reviews
editorials
"how tos"
maintenance
race schedules
event reports
 
pageok

 

 

Collateral Damage.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Tpm Demerly Announces Race.

Putting on triathlons is like conducting a military campaign. And like war, the first casualty is often organization.

Good Generals and Race Directors go into battle with a plan "A", a plan "B" and even a "C", "D" and "E". This is called C.Y.A. I didn't make up these laws, a guy named "Murphy" did. Event producers Mark Burnett of Eco-Challenge (and Survivor TV show), Steve Locke (now USAT Director) and Lew Kidder (founder of Inside Triathlon magazine) have made that analogy.

On 10 May 2003 Bikesport, Inc. sponsored the Willow Duathlon produced by 3 Disciplines Racing. 3 Disciplines, a race production company owned by Ken Krell, has produced over 100 events in Arizona and Michigan. The one-year history of the Willow Duathlon is somewhat sordid though. That is not where this story begins, but it is where it began for Bikesport, Inc. and me.

It isn't where it ends.

On the morning of 10 May 2003 I was nervous. There was a storm blowing east with steel colored clouds sparking long streaks of angry spring lightening. When I arrived at the new Willow Duathlon venue, Willow Metro Park in New Boston, Michigan I realized there was no plan "B" and Ken Krell's plan "A" had me worried.

Mike O'Donnell, Seth Kirkendall and I arrived early to set up our neutral support tent and provide free mechanical assistance to athletes. That was our contribution to the event: Help athletes with bike problems, lend helmets to those who forgot them, fix a few flats, adjust a few derailleurs and help where we were needed.

I met briefly with Race Director Ken Krell well before the start of the event, sometime around 6:30 AM. Ken or "Kenny" is passionate about the sport, an accomplished athlete himself and rarely at a loss for energy and enthusiasm.

But the rain, lightening and thunder in the foreboding sky of May 10, 2003 weren't the only things that had me drenched in concern. I felt like the First Mate on the Titanic with the Captain regaling the splendor of her lines as I looked past his shoulder for icebergs.

And just like the Titanic's maiden voyage, there were icebergs, dead ahead.

Kenny was his usual self that morning: Enthusiastic, animated and busy. Very busy. He presided over his neat assembly of race production vehicles, well-constructed transition area and pop-up event tents with the sweeping gestures and optimistic hyperbole of a presidential candidate, or proud captain of an "unsinkable" ship.

The "proud captain", the "presidential candidate", Ken Krell had a political scandal behind him and an iceberg in front of him.

May 10 (or thereabouts) is usually the date of the Grosse Ile Island Duathlon here in Michigan. Grosse Ile is a fun little race put on by a nice guy named Gene Edwards. Gene and his wife organize the race in the island community of Grosse Ile every year to benefit local charity. Gene doesn't get rich off this event. The race is the baby of Gene himself, and Kenny Krell assisted with race production in previous years, according to Kenny.

In late 2002 there was difficulty surrounding the Grosse Ile Island Duathlon. There is minor disagreement on what the source of the difficulties specifically were. All parties (Ken Krell, Gene Edwards and I) agreed they were rooted in a series of scheduling conflicts with personal events (Gene had an important wedding to go to, among others), availability of the Church parking lot used as the transition area and other circumstances. No one agrees on what the primary reason for not having the Grosse Ile Island Duathlon in 2003 was. It remains clouded in controversy. Depending on whom you talk to, you get different answers.

Ken Krell proposed an alternate event in a new location as a replacement for Grosse Ile on that date. It was the Willow Duathlon. The scheduling conflicts were resolved, in a somewhat convoluted manner, and Willow became the "replacement" for Grosse Ile, at least in 2003. Whether it is intended to remain a "permanent" substitute for the Grosse Ile Island Duathlon remains in controversy. I have had one conversation with Gene Edwards (Grosse Ile Race Director) in the last 60 days during which Gene told me the Grosse Ile race "Will definitely be happening in 2004, we are putting on a race, we are bringing back Grosse Ile." According to phone conversations I had with Ken Krell on Thursday, October 2nd, his intention is that Willow is the permanent replacement for Grosse Ile. For two guys who have known each other for a long time, Gene and Ken can't get on the same sheet of music. And I am the guy waiting for the band to start playing.

The Willow Duathlon was Ken's idea. On paper it was a good one. The venue at Willow Metro Park was larger and could potentially hold over 500 athletes. The park was used to host bicycle time trials by the Downriver Cycling Club in previous years. It was largely void of traffic on an early weekend morning and gave way to surrounding roads that were flat and fast. The entire minor drama surrounding this scheduling conflict didn't set well with me, but at least we were having some kind of event on May 10 for a season opener. Here at Bikesport, Inc. we went through some pretty awkward moments trying to answer customer's questions about Grosse Ile in 2003. We simply didn't know what to say about the event, and we didn't want to tell people it was cancelled until we knew it was. We wanted to have a "season opener", but Willow was beginning to leave a bad taste in my mouth even before race day.

I was a bit reserved about sponsoring Willow. For me, it started with three strikes against it: 1,It was a first time event. 2, 3 Disciplines had received mixed to bad reviews among our customers for a triathlon they had produced in 2002 in Traverse City, athletes complained of chaos in the swim and a lack of volunteers on the course. 3, I felt Ken had been a bit heavy-handed in asserting that Willow was the "replacement" for Grosse Ile, that statement implied (to me) it was the permanent replacement, not a one year substitution for Grosse Ile due to Gene Edward's scheduling conflict in 2003. Ken reinforced this when I arrived at Willow the morning of May 10 as he described his plans for expanding the race to "include 700 people and maybe host the National Championship".

In the end I voiced my reservations to Kenny, and he countered each of them. I wanted to have an event, and Kenny was ready to put one on. He was putting one on come hell or high water. I participated in Kenny's Stony Creek Triathlon, the last 3 Disciplines event in Michigan in 2002 along with Mike O'Donnell and Mark Trzeciak of Bikesport, Inc. The Stony Creek race was well produced, fun and came off without a hitch. Kenny did a good job at Stony Creek. Based on that and the fact that, on May 10, Kenny was the only game in town- we agreed to help out with Willow. My thinking was, if Ken could prove himself with the Willow Duathlon as well as Stony Creek he would exonerate himself of the problems from Traverse City 2002 and emerge as an additional race production resource in the 2003 season and beyond. It seemed in the best interest of Bikesport, Inc. and the sport to get behind Kenny and the Willow Duathlon, then see where things went after that.

As it turned out, things went down the wrong road, literally and figuratively.

When I arrived at Willow I asked a race volunteer for a course map. I was announcing and needed to know the course. I got a detailed map, the same one given to each of the participants. I noticed a key intersection where athletes were supposed to turn right (south) off eastbound Willow Road after exiting the park and enter nearby Oakwoods Metropark. I recognized that corner as the only one where athletes could potentially miss the turn and proceed off course creating a nuisance at best, a safety hazard at worst. I could tell that just by looking at the map. It didn't take a rocket scientist; it was about the only place on the course where things could go wrong.

I asked Ken Krell about the intersection prior to the start of the race. As Ken assured me the corner was covered by a Sheriff and race volunteers a group of female volunteers, members of the Eastern Michigan University Dance Team, arrived. These women got up early to donate their time to the race. As collegiate dancers (the new politically correct term for cheerleaders), they attracted a fair amount of attention. Their coiffured hair, luxurious figures and lack of familiarity with the unfolding event made them conspicuous. Several of my customers made positive comments about the dance team's contribution to the event, ranging from their enthusiasm to their aesthetic contribution. But we weren't hosting auditions for Hooter's Girls; we were putting on a duathlon. I was worried. Race volunteers come in all shapes and sizes, but it is what they do when a group of cyclists is thundering toward them at 22 M.P.H. that makes or breaks the event. After talking with Ken about the corner, I asked one of the girls, "Do you know which one of you is stationed at this corner?" She looked at me and said flatly, "We don't know what we are doing. We've never been to one of these things before. What goes on here?"

I got more worried.

During my announcements prior to the start I mentioned the corner in question several times, seven if my memory serves me correctly- and it usually does. I also heard Kenny mention it as he issued final race instructions over the bullhorn on the start line. Later, an athlete told me, "Everyone was talking at the start, we never heard him."

The result was a navigational error of titanic proportions. A significant number of athletes, perhaps as many as 60 according to Ken Krell, missed the turn into Oakwoods Metropark and continued eastbound on Willow Road until they realized they made a mistake. They executed an impromptu "U" turn and came back on Willow Road to rejoin the course. It was chaos.

Before the majority of athletes reached the Willow Road/Oakwoods Metropark the Sheriff who was monitoring the corner was, according to Ken Krell, "Called away to respond to an accident on I-275". That left the corner either unmanned or under the control of race volunteers who had not been adequately trained prior to their deployment. Until a phone conversation with Kenny Krell of 3 Disciplines two days before finishing this story I never received a straight answer as to whether there was anyone stationed at that corner once the Sheriff left. As it turns out, Ken alleges there were "Two volunteers there". Once Michigan State Police relieved the local Sheriff at the scene of the I-275 accident, the Sheriff returned to the event. But it was too late. In the case of that corner, the most conspicuous opportunity for calamity in the event, there was no effective plan "B".

To say I am pissed is a gross understatement.

In fairness to Ken Krell and 3 Disciplines: USAT Article V, section 5.3 "Knowledge of the Course" stipulates that, "The sole responsibility of knowing and following the prescribed cycling course rests with each participant." In other words, if you get lost, it's your own damn fault. Amazing what you find in those rulebooks. Additionally, race winner Eric Fernando said in a Slowtwitch forum posting, "Both times when I came through the corner in question, there was a sheriff directing traffic and athletes." Fernando, an experienced elite level competitor also said he did not need to rely on corner marshals, that he understands the responsibility for knowing the course rests with the athletes.

But even with that, there is this latent notion among competitors, especially beginners, that there is an unwritten obligation to provide reasonable course marshalling to assist athletes in navigating the course. That may not be the rule, but it is reasonable to assert that it is the prevalent expectation among consumers of multisport events: The people like you and I who do them. Hell, that is what I expect at a race. When I barrel down on a corner at 20+ M.P.H. with delusions of age category greatness I bark like a junkyard dog at any moderately inept or timid corner marshal who fails to achieve the decibel level of a 4:00 A.M. drill sergeant. I want to KNOW where I am supposed to go. If I find out after I went the wrong way through the corner I am as mad as a turpentined mule.

So the Willow Duathlon was, in my estimation, a failure. It was a failure because I heard a substantial number of complaints from my customers about being misdirected on the course. It also made the hair on the back of my neck stand up because athletes wound up spread, willy-nilly; all over hell's half acre with little or no guidance or protection. To me, that was irresponsible and dangerous. What was supposed to happen if a car creamed one of the misguided "U-turners"? It was also a failure because of the minor political controversy surrounding the scheduling in the first place. It was annoying, stressful and confusing.

I thought about writing an editorial about the Willow Duathlon then. But I didn't. That was a mistake. I should have spoken up. I am now.

Now let me make one thing perfectly clear before we go any further. I, Tom Demerly, am not necessarily the pillar of organizational excellence (or investigative journalism for that matter). I have made every single error I am describing Ken Krell making here in my own business. So isn't this the pot calling the kettle black? After all, where the hell do I get off pointing out any shortcomings in 3 Disciplines events when my own house isn't necessarily in perfect order 100% of the time? Here's where: I don't place participants at risk in events if I make a mistake in my business. I don't produce races on open roads and lakes. I sell bikes, one at a time, in a carefully controlled environment. I make damn sure, to the point of paranoia (ask my employees) that bikes are safe when they leave my store. We have written documentation of a safety check in place before any new bike leaves the building. That is our "plan 'A'". We make customers sign a liability waiver before they leave with a new bike. That is our "plan 'B'". We give them an owner's manual with additional information and warnings, that is our "plan 'C'", and we have the best business insurance policy I could find and afford, that is our "plan 'D'". And even with that, I still make mistakes.

Another reason I am justified in bitching in public is that Bikesport, Inc was a sponsor. No, we didn't give Kenny one thin dime, but we showed up and did some work and helped (a little) with the race. There was the understanding that if this race went well we may consider sponsoring other 3 Disciplines events. I had heard bad things about 3 Disciplines, but my own experience with the 2002 Stony Creek Triathlon was fine. I was perfectly willing to give Kenny and 3 Disciplines a chance. But after Willow I felt defrauded. Kenny had made a representation to me prior to the start of the race that the corner I identified, the corner people got lost at, was covered. It wasn't. My man Kenny dropped the ball in the end zone when he promised a touch down and not even the cheerleaders were cheering. Like I said, I am still snot-slingin' pissed about it. As far as I was concerned I knew all I needed to know about 3 Disciplines racing. Between the story of Traverse City and now Willow I couldn't take a chance on this guy with Bikesport being a sponsor anymore. I quietly, politely slunk off into a corner.

If you're still with me 2,500 words into this it gets better.

As the 2003 season began to progress I heard more concerns about 3 Disciplines events from our customers. I also heard some positive comments. But the incidence of concerns about safety issues in particular worried me. And I wasn't the only one.

In Colorado Springs at USAT headquarters Steve Locke, executive Director of U.S.A. Triathlon, began to have concerns over 3 Disciplines Racing and their events sometime in 2003. According to a telephone interview I had with Steve Locke on Wednesday, October 1, USAT was "Concerned with 3 Disciplines ability to produce races in compliance with USAT standards for administrative, procedural and safety protocols." Locke told me he had "received complaints" about 3 Disciplines Racing and their events. When I pressed Steve Locke for specifics on the complaints, he told me these complaints were not a matter of public record. He was concerned about preserving the anonymity of the persons lodging the complaints. Locke was clear to say these were safety-oriented complaints. He also cited administrative issues, but noted the refusal of USAT to sanction any more 3 Disciplines was strictly safety oriented.

My opinion of Steve Locke is that he is a highly effective administrator for USAT. His job has been made more challenging by substantial growth in the sport during his office. In my estimation Steve Locke has risen to that challenge. In fact, I will argue that part of the reason the sport has grown is Steve Locke. Before Steve Locke, in the old "Tri-Fed" days, things didn't run as smoothly in my opinion. While Steve Locke is not 100% responsible for the sport's renaissance, he is firmly at the helm, and the boat is on course and picking up speed.

I do have a minor issue with this situation: It seems to have two sets of rules. Ken Krell and 3 Disciplines racing are accountable to USAT for compliance with safety regulations (as well they should be). But it would appear that USAT is not accountable to anyone for documenting (or at least disclosing) the specifics of these safety complaints against 3 Disciplines. In a telephone interview with Ken Krell, Krell told me that a USAT official (not Steve Locke) said it would be "impossible" to give Kenny the specifics of the complaints against him. Krell went on to say, "How can I know what to improve in my races if I don't know what the specific complaints are?"

Well, the man does have somewhat of a point. But only somewhat. Kenny, you can tell when you're not in compliance with safety standards when you have no USAT officials at events, swimmers collide head-on with each other (Traverse City) and 60 people navigate off course on the bike (Willow). To me, documentation of written complaints isn't required to see these safety hazards.

I think USAT should support their sanctions of 3 Disciplines with some documentation available for inspection by the general membership. That's accountability. That said, the problems are pretty apparent.

This isn't "Big, bad USAT out to get the little guy" or a "Conspiracy of old-boy network race directors squeezing out the young buck". Some people I talked to suggested that. They suggested Kenny was a victim. They couldn't offer any proof of conspiracy or cover up. I saw proof there were safety issues with my own eyes at Willow.

In response to 3 Disciplines inability to comply with USAT's safety and administrative standards they took action. September 26, 2003, USAT posted the following press release on their website regarding 3 Disciplines Racing:

Race Director Loses Sanctioning Privileges

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Sept. 26, 2003) -- USA Triathlon announced Friday that it will not sanction any further 2003 events put on by 3 Disciplines Racing.

The four events affected by this decision are the Autumn Colors Triathlon/Duathlon on Sept. 28 (Sunday) in Clarkston, Mich., the Great Pumpkin Duathlon on Oct. 12 in Shelby Township, Mich., the Polly Ann Trail on Oct. 19 in Lake Orion, Mich., and the Arizona Cactus Challenge On Nov. 9 in Tempe, Ariz.

If you are planning to compete in one of these events, please be aware that they will not be sanctioned by USA Triathlon and you will not receive USAT ranking points for competing in them. The Great Pumpkin Duathlon will not be the Mideast Regional Championship.

USAT came to its decision after an investigation that determined 3 Disciplines Racing had not met sanctioning guidelines, rules and regulations.

USA Triathlon regrets the inconvenience this may cause to members.

To verify if an event has been sanctioned by USA Triathlon, go to the USAT web site at www.usatriathlon.org and click on the "calendar" link in the upper right corner. If an event does not appear on our calendar within 30 days of the race date, contact the race director to confirm that they have applied for USAT sanctioning.

So, according to USAT, 3 Disciplines had their sanctioning privileges pulled due a failure to comply with USAT race standards for safety and administrative compliance.

On September 29, three days later, Ken Krell posted a notice on the home page of his 3 Disciplines website that said 3 Disciplines had "Gracefully stepped away" from their relationship with USAT. Then, on October 3rd, as this story went to our website, this contention that 3 Disciplines had voluntarily parted company with USAT was conspicuously missing. I asked Ken over the telephone, "Ken, on September 26th USAT said they are no longer sanctioning your events as a result of safety and administrative problems, but on September 29 you put a notice on your website that says you 'gracefully stepped away' from USAT. Which is it? Were you thrown out or did you leave?"

Ken told me he received a call on a Thursday before a weekend event from USAT saying his sanctioning privileges had been revoked. He learned that he could re-establish sanctioning privileges "under probation" if he agreed to meet administrative standards and permit a USAT official or officials (versions vary on the number of officials) to attend his events. He was required to cover the costs, including travel and accommodations if necessary, for the officials. Ken Krell told USAT he could not afford to pay for USAT officials at his events. As of this date, the suspension continues. 3 Disciplines cannot hold USAT sanctioned events. They did not "Gracefully step away".

So what? Who cares if the race is USAT sanctioned? I do. Among other very significant things, USAT provides substantial and proven liability insurance for race directors, sponsors (me) and participants (me too sometimes). If something bad happens during a USAT event, the insurance underwriter USAT is contracted with will cover the insured parties. There has never been an incidence of failure to pay a legitimate claim on the part of USAT's contracted insurer. They are reliable.

I hear you, so what? This is what. This August I sat in a courtroom for five days being grilled and cross-examined just like a common criminal over a lawsuit that resulted from an accident on a test ride. But it wasn't my fault. It was frivolous if you call well over $800,000.00 plus costs frivolous. They called my personal life into question, my credibility, and our shop policies. In the end the jury verdict meant we won the case. It was the attorney provided to me by our insurance company that saved our ass and enabled justice to prevail. His name was Russ Portiss and he remains a hero to me. No insurance = no justice. Welcome to America.

So for you my friend, you better be damn sure the next triathlon you enter has the absolute best insurance available, and that is USAT's insurance right now. No other event insurance is comparable that I am aware of.

Even more menacing is the specter that a "competing" triathlon and event insurance company, Harbor Insurance, went out of business after a year of selling fraudulent policies that didn't even exist. If you did one of those events, and you may have, you had zero liability insurance from the race organizer. Zero. The seriousness of that situation is hard to understand unless you do it from the wheelchair you are confined to the day after your health insurance just got maxed out.

So with Ken Krell and 3 Disciplines out of the USAT stable that begs the question: Who is insuring him now? I don't know. But I do know the only liability insurance I trust is the one used by USAT. No USAT, no reliable insurance. That's my take on this.

Another critical issue with USAT sanctioning is the administration of equal standards. USAT literally did "write the book" on triathlons. It's the USAT rulebook. USAT trained officials are available to administer those rules at USAT sanctioned events. Ken Krell does maintain that he is a licensed USAT official, but he hasn't made a practice of using USAT officials out on the course at his events. Where are his draft marshals? For that matter, as I saw at Willow, where are his marshals? Believe me, there is a huge difference between a hotty from the local college dance team and a USAT trained official.

In preparation for this editorial I spoke with and e-mailed a lot of people, at least 20 during the four days it took to write, edit, revise, fact check and publish this. This is an opinion piece, but my opinion is an informed one. I made sure of it before we uploaded this to our website. The last person I spoke with about this editorial was Ken Krell. During that conversation I read to him, verbatim, excerpts from this editorial that I thought he was most likely to find objectionable. I did that for two reasons: To check my facts, and to get his reaction so I could include it in this piece.

Kenny maintains that his races are safe. I maintain he has been lucky. I think USAT took a look at the information that was available to them and pulled the plug in a preemptive move to limit their exposure to a runaway train and its inevitable crash. I agree with that decision. Bikesport is not sponsoring any more 3 Disciplines events until we see big changes and 3 Disciplines returns to USAT sanctioning under USAT guidelines and monitoring. Like Reagan said, "Trust, but verify". To me, the combination of non-USAT, possibly dubious, insurance and the unusually high incidence of safety concerns I have heard in our store (not even considering what USAT knows that I don't know) spell an accident waiting to happen. I don't want to be the athlete in that accident, I don't want to be one of the sponsors associated with that accident. I don't want there to be an accident.

If you think this perspective is reactionary allow me an admittedly heavy-handed analogy to reinforce my point. If the FAA had suspended all aviation operations over the United States on September 10th, 2001 for 72 hours, based on a CIA and DIA report that terrorist organizations may use airliners for attacks against the United States, would you have thought it was ridiculous? Yeah, probably. Picture yourself standing in line at Metro airport when all flights are cancelled and you are stranded for 72 hours. And then nothing even happens. But then again, given the circumstances, on September 12th, 2001 that move would have made a lot of sense.

Athletes die in triathlons every year. They drown, cars hit them, and they drop dead from heart attacks. The sport, like any sport, is dangerous. There is no room for compromise on safety. I believe this is a safety issue first and foremost. I believe it from what I have seen and heard. I am not speaking to the "administrative" issues, that is a separate affair, albeit equally questionable.

But this safety thing has me scared. And USAT. And now, I hope you too.

 

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
Site Designed and Maintained by: Intuitive Business Solutions.

 
pageok