Understandably, big races like Ironman or the New York City Marathon have an appeal that sucks all of us in, even if it’s only once. The venue, the history, the competition, the bragging rights (wait till you tell all your friends that you finished 8,765 out of 45,000 at New York!), the cool t-shirts and goodies, a massive expo, maybe a vacation destination – all these things join together and draw us in. Why else would we spend more money on registratioin fees and sign up a whole year in advance when smaller, less expensive races that don’t fill up can usually be found in your backyard? Certainly, doing the Chicago marathon offers a better overall experience than doing one of the small wintertime Florida marathons. The history, atmosphere, and marketing of Ironman Lake Placid easily dwarfs the Great Floridian (although I dare anyone to say that the GF is easier), even though the Great Floridian has been around longer.
However, the small races, especially the well-run ones, have a certain appeal that the big-time races can rarely attain, and there are a bunch of local races that all local endurance sport athletes should mark down on their calendars (and Gasparilla, St. Anthony’s, and Clearwater 70.3 don’t count). These races have a kind of small-town church fair feel that is inviting and keeps you coming back year after year, no matter how badly you may suck every time you do one of these races – I’m lookin at you almost every race I’ve ever done at Fort DeSoto.
One of the races (actually a series of races) that I look forward to every year (and hence the shameless plug) is the Crystal River Triathlon Series, held in the bustling metropolis of Crystal River, Florida. A lot of things about these races might turn people off – held during summer in Florida, so it’s 93 degrees with 312% humidity at 7 in the morning; it’s in the middle of nowhere; the course is two out-and-backs on the same flat road so it’s not that exciting; the races are mostly held on holiday weekends and who wants to focus their vacation on a sprint triathlon?; there are usually only a couple of hundreds of participants; and then there’s the nuclear power plant in the distance — swim in radioactive sludge, anyone?
Yet, there are so many great things about Crystal River that I try to do at least a couple every year. First, the venue – yeah, it’s flat with less than ten turns total for all three events and 2 1/2 feet of elevation change, but what better way than to totally go all out without ever really having to worry about what’s coming up. And with my awful sense of direction, it’s nearly impossible for me to take a wrong turn. As the course is out-and-back for both the bike and run, it’s easy to spot the competition and judge your place in the standings.
Like a lot os small races, Crytsal River has a pretty loyal following. Familiar faces flourish (a little alliteration anyone?) and they’re usually all kicking my ass, but it’s still kind of reassuring to see those people. Sure, you might see a million people you know at Gasparilla or St. Anthony’s, but seeing most of those people at those races is kind of like seeing the same people at work – small doses is plenty. With the people at races like Crystal River, it’s almost like you’re sharing a secret, like you’re one of the four people on the planet who understood the Lost finale. People who race Crystal River year after year know that they’ve caught onto something unique, something fun, and something worth supporting.
The best thing about Crystal River, though, has to be the race director and his team. Chris Moling and his team put on a great, easy-going, race that really makes for a fun event. A couple of anecdotes from past races may demonstrate how a great organization running a small race can trump the big boys:
First (and funniest), my brother and his wife overslept for a race a couple of years ago. They showed up for the race about a minute befire the first wave hit the water, so transition was already closed and everyone was on the beach. After explaining their predicament, Chris was gracious enough to let them transfer their registrations to the following year. How many races would let someone transfer to another year because they overslept? The funny part of this story, though, is that my brother overslept again the following year. He didn’t ask for another transfer.
Another time, the first wave stood at the water’s edge, ready for the gun to go off. As we stood there waitng, Chris got on his bullhorn and told us we’d have to wait a couple minutes as someone’s goggles had broken and the race woouldn’t start until he got a new pair. Think they would do that at St. Ahntony’s? Nope, they’d just cancel the swim instead.
Finally, at one race a couple of years ago, a storm hit the beach about a half-hour before the race was scheduled to start. Thunder, lightning, blinding sheets of rain, the whole she-bang. Instead of cancelling the race or turning it into a 5k, Chris and his team held out and waited for the storm to pass (mostly, there was still lightning in the distance when we hit the water). As with most races, time is money, so postponing the race for the hour or so it took for the storm to pass probably cost him, but the race still went on. We were all probably a little slow that day as our routines were broken up, but we still swam, rode, and ran just like we’d planned.
Most race directors get into the business because they enjoy the endurance sport lifestyle, racing, and have excellent organizational skills. They want to put on races that are a cut above the rest, and provide memorable experiences for participants. However, as their races get bigger and bigger, the focus on the racers decreases. No transfers, cancellations for fear of liability, soaring registration fees, crowded courses, and over-priced trinkets and shrinking goodie bags seem to be the norm with large races. The actual participants can get lost in the shuffle to things like profits, sponsorships, and the threat of litigation. Races like Crystal River serve to remind us that the simplicity of the small race can make big races a little less worthy of our admiration and registration fees.
Plus, how can you go wrong with an organization that puts on a race called the Great American Cooter Triathlon?
The first Crystal River Sprint Triathlon is this Saturday – don’t miss it. I’d be there, but my running ban still isn’t over – only one week left!