Yet another race director has agreed to be subjected to the Beginner Triathlete gauntlet of race director questions for our ongoing series. Pulling back the curtain on the races we all love, BT answers triathlete’s questions about why races cost so much, how dangerous triathlon really is and why life is generally unfair.
The New Jersey State Triathlon is one of the largest triathlons in the nation, hosting 3,000 competitors, and it’s produced by CGI Racing. Michelle Redrow and her husband own CGI, and both compete in triathlons.
The company began as a large-scale events management company more than 30 years ago, and began producing endurance races in 2005.
“Knowing how to plan an event makes our races better,” says Redrow.
CGI’s headline races are the New Jersey State Triathlon and the Black Bear, which is a half-iron and Olympic distance race in the Poconos in early June.
What are the major drivers of cost? It seems that races are so expensive.
Redrow says obtaining and renting venue sites is one of the main things driving up the cost of races.
“One thing I think people don’t realize is, when I started, there weren’t as many races. The police didn’t know what their costs were,” she says. “Incrementally over the years, those costs are going to get incrementally higher.”
Redrow says athletes think the race company is buying finish medals and food, and that’s it.
“I’ve heard athletes say, ‘Oh they are making a half million dollars' because they take the race fee times the number of racers,” she says. “There are things you really have to invest in if you are a smart race director and a safe race director.”
Redrow says the growth of races has caused the price of site fees and venue fees to increase.
“In the early 2000's no one used to charge site fees or park fees,” says Redrow, “For small suburban and rural towns, these are becoming revenue-generating events. Our sites charge a very reasonable amount. I do think it’s right that they charge a site fee.”
But Redrow says as demand increases for the sites, the price goes up.
In some cities, the number of 5K running races has increased so greatly that cities are tripling the cost of the permits to dissuade running companies and ameliorate the complaints of neighborhood residents who are inconvenienced.
“Communities may recognize that you don’t want to move the race, and might hike up the price,” Redrow says.
Additionally, the cost of medical staff, which increases for larger races, is on the rise.
What can races do to become more environmentally friendly, and what are the barriers?
Redrow says the availability of recycling infrastructure at a race site has a large impact on the potential for a race to be more environmentally friendly.
She says the company puts on a half marathon at Rutgers University, and staff tell them at the end of the event how many pounds of waste were recycled.
“There are other events where we can’t get a recycle bin because they tell us it will go to the landfill anyway,” she says.
“I just think that the overall footprint with regard to the race, when we come in and when we leave, is how you stay the most green.”
Redrow says event staff make a special effort to clean up small items, such as zip ties they snip off of bundled items. In other cases, athlete demands come into play.
“We have tried on several occasions to not do water bottles at the finish and we every time we got a lot of heat from athletes saying, ‘Were you too cheap to get water bottles?’”
What is your philosophy on spectators and family? Do you create your race experience for the participant, or do you factor others into the equation?
“I think that the spectator and family are crucial to not only the athlete experience but to the ever growing popularity of the sport,” says Redrow. “If you do not have your family and friends behind you, your interest is going to die out.”
“When I’ve gone to a race, I’ve felt spectators have been left out in terms of understanding the race. It’s barely ever communicated to the spectator,” she says.
CGI strives to create courses that allow spectators to see multiple legs without moving much, and to be able to find out where their athlete is on the course.
“I know some people are adding family events and entertainment. We haven’t done that,” she says. “I don’t necessarily find that to be the motivating experience for the spectator. It’s their athlete.”
With that in mind, CGI offers photos of athletes with their supporters, and keeps in mind that spectators need to eat and drink, too. They have a beer garden and amazing concessions, she says. People asked for coffee for the spectators, so they set up a huge coffee bar.
Redrow says educated volunteers are crucial, especially when a family member is concerned that something has happened to their athlete. Often the spectator doesn’t know that the swim went off in waves and is expecting someone out of the water long before they are due.
Redrow says CGI’s running races use GPS to track exactly where athletes are on the course, and she is looking forward to that technology making its way to triathlon.
From a racer's perspective, enforcement of the rules can seem haphazard. How does this work from the RD's point of view?
“First of all, the one thing I always say to athletes is the rules are there not to make you angry but to keep you safe,” she says. Athletes can become annoyed about not being able to pick up a friend’s packet, but if someone races under someone else’s number, they are not insured.
“The USAT officials are there to create a safe race. When you have smaller races some of these things become irritating. But in a larger race, you need someone there,” she says.
The problem, she says, is not athletes knowingly violating the rules, but athletes not knowing the rules at all.
“I would say that for every three athletes who get a penalty, there is one who has no idea what the penalty is,” she says. “It is an inherently dangerous sport. Its imperative that the athletes know the rules of the game. You wouldn’t get on a soccer field without knowing what the rules are.”
“It’s like the person who just holds the basketball and runs it down the court without dribbling.”
Redrow says she loves to see new athletes who are so excited and pumped up, and just hopes they channel some of that enthusiasm into learning the intricacies of the rules.
Putting run course volunteers in officials’ jerseys and empowering them to report violations on the run is another strategy Redrow has considered.
“Often, the evidence of someone being there is enough to enforce the rules,” she says.
How can you entice more people to read the Race Guide beforehand? Things would be much smoother if participants took the time to familiarize themselves with the course. We all know people who skip "mandatory" race meetings and don't read the packet. What can be done?
“I want as many people as possible to read it,” says Redrow.
“Here’s my theory on who reads the guide: Women. The women are so neurotic they bring their confirmation on race day,” says Redrow.
CGI is experimenting with how to improve overall readership. They post the guide early, have a three-week plan to try to entice athletes to read it. They have reduced the size of the guide because it was becoming too large, and they have even removed the map to reduce the size.
How do you balance safety with the extreme-sports mindset? Racers want to be proud of doing something really difficult, but no one wants to hear about participant fatalities and accidents.
“Triathlon is an inherently dangerous sport,” says Redrow. “It is the race director’s role to put on a safe event. You never cut back on safety.”
However Redrow emphasizes that it is the athlete’s responsibility to know their own health and take that seriously.
If you have a pre-existing condition, understand how that needs to be considered in all three sports. Many athletes don’t know what their limits are, especially if they train moderately and increase their intensity during the race, which is only natural.
“If you aren’t feeling right, pull back,” advises Redrow.
CGI uses many boats and lifeguards on the water, misting tents on hot days, 911 centers and more to provide safety support to athletes.
Redrow says she feels the sport of triathlon has a good safety record, considering the dangers. “It’s a dangerous sport, but I don’t think it’s any more dangerous than any other sports,” she says. “It’s important that the race director implements safety at the highest level and the athlete takes responsibility for their own health.”
"I do think that with our races, our model has been to always create the highest level race and maintain a grass roots environment. We have yet to add pro purses to any of our races.
We’re the people’s triathlon. The people we’ve had, are people we’ve had for years. They’re like reunions. We are really proud of what we’ve built in this region. We‘re proud of races you can afford, but you're still racing against some very competitive people.
We are also the biggest race management company in the Delaware valley.
We have that kind of passion rolled into it as well. Knowing how to plan an event makes our races better. Both of us became triathletes and decided to try putting them on. All of our races we are ones that we have invented.
Editor at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.