Friday, October 7, 2011

Hardest Job on Race Day

The zebras gather for a final briefing.

It's stressful. It's pretty serious. It may be the hardest job on race day. You could impact the outcome of the Pro and AG races or take someone right out of the race. It can get dangerous. It's a thankless job. It's a volunteer position. It's being a draft marshall on the bike.

After every one of the big, really competitive Ironman races it's often the number one complaint - the drafting on the bike. Thousands are often racing, yet a small handful of volunteer officials and moto drivers, also donating their time, and bikes, are used to rule over all of this.

For two years in Hawaii at the Ironman World Championships I was a draft marshall on the bike. One year I was assigned to the very front of the Age-Group men and the next year I worked closely with Head Race Referee Jimmy Riccitello working the front and main group of the Pro Mens race.

Many of the complaints for Ironman Hawii (IMH) stem from what goes on in the first 20 kilometers of the race. However, I don't think many athletes listen at the pre-race meeting when they are told, that due to the tightness of the course and the volume of traffic, that loop that they do around Kailua town proper, will not be marshalled. This is for their safety and the safety of the moto drivers and the draft marshalls. It's not until the race get's out onto the Queen K Hwy. proper and starts heading north to Hawi that the draft marshalls will start to scrutinize what's going on. Personally, I think this is a fair way of doing this, as it gives athletes a bit of a neutral buffer zone to sort things out before they really get down to business

The picture at the top is of Riccitello, going over a few last minute details and instructions in the Draft Marshall staging area on the Queen K Hwy just as the race starts to head north to Hawi.

The day before the race all the race officials meet up, and Riccitello goes over a number of details and makes sure that we are all clear on the rules, and that we are all working from the same rule book. Since officials are coming from all over the place to work at this race, it's interesting to hear the minor variations in the drafting rules from place to place. However, it's imperative that here, at the Ironman World Championship that we are all working from the same rule book. We are also assigned a general area/place the race that we will be working - main Pro men pack, main Pro women pack, lead wave of age-group men, 10 mins back from that . . and so on. For the Pro races we work in tandem with another marshall.

Riccitello also goes over a few things with us regarding our own safety - it can get very hot out there on the backs of the motorcycles. Make sure that we always keep our driver's, our safety and the athletes safety top of mind. It can get surprisingly hectic out there, with all the athletes, other race support vehicles, media vehicles and motos. This is particularly so at aid stations. Keep your head up.

On race morning we have time to watch the start of the swim, but shortly after that we need to make our way to the place in town where we meet( The Firestone Station at the foot of Palini Hill in town) We are then matched up with our drivers and we head out as a group to the main staging area on the Queen K. Again this is where Riccitello goes over a few last minute details. Then as the first of the Pro man start to stream by, we roll out on the road with our drivers and start following along.

The first year I did this I was assigned to the first major group of Age-Group men. The next year I worked with Riccitello on the main group of Pro Men. While being in the midst of the Pro men's race was very interesting, and actually watching the dynamics of it all, you have to stay focused on the task at hand. For the most part, all the Pro men get it. They stay almost exactly the legal 10m apart. They are helped by the little cat-eye reflectors running along the white line that separates the main road from the shoulder as these are almost exactly 10m apart. I also use them as a guide-line as well. For the longest time on the way out to Hawi, other than a few riders off-the-front, it's a long, legal line of 25 - 30 men. It's an impressive site. From time to time, there is a shuffling of the deck as riders move up or back, but again these guys know the rules and they know that they have roughly 25 sec. to sort things out and at the end of the 25 sec. count, they are all back in the legal line.

I wish that I could say that the situation amongst the lead Age-Group men was the same. Unfortunately it is not. That being said, it's fairly easy to pick out the flagrant and abusive drafters, vs the ones who are caught inadvertently in a bad situation. I am looking for intent - that's key. 25 seconds is a long time if you count it out and a lot can happen in that 25 sec. What I am looking for is movement - specifically, purposeful movement relative to the riders around other riders over the course of that 25 sec. This is why, the only way that you can fairly asses and marshall drafting in a triathlon race is from the back of a motorcycle, close to the riders moving along at roughly the same speed as the riders. It can't be done from the side of the road. Static pictures or even video from a stationary position on the side of the road is useless. Even moving along with the race from arrears of a group of riders - you can't really tell what is going on. In fact, that was a common complaint I would hear. "Look at them", a lone rider 75m adrift of a small group of riders ahead would shout at me. "They are drafting like crazy up there". Yet, when I would get up there, all was perfectly legal. You can't tell from that far back. You need to be almost beside the riders moving along at their speed and see how things evolve over 25 sec chunks of time.

Of course, when penalties were handed out there was all kinds of complaining and even verbal abuse - the latter was noted as well. Then there was the "I don't understand English", with a shrug of the shoulders! Most penalized riders had, "a story", but a few got it. After giving a four minute penalty that needed to be served at the next penalty tent on the road, I would always wait, and make sure that the rider clearly understood that they had a penalty, and that they were clear where the next penalty tent was. Only then would I leave them and move on. Failure to stop would mean a DQ.

After nearly 6 hours of that, we are more or less done. Except the one year, when just coming back into town, the motorcycle I am on, get's a flat tire and we need to wait on the side of the road for help. Once back into town I head to the officials tent and hand in my penalty note book. This is then cross-referenced with all the people that stopped for penalties at the various penalty tents along the way to make sure that they actually stopped.

My day was done!

What are your feelings regarding the draft marshalling that you have seen at either Ironman Hawaii or other races that you have been to?

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1 comment:

Senior Homer said...

How do you deal with the fact that the rider can hear/see you coming long before you get there? Also, good job at Kona, it was the least amount of drafting I've seen at a full or half event.