Restarting Triathlon: What Will It Take?

Lake George sunrise

Sunrise at Lake George NY

The Resurrection of Triathlon  Will Need All of Us
With all triathlons in the United States cancelled for the foreseeable future, it’s going to take more than a lifting of bans on public events to reboot our sport.
It’s going to be an unprecedented all-hands-on-deck effort, from race directors to athletes. Here’s how we’ll do it.

The sinking feeling for me began more than a six weeks ago. Spring races begun to be optimistically postponed to the fall, and I wondered why. What’s going to change between now and then? We won’t have a vaccine. Until then, it will still be considered reckless to assemble in large groups even if they are not specifically prohibited.

Race directors are nothing if not resourceful. Their bread-and-butter is solving weird last-minute logistical problems. Even before lockdowns, many were revising their operations, providing contactless snacks, setting up additional handwashing stations, and providing on-course hand sanitizer. Now it’s clear that races can’t return in their usual format, and I’ve seen innovation everywhere – musings on how to run a socially-distanced starting line, debates about participants wearing masks or submitting to temperature checks, how to set up low-contact aid stations. I’ve seen a half-dozen surveys asking athletes about their comfort level on returning to racing.

Several high-profile articles have focused on what racing will look like when it comes back. (See Runner’s World, The New York Times, Triathlete Magazine.) All of these focus on what event directors will need to do to make races safer: Eliminate expos, initiate a longer wave- or time-trial start procedure, reduce field sizes, minimize the use of volunteers. All of these articles assume that races will come back just as soon as restrictions on public events are lifted.

Athletes want to race. Race directors want to host them. That’s obvious.

But the recent articles ignore the enormous lynchpins for any race: Insurance, permits, and municipal resources. The three issues are interrelated and is why I do not believe we will see any large endurance events return until vaccine use is widespread, or we until we hit some kind of natural herd immunity.

Insuring races post-COVID-19

Most athletes understand that races have some kind of insurance, but few understand what it covers (and doesn’t). Almost all municipalities require liability insurance as a condition of permitting. Typically, event insurance covers damage to the venue, provides excess medical coverage for injured athletes, and protects an event company in a lawsuit stemming from an incident related to the race. What it does not cover is cancellation – that’s a separate policy that’s optional for event directors. As soon as coronavirus emerged, insurance underwriters hastily wrote riders for their cancellation coverage plans to exclude pandemics. So, an optimistic race director planning on a fall 2020 race might opt to purchase event cancellation insurance to hedge their bets, but they will quickly learn that any cancellation related to COVID-19 will be excluded. Bottom line? Race directors will not be able to insure their event against virus-related cancellation.

Permits come down to locals

The permitting process for venues varies enormously and is entirely localized. The awarding of those permits has always been subject to the discretion of venue management, parks administrations, law enforcement, local agencies, and community associations. No municipality “must” approve a permit application. At the same time, they can revoke existing permits too. Under normal conditions (well, pre-COVID-19), an event’s cancellation insurance would likely have covered event directors if a city revoked permits forcing cancellation due to a scheduling conflict, emergency construction, or other circumstance beyond the control of the event director. But due to the new quickly written exemptions for COVID-19, event permits cancelled due to pandemic won’t be a covered circumstance. And no permit, no race.

Even if restrictions against large gatherings are eased, municipalities will still have reservations. Think about a place like Lake Placid, NY, where two large Ironman-branded races take place each year. These events draw a heavy crowd from New York City. Will local officials think twice before allowing 2,000+ New Yorkers – from the coronavirus epicenter – to potentially import a heavy viral load into their small community with no hospital? I think they will.

And even if local governments don’t have reservations issuing permits, communities might. Have you noticed how many races have a charity component? Many individual events donate a portion of proceeds to support local non-profits or operate as annual fundraisers. Ironman’s large charitable arm, the Ironman Foundation, provides monetary grants to local charities at many of its venues. Of course, such ‘giving back’ efforts benefit those local initiatives and reflect positively on an event. But they also help grease the wheels in terms of community goodwill, where there’s enormous leverage to sidetrack permitting. In past years, many events have been denied permits due to vocal citizens protesting snarled traffic on race weekends. Contributions to the local ambulance corps, food bank, or social services can help soothe those objections.

But all bets are off in pandemic panic, where concerns about tourists bringing health risks will not be easily set aside.

Lingering shortages of municipal resources

Any race that takes place on public roads and in public spaces will require some amount of police, EMS, staffing, and sanitation assistance. Roads can only be closed, and traffic can only be redirected by law enforcement. Depending on the event, some localities require on-site EMS. Some require hiring local sanitation workers and equipment, and/or hiring park staff for parking and crowd management. An event must pay for these services. But with COVID-19 flareups potentially impacting those city resources – a percentage of personnel out sick, shortages of PPE and equipment – will localities be willing to dedicate those resources to a recreational event?

Many cities are already forecasting massive budget shortfalls and anticipating downsizing of first-responder staffs. Providing assistance for leisure events will not be at the top of their priorities.

Impacts on event budgets

Race directors are going to be stuck bearing the brunt of new restrictions, even if they can secure insurance, permits, and law enforcement. On April 30, the International Triathlon Union (ITU) issued a 28-page document outlining its post-COVID-19 recommendations for event organizers. On May 7, USA Triathlon followed with their own guidelines. Nearly all the points raised in both documents put the onus squarely on event directors.

Recommendations include eliminating expos to prevent large gatherings. Expos are an additional revenue stream for race events, who charge for booth space and use them to amplify sponsor exposure. Other recommendations include hiring a medical staff to monitor athlete health, providing face coverings and gloves, and plenty of other guidelines that add significantly to a race’s expense sheet while also assuming fewer participants and spectators.

The bottom line: Event organizers will be required to spend more, while limiting the size of events and eliminating opportunities like expos that could offset the new costs. Hosting endurance events is a passion; directors were never making millions. Breaking even will be harder now.

So how do we do this?

If we expect triathlon to survive and prosper, athletes can no longer be passive participants. No one cares about our sport but us. It has never attracted crowds of spectators who aren’t related to someone racing. Aside from athletes, race directors, and gear companies, no one will be clamoring for triathlons to resume. Host cities and towns will not fight for us. It’s on us to advocate for our sport. We can no longer be passive participants.

  • Expect to pay more and don’t complain about it

Triathlon events have always been expensive compared to running events. They require far more in terms of space, staffing, equipment, and safety. Now, event directors will pay for enhanced COVID-19 related safety measures while also being forced to restrict registration and other revenue streams like optional banquets and expos. Permits, EMS, and law enforcement will cost more. To break even, events will have higher fees. This is something athletes will simply have to understand and budget for.

  • Spend if you can

If you’re like me, the lack of racing and cancelled travel plans has left me with my 2020 race budget largely intact despite some employment volatility. I plan to do some bike and gear upgrades, register for some 2021 events, and sign up for some virtual races with no real intention to complete them. I’m keeping my coach despite having no events to train for, and I’m signing up for some additional virtual coaching. I’ve given some money to GoFundMe campaigns for individual race organizations. USA Triathlon is also raising funds to support race directors. My goal is to spend a large portion of what I would have normally spent this year on racing – because I want these events to come back.

  • Support event companies on social media

Athlete’s support of event companies must go beyond simple registration. Something you can do right now is look over the races you’ve done in the past, then like/follow the social pages of those events and of the event management companies that produce them. Share some of their posts and tag five friends. Big numbers on social media not only expand an event’s audience; they help attract sponsors and local support too. It’s the easiest and cheapest way for race organizers to get the word out about new and rescheduled events. Seriously, do this right now.

  • Volunteer

Many events could count on groups of girl and boy scouts, community service groups, and school clubs to volunteer at events. Such groups may now be uncomfortable with the health risk. Even if race directors can minimize the numbers of volunteers needed at aid stations, help will still be needed to manage the flow of people, to maintain spacing, to assist with packet pickup, course directions, and check-in/check-out.

Event companies need help in other ways too. Graphic design, social media, photography, legal help, and volunteer management are needed prior to and between events. If you have the time, it’s worth reaching out to find opportunities to help.

  • Be an advocate for endurance sports in your community

Even if they aren’t triathlons, chances are good that your city or town hosts a number of 5Ks, fun runs, trail races, and other participatory events. Now is the time to advocate for them. Reach out to your local community board, police community affairs committee, or to your town’s parks and recreation department. Find out how permits are issued, and when/how public comments on permit requests are accepted. Write a letter, attend a meeting, or otherwise get to know the people involved in making those decisions. Be helpful, be positive, and be there as a voice of support when the time comes.

Advocating for triathlon with your local decisionmakers may be the most important thing you can do in the coming months. Race directors will be working hard to maintain those relationships too, but they need our help. City officials need to hear from those who will miss these events if they are not allowed to return. If not, triathlon is truly dead.




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