Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Last Saturday I participated in a race wearing a completely new hat – Race Director! It’s something that I have wanted to do for the last several years, but never really knew where to start.
The idea for this race started about a year and a half ago. I occasionally ocean swim with a group of people, a few of which I have known for a number of years. One morning one of the guys said that it would be cool to put on a mile swim to benefit veterans. Since I have wanted to give race directing a try, I thought it was a great idea and said that I would start looking into it. I thought doing an ocean swim for my first event would be easier logistically than say a 5k road race. So, over the next few weeks I talked to experienced lifeguards and others in the racing community to find out what I needed to organize such a race. I gathered up all of the information, started formulating plans. However reality soon set in and I needed to get a “real” job as I wasn’t working at the time. I took a contract position that had me traveling out of state every week, so I had to shelve the idea for a while. That contract ended last April and I decided it was time to seriously start planning the race.
I first decided on a location, and chose a county park where I have seen other ocean swim races, so I figured it was a good place to hold it. After talking to my friend, we decided on a local charity that helps injured vets get back into sports, competition and other outdoor activities. I met with the head of that charity and he was really gung ho about the idea. I then came up with a company name, registered with the state, and got my business license. I filled out the county paperwork to get the permit and secure the lifeguards, found a company that provided event insurance, and started making lists of things that we would need from marketing materials, to course markers, to food, and potential sponsors. I named the race, created a nice race logo, a bunch of lame-o company logos, all of which I have rejected (I still don’t have a company logo!), and built a website. I created brochures and flyers and put them up in all of the local gyms, sporting goods stores, running stores, cycling shops, and dive shops. I also created a Facebook page and sent invitations to all of my Friends to Like, and I joined several local Meetup groups and put the word out there.
The hardest thing I found was getting sponsors. I am really bad at asking people for money, and I have zero experience in sales. I recently joined the board of directors of a pretty large South Florida charity, and spoke to our executive director to get her help. She helped me with a request letter, but the best thing you can do, she said, was to follow up with phone calls and e-mails. I sent out a wave of letters to various sponsors, and filled out a number of online request forms. I again found myself needing an income and a previous co-worker called me with a contract job offer in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Local interviews had kind of dried up, so I took it out of pure need. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of traveling every week again.
It was extremely difficult to continue preparing for the race when I was traveling Monday through Friday. Luckily I had pretty much everything done or in progress before I started the Puerto Rico job, with the exception of sponsors. I had several friends helping me out as best they could with following up, but they could only do so much. I worked the Puerto Rico position for about 2 months, but the travel was taking a lot out of me, plus I had a health issue that needed immediate attention, and I could not do so out of the country (thankfully, it did not turn out to be serious), so I had to quit the job.
Several days before race day, I started waking up at night with minor panic attacks. I was so afraid that I forgot something major or that something was going to go terribly wrong. I was also worried about the weather, as I am aware that November is a really iffy time for ocean conditions. It’s the end of hurricane season and it’s not unusual to have late season storms churning off the coast stirring up waves. Then there’s the possibility of pests – jellyfish, bait fish, big fish eating the bait fish, and even bigger fish eating the big fish eating the bait fish (i.e, sharks). I continued to review my lists several times a day, made new ones, checked the new lists against the old lists and was basically OCD for several days.
To add further worry, as of Friday night, only 18 people had signed up for this race. I was so disappointed, as I needed about 100 to break even, and 125 to have some decent money for the charity. I was counting on a beautiful Saturday morning to draw more swimmers, and in the days leading up to the race, the official NOAA coastal forecast was calling for seas of less than 1 foot. I was optimistic; however you never really know what you’re going to have until you’re standing on the beach.
I packed up my car and went to bed around 11:30, but only lightly dozed on and off until 2:30, when I finally fell asleep. I woke up at 5:15 a.m., got some coffee, fed the cats, and got on the road before 6:00. I live about 20 miles west of the ocean, and even though it was still dark, I could see some stars among the clouds. The temperature was in the low 70s, which is not bad weather for a swim. As I drove east, however, it started raining harder and getting colder. When I saw lightning I should have panicked, but I didn’t, as I told myself that I did everything I could in my power to organize the race, but I have no control over the weather. The forecast called for fast-moving showers, so I hoped that these would move on, and they did.
When I arrived at the park, it was still lightly raining, and no one else was there yet. I took the first armful of stuff up to the pavilion and I could hear the ocean loudly crashing and booming on the other side of the sea grape hedge. My heart sank, but I had to look. I walked over to where I could see the surf, and I was so disappointed. The waves were big – most were around 3-4 feet, but there was an occasional 5 footer. The current looked strong, running north to south, the waves were coming in at an angle, and there was barely any time in between wave sets. Ugh! I figured no one would want to race in that mess, and was feeling pretty disappointed. I continued to unload the car and decided I needed to talk to the head lifeguard before making any final decisions.
About this time, others showed up and in a jiffy they unloaded my car and everything was in the pavilion. My friend who initially suggested this race was in charge of setting up the beach area, and he came with a trailer of kayaks (I couldn’t afford buoys so we decided to use kayaks with giant dive flags on poles as course markers). A couple of my very good friends who volunteered to help, also showed up and started setting up the pavilion area. One friend also races, so I gave her the job of registration. I knew I could count on her and she wouldn’t have any problems, and I got busy setting up other things, checking on the course set up, and trying to find the head lifeguard.
People were showing up and at one point, my friend showed me a stack of papers that were filled out by people who were registering that morning! I could not believe that people were actually willing to swim in those crazy conditions. One of my friends said that she talked to a guard who could not believe that we would try to hold the race, but another friend said he spoke with another guard who said, “If they want to get in, we’ll guard ‘em.” I finally found the head lifeguard and we looked at the water again and had a quick discussion. The original course was a loop where the swimmers start swimming against the current for 25 miles, then with the current for .5 miles, then back to the starting point against the current for .25 miles. However, the conditions were simply too rough to swim against the current, so we decided that we would move the start line to .25 miles north on the beach, and the move the finish line a bit south for a total of .5 mile swim with the current. One of the swimmers suggested I allow wetsuits in order to make things safer and I agreed. At this point my entire focus was ensuring that no one got hurt.
We marched everyone.25 mile up the beach and then we realized that due to Hurricane Sandy, much of the beach was eroded and huge rocks were exposed. The guards would not be able to safely help anyone in that area, as most people that have trouble or get out do so in the beginning. So we had to walk back about .1 mile south to get past the rocks. This meant that the finish line had to be moved as well. The problem was that our announcer also was responsible for moving the finish line. We did our 4th safety review, and sang the National Anthem as the announcer started down the beach to reset the finish line. I gave about 20-30 seconds for people to settle down after the National Anthem, then hit the horn and off they went.
As I was walking along the beach, I realized that the first swimmers were quickly catching up with the people moving the finish line. If they didn’t hurry, the swimmers would pass them. I sprinted to let them know they needed to hustle to stay ahead of the swimmers. Later I learned from the lead swimmers that it was really confusing to watch the finish line marching down the beach. Yikes! A definite Lessons Learned for next time!
Once I was back at the pavilion we set up the food and Gatorade and the first finishers soon came in. I initially thought the overall winner was a 15 year old young lady (the youngest competitor), but after checking the time, she came in second overall. Not bad considering she also LOST HER GOGGLES when a wave hit her. Even with the rough conditions, out of 39 swimmers, 32 finished and 7 either got out on their own or had help. The head guard advised me in a meeting a few weeks ago that about a half dozen usually get out at the start, not realizing what they had signed up for, so I was even more impressed with the field of swimmers that finished.
After the last person came in, I tallied up the times and had a small awards ceremony. While I wasn’t able to afford overall awards, I had some cool dog tag medals made up for 1-3 place in each age group.
I knew that this was going to be a small and not very profitable race. My thought was to make the first one memorable enough so that the folks that did show up would come again next year and tell their friends. I hope to have at least 50-75 next year, but now I have a better idea how to get the word out and to do it sooner, so I should have a better showing.
As I was tabulating the finish times, I looked up and most everyone was smiling, relaxed, and chatting. I think that made me feel better than anything else. That and NO ONE got hurt! A couple of people thanked me and said they would do it again. I heard a couple of people were unhappy with the change of course, but I would not do anything differently based on the conditions and advice of Palm Beach County’s head life guard.
All in all I think things went smoothly and I plan to do this again next year. Additionally, I have heard many times in the local racing community that there should be more ocean swims, so in addition to doing this one next year, I plan to put together one for the summer next year when the seas are typically calmer. There is only one 5K ocean swim race in this area, so I am considering the possibility of doing a longer distance race and allowing relay teams, but will have to look into those logistics before making any final decisions.
My final thought is that I really enjoyed this experience. All of the planning was never work – it was all fun, so maybe I have finally found my calling and my passion. I plan to do other races, not just ocean swims, and I am sure I will enjoy them as much as this.