I wanted to be able to write a course and experience review of the inaugural Challenge Atlantic City, however, my header over a guard rail prevented that from happening. While I didn’t get to complete the entire course, Shaun and I did get a really good feeling of the Challenge experience and we heard a lot from friends and athletes who also raced and volunteered. To give some background, between Shaun and I, we have raced and volunteered at over 20 140.6 events over the past seven years. We’ve worked in almost every possible volunteer position and have finished both towards the front and back of the age group pack (finishing times ranging from eleven to fifteen hours). I have nine years of race directing experience and Shaun has worked for a race timing company for the past two years. Between the two of us, we’ve pretty much seen it all. I also need to disclose that I have a personal interest in seeing the Challenge brand succeed in the United States. As I have previously written, monopolies (in the form of Ironman / WTC / Providence Equity Partners — whatever you want to call it) aren’t good for the sport of triathlon and everyone benefits from competition. Finally, understand that we are grading on a curve. Challenge Atlantic City was a first year race that was started from scratch. There are going to be bumps. You can’t hold a first year race to the same standard as a race that has existed for 10, 15 or 20 years. That being said, here’s what we thought of Challenge Atlantic City.
For a first year place the Challenge team did an excellent job. Pre-race registration was smooth, the swag was nice, there were pre-race activities for both athletes and families and transition/check in was nicely set up and easy to navigate. The race itself was solid. The swim, while technical due to no wetsuits, eleven turns and a nasty current was safe and well patrolled, the bike, especially the loop in Hammonton, was interesting and engaging (despite a very nasty headwind heading back into T2) and the run, while a work in progress, provided a fairly scenic route. Finally, and this is important to lots of athletes, the finisher medals were huge.
Areas of Excellence
1. The location. Atlantic County is a great location for a race. Rather than stay at a casino in Atlantic City, we rented a house about 5 miles away in Brigantine, New Jersey (you can see the view from our spacious front porch below). Being in Brigantine we got the best of both worlds — a gorgeous and not super expensive beach house that was minutes away from the expo / registration / casinos. There were plenty of roads to cycle and run on, a beautiful beach 25 yards away and we could also pop over the bridge for a massage and pedicure for me and some blackjack for Shaun at the Borgata. Plus Brigantine had a ton of fantastic diners and restaurants — Hooper’s Seafood Cafe, The Pirate’s Den, Mad Dog Morgans and Macedonian Grill to name a few. The commute to and from transition at Bader Field was super easy and, most importantly for me, it was an easy trip from the Atlanticare Regional Medical Center back to the beach house. To any athlete doing the race in 2015, I would recommend staying on Brigantine.
2. Race Directors. When Challenge decided to start a race in the United States, they picked two of the best race directors around to lead the effort. Stephen Del Monte and Robert Vigorito are consummate professionals who did an excellent job organizing the race. The sheer logistics involved in starting a brand new race, especially a race with 140.6 miles of course and 1500 athletes, are staggering. Moreover both Del Monte and Vigorito were both personally available to athletes through the race and race week. I cannot ever remember having so many encounters with race directors as I did with these two gentlemen. Heck, I can’t even tell you who the race director of Ironman Florida is; despite the fact that I have finished that race three years in a row. In addition to Vigo and Del Monte, their teams were excellent. Shaun had the opportunity to work with Ben Rotherham from Delmo Sports. Ben was excellent (in fact, everyone we encountered from Delmo was excellent). Ben didn’t hesitate to hand out his personal cell phone number to anyone who had a question or anyone who wanted to help. I can only imagine what this team will be able to do in 2015.
3. “Spare No Expense” Mentality. Big event races are not cheap and Challenge spared no expense. There was a welcome beach party for the athletes, a pre-race dinner (with really great food — I’m the most difficult eater in the world and I even found things to eat), really great swag bags (these were laptop bags filled with useful things like tire levers, bike shoe hangers, stickers, tags and other fun stuff) and a post-race celebration brunch. In addition, there was a free Kids 2K with shirts for the participants. There is no doubt in my mind that Challenge spent well into seven figures on this event. They are invested in making it a huge success and it shows.
4. Great Use of Pros. In the world of professional triathlon certain triathletes command appearance fees just to show up and participate (often these athletes end up dropping out on the run). Challenge came up with a creative new way to use pros — they had Tim O’Donnell and Mirinda Carfrae (triathlon’s fastest couple) participate as legs in relays. That way both Rinny and TO took part in events throughout the weekend — signing autographs at the expo, greeting kids at the finish of the Kids 2K, chatting with athletes in transition, placing finisher medals around athletes necks and raising awareness for Team Red White and Blue and Race to Rebuild — without going through the swim, bike, drop out motions. Challenge seems to understand that star power is a draw and that stars don’t have to race to spread some of their shine.
5. Meaningful Prize Purse. Challenge put up a $65,000 pro prize purse for Challenge Atlantic City. This is real money for the pros (for comparison Ironman Florida and Ironman Lake Placid offer $25,000, but they also offer KPR points, at least for now). The cash attracted a fairly strong male pro field (as an aside Scott Defilippis, the 2nd place finisher, is my new favorite male triathlete as he sent me get well wishes after my crash). The female field wasn’t as strong, but hopefully the cash available coupled with a possible change in KPR in 2015 will increase the depth of the field in the future.
6. Big Event Feel with a Heart. There are races that are extremely professional in both presentation and execution. There are races that have an open, welcoming and encouraging feel. Generally you don’t get both of these at the same race. At Challenge Atlantic City you got both. Its hard to put this type of intangible feeling into words but whatever “it” is, Challenge Atlantic City has “it.”
Areas For Improvement
1. Crowd Control on the Boardwalk Run Course. There were certain areas of the boardwalk that seemed to be harder to control than others, mainly situated right in front of the major casino entrances. The idea to add pylons and rope was a good game-day call but wasn’t sufficient to deter people from cutting through the course (Shaun actually saw a few people who just walked into the rope before they even noticed it was there). A few lengths of cattle fencing would go a long way to helping control the flow of non-athletes. If people walked out, saw a barricade with some of the red Challenge mesh on it, it might also bring additional awareness and respect for what the athletes are doing.