Frankfort Prepares For Its Ironman Spotlight
By Ross Boissoneau | Sept. 6, 2021
A cadre of 3,000 athletes will plunge into Betsie Bay next Sunday before taking to the roads of Benzie County -- and Frankfort is ready for an event larger than anything it’s ever seen. Ironman 70.3 Michigan will take place in and around Frankfort on Sept. 12.
Race director Joel Gaff tells The Ticker he anticipates a smoother response from the public than the 2019 event, which was headquartered in downtown Traverse City but included racing in Leelanau County and Benzie County. While the event went off well, there was significant pushback from residents and visitors who found their travel disrupted. “The elephant in the room is what happened in 2019,” says Gaff.
He emphasizes the relative ease of working within one county with a smaller population, which he says greatly eases logistics. “The hub will be the Open Space Park in downtown Frankfort,” he says, which will be the transition area for the three events; the finish line for the race will be in downtown Frankfort.
Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism, says he believes moving the event to Frankfort will benefit both the participants and the community at large. The previous course straddling three counties resulted in competing rules and regulations and dissatisfaction from those attempting to use or cross roads that had been closed for the bike race. “This will be much different than 2019,” he says. While the new course will close much of M-22 in Benzie County the day of the race, he says it will be much less intrusive, due to both the location and the sparser population.
“We learned a lot in 2019 … that we took into designing the race for this year,” says Tkach. Operating in one county only means they did not have to deal with three sometimes competing sets of rules. “We feel the policy-type headaches in 2019 will not be there.”
Gaff agrees. “We looked at it as a challenge. How could we make it better? We loved downtown Traverse City, but thought we could come up with a course with less impact,” says Gaff.
One question is how a much smaller community will handle the influx of visitors. Each racer is typically accompanied by two to three friends or family members, leading to 8,000 and 10,000 visitors. Add 1,000 volunteers and an unknown number of spectators, and you’ve got numbers that will swell Frankfort’s population beyond anything the town has seen, even its popular Fourth of July fireworks.
Steve Campbell, owner of Harbor Lights Resort in Frankfort, says he’s excited for the community. When the race was announced, he says the phones immediately started lighting up. “We filled all the rooms we set aside within two hours,” he says.
Brittney Buti, public relations manager at Crystal Mountain, says that resort likewise is nearly full. “We are busier than normal. We still have some rooms available but we’re close to capacity,” she says. While things typically slow down at the Thompsonville resort after Labor Day, this event is helping prop up next weekend.
Downtown Frankfort business owners are anticipating a crush of visitors. “It’s going to be pretty overwhelming,” says Rick Schmitt, who owns Stormcloud Brewery with Brian Confer.
Making it even more of a challenge is the fact it comes after Labor Day, when most college and high school students have returned to school, further stressing an already shorthanded labor force. “We’ll do what we can to staff it,” says Schmitt, including adding members of the Frankfort girls basketball team.
“The Ironman folks are pros, they do it all over the world. We’re just going to do our bit.”
The Ironman triathlon tests the endurance of even the hardiest athlete. First up is the swim, a 1.2-mile triangular loop in Betsie Bay between Frankfort and Elberta. Bikers will then traverse M-22 from downtown Frankfort around Crystal Lake up to Esch Road on the northern edge of Benzie County and back, 56 miles in all. The 13.1 mile foot race starts in downtown Frankfort and circles Betsie Bay, looping back in Elberta to its endpoint back in Frankfort.
Gaff says there was some concern about how the town would handle things, given fewer police and safety officials than in Traverse City, but those worries have been allayed. “It’s been really smooth. We lean heavily on the Michigan State Police, and they’ve been an amazing partner,” he says.
Tkach says plans were already well underway for a return of Ironman to Traverse City for a 2020 event when everything changed. “It has been a moving target with the pandemic. We’re cognizant Delta is real and still could have impact. We’re working with the health department and other agencies.
“The beauty is it is all outside,” he continues. “Outdoor events are far safer than indoor. And Ironman has strict protocols for staff.”
Gaff says Ironman is working with all local and state guidelines to make sure participants, staff and volunteers are all safe. “We’re doing screening at the entrance and encourage everyone to wear masks whether they’re vaccinated or not,” he says.
Gaff, Tkach and organizers say they learned a lot from the 2019 experience, and they anticipate this year’s event will enable them to further streamline things as things carry into 2022. The race is already set to return to Frankfort at approximately the same time next year.
Photo credit to Gregory Shamus/Getty Images for IRONMAN.