Editorial by Tom Demerly.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.