(Lee Gruenfeld catches up with the Ironman World Championship race director)
Take it from a former professional management consultant: There’s all kinds of executive talent, each with its own set of skills and capabilities, but the rarest is the operations manager who can successfully coordinate a wide array of disparate functions in pursuit of a single, time-specific goal.
Do it right and you get the Normandy invasion, the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Game, or a shuttle launch. Screw it up and you get the iPhone 4, Windows Vista or a Toyota. For those of you who have marveled at how the dizzyingly complex logistics of the Ironman World Championship seem, like DNA, to self-assemble effortlessly, be assured that it all starts at the top.
Meet event director Diana “Will work for ulcers” Bertsch …
LG: If memory serves, the 2010 event is your eighth time up at bat?
DB: That’s correct.
LG: Have you got it on autopilot yet?
DB: Don’t I wish. Although actually I don’t wish, because when we stop trying to make improvements, that’s when I need to move on and do something else. It’s gratifying when you introduce changes and they make things better — they don’t always — but that just motivates us to find more things that can be improved.
LG: It’s a cliche to say you can’t get a degree in this kind of stuff, but you actually do, don’t you?
DB: Sort of, but not really. I’ve got a bachelor’s in business from UNLV and several years of overseas graduate work in international management, but nothing in that schooling prepared me for this.
LG: How’d you wind up going to college in Las Vegas?
DB: I lived there. When I was four and we were in Reseda (the San Fernando Valley, west of Los Angeles), Dad decided that he’d had enough of the big city and moved us to Vegas, which in 1969 was a surprisingly small town.
LG: So by the time you graduated in…
LG: …you hadn’t seen much of the world.
DB: True, so that’s when I decided to move out of my comfort zone. I’d met [future husband] John at UNLV and his father was a kind of visiting professor at Brunel University in England. He persuaded me to go to grad school there.
LG: Vegas to West London. That had to be abrupt.
DB: That was only part of it. I was not just the only female in the international management program and the only one who spoke only English, I was also the youngest student by 15 years. Nearly everyone else was an experienced businessperson pursuing an advanced degree.
LG: So much for your comfort zone.
DB: Exactly. But it was an intense learning experience. I remember one class in international law, the instructor would teach things out of this book and the students would roll their eyes and say, “No, no…let me tell you what happens in the real world.”
LG: Kind of like Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School.
LG: Never mind. I seem to remember you once telling me you’d been to school in Switzerland.
DB: The program at Brunel was changing so I transferred to a school in Lausanne. Another eye-opening experience.
LG: So what did you do with all this learning when you came back to the States?
DB: At first not much. I was back in Southern California and did some odd jobs, then went to work for an outfit that took people back and forth to Catalina Island by boat. I put on special events for groups, working with a marketing company called GMR. They now represent PowerBar, so that relationship kind of came full circle.
LG: When was your first brush with Ironman?
DB: John and I honeymooned on the Big Island in 1990. We were at the Kona Surf and our last day was Ironman race day, so we decided to get up early and get a spot on the sea wall to watch the start. Neither of us had any idea what to expect, and I was totally unprepared.
LG: What was it like for you?
DB: Utter shock and awe. To this day I remember every second of that magnificent spectacle. I was overwhelmed, and turned to John and said, “I want to do this someday.” Somehow, I had to be a part of it.
LG: But that day you had to go home.
DB: We did, but John was in construction and two years later his company started building homes on the Big Island and we jumped at the chance to move here. I got into the Ironman scene immediately, and for fours years we volunteered just about everywhere: finish line, aid stations, transition areas…we even helped set up the swim course. Anything to stay close to the sport.
LG: Except doing it?
DB: Wasn’t that easy to qualify, and then in ’95 we had to move to Flagstaff, Arizona. I did the Keauhou Half Ironman that May, and wouldn’t you know it: I got a slot in the roll down.
LG: Four months to train for the Big One. Not a lot of time.
DB: No, but it was even less than that, because it wouldn’t be until July that we were finally settled enough for me to start training. A friend of mine drew up a training plan designed to just get me to the finish line and I got started. But it still wasn’t easy, because I was traveling back and forth between Flagstaff and Vegas a lot.
LG: Where did you swim?
DB: I didn’t, hardly at all. I hadn’t even learned to swim until we got to Hawaii in ’92, and only then because we discovered all these great events put on by Peaman [Sean Pagett]. The first time I swam a race in the ocean I panicked when I put my head into the water and saw all those fish. The swim was only about 600 yards but I hyperventilated my way through the whole thing. When I came out runners were already finishing and I had to convince the race officials that, yes, I really did want to finish. Then a couple of days later John read in the paper that I’d placed in my division!
LG: So back home your IM training was mostly biking and running.
DB: My Dad was worried about me doing that alone in Vegas so he’d grab coffee and newspapers and leapfrog me with his car. Some of my warmest memories are of him always appearing around the next bend. And John did the same for me in Flagstaff.
LG: How was your Ironman race?
DB: What I remember most clearly was biking up Palani when it dawned on me, “I’m in the Ironman World Championship!” I couldn’t believe it, people I knew cheering for me, the whole amazing spectacle.
LG: And out on the highway?
DB: Reality set in quickly. I’d been told not to worry about the headwind going up because it would be a tailwind coming back. Well, maybe it was for Mark Allen (that year’s winner) but not for those of us who were slightly farther back in the pack. By the time I came back down the Queen K the wind had switched and that was a surprise. There were times I thought I might not be able to finish but once I got out on the run I knew I’d finish … except one time.
LG: Why? What happened?
DB: I saw a guy lying on the road, not moving, and people from a sag wagon had gotten out to help him. I felt bad for him, then it struck me: What if he’d felt as good as I was feeling now earlier in his race? Am I going to wind up the same way?
LG: But you finished.
DB: And it was the experience of a lifetime. I wasn’t too upbeat when I then had to go and start our new life in Flagstaff, but two years later I got a call from Ironman asking if I’d like to come work for the race. It took some doing and some luck to make that possible but it worked out.
LG: You only did it for three years, though.
DB: Yes, but as it turns out, that was a blessing. I became the spa manager at the Four Seasons/Hualalai, and when they decided to open Kukio next door, I was asked to helped the spa get going there. I was brought on even before ground was broken. It was the ideal training ground for learning how to manage a highly complex undertaking with a thousand details and a thousand opportunities for things to go wrong.
LG: Kukio opened at the end of 2002.
DB: Right, and the timing couldn’t have been better. A few weeks after it went operational I got another call from Ironman, this time offering me the job of event director.
LG: Did you jump at it?
DB: I wanted to, but I was a little hesitant because it was the 25th anniversary of the event and it was a very big deal. Everything had to go perfectly. Also, I was concerned about the transition from the previous race director. In an atmosphere like gearing up for the Ironman World Championship, relationships mean everything and abrupt changes are hard.
LG: So you took some time to think about it?
DB: Not a lot; I felt that if I could bring on two people who’d worked closely with me at Hualalai, I’d be up to the challenge.
LG: And they were…?
DB: Mahea Akau and Kerri Love. We’d been through it all together and had rock solid faith in each other’s abilities and in our working relationship. So in March of 2003 I jumped into Ironman heart and soul.
LG: Was the transition as difficult as you’d feared?
DB: No, and one of the reasons was that everyone working for the race was, ahead of anything else, totally in love with the sport and not about to let anything interfere with the athletes’ experience. I’m not saying the job was easy—far from it—but none of the problems and headaches ever stemmed from internal friction. I’d match this crew against any event team in the entire world of sports.
LG: Has it been the same way since WTC was purchased?
DB: Thankfully, yes. The new owners are every bit as fiercely protective of the event as the original ones were. Attitude comes from the top, and with that kind of orientation I’m convinced there’s nothing we can’t handle.
LG: You said earlier that nothing is on autopilot. Don’t you think that there’ll come a point where it’s all nailed down and all you have to do is fight occasional fire?
DB: Inconceivable, if for no other reason than we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to improve things. We’re always trying new ideas, some of which work, some don’t. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know if something’s going to fly until you do it live, so it’s a risk.
LG: There’s been some carping about previous changes. Altering the course itself, moving the transition area around…
DB: Sure. There’s no way to get better without making some mistakes once in a while.
LG: Does the criticism bother you?
DB: Only in one sense, but the criticism itself is actually welcome. Unless we hear from people, we don’t know how they feel. We’re intensely self-critical inside the organization so getting flak from athletes and other involved parties is just part of the process.
LG: But you mentioned that there was one sense in which you are bothered. What’s that?
DB: When people think we were motivated by something other than trying to improve the race. Everyone on the crew loves Ironman and cares deeply about the athletes, so you can imagine how it feels when someone implies that we don’t.
LG: Any changes we should be looking for this year?
DB: Some, but few you’ll notice, or so we hope. Most of the improvements we make are intended to be seamless, and people don’t tend to notice when there are fewer problems or things just run smoother.
LG: Kind of like the security business. If you do your job right, nothing goes wrong but people hardly know you exist.
DB: And we’re fine with that. If we’re successful, at the end of the day participants should be talking about how they performed and what the race meant to them, not whether there was enough ice at the aid stations.
LG: One last question: Seems that every year or two there are rumors about the race moving to another location. Any truth there?
DB: Can you imagine it being anywhere but the Big Island?
DB: Me, neither. We’re here to stay.
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