Know Your Customer

I would not be writing this had Bill Burke not opined to Bloomberg News. But, he did, so, I am.

The race director of the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon was interviewed by Bloomberg News yesterday, following the death over the weekend of an athlete during the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. Burke’s comments were as follows, all run together:

“When things go bad in the water, they go bad rather quickly. You’ve got to know what’s going on in your system. I get frustrated because I think a lot of these things are avoidable. Sadly, and I hate to say this, I’ve become numb to it. It’s unfortunate ... It’s not to be taken lightly. This is a difficult race ... Based on what I’ve heard, he was very apprehensive and sweating bullets while on the boat. That’s not a good sign ... People are spending $5,000-$10,000 on a high-end triathlon bike, but they’re not spending the $300 to get checked out physically to find out if they’re physically capable of completing the event. That’s the most important expense that people can have ... Unfortunately, what I came to realize a long time ago, no matter how prepared you are, sometimes things are out of your control. In athletic events, as in life, things just happen.”

True enough. All of what Burke said is true. But one must square this circle with what competitors really get from race directors before they pay their money and enter the race.

In the case of Escape from Alcatraz one Slowtwitcher wrote, in part, “I signed up for the race only a few months ago, on whim, through a charity bid, because I thought it would be a cool way to celebrate my 50th birthday... I'm not a strong swimmer, only having started masters swimming sessions a couple of months ago, and a month before that I couldn't even swim two pool laps without gasping for breath. If I was the race director, I wouldn't let someone like me get on the boat... I had no real idea what "rough" truly entailed under these unusually harsh conditions due to the race being held in winter instead of summer... The ability to clear a lottery and hand over $400 should not be the only firm requirement to engage in a potentially life threatening activity.”

I mostly don’t agree with the above sentiment. Burke’s comments were inartful, and I certainly hope he has not “become numb to it,” for his own sake and for those who’ll enter his races. That said, I mostly agree with what he said. You should understand the risk before you enter. Especially in this race, where the risk is eminently prominent via pre-race information, usually in the form of videos. Eric Gilsenen hosts the Escape Academy for those who really want to know what this race is all about. Close to a dozen videos describe every element of this race, and the race organization liberally points its contestants to those videos.

I don’t think there’s a race in the world that does a more comprehensive job of preparing and warning its athletes of what they should expect. There were 9 pre-race newsletters sent out—here is the newsletter archive—and these referenced the videos and made mention of the water temp that was expected to be 52 – 54 degrees. (Apparently the temp was 51.) If you entered this race and didn’t know that Escape features an atypical and difficult swim, and swim start, I cannot imagine why. That said, if you entered and paid your money only then to find out how difficult this race was, then, maybe that’s a legitimate gripe.

That established, I don’t think Bill Burke’s exhortations, as expressed in his statements to Bloomberg News, is matched by the garden variety event’s pre-race information. Here’s what was previously written about the New York City triathlon swim: “Although times vary with wave number and skill level, the swim in the Hudson River is one of the triathlon world's fastest. A bag of Cheetos did 21 minutes.”

Here’s what is now written about the New York City Triathlon Swim: “Although times vary with wave number and skill level, the swim in the Hudson River is one of the triathlon world's fastest. It is an open water swim, so we require you have experience with such before the race.”

Better. That’s better. In the intervening period between the old text and the new, numerous people have died in the Cheetos swim.

The New York City Triathlon is a Bill Burke produced race. When I read the FAQ for that race I don’t read the sorts of things Bill Burke is recommending in his quotes to Bloomberg above.

Do I have to pre-qualify? No, anyone 18 and older can enter. Fast, slow, beginner, stud – anyone.

Can I enter if I’ve never done a triathlon? Sure, everyone has to start someplace. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!

In this glib repartee with itself the FAQ really does not express how difficult an Olympic distance triathlon is, nor what it's like to find oneself in the Hudson River, wrapped in rubber, away from shore, if this represents for the participant unfamiliar territory. A bag of Cheetos is eminently more prepared for that.

There is a link on the website’s race to the Training & Tri Community. You’re directed to the Reebok Sports Club in New York. I love this race. But I think the website can do better.

There’s a link to sign up with Active Trainer, which are training plans you can purchase. Again, Aquaphor NYC is a great race, but, getting a vig off Active for purchase of a training plan is beneath this iconic event. Look at Escape's website, that's the model for how race preparation should be handled by race organizations.

There is a link to a national list of tri clubs, sorted by state. I am 3000 miles away from NYC, but I can give you the list of relevant tri clubs local to New Yorkers, and the great majority of those in this race are from metro New York.

There is a link to the Manhattan Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Group. Bill Burke recommended a spend of, “$300 to get checked out physically” and, “that all competitors get examined by a sports-specific cardiologist and undergo a race-simulation stress test.” Can't get that at an orthopedic group.

There is a link to tips provided by the Reebok Sports Club. Bravo! Not bad. Sort of anemic, but, the best of what's on that website.

I don’t want to pick on either Bill Burke, who is one of triathlon’s eminent race organizers, nor on the Aquaphor New York City Triathlon, which is one of our sport’s marquis events worldwide. Further, it should be noted that Bill Burke is the nuts and bolts producer of the event, and he's not (as far as I know) in charge of what takes place weeks in front of the event, nor is he (as far as I know) in charge of what's on the website. But when someone new or naive to triathlon brings in the big hitter to run a top quality race, as often as not Bill gets the call and rightly so—because he is so good at what he does. So, Bill Burke is the guy with the institutional knowledge, and I therefore do not give Bill a pass on what occurs pre-race.

Here’s my concern. Yes, people need to know the risk. But a lot of races could do much more at describing the risk pre-race, and equipping competitors for the challenge. Furthermore, the risk is heightened, in my opinion, at races like those in New York, Chicago, Washington DC, Los Angeles because, in my experience and opinion, big city races are bucket list and beer bet races. Just as in big city marathons, people often do these races because their buddies urge them, or to celebrate a birthday, or because it’s the one thing they do every year to prove to themselves that they’ve still got it.

We need to explain the risk, and do our best to equip competitors, before the race. We need to give them real help. Not a link to somebody who’s going to try to sell them something.

Bill Burke got a chance to say what he really thinks after yet another triathlon swim death. On a certain level, I agree with what he said. I would ask all race organizers to put themselves in Bill’s place, and ask yourself what you would say if you were him. Would you, like Bill, say everyone should have a stress test? (I think Bill's wrong about that, nevertheless I understand his thinking.) Would you say that everyone should engage in some number of open water swims? Be in a master’s swim program? Buy your wetsuit weeks, rather than hours, before the start of the race? Join a tri club? Get a coach? What would you say?

Then in place of saying what you think your customers should have done, in retrospect, say it now. Before your race. Accompanied by granular, specific pathways allowing your customers to act on your advice. In newsletters and on your event website. Like Escape did.