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From An RD: Only You Can Save Your Local Tri

"The man went under before he even passed the start line...I had just clanged the big cowbell for the start of the novice wave of the sprint race, sending hundreds of swimmers churning into the depths of Seneca Lake...He stepped from the shallows and immediately sank."

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The man went under before he even passed the start line.

It was 2009—my sixth year directing the Musselman Triathlon in Geneva, New York. I had just clanged the big cowbell for the start of the novice wave of the sprint race, sending hundreds of swimmers churning into the depths of Seneca Lake. There was little churning with this one. He stepped from the shallows and immediately sank. Fortunately a lifeguard in a kayak was right next to him and his life was saved, but that moment captured the life and times of a race director: watching athletes joyfully undertake what you’ve laid out for them while the spectre of total disaster lurks quietly nearby.

I’ve been alternately filled with joy and terror as a race director for the last 18 years. Musselman was my first in 2004, followed by the Fly by Night Duathlon in 2005 (fun fact: never held at night), the City of Portland Triathlon in 2007, and the Seneca7 running relay in 2011. I put in a year with the Westchester Triathlon in 2008, but my therapist says it’s best to suppress that one.

Musselman arose from scattered ideas that entered my head while competing in tris over the prior five years—usually around mile six of the run, when my defenses were down. What kind of race would I hold if I were to hold a race?

The first edition of my half-iron cost racers $110. The second edition drew an infringement notice from McDonald’s (they didn’t like my April Fool’s Day rechristening of “The McMusselman”) and a cease and desist order from the Ironman Corporation (which I sent back in a Christmas card). The third edition felt like an abject failure during race weekend, but generated some of the warmest, kindest emails from racers I’ve ever received. Each year I’ve said I’m never doing this again, but each year I’ve also said I’d never do anything else.

It brought delight to pose questions during registration in November ("Names of children or pets?"), then transform the answers into messages on the bike racks in July ("Make Jonathan and Fluffy proud today, Marcia.").

My joy never came from the competition itself—to this day I couldn’t tell you who won most of them. Instead I got giddy over handing out goody bags brimming with Musselman shampoo, seed packets, and stuffed mussels (“MusselBabies”). It brought delight to pose questions during registration in November (“Names of children or pets?”), then transform the answers into messages on the bike racks in July (“Make Jonathan and Fluffy proud today, Marcia.”). It’s deeply satisfying to be told you’ve made a difference in someone’s life.

For all the joys of being a race director, my eternal nemesis was the permitting process. While Ironman can extract money and services-in-kind from municipalities, basically due to their heft, local races need to wade through extensive, complex, and costly permit applications often not written with triathlon in mind. Or not written at all: Starting with the fourth edition of Musselman, the New York State Department of Transportation decided to cobble together a new “Multi-County Speed Contest” permit and Musselman was its first guinea pig. There was no formal application; DOT would ask me to produce things, then either reject them or demand additional idiocy—like requiring both a police officer and a flagger at a railroad crossing that hadn’t seen a train for years. For five years I didn’t receive the permit until the day before the race.

RELATED: Why Is Triathlon So Expensive?

The city of Portland, Oregon, hands out event permits begrudgingly, but it’s for decidedly different reasons. Every event director wants to hold their event at Waterfront Park in the summer, but it’s still a park, and at the end of the day that means green grass and public access. Back in 2007 the city wouldn’t support more than two events per month, and the parks department needed time between events to let the grass grow. So why did they entertain the idea of giving me a treasured permit for my upstart triathlon, a race promising a couple hundred competitors, instead of a music festival based elsewhere that would draw thousands? Because they saw the pride that grows from a hometown race, the variety it brings to weekend offerings, and the attention it could focus on local initiatives like the city’s clean up of the Willamette River. Music festival attendees weren’t likely to jump in the river (and if they did, they would for the wrong reasons), but Mayor Sam Adams knew a sea of bobbing swim caps on the cover of The Oregonian would tell the world that the river was healthy again.

A fancy Ironman watch says you throw money around like a congressman, but a reusable water bottle bought at the YMCA's ChickenWingMan and brought to the gym says you're not only a man of means but also progressive, financially astute, and tied to the community.

Local races are important for reasons beyond the financial—they also develop pride of place, instilling meaning, inspiration, and quality of life to those who live there. Triathletes come for the weekend, but residents vote, organize tree plantings, and join the PTA. Want a vibrant town or city? Nurture a beloved event and treat your volunteers well. Portland knew this when they gave me a permit.

I’ve heard people say they don’t do independent, local races because they have small fields. It’s the triathlon corollary to Yogi Berra’s line, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” What can you do about this? It’s the 21st century—crowdsource! Encourage all of your friends and followers to attend a local race with you. Get your tri club on board. Ask your family and friends to volunteer while you’re racing. And since we know your demographic has discretionary income, buy stuff! A fancy Ironman watch says you throw money around like a congressman, but a reusable water bottle bought at the YMCA’s ChickenWingMan and brought to the gym says you’re not only a man of means but also progressive, financially astute, and tied to the community. Align your wallet with your principles.

Society has trouble with the long view and putting principles into practice. Nobody wants downtown shops to close, but everybody buys from Amazon. Nobody wants climate change to destroy life as we know it, but everybody drives to the grocery store. Nobody wants small races to go away, but thousands sign up for Ironman. How do you make local tris appealing to the masses? Appeal to more than the triathlete. Over the years Musselman developed an accompanying “Arts Triathlon” in collaboration with local artists. Paint-by-number murals, dance performances, and music were incorporated into race weekend. In the early years a local triathlete, Mike Moreland, took it upon himself to stage a kid’s race at every event in the area, and MusselKids was born.

In Portland a separate committee put together “RiverFest” to celebrate all things on and by the water…with the tri as the headliner. If you can identify a way to reach a wider audience or expand race day to race weekend, it’s more likely the local triathlon will survive—and you don’t have to be the race director to do it.

After eleven years I turned over Musselman to a local race production company. Four years later, despite a promise to keep it independent, they sold it to a certain company that once sent me a cease and desist order (see above).

Each time this happens, we lose a little bit of the vitality of the sport and the pioneering spirit that brought it to life. Do your mental images of triathlon include packet pickup in a high-school gym, transition areas with trees growing in the middle, and popsicles at the finish line? Then do everything you possibly can to make sure your local tri remains more than just a fond memory.