Please note – I didn’t go to the tri intending to take photos, so what I have here was taken with my phone. Which doesn’t, as you’ll see, boast a very good camera. My apologies for the poor quality of the images.
“Marie,” I said, “is it just me, or is this thing not very well organised?”
“Not just you.” There were many things making her, Sydney (who had just completed his first Ironman the weekend before) and myself very uncomfortable. Some of the stuff happening at the Pink and Gold Sprint Triathlon in Virginia on 1 August 2010 seemed downright dangerous.
My first frown was inspired by the transition area. The horizontal poles rested on barriers, not the usual tri-specific supports. However, that’s no biggie, not every club can have the right equipment on hand, and being innovative is a good thing. We checked out excited Anna’s setup, where Sydney helped her lay out her transition area for her very first sprint tri. She didn’t rack her bike on the opposite side, where there was a separate pole for the bikes facing the other way. If she had, her front wheel would have been half a step away from a kerb.
We wondered how people racking on that side would get their bikes out, but didn’t think of it as anything but a small nuisance. At this stage none of us saw anything alarming. That would come soon enough.
Marie and I got separated, and we watched the swim start from different points. There were two waves: the first would swim 750m, the second would start later on a 400m swim. Competitors waded in, and waited for the start signal.
“Oh, wait,” the announcer’s voice boomed over the speakers. “All competitors get out of the water, please, we have to count you before you can start the swim.” The message took a while to get through the whole group, but eventually everyone was heading for the slipway. Half the group was out when the announcer said: “Sorry, it’s okay, competitors can get back in the water now.” Of course, again the message didn’t get through straight away and people kept moving out of the lake. Seconds later, the announcer spoke again. “Er… competitors, you can go ahead and get out of the water after all.”
I watched, and thought how miffed I’d be if I’d been in the water, waiting for the go signal, only to be told to get out, get in, get out again, and then finally told to get in again. Marie later expressed her horror at the amount of people who copped out of the swim within metres of starting it. Sydney shrugged when we asked him about it. “At least they didn’t have to be rescued later, when they were way out there.”
Let me make it clear: I’m no veteran. I’ve competed in three duathlons, a 10km run race and three triathlons, watched two more triathlons, marshalled at one duathlon and at one cycle race. That’s eleven races I’ve been involved in, one way or another, and in those races I’ve noticed certain practices that seem to be standard, and which were absent at this triathlon.
There was no mount line, so that some competitors got on their bikes at the bottom of the steep hill leading to the exit from the parking lot where transition was set up. Others pushed their bikes to the gate at the top. Likewise, there was no dismount line. Bikes hurtled down the very steep hill with many athletes slipping their feet from their shoes and swinging their legs over the saddle at a speed I would not think is safe for doing so.
At the gate to the parking lot, four streams of athletes had to make their way in and out. The cyclists set off on the bike course here. They came back in the same way. The runners then set off going out the same gate, doing a loop course which – you guessed it – came back to the finish line beside transition entering through the very same gate. Of course, it was unlikely someone going each of those directions would want to squeeze through the gate at the same time. Even so, the whole setup felt wrong. The different lanes were not demarkated until more than half way down the hill towards transition. Runners approaching the finish line had to cross the line the bikes had to take coming down the hill.
At the gate, a crucial and extremely difficult marshalling point, was a very stressed out and seemingly inexperienced marshal. Marie and I walked up from the spectator area by the finish line to watch the cyclists come in, and took our place against a low wall marking the left hand side of the bikes’ entering turn. We didn’t discuss it, but both of us checked the place out and realised it would be safe and out of the way. Coming in, the bikes’ entering turn curved away from where we stood.
The marshal ushered us away, and while I’m sure he had a point that it could be an unsafe place to stand, he immediately annoyed me with his authoritarian and brusque address. Either way, we moved to the other side, standing at the end of the brick wall on the right of the entrance coming in. I looked up the road the cyclists would come down and almost had a heart attack.
This wasn’t a narrow little farm road, but it was not by any stretch of the imagination wide, either. Over and above that, it was busy. I stared up at the harrowing little gap between the cars and the row of parked vehicles on the side of the road, and my blood ran cold. How in heaven’s name were the bikes going to get through there safely? It’s at this point that I spoke out my concern, and found Marie and Sydney had both been nursing quiet alarm at what they saw around them.
A car turned in to park right at the point where cyclists would have to turn left into the parking lot. Along with a few other exclamations from bystanders, Sydney spoke up, and warned the marshal that it would be extremely dangerous to allow the car to park where it did. The marshal started swearing at Sydney, telling him to f*** off, and that if he didn’t shut up, he’d get the Guards to f*** him away.
Moments later, a car drew up and blocked the entire entrance where four streams of athletes were supposed to move in and out, some on bikes going at high speed down the steep hill, into the path of bikes and runners coming in and out. Spectators and marshall alike shouted to him to get out of the way, but he let two passengers off his SUV before turning around. One of the rear doors was not closed, and as he was roaring around at speed, we were all alarmed that the swinging door would cause trouble. Marie was closest, waved to the driver to wait, and ran around the car to shut it for him. As she ran back to us, the driver deliberately tried to bump into her. I know that’s my assessment of his intentions, but he could not possibly have missed seeing the woman passing right in front of his car.
Our dear marshal then took to screaming at her for daring to step into the road. “Only marshals are allowed on the road!” I was puzzled about this, as I’d been told in the first race I helped at that marshals legally had no right to demand people do or don’t do something. We could only request, and physically block where necessary if, for instance, it was a crossing and we needed a car to wait a few moments before passing so as not to endanger competitors. I’ve heard many people talk about cars which simply refused to pay heed to their requests and went ahead at dangerous moments in races. There was nothing they could do. Only Gardai have the right to make demands and take action if they aren’t met.
So… where were the Guards? There were two of them, half way down the hill, on the car park side. They were leaning on the hood of their car, talking. Had the race organiser made clear what support they’d need from the Gardai? Had they perhaps opted for lower involvement so as to save money? Had they underestimated the amount of traffic they’d have on the road and chosen the wrong amount of involvement from the Guards? I wouldn’t know, but I’d give a lot to be able to pin down an experienced race organiser and hear from them what they thought of the situation.
I couldn’t bear to watch any more after seeing the first bike come in. My heart was in my mouth as I saw him hunch his shoulders to make himself smaller as he approached the gate. He swerved, swerved again, and made it through a gap that could not have been more than ten or twenty centimetres wider than his bike. My nerves in rags, I told Marie and Sydney that I couldn’t stand this any more, and made my way down to transition.
Here I discovered that there was no way for spectators to move from one obvious watching area (the gate) to the other (around the finishing line) without getting in athletes’ way. I climbed over a chain meant to keep pedestrians from the edge of the lake so as not to walk in the already insane space left for the bikes racked beside the kerb. Now I dodged families with small children, dogs, relay athletes who’d finished their section or were waiting to start it. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if someone had tumbled into the lake, as it’s not deep straight away, but it would have been uncomfortable.
At the end of this corridor, there was simply no other possible way to cross to where I needed to go without crossing the course. I thought it would be okay, as this was the entrance from the swim to transition. Yet when I stepped across, a marshal berated me for stepping onto the course. I regret now that I didn’t stop and ask her to point out to me, then, precisely how anybody was supposed to move from one area to the other.
The next issue that had me gobsmacked, was watching athletes cross the finish line. I’m sure there’s no rule about this, but in every single race I’d been in, including the Ardee 10km run I did the day before watching this tri, I was met at the finish line. Someone would take your chip in chip-timed races (which all of them were, except the 10km race). I’ve always been either handed a bottle of water, or there’d be a table where drinks and more often than not bananas, oranges or other edibles were available to athletes. I’ve always assumed it’s because it’s so important, in the half hour after the race, to refuel so as to facilitate recovery.
I watched with dropped jaw as athlete after athlete crossed the line to be met with… a crowd they had to push through. Nobody asked people to stand back and give those who’d just competed a bit of space. Ten, fifteen minutes after finishing, many still wore their chips. I saw at least two guys holding their chips in their hands, asking passersby what they were supposed to do with them. Those who felt thirsty and didn’t have their own drink on hand, had to go and get water at the hotel’s pub (which was, granted, only steps away from the finish line). There was nothing to eat available anywhere, unless you ordered a meal from the hotel.
What the organisers did have available for anyone with a race number, was a massage. Now, this is a sweet idea, I’m sure, but in all honesty, if I had to choose between a bottle of water and a banana on one hand, and a massage on the other hand as I cross the line, I’d choose something to eat and drink. Moreover, they had two massagers working to satisfy the needs of about two hundred athletes.
I’d wondered in the past whether one should bother giving preference to Triathlon Ireland endorsed races. I gathered from snippets overheard that Triathlon Ireland not only insists that race directors do a course with them to learn the basics of arranging races, they also send a representative to check the race, its layout and marshalling adheres to a certain standard. It would be great if anyone who knows more about this could let me know if I have that right.
It breaks my heart to diss an event which people organised from the goodness of their hearts and a genuine desire to do good. I gave long and hard thought to the fact that one of those involved might read what I wrote here, and be deeply hurt by my criticism. But should the label ‘for charity’ automatically grant a lowering of standards which are there for a reason?
The location for the race is in fact beautiful and ideal. I would, however, move transition from where it was, to the side which at this event had been set aside for parking. If that is done, athletes would have a bit of a run-in from the water to T1, but spectators could be given a safe corridor to move from one obvious view point to the other. I would also place barriers or at least traffic cones separating the run corridor from the bike corridor. I cringed more than once when a bike took the turn wide and swerved right into the lane where the runners were coming up.
Lastly, I’d make cyclists mount and dismount at safe places. It was definitely a huge point of danger that cyclists were allowed to approach transition at such high speed, and on such a steep incline.
I really want to hear from more experienced triathletes what they think.