Sunday, August 29, 2010

How to Pick a Good Race

The other day, a good friend of mine approached me with some tri-related questions.  You see, some co-workers of his had just completed a local race and came away with a less-than-impressed feeling.  They wanted to know if there were other local tris - sprints and oly-distance races - that I could recommend.

Well, I could come up with a good half-dozen off the top of my head, but their question got me thinking.  I've been in well-run races, but I've also been at events that can be best described using words that begin with 'cluster' and 'circle'.   So, when the rubber meets the road, what makes a good event?  What should one look for when selecting an event, and what should be expected when competing?

I'll start by going over what I look for before picking an event.  Then, I'll go over the things that you should expect from each race and some red flags that you should consider 'athlete repellent'. 

Before the Event

Okay, so last January you made a resolution to 'get back into shape'.  You started running, swimming and even bought a bike.  You want to sign up for a race, but want to make sure you'll have a good time.  Races aren't cheap.  This isn't like the local 5K where you can race for $15 and still walk away with a free t-shirt.  Even the cheapest sprint tris are usually over $50, and prices go up from there.  Bottom line: how do you get the most bang for your buck?

1.  Location

This one is fairly straight-forward.  Some folks like to pick a destination race that serves as a kind of mini-vacation.  My first race was an Olympic in Winona - about 2 1/2 hours southeast of the Twin Cities.  It was a nice town to visit and race in, but traveling with all the gear got a little complex.

In the end, I'd recommend picking a local race for your first.  There will be fewer travel concerns on race day, plus, you'll be able to race portions of the course and get the lay of the land.

2.  Triathlete Forums

That's right.  Hit The Interwebs.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again - Beginner Triathlete is a great source.  In addition to member's race reviews, there's also a very active forum.  Have a question?  Just start a thread in the forum and you'll get the answers you need.   Earlier this year, I posted some questions in the Wisconsin forum about training on the Ironman course and got plenty of good advice.

Slowtwitch also has some valuable insight to offer.  Although, I've found that it caters to the more experienced athlete.  If you're new to the scene, it may not be for you.  However, if you're a techno-weenie that could spend all day discussing optimal race wattage and the 15-degree aerodynamic properties of your Zipp 808 wheelset, then Slowtwitch would be right up your alley.

3.  The Race Website

Race sites can be really hit-or-miss.  You should expect sites to be organized and current.  Links to registration information and course maps should be easy to find and understand.  Let's look at two examples.

Here's the course map for Trinona - my first race:
It's easy to read, well laid out and organized.  It even includes both Sprint and Oly distances without getting cluttered.

And here's the run map from the St. Paul Triathlon, a race that The Wife and I did as a relay last year:
It looks like someone found a map on-line, printed it, then scanned it, then used MS Paint to 'touch things up'.  Boo.  Hiss.
Looking at the two course maps, which race do you think would be more well organized?  #1 - right?  Yeah.  Me too.  Now, I'm not saying that a well-run site always means a well-run race, but it IS a good indicator.

During the Event

So you've done your research, got some forum advice, picked a race and laid down your hard-earned cash on registration.  Great.  Assuming that you've kept up with your training, the only thing left to do is to reap the rewards.  But what should you expect from the race?

1.  Well-Informed Volunteers

Volunteers are the backbone of any event.  They do everything from directing traffic, to life guarding, to  handing out fuel on the course.  I'm not suggesting that any one volunteer is better than another.  However, how the race director prepares the volunteers is critical.  The last thing you want is to hit a turn on the bike course and be sent in the wrong direction, or ask where the medical tent is and get a shoulder-shrug.

2.  An Organized Transition Area

The swim-in, bike out/in, and run out should all be clearly marked.  Areas for relay teams and elite athletes should be separate from the age-groupers.  I don't want to wake up at the butt-crack of dawn to get to the site early, set up my transition area and then find out that I have to move because someone forgot to mark the transition aisles.

Some may disagree with me, but I think that transition areas should be off-limits for anyone that isn't an athlete or a volunteer.  If you're there to cheer, that's great, but I'll have to wait to see you until I'm on the course or at the finish line.

3.  Well-Marked Course Routes

First, let me say this: It is the responsibility of EVERY racer to know the course prior to race day.   That said, when you're actually on the course, you'll be focused on your burning lungs and achy legs, and may need a reminder which way to turn next.

On the swim, buoys should be large and frequent.  On a windy day, basketball-sized buoys aren't going to be easy to see over the waves.  Turn buoys - those placed on the corners of the course - should certainly be easily visible.

For the bike, most races are going to have a volunteer or police officer at each intersection.  Gravel should be swept off of the road for any turns.  For races that have two distance racing simultaneously - Sprint and Oly for example - there should be clear signage so that you don't accidentally turn back onto the course when you should be on our way to the run.

On the run, signage isn't usually as big a deal.  There is usually some kind of 'caution tape' to get runners headed in the right direction after T2.  Again - if two different distances are running at the same time, the routes should be clear.

4.  Adequate Hydration and Nutrition

For sprint races, this isn't usually an issue.  I would not expect a water or sport drink refueling stop on the bike course.  On the run, 1 or 2 stops is plenty for a 5K.  However, on longer courses, especially during hot days, adequate fuel can make the difference between a Personal Record and a Sad Panda.

For example,  during the Liberty Triathlon last June, there were bottle-drops every 14 miles.  That's 3 stops for the 56-mile course.  Nice.

However, last year, I did the Square Lake 1/2 Ironman out in Stillwater.  There was 1 bottle drop at the half-way point of the bike.  You had a choice of either water or Gatorade, and that was it.  Oh, and did I mention that it was 92 frickin' degrees that day?  For racers expecting to 'live off the course' this was not a good thing.

That said, if you are planning to do a longer race, try to find out what nutrition will be available on the course for race day.  If you're used to Gatorade and they're serving HEED, you may want to integrate that into your training so that it's not a shock to your system.  You don't want to be belching up gels and sport drink all over your new racing singletl.

5.  Good Swag

I'll be honest.  For all the reasons that I tri, one reigns above them all: FREE STUFF.  If you want to keep me coming back year after year, you've got to offer me more than just the same ol' blue t-shirt.

Here are shirts from some of the races and events I've done over the last couple of years.  Tell me if you can see a pattern...

Okay, the Liberty shirt (lower right) is a technical T and that's pretty cool.
I'm looking for something a little more unique.  Most races will give you a 'swag bag' filled with anything from sponsor coupons to snacks, to chamois cream (note: do NOT mix up snacks and chamois cream).  But I get a kick out of races that forge their own trail for giveaways.

The Chaska Tri does a great job of this.  No, you don't get a t-shirt for this event, you get a frickin' transition bag!  For a $55 entry fee, that's a pretty good deal.

Last year's was pretty sweet...

It was also pointed out to me by some friends that this would make a great diaper bag.  Thanks guys, way to ruin my transition bag for me. 
This year, things got even cooler...

Yep, that's a backpack style bag, stainless water bottle and running gloves.  SWEET!
6.  Easy Access to Results and Photos

Once your race is done, the next thing you're going to want (other than a hamburger and a massage) is a look at the race results.  A well-run race will have results on-line within 24 hours.  Some races will even have a results station on-site where you can give a volunteer your race number and they will print off a receipt with your race time, splits and rankings. If you screw up the timing, or it takes you 2 weeks to post results, that's a good way to keep people from coming back to your event.

The same thing goes for race photos.  A quality race will have photos available within a week, with a link placed on the race home page.  After all, the narcissist in all of us is going to want to look through each and every one to find that elusive "lookin' good in spandex" photo.

Well, there you have it.  This should get you off to a good start.  Should you have any questions, or want to recommend some other things to improve your race-day experience feel free to zap me an e-mail

Later gators.

No comments:

Post a Comment