Whether it’s a local sprint race, or a full IRONMAN, putting on a multi-sport event takes leadership, teamwork, and lots and lots of water, bananas, and energy gels! Logistical tasks like designing a good course, getting plans approved by the city, and recruiting volunteers don’t happen by accident. All the moving parts come together under the watchful eye of the Race Director. On today’s episode, IRONMAN race director Greg Pennington joins host Andrew Harley and coach John Mayfield for a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to create a magical race experience.
TriDot Podcast .092 BEHIND THE SCENES WITH AN IRONMAN RACE DIRECTOR Intro: This is the TriDot podcast. TriDot uses your training data and genetic profile, combined with predictive analytics and artificial intelligence to optimize your training, giving you better results in less time with fewer injuries. Our podcast is here to educate, inspire, and entertain. We’ll talk all things triathlon with expert coaches and special guests. Join the conversation and let’s improve together. Andrew Harley: Thanks so much for joining the TriDot podcast today! Really excited for our conversation. We'll get a glimpse of the inner workings of the race experience from a seasoned race director. We are very familiar with navigating race week as athletes, sherpas, and spectators, but what is race week like for the race director? Today we'll hear all about it as we're joined by Greg Pennington. Greg has over two decades of experience as a race director, and currently serves as the RD for Ironman Texas, Ironman 70.3 Texas, Oilman, Ironman Waco, and 70.3 Waco. When he isn't race directing, he works a variety of Ironman events every year, coordinating the bike and run courses, and on top of all that, he is a five-time Ironman finisher himself. Greg, welcome to the show! Greg Pennington: Thanks, happy to be here with you guys! I haven't done this before with you guys, but happy to get with it. We do some of that stuff through Ironman, with some of the promotional stuff, getting ready for the races. Andrew: Long-time race director, first-time podcaster, we're good with that. Also joining Greg and I today is TriDot coach John Mayfield. John is a USAT Level II and Ironman U certified coach who leads TriDot's athlete services, ambassador, and coaching programs. He has coached hundreds of athletes ranging from first-timers to Kona qualifiers and professional triathletes. John has been using TriDot since 2010 and coaching with TriDot since 2012. John, are you excited to talk to Greg today? Now John – I'm interrupting you already – you've actually raced several of Greg's races, is that correct? John Mayfield: Yeah, I was thinking back earlier that I've raced every distance of triathlon under Greg's tutelage. Sprint, Olympic, half, full, I've done them all with Greg Pennington as race director, and a lot of those go back to my early days in racing the local sprints and Olympics, and then when I distanced up to the halves and fulls, Greg was there for all of them. I can personally vouch he does a fantastic job, puts on a great race, so I'm excited to get to have him on the podcast. Greg: You survived to tell about it. John: I've survived them all so far. Andrew: Which means you did your job correctly as race director. My one Greg Pennington race was 70.3 Waco, the inaugural one. That's the one race I've done that you were race director. So thanks for a good experience; it went as well as it could have, I think. And now we're all here. Well I'm Andrew the Average Triathlete, Voice of the People and Captain of the Middle of the Pack. As always we'll roll through our warmup question, settle in for our main set conversation, and then wind things down with our cooldown. Lots of good stuff, let's get to it! Warm up theme: Time to warm up! Let’s get moving. Andrew: Whether it's a TV show, sports coverage, a live stage event, or a race production, the host announcer or MC of an event often sets the tone for the crowd and ensures the event runs smoothly. Greg, John, for our warmup question today: if you could select any famous entertainer, sportscaster, newscaster, or celebrity to MC your next race event, who would you pick and why? Greg, you're the veteran here, you have the expertise. If you could choose anyone anywhere to MC your next race event as race director, who would you want on the microphone? Greg: All right, that's an easy pick for me. I'm a long-time Parrothead, and I would be picking Jimmy Buffet to be my MC. Have a little music action to it. He's got a ton of anecdotal stories about life, everything, and I'm a Parrothead. I'd go with Jimmy. Andrew: Do you think he'd be too low‑key to pump up the crowed at an Ironman, or do you think he'd get into the action and really get everybody going? Greg: Oh, if you've been to some of his concerts, he gets after it. John: So a little side note here, Greg actually hosted a fantastic half-distance triathlon at a Margaritaville resort, which is a premiere race at a premiere location. It is fantastic. A couple years ago they remodeled an existing facility into Margaritaville. It is a super cool place, it is a super cool race, and it is a super cool place to have a race, so put that one on your list. Oilman Triathlon every fall, put on by Greg Pennington. I guess that's Greg combining his love of triathlon and Jimmy Buffet. Greg: I wish I could take credit for them putting that on their list. John: Because the race predates Margaritaville. Greg: Oh yeah. They got the license for it, and so all week long you're in the restaurants and the hotel, and they're piping Jimmy Buffet music in, and I feel like it's heaven. John: Yeah, it's a super cool event. Andrew: I'm happy for you, Greg. I'm glad you have that, I really, really am. Now I need to come race this event one of these days. John: Absolutely. Greg: You do. You go upstairs in your room, look out over everything, and then walk downstairs and you're right in the middle of the action. Andrew: John Mayfield, coming to you with this question : if you could choose any MC for your next race event, who would you want on the microphone? John: So full disclosure, I didn't even know the name, and he's one of those guys that most people probably don't know the name, but they know him. In addition to being a fan of triathlon, I'm also a fan of boxing. Especially probably 10, 20 years ago when boxing was still somewhat in its prime, but Michael Buffer is the man who starts all the marquee fights. We all know his tagline, "Let's get ready to rumble!" Andrew: Oh, THAT guy! John: I thought it'd be super cool to get that going before Ironman, get everybody there, and it's only appropriate as we head into these open water swims, that it's a lot like a boxing match or wrestling fight. So we're definitely getting ready to rumble. I think he would be a fantastic MC to kick off a race. Andrew: Okay. For me on this, I thought of a lot of different things, but there's a TV show that I watch that I enjoy, American Ninja Warrior. You guys ever watch that show on television? Fun show. I used to follow it a little bit closer than I do now, but the hosts of that show, Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbajabilamila, they are fantastic on the microphone for that show. Because here's the thing, essentially every single run on American Ninja Warrior – for folks who haven't seen that show, it's an obstacle course competition, very fit people taking on a very difficult obstacle course that it takes a lot of strength to get through – these guys are commentating for their entire run. So the course is always the same, the athletes are always doing the same thing. In one episode, in one season, you'll watch 50, 60, 70 different runs on this same obstacle course, and the result is always the same: they either make it through the obstacle course, or they fall into the water. Those are the two variations that could possibly happen when an athlete takes on this course. And somehow Matt and Akbar make it so scintillating and interesting and fascinating to watch. They get jazzed up and fired up by every single run as if they've never seen an American Ninja Warrior run before, and that's the kind of energy I want on the microphone late at night when athletes are coming home to the finish line, acting like that athlete is the biggest deal in the world, even though you've just called a hundred other athletes just before it. So I think they would be fantastic at Ironman or at any triathlon event, because frankly I've seen them do it on American Ninja Warrior time and time again. That's my pick. We're going to throw this question out like we always do to our Facebook community, so if you are not a part of the I Am TriDot Facebook group, we have thousands of athletes there talking swim bike and run every single week. Go to the group today and find this question: who would you want on the microphone as the MC of your next race event? Let's see what you have to say! Main set theme: On to the main set. 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Learn how by heading to TriBikeTransport.com and as a friend of the podcast, use coupon code TriDotPod for $25 off your next booking. Andrew: Whether it's a local sprint or a full-blown Ironman, putting on a multisport event takes leadership, teamwork, and lots and lots of water, bananas, and energy gels. Logistical tasks like designing a good course, getting plans approved by the city, and recruiting volunteers doesn't happen by accident, and for any successful event, all of the moving parts come together under the watchful eye of the race director making it all happen on our, the athletes', behalf. So Greg, there is a lot that goes into producing a quality race. We have some great talking points today about the inner workings of race production. But before we get to that, I want to hear how you became a race director in the first place. I understand you got your start at the local level in an effort to raise money for a non‑profit. Take us back in time and tell us about all that. Greg: All right. I'm gonna go back to Houston and about 1990. I'd done some triathlons up in the Dallas/Oklahoma area for a couple years and came down and started competing, and then I started work in the non‑profit world, and then started working for a non‑profit. I had to raise 50 percent of my package or salary through fundraising, and trying to do that writing letters to friends and all of that kind of stuff. Andrew: An interesting way to do life for a little while. Greg: Yeah, it can get old, and you can get tired of asking. So I was able to talk to Dave Raney. He was kind of the king of triathlons in the Houston area, the godfather you might say. He's been around a long, long time, helped write some stuff for USAT back in the day, back when it was called TriFit I think, back then. Then I started talking to him, and he said, "Hey, I got a place you can race direct. I'll help you, and that can be a fundraiser for you." So there had been the Tejas Triathlon for a year or two, run by a community center leader down there, and he left and moved. So it kind of died for about a year or two, so I resurrected that. I was the young Jedi to Dave Raney, and learned the business from him. That's how I got started. Andrew: Very cool. So fast-forward to now, and you are the RD for some of the biggest races in the United States. From where you sit now, when you think back to those early years, doing those local races that you produced, what are some of the memories that stand out for you? Greg: That I barely made it. Some of those races were nip and tuck at times, trying to get stuff done. I remember having a volunteer putting out cones on the bike course, getting a call from the police coordinator saying, "There's not enough cones out here," and having to jet out in my Suburban and watching the lead guy, staying ahead of him, putting extra cones down on the road. I think I burned up my transmission on that race doing that. That was definitely an early memory there. You know, it was grassroots back then, more so than now, and all the race directors helped each other out. They'd come out – Andy Stewart, Kevin and Janna Landry, Dave Raney – they'd come out and help at your races, and were a big support back then when you're trying to do it. I think setting up transition areas with orange fencing that usually is at construction zones, times not having enough of that and having people lay down their bikes in the grass, and – Andrew: Just to help form that barricade? Greg: Yes. That was definitely some of the early years for that. I think the camaraderie of those race directors was really big in making it all work. Low budget, no frills. If you had some signs out, you really needed to know the courses back then. You're expected to know them now, but back then you really did, otherwise you could get lost with that, because there'd be just a little stick arrow or something in the ground and that was it. I remember back then, no GPS to speak of. At least I couldn't afford it, however expensive it was, so we used the golf laser range finders to measure from buoy to buoy until you got your distance for yardage, and then basically you're just using an odometer on your bicycle to map out the bike and run course. Yeah, on the bike course you could use your car odometer for that one, and so if you were within a mile you were good enough on that puppy. Andrew: These days athletes want it so precise like, "Oh, I was 15.5, you said 15!" Greg: Yes, I love the swim remarks about that, because when you watch the swim and you see all the snakes around there… Andrew: Everybody zig-zagging. Greg: Yeah, they're going at least a quarter mile long. Andrew: And they tell you how wrong your course was. Greg: Yeah, well give me ten GPSs that are anywhere close to the same. We can't even do that when we're measuring with GPS as staff with our events, none of them are the same. So we're just kind of getting a mean or median on that thing, and going for it. We don't do the runs where you have to certify those courses, and have to have those guys on the bicycles with the Jones counters getting it nailed down. They say that's the only way that you can really truly know, because of the vectors and the tangents that you're having to do with that. John: Yeah, over 26 miles it makes a big difference in what you do. We talk about that even in executions, is hitting those tangents and shorten the course, making the course as short as possible. But when it comes to certifying and knowing what distance your course is, that's part of it. It's different whether you hit those tangents, or take them wide, and depending on the race, it could be crowded and you may not have the opportunity to take that most inside track. Andrew: To see how far it's come and hear from as a race director, how far the sports come, what were some of the differences of races back then versus the races you put on today? Greg: Again, just more low-budget, low frills with that. If you got water, that was great. You weren't getting your choice of liquids and all of that out there. You hope there was a volunteer at the cooler, putting some stuff out there. John: None of the buffets that we're accustomed to these days. Greg: Correct, yes. I think that was the big thing. And I think of all the guys back then wearing Speedos. Andrew: I'm not brave enough. Greg: That's what we all wore back then. I look at the pictures like, "Golly, I looked pretty good in that Speedo then. I'm not wearing it now." Andrew: So over the years, you were doing a lot of local events in Houston. How did you get connected to Ironman to start producing races for Ironman? Greg: That happened through a connection back when Keith Jordan, who was with Endorphin Sports, started race directing up in the New Hampshire area with Timberman and Mooseman, I think were his. Then he moved to Texas, and he started the Galveston Lone Star Triathlon Festival, then the Austin Tri, and then I got connected with him and was working a little bit as a volunteer for about a year. Then he sold all those races to Ironman, and then I got connected to Ironman through that. I was hoping to be the race director for Galveston, and that didn't happen, but the consolation prize was, "Hey, do you want to be the volunteer director for that?" and I said okay. Get my foot in the door that way. Then at the same time they were getting ready to start Ironman Texas, so I was the inaugural volunteer director for that race as well. Then the RD for those races moved back to Tampa in about three years, and he was looking to do that, and so I was kind of following him around to meetings and learning the Ironman system of how they do things, going to the agency meetings and all of that, so it was a pretty quick changeover to take over for that. Andrew: So how does it work being an RD? I think as an athlete you show up to a race, you understand there's a lot of moving parts, a lot of things going on. For folks that are race directors, is this a full-time gig, or is this something seasonal, that when your race is coming up you start working on it, but you have another job along the way? How does it work professionally being an RD? Greg: I think from a local standpoint, most RDs have other jobs to do. They may have a run store, bike store, teacher, and this is just something that's a hobby and that they take on. Unless you're going to try to race direct ten events over the course of a year, it's hard to really make a living doing that. Andrew: So for you when you first started, it supplemented your income working for the non‑profit. Greg: Correct, yeah, for about ten years, and then I started my own non‑profit and had to raise money for that, and that was getting to be a struggle, and so when I was able to latch onto Ironman, then I was able to get a little bit more of a regular-type salary to kind of make ends meet and still do some of my own stuff as well. Andrew: You and I were actually talking before we started recording. When we were setting up the recording equipment here in the room, we were talking about how, like you just mentioned, you've got the races you produce, which we mention in your intro, Ironman Texas, Ironman Waco and 70.3 Waco, as well as 70.3 Galveston for Ironman, and from there you'll pick, like you just said, a few events around the year. How do you decide, when you're looking at the Ironman schedule, and there's so many 70.3s, and there's the dozen or so full-distance Ironman here in North America, how do you decide which races you want to go and work at for the ones you're involved in that aren't the ones you're a race director for? Greg: Sure.I'm probably like a lot of athletes out there, especially if you're from Texas you want to go somepl ace cooler for the most part. You want to try something that's a little less flat to go to, so I usually head north. Again, west, northeast, to get out of the heat. I like to pick the picturesque places, so I like Coeur D'Alene, I like Lake Placid. Back when they had Lake Stevens up near Seattle, that was an amazing venue place. Boise, Idaho, of course Boulder, you know, the ones that are all some of those top of the bucket list places. Those are all great ones to work. Maryland, you just name all those places and, "Hey, I want to work that," and be around there, and enjoy places I've never been to before, so it's not like it's a vacation, but I get to do some of the night life stuff. Andrew: It's like a work-cation? Greg: Yes. It is, yeah. John: And that's very much similar to, we've talked about before when we do all these trips, it's a lot of work, and we're on those, but all those places you mentioned I love, and I miss some of those spots. Like, I always enjoyed going to Boulder every year. I hate that that race isn't happening anymore, but it was just a great opportunity to go and see a new place and experience it, and what I do as a coach is obviously different as what Greg does as a race director, but definitely that same sentiment of, "Which races are we going to go to?" Are we going to go to the ones that we want to go to? Are we going to pick those first and then we'll kind of filter down those that are maybe a little less desirable? But they're all great, and I always say, they each have their own personality, they have their own culture. Especially with Ironman, no two races are the same. They're the same distance, but that's almost where the similarities end. They each have their own personality. So it's really cool to go and see all those and experience not only the race, but just the local culture and the local sights and all that is great. I would say too, it's like the places I've gone to, I most likely would have never gone to Chattanooga, Tennessee. "Why would you?" kind of a thing, but it's a gem of a little city, and there's a hundred of those around, so it's just a great opportunity to kind of get off the beaten path, whether it's your job or it's your hobby. Andrew: It takes a lot of people to put together a good race. So specifically, what is the role of the race director? What are your responsibilities? Greg: I could talk about it in two different ways. Once, I'm a local race director, and you're the race director, and you're the chief bottle washer, and you're doing all those other things that you have a lot of support people at Ironman doing. So you typically have a group of about five to ten people that are volunteers that are good friends that you kind of coerce into helping you put together that race, and so you're helping teach them and train them during that week, and hoping that they're listening to you and following your instructions for that to complete the event in terms of – Andrew: So this is the local level. Greg: At the local level, yes. On the Ironman side, you're more of a race conductor, especially on race week. Your preparation is the same for either one. There's a scale to it of course, that ramps up dramatically for Ironman races, but it's still the same, it's swim-bike-run and what's related to that. Permits, you need a permit for a local race like you do for an Ironman race. All that stuff, it's just a number of athletes, a number of staff and all that. So there's anywhere from 50 to 75 folks that fly in that either work full-time or are contractors for Ironman, many of which are fellow race directors. So on your bike team, let's say you've got four staff people, three of those four are Ironman race directors on there. So you can give them a map and turn them loose, and you know it's going to be dialed in. There's a trust factor that's there. Again, they're doing it week-to-week, race-to-race. Sometimes we call ourselves carnies, because you're just loading up, going to the next race, unloading it, doing it again, packing up and leaving again. So you just get it dialed in, and again that trust factor is the same. You've got usually three to four staff on the swim, three to four on the bike, three or four on the run. You've got registration coordinators, finish line coordinators, all your build-out crews, your merchandise people, your truck folks with the supply areas that are getting all the shipments in the week before, food, all those different things that are coming in, awards, everything that's come in. UPS, We're very good friends with UPS, FedEx, coming in the week before. Andrew: I believe it.I bet you are. Greg: Orders, forklifts, gators – Andrew: Port-a-potties. Greg: Port-a-potties, yes. Dumpsters, ice, all those things at a scale that's a lot different than on a local level. Andrew: Random question. Approximately how many port-a-potties are at an Ironman race event? Greg: A hundred to 200, I would say. You've got some, when you've got your point-to-point places, you probably get up to 250, 300 portos, so I'm just getting my stuff ready for the Waco festival weekend, and we're at 250. Andrew: Wow. So Greg, just walk us through the process of putting on one of these races. You know, we've kind of gotten a glimpse from you of logistically all the things that go into it. We've gotten a glimpse of the team and the support staff you have under you to have it all come together, and then some of the equipment that it takes, the amount of port-a-potties even that it takes. Just timeline-wise, as you're working towards an event, how does it all play out? Greg: Sure. I'll stick with the Ironman races, just to keep it similar in a sense for that with you guys. Usually about 6 months out, typically you've got the date already set that Ironman has taken care of through the host venue agreement that they have with whatever city or group that you're working with. So you already know the date. So backing up six months, I'll start agency meetings with police, city folks, parks and rec, whoever's involved with some of those gatekeepers with the decision-making process. Andrew: Are they usually very open and excited for Ironman to come, or is it kind of like pulling teeth to get them amped up for it, or what's usually the reception there? Greg: For the most part, they're excited. Andrew: Okay, very cool. Greg: Occasionally you'll get some folks that have to get dragged into it because they're in charge of the police, and they don't really want to be doing that kind of thing, but that's their job, so they'll be a part of it, so you'll have to work your magic as a race director and a facilitator – Andrew: And get them excited. Greg: And a politician, yeah, take them out to lunch. John: Just tell them what the economic impact is going to be, and then they probably get a little more excited. Greg: They do get a little bit excited. So that's how we get started, is starting those all-agency meetings. Then from there you start placing some early orders to getting some of the equipment. You've got to get dialed in then, way ahead of time, so that those places like United Rentals has enough light towers. Sometimes we'll have 40 light towers an event, and then ten UTV carts and ten forklifts and all those things that you have to get squared away. You have to get them done. You can't be waiting a month in advance and they say, "We don't have them." Then I'm in trouble, big time. So a lot of that's going on. Course work, it depends on if you're just getting started a brand new event, that's definitely a lot of course work. Lots of driving, lots of measuring, lots of talking to people, having police officers go with you on drive-bys. Andrew: Did you do a lot of that yourself? Greg: Yes. Yeah. If it's your race, you're doing all that yourself. You're creating the race, you're creating the scope of it, and the courses for that. So you're doing that. Now if it's an established event, hopefully you're just being able to push the redial button on that. Sometimes you get curve balls, especially with construction and things that come up where it's just like, "Oops," where you can't do that, and you have to do a workaround, and then if it's a loop course – out and back's always easy to do, but it's the loop courses that try to get it dialed in to 13.1 or 26.2 or 56, the 112, that make it pretty tough to get it dialed in exactly. Andrew: So if there's ever just a really random diversion just, like, halfway down a street and back – Greg: That's it, we call it the mileage grab, yeah. The little out and back. Andrew: The mileage grab. So it even has a term, John. It has a name. John: So you can think of what it is, "This is a mileage grab I'm doing right now, this random out and back." Greg: Yeah, why the hell am I going a quarter mile up and a quarter mile back, that's why. For that. There's one of those at Waco, I think maybe the second year, where you went past the suspension bridge a hundred yards and then turned around and came back. John: People thought they were lost or something, "Why am I doing this?" Yeah. Then you look at your watch and you know why. Greg: Yeah. That was it. Andrew: Interesting. Greg: Yeah, that part of it, your course development stuff, again, working with your local folks to get your venues, whether it's parking lots, where you're going to set transition, whether that's a park or something, you've got to get those venue agreements and get your certificates of insurance are always fun. The language that they want in those certificates of insurance, it usually goes back and forth. Andrew: I can imagine. Greg: Legal department, they want this phrase in there, and otherwise they're not going to give you that venue. So there's lots of different features on that. Again, it depends on if it's a full, if you're having to deal with a banquet or welcome reception, you've got to find those places to work with. A big component that I haven't talked about yet is the volunteers. At a local race there's definitely plenty of volunteers, and we've done a great job with our races in finding those volunteers and being able to keep them from year to year. You're able to give donations to those volunteer groups and keep them coming back. Ironman's the same way, is there's a volunteer director. So I have three great volunteer directors that I work with in Galveston and Ironman Texas and Waco, and you rely on those folks and work with them a lot to get to the number of volunteers you need: sometimes a thousand, sometimes two thousand volunteers with anywhere form 40 to 60 volunteer groups that you're working with to take care of the athletes. I know a lot of athletes recognize that over the course of their time as well, but they don't just magically appear. So there's lots of meetings, there's lots of training that goes on to get them to the spot where they're actually out there handing you water or telling you to turn this way. Andrew: Where do those groups come from? Is it just organizations, or – Greg: Different organizations, school groups, church groups, Boy Scout groups, clubs, school clubs even, National Honor Society. Yeah, we leave no stone unturned to try to find those volunteer groups. In Ironman Florida, they've got three or four senior adult groups that come out to work registration. Andrew: That makes sense in that area of the country, yes. John: There are some neat stories there of folks that have been doing it almost from the beginning, and they're 20, 21 years in now, and there are people who have been there every year checking in athletes at Ironman Florida. I want to say I recall from an athlete dinner, they had them talking about some of those volunteers they've had just for years and years and years. That's the lifeblood of – Greg: Their key coordinator there, her name's Mugsy. Ben Rausa talks about Mugsy quite a bit down there. Yeah, so you're recruiting all over trying to find those folks, and try to get them a fit for the number of folks they have, their timeframe for what they can volunteer for, and the spot. You're not going to get a senior adult group handing out water bottles on the bike course, but they've got their spot in registration, which you need. Because a lot of times you can't get school groups to get out there on a Thursday or Friday during the day; they're in class and everything. So it's just matching it up with those groups. You've got those key areas that people like to do, the wetsuit stripping and the finish line catchers and all that kind of stuff. I digressed a little bit there, but in terms of my role as a race director, that's a huge area for me, of finding the volunteers and working with the volunteer director to make sure that happens, and to help her do her job. Andrew: So the race finishes, it's over – what's the pack-up procedure? Is there a lot involved in the post-race in terms of what you do? Greg: There is. Again, not necessarily me, but the staff, depending on where you are and how quickly you have to vacate the premises. In Ironman Texas we have to get off of that street by the next morning, so we're having to move the portos, the finish line, the structures, the soft fencing, the barricades, the trash, all that stuff by 6:00 a.m. the next morning to get things ready there. And the courses are the same, your crew is out there picking up tape arrows, and signs and markers, and all that stuff. Buoys out in the water, doing all that course wrapping up through the day there. Then you've got the nighttime crew that are out there cleaning stuff up. I'm fortunate to be able to head towards the rack at about 2:00 a.m. on a full Ironman, and then be able to get up at 7:00 and start going again the next day. But they work in shifts, and so a lot of them, if they're doing the overnight shift, they'll have taken a 6‑hour break the day before. But typically for me, it's 2:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. on race day for a full. Andrew: So from everything we just talked about, everything that you have to oversee, and everything that has to come together for a race to happen and to succeed, what's maybe the most difficult part of a race coming together? Is it the course, is it getting the approvals from the local government? What's usually the most difficult part of putting on a race? Greg: Could be a combination of that. It's definitely the local agencies and getting everybody on board, and staying on board from year to year for that, as agency leads and coordinators can change from year to year, is to make sure that happens. Then I think again the coursework can just depend on whether you're having to change all of that. We've had some interesting things at Ironman Texas with our different courses, and that has been very challenging with our bike course over the years. It's the behind-the-scenes stuff that athletes don't get to see much of, and at times have some frustrations related to that, especially not getting maps in advance as much as they would want to, when we very much would love to have those maps to them six to nine months in advance if we could. Andrew: So we need to know it's never the race director that is withholding the maps from us athletes. Greg: That's correct. Now I could blame it on Ironman Central at times, but it's typically folks outside of our control when that's happening, to get that final approval from that city official or that county official, or even sometimes a state official to make it happen. With Ironman Texas, a crazy race, we'll talk about that in probably a little while in terms of what are the crazy times you've experienced, but having to deal with Union Pacific Railroad, and having to pull in a United States congressman to help get the approval for that. Like, "We never stop our trains. We never stop them." We're like "Well, we really need you to." Andrew: Please just once? Greg: And so we had to pull in the heavy hitter, and we were able to get it done. Now we had to pay their union flaggers to come out to work the race for those spots, but it happened. So I'd say those are some of the key things. Andrew: So once all those preparations are in place, I'm sure you're keeping an eye on the weather heading up to race day, just as much if not more so than we the athletes are. Once the big day finally arrives, what does race day itself look like for you? Greg: Typically, it's a 2:00 to 3:00 a.m. wakeup call if it's one I'm the race director, if I'm up. Andrew: That's earlier than we wake up usually for races, as athletes. Greg: Yes. Yeah, because our bike course, a lot of times they starting rolling out about 2:00 a.m. to go set the bike course to get ready for a 6:00 a.m. start at some races there. And usually the command center opens up about 4:00 a.m. with our radios, but before then, you're just double-checking on stuff, making sure all your folks are starting to arrive. Again, with Ironman, you've got quality professional folks that are doing that, so you're not having to go do a wakeup for them because they haven't shown up at a particular spot, they're where they're supposed to be when they need to be there, and are already started working. I talked about earlier, you are like a conductor of an orchestra, and so you're just fine tuning things throughout the day, and you're working with this group right here, the flutes right here, and then you get the trombones, and then you hit the bass in the back for the start pistol thing, get going. So you're really just working with all those different folks. You're working with the police coordinator on that to be ready for an on‑time start. You've got to know that all the police are out there, so you're talking to him throughout the early morning to make sure of that. Your water safety folks as well – do you have the boats, do you have the resources, the kayaks, the lifeguards, the dive boat, all those things in place again for an on‑time start. Your volunteers in transition to be able to body mark and get everybody to their places to go. So typically, it's just your bouncing, you're multitasking – Andrew: You're just on a walkie talkie all day long? Greg: Yes, and then your cell phone and the walkie talking, both. Yes. Constantly. So yeah, you're multitasking all over the place and trying to appear calm when inside you might not be feeling that about that, when folks are asking, "Yeah, is it gonna happen?" Oh yeah, it's happening, and you're listening to the radio and your bike guy's out there saying, "We're missing cones!" out there. John: "There's no way this is happening!" Greg: Yes, and it always does, you know. Then you get the weather issues at times, so that could be another question. Andrew: So with all the multitude of races by now that you've overseen, I'm sure you've seen it all. What are some of the more unusual occurrences you've encountered in your time as a race director? Greg: I think where there have been events where there have been some curveballs or surprises where I'd worked races where some homework didn't get done, and there's trains that are crossing over, and so you're having to stop athletes and try to create time elements to be able to then deduct time off their race time at the end of the race. That's definitely one. I think storms, of course, are always interesting ones. Andrew: Which you've dealt with in Galveston aplenty. Greg: Yes. Galveston there, Ironman Texas was probably, we call it the crazy years. John: That's the one that immediately came to mind, I thought that was going to be your immediate answer, was the storm at Ironman Texas. Greg: Yes, and the crazy year, that was also when we had issues with the bike course in trying to get the 112 miles, and we thought we had it using the Spring Creek trail for that, and then the flood hit and we lost the 15 miles. John: Just days before the race, a section of the road was washed out right? Greg: Correct, yeah. The flood, it was still under water on race week there, and having to do a 97‑mile bike that had 95 turns that some of our staff were flying in for the race saying, "Somebody's gonna die." Just with so many turns, it was crazy. And then you add in that storm that happened, and again you're trying to recreate times for everybody with that and get the race restarted. John: So the storm was a hell of a storm. It was a front that came in, it was actually a pretty typical, I believe it was still in May back then – Greg: Yeah, a spring storm. John: – so the day, it heated up as it does in Texas in the spring, and this storm came largely out of nowhere, so it went from a hot afternoon, all of a sudden the sky turns black, and it starts to rain, it starts to thunder. So the Ironman Texas is in a semi-urban area with a bunch of parking garages, and I just remember the thunder being so loud and so close the buildings were shaking, all the car alarms were being set off because the thunder was so intense. And then the hail started, and there are still athletes out there on the course. I mean in the driving rain you could hardly see the athletes out there. Andrew: So this isn't just race day, this is in the middle of the race. John: The middle of the marathon. I'm bunkered down in a parking garage with all the car alarms going off trying to just see through, and the rain is coming down sideways in quintessential Texas weather fashion, then the hail starts. That Ironman Texas is a three-loop course, it's somewhere around 8½ miles per loop, so there's athletes spread out over 8½ miles, and to communicate somehow that the race needs to be paused, because now there's frozen ice falling from the sky, and pretty good size, you know. There are some legit golf ball-sized hail falling, so you can't just leave people out there to run when Armageddon is approaching. So that's kind of like what Greg was referring to as the storm. But then the race was paused, and then kind of in true Texas weather fashion it just moved on and turned into a lovely spring afternoon. So then the race had to be restarted. Greg: Wherever those athletes were. John: Yeah, which obviously is a little bit of a logistical challenge to – Greg: Yes, the timing people earned their living that day trying to help recreate some times, and from what I've been told they were really good at getting those times back for those folks. Because they were stopping people at aid stations and holding them there. You had athletes say, "I'm not stopping," and keep running. Again, parking garages like you said, restaurants, you name it. You're getting out of the weather, or trying to stop them and do all that. So that's probably the race that comes to mind for craziness. John: And then a couple years later, the big storm in Galveston that shut down everything. Greg: Yes, on the run. We had probably 50 or 70 still on the bike course, trying to get them in. Andrew: John Mayfield was still on the run course. John: I was on the run course, and I had the thought that, "Oh my gosh, there's people out on the bike course." Because the wind kicked up, and I have no idea how strong the wind was, but it was at least 100 miles an hour, no exaggeration. Andrew: At least, yeah. John: Not at all exaggerating. It was at least 100 miles an hour. Greg will confirm that. Greg: Horizontal. Andrew: So Greg, that happens, that the weather rolls in, and both of those scenarios, as a race director, are you just doing the best you can in the moment to navigate that, or do you guys have some plans in place, some what-if scenarios in place on what to do if stuff like that happens? Greg: We do, we have those what-if plans, or weather contingency plans for if the swim has issues we've got a 30‑minute delay, 45‑minute delay. At a certain point you can't delay it anymore and still keep the timelines and still work with the city folks and the police and all that to make that happen, so then it rolls to a no‑swim, and then a time-trial bike start, all those kinds of things. Then the weather stuff, part of our emergency action plan has to deal with where are those shelters that you have for the swim, bike, and run. Where are you directing your people to go to for that as well. So that's what we're doing. One of our main key guys that was in Galveston, he basically caught the clock that was starting to fall down there. I think he kept it from hitting some people there, so they still talk about that one as well. But yeah, we've got the weather contingencies in place. We've got what we call the crazy contingencies in place just because of crazy stuff that happens out in the world these days as we know, whether it's shootings or bombs and all that kind of stuff. We're putting all of our emergency action plans in place. We have to have that in place to be able to work with the city on that, because you're having those agency meetings with those folks and they're asking, "Okay, what if this happens? What if that happens?" And so you have had to do your homework in order to go over with them. They've got all their people in place that of course the athlete doesn't see, whether it's bomb dogs or all those things that are going out there that nobody really sees. John: It's great for us to know that that exists. I mean, we all know what happened at the Boston Marathon, so I mean, we are subject to that, we're not immune to that, but it's great to know that those procedures are in place, and that is being taken care of and watched out for. Greg: Sure. Yeah, the water barricades that are out there, fire trucks that they'll place in front of streets so that somebody can't come through with a truck. Some are Budget trucks; police will borrow those if we got two or three extras to help blockade some stuff, and again they've gone through all their training as well for those type of events. John: So we think it's just a truck parked on the side of the road, but in reality it's serving a strategic purpose. Greg: Yeah, it's in the way almost for an athlete, but there's a gap there you've got to run through, but it also means that a car can't get through there as well. So those extra things. Andrew: So athletes, when you're out there and you see those trucks, just give them a quick little salute and keep on running. So Greg, many athletes in our audience, pretty much all the athletes in our audience probably, were affected at some point by race postponements and cancellations due to COVID-19. It was a tough year for the sport all around, and I'm sure race organizers and race directors were just as gutted by the lack of racing as we were as athletes. Just talk briefly what it was like navigating the pandemic as a race director. Greg: Beyond frustration would be the key word there. Trying to figure out how you're supposed to make it happen within the COVID protocols and all that, getting the stuff from USAT, and then Ironman had their global team working on documents that we were going to be utilizing for that, and having learned all those things and then implementing those with taped spots on the ground, and extra barricades, and going from ten bikes to a rack to four and five bikes to a rack, and expanding your zone even more. All those different things. Very frustrating seeing that, doing the work for the event, and for it then to be canceled and postponed. Andrew: So you felt that just like we felt that. Greg: I did. I basically produced five races last year because of Ironman Texas not happening in the spring, and then moving to Waco and not happening there. For Galveston not happening in the spring, and then not happen in the fall, and then Waco not happening. I basically, in a sense, other than race week, produced five events and none of them happened. Andrew: Yeah, geez. John: That's a whole lot of work with nothing to show for it, but from the athletes and you as the race director, it's the same thing. Greg: Yeah. Yeah, so you're frustrated, you've done all that work, and then you end up spending all the time cancelling all the orders, and all the time you had spent all that time before, and of course you don't get any extra pay for that as well, so you just get to grin and bear it.So I understand as the athlete, frustrated, and at times I think there was not-on-purpose lack of communication that happened over the course of the year. And again, there's behind-the-scenes stuff that's happening that a lot of people don't see, whether you're trying to get a new permit together for something, or dealing with the authorities of whatever state or location that you're in. Are they going to give you permission to have the race during COVID? At Waco we thought we had it and we were planning for that, and then three weeks before the major just says, "I'm leaving here in two months, and if something goes bad I don't want that to be the last thing on my watch." So no, not going to be able to have it. Again, it's just frustrated beyond measure for that, as a race director. Andrew: Greg, none of your Ironman events happened this past year during COVID, but you did have Oilman, that was successful to happen, right? Is that normally a fall race? Greg: Yes, it is a fall race, I forgot about that. We were able to get that in in early November this past year, when everything else was going through the cracks there. It was exciting to do. McGovern County is an awesome place to have races, and they were kind of wide open last fall, and they said yeah, come in and do it. The resort was open to it, and we followed the COVID protocols, the masks, everything going on up there. Less bikes on the rack, we went six instead of eight, and we had about 400, 450 people. It was down from our normal numbers, but I was really excited to get in to race. I was a little worried about my volunteer groups with the COVID happening, but within a day all my volunteer groups signed up to work. They were ready to get back to – Andrew: So even they were ready to get back to racing. Greg: – to volunteering, yes. And raising money for their charities and all of that, so that was really exciting. Then you're hoping to build it, and the people come in terms of the racers, and again there were definitely quite a few folks that were wanting to get out there and race. Again for us, our thing is we think big and race local, in terms of how we do Oilman, so we feel like it's put on in a really big way out there at the resort. So yep, come this next November, come on to Oilman. Andrew: Greg, races are back. At this point in the year that we're recording this, all three of us have been to multiple races this year. You've already put on one stellar event in Galveston this year, and it's been so good seeing athletes back on course. I mean, just standing 0.2 miles from the finish line at Ironman Tulsa, just a little bit back, watching athletes that close to the finish line running through downtown Tulsa was just electrifying. Racing's back, it's better than ever, and we're all pumped about it. As a race director, what emotions go through you as you watch athletes out on course back at it, finishing races, and fulfilling their dreams? Greg: Well, you're excited for them. And you're excited for your fellow race director that's in Tulsa or whatever, that they've gotten to get to the completion of the finish line in a sense for them, because they have their own finish line as a race director of completing that themselves. So there's excitement about that, because you've sweated and bled with them at other races, and we talk on the phone at least twice a month with groups about that and going through our protocols, and what's the best thing, and give me some tips on that, and how can we make this happen given the COVID protocols. You know, you've got a lot more room in Galveston for your transition. At Hayne's City we've got this tiny little spot to work, so how do you make it work? We've been living it and breathing it with them along the way, so you're excited for them. You're excited for, "Okay, I'm going to be able to have a couple events in October" and being excited for that. You're excited that maybe you won't have to go through all the COVID protocols that you've built up for, and be able to do racing as usual in a sense, and I think we're working our way toward that. There are some little bits there, last two events I was with the last two weeks, a lot of that stuff has been rolled back in a sense, to tape arrows on the ground like they were previously. They're putting a few more people in transition than they had with the bike racks, you're not having to wear the mask to expo or those different places like we did in Galveston per se. It's all great to see, and hope that it continues. I think they're still dealing with some stuff for Placid I think, I think you're going to have to have a vaccine passport or something to do that race. There's a few out there I think that have some elements involved, but from what I've been told is we're looking toward the fall. I think it's going to be wide open in the good sense in terms of being able to bring back the wetsuit strippers and the bike handlers, and all those things that we're so accustomed to with the falls and other parts of that. Sun screen teams and etcetera on that. That's the direction that I've been given these last two weeks from some of the higher ups, so we're really excited about what we call business-as-usual, or for the athletes' pleasure as usual. Andrew: So Greg, my final question for the day. What would I have to do to get you to give me bib number 1 at Ironman Waco this year? Greg: Send me an email, say a prayer, and – John: I become the top-ranked professional male in the field? Greg: I'll see what I can do. Andrew: Is there a pro field? Greg: I don't know yet, actually. I believe there is for both of those races, but I’m not sure if it's, sometimes it's a male-only or female-only, I'm not sure yet for that. There had been special circumstances where folks have gotten bib numbers before. Andrew: I do not merit a special bib number. I'm mostly joking there. Just so you don't walk away from this thinking, "Aw, man, really??" Greg: Yes, it has happened, but it's pretty much just a very special occasion. John: As the self-proclaimed captain of the middle of the pack, he needs like 500 or something like that. Andrew: Yeah, that's more accurate. That's much better. Well, I’m excited to come race your event for sure. Greg: What I can probably do is have a say with a race official about that penalty that you might get over drafting and see if I can get it lessened. Andrew: Okay! This is good! This got me somewhere, John! Cool down theme: Great set everyone! Let’s cool down. Andrew: For our cooldown today, while we have Greg with us, I thought we could end the show by getting a few of his race recommendations. Greg, you travel all around the country working for Ironman events, and as a five-time Ironman finisher yourself you know a thing or two or three about what makes a great race course. So for all the athletes in the audience who are maybe scouting out their next event, maybe planning their next race season: if it were you, with all the venues you've been to over the years, what events would you be looking to sign up for if you were racing again next year? Greg: Sure. Besides the three venues that I race direct for, of course I would recommend those. Andrew: Because obviously those are standout events. Yes. Greg: Yes, yes. Well-done races for sure. Probably Lake Placid would be definitely. I would love to go and compete at that place right there. Andrew: Even with the crazy climbs and the mountains and the hills? Greg: Yes. Just the scenery is spectacular, the swim in Mirror Lake is unbelievable there as well. I did Louisville way back, the first year of that one. It's gone now, but that bike course was definitely challenging in parts, but so scenic out there with the horse farms and all of that. I have a partiality to Ironman Florida just because it's similar terrain to here, so those are all my best races time-wise. Gulf Coast is always a great spot. I'm trying to think of stuff that I would like to do. Probably Ironman Santa Rosa just for the wine country. I worked that one several times, so I got to stay a couple extra days and go to some of the wineries and everything, so I would have loved to have done that race, even though it was point-to-point. With that, just the bike race is amazing, and then that swim up there at the reservoir was cool. So I don't know what the Sacramento race is like just yet. Andrew: We'll all find out! We'll all see. We have Coach Jeff Raines from the TriDot group is doing that well, as well as many TriDot athletes, so I'm sure we'll hear tales about the inaugural Sacramento later this year. Greg: Yes. Andrew: Well, that's it for today, folks. I want to thank Race Director Greg Pennington for taking us behind the scenes of putting on a multisport race. Thanks of course for John Mayfield for joining the conversation as well, and a big thanks to TriBike Transport for partnering with us on today's episode. Head to TriBikeTransport.com and use coupon code TriDot25 to set up your bike transport for your next race. Enjoying the show? We'd love for you to leave us a rating and review on apple podcast to help our show find its way to new listeners. We'll do it all again soon, until then – happy training! Outro: Thanks for joining us. Make sure to subscribe and share the TriDot podcast with your triathlon crew. For more great tri content and community, connect with us on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Ready to optimize your training? Head to TriDot.com and start your free trial today! TriDot – the obvious and automatic choice for triathlon training.