I've participated in the sport at a variety of levels; athlete, event volunteer, course coordinator, and race director. Over the past four months, I've worn the red polo shirt of a USAT official and worked the water, transition, bike and run courses of sprint, intermediate and long distance events.
I walked through the transition area of an intermediate (Olympic distance) triathlon during the first week of September and heard someone say, 'oh, the penalty guys are here.' That's one way to hurt someone's feelings, even if they are wearing a red or zebra-striped polo shirt.
The role of a USAT certified official blends two different professions, that of educator and of law enforcer. Before the gun goes off, the referee/s work to make certain the "playing field" is safe and fair for everyone. The head referee for a race wears a zebra-striped shirt and serves as the final authority when it comes to the rules and penalties. Any violation written by an assistant referee (who wear red shirts) is verified or can be nullified by the head referee, depending on the assistant's description. Not even the race director can overturn a violation penalty. The zebra serves as defense counsel, prosecution, judge, jury and (regrettably, sometimes) executioner.
The referees check the water temperature to determine if wetsuits can be used, review the transition layout to every athlete travels the same amount of distance as their fellow participants, checks to make certain bikes are safe, legal, numbered and racked correctly, looks at helmets and equipment to make certain they meet USAT standards, and answers rules-related questions.
Once the gun goes off, it's time to enforce the rules.
Often, new and relatively-inexperienced participants suffer - at the least first-race or tri-newbie angst, at the worst variable time penalties and even disqualification - for mistakes made in training or in training groups. Really.
I think back to my first handful of races; I would have been penalized at least twice in my first triathlon and probably disqualified in my first long-distance triathlon for rules I said I knew and agreed to follow when I signed my event waiver. So, not only am I talking from the perspective of a guy who knows most all of the relevant rules, I'm talking from a guy who's seen or broken most of the easily-broken rules.
So, let's talk about some things you can do to make those first few races go more smoothly.
Before you go inside transition, make sure you've mounted your race numbers on your bike and helmet. Both should be clearly visible from the left-hand side. Make certain your body marking is clear and large. If the race director provides body marking tattoos, place them slowly and carefully. Most importantly, check to see whether your tires are inflated, gears shift and - most importantly - the ends of your handlebars are plugged. If they aren't, ask a transition volunteer to direct you to bike tech support. In the case of the bar ends, they have to be plugged or you won't be able to ride that bike. Of all the rules referees are charged to enforce the bar end rule is one of the three which can lead to a disqualification.
Once you are in transition, it's all about you. Some events are more stringent than others in keeping family members out of transition. It's both for the safety of the racers and the security of their gear; some bikes I've seen are two months' worth of paychecks on skinny tires.
Once you find your rack area, place your bike either with the handlebars on the rack or hang it by the saddle. Now take a look at your bike. Whatever way you have racked it, the space from the rail from where you hung the bike out to where your bike wheel touches the ground is space which is reserved for your gear. If there's no space in the area where you are supposed to rack your bike, talk to the racers in that area, a transition volunteer or a referee to help adjust the bikes. Staggering so every second bike faces the same direction allows each racer to have a space up to 75 centimeters wide (the legal maximum width of a bicycle according to USAT competition rules) for their gear.
Take a moment or two to look at the layout of really experienced triathletes. You'll find they have less gear than the less-experienced athlete. It's not necessarily that they have more on the bike, but they've learned to bring the least amount of gear necessary for their event. I recall the layout of a guy in my age group from my first triathlon; he had a stool for a seat, a bucket for his feet, not to mention the towel, helmet, bike shoes, water bottle, etc. His wife stepped in to assist him in transition, too, but that's another story.
So the gun has gone off and you got through the swim - I'm usually smiling about this point, because if anything is going to do me in it's going to be the swim.
Once you've come out of the water and entered transition for the first time, think: Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast. Put on the helmet first. Set it properly on your head. Facing forward - only the pros are required to wear their helmet properly, but a properly worn helmet is a helmet which might save your life. Buckle the chin strap. Good. Now work on everything else. Once you have the shoes and helmet on, walk quickly and smoothly to the mount line, then get on the bike.
The unbuckled chinstrap can get you in a world of trouble if you mount your bike; it's a variable time penalty in transition and a disqualification if you're on the course. I've seen new racers with buckled chinstraps which hang down like they were playing hockey. Or the helmet is tilted back on their head; especially ladies who have pinned their hair up. The helmet has to fit snugly; a loose helmet is one which won't protect the head in a crash.
I saw an athlete walk through transition toward the mount line at a recent race. I called out, 'racer number (blank)...racer number (blank)...YO, DUDE!' He couldn't hear me. He was wearing an iPod. Another racer had a set of headphones hanging around his neck.
Music headphones are not allowed in triathlon events. Even if they aren't on your ears. Outside of being dangerous on the bike, because it's impossible to tell who or what may be approaching, USAT considers music players, cell phones and radio devices unauthorized equipment, something which can be used to provide a tempo (pace) reinforcement or possibly provide you information on the location of fellow competitors. Either way you want to look at the use, it merits a variable time penalty.
The bike leg of a triathlon has four very simple rules; ride on the right hand side of the road. Pass on the left hand side of the road. Stay back three bike lengths from any rider in front of you. Make the pass in 15 seconds; once you make the pass keep pedaling and move to the right side of the road. If you're passed, move back three bike lengths before trying to make a pass. The hard part, usually, is that inexperienced riders are used to riding side-by-side with friends or being closer than three bike lengths apart from another rider.
Hear those motorcycles? That's the referees. They're riding along to make certain all the riders are following the rules. A group of riders on the road is usually a tell-tale sign for the motorcycle and referee to come watch and make sure everyone is playing fairly.
Sometimes the sound of a cycle will make riders tighten up their distance or position. Other times it will force a rider to attempt the pass because they were too close when we arrived - 7 meters/23 feet is closer than most people think, but once you're within that space there's only one legal way out. Through the front. In 15 seconds.
If someone is drafting off you, don't yell at them or argue. If there is enough referee coverage on the course they'll be eventually found out.
When you get to transition, slow down before you hit the dismount line. Get off the bike, then walk into the transition. Again, remember the mantra...slow is smooth. Smooth is fast. Set your bike on the rack, remove your helmet, then put on your shoes.
We've had many racers ask whether their spouse/child/friend can run with them on the run course. Only if they run with everyone else, we tell them. Impossible? Only one family member and hundreds of runners? I guess it wouldn't be fair then, would it? They can stand along the curb and cheer you on, but don't use your cell phone to chat with them. Remember, those things aren't allowed, right?
And while we're talking about being on the course, make certain that everything you take with you during the event stays with you. Don't toss your empty bike bottles or gel packets unless you're literally in sight of an aid station. A lot of towns really are down on triathlon events because the participants treat their roadways and lots like it is their own personal rubbish bin.
And if you find you've been penalized after the event, the head referee normally stays until the end of the awards presentations to answer rules and violation questions. They might have written your violation, or their assistant/s may have. Either way, they will be able to explain what was seen on course and how it violated the rules.
Multisport is like golf for the high-strung: You can have the perfect race and still find areas which need improvement. You can focus on one area and get really good, then suddenly find out you've slipped in the other two. So, it's a balance of power, speed, technique and smarts...two hours of racing can whip your butt for the day...or you can achieve a state of euphoria after six hours. Find the distance you like and try it out.