post-summer slowdown.
After a lull during the pandemic, Winter explained that there was a strong desire for athletes to return this year.
“Everybody wanted the event back. Everybody started returning in full force,” Winter said.
The sold-out event of 2,300 athletes competing in the 70.3-mile swim, bike and half marathon race will take place Oct. 15.
“North Carolina is very popular on the circuit because it is a nice and fun course. It is nice to see because I have lived here 50-plus years, and I love showcasing it. I am excited to bring a lot of people to this great community,” Winter said.
Since 2016, the Ironman Foundation has given more than $100,000 to the Wilmington area in the form of grants to local nonprofits, according to Winter.
“The Ironman Foundation Community Grant program supports organizations within select North American and international race communities,” according to the Ironman Foundation website. “Grant funding provides an opportunity to create positive, tangible change in our race communities and leave the Ironman legacy behind long after race day.”
The race begins at Wrightsville Beach where athletes swim 1.2 miles across Banks Channel, then “cruise from the beach to the countryside” for 56 miles through the rural landscape of Pender County before returning across the Cape Fear River, to complete a 13.1 mile run through historic downtown Wilmington.
“It is a beautiful area. It is somewhere where an athletes can bring their families and during the time when athletes are doing their things, getting ready for the race, families can stay busy,” Winter said. “Whether they go to any of the area beaches, Wrightsville, Carolina, Kure or Topsail, the families have their pick. Or they can go to the Battleship or the Gardens; there’s a lot for the families.”
The fact that athletes feel comfortable bringing their families to the area is one of the reasons the race is so successful, Winter said. This year, the finish line will be at Riverfront Park, making it even more family friendly.
“This is a place where families can hang out, eat lunch and wait for their athletes to finish,” Winter said.
Winter shared that most of the businesses impacted by the racecourse show their support for the race and come out to cheer on the athletes.
More than 1,300 volunteers serve to ensure a successful event, which always gets “high marks for its Southern hospitality,” according to Winter.
In addition to the grants Ironman provides, they have started the initiative, Race for Change, to increase diversity within the organization.
“The mission of Race for Change is to improve equity for our athletes, in our sport and in the communities where we train and race,” according to the Ironman website.
This translates to “more ways of giving back to the community through scholarships,” Winter explained.
The main concern is the safety of the athletes, so Ironman officials work closely with law enforcement and the Department of Transportation to ensure a safe course for the athletes and to manage traffic.
Winter said, “We have been able to keep athletes safe while showcasing the community be developing the relationships we have.”