Life lessons I've learned as a Race Director
I have been racing for years, but I’ve never put too much thought in the process behind the race. At least, not until I got the idea of having a long course triathlon in the UP. Since there isn’t one up here in my neck of the woods, I wanted to bring one. But I didn’t know, really, how much work it would really be.
While its fairly straight forward to put on a high school cross-country meet (have clipboard, will travel), its a tad more complicated to put together a half-iron distance triathlon. Obviously. With the Koop just passing, I have had my share of panic attacks and nightmares that woke me up at 2am double-checking that the swim caps are already in. While I didn’t direct the Koop all by myself, I did feel an overwhelming sense of overwhelmingness (?) when I thought about all the things that could go wrong on race day.
Along with all the stress of trying to execute an awesome race, Ive learned (and am still learning) a lot about what goes into these things. Before, I had an idea, but I never really knew the depth and length of the lists involved in putting on a successful and huge event. It really is putting a lot of it all into perspective. And not to mention, worrying about appeasing triathletes (uhm, hello?! We are a finicky, demanding, and needy bunch) didn’t make it any easier.
It’s interesting, really- the things that we take for granted as athletes. I can’t help but grin ear to ear when I think about all the cool things involved in this long course tri. So without further adieu, here’s my translation of life lessons that were reiterated to me while directing my first ever triathlon, the Kuparisaari Tri, this past Sunday.
Communication is key. No one (in real life) can read minds. So if you need something done, you need to ask for it. Not only that, but other people don’t take kindly to being surprised. Communication started with local officials and businesses back in October when we decided to put on this race. Where could we have the swim? What would make a good bike loop? Can we even use the roads we want to? The Coast Guard was there, as was an ambulance, and this required planning and communication from both ends to know who needed to be where and at what time.
The most important means of communication, our live race updates, could not have been so painless without the help of KD8FPN and friends, and the Keweenaw County Repeater Association. The Ham Radio folks were stationed at nearly a dozen locations to relay information about the live race back to race headquarters, which was a huge deal since cell phone coverage is nil across most of the race course. The radio folks seriously saved our race from being a flop, in so many ways. Without them, I am not sure how painful race day would have been.
Perseverance pays off. Between you and me, there were a lot of behind-the-scenes situations that may have exploded in our faces. For example, we ran dangerously low on water at one of the bike aid stations, we nearly ran out of cups on the run course. The buoys didn’t get out for the swim course until the morning of the race. But the athletes weren’t aware, and/or didn’t care, and we at least made it appear that everything went off without a hitch. In reality, it really did; no one was injured, no one got into any serious accidents. There were no broken bones Smith Fisheries Road descent and no one needed an IV after the race. The race crew did a great job of defining a problem and immediately establishing a way to remedy it, so the athletes were none the wiser.
Money doesn’t grow on trees. There are a bajillion costs tied into making a successful race. Seriously. Aside from all the things that the athletes get to take with them (in the Koop, we gave out medallions: $5, shirts: $15, swim caps: $3, age group awards: $5-10 depending on the placing), there’s also things that the athlete might not realize. Timing costs about $8 per athlete. The swim buoys are around $100 each (for the cheapest ones!), water jugs are about $20 each (and there’s usually two at every aid station) and water/food for around the course really adds up. Plus, there’s the PortaJohn or two (or five)? That’s $100 a pooper. Renting tables (and chairs too) for aid stations and the finish area cost about ten bucks a piece, which isn’t a lot, but that adds up, too. For sanctioning, we had to pay for registration to USAT ($150), plus pay for permits for land use around the race area. There’s always something good that comes out of offering the volunteers a (tangible) gift to take with them, too, so for the Koop, I wanted to treat our volunteers well. I offered a race shirt or visor and pasties and coffee for them. A hungry volunteer is an unhappy volunteer. I’m not sure who told me that, maybe it was my mother? Anyway, turns out that the coffee and pasties (and shirts!) were a huge hit! The biggest point of the matter is, things don’t just come together, there is a lot of penny-pinching and renting and borrowing involved, especially with a first-year, small scale event.
There are some really incredible people in this world. Dare I say that the Keweenaw is home to many of them? There were plenty of people that let us borrow their services for free (whether it be their time, their loot, their sleep, or their energy, or all of the above). Luckily, we had some awesome sponsors (The Bike Shop, Downwind Sports, and Cross Country Sports) that donated swag for us to give away to athletes as prizes, and Churning Rapids Trails, Portage Health and The Keweenaw Co-Op donated food and gear for us to use for free, too. We didn’t have to pay for photography, because some awesome friends (Juskuz and xmatic) volunteered their services for free. We had two extraordinary bike aid stations, sponsored by Team UP and Northwoods Endurance, and the groups didn’t need any guidance, they just stepped up to the task and held down the fort.
Hands-down, we could not have had this race without the volunteers and local businesses. For the Koop, our volunteers and sponsors were AMAZING! Some of our biggest support came from The Bear Belly Bar and Grill, who made nearly 200 pasties for the athletes and workers, and scavenged for cups for the finish area when we were bombed out and depleted. Without Cathy and Troy and family, the volunteers would be eating coffee beans off the table instead of drinking fresh brewed coffee from cups. The family and staff at The Lac La Belle Lodge worked their buns off helping out all day on Sunday, and I am forever indebted to them. And they did it, all day, with a smile on their face. They even said (dare I repeat?) that they had FUN!
Without our volunteers, spread out across the course, the world would be cold and empty and our race courses would be barren and dry. People showed up, offering their awesome services for nothing (aside from the best spectator spots ever), and just did what needed to be done. People were shifted from one job to another, some stood out at the aid stations for hours just waiting for the last of the athletes to come by.
Grin and bear it. Most of our athletes were really happy, excited that such a big race could be found in the quiet Keweenaw Peninsula. But there were some that just did not seem to enjoy their time up here. They didn’t get enough swag in their race packet, they didn’t like the awards, they didn’t understand why the race was so expensive (in my defense, early registration was $95 online, which is the cheapest half iron distance tri I have ever seen). What could I say? Could I do anything to defend myself from their insults? We put a lot of hard work into the race, the weekend, the event; was I just going to sit back and take it? You bet. It’s not my place to cry about it, nor is it my place to tell an athlete that they are wrong. In their opinion, they didn’t get enough. So whenever the race would get criticized, I was getting criticized, but I would just bite my tongue, nod my head, and grin and bear it.
There is a lot of power in the words “Thank You”. The behind-the-scenes-craziness of race directing is overwhelming, to say the least. but there always seems to be someone there that comes to the rescue. Every time I turned around, someone was there to help me complete a task that I didn’t think know I wouldn’t be able to do by myself, like put up the 20×30 foot tent, or help get the buoys in the water. It blows my mind how helpful and selfless people can be; athletes were helping set up the finish area the day before their big race, community members were spending their Sunday of leisure running errands and carrying gear from point A to point B.
The other side of this: When athletes came up to me post-race and said thank you, for putting on the race, inviting them up, showing them my favorite part of the UP. That was it. That was all I could ever have asked for. People were happy (generally speaking) with the race. Sure, there are tweaks and things we can improve, but our athletes enjoyed themselves. Practically everyone crossed the line with a smile on their face. When I look through the race photos, I see happy faces, smiling faces, joy, excitement (and yes, a little bit of pain, but hey, it was a long course tri! What do you expect). In the end, it was a very rewarding day.
Note: The kind of pasties I’m taking about are a Yooper thing. It’s a food, a Cornish meal-in-a-pastry-shell that is best eaten with ketchup. Meat, potatoes/rutabaga, and onions. mmm… if only they were gluten free.