Another reason more people than ever are registering for endurance events: Race directors finally get it. Jock Semple died in 1988; it took another 15 years or so for his fellow directors to get the memo—if you want a customer back, you do everything in your power to guarantee that customer a fun, memorable experience.
This is where Korff pulls away from the pack. He espouses the theory that an event can be only as much fun as the organizer himself is capable of having. His events, it follows, are great fun. This is, after all, a 61-year-old man who has run marathons backward, a competitive stair-climber practiced in the art of eluding skyscraper security guards in order to run up unlimited flights, a promoter who had the idea to enhance New York City's 2012 Summer Olympics bid by hiring an archer to stand on a moving taxi and shoot an arrow through the hole of a bagel.
Korff sends a thank-you e-mail to everyone who enters his events—occasionally confusing entrants, who wonder if they are reading a mass e-mail. "No, I'm a real person," he replies, "and this is my day job." His interns also call each Aquaphor participant to ask how his or her training is going. Many customers become comfortable asking Korff's advice. On numerous occasions, he says, men have informed him that their wives are pregnant, with a due date dangerously close to race day. What should they do? "The first thing I say is, 'Do not ask your wife if it's still O.K. for you to do the race. Because whether she says yes or no, the fact will remain: You asked.' "
He invites feedback—and gets plenty. Having complimented Korff on a well-run bike transition at last July's New York City Triathlon, participant Rebecca Ajavananda lamented having bumped into "so many dead fish" during the swim in the Hudson River.
"We don't say 'dead fish,' " corrected Korff. "We say 'ambience.' "
Last summer, after eight years of navigating bureaucracies and wrangling permits, Korff and his staff pulled off the Ironman U.S. Championship, the first Ironman-distance triathlon in and around Manhattan. The day of the race Korff rented a mountain bike and spent eight hours riding between the George Washington Bridge and the finish line in Riverside Park at West 81st Street, cheering on runners and asking them how they were doing. In the middle of the bridge, where the runners saw the WELCOME TO MANHATTAN sign, many of them shed tears. "They're back in the city, they know the finish is getting close," Korff says. "It's a very emotional time for them."
One beaming woman practically shouted to Korff, "I'm doing great!" Moments earlier, her boyfriend had proposed. Korff rode alongside her for three miles, learning their backstories, getting the details of the proposal. It is the race director's goal, he says, to make the athletes' "magic moments" come true. "Maybe I'm a sap for this stuff," says Korff, "but it meant a lot to me to hear how important that day and that moment had been to her."
THE MAGIC MOMENTS of a 140.6-mile ordeal must be savored, agrees Andrew Messick, CEO of Ironman's parent company, the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), because they are sure to be outnumbered by low moments. It's simply in the nature of an Ironman that lots of bad things happen. Messick would know. On his final training ride before entering Ironman Canada in 2005, he crashed and broke his arm. "So the [2.4-mile] swim was pretty uncomfortable," he recalls. Because of the bum wing, he didn't reach often enough for his water bottle during the 112-mile bike leg, and he started cramping during the 26.2-mile run. Normally capable of completing a marathon in "slightly over three hours," he says, he took nearly 5½ that day.
"That's nails," I tell him.
"That's walking," he replies.