TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I had the pleasure recently of talking triathlon with the TCSD's Director of Sponsorships, Cory Gasaway. I was thoroughly impressed with how professionally Cory handles his volunteer role for the club which is critical for us to continue and thrive. I’m sure you will enjoy getting to know this husband, father, product manager, volunteer and Ironman Finisher.
Craig: What was your sports background before triathlon?
Cory: I really didn’t have an extensive background in sports. I grew up swimming in New Mexico State University’s youth program and went to the New Mexico state equivalent of championships as well as some International Dual meets with teams from Juarez, Mexico, but was never very “decorated” as an athlete award wise. I often joked that I DQ’d more races than I won. I stopped swimming at about 10 years old and switched over to tennis. I played tennis and lettered in high school but I viewed tennis as something to do after school with my friends and not really a serious pursuit. In reality, my every waking minute of junior high and high school was spent drumming. I would spend several hours a day playing, listening to Rush, working on that craft, etc. In college, I did a bit of intramural tennis (sometimes sober!), but again it was mainly drumming in bands, marching band and drum and bugle corps.
Craig: How did you get start racing triathlons and what was your first triathlon like?
Cory: My wife, Carol, also a TCSD member whom I refer to as “my faster half”, met in college at James Madison University and moved out to San Diego together in 1997. We lived here for about 13 years, had our two daughters here and then a job opportunity took us from San Diego to Austin, TX. That was 2009. We got to Texas, I took a look at my “new life” there and was very happy and excited with all aspects of my life... except my health. A cross country move, a 4 year old and 2 month old baby, Information Technology job, and several helpings of Austin Bar-B-Q and I found myself weighing about 217 pounds and no real plan to do anything about it. So we just happened to move into a neighborhood where within a few blocks from our house lived quite a few endurance athletes and several multi-time Ironman finishers and I thought, well this seems pretty obvious. I know I can swim, I think I can bike, and I know I can run... or walk. So I literally drove down to Barnes and Noble and did what every IT professional does when they need to research something... I bought a Triathlon for Dummies book and registered for the 2010 Austin Sprint Triathlon. I then drove down the street to a sports store, bought a $110 Schwinn bike and thought all the hard work was done.
I approached the “training” as such a novice. I remember running one day and hitting 3.1 miles and thinking “Ok, the running part of the training is done.” Luckily, our neighbors helped with tips and I managed not to kill myself along the way. Austin is a great city in general, but it really has an amazing triathlon community and base. Those two facts, combined with friends we had made in our neighborhood that raced and I was hooked. About a month later I signed up for my second triathlon, a 70.3... Obviously. Carol soon started doing them with me as well and we both were bit by the bug. It was about this time that I realized we had just moved away from the triathlon “Mecca” and had never even attempted or cared to do one when we lived here. We planned on maybe coming back to San Diego one year for a vacation and doing a local race. Little did we know we would be moving back here in 2012 as I was hired by my former boss to return. The excitement of being able to participate in the great triathlon scene we have here was definitely a big factor in our move.
Craig: You moved up to the Ironman distance pretty fast. Which Ironman races have you done and how did they go for you?
Cory: Ha! I don’t know that my plan was the most recommended but it worked for me. After having done a couple of 70.3’s and Olympic distance races, myself, along with a good friend and training partner just looked at each other one day and said “Let’s do Ironman Texas”. I remember registering and hovering my mouse on the “Submit” button while on the phone with her saying “Are you sure? Did you click it yet? Do we really want to do this?”…because I was afraid I would register and then she would not get registered in time and I would be stuck by myself.
IMTX itself was and is a great race. The venue is wonderful, the crowds are exciting, and it was awesome. The race was rather uneventful, mainly because I had a great coach who had really done a great job in preparing me for everything. The only story that was interesting had to do with the swim. I am a pretty good swimmer so I usually get towards the front and do well. While I was treading water before the swim, a guy kicked my ankle and I didn’t think anything about it but as soon as the cannon went off and I start swimming I felt something hitting my calf. I realized it was my timing chip. I had safety pinned it on but realized something was wrong so in the midst of the lovely mass of humanity that is an Ironman swim start, I quickly reached down and found that the strap holding the chip had ripped through and the timing chip basically just slid off into my hand. I think I muttered a few colorful metaphors and remember thinking “dude, you are getting ready to get mauled if you don’t move it.” It was a no wetsuit swim, so I couldn’t shove it in my suit, so I simply held the chip in my left hand and did a closed fist drill for the 2.4 miles in my left hand. I still managed a 1:15 so I was pleased. I came out of the water yelling “Timing, Timing”; they got me a new strap and I was on my way. I finished in 13:39, was able to hear Mike Reilly call out my name, had Chrissie Wellington put my finisher medal on and I thought “This does not suck!” Next morning, we all had breakfast together and as most first time Ironman finishers say afterwards “I am never doing that again...” and then as most first time Ironman finishers do 6 months later.... I signed up for Ironman Arizona.
Craig: Why was Ironman Arizona a better experience for you?
Cory: Mainly for 3 reasons, the biggest of which was simply changing my mindset. My goal at IMTX was simply to finish, but I set out on IMAZ with a mindset that I need to push myself and improve. I made a goal early on to shave an hour off of my time from IMTX and started planning accordingly. I stopped focusing so much on solely letting data, running rates, HR zones, etc., dictate my training/racing and instead started just trying to compete and push myself. With so many races here during the summer, the more I raced, the more I felt good about how I was doing and how I was feeling and I changed my mind from saying “You are going too fast, slow down and save it” to “You are going fast, you are doing well, your training is working, keep it up.” Now I am not saying it is a good idea to stop monitoring all that data, but it is a balance and the technical guy in me had swung way too far to one side of the pendulum and balancing back helped me.
The second reason was the course layout in Arizona. It is an awesome venue and course sets up well for me. For example, the IMTX bike course is a one loop...one 112 mile boring loop. No other way to say it. You leave the main race area, race on chip sealed roads through farms and cow pastures and little to no crowds for 99% of the ride. Your mind starts to wander. I had a great nutrition plan worked out for the bike, hit the ride, was doing great, got caught up in the moment of realizing I was actually doing an Ironman, hit mile 80 and looked down and had forgot to consume most of my nutrition. When you forget that part, suddenly get back to T2 in 90+ degrees, 80% humidity at 2:30PM in Houston to start a marathon you are in for some suffering. IMAZ on the other hand is 3 loops for the bike, all out and back so six equal segments. It was so much easier for me to execute my nutrition plan. I would ride out, hit the end of the leg, turn around, sit up, take my nutrition, then hammer down to the next turn around, sit up, take nutrition in, hammer down etc. It also let me break up the ride in my mind more easily. I could be struggling and say “4 miles until the turn around, then you got the wind at your back”, which was a huge motivator. This allowed me to break 6 hours on the bike which was a goal and literally finish 100% of my planned nutrition on schedule.
The last, in all honesty, was TCSD. The scheduled workouts and rides each week that members get are incredible. I utilized several but the main was Bill Gleason’s Tuesday Night Ventura Cove swim. He is a great coach and this session offered a great level of intensity and real open water race condition training. As narrow as the race lane is for IMAZ with that many people, I found it to be one of the more intense swims starts I have ever done and Bill’s class helped me handle it well which gave me a great start to the day. And although it goes without saying, the members and friends I made and trained with helped along the way.
All of these factors made IMAZ a great day for me. Allowed me to break my IMTX by just over an hour and more importantly had a great day with a lot of TCSD members both racing alongside as well as cheering and volunteering along the way. For those that don’t know, TCSD was the TriClub Division Champion for IMAZ, and I was happy to have helped contribute to the team’s win.
Craig: Did I hear something about you and a sub sandwich at IMAZ?
Cory: Ha, yes well, as I was coming into the end of the bike I could not have been happier. I knew I was going to break 6 hours on the bike, knew the nutrition had gone well and my stomach started growling and I was hungry for real food. I had done a lot of training blocks in the past right after lunches at work or with solid food during long rides off and on and I could tell I was really hungry for real food. I came into T2 and the volunteer said, “What can I get you?” I said, “I need some water without ice and any solid food you might have.” He said, “I have pretzels, cookies or sub sandwiches.” I literally remember the moment freezing, like a movie scene where car breaks skid in the background. “You have sandwiches?” He said, “Yep, here” and handed me a Turkey sandwich. I ripped off everything except the meet and bread, headed out of T2 and ran the first mile gnawing on this sandwich. I remember hearing people cheering as I ran by say “Does that dude have a sub sandwich???”. It became this funny story after the race and a race photographer even caught me eating it in a photo. Again, not recommending it for anyone else but it helped me that day for sure.
Craig: Your wife Carol has been very successful with her brief triathlon career. As a family, how do you balance 2 adults training, racing, raising children, careers and relationships with family and friends?
Cory: Well anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes with me face to face knows that I am very proud of my wife, Carol, and I have no problem whatsoever talking about her to anyone who will listen. I feel like Bob Babbitt sometimes talking about a pro he interviewed or something... But I am proud and she is quiet and humble so I brag. In the last 2 years she has done 13 races (1 overall female win, 7 age group wins, and last year she got on the podium in every race she did except one where she got 4th, a week after a stingray sting from the La Jolla Shores....sorry, I am bragging about her again aren't I....). Also in the family is Reagan (8) and Madison (4). If you have seen 2 girls running around race finish areas wearing tutus and trying to steal more expo samples, that is most likely them.
We do get asked this question by our friends often and while we don’t have a failsafe plan, we have been able to work out something that seems to work for both of us. Mainly, we have the understanding and acceptance that we don’t get to train or race together much at the same time/race. As a result, we have to pick and choose our races carefully and allow each of us time to prepare for our own “A” races. For example, last fall was “Cory time” so every weekend leading up to IMAZ, Carol simply knew that she was on kid duty and that I was going to be gone a lot. I would come home from a long ride/run, walk in, kiss her, and she would tag off and head out for a run/bike/swim while I napped with the girls. After IMAZ, that switched over to “Carol time” for this year. She is doing Oceanside and has USAT Nationals in Milwaukee later this year. The weekend mornings are hers and I do what I can during the week and after she gets home to get my workouts in. I will do another Ironman distance most likely next year and we will switch back and forth as needed. But in general we have a good balance of being completely selfish and unselfish with each other’s time when needed.
But we also do our own kind of dates to spend quality time together. While many people will get sitters on a Friday night for dinner and a movie, we have our babysitter show up to the house at 7am on a Saturday so we can go to Great Western Loop with our friends. If she is lucky, I might even throw in Chipotle for lunch afterwards. Spare no expense. It is also not uncommon for us to put the kids to bed, dim the lights... and get out the trainers and ride together through a True Detective or Walking Dead episode.
Also, we both agree that our kid’s come first and that they will be our main focus always. So our Mission Bay runs usually include Reagan and Madison leading us along the way on their scooters or time at the pool will be Carol lap swimming while I swim with the girls and then tag off to get my swim in. This is the healthy lifestyle we are trying to live and promote to our kids. Carol and I feel strongly about being positive role models to the girls and Carol’s increased involvement with the TCSD Youth program is another way to help out as Reagan prepares for her first triathlon this year. By the way, Reagan did the Rock and Roll Kids 1 mile run last year in 7:30... am I bragging again about my girls? Sorry.
Craig: How did the Director of Sponsorships position fall in your lap?
Cory: When we moved back to San Diego in 2012, we had a lot of old friends that we were looking forward to see again, but since we had never raced here, we knew nobody in the triathlon community here in town. We knew of the club and had seen logos and kits at races before in Texas, so we had a feeling we were going to be involved once we got here. Carol attended an Intro night with Paula Munoz and Jay Lewis and the next morning she signed us both up. About a week later the email asking for applicants for the Sponsorship Director came through the Yahoo group and I decided right away it would be a great way to quickly meet a lot of people and become involved at a high level. I applied, and started in the position about a week later. Carol and I have met so many awesome people, both in club, as well as local business owners, etc. It was a great decision, and one I don’t regret at all.
Craig: Everyone "in the know" recognizes you are the ideal person to be Sponsorship Director. Why have you been such a good fit in this position?
Cory: I appreciate the compliment and have been happy with the job I have been able to do so far but I there is no way I would be able to keep this going without the help of Dave McMahon, the previous Sponsorship Director, the Board of Directors and especially Steve Banister. I certainly don’t operate in a vacuum and am sure Steve is happy when a day or two goes by without a text from me.
As far as my fit in the role, in short it is because this is very similar to my “day job” that I do for a living. I manage a team of product managers for Sony Network Entertainment, or as most people probably know it by, the Sony PlayStation Network. My team is responsible for building out many of the features anyone who uses a PlayStation or other Sony connected device to access, buy, play etc. over the Internet. My definition of what product management does is basically the “CEO” of a given product. We are responsible for identifying what the customers want or need, how important it is to them, what they are willing to pay for it and how we translate that into a product we can sell to the end consumer. I view that as no different than my role here for TCSD. While the club is a “club”, it is also most definitely a business with many of our own business partners, customers and “employees”. I use the term customer but only because that is how I view it in my role for TCSD. The sponsors ARE my customers, and if I and TCSD provide them a good product, with strong customer service, then they will come back again and again and will turn into a partner for years to come.
Like in any business, my job is to work with the Board in supporting their initiatives for the year, understand the budget constraints we are up against and put together a “product” that not only our sponsors are willing to “buy” but will deliver either the cash or product that will make our members happy. The membership TCSD has, and more importantly, getting access to the membership for marketing purposes is something that sponsors have valued significantly in the past. So, we have to productize that in a way we can maximize the benefit the club can receive from a given sponsor while balancing that with maximizing the return on investment a sponsor will get for their advertising dollars with us. That is why we have recently tried to max out our advertising channels to help get our sponsors message out. We recently appointed Kat Gunsur to Director of Social Media. I can’t stress enough how phenomenal of a job she does keeping Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+ updated with our sponsor’s message, promotional ads, etc. Sponsors see the activity we have for TCSD and find real value in it. We have also offered up focus groups to sponsors who want to try out new products and get direct feedback from their ideal customer demographic, and have even helped introduce partners from outside the area to local retailers in hope of helping them establish direct retailers in San Diego County to get their product out. Just trying to squeeze out all of the possible value the club can provide to the sponsors to make us the most attractive marketing option they have to the triathlon community here in town. So far, so good.
Craig: What are the criteria we look for as a club when we decide to partner with a sponsor?
Cory: I try to focus on 3 main things:
Are they to be a good fit for TCSD?
Going back to my previous answer, we are trying to establish ourselves as a good investment for our customers but there is a saying in business that the only thing worse than not having a customer is having a bad customer. For TCSD this mainly means that we need to make sure who we partner with, is a customer that not only is excited to work with us, but one to whom we know we can bring value to them. The last thing I want to do is sign up a large sponsor who I know is not going to get a return on their investment because of whatever factors. If I know we can’t help them and bring them value then I tell them so up front that it is not a good fit and explain why. Otherwise it only causes a strained business relationship, no parties are happy and most of the time leads to them simply not re-signing on as a sponsor which in the end is not worth it for either party.
How do they balance to our current sponsors?
We have a huge, great list of long time loyal sponsors. But obviously not all of those sponsors are the only ones in their field. There is competition for every single one of our sponsors out there and in a LOT of cases, those competitors would love to advertise with us, give us discounts, anything to try and take a customer or two away from the competition. It is imperative that I look at the sponsors who are, and have been here when looking at new sponsors who are interested in signing on. Are they going to upset a long time sponsor who might walk away from TCSD? Are they selling something direct that takes away sales from the bike shops? These are just a few questions that I have to ask when talking with potential customers. The same thing goes when a shop who is not a sponsor says “Hey, you don’t have to do anything, I just want to give all your members 15% off. Can I communicate that to your members?” And 99% of the time my answer is “No!” The reason goes right back to creating a product that is valuable. I think access to our members is valuable and our sponsors do to. We have to maintain a level of exclusivity for our sponsors, otherwise it becomes worthless and the sponsor paying to advertise stops paying. So while I appreciate the fact that many local shops want to give discounts to our members, in most cases we already have a sponsor who is willing to give the same discount and has already done more for the club like giving us the money to buy the food for meetings, give aways for the raffle table, or paying for the youth program.
Is the return on investment for TCSD worth the time and effort for the club?
I have talked a lot about the return on the investment for our customers, but equally important is the return for TCSD. Is the amount of time or demands from the customer worth the value or benefits they provide TCSD and its members. This not only means how much cash or product they are paying as part of their sponsorship, but also what time or special requests do we need to work with. Again, this is a 100% volunteer run organization and most if not all of us have full time jobs on the side. So all of our time is important and in some cases more important than the benefit TCSD is getting form a sponsor. We have declined to sign or renew sponsors in the past based solely on this point.
So when I look at those 3 points, I can usually have a good feel on whether or not we should pursue them and I do my best to get to an arrangement where all parties sign up and feel that they got a great deal for their respective parties.
Craig: What can our members do to help you as Sponsorship Director?
Cory: This is a great question and there are a LOT of things that every single member can do easily from their computer in the time it takes to read this interview.
Follow TCSD on twitter or Facebook! As I have stressed above our sponsors see those numbers and see the reach their message could have with our group. The higher the number, the greater the reach, the more value we can sell them on when negotiating.
Brag to me about your purchases! Email me at email@example.com , Facebook message me or tweet me @gasaway and tell me when you make purchases from our sponsors! Get a new bike from a bike store? Tell me. Get a new wetsuit? Tell me. Take some swim lessons? Tell me. I am serious. That is data that I need and can use when talking to sponsors. If I know that someone made a purchase for a certain amount and am negotiating with that sponsor, that is direct data that helps me in showing direct sales value TCSD members are bringing them. I can’t stress it enough how much it helps.
Brag about our sponsors! Write a Yelp review, post on Facebook, tell a friend... and mention you are with TCSD. This gets back to sponsors and just like when you make a big purchase and want reassurance it was the right thing to do... so do our sponsors.
And as obvious as it sounds... Brag to your friends who are not in TCSD and renew your TCSD membership every year.
Craig: Where do you see the future for sponsorship with the TCSD?
Cory: The main goal this year for the club, in my opinion, is to move fully to a 5013c. We are currently a different type of non-profit which allows to be exempt from taxes, but prohibits us from accessing a lot of the larger corporation’s charitable funds as well as government grant programs. In our current state, companies can write off their donations/sponsorships to us as marketing expenses, however in larger corporations, there are separate budgets for corporate giving than there are for marketing and the corporate giving process is much more documented. Once we switch to a 5013c, we will be able to apply for grants aimed at educating and promoting healthy lifestyles as well as target some of the larger corporations in town for larger scale donations to help our programs such as Youth or Beginner education programs grow and flourish. This in turn allows us to be less cash focused with our smaller sponsors who are trying to grow their business and can rely on those partners for product only donations to get their brand/message out to the club.
We have a great balance of sponsors themselves that will probably remain about the same, but our focus to really take the club to the next level financially is to move to 5013c. It won’t be fast, but I think it is the direction the club needs to go.
Craig: What is your favorite benefit of TCSD membership?
Cory: The free burritos at meetings! Ok, well maybe just the meetings in general. It is just an incredible opportunity for triathlon geeks like myself. When you think about it, tell me where else in the entire world you could show up, get fed, maybe win a helmet or $100 gift certificate and THEN see Bob Babbitt in person interview the athletes we have had. When you just look at the people we have had in past 14 months???? Pete Jacobs, Andy Potts, Luke McKenzie (oh by the way, let’s just rent out La Paloma Theatre and show the Kona broadcast a week early), Javier Gomez, Rinny and T.O, Michellie Jones, Alistair Brownlee, Taylor Phinney, Lynn Cox... and for under $100 a year? It is just crazy to me, but I’ll take it.
Craig: What are your future triathlon goals?
Cory: This year is focusing on running and allowing Carol to take a couple big swings at her races. I will do the Challenged Athletes Foundation Triathlon again and probably HITS Lake Havasu Half Ironman and a few sprints here and there during the summer. I will do another full next year. Hopefully Challenge Roth if I can get in, otherwise IMAZ where I will shoot to break 12 hours. And if I am crazy enough I might try to race Carol and beat her at some point.
Craig: Cory, thank you very much for sharing your story with us. Your family is blessed to have you as their #1 cheerleader and the TCSD is blessed to have you working so hard to benefit us all. Good luck with all that you do!
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.