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Inside the Mind of a Triathlon Race Marshal

The on-course race marshals aren't there to ruin your day, we promise.

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Picture this: You’re cruising along during the 112-mile bike ride portion of an Ironman, trying to stay on top of your nutrition, hydration, and mental game, when you hear the buzz of a motorcycle approaching from behind. Quickly, panic sets in – it’s the race marshal!

Your heart rate goes up, and you immediately begin to scour your brain for any punishable actions you may have committed in view of the marshal. Drafting? Littering? Blocking? The fear escalates as the motorcycle draws near, but as a law-abiding triathlete, you breathe a sigh of relief as the marshal flies by, no penalties given.

Who is that person behind the motorcycle mask? Heather Casey, a two-year veteran of the triathlon referee scene, let us in on who these mystery marshal mavens are.

First, not just anybody can hop on the back of a motorcycle with some colored cards and call herself a race marshal.

“I went through USA Triathlon’s certification program,” Casey said, which was an in-person educational clinic that qualified Casey to begin officiating triathlons.

Since receiving her certification, Casey has officiated a variety of races like 70.3 Oceanside, Ironman Santa Rosa, and the Ironman World Championship.

Casey, who herself is a triathlete, says a top priority of Ironman is to hire race marshals who have also done an Ironman and therefore understand the rigor of what the day demands of athletes.

“[Referees] do take athletes’ mindsets into consideration on the course,” Casey said. “I understand that the athlete may not be thinking clearly.”

Even if it seems like marshals can be stone-cold authorities, rest assured, they know that endurance racing takes a toll on both the mind and body. Even then, a ref simply cannot excuse some errors.

“Drafting is the big one we’re always looking for,” noted Casey. “I’m always looking a football field-length ahead because I’m trying to assess who’s responsible for the [drafting].”

Marshals have only a few precious moments to make the call to give a penalty, but referees invest time in ensuring the athlete who is trying to gain a competitive advantage (read: cheat) is the athlete who is ultimately penalized.

Referees’ responsibilities extend far beyond the bike course come race day. Casey told Triathlete that marshals are at the race site well before the first athlete arrives. (And you thought your race day alarm was early!)

At the swim start, at least one ref will video the first wave beginning their day. Having the swim kickoff on film can help mitigate any accusations of false starts. After athletes hit the water, Casey’s day really begins.

“We’ve been assigned to our motos ahead of time,” said Casey. As soon as the first swimmers near shore, marshals hustle to their motorcycle drivers to begin their bike course monitoring.

After her shift on the bike course, which can range from officiating elites to final finishers, Casey heads to the run route.

Common infractions on the run include wearing headphones, receiving outside assistance, and littering. It’s important to remember, though, the marshals are not out to get you.

“There’s never a number of penalties we’re looking for,” affirmed Casey. “If anything, I’ve always been given the guidance to be conservative. We’re not out there to ruin anyone’s day.”

Casey’s advice to stay on the authorities’ good sides? Know the rules no matter your skill level, be kind to the volunteers in the penalty tent, and prioritize safety in all stages of the race.

The next time your pulse quickens as a race marshal’s moto rides by, know that even on the most difficult of days, triathlon referees are friend, not foe. Maybe even give them a hug post-race. Too far? Ok… we’ll get there one day.