I started writing this in response to a question on SlowTwitch.com’s forum about how much prize money Ironman winners receive. My answer grew a bit long and off track, so I decided I’d rather post it here. So here are my thoughts on making a living as a Ironman (or, more specifically, non-ITU) pro:
Most pros racing Ironman will also have at least some bonuses for winning (and maybe for podium or fastest swim/bike/run or first to t1/t2 splits depending on the sponsor. E.g., I am sure Andy Potts has swim split bonuses, Normann bike split bonuses, etc.)
If you are a good 2nd tier pro, I think you can earn a modest living (very modest) if you are a single person. If you are a first tier pro, you can earn enough to be comfortable as a single person, but you aren’t laying away bank for the future in most cases.
The hard part is bridging the gap between making very little money and then getting to the point where you have some level of sustainability. This has been the first year I’ve actually made some money at races, which has been awesome. But I think you have to put in the training hours before you actually start seeing that reward (unless you are have a tri-background like the high-school swimmer/runner who focused on running in college). So, that is why a lot of pros have other jobs. It gives you a reliable source of income. If you are lucky, you will find companies that do a combined work/sponsorship program. Home Depot’s work-20/paid-for-40 for Olympic athletes is a great example. I work for and am sponsored by a coaching and training center – TargeTraining – and also for Dan here on Slowtwitch. They are both incredibly helpful and supportive, and I’ve really had a great year of training, and the fact that I’ve had some base income so that I can make sure I can afford good food (which is my single biggest expense), airfare to races, etc. Sponsorship is great because you really reduce the number of things you have to buy for the sport, so that also makes your prize money go further if you aren’t paying for tires, tubes, helmets, etc.
But certainly, with very few exceptions, the pros aren’t getting rich. Just like in the world at large, there is a small group at the top that gets most of the money – prize money and also most of the sponsorship dollars because they are winning the races that get them most of the prize money – so they have double rewards. Prize money and sponsorship go hand in hand. But it goes down exponentially as you get closer and closer to the bottom. It’s a lot of luck, both in terms of talent and also who you have around you. I had a lot of incredibly supportive people – most notably my parents – who helped me get to the point where I was able to win some prize money.
Bottom line – Ironman, and triathlon in general, is not a great way to get rich, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.