For nearly two decades, the Kiawah Island Triathlon has offered a goal for people from newbies to seasoned veterans to train for a challenging event at the end of the summer.
Additionally, the Olympic-distance event, featuring a 1.5K swim, 45K bike and 10K run, was the only triathlon in the area other than the Charleston Sprint Triathlon Series. It was the only recent event to feature an ocean swim.
But it appears that the Kiawah triathlon, held 19 times in total and 17 times consecutively, is history unless the organizer can work out a deal with officials inside the gates of Kiawah Island.
The issue is multifaceted, involving complaints about traffic by Kiawah Island residents and a race director staging a triathlon on private land leased to a public entity. It has caused some local weekend warriors to jump to conclusions, complain and generate rumors.
Recently, triathlon race director Mike Loggins and Patt Loggins emailed past participants, saying that the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission “decided they no longer will allow us to hold the event at Beachwalker (County) Park.”
“They (PRC officials) have cited safety concerns, inconveniencing their beachgoers on that day, and that Race Director Mike Loggins has been harsh to their park staff,” the email stated, adding multiple editorial comments in parentheses. “In the end, the loser is you, the triathlete, and the (beneficiary) Low Country Little League.”
The Logginses, who own The Extra Mile running shop and organize races through Logman Racing, urged that any opinions be directed via email to Donna Gueldner, the superintendent of PRC's Park & Recreation Services.
As of last Thursday, Gueldner had received 29 emails from people, and she described the general tone of those emails as one of “disappointment.”
“Quite a few (of them) think that the event is a PRC event and suggest that if the problem is the race director that we should hire someone else. ... The others say that it is well-organized and managed event and sing Mike Loggins' praises.”
She added out-of-town participants asked why an event would be canceled that brings revenue to Kiawah's lodging and restaurants, “which makes me think they believe we (the commission) are Kiawah.”
Gueldner's response to the emails was a form letter, which didn't make some senders happy, saying the decision was a “difficult one” and that the “increasing demands of the race have exceeded the capabilities of the park and the park's staff.”
“We hope that the race directors are able to continue the event at a new location that is more suited to the race's needs,” the email said, adding that it is not in the interests of PRC to “deprive local athletes to compete and commune in a fun, healthy event.”
Traffic & Kiawah
Commission Executive Director Tom O'Rourke, who is a triathlete and runner himself and supportive of participant endurance sports, rarely gets into the nitty-gritty of operational issues such as this one. But he wanted to weigh in on it because PRC has been an advocate for physical fitness.
First, O'Rourke underscored that the commission did not cancel the event. After all, the triathlon is not PRC's to cancel.
Second, O'Rourke said the problem lies in the fact that the PRC does not own Beachwalker County Park, which has been nationally heralded as one of best beaches in the United States. Beachwalker, in fact, is the only park property that the commission leases, a 100-year arrangement that dates back to the original development of Kiawah Island.
“Over 30 years ago when the developers from Kuwait came to County Council to get their Development Agreement passed, the council told them they had to set some place aside for the public to gain access to the beach. A lease agreement was drawn up with very strict guidelines ... (and) stated that we will operate a 120-parking space parking lot and path to the beach.”
O'Rourke says the closing of Folly Beach County Park in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene shifted a significant amount of beach traffic to Kiawah's Beachwalker in the past year, “causing a parking nightmare at Beachwalker.” When the lot filled up, cars proceeded to the private gate at Kiawah or parked on the right of way.
That didn't make Kiawah residents happy.
A new venue?
O'Rourke says parking for the triathlon has been an issue for years, but when it was held this year, even in the early daylight hours of Sept. 15, it was the straw that broke the camel's back.
“The cars lined up later in the morning, and we got hammered (with complaints),” says O'Rourke. “When we go over the parking limit, they don't call Mike Loggins. They call us.”
O'Rourke adds that keeping the triathlon, which draws 200-250 people once a year, wasn't a fight PRC was ready to put up. Also, since Kiawah Island demonstrated its capability to park thousands of cars for the PGA Championship, it certainly could park hundreds for a triathlon.
Last Thursday, Loggins had yet to contact anyone at Kiawah about hosting the event, but planned to call Kiawah Development Partners CEO Buddy Darby.
Meanwhile, Loggins characterizes the parking and traffic issue as “an excuse” to terminate the triathlon and that he has met every demand of the commission for years, such as lowering the registrant cap from 400 to 300 and moving the start time from 8 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.
For those distressed over the potential end of an event, I view this as simply growing pains of ever-more popular endurance sports events. I've seen events come and go, and while some hold a certain level of tradition, the void will be filled. There's simply too much demand, and money to be made. Stay tuned.