Create A Personal Best

By Teresa Johnson

To outsiders, a triathlon is one event. To those who plan the event and the athletes who participate, it’s actually three events that take months of training and dedication. As a triathlete, I know firsthand that I don’t just decide a few days before to compete. It takes a long time to get ready to compete in such a challenging event.

Photos: Sunset Hills Parks and Recreation

Photos: Sunset Hills Parks and Recreation

The same goes for hosting the event. The triathlon is by far the most involved event that I put on. In addition to all of the planning, it takes more than 50 people, including staff members, volunteers, and police officers to execute a safe and enjoyable event.

The Sunset Hills Triathlon in Sunset Hills, Mo., continues to grow every year. What started as an event for 90 athletes in 2010 has now grown to a nearly 300-person event that serves as one of the department’s largest revenue makers. And while year-to-year growth for successful events is expected, participants have identified a few key items that not only keep them coming back, but make them want to tell others what a great race it is and recruit friends to join them. According to formal and informal feedback on what makes the race special, here is a rundown:

1. Enthusiastic volunteers are the number-one item that participants love about the race. Volunteers are EVERYWHERE, with a heavy emphasis on the one-lane, closed-to-traffic bike course. To ensure safety, volunteers are placed at every subdivision entrance, intersection, business entrance, or anywhere a possible car may come in contact with a bike. The pool, transition, and run course are heavily staffed with volunteers as well. These areas are in parks so vehicular traffic is not a concern as much as to make sure participants know exactly where they are supposed to go on the course. And volunteers are highly encouraged to cheer, clap, make noise, and treat participants like it is the most important day of their lives—because for some of them, it is.

2. The SWAG. When people complete a race, they want to brag! And there is no better way to show off an accomplishment than with some swag. While T-shirts are fairly common for races, don’t discount their importance. Offer a good, quality shirt and participants will wear it more and act as a walking billboard for the race! We have traditionally offered a more sports-geared, Dri-Fit, moisture-wicking shirt that participants can wear while running or being active. A quality cotton shirt with a cool design that meets the eye of a passerby is also a great offering. Again, the better the shirt, the more often people will wear it and advertise a race. We also offer a finisher medal. Many races skip this due to cost, but one reason we get participants is because we offer a custom medal. When the race had fewer participants, we started with a stock design and our name, but we have evolved into a more custom design that really stands out. Go as big as you can for what your budget allows. Our medal runs roughly $5 each after design, shipping, etc. If the current race budget doesn’t allow for a medal, raise the entry fee. Trust me that more people will sign up for a triathlon with a medal. The last key piece of SWAG is our awards. We offer not only Overall awards for male and female, but age group awards in 5-year increments from 14-and-under to 65-and-over. Additionally, we offer a Clydesdale and Athena category (men weighing 220 pounds and over, and women weighing 160 pounds and over) plus relay awards for male, female, and coed teams. We offer traditional plaques with prizes from one of our sponsors, but other races are switching it up by offering something like an “award” beer pilsner, hat, coaster, or coffee mug. The possibilities are endless as long as the item has the race name and description of the award! We have the awards ceremony on a bandstand stage, and when the mayor is available, she hands out the awards (and finisher medals) to add a little formality and ceremonial ambiance. For smaller races, dividing the age groups in 10-year increments and cutting out Clydesdale and Athena is appropriate.


3. In addition to enthusiastic volunteers making sure participants know the courses, we also use a TON of signage. We have directional signage on every turn on the bike and run, plus large banners in transition areas. Even though volunteers are everywhere, we want to make sure that, if a volunteer were to step away to help a participant or provide directions to a car, a participant has no doubt where to go. Participants love the signage because it is large and easy to see. Order signage larger than you think so participants can see it from a distance and anticipate their movements. We also don’t skimp on cones on the bike course to make sure vehicular traffic is clear and that one lane is reserved for the race.

4. The race is put on by people, not a company. In an age when so many organizations are huge and faceless, I make a big effort to ensure every participant knows I’m the race director. My email address is everywhere on pre-race communication to let participants feel like they have a specific person they can talk to with any and all questions. Additionally, I go to other local race expos, do talks to local triathlon clubs about the races, and hold in-person Q & A sessions that are free to attend for anyone interested in the race. While these events are time-consuming, participants love having a point person to reach out to. At least on a dozen occasions I’ve had complete strangers hug me and tell me they picked our race because I gave them comfort and confidence because I answered every question.

5. I make an effort to constantly thank participants, spectators, and volunteers--especially on race day. I also don’t skimp on giving out a “thank you” to full-time staff members and police officers who work so hard to make the race go smoothly. I can’t put on this event without support staff, so I always want to make sure everyone leaves feeling appreciated.

Just like with any event, things will go wrong, something will be missed, and some people will not be pleased. But, hopefully, these tips can guide you in the right direction to make your race special and memorable, and make participants want to come back for more.

Teresa Johnson is the Recreation Coordinator for Fitness and Special Events for the City of Sunset Hills Parks and Recreation. Teresa has competed in dozens of endurance events, including the triathlon, so she gladly took over the role of the Sunset Hills Triathlon Race Director in 2016. Reach her at