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2013 Subaru Whistler Ironman swim (Lorraine Sommerfeld for The Globe and Mail)
2013 Subaru Whistler Ironman swim (Lorraine Sommerfeld for The Globe and Mail)

Brand Marketing

Why Subaru sponsors events that have nothing to do with cars Add to ...

More than 2,100 swimmers clad in black wetsuits were churning up Alta Lake on the first leg of the 2013 Subaru Whistler Ironman. The sun was still struggling to burn off the morning chill, and from a vantage point on a boat in the centre of the lake, you could see steam rising from the swimmers. They looked like seals.

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Divided into two groups, the professionals headed out first. These were the elites; roughly 40 who do this for a living, full-time, around the world. The rest? The rest could be anyone who dedicated to the training and accepted the discipline. Every age, size, shape and personality type.

Swimming 3.8 kilometres in Alta Lake on that morning had nothing to do with Subaru.

As the clock ticked close to the first hour mark, the pros were running up the beach. Tugging on the shoulders of their wetsuits as they headed in, dozens of volunteers in ubiquitous light blue t-shirts extended gloved hands, yelling at them. These people are called strippers; they were there to get those wetsuits off so the swimmers could transform into cyclists. The removal of the neoprene revealed another layer of skin-tight spandex. This is how the day would be: metamorphoses at each stage, some more graceful than others.

The leaders had been on their bikes for nearly an hour and a half – they would complete the cycle course in less than five hours – by the time the clock officially ran out for this first phase. Anyone still in the water would be fished out, their Ironman contest over.

The reward for making the cut? A 180-kilometre bike course through the lung-busting grades on the Sea-to-Sky Highway in and around Whistler. It was the event’s debut here, and the number of those blue-shirted volunteers rivalled the number of entrants. They needed them; there would be no way to pull off a contest of this size without them.

As the athletes peeled free of their wetsuits and took to the bikes, the lead started to lengthen. Spectators began to get glimpses of what an Ironman is about: a highly individual sport where you compete not with the person beside you, but the person within you.

<p>2013 Subaru Whistler Ironman</p>
 

A punishing bike ride through the Coast Mountains had nothing to do with Subaru.

At about the six-hour mark, the first cyclists started entering the pit lane. A flagman indicated the moment they could leave their bikes – and more than one hopped off on rubbery legs. Racers’ shoes were mounted to the pedals of their bikes; a wobble could twist an ankle. Shoving their bikes towards outstretched hands, they headed across the hot pavement, many in bare feet, to yet another score of volunteers who handed them a bag of their own pre-packed equipment. Tabs were kept on all athletes and relayed to officials, and most people had a 99-cent app on their phone to keep track of the pace.

Five and a half hours is allotted for the bike course. The eventual Ironman winner, B.C. native Trevor Wurtele, finished this leg in 4 hours, 45 minutes.

Emerging back into brilliant sunshine from the medical tent, competitors began the final leg. A full marathon – 42 kilometres – through the trails and highways around Whistler. Here, they had until midnight to finish, 17 hours after they first entered the water. Wurtele would cross the tape just after 3:30 p.m., about 8-1/2 hours after he began his swim. Many spectators stayed until the final competitors came in at midnight.

Running a marathon has nothing to do with Subaru.

2013 Subaru Whistler Ironman winner Trevor Wurtele finished in about 8 hours, 40 minutes.
 

Why then, is Subaru, a car company, such a good fit as a sponsor for an event that features no cars? In the middle of year-round sports-crazed British Columbia, the answer reveals itself as you leave the airport. A 2007 Subaru Forester – with several mountain bikes strapped to the back – squeezed on to the highway, heading north. A 1997 Subaru Legacy L Wagon sat ahead, its pretty long-faded, but the muscle still intact.

SUVs might be the most underutilized vehicles on the market. Forget off-roading; most owners swerve around potholes and wince at curbs. But, like the athletes in that Ironman, Subarus are about the go rather than the show. Owners love and keep them, and resale values are consistently class leaders. With Canadian sales more than 20 per cent higher than this time last year, the brand is setting a blistering pace. The roads in this part of the province are populated with Subarus of every vintage – and most have more than one large piece of gear strapped to them.

Subaru approaches the Ironman sponsorship with an all-in approach. According to marketing director Geoff Craig, you go big or you go home. “We were only interested in owning it,” he said.

Focusing its sponsorship support on two areas – rallying and Ironman – Subaru has carved out an identity. Craig notes the company has been involved with the Ironman badge for more than two decades, and it has grown along with the sport. The course was covered in Subaru signage; Craig smiled as each competitor crossed the finish line sporting a Subaru logo on his or her chest. Temporary Subaru tattoos were as common as the real ink many participants sported.

Every registered athlete at an event associated with Subaru (four Ironmen, numerous smaller triathlons) gets a chit good for $750 towards a new Subaru, and up to 1,500 of them will use them this year. The secret to this pairing is somewhere in those vintage models all over the place and those taking advantage of new product. Subaru has worked through generations of this competition, and its vehicles are working through generations of families.

For all the lean bodies and sinewy muscles on display, the Ironman event isn’t particularly sexy. Once you get past the pros, it’s about recovery and remembrance, facing down demons and celebrating milestones. Many of the later finishers cross the line to the announcer’s trademark “you are an Ironman!” – but many are also bleary-eyed with fatigue and collapse. The crowd stayed long into the night, pulling people they didn’t know over the finish line with their cheers. It’s about perseverance over flash: 2,142 went into the water, 1,985 crossed the finish line.

Ironman? It has everything to do with Subaru.

Correction: The bike portion of the 2013 Subaru Whistler Ironman takes place in the Coast Mountains, not the Rockies as stated in an earlier version of this story.

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