The Future of Racing with Gabriela Gallegos

The Future of Racing with Gabriela Gallegos

This week Dirk sat down with Race Director Gabriela Gallegos who’s passionate about encouraging her Texas community to pursue a healthier lifestyle.

Race Director Gabriela Gallegos gets, stuff, done! She puts on a multitude of races in Texas as well as Arizona and is on the Board of Directors for USAT. She trained for her first triathlon as an adult and found the finish line experience totally transformative. From then on, she was hooked.

Gabriela strives to share that experience with many others in her community, particularly women of color via her Mighty Mujer Race Series. She has undoubtedly made some tough choices throughout the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic but is continuously looking at ways to adapt and guarantee her racers are able to return to what they love most.

Stand-out Quotes

  • “It was really meant to be a race that is empowering and giving the idea of womanhood as powerful and strong and willing to take on challenges…it’s not the ‘shrink it and pink it’ mentality.”
  • “Now we’re trying to find ways to stay motivated, even though we’re not traveling to a specific location to do your goal with other people. Having that personal goal has been really fundamental.”
  • “Initially thinking of that as a virtual date on the calendar, didn’t feel real. And now that does feel real, right? As we’ve shifted a lot of how we’re doing business.”
  • “There’s a certain element of the pressure & intimidation factor that are just lifted, right? If you don’t have to go and you don’t feel like you look the part, or you don’t have the outfit, or you don’t know what to expect, signing up for a virtual race is very low risk.”
  • “I think people are outside and riding bikes and running more than we’ve ever seen before. It is people who maybe [were] feeling stuck for a few weeks and then realized, ‘I just need to go outside. I just need to go for a walk. I have had this bike for years and I haven’t been on it and I am going to go get it tuned up.’”

Resources

Race El Paso Instagram
Mighty Mujer Triathlon Instagram
Race El Paso Facebook
Mighty Mujer Triathlon Facebook
Race El Paso Website
Mighty Mujer Triathlon Website

Transcript

Dirk Friel:

My guest today is Gabriela Gallegos, who is Owner and Race Director at Race El Paso, which is a triathlon series with the goal of motivating the El Paso community toward a more active, healthy lifestyle. The series consists of six races in Texas and Arizona. She is a member of the USA Triathlon Board of Directors, and is passionate about creating high-quality supportive experiences specifically from members of the Latinx community. In addition to her triathlon endeavors, she is an associate professor at the UT Health School of Public Health.

Gabriela, thank you so much for joining me today. 

Gabriela Gallegos:

Thanks for inviting me. This is great. 

Dirk Friel:

Yeah. I feel ashamed in a way that this is a podcast about racing and training and I’ve never had a race director on.

Gabriela Gallegos:

Woah! Well, it’s about time.

Dirk Friel:

I know that’s on me though. I mean, it’s the race directors that are the, I don’t know, lifeblood of the sport, right? They’re at the heart of everything.

Gabriela Gallegos:

Yeah. There is a lot of behind the scenes. Definitely.

Dirk Friel:

Absolutely. It’s a lot of hard work and…I have some experience as a child. My parents ran a marathon, they had a 10k race in Northern Colorado and I did a whole lot of leg work for them. So I know what kind of blood, sweat and tears goes into that. So I really appreciate it, but why don’t you tell us about your races. You’re in El Paso, Texas—how many races do you have and tell us a little bit about them.

Gabriela Gallegos:

Sure. So I founded Race El Paso in 2010. We produced our first event that was Eagle In the Sun Triathlon, and it’s a sprint race in a pool because we have no open water out here in the desert. And now I produce five events locally, so two triathlons, a duathlon, a kid’s splash and dash, and then a half marathon, 10k and 5k. And I also produce a race in Tucson, Arizona that is part of the Mighty Mujer Triathlon, an all women’s race series. I have partners in Austin and Miami as well that produce Mighty Mujer Triathlon events there, but I produce the ones in El Paso and Tucson.

Dirk Friel:

Wow. Yeah. I mean, you have this diversity in [a] multitude of ways. You have the diversity of your actual races from Splash and Dash, to a duathlon, to running races, as well as full triathlons. But then you have that diversity within the Mighty Mujers. The race attracting…so tell us more about that event. Women only, focus on women of color, tell us how that got started and is that really the focus and how has that grown?

Gabriela Gallegos:

So Mighty Mujer Triathlon took place for the first time in El Paso, Texas in 2012. And it’s an all-female race, “mujer” of course means woman. And so it’s mighty woman, but that code switching really sends a different message, you know, to who it’s open to and kind of the identity of the race. And it was really meant to be a race that is empowering and giving the idea of womanhood as powerful and strong and willing to take on challenges. By contrast, it’s not “the throw a bow on it and call it a women’s race.” You know, it’s not the “shrink it and pink it” mentality. So we kind of went for a very different identity on that one and very purposefully wanted to show a range of women. So women of different backgrounds, of different races, of different sizes, have different athletic abilities and even at different entry points of the sport, you know, you’ve got some who are young and some who maybe did their first race at 60.

Dirk Friel:

Yeah. I mean that diversity of the actual race participants, but then all the other races, it’s just a really cool concept that is well-rounded, always something new. And I think there’s a lot of focus on bringing in new athletes to the sport, which is certainly necessary and definitely good on you for growing the sport for us.

Gabriela Gallegos:

Well, it’s a huge focus. When I lived outside of El Paso for many years and when I moved back, was shortly after I had personally discovered the sport of triathlon and just fell in love with it. And I realized that we didn’t have those kinds of race offerings here. And so it was truly starting from scratch in a lot of ways. There was a small community of very dedicated triathletes, but it was very small and it was not widely available because, to race, you had to travel and there’s not a whole lot of people who will, set their first triathlon goal as something that is, a long distance or far away, or, you know, all those sorts of things. So we really were starting with beginners at the inception of Race El Paso.

Dirk Friel:

Right? Yeah. The intimidation factor that has so much to play within the sport. And if we can get rid of that, makes it a whole lot easier. So now you have all these races we’re in these tough times of COVID-19. Did any of your races actually happen this year early in maybe February timeframe or even March?

Gabriela Gallegos:

Not yet. So we had, gosh, the first race of my season here is in April with Mighty Mujer El Paso. And then the last one is the weekend before Thanksgiving in November and that’s a running race. So at this point we are not expecting to host live races, at least through October. The next two coming up that we did have planned that we’ve now pivoted were on August 30th and that was Eagle in the Sun Triathlon here in El Paso and then Mighty Mujer Triathlon Tucson, which was in early October.

Dirk Friel:

Yeah. So walk me through a lot of that decision making. October, I mean, you have to put a lot of things into place to make that happen, is it absolutely going to happen? Can you pull out of those dates? If so, what are the ramifications? Walk me through, as a race director, all that headache and alternative plans.

Gabriela Gallegos:

Yeah. You know, uncertainty makes everything really, really tough and everybody wants a little certainty, right? Like as an athlete, you want to know if that date that you have circled on your calendar is a go and you want to know as soon as possible. So we’re kind of all in the same boat with that part. So initially, let’s see, Mighty Mujer Triathlon El Paso was scheduled for, I believe April 21st, somewhere around there. And it was early March,  we had not yet had any COVID-19 diagnoses in El Paso, but things were escalating very quickly. And so I reached out to the city and found some alternative dates. 

At the time, I think we all imagined that by June or July, a lot of the  shut down or stay-at-home and shelter-in-place would be over. And we would be close to past where we needed to be, to be able to gather again, that was apparently a very big underestimation on our part, but something we all hoped for. So at that time I postponed Might Mujer from April…  actually it was April 25th to July 25th. And so that was the initial plan.

And for people who may have not thought about the behind-the-scenes part, for that one race, which is a sprint triathlon in a pool, requires six permits. So you’re dealing with aquatics, parks, city, police, you know, all of these different areas of the city. And so we kind of had to get all on the same page to pick a new date. So we did that and we postponed it to July 25th (jjust walk you through that one race).

As we got closer and closer, we were realizing what things look like and what a race would look like under these conditions— and you know, things like that are maybe more equipment, volunteers en mass and wearing gloves, like all of those details. [We] kind of came down to the realization that the problem isn’t the execution, the problem is the gathering, you know? And so at what point is the gathering itself going to be workable and going to be fun, right? Like this is meant to be triumphant—a joyful day, a day that you look forward to, not a day of anxiety and caution and it has all kinds of ramifications. So we did convert that race into a virtual event that is coming up next weekend and Mighty Mujer Virtual Race will take place July 25th and 26th.

Dirk Friel:

Okay. And is that… like participants are given a week to complete the different distances and submit them?

Gabriela Gallegos:

Yeah. So we actually did it with a two-day window. 

Dirk Friel:

Okay. 

Gabriela Gallegos:

So we took a little bit of a different approach because we had so many people already registered for the live race that we offered a really pumped-up athlete package. So people are getting all kinds of merchandise, they would ordinarily pay much more for. So we kind of made it a really pumped-up package. And then still kept that race weekend mentality and kept it to two days.

Dirk Friel:

Got it. And then what about other races? Are you still making plans and how to either roll them over to a new date or refunds or next year?

Gabriela Gallegos:

Yeah. Like I tell you things keep moving, right? So that one was a little bit different from some of the other events because the other events did not have as many registrants yet. So it’s a little easier to pivot when you are thinking about moving 50 people versus 400 people. 

My personal race director rule-of-thumb has been that I want athletes to know what to expect two months in advance. I felt that that’s enough time to train if you haven’t been training, right? And all of a sudden decide, “Hey, I need to get ready for this.” And it’s also not so close that you’ve made so many plans that you’re going to be even more disappointed. Right about that time we’ve tried to make sure that we have everything in line for what’s coming up in two months. So Eagle in the Sun Triathlon, which was set for August 30th, has now also been converted into a virtual event. That’ll take place…we actually moved that to Labor Day Weekend to give a little bit more cushion

Dirk Friel:

And are people open to that? Or are they asking for refunds, do they understand?

Gabriela Gallegos:

So I have to say, I am very proud to report that people have really come along with virtual racing. I think when it was March and early April, I think people were very reluctant and hesitant and skeptical to some extent of like, “Is this going to be fun? And is this a goal worth working toward?” And you know, “If I’m going out and running every other day, what difference does it make if it’s on a specific day?” And so that has changed. And I think that changed because so many of us experienced shelter-in-place orders where a lot of exercise and group gatherings were restricted. And then now we’re trying to find ways to stay motivated, even though we’re not traveling to a specific location to do your goal with other people. Having that personal goal has been really fundamental.

Dirk Friel:

Yeah. Having something on the calendar is just so darn motivating, you know?

Gabriela Gallegos:

It is, really! Well, initially thinking of that as a virtual date on the calendar, didn’t feel real. And now that does feel real, right? As we’ve shifted a lot of how we’re doing business.

Dirk Friel:

Right. And could that not also, maybe attract even people that were not going to show up in the first place?

Gabriela Gallegos:

Oh, we’ve seen a great increase in people who had never done a race before. And I think that part has been really cool because there’s a certain element of the pressure & intimidation factor that are just lifted, right? If you don’t have to go and you don’t feel like you look the part, or you don’t have the outfit, or you don’t know what to expect, signing up for a virtual race is very low risk, right? Very low risk. You can upload your results. You can not upload your results, right? Like you get to kind of control the speed of your competitiveness in a different way.

Dirk Friel:

Right. So how about on the business side of things? Is this all volunteer? Do you have staff? Do you have to do layoffs? Any on the financial side of things or are you going to have to close down some races or what does all that mean to you?

Gabriela Gallegos:

Yeah, the uncertainty has been really challenging and really scary, really, because you don’t quite see where that endpoint is coming and where business will pick up as usual and kind of get back to what you could expect and predict. And the race production business is a hard one to begin with. 

So you’re looking at income from registration fees, from sponsorships and then for some races from merchandise and that’s kind of it. I guess some have rental equipment, there might be an accompanying timing company, I don’t happen to do race timing. But it’s already a tough business, right? So it’s tough, but you can kind of predict when prices increase, [when] you’re going to have a bump and all those sorts of things. What happened this year was that as soon as the virus took hold and shelter-in-place orders started, and this was right about spring break in March, all income stopped. 

So, you could predictably see what to expect week-to-week, more or less you could look at last year and you kind of know what the year is going to look like. If you haven’t made any major changes, it stopped like a complete wall. And that was not surprising, but still a lot wrap your head around because now all bets are off with what you think you can forecast. And then whether people would be willing to do virtual racing was another big question. So I am glad that people have come along to it because, although it doesn’t have the same sorts of income potential or expectation with like sponsorship or race fees and all that kind of stuff, at least it does give that somewhat steady flow to kind of keep things like staff and rent and all of the ordinary overhead charges in place. 

So I have an assistant race director and I have an intern and both of them work with Race El Paso exclusively. And then I have an office. And of course you have all of the other stuff that you need to pay for races, right? So all of that stuff is still in play. I don’t have a huge staff and I don’t have giant expenses that a large race company might have, that’s producing events with thousands of people. But there’s still overhead. And that’s something that is concerning, so it’s been stressful. I think it favors those who are nimble and willing to take some new risks and see how you can make it work

Dirk Friel:

Right. Now, what about other race directors? You’re on the USA Triathlon Board of Directors. You obviously interact, I assume, with other race directors. Have you heard of some of them just giving up and saying, I can’t survive this, we won’t happen at all, even in the future?

Gabriela Gallegos:

I know that there have been some that are looking at a specific point in time, where it will no longer be workable. If we hit this point, I don’t see how how we’re going to survive. Every company is a little bit different with what their profits look like, how their overhead is structured, how many employees they have, how many events. Maybe they have two huge events, but nothing the rest of the year, or maybe they have 20 small events that are now all impacted. 

So all of those things I think are impacting different race production companies a little bit differently. Everybody has been hurt by this, right? Because there simply is no great way to maintain the income that you’re used to when you can’t produce what your product is, right? So all of that has changed. I don’t think that all event production companies will survive. I don’t think all of them are in a good spot. Timing was a big deal with this year. So the ones that I think have been deeply affected and were immediately maybe had races that were coming up in late March, early April. And so they likely spent the majority, the funds on the race and then couldn’t have the race,

Dirk Friel:

Right. You have to wait an entire year.

Gabriela Gallegos:

Yeah, exactly. So the timing was really, really tight on some of those.

Dirk Friel:

Are there other races in your region that are actually happening and maybe scaled back?

Gabriela Gallegos:

Everything seems to be very, very local, right? So if you’re looking at a state and how a state is responding, you’re looking at all of those restrictions. And then all of the virus changes and the transmission rates and all of those sorts of things. So you might have state regulations, but then beyond that, you’re also looking at your municipalities and what is able to happen there. 

So in Texas, we are not and I don’t know of any events that have taken place. It is possible that there are some in rural areas that are very small or that maybe have done a little bit more makeshift, you know, it’s a virtual race, but here’s your course, you can move it on this day. I know that in other parts of the country, there have been small events that have been successfully pulled off and followed all of [the] safety precautions and done as much as they possibly could for their athletes to have a great experience. But you know, it’s made me laugh at… in Arizona, Texas, and Florida, where I have events or event affiliates, all of them are in rough shape, as far as the health of the state is going. 

Dirk Friel:

Yeah. It’s not getting any better, unfortunately. Would you see a difference between running races and triathlon races, in terms of which might come back first? I mean, they each have their own unique kind of barriers to entry and in the world of COVID, but it would just seem maybe a running race with the time trial start or small wave start might be the easiest events to get going.

Gabriela Gallegos

Yeah. I’ve actually thought about this a little bit because for a triathlon, if you are in open water, that opens up the world a little bit because you can space and you can be in a time trial situation where you’re starting one-at-a-time or small waves. And that can help space out participants throughout the event, right?

In running events, even if you have smaller waves, everybody needs to start and everybody needs to gather to get put into those waves. And so that’s where I’ve been trying to picture, what would this look like? I’m thinking about the half marathon that I have in November, right? So what would it look like because you do have a mass gathering usually, even if you’re doing that and then trying to sort everyone. You also may be closer together than you might be if you’re spaced out in a triathlon.

So I think a lot of it is dependent on the size and the distances and the number of participants. But the financial calculation is an interesting one that comes into play because for running events, one of the beauties of it, are that if you close the road, you can hold a hundred people or a thousand people. And it costs the same to close that same road. In triathlon they tend to be more limited because it’s longer distance, right? Like you’re trying to close more of that road, it’s more expensive. So, there may be all of these limiting factors and to safely pull it off, there may need to be some restrictions on the size. But it’s that calculation of if we’re limiting the number of participants so that we can keep them as healthy as possible, have we hit the threshold to even break-even on the race? Or is that going to be the next question of can we even pull this one off?

Dirk Friel:

So is it an all or nothing proposition? There’s different phased guidelines from USA Triathlon, correct? They came out with a doccument for race directors and we’re in phase one, virtual racing only. Phase two, I believe is limited numbers, spacing. Phase three is almost a hundred percent. Are you thinking you need to wait till it’s all or nothing? Like we were back to normal or I’m not going to have an in person race?

Gabriela Gallegos: 

Everybody has a different threshold, right? Of like risk tolerance and what they’re comfortable with personally. And then also what they’re comfortable with professionally in terms of offering for their athletes. I don’t think it has to be an all or nothing. I think there are precautions that can be taken so that things can be safely done well, spaced out, you know, we’re outside, we’re exercising outside. So all of those are positives. 

What is a little bit difficult to consider is what does the spirit of the race feel like, right? So if you are able to execute it with measures in place that you feel comfortable, are adhering to safety protocols and [you are] doing the best you can for your athletes, are you asking them to leave when they cross the finish line or is there an expo or is there going to be a gathering point? Is it now less community feel and more individual feel so that you can keep people away from each other? I think it gets really, really specific to that place, that venue, that community, that size of the event all of those considerations. So there’s a lot of layers to figuring out how to move forward.

Dirk Friel:

Right. I mean, you mentioned it earlier, it’s more about the gathering and that’s not just participants, that’s the family, that’s the supporters and the community that you want to engage with. So yeah, you might be able to actually pull off a race and have it be relatively safe. And everybody’s risk tolerance is managed with a lot of precautions, but then, like you said, are we just asking people to go home afterwards and have their own parties at home and virtual award ceremonies?

Gabriela Gallegos:

Right. Or asking, “You can come, but none of your friends and family can cheer for you.”

Dirk Friel:

That’s where I’m wondering about the upcoming Tour de France, even where athletes could be safe and held isolated in a hotel, but are we going to have thousands of fans lining the roads? And you face the same, the same issues, right?

So yeah, it’s going to be interesting to see what are… I mean you’re making a decision, obviously you said two months out, whether that’s going to happen or not. Are there any additional approval processes now, because of health? You mentioned six applications that you have to gain. Is there now a state health ordinance, local, county is there now seven or eight instead of six?

Gabriella Gallegos:

So not that I’m aware of so far with that one. But so to give you an idea, each event takes place in a different venue that I put on. And each of those different venues are also dealing with different municipalities, counties, cities, and states. So the half marathon that I produce in November, it’s in Texas and New Mexico in two different states, counties and towns. 

And so there’s multiple levels of approvals that now you’re dealing with two different state responses to COVID-19, which I’m sure you realize Texas and New Mexico are treating very, very differently. So what may be allowable and one may not be allowable in another. So that’s all possible. I have not seen additional permitting that’s going through a public health department or that sort of thing. I do think that in putting together my plan, if I am trying to kind of gain support would really be to come with a comprehensive plan.

And this is how everything is going to be treated. This is how the permanent agencies should be considering how this year will be different. So I do think that all of those things are going to be considered by permanent agencies. Some are going to have hard and fast rules,  like we’ve pulled everything through October, or we’re deciding week-to-week. All of them are handling things a little bit differently, and that adds a lot of complexity to figuring out what you can expect, even two months down the line.


Dirk Friel:

Have you considered temperature checks? Like we’ve seen some grocery stores, et cetera, taking temperature of people coming in the front doors?


Gabriela Gallegos:

Absolutely. So I think if I was… and like I said, I’m in the district right now, so that I know my events have been canceled out through October. So if I was thinking about putting on an event in the next month or two, and I was in a state like that, I think I would be thinking about temperature checks about pre-event surveys, you know, to go through a checklist of where you’ve been, have you been exposed, you know, just to kind of have that extra precaution and notice to participants that they need to be thinking about this. So I think you would be going through all of those, all of those kinds of maneuvers to make sure that the people who are coming are coming healthy as much as we can possibly possibly be at this point.


Dirk Friel:

Yeah. And you may not have body markings, you might have tattoos or something they put on prior to even showing up.


Gabriela Gallegos

For sure. I think there would be a lot of emphasis on athletes being self-sufficient, so maybe instead of bottle handoff, it needs to be, bring your own hydration and expect to, to use that and carry it. Picking up your own food rather than having it handed to you. You know, there’s a lot of little things that I think would shift over to the athlete. So the volunteers might be setting up and monitoring, but then they would be stepping away so that they also didn’t have any unnecessary contact.

Dirk Friel:

Yeah. I mean, I’ve heard of, even in Colorado, some small gravel bike races happening. Aid stations are set up, but you have to fill your own water bottles, wave starts or start on your own. It’s spread out, but it’s all on the same day—participants were really happy and it was smaller, under 150 people total. So we might see some of those type of events picking up.

Gabriela Gallegos:

And the benefit to that is that it’s very personal. So that creates an entirely different race environment that can still also be fantastic.


Dirk Friel:

How about… to kind of get more on the positive side of things, are you seeing new runners? You know, out on the trails?


Gabriela Gallegos:

I think people are outside and riding bikes and running more than we’ve ever seen before. So it is not just the usual suspects. It is people who maybe [were] feeling stuck for a few weeks and then realized, I just need to go outside. I just need to go for a walk. I have had this bike for years and I haven’t been on it and I am going to go get it tuned up. So I think that we’re seeing a really great resurgence in the value of an active lifestyle. Really.


Dirk Friel:

Yeah. I mean, I’m definitely seeing the same thing. The trails are packed. I think a lot of that is new folks. Bike sales, I’ve heard, have been way up. So, I’m hoping that we can nurture these new folks to stick with the running, to stick with the biking, they might get more educated and think about actually doing an event when things open up. 

So I’m hopeful that this means growth for triathlon running, cycling, endurance in general. People are looking inward to try to become better through this experience. And we’re seeing growth that I hope translates to more participants in the future. So is that some of the sentiment within USA Triathlon, or even your own thoughts?


Dirk Friel:

Yeah. I think it’s a huge opportunity and I am hopeful that people who have maybe found running and cycling through this time period, stick with it. I think it’s likely. I hope that we can capture that going forward and welcome them into racing. I don’t know what that translation’s going to look like, just because again, we don’t know what the timeline looks like. But I am super hopeful about it. I think people have returned to that joy of it, and maybe it’s not getting ready for the marathon that they’ve had charted at this point, but it’s like just enjoying the running.

Dirk Friell:

Yeah, exactly. And that process, I like to say being an athlete isn’t, one month a year, you can, you can improve year-over-year and it’s incremental steps. And so we can all embrace that process and become a better athlete even without the actual event right there in front of us. But hopefully this all does lead to more growth. Hopefully we have a different conversation come early 2021, and your races are back on the calendar.

Gabriel Gallegos:

That’s the hope! I think that there will be some things that probably stick around for a while just because it’s going to take awhile to envision what things look like going forward, right? In terms of gatherings and health and safety precautions, some of them will probably be positive, some of them will be a little weird and then we’ll figure out what things need to look like going forward.


Dirk Friel:

Yeah. Well, thanks so much for your thoughts. I really applaud you for all the hard work you’ve done over the years. You have so many events and obviously you’ve helped grow the sport immensely with a lot of new athletes coming through your events. So I appreciate that. Hopefully we have better times here in [the] beginning of 2021. So thank you so much for all your thank you.

Gabriela Gallegos:

I really appreciate it. I am excited to be your first race director.


Dirk Friel:

Yeah, that’s on me. Me too. Hopefully we’ll definitely have more. Thank you, Gabriela.

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