By Kate Agathon, Campus Cycles
Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at an organized sports event? How much time and effort does it take to go into a single event? How do organizers deal with the unexpected while still pulling off a successful event? And finally, what details do organizers wish participants knew?
We are doing a two-part series on some of the area’s most well known events and event organizers. This week, we recently caught up with Racing Underground owner Darrin Eisman about what it takes to hold an event.
For nearly 30 years, the Eismans have organized a number of Denver-area triathlons and duathlons including the Littlefoot Triathlon, Barkin’ Dog Duathlon, and the Chilly Cheeks Duathlon series.
“I’ve been racing since 1979, and I never get tired of being around races. I love everything about them. The people are great, the atmosphere is amazing, and I enjoy seeing everyone finish- from the elite racers to the first timers,” enthused Eisman.
In 1995, Darrin and Jill founded Racing Underground to produce and time running races and multisport events. Since then, they have worked on more than 1,000 successful events in that time. In addition to approximately 20 events of their own, they provide timing services to a select number of additional races each year. These events are often booked years in advance.
No such thing as a season
Event planning is a year-round process; not just a season. Darrin and Jill have no down time. Planning for the next year’s event begins the day after the current event is completed, when they begin to lock in a date and submit permit applications. Once a date is approved, they update the race website, schedule medical and police support, open registration, and begin promoting the event.
Over the next few months, t-shirts, finisher medals, and swim caps are ordered; artwork is completed, post-race food is decided upon, volunteer groups are organized, and porta-potties are ordered.Two weeks out, water samples are tested (if it is a triathlon), participant packets are built, trucks and trailers are loaded, and final race details sent to participants. Finally, race weekend involves set up (which is extensive for a triathlon) and marking swim, bike, and run courses and hosting an early packet pickup.
A typical race day begins at 2 AM with final setup and course markings, and ends 14 hours later after the final medal has been awarded and the last meal served.
What most participants don’t know
Refunds and deferrals are common requests from participants. However, participants may not fully understand the impact of their requests. For example, when asking for a refund or a deferral, most don’t realize that the money has already likely been spent on an event t-shirt, event swag, and food.
For events like those held by Racing Underground that have no event sponsors, the majority of the total event costs are covered by race entry fees. Therefore, by asking for a refund or a deferral, participants are unknowingly putting the next year’s event in the red.
2020 in particular was brutal.
During the pandemic, Racing Underground had to give 100 percent credit towards future races for several events, including the 2020 Barking Dog duathlon. Even though they had already paid for race day items and knew they were making the responsible choice, it was a sickening feeling to realize they were tens of thousands of dollars in credits.
“We work with lots of events, and the no-show rate on races this fall has been extremely high – sometimes 25 to 30 percent or more. We (and most race organizers) offer fair refund and deferral policies, and those policies have deadlines based on when they begin spending the bulk of the entry fees on the event,” explained Eisman.
Despite the return of a full event calendar in 2021 and sold out events, they discovered that participation could surprisingly still be dicey. According to him, this year more than any previous years, there has been, what he describes, as a “massive number of refund and deferral requests” during the final week leading up to the races.
He attributes the increase in refund and deferral requests to the pandemic. “I know it may seem harsh to a participant who can’t receive a refund or a deferral after the deadline, but races operate on fairly small margins and giving a large number of refunds or deferrals to the following year can cause a race to disappear,” he continued.
T-shirts, medals, swim caps, food, etc. are all bought specifically for each participant; in other words, every detail of the race is based on the number of people who have entered. Unfortunately, it isn’t uncommon to begin planning next year’s event in the red.
For race organizers, some things are beyond control. One year, the burrito vendor was not available. Their daughter and a friend ended up making quesadillas for everyone at the last minute. Another year, participants mistook a spectator for a volunteer and headed in the wrong direction. Then there was the running race up Mt. Evans that was planned. Some creative and strategic planning was made (wave starts, limited numbers, contactless pick up, etc.), people were onboard, and at the last minute, the City of Denver shut the event down by not allowing parking in the space it owned.
“When everything was shut down at the end of March 2020, we worked hard to come up with plans to safely hold our events. For months, we developed detailed plans, got encouragement from venues and local authorities, then they were shot down. Over and over again.” said Eisman.
The experience was surreal. One week, they were lauded for their effort, the next week, they were vilified for things beyond their control (such as terminating an event at the last minute). By the time winter 2020 arrived, they were allowed to host the Chilly Cheeks Duathlon Series. However, less than two weeks out, there was an uptick in COVID-19 and only 75 participants were allowed. There was the omnipresent concern of money, compounded with ensuring the participants had a great experience.
“ After crunching the numbers, I determined that we could just break even if we and our staff worked for free, and all volunteers were true volunteers with nothing in return except seeing smiling faces at the finish line. It ended up being one of my favorite years for the 20 year old series!” he exclaimed.
In order to keep their community of athletes engaged, they began to host free weekly virtual races (one running race and one bike race) to keep them racing. Once races started to happen, Racing Underground was able to hold its Littlefoot Triathlon in September 2020. It was limited to 175 participants, and sold out in 4.5 hours. They took it as a promising sign of things to come.
Transforming an event into an experience.
Why have registration fees increased over the years? Attribute that to a change in expectations. The advent of social media has made what used to be a simple race into a cultural event to enjoy with friends. Long gone are the days of race entrants being greeted at the finish line with some bananas, bagels, and a paper cup to use at the water cooler. Thanks in large part to social media, triathlons and duathlons have become experiences, according to Eisman. “Once upon a time, an entrant would expect to receive a race number and an occasional t-shirt to commemorate participating in the event,” mused Eisman. “Now, people want medals, swag, food, and entertainment of some kind,” he said.
In order to stay in business, they had to change with the times (no pun intended). Interestingly, turning the event into an experience has also helped maintain its unique identity, distinguishing it from the plethora of other events added every year. “Races build a loyalty over the years, and improving the racer experience helps to draw in new participants,” he explained.
Finding ways to mix up events also draws more participants. This year, the Colorado Special Olympics triathlon was included as a part of the Littlefoot Triathlon. Eisman exclaimed, “It was truly inspiring, and the best part was when one of the Special Olympians won a new bike from Campus Cycles in the post-race drawing!”
Although the work can be exhausting and sometimes frustrating, Racing Underground’s Darrin and Jill Eisman and their dedicated team find reward in producing events that celebrate and encourage participants to achieve their athletic potential.
For now, 2022 has already begun.