Why I Love Small Races

The sport of Triathlon continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Most estimates put the growth over the last 15 years at 500%! I’ve only been involved with the sport for five years and I’ve witnessed a boom, especially locally. Our Multisport Club, the Louisville Landsharks has grown from about two dozen members in 2009 to over 300 today.

When anything becomes popular this quickly, large corporations tend to see dollar signs take over. You can look to examples of small grocery stores going out of business once customers had the ability to buy almost anything else they needed in the same store that sold groceries. The trend of one-stop shopping took over in the early 1990’s and before you knew it, Walmart and Meijer Superstores were in nearly every city in America…while the corner grocery store closed it’s doors.

IMThe same thing can be said for triathlon. The sport started from scratch in 1974 and for the next 30 or so years, it largely consisted of small, local races put on by local race directors. There were a few “series” races that took place around the country, but for the weekend warrior, a small, intimate race at the local park was what the sport meant. In the mid 2000’s, the WTC (World Triathlon Corporation), which owned the rights to the Ironman brand, decided to expand. They immediately created several new full Ironman distance races (including Louisville), but also started doing half Ironman races. The Ironman 70.3 series was born and then in 2011, they went after Olympic Distance races, branding the Ironman 5150 Series. Unfortunately, when looking for races to brand (buyout and take over), the WTC searched for those local races that were well organized and had consistent participation numbers. The swooped in and took over many of these races that were organized on a local level and started running them from a corporate office with just one or two local people involved. Of course, with this change, the races took on a completely different look. Now the transition areas and tents are littered with sponsor banners and flags. The race entry fees more than doubled in most instances and the local feel was gone. The race site was simply packed up in a few semi-trucks and moved to the next city after each race – producing as close to a cookie-cutter experience as possible. If you have ever done more than one Ironman brand race, you know that other than the scenery, everything else is pretty much the same.

WTC is not alone in the corporate take-over. Rev3 and HITS have also started to organize large triathlons that move their set-up from city to city. Don’t get me wrong, I have done these large races and there are aspects that I love about them…but there are even more aspects to love about a small race.

Fortunately for us here in the Louisville area, we have Headfirst Performance. They are a race management and event services company based just a few miles outside of Metro Louisville. The company was started by Todd and Cynthia Heady in the late 90’s after being asked by a local park to help organize a triathlon. Todd just happened to be “downsized” from his job around the same time, so he decided to take a stab a being a full-time race director. It’s worked out pretty well. The Heady’s aren’t getting rich off of their races, but they are immersed in the sports and people that they love. Both Todd and Cynthia have very impressive race backgrounds as well. Todd won the 2004 Champions of the Americas Ultra-Triathlon (which you can read about here) and Cynthia has more than a dozen podium finishes in 50 and 100 mile trail races.

They now have 25 annual events that they put on. Everything from a 1 mile underpants run, to a half-distance triathlon. They have managed over 1,100 events (triathlons, trail races, cycling races, stadium climbs, obstacle courses) all over the country since the company started. The very first triathlon that I participated in was a race organized by Headfirst Performance. It was at a local park and I loved every minute of it…even when I was close to vomiting on the run!

Headfirst Performance Logo for imbed

So what makes these local races special? It’s the people. Once you get to know Todd, Cynthia and Chase (the newest partner), you will understand why I love their races. When you arrive the morning of a race, it’s organized chaos. Lots of guys and girls running around setting up bike racks, placing buoys in the water, putting directional arrows in the ground, handing out race packets…it’s a crazy scene. But they have been doing this so long that they have it down to a science. I’ve yet to do a Headfirst race that was unorganized. If you are unsure of something on race morning, the crew from Headfirst is always easy to find and are happy to answer any questions.  Try finding the race director of an Ironman race a few minutes before the gun sounds! Speaking of race starts, the Headfirst race starts are always entertaining. They usually consist of Todd asking if everyone is ready and then counting down from five.

Headfirst Performance also gives back to LOCAL charities, helping to raise close to half a million dollars each year through races they participate in. They often organize and time races at no cost if the event is donating proceeds to a charity. Home of the Innocents, The Kids Center for Pediatric Therapies, Angels in Disguise, Teens of Kentucky, Leadership in Shelbyville and many others have all benefited from their generosity.

The things that I love most about these races are what happens after they are over. You can always find Cynthia cooking up some homemade pasta or rice and beans for the athletes and their families. You can also walk right up to Chase and see your official time and where you finished. They always give prizes to the top three in each age group and usually an engraved plaque to the top three overall male and female. This leads me to another positive thing about doing a locally organized race…the smaller fields mean that you are more likely to get a prize!

So whether you are new to racing or a veteran, I can’t recommend enough that you try and do as many locally organized races as possible. The charm of having the race directors know you by name isn’t lost on me. It’s still fun to experience the finish line of a race with 5,000+ participants once in a while, but next time you go to register for that corporate race, ask yourself if it’s worth paying 2-3 times more for. Personally, I prefer to be treated like a professional athlete at a local race than like just another participant at the semi-truck races!

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