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Triathlon Planning: Expect the Unexpected

There's no way you can prepare for everything. But this quick primer points out a few challenges you can't afford to overlook when planning your next triathlon.

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Race planning is often a matter of simple but detailed execution. Pick a date and location, obtain necessary permits, keep medical and safety issues a top priority, communicate with base leadership and get their full support. But what happens when organizers graduate from that 5K or 10K to a triathlon? Basic rules still apply, while considerations grow by at least a factor of three, with the bike and swim events upping the ante on safety and security.

Anticipating every eventuality is impossible, but this quick primer highlights a few unorthodox challenges of race day that will better prepare race organizers for the sometimes-wild world of triathlon prep.

Ann Hupp, owner of MettleEvents, a Virginia-based race planning and management company, who facilitates a number of military races each year, including triathlons, also has experience as a triathlon participant. For her, the unexpected can begin the minute racers splash into the water.

"I did a triathlon once produced by a national company, where they didn't take into consideration the tides, and [athletes] were forced to run the entire swim," she says. And critters such as jellyfish and horseshoe crabs can be another challenge in open water, Hupp says.

In addition to lifeguards positioned on tidal boards throughout the swim course, taking head counts at the beginning and end of the swim are crucial.

Pool-based swims provide challenges, as well.

In May, Fort Bliss baptized its new Bliss Aquatics Training Center with the base's 3rd Annual Armed Forces Day Triathlon - one of two triathlons the base holds each year.

Sports director Aaron Jones, a veteran of triathlon planning, who approaches such races with a sense of calm, a focus on safety and an eye toward fiscal efficiency and organization, also looks forward to some predictable and unpredictable race challenges.

One common problem is racers who overestimate their swim ability on their entry application.

"The inexperienced triathlete and/or swimmer, however you want to look at it, ends up on his back … in the middle lane and struggling just to get from one end to another," he says. It can cause a traffic jam among experienced swimmers in the somewhat narrow pool lanes.

But that's just the first event. With bike speeds at 30 mph on a straightaway and sometimes more than 40 mph on a downhill, safety takes on a whole new meaning. Jones stationed half of his 80 race volunteers along the 15-mile sprint-distance bike course in May.

"The bike route is the route that scares me the most all the time because you've got bikes and cars," he says, noting that the base does not close down roads to vehicular traffic during a race. "It only takes that one person who doesn't pay attention." It also makes coordination with the base director of emergency services critical.

Hupp adds that medical personnel are extremely important to the bike leg. She also emphasizes pre-race preparation, with a detailed accounting and marking of all potholes and road obstacles. As well as a bike check for all participants - from brakes and helmets to other safety issues.

"Nothing's worse than being skewered by a handlebar with an open end," she says.

Even with 5K and 10K experience, the run portion of a triathlon is a different animal for race planners. For starters, racers are tired by the time they start running.

"You want to make sure that [the course] is well marked, that you have volunteers on the course [and] that your bike course and your run course never cross paths," Hupp says.

And hydration? For temperatures above 70 degrees: a minimum of three cups of water per each race participant per water stop, says Hupp, with at least a midpoint water station in a 5K and a stop every two miles in a 10K.

Finally, don't forget base policies. Even seemingly innocuous issues can emerge on race day: "If it's open to civilians and its starting on civilian property but running onto military property … make sure that they can run with fanny packs and hydration systems," Hupp says.

The concerns might seem endless, and there's no way to anticipate every eventuality. So, expect the unexpected in a triathlon, and always err on the side of safety. It can be the difference between a serious and irreversible outcome and a simple, teachable moment to apply to the next race.

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