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The Hard Truth.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Tom in Desert.

This editorial may be bad for business, but it's the truth. And it's important you're aware of the truth.

What we do is dangerous.

Triathlons, road cycling, adventure racing, riding mountain bikes, racing bikes. It is dangerous. There is the opportunity for loss. You may be killed.

That is a fact. What is also a fact is that the very instant you make a conscious, willful decision to involve yourself in these activities you are also making the decision (knowingly or not) to expose yourself to those risks. And with those risks comes that ugly opportunity for loss. Any loss.

Now it gets confusing: "But, certainly, you can manage the risk. There are acceptable, ordinary risks and then there are the results of negligence."

No- that's wrong. Risk is risk. That is why they call it that. The very nature of risk is that it is utterly unpredictable. There aren't "different kinds" of risk- one kind you "accept" and the other someone else is responsible for. You are responsible for all of them, and you became responsible for them the instant you made the decision to participate. Whether your decision was informed or not is up to you.

And just as "risk is risk" loss is also loss. If you are killed in training or racing accident no jury in the world can bring you back. No monetary award can make you less paralyzed. Dying by getting hit by a car or drowning in a race is just as dead as being killed by an atom bomb.

Our society has, in the last two decades, increasingly embraced adventure, "extreme" and endurance sports. These activities have gained greater acceptance and levels of participation. What was once appropriate for the opening segment in a James Bond movie now constitutes a thrill ride or weekend outing. Everybody is skydiving, rock climbing, mountain biking, climbing mountains, doing Ironman, snowboarding and adventure racing. Go to a party or wedding with people between the ages of 18 and 40 and you will, out of a few hundred people, probably have a few marathon runners, a person or two who has done a tandem parachute jump and maybe even an Ironman. Everyone is doing "it", so called "extreme" sports. And with it comes a higher body count.

"Surely", people will rationalize, "The race directors will exercise reasonable caution in planning the course, checking the weather and blocking the traffic." Yeah they might, but things still go wrong. And they also might not.

The bottom line is you are responsible for your own safety. If you are one of those who thinks your guide on a mountaineering trip will insure your safety, your guide on a river rafting trip will keep you from drowning, and your tandem parachute partner will save you if you have a malfunction then you are wrong. You willfully chose to participate in those activities and accept the attendant risk, knowingly or not. It's like holding a snake by the tail; sooner or later the head will come around and bite you.

I recently started a post on the Slowtwitch.com forum about our responsibilities as racers. I love Dan Empfield's Slowtwitch and particularly love the forum. I post many times throughout the day. It is a virtual "think tank" for triathletes. What I discovered was that there is a substantial disagreement on what is "acceptable" and "unacceptable" risk and that I am in the minority with my radical views on taking responsibility for our own decisions regardless of the extent of the outcome. Most people seem to feel that at some point, contingent on the circumstances, some degree of liability is transferable to others. It isn't. You take the risk, you reap the rewards or you suffer the consequences.

Perhaps the greatest example of this in recent history is the Ironman Utah incident. First off, I wasn't there, so this is all speculative based on what I've heard and read. However, picture this (or maybe you were there…): You are on the beach before Ironman Utah start. The weather is bad and getting worse. You trained a year for this so there is a lot on the line right now. But as you look out into the water it is, at best, pretty scary. And the weather is rapidly getting worse. You think you can hear the loudspeaker telling you to get into the water, but the wind is so loud it's tough to tell. Other people are making their way, somewhat reluctantly, into the water. It's hard to tell exactly what's going on. This is called "haze of battle".

Now it's decision time: Should you get in the water? It looks pretty dangerous, but hey, other people are getting in….

You can tell yourself one of two things at this point:

1. The race organization has this under control. They wouldn't put us in the water if it weren't safe. I put my trust in them. I'm starting the race.

Or

2. This is a dangerous situation either already out of control or on the edge of control. Since I ultimately have to pay the price if it gets worse I choose to not participate. I'm not going in the water.

Clearly (now, in retrospect) the more responsible thing to do is stay out of the water. But sometimes doing the smart thing actually takes more courage and insight than being "brave" and getting in the water. It takes a lot to throw away a year worth of training. But remember what is at stake here: You could die out there. At Utah someone did.

So from the warm, dry, calm, detached perspective of hindsight we can arm-chair quarterback the play and say, "Hey, no way man, I wouldn't have gone in….." But that is now.

Now I ask you, this summer when you are faced with a long ride in busy traffic at 4:30 p.m., when you tow the line at an important race 15 minutes before a summer thunderstorm is about to arrive, or when you are presented with the option of passing that person in front of you by just barely squeaking over the yellow line- What will you do?

Ultimately, when the bill for your risks come due, you will be stuck with the tab. And because risk is risk, you can't always control what is on the bill.

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© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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