On Disaster

In seven years of organizing triathlons there has been only one thing, one entity, that has caused me to seriously consider a different line of work: the New York State Department of Transportation.

Despite the joy of being involved daily with the sport I love, the satisfaction of watching dreams fulfilled, and the memories of adversity overcome, NYSDOT nearly broke me. Nothing could have prepared me for the misery that would follow a nondescript winter day in early 2008 when DOT announced a "Multi-County Speed Contest" permit that the Musselman Triathlon would henceforth be required to obtain.

When it was unveiled, the permit had no actual application form. There were no instructions, no examples, no list of requirements. It quickly became apparent that DOT itself did not know what it needed, so, in essence, they were making it up as they went along. A guidebook was promised, which to this day does not exist.

One of the first things I was told was that the USA Triathlon event insurance was not acceptable in NY State.

USAT sanctions close to 3,000 events each year across the country. Whether you like USAT or you don't, event directors implicitly endorse the strength of its insurance policy by using it, time and time again. When I created the Fly by Night Duathlon in 2005, owners of Watkins Glen International, the race car track where the event was to be held, informed me that I would need to carry the same level of insurance as race car teams renting the track. Terms like "Accidental Death & Dismembership" became part of my lexicon. To my surprise (and delight), USAT's insurance met the full slate of requirements. In early 2008, however, the State of New York determined that what was good for the race track was not good for the roadways, so it summarily dismissed the insurance certificates put forth by the Musselman, Ironman Lake Placid, the Cayuga Lake Triathlon, and all other USAT-sanctioned events from Poughkeepsie to Kingston and Port Washington to Niagara Falls.

Next under the microscope were the railroads. The Musselman half-ironman run course crosses an at-grade (meaning street level) railway line in downtown Geneva. Each year I check with Norfolk Southern (the owners of the track) to determine whether runners will encounter a creeping locomotive and tagalong freight cars during the race. Despite a federal prohibition, put in place following 9/11, forbidding the public dissemination of railroad timetables, persons of authority at Norfolk Southern had assured me that no trains would be on the tracks from 9:30am to 3:00pm on each Sunday in question. They were correct; runners annually ran unimpeded.

Starting in 2008, however, DOT required written acknowledgement, on official letterhead, of the absence of trains, provided by a person of authority. In the shadow of federal regulations, no one was willing to produce such a letter. My only recourse, as dictated by the state permit, was to request both a railroad flagperson (billed at $750 per day) and a police officer, to be stationed at the rail crossing. Under the blazing sun, on a lonely road through Geneva, two very serious and well-paid gentlemen thus spent a majority of a Sunday in July waiting for a train that would never come.

In addition to train documentation, the permit requires the Musselman to obtain written permission from each municipality the course passes through. Thus, our brief dip into the lonely collection of houses known as Lodi requires six signatures on six official letterheads: the Village of Lodi, the Town of Ovid (in which Lodi is located), the Seneca County Board of Directors, the Seneca County Highway Department, the Seneca County Sheriff, and the NY State Police. The sole administrator for the Village of Lodi, who presumably signed up for the job owing to its lack of action, is in his office sporadically and at most once every couple weeks; he has no fax machine and no email address. You can imagine that tracking down a signature, much less official letterhead, can occupy the better part of a lunar cycle. Yet despite more people being on bikes than in beds in Lodi during the Musselman, permission to transit must be granted.

In that first year of the permit, as I mentioned, there was no protocol, no forms to fill out. The "process," instead, went something like this: a representative from DOT would send me a letter requesting certain things, and I would respond as best I could. What I sent was seldom acceptable. A week or two later, I would receive a note detailing all of the things that were missing, incorrect, or that had changed since our last exchange.

We need to know what material the roadside mile markers will be made of, and their dimensions. Where will they be placed on the roadside? Where will the police officer be standing in the intersection? What is the ANSI model number of the orange vests your volunteers will be wearing? Signs placed along the road are not allowed to use the word "caution."

Each note would tack on additional requirements. As the weeks and months went by, my to-do list grew longer. By June I was further away from having secured the permit than I was in January. By the end of June, with DOT still refusing to accept USAT's insurance and demanding more and more documentation, I readied plans to completely alter the run course.

The only reason we had to have the permit was because the Musselman was "multi-county." The swim and bike traversed Seneca County, but the run crossed into Ontario County. Had the race been contained neatly within one county, a chunk of land quite possibly decided by arbitrary farming claims centuries before, I would not have had to go through any of this. With 1,500 people already registered and no guarantee I would be allowed to actually hold the race, my fallback strategy became moving the run course entirely within Seneca Lake State Park, the race venue, which was entirely within Seneca County.

I had an advocate in Steve Garlick, the state park manager. Steve is a likeable fellow, at once friendly, concerned, and competent. He takes his job seriously, and the park is reliably well-groomed, secure, and responsive to its patrons. Sometime in the early spring, the DOT representative in Albany decided that the permit I was applying for required full documentation of what would be taking place within the state park - itself overseen by another state agency, subject to its own rules, and requiring the Musselman to adhere to its own permit. Regardless, DOT determined that it had jurisdiction within the park.

At this, Steve took umbrage. The park was his territory, the park was New York Parks Department territory. DOT was demanding documentation and dictating what could and could not take place within the park's boundaries. So when I told an equally exasperated Steve I might have to bring the run course completely within the park boundaries to hedge against a denied DOT permit, he joined me in a walk of the grounds.

Two weeks before the race, in the midst of a million other things demanding my attention, I informed the volunteer coordinator and the run coordinator, along with the rest of the organizing committee, that our run would be three 4-mile loops within the state park. Geneva, our gracious host city for four years, would be unceremoniously incisioned out of the event. We created new maps, moved aid stations, repositioned volunteers, and readied a newsletter to inform athletes that the old beloved run course, a single meandering loop through downtown, vineyards, a college campus, and along the lake shore, would be no more.

Six days before the Musselman, I informed DOT of my decision to change the run course. That afternoon, in a remarkable and curious coincidence, I was notified that USAT and DOT had reached an agreement and the insurance was now acceptable. A single day before the first race of Musselman weekend 2008, Friday, a signed permit inched out of my fax machine.

I am also the race director for the Freshwater Trust Portland Triathlon, an event that takes place in the 30th largest city in the United States. We swim in an active shipping channel; we ride and run through downtown Portland, Oregon, amidst its half-million citizens. I am required to obtain no fewer than ten different permits, each with a host of sign-offs, in order to navigate the streets, sidewalks, bridges, and parks on a Sunday morning in August. The process of obtaining all of these permits, the time and cost and frustration involved, stand insignificant against the process of obtaining the single NYSDOT permit for the Musselman, an event that takes place at the shallow end of a quiet lake, on roads traveled by more horse & buggies than automobiles, through exactly six stop signs over the course of a 56-mile bike.

I wouldn't mind if this process made the event safer. I understand that a well-documented, well-designed, well-understood course is a safe course. But this process is about risk management and litigation avoidance, and the time I spend hiding the word "caution" with duct tape could be spent recruiting more volunteers or preparing a better pre-race athlete briefing.

In 2009, the permit process was supposed to get easier - that is what I was told throughout 2008, perhaps as a means of preventing me from fleeing to Canada (or Pennsylvania). Unfortunately, that year DOT noticed that Saturday's mini-Mussel sprint race travels outside of Seneca Lake State Park and into Geneva's Lakefront Park as well, which is, haplessly, in Ontario County. So although the sprint run course keeps itself to pathways and does not so much as cross a single roadway, a political boundary is crossed and that makes the mini-Mussel "multi-county" - and deserving of its own permit. To add insult to injury, the MusselKids race - an event that takes all of fifteen minutes and where the "swim" is done with floaties and Mom - also crosses into Lakefront Park for the kiddie bike portion, making it, too, guilty of multi-county cohabitation. MusselKids now requires a DOT permit.

The Musselman attracts nearly two thousand participants to the Finger Lakes Region of New York each year; many of them have never seen the area and ultimately come back. The event is accepted and welcomed by the city, the counties, and the park in which it takes place. It has been dubbed the "Most Family-Friendly Race" in the country by Triathlete magazine, and in 2007 the International Triathlon Union's Technical Delegate wrote that the Musselman Pan American Cup was the "most well-organized" in North America. We have never had an accident or major medical incident we couldn't handle. And yet the yearly struggle to obtain sufficient permission to do what we have been doing for seven years feels more like punishment than an exercise in safety or due diligence.

It is not coincidence that the Musselman Pan American Cup went away the year NYSDOT unveiled its new permit, or that the Seneca Epic has yet to happen in New York State. There is a point where the system breaks down, when the need to deflect blame for every possible eventuality ultimately erodes those things we consider good, or important. I will probably never know the person who crashed their bike in Lake Placid and unleashed lawsuits against the state which ultimately led to these permit requirements - but I wonder if this outcome is what she had in mind.

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