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When endurance athletes think of a race director, they might picture the person on the loudspeaker shouting instructions race morning, or the one ordering too many extra-large tees and not enough mediums. But behind the scenes, the bulk of a race director’s work (and budget) goes toward securing and preparing a safe, logical course.
Perhaps the most complex piece of this puzzle? Getting the roads closed.
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Two recent mid-race, car-vs.-cyclist crashes highlight the stakes involved in this process. At the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship in St. George, Utah, on Oct. 29, a driver who was under the influence allegedly ignored a flagger and drove on a closed highway, finding her way onto the bike course. Two cyclists, Mark Evans and another male, came into contact with the vehicle and sustained serious bodily injuries.
Then on Nov. 5, Robert Swan, a competitor at IRONMAN Florida who was leading the race at the time, was struck by a vehicle on the bike course, sustaining injuries according to Bike Law. In both incidents, the crashes took place when vehicles drove onto the race course.
The choice to close the roads fully or partially can be out of the race director’s hands, due to budget or local restrictions — although race directors agree that in an ideal world, roads would always be fully closed.
“Of course, you want to close down the whole road. That’s the best and safest for everybody,” says Eva Solomon, co-chair of the USA Triathlon Race Director Committee and founder of Michigan-based Epic Races. “At the same time, you want this city or township to want you back. So, you have to find a good balance that is safe and also doesn’t inconvenience the town too much.”
Getting clearance to close an entire road is rare and cost-prohibitive for most race directors, says Eric Opdyke, former owner of REV3 Triathlon and national events consultant for USA Triathlon. For long-distance events with fully closed roads, costs can be $200,000-300,000.
Authorities may not allow full closures due to the strain on local businesses and residents — especially if a course travels beyond the main host city into neighboring towns, which won’t see as many tourism benefits.
Your race fees: More than T-shirts and medals
For race directors, securing the venue itself can be a long — and expensive — process. It begins with applying for permits, often a year or more in advance.
Faye Yates is the co-owner of Team Magic, which hosts big-city and small-town events across Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky. For the 43-years-running Music City Triathlon, Yates works with a special events committee that includes Nashville Metro Parks, metro police, fire and rescue, the Nashville and Tennessee Departments of Transportation, the public works office, and hired traffic control services.
“Say, an existing race takes place on June 4. On June 5, I’m sending out the race summary, putting in save-the-dates with all the local officials, and submitting our permits for next year,” Yates says. “If it’s an urban race like in downtown Nashville or Chattanooga, if you don’t get that in, you can lose your venue.”
The costs for permits, police staffing, cones, and barricades vary widely. For a sprint race in a state park, Yates might spend $500. But that number grows to $20,000 for urban races — and even then, that’s just for a partial road closure on a 20-kilometer bike course.
Solomon said road closures and traffic control for the Ann Arbor Marathon can consume to up to 25 percent of her budget. “It’s more than T-shirts and medals,” she says.
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What about churches, homes, and hospitals?
Road closures must maintain at least roundabout access to hospitals, fire stations, residential homes — and sometimes churches on Sundays. Railroad crossings and popular bus routes should be avoided. Construction gets delayed or pops up unexpectedly.
Says Opdyke, “You have to take into account every single building on your course and say, how does that person get out? And how does an emergency vehicle get through here?”
Hopefully, by the time you’ve avoided everything you need to avoid, you’re left with a safe and scenic course on a smooth road, with reasonable elevation change, near a swimmable body of water and a decent host hotel.
When a course is modified at the last minute — due to construction, weather, or other safety concerns — it affects everything about the day’s schedule, from police and medical plans to the timing of roads reopening.
“To make a dramatic change in a race, there’s nothing easy about that,” Yates says. “It’s our reputation, it’s the future of our race. Having a nice bike course, having the full run course that you’re expecting and have trained for. Everything about us staying in business rides on that. So, if we have to make a change, it’s because we have to.”
So, why should everyday triathletes care about this process?
For Opdyke, safety is reason number one. USA Triathlon will not sanction a race unless it has a traffic control plan that’s approved by local authorities — and, at minimum, intersections staffed by police.
“Our athletes’ lives are in our hands — that’s the way I feel when I’m race directing. We are putting tons of effort into making sure our athletes are as safe as they can possibly be.”
And, he says, “It’s always good for athletes to realize where their dollars are spent.”