Ken Baggs Interview Part II

In the first part of our interview with Ken (here) he told us how he became involved with Ironman and how he got Karen Pini into Ironman. We also learnt the truth behind the race leaving Forster.

In this installment we learn how Port Mac became the "chosen place" and we ask Ken about the personal nature of the Ironman family and the tough things he has had to deal with including the death of one of Transitions own, Ian Green. 

Ken starts by talking about how he got to meet Mike Reid.

I was chairman of the National Race Directors Committee for Triathlon Australia, it was a good networking thing and at that time Mike Reid was the Race Director for the Port Macquarie Tri Club and I had read somewhere that Port Macquarie had won the rights to the Australian Long Course Championships which we had been tagging on to the Canberra Half Ironman and also the Callala Half Ironman.
So Mike rang me. Up until that point I had never met Mike, yet as it turned out Mike and Port Macquarie tri club had been coming down and volunteering at Foster. So when I finally met him I was with Steve Thompson and I said “You two know each other?” and Mike said Baggsy we’ve been coming down here for seven years. I said “Well, I only found out my neighbour was volunteering for the past four years”. So there was already that knowledge base. So I spoke to Dallas as they wanted us to help out with a long course and at this stage there was no intent for anything else.
At the time there were plenty of rumours flying around, there was talk Ironman was going to Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Gold Coast, some rumours we probably started ourselves. Some of them were fairly serious rumours, Coffs Harbour were prepared to throw a lot of money at the race. They wanted the Ironman, but as we know now that didn’t happen. But that’s another story.
So I said to Mike these are my conditions, “You have got a good registration person, got a good swim person, and a good bike person and a good run man, what about aid stations?” I said, “I’ve got a bloke here, we will come up and help out”. So we came up and it just worked brilliantly. And it still does.
So we helped run the long course for three years. So in that time obviously we had the opportunity to get to know the people and the area and put some feelers out. But there was nothing actually happening. It came out later, and they were right, the council and the general manager (of Port Macquarie) they had said yes we would commit but we would only be interested if Foster didn’t want it.

So essentially great Lakes Council said we don’t want it and Dallas said “Baggsy, get your arse up to Port Macquarie”. 

But there was politics behind it, Rob Oakeshott was involved, he had the ear of the labour government so there was money available. There was no money being thrown at Foster due to party allegiances. Rob Oakeshott was able to talk to the right people but more importantly than the government was the word from the local council saying we ‘Will commit to it and this is what we can offer”.

So I said to them, “If Ironman was here where you would run it?”

They said “Down the river!”

I said “Okay, well there’s a few problems with the bloody river”.

I said “What about your bike, were are you going to take that?” Because the long course only went up as far as Lighthouse Hill and it was four or five laps.

I said “What about the run?”

The run here can be difficult, you would be better off trying to get on the eastern side but it is too difficult to get over there. So as you know the run here has been through a lot of changes and it will probably change again.

.....and that was how it started.

But the race has to fit in with the area. Port Macquarie is a city, Foster was a town and the community grew with the race. I mean, at Foster I never had to worry too much about road closures or letterbox drops, here we have got to put thousands of letters in letterboxes to tell everyone what is going on.
So when I came here it was like dumping 1500 or 1600 athletes on the town but it’s worked. Sure we’ve had a few problems here and there but boy oh boy did they look after us. If we had road issues or path issues they were fixed in a few days. They can’t do that these days they have tightened the funding, but it was a good transition.
But that is the true story, we weren’t going. Queensland Events were making noises but they weren’t going to get in a bidding war with Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie and all these rumours were going around, some were a bit close to the mark but there was nothing concrete until Foster said we are pulling the pin.But up until that point I would have said it would never move. I would hope that it never moves from here but who knows there have been moments but….. It’s all about money. You can get $1 million in entry fees but that’s nowhere near the budget to run the event.

Roxii: in the early days it was probably a very personal thing I remember my first Ironman in 96 to enter we would send a letter to you and you would send a letter back with an entry form.

K B: It’s been quite amusing, this morning we were out checking out the weir and a guy said to me, “Ken, I remember I was up on a crane and the phone rang and it was you offering me a spot.” You see we along with I MG introduced the very successful half Ironman series. Ironman demand was exceeding supply so we mirrored the Kona system where we gave each licenced half Ironman 200 qualifying spots and then we had the lottery.
I guess I’m always conscious of the fact that we were dealing with people’s lives. It’s coming home to me now, all these stories I’m hearing from competitors. Prior to that qualifying system we would have 300 people on a waiting list and as we got closer and closer we would make decisions and say we can’t have these people hanging on when there is no chance they will get in, we would have people ringing up and crying for a spot, I had a bloke ring up and offer me $3000, he was genuine. I said “We can’t do that”.
So we write to those on the waiting list who we knew were not going to get in and say “sorry” and they would ring up and they’d be crying and we would just have to say sorry based on the history we know how many will get in.
We made a point of religiously documenting every entry, postal entries at the time, and we would put them in date order and we would keep them in that order and we would have to say righto let’s put these people out of their misery. We had to get to a point where we could say to people don’t keep training for Ironman. And then with drop outs we would put another 10 in and another 10 in. But in those early days the committee would set a limit of say 700 with a closing date, but if on that date we only reached say 600 then that was it the gate was shut. And people would say “but you can still take entries”.
I would say “we are not full but we are not taking entries. You missed the cut. Come back next year get your entry in earlier.”
And we were genuine, but all the time I had this understanding of what we were doing to people’s lives. We’ve had people cheat simply to try and get to Hawaii. And you think to yourself why? The learning experience for me was coming to understand the passion of what Ironman is about, we had a young girl who had changed her birth certificate, we found out and said why? She said “to try and get to Hawaii Ken”. Stories like that always stick in my mind. The affect you’re having on people’s lives. Now you’ve got athletes who have got their children racing and they are about to have children of their own who could eventually be racing also so it is obviously time for me to retire.

Roxii: So have there been any dilemmas that have popped up during a race that you had to smooth over?

KB: I remember I was at Noosa with Garth Proud, I was up there as a VIP for a weekend away. I remember a bloke had a heart attack at the start of the swim, I’m not sure whether he died on the shore or in the ambulance but I remember thinking gee I feel for Garth and that was always a fear of mine to have that happen. It’s a huge learning curve when that happens, you can write about it, you can put plans in place but then when it happens….
And then there was the Ian Green incident, we are blessed here with a medical team from the emergency department at the hospital, so you have nurses and doctors and all the protocols we have in place are such that,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, you know I still have nightmares about it.
The call came in, the doctor said Baggsy we have had a heart attack in the swim. And that’s where Glenda steps in, we knew who he (Ian Green) was and we knew his wife, Pam, was just up the road. So I had to say to Glenda you handle it.
………these things happen all too often, we go to funerals, send flowers, unfortunately that’s life and we have had a few years of it, I was only reflecting the other day as I was looking through the list, I’ve kept a file and there is a lot that we’ve lost.


R.I.P Ian Green (Machine)  

I the next installment we ask Ken about the coroversial wetsuit rulings and who holds the "big stick" in those situations and more.