Danskin Philadelphia Triathlon

Sport Parallels Life

This past weekend was the Danskin Philadelphia Triathlon held in Fairmount Park. This is a women’s only event and is part of a national multi city race series. This race is owned and operated by the same folks that produce the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon held in June and is another one of my “give back” races. The race’s co founder and the race director and management team are all friends of mine so I commit to being a part of these races from a production standpoint. And I totally love being able to help put on such a class event. I encourage anyone who races to try their hand at volunteering at an event. You will quickly realize that there is way more beneath the surface  of an event than what you see on race day. And you will probably never take anything for granted again, nor be disrespectful to anyone who is out there giving their time and energy so the athletes can realize their dreams. The production of an event such as the Danskin Philly race is nothing short of … well, it’s big.

Think about all of the work and effort that goes into a large race, with road closures, permits, course marking, signage, port-o-john, awards, public address systems, etc. the list is literally endless. Now think about the amount of time that your average athlete may train for such an event and you are looking at a lot of time invested in an event that will last bit a few short hours. As a race organizer, and athlete alike, you plan, you prep, you coordinate, you plan some more, you think, rethink, and think again to make sure that you well prepared and that everything will be right on race day. And then mother nature throws down her hand and laughs at all of your preparation efforts and reminds you that some things are not within your control.

Sunday’s weather for the Danskin Philly race was among the worst I have ever seen in my many years of involvement with multisport racing. The day started out relatively “ok” when we showed up at 4:30 am to get ready for the 2,000 plus women athletes who would be arriving by 6:00 am. However, excessive debris in the Schuylkill River forced the race director to make the first of a couple of very tough game day decisions which was to turn the triathlon into a duathlon and call off the swim. In place of the swim would be an additional run, making it your standard run-bike-run duathlon format. I think half of the athletes complained while the other half celebrated, depending upon whether their strength was in the swim, or on the run. But regardless of your strength, the debris in the water, combined with a very threatening forecast, made this the right call to make.

And so with a couple of quick adjustments to start lines and timing mats, the redesigned race kicked off without a hitch. The skies flirted off and on for the next couple of hours. One minute it seemed like the rain just might hold off, the next minute things looked less promising. And then ultimately, the bottom fell out and heavy rain was ushered in by thunder and lightening. Rain is one thing. We have all raced in the rain. And most race directors are ok with allowing athletes to continue in the rain. But there isn’t a race director anywhere who would or should let their race continue with the threat and presence of nearby lightening strikes.

It didn’t take along before I started to hear the chatter over the two way radio between race director Barb McKeever, and race staff as they evaluated the weather and the potential risks to the athletes on the course. That chatter was brief and was quickly followed by the decision and announcement to immediately terminate the race and get all athletes off of the course. Volunteers and staff worked diligently to ensure that the athletes were pulled off of the course and the production essentially stopped dead in its tracks. For the next hour people took cover anywhere they could as they waited for a break in the deluge to try to collect their belongings and make a mad scramble for their cars. It was one of the fastest and heaviest storms that I can remember and it left behind swimming pools of mud throughout the transition area.

From an athlete’s perspective, I’m sure one of the first reactions was one of disappointment. So many training hours invested,… and many never got the chance to finish what they started. Well guess what ladies, what you all experienced yesterday will build far greater intestinal fortitude, and should give you a much greater sense of accomplishment than had you actually crossed the finish line. None of you “lost” yesterday in any sense of the word. You all battled and struggled and fought. And when the decision was made to stop the race, a decision that was completely out of your control, you reacted  with grace and dignity. You may be disappointed, but you are not beaten. You will talk about this race for a long time to come. And trust me, when you are at your next race, you will find yourself thinking back to Danskin Philly 2009 and feeling proud that you were a part of it. Toughing this one out has given you bragging rights for a very long time.

And to everyone involved with the race from a management and production standpoint, this was a feather in your cap as well. It’s far more difficult to make decisions such as these than to sit back and let a race hum along on autopilot. It’s never easy to make these calls, but yesterday was a win for everyone. The right calls were made at the right time to keep everyone safe. Life doesn’t always go according to plan. Being able to redirect, react, and adjust to those obstacles on the fly are critical factors to success and to happiness. We’ll all be talking about this for a while!

Congratulations to every athlete who had the courage to even be in that race yesterday. You were all winners as soon as the starting gun went off. And congrats to the race crew for knowing the right thing to do and when to do it.

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15 Comments

  1. Brittany
    Posted August 3, 2009 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I agree to a large extent about your comments. Disappointing but definitely an interesting day.
    However, as a participant stuck in the nasty electrical storms in the hills of Fairmount, I was highly disappointed by the planning in the end.
    For those participants on course- only ONE cop car was sent out to tell us the race was cancelled, no offer of help (i.e. where to take cover as lightning bolts, I’m not exaggerating, struck a transformer and a field nearby), and no one sent out to ensure people got the message.
    Also, no information on the east side of Strawberry Mansion bridge that it may be unsafe to cross.
    More outreach, more people (in cars) on the bike course telling us to find cover, or even a cancellation of the race before the storm got as bad as it did would have been much preferable.
    Congratulations to those who finished. To those of you like me (stranded at a bus stop for 45 minutes in the middle of the race), here’s to the next tri we can experience. Glad everyone is safe.

  2. Jen
    Posted August 3, 2009 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Well said! I do not at all envy the race directors, whom I’m sure have been the target of criticism. I was grateful that the race was called off. On my second loop of the bike, it was getting bad and I was debating withdrawing anyway for safety purposes.

  3. Meg
    Posted August 3, 2009 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Brittany, and was also stranded at the Greyhound bus stop. For the riders at the far end of the loop, there was little if ANY communication on what was going on. There was also no real sweep of the course to be sure riders were safe. And, race officials told my family that everyone was in and accounted for, not believing when my family told them I was still out there somewhere.

    What’s more, I couldn’t believe that once the deluge let up and some of us from the bus station made it back (a couple were amazing and stayed behind to be sure one woman with a flat got back), there were NO officials in sight. Not a single one. I had to give my chip to a volunteer, who went out of his way to find me a medal. This is not what I call organized, responsible decision making.

    I disagree with most of this, and would not call how this race turned out “a feather in your cap” for the organizers. It’s hard for the hundreds of bikers and runners out in truly dangerous conditions and then left to fend for themselves to think anything was well-planned or executed.

  4. Meg
    Posted August 3, 2009 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Correction–it wasn’t a greyhound stop, just a city bus facility.

  5. Posted August 3, 2009 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Looks like some great feedback from a few folks. Understand that my comments are just that – my comments and since I am only a volunteer with the race, I can’t respond or make a statement in any official capacity. But I would like to offer a few additional thoughts. Having volunteered at a number of events, and having raced at events of all distances for over 20 years, I have learned that there is only so much that you can plan for. You can only create contingency plans for reasonable scenerios that have the greatest likelihood of occuring. I don’t think yesterday was one of those situations. If you look at this from a disaster recovery perspective, could things have been smoother and better? Yes, probably. But given all of the various other possible outcomes, I still think yesterday was a win. I think the overall result was positive.

    That doesn’t discount or negate the pain and frustration of the athletes who were stranded out there. I hear you loud and clear, and empathize. This race attracts many beginners to the sport, which is great, but with beginner mindset comes a certain naivety as to what it takes to make these things work in a perfect world, let alone when a crises strikes.

    But if there is one thing that you can count on it is the fact that if this situation were to happen again, you can bet the barn that the recovery effort will be swifter and better. There is no doubt in my mind that lessons were learned here that everyone will benefit from.

    I’m sorry your race was what it was, but I am grateful as hell that you are here and having this discussion ! ;) And I hope it hasn’t tarnished your view of the sport, or its organizers. Oh yeah and one quick point of clarification, the USAT Officials are in no way associated with the timing company so they would not be responsible for the distribution, collection, etc of timing chips.

  6. Meg
    Posted August 3, 2009 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your perspective, Steve. I by no means think every situation can be planned for, but I think, at the very least, the fact that there were no officials at the race site when I (and many others returned) is a significant blunder, and one they should address with at least an email, or some other acknowledgment. And I do believe, like you said, that this was a learning experience for the officials and they will adjust accordingly (I don’t believe they want people to get hurt), but again, some kind of acknowledgment to the athletes post-race would go so very far.

    On a personal note, I may be a beginner triathlete, but I am not a novice to intense recreational situations, and ones in which quick thinking and response is required. That being said, there is nothing at all naive with the expectation that when a course is closed for inclement weather, race officials will do a thorough sweep of the course for anyone left. Mother nature and her whim aside, it was the very least they could have done.

    Good to know about the chip timing. I was able to give mine to a lone volunteer, but there are many others (based off the active.com review site) who have no idea what to do with theirs.

    No, this will not tarnish my view of the sport, as I very much enjoyed training for it and, even with Sunday’s events, still have a huge sense of accomplishment and am very proud of how far I’ve come. And until I joined dozens of others literally scared for our well-being, I had a blast. I do think this was a rare confluence of events, but I also hope the Danskin officials will make some kind acknowledgement that there were real issues with what happened yesterday.

  7. Posted August 3, 2009 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    You should see an email from the race management company very shortly, if you haven’t already, regarding the Philly Danskin Deluge of 2009 !

  8. Meg
    Posted August 3, 2009 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    I will wait for it eagerly! Thanks for your thoughtful, considerate, and diplomatic perspective on this. I appreciate it!

  9. Jennifer
    Posted August 3, 2009 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    A special thanks to all of the volunteers who stayed on the course to help the participants! They did a great job of communicating information and helping people along. All of the staff and volunteers that I encountered were pleasant and helpful in conveying important information–quite a feat given the horrible conditions! Kudos to the race directors for keeping safety at the forefront.

  10. Karen
    Posted August 4, 2009 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    When does personal accountability come into play? I’m sure the racers heard the same forcast and if they were not intelligent enough to know where or when to take cover then they never should have stepped foot on the course.

  11. Posted August 4, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  12. wendi
    Posted August 4, 2009 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I echo Steve’s views that the entire crew for the SHEROX series works 150% to make every race as enjoyable as possible. Safety is always the number one concern. If they knew about the second storm they would have definitely canceled the race. That being said I am sorry this was your first experience. Not being new to the sport I would also have been unnerved by the rain on the course. I always try to remember that I can’t control all situations. I can only control my attitude. I am grateful to be able to participate on any given day. Keep training and the next race will hopefully go smoother. You should of gained alot of confidence on Sunday.

  13. Meg
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I really am not trying to suggest the race officials are responsible for everything, and I also don’t want to turn what I think was a positive outlook from Steve’s blog into a tit for tat. Barb’s email to racers went a long way in my book, and I certainly will not hold this event against the Danskin series. In fact, I hope to give it another shot next year. And of course I believe in personal responsibility, which is why I sought cover immediately instead of trying to return to transition once the race was called. I absolutely believe the race officials did much that was right and responsible, but I was also expressing my opinions on what could have gone better, even with the unexpected circumstances. And yes, the volunteers and officials were awesome in encouraging racers and trying to keep our spirits high through a rough race. My apologies for not acknowledging that in my first comment. Thanks, again, Steve, for providing this forum.

  14. Posted August 5, 2009 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    No worries. It’s all good and healthy dialogue Meg. I’m glad you found some comfort in Barb’s email and hopefully you and your gear have had a chance to dry out !!

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  15. ToddDi
    Posted August 18, 2009 at 11:31 am | Permalink
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