The Man Behind the Boston Triathlon

Boston is one of America’s greatest sporting cities and all of their major teams are riding a wave of success currently at or near the top in their respective leagues. The city is also home to a vibrant endurance sports scene with the world’s oldest annual marathon, Boston Marathon, entering it’s 122nd edition and the lesser known Boston Light Swim, an 8-mile open water swim, holding it’s 110th crossing next weekend.

But, this upcoming weekend Boston belongs to triathlon so we sat down with the man behind the scenes of The Columbia Threadneedle Investments Boston Triathlon, Mike O’Neil.

Slowtwitch: It’s Boston Tri race week. What does your week look like between now and race day?

Mike O'Neil: Pretty busy. It took me a few days to get back to you. We have a lot of moving parts for this race. Many stakeholders, partners, etc. So we have lots of things coming together at once. That said, we have a strong team. The core leadership team, Will Thomas and John Mortimer have been together for years and our staff is incredible too. Takes a village as they say.

ST: You have served many different roles during the time you have spent in the triathlon world. What led you to race production?

Mike: I seemed to gather a bunch of varied experience in the sport and decided to give it a go. I grew up an hour from our venue and Boston was the only major US metro without a world class triathlon. So I thought we should change that. Boston is a great city and our venue is a hidden gem.

ST: What kind of experience should racers and spectators expect on race day?

Mike: I know it’s New England, but I can predict sunshine, clean water, great racing and beer for Sunday. The best compliment we received after last years race was, “This felt like a world championship but without the stress.” That is the experience we are going for.

ST: You’ve been producing Boston Triathlon since 2012. What are the biggest changes between that first year and the race now?

Mike: We have kept all of the best elements of the course and the venue, but changed some significant things to provide the athlete experience that we would want if we were racing. When we first acquired the race, it was only a sprint race. The start and the finish were a half-mile apart. The first thing I focused on was bringing the start, finish, race village and after party together in one location. Originally, runners and cyclist were sharing the same roads. We’ve expanded our permits to allow us to separate those and now, the course is much safer, less stressful and faster. Our after party now has its own reputation. FREE beer to all racers and volunteers. Last year, we added an Olympic Distance (still have a Sprint) to the event, which has had a significant effect on our ability to attract triathletes from across the country. This will be our 9th year and the event has gained support in Boston and we are looking forward to continuing build on its success.

ST: Boston Marathon Race Director, Dave McGillvary, produced the Monster Challenge Tri for many years. Did you ever compete in that event yourself? How is your race different from Monster Challenge Tri?

Mike: I did race Dave’s race! I had a blast racing the Monster Challenge. It’s hard to compare the two events. The Columbia Threadneedle Investments Boston Triathlon is a very different race from the Monster Challenge Tri. The Monster Challenge was in a different part of the city, had an indoor transition and a significant part of the bike course was in Cambridge. I did really like that part of their bike course that was on Memorial Drive. That race shut down 10 years ago, I think, but luckily Dave is still around. He has been a great friend, supporter and advisor. He races our race now. The Boston Triathlon takes place over in South Boston, in “Southie”, at Carson Beach. It’s a beautiful venue for an urban triathlon – calm, clean waters, good pavement on a traffic-free bike and cool run course with views of the beach and Boston skyline.

ST: Your website states the race is “Boston’s Only Tri”. Why are there so few triathlons in what is one of the country’s premier sports cities? 

Mike: Boston is a big time sports town and a very big endurance town. I think there are a lot of moving parts to consider when producing a triathlon in a major urban city. We have several important stakeholders that all work together. I think at last count we needed 14 separate permits to produce the race.

ST: What is your vision for Boston Tri?

Mike: We want this event be a source of pride and a force for good for the City of Boston. We want to make the Columbia Threadneedle Investments Boston Triathlon a premiere event in the world, drawing racers to experience what it is like to compete in one of the world’s best cities. We have athletes from 15 countries and 42 states racing this weekend, but 65% of our racers are from Massachusetts. I would love to see that grow.

ST: Combing through the results and looking at photos from past races, it appears to be a very inviting race for women. What’s your trick?

Mike: For the past five years we have been trying to do a few things: First, we want to grow the sport. Especially here in one of the country’s foremost cities. Second, we want to keep improving the overall athlete experience. Most of our clinics are coached by women. They have credibility in the sport, but they are also very approachable and inspiring to cross-over athletes, newbies and most especially, other women. Triathlon should not be intimidating. We want all people, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender and ability, to consider triathlon and we make the effort to reach out to them and teach them about the sport while encouraging them to take on the challenge.

ST: You announced an initiative for young athletes to receive their entry for half off. What prompted you to make that offer?

Mike: I was on a group ride with the Dartmouth Triathlon team last summer and looked at their need for equipment and support. It reminded me of being a college athlete with no money. Triathlon is expensive. I decided on that ride that I wanted to give back and help younger athletes.

ST: Your races often appear more of a celebration than a hardcore race. Why is this important?

Mike: I would say that is a goal and part of us trying to grow the sport, especially here in Boston. Our other race, Lobsterman, up in Maine, is a pretty tough course too. We want to produce events where people can also go for it and try and smash themselves and race hard. But in the end both races have a strong fourth discipline - the after party celebration!

ST: When you envision the future of triathlon, do you see Boston Tri as an example of what the sport might look like?

Mike: Women make up over 70% of half marathon racers. I would like to see that in triathlon. We are working hard to be more gender balanced and more ethnically diverse than the sport in general. That work will continue. 

ST: What are your plans the week after the race?

Mike: My family has had a camp on a beautiful lake in New Hampshire for almost 80 years. I will go there on Sunday night after the race and unplug. A few open water swims, a few mountain bike & cross rides, hiking, good food and drink. Full summer vacation mode.

You can follow Boston Tri on Instagram at @bostontri