So You Want To Be A Race Director?

Tracy Sundlun, founder of the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Series, says, "The day you’re not anxious about every detail is the day you gotta quit.” Photo:

It could be the most rewarding job you’ve ever had—if you survive.

Dave “Kahuna” Nicholas’ first rule for putting on events is this: People plan and plan, and God laughs. The inventor of Xterra off-road triathlons and 30-plus year veteran of directing events from lifeguard competitions to cycling’s world cup knows a thing or two about what goes on behind the race scenes. Being a race director isn’t always pretty.

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Take a triathlon that Nicholas put on 11 years ago in Washington. The swim was in the fast-flowing Columbia River. Nicholas had ensured the hydroelectric dam up stream would not operate during the race, but his request got bungled. The dam began operating mid-swim, creating currents of up to 10 knots. Luckily, all of the athletes were either rescued or completed the swim.

“Do not expect anything to go the way it’s supposed to, period,” Nicholas said. “But if you don’t plan and plan, then you don’t have time to take care of the stuff that inevitably goes wrong. If you plan for everything, you’re able to handle the stuff that doesn’t go right.”

Like when Nicholas measured the water temperature in Lake Michigan at a Milwaukee triathlon in 2008 and deemed the water too warm for wetsuits. Winds blew over the lake during the swim, churning up cold water from below and dropping the temperature to a very wetsuit-legal 60 degrees. Result: frozen athletes.

At this point, you might be thinking you should stick to putting on running-only races, like Tracy Sundlun does. The 59-year-old put on the U.S.’ first national cross-country championships and created the first Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego in 1998.

And at the 15-mile mark of that marathon, the traffic marshal wouldn’t allow participants to proceed because, he said, there were still cars in the roadway. The cars were unmarked police cars parked by officers controlling traffic. When racers in the wheelchair division started piling up at the roadblock, Sundlun scrambled to mark down their times of arrival so he could release them accordingly when the marshal gave the OK to proceed. Racers were not pleased.

So what has kept these men in the race directing game for decades on end?

Sundlun said that even during the difficult races, it’s a hoot. “I don’t think I’ve ever ‘worked’ a day in my life. Every one of the athletes has a story—they’re not just a number. You’re creating the canvas on which they write their story. You’re creating an experience that can change lives.”

Nicholas enjoys getting to know the amateur athletes who attend his events and the professionals who have dedicated their careers to racing in his Xterra triathlon and trail run series.

“When everybody’s saying, ‘Wow! What a great race!’” Nicholas said, “That’s the most rewarding part.”

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