Race volunteers send athletes off in a time-trial start at the Cool Sommer Mornings Triathlon held June 27 in Clermont, Florida.
With each passing month and each new race cancellation notice, I became increasingly despondent, convinced the only triathlon I’d be doing would be a homemade one of cobbled-together Strava routes near my house.
Like many of you, I’m the type of person who needs a concrete goal to put in serious training. Without that formal race date circled on the calendar, my workouts were floundering. The too hot/cold/windy/busy excuses were keeping me out of the saddle, and all too often I found myself cutting my runs short, thinking those extra miles weren’t going to help me finish a race. For me, COVID-19 wasn’t just the shorthand moniker for the virus — it was close to signifying the number of pounds gained during this period.
But, then in mid-June an email alert showed up: “July 25th Stoneman, Abe's Oly & Route 66 Half are ON — We Have Permission.” I was ecstatic and kicked my training into high gear to prepare for the 70.3 distance race in Springfield, Illinois. That Father’s Day email was a double present, in that my son began training for his first triathlon, the Olympic-distance race held the same day.
As I read through the email, it became clear that the TriHarder Promotions race director, Steve O’Connor, and USA Triathlon had worked hard to develop detailed plans to earn permission to hold the race. The job of a race director is difficult enough in a normal year: promoting the race, securing the course, arranging for police and volunteers, handling all the logistics and water and nutrition, ordering T-shirts and other supplies, etc. The email made it clear that this year was even more of a challenge in taking care of details to ensure a safe environment for participants, volunteers and spectators.
For O’Connor, one of the biggest hurdles was getting both state and local approval. While he had obtained approval for the July 25 sprint, Olympic and 70.3 races months before, that changed once COVID hit.
“I had approval, then the mayor rescinded it,” O’Connor said. “Then, when we got to Phase 3, I sent them the USA Triathlon guidelines and guidelines from other organizations, and they said ‘This is quite good, this is quite comprehensive,’ but then I was told I had to run it by DPH (Illinois Department of Health). I sent them the documents and told them this isn’t Tri-Harder’s plan; this is USA Triathlon’s, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s and World Triathlon’s guidelines, and that opened everyone’s eyes and receptiveness.”
One thousand miles south of Illinois, in Florida, Fred Sommer and Sommer Sports did not face as stringent state restrictions, as Florida has been more receptive to hosting events. Sommer did still need to work closely with city and county officials, especially for events in his base city of Clermont. He likewise relied on the USA Triathlon Safe Return to Multisport guidelines to help get those permissions.
“We gave them our plans, and then closed with USA Triathlon guidelines and running organization guidelines, and that definitely helped. People could see our plan and were surprised. We got compliments from a city council member. People said we’re the poster child for putting on safe events,” Sommer said. “I was concerned when I did the first event, because I knew people would be looking at us as a sort of a test to see what could happen. But, it went smoothly.”
Using and Following the USA Triathlon Guidelines
Resources and recommendations from USA Triathlon and other sport federations have been critical in helping race directors like Sommer and O’Connor and Personal Best Racing’s Muna Rodriguez plan their events and gain those approvals.
“They were amazingly helpful,” Rodriguez said. “Having the USA Triathlon protocols in a nice little PDF document that I could read and study and then forward to the City Parks and Rec Department — that was extremely helpful.”
The USA Triathlon guidelines were developed in a multi-stage process with lots of feedback, according to USA Triathlon National Events Director Brian D’Amico. The goals were to mirror governmental regulations, provide guidance to race directors and allow for individual race and municipality accommodations to fit the 4,000 events sanctioned by USA Triathlon.
“It’s been an evolving process, getting lots of feedback from race directors,” D’Amico said. “We’ve been continually updating those and adding supplemental documents.”
D’Amico says the most challenging parts of the guidelines dealt with social distancing in what he called “pinch points,” places where athletes gather such as packet pickup, transition, the finish line area and the awards ceremony.
Some of the USA Triathlon guidelines and standard operating race procedures may persist beyond this year, he says, especially ones pertaining to increased self-reliance for fluids and nutrition.
“I have a feeling some things may stay for quite some time — self-serve at aid stations, small bottled water,” D’Amico says. “I think that sort of stuff is going to stay. We’re also likely to see virtual briefings and awards ceremonies for quite some time.”
One of the biggest challenges for the race directors was securing enough volunteers, since many school groups — often a great source for recruiting volunteers — had been prohibited by the schools, cities or parents from participating.
“We got a call from a school that had canceled, and we lost 50 volunteers in one day,” O’Connor said.
Sommer said he needed to pay for some volunteer positions and give future race credits to other athletes working the stations to ensure adequate staffing. Rodriguez said she was fortunate that new groups of volunteers filled in the gap left by school groups.
“My core volunteer group is a high school group, and the first couple races it was very challenging because they weren’t allowed to help out,” Rodriguez said. “But, the rest of the community is really stepping up.”
Race directors also got creative by reducing the need for as many volunteers. For O’Connor, part of that reduction came by creating a two-loop course for the 70.3 distance race, which cut down on the number of aid stations needed. In addition, the safety guidelines stressing self-reliance and reducing contact between volunteers and racers meant fewer volunteers were needed at those aid stations.
“Operating under COVID, you actually need fewer volunteers,” Sommers said. “We used half the volunteers we normally would.”
Most of all, the pandemic caused race directors to reflect on the critical role that volunteers play and gain an even greater appreciation for their service. In July, USA Triathlon’s Race Director Committee created a video in gratitude to multisport event volunteers, sharing their commitment to keeping volunteers safe as in-person racing returns.
Dealing with Financial Implications
Perhaps the most challenging aspect for race directors and race organizing companies is the financial impact of COVID-19. With races being canceled and postponed, increased costs and athletes more reluctant to sign up, the bottom lines have taken a hit.
Race directors need to plan months and months ahead with staffing and weeks ahead with supplies, making sudden changes on the revenue side especially jarring. Sommer experienced the worst possible scenario when one of his races was canceled the day before it was to be held. The city called off the season-opening March 14 event the night before, after many people had already checked in. Sommer and his crew had to scramble to take care of the athletes and work with arranging credit for future races, but they had already sunk significant money into all of the expenses needed for staging the race.
“It was very tough in the beginning,” Sommer said. “You rely on entry fees to pay your bills. We have a full warehouse, full-time employees, overhead that you have to pay for. All our numbers were running 20 percent ahead of last year, and we thought that this was going to be an awesome year. But, with COVID we’ve had to lay off employees. It was tough because of the uncertainty. It’s been a pretty tough time mentally and business-wise.”
Rodriguez and her all-female crew have faced similar financial hurdles.
“We’re not making any money,” she said. “We worked for free the first few events. At least now we’re not losing money.”
Her company made the tough financial decision to instill a price freeze, to not charge more for registering closer to race day.
“A lot of people aren’t registering until late because of the no-refund policy. People are waiting to see if the race will be canceled,” she said.
Sommer has experienced the same with his events.
“People are so worried, they are waiting to last possible moment, which is a real challenge for ordering specialty medals, shirts, etc.,” he said. “A lot of people are hesitant to register in advance.”
Of course, that delay means some people don’t register at all. The reduction in numbers — either because of reluctant athletes or COVID-mandated limits on the number of participants — has especially impacted revenue. O’Connor said his race numbers were down — by a third in the 70.3 race — and like Rodriguez, struggled to make any money. The combination of decreased revenue and increased costs was painful.
“It stung,” O’Connor said. “It stung. We pretty much broke even. Even though we reduced police costs and reduced donations to volunteer groups, it cost a few thousand to abide by the plan, to buy all the cases of bottled water instead of tap water, disposable chips, gloves and masks and sanitizer and the hand-washing stations.”
Response from the Multisport Community
Positive feedback doesn’t pay the bills, but it does make all the extra work worthwhile, according to the race directors. All three race directors note that the feedback from athletes has been overwhelmingly positive, with the few negatives mainly involving the no-refund policies for canceled races that allow deferral of payment to a later race but not a return of cash — policies that are necessary to ensure the future financial survival of races and race-organizing companies. Those positive comments are what keep race directors going during these stressful times.
“I have not gotten anything negative,” Rodriguez said. “The feedback we’ve gotten is that we’ve done a really good job of making people feel comfortable and safe. And, at the end of the day they are smiling for that one sense of normalcy. It’s more important to people than you think. They’re a really good group that needs the goal setting, needs the sanity check. This is their outlet, and they are so happy to be racing.”
O’Connor also had uniformly positive comments.
“We had 100 percent positive feedback,” O’Connor said. “We had so many letters — handwritten letters — we got so many letters and emails. It was wonderful.”
While I didn’t send O’Connor a handwritten letter, I should have (I suppose this article can suffice.). I appreciated the attention to detail and safety of all involved. The self-reliance measures were not a major inconvenience. I loved the individual swim start and not bumping into so many bodies, as often is the case with a wave start. The twice-looped bicycle course, while visually less interesting, was better for me in terms of being more familiar with the hills and turns. The one thing I really missed was the camaraderie and bonding at the end of the race and at the awards ceremony, a sentiment shared by O’Connor.
“The in-person communication is just so gratifying,” O’Connor said. “It makes your day that people appreciate your efforts. What I really miss are those darn hugs. It makes it worthwhile. The air hugs were good, but I really wanted a real hug.”
I would if I could, buddy. I would if I could.
To find out more about USA Triathlon's Safe Return to Multisport Initiative, visit usatriathlon.org/safe-return.