Hug Them All!

[Editor’s Note: A lot of us think about it. David Daggett did it... “it” being David, a guy with a full time job, a business to run, and a carcass to keep in shape (his own), took all that spare time he has and put on a triathlon. Here is his story of year-1 and David is pictured just below.]

We had a nice local race for a decade or more that fizzled out a couple of years ago, which meant the racing community was without a local anchor triathlon. This is not an unfamiliar story. Triathlon has had a rough past few years at the grassroots level.

Something that always puzzled me is that those at the pointy end only like the pointy end. At some point the pointy end has nowhere to go. Successful, fun, inexpensive and supportive local races are good for all of us, and if done right can be contagious in a community.

A few of us discussed the idea of starting a new local race. Our conversation coincided with the two-year anniversary of the death of a loved local triathlete and one of my best buds, Richard Smiley. The bell went off in my head, and we decided on the Smiley Sprint Triathlon. Sort of a double entendre.

Our imperatives: Provide a memorable experience for the athletes (world class or newbie); and welcome beginners. Focus on the athlete experience. Laudable as other goals are, our primary goal wasn’t raising money, nor was it about the spectators. We felt a true, first-class race has to be about the athletes, and then the other stuff will come.

The first order of business was to hire the best race timing and logistics company in the area. We worked closely with them on picking the venue, course, and date. They handled some of the details of timing, permitting, sanctioning, and provided their expertise in planning and in day-of execution. Jones Racing Company was awesome. We also followed Slowtwitch recommendations, posted to the Reader Forum, and got advice.

We asked local athletes what they wanted. Most common response we got? Good food and good beer. With that clear directive, we contacted the high-end restaurant next to Richard Smiley‘s former gym, where he was a personal trainer, and they immediately signed on to cater food. The restaurant hooked us up with a local craft brewery and we had excellent beer.

Next we turned to the athlete perks that you only get at marquee events. We personalized race numbers with the athlete’s name. This is really cool for newbies and inexperienced athletes who have never had the BIG race experience. We also personalized swim caps, and made sure that all of our first-time competitors had a unique welcome.

We gave all first-timers a rainbow wristband (made to support a local children’s hospital) so we could identify newbies the day of the race. Then we had a team of 18 Ironman veterans/elite athletes on our Concierge Team. They were our welcomers, and helped any newbie who needed anything.

I saw them help organize transition areas, put race numbers on bikes, make sure tire pressure was good, and give advice on pacing yourself through the race. Any question the newbies had, the Concierge Team was on it! These wristbands also helped me identify the first-timers at the finish line, so that I could give them a very warm welcome over the sound system. I believe – and they told me so! – most newbies will come back to compete and will bring a friend with them.

We also made sure our athletes did not feel alone on the course. In addition to our orange-shirted volunteers lining the roads, we also had two motorcyclist friends guide the leaders onto the looped bike course, and then kept circling for all of the athletes. A local bike shop provided rolling tech support. We had local boys and girls high school cross country teams volunteering and providing encouragement on the run course. We recruited the cheerleaders from the local high school to literally cheer the runners up the longest hill on the run.

I had the bright idea of having live music at the finish line, something I have not seen in any of my 194 Triathlon finishes, which included 28 Ironman events. As a consequence of this ambition of mine I found out that music is expensive! However, my little brother from Big Brother/Little Brothers (we have the longest running continuous relationship in the history of the organization at 37 years) is a piano player and singer at his church. I asked him if he could put a group together, and he did, and they did a wonderful job! Their long format version of “Don’t Stop Believin” made everybody feel like Journey actually playing.

To enhance the music and overall vibe of the finish line and race venue, I called up an old favor from a soundman with 20,000 Watts of power and told him I was not sure if I would ever be able to pay him. He just said tell me where to be and when.

I saw a friend of mine who owns a tree service drive his bucket truck past my office window. Could I get him to hang a huge American flag over the pool off a bucket truck, and take the other truck to hang a large welcome banner over the transition area and finish line? Of course the answer was yes and the results were memorable.

To be honest, I personally had many sleepless nights with visions of 25 people at the start line. And looking at the forecast for the weekend, I became more and more concerned. The morning of the race there were torrential downpours. The sound man and I were the first ones on site in the mud and rain. I went to the Porta Potty, sat down, and cried in fear that no one would show up.

Three hours later, the race was about to start and I cried again in disbelief at the number of athletes, and hundreds of family, friends, volunteers, and community supporters who showed up. Despite the monsoon conditions, nobody I was depending on no-showed us. The skies cleared and we did not have a drop of rain until the sky opened up again just as we were concluding the award ceremonies.

I cried many more times with happy tears as I hugged each and every athlete (some spectators too!) with a finish line reception.

As I said, we haven’t had a triathlon in our area in several years. The last one, with a 10 year history (and a good race) had 176 participants. We were told we’d be lucky to get 170, and that 200 would be a home run. We ended up with about 270, and many first timers. The weekend weather served us lemons and we took it as an opportunity to make the best lemonade ever!! Our team had to reroute the run course, redesign the stage area, expo area, finish line, etc. all in the 48 hours before the race. They did an outstanding job! I believe all in attendance had a great day.

Even our experienced racers – we had a USAT National Champion racing – said it might be the best race they have ever done. Live music, real (good) catered food, craft beer, free massage. It was a pool swim with a time-trial start. I went first (with an old man buffer) and when I got to the finish I stayed, announced, and hugged every single person when they crossed the line – large, small, young, old, the great big shirtless dude with a beard – every single one of them.

Interestingly, pool swim races tend to have a long tail. That is, the winner was done two and half hours before the awards ceremony started. Usually a lot of folks leave and the award ceremonies only have (some of) the award winners remaining. The vibe was so good that the place was still packed with athletes, family, and friends.

My takeaway from the experience: I think the biggest ingredient is passion, and zero profit motive. Passion can’t be faked.

[Editor's notes: Here's a link to the event. They already have next year's date advertised. All PHOTOS are courtesy Robert Hill Photography.]