RD Diary: Willy Loman, Triathlon Peddler

Editor's note: This is the fifth of a series of 13 weekly articles originally published on Slowtwitch in 2003/4. The articles chronicle newbie RD Jeff Henderson's journey toward the production of his first race: the Musselman Triathlon in Upstate New York. After these 13 weeks worth of diary entries, we'll flow directly into a new series Jeff is writing for us, where he talks about his challenges and goals now, as he prepares for Year-7 of Musselman.

There are three immutable laws of the universe when it comes to peddling sponsorships:

1. Nobody will ever read your entire proposal.
2. No one will ever call you back.
3. Every company/organization/social group has been approached at least twelve times in the past week alone by disease and horrendous disaster victims seeking money/product/a soft shoulder to cry on, and why are your needs any better than theirs?

Even if someone says they've read your proposal, they are lying to you. In 7th grade, I had a friend who would turn in his Health class reports with a legitimate first paragraph, and then that same paragraph repeated for the requisite number of pages. The blighter got an A on every one of them. He knew that the Health teacher never read them, just looked to see how long it was. I have been tempted to use a similar strategy when approaching sponsors, especially when I'm on the phone with the 300th winery I've sent a proposal to—weeks ago—and the kind madam has clearly not read a word of it.

As you may have guessed, it's Sponsorship Week here at Musselman Headquarters. Time to hit the streets, knock on some doors, and get some doors slammed in our faces. Good times, noodle salad.

I sat gazing out at the lake this morning, my cup full of Folger's because it's the best part of waking up. In my mind's eye the ice melted and the snows turned to velvety grass, and the colors of triathlon streamed out before me. Truly a Kodak moment.

My quest is to paint the same picture for shopkeepers that I have in my mind. The middle of January in upstate New York is not a pleasant time, I won't sugar-coat it for you: the air is frigid, snowfall is frequent and heavy, and most of the time it's accompanied by wind. To describe scenes of running through verdant parks and cycling against a backdrop of fertile vineyards is to test the limits of my persuasive skills—I need them to gather 'round the good stuff. The job needs to be done; my early assumptions that entry fees would cover costs is a pipe dream. As hard as it may be to believe, your $110 payment comes with the hope that government organizations and businesses will pitch in to cover the gap, with any extra going to charity. One race director told me he can no longer hold his annual half-marathon in downtown Buffalo because the police fees reached $50,000.

So I trudge through the snowdrifts and spend Saturdays visiting the dozens of wineries for which the Finger Lakes are famous, reciting my pitch to old ladies and young winegrowers, really anyone who will listen, and hoping there's something good in the neighborhood.

I told a winery owner that Karen Smyers was coming to speak at the pre-race dinner.

"What does jelly have to do with triathlon?" she asked.

"Smyers," I stressed, "not Smuckers. S-M-Y-E-R-S. She's a former world champion, a household name in the sport."

"Not in my household. Never heard of her. Do you want your brochure back?"

I may not be the best candidate for soliciting fine wines. The main problem is that I don't drink. At Domes Winery I was offered a taste, and then chastised when I declined.

"Come back when you've given up those moral qualms!" the owner, an ordained priest, said with a chuckle.

Another lady told me she doesn't condone shooting, even if it is for sport. I had to explain the difference between biathlon and triathlon.

So in the middle of a blizzard my wife and I trudged into a winery on the western shore of Seneca Lake. The woman dispensing wine tastings motioned us to a man in the back when we asked about event sponsorship, presumably the owner.

A man in a flowing velvety robe trimmed in ermine wheeled around and suavely crossed the floor to speak with us. I am not making this up. While I clutched my wife closer to my side, he proceeded to address me in a false yet deep and quite authentic German accent.

"Vat breengs yoo by toodayyyyy?" he asked out of the corner of his eye. He offered a touch of ermine and purred at my wife. I pulled her closer.

"We're holding a triathlon. It's for the Boys & Girls Club. Want to sponsor it?" Forget about fancy demographics and smooth shoptalk, I wanted out of that weirdness.

"I ssssseeeeee....." he droned in his best Bavarian. "Ze problem ees, who ees ze most important? Zee old people ees important, zee kids ees important, zee Alzheimer's ees important - zey may not remember, but zey ees important."

Not only was this weird but he had a point. Why was my cause any better than any other? Why should I get the wine and the old folk's home go without?

"I get two to three people in here every week asking for donations," he continued, this time in regular old English. "I produce 5,000 cases of wine a year, which puts me on the very small end of the wineries in this region. Fox Run produces 18,000, and Glenora further down the lake does 60,000. You're asking me for two to three cases... if I gave that out every week, I wouldn't have anything left to sell."

All good points, still.

Nonetheless he started to flip through the proposal I had brought along. Curiously, he began to get interested, despite himself. He complimented us on a well-done brochure.

I may be slow at this game, but I saw my chance. I told him of the children, how little Cece learned to read at the Boys & Girls Club, and I described scenes of affluent triathletes descending upon his winery, their pockets overflowing with cash and Cabernet Francs dancing in their heads.

I don't know what did it, but we walked out of there with three bottles of his finest, treasure for the pre-race dinner and symbols of our struggle and eventual conquest. It was our finest hour. And at the very next winery, the lady wouldn't even let me in the door. Such is the life of Willy Loman, Triathlon Peddler.