TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I recently ran into TCSD member Gina Thomas at a party for a mutual triathlon friend who was celebrating the end of cancer treatments. Just like Gina was there to support her friend, she is there for so many others. Please join me in getting to know Gina who wears many hats – Race Director for Ironman California 70.3, wife, mother, daughter, friend and Christian.
Craig: What was your athletic background before you got involved in triathlon?
Gina: My athletic background consisted of a variety of school sports (none that I really excelled in), working the restaurant industry for seventeen years in my twenties closing down dance clubs three times a week (the ultimate party girl) and then jumping right into the distance of a marathon in 2001 while three months pregnant with my second child.
Craig: How did you evolve into a triathlete and what was your first triathlon?
Gina: Triathlons were never on my horizon. In fact, Ironman Canada is responsible for bumping up my wedding date due to my good friend, Jenn Santel, who was doing that race. I didn’t even know what an Ironman was at the time. A couple of years into marathon training, I met up with a gal from church (Wendi Koshley, now my BFF – best female friend) who said wouldn’t it be fun to do the half Ironman that was here. I interpreted that to mean “let’s do it!” so I signed up for it. When I told her the next week, she said that she meant one day, not next year, so she had to sign up, too, out of guilt. This was June so I had time to get a bike and start swimming, both of which I hadn’t done in twenty years. My first tri was the 2005 Carlsbad Triathlon. Let’s just say that I backstroked the swim under the guidance of my own personal lifeguard and had no issue finding my bike as there were only five left in the whole transition. But it did not hold me back and now, many years later, Mike Reilly has said “I am an Ironman” and I have nothing to prove.
Craig: What are your favorite benefits of TCSD membership?
Gina: My favorite is the relationships and memories that have come out of being a member. It started very early with the Tamarack swim group. Steve Pierce, Chuck Pateros, Liz Olsen, Brian Long, Danny Hyte, etc. who were all so patient with my anxiety of swimming past the surf break and then we’d go have Mexican food afterwards! Then there are the beginner races, when we just started with timing chips. Volunteering because of Jim McCann inspiring me to give back for all the volunteers that were at the events that I participated in. Crashing on my bike during the inaugural Barely Legal 70.3 where everyone immediately got me triaged and off to the hospital. Our TCSD crew at Ironman Arizona 2008 that got me to the finish just to name a few! And not to mention all the wonderful members that have come alongside me as volunteers and volunteer captains for the various races I’ve worked. That says a lot to me. Though I can’t attend TCSD events the way I used to with my boys’ ever-increasing activities, those relationships are still intact. I even have the privilege of serving on the board for the Steve Pierce Veterans Athletes Fundraising. Our club is important to me so I aim to keep our integrity and reputation intact and make us well known.
Craig: You are the Race Director for the California Ironman 70.3. That’s a huge, high profile race. How did this career begin for you?
Gina: Remember earlier when I said triathlons were not on the horizon? Neither was getting a job! It started with volunteering for years at the run aid station with Michele Kuehner. I did the actual race in 2006. Right after that race, Jenn, who was the Volunteer Director since 2000, asked me to partner up with her. So I took my management skills from my restaurant years and put them into action. The most important thing for me to keep in mind is that EVERYONE is valuable and NOTHING is below me to do myself. That’s been my model ever since.
A year later, I was on my own as Volunteer Director and worked the next few years side by side with Roch Frey and Paul Huddle at 70.3 Oceanside and various Multisports.com events. Then the Roch and Huddle were moving onward and training Race Directors to replace themselves. To my surprise, I got the call asking me if I was interested. I talked with our warehouse guy who I was close with to help me process this. He actually was the person who threw my name into the mix. I already could handle the fast paced, high stressed, decision demanding, emotional flying roller coaster that goes on with these races. I’m an Oceanside local and am passionate about my city and my race. I also have an amazing volunteer captains crew that I knew would support me as I would train up a new Volunteer Director and Roch would co-direct with me my first year. This meant I would renew the city contract, apply for the eight permits needed, put together safety manuals and communication procedures as well as contingency plans, ordering equipment, vehicles, & supplies, coordinating travel for staff, setting up a warehouse two weeks prior to race date, and a variety of meetings including town hall to just name a bit. That also meant I would fly to various races that next year or so and work as a course guy, site guy, retail, athlete services, etc. I can sling a mean cone line if need be. And so, here I am directing my third race.
Craig: What unique excuses have you heard from athletes who suddenly found they could not do the race and wanted a refund?
Gina: Well, like with anything, everyone needs to read the small print. Our policy is a withdrawal request emailed by Feb 13th, 2013 to be eligible for a partial refund of $75. No transfers or deferments. Things are going to happen because life happens and as this is an endurance sport, it will push your body to its limits. I personally have had a variety of things happen that didn’t allow me to race so I know where people are coming from.
I think my favorite request was one where the guy told me that he signed up for too many races that year and that his family needed to have some time back. Another guy forgot it was his wife’s birthday. The majority of the requests are from guys now that I think about it…
Craig: What kinds of special requests do athletes come up with?
Gina: Oh yes! These make me chuckle. I wish I could make them happen but I can’t. One gentleman wanted me to move his wave up in the chart because he was getting married later that day and wanted to be able to make it in time. I told him that that wouldn’t happen and that he better go his fastest while out there. I prayed for his marriage.
I’ve even had a request to get “rid” of the sea lions that hang out in the harbor.
Craig: What have been some of the heart breaking decisions you have had to make as Race Director?
Gina: I had one lady who was signed up for Oceanside tell me that she has MS, only one arm worked and she was very susceptible to shock in cold water. I don’t know why people put themselves in these situations that can set them up for failure but do they realize the extra stress they put on the Race Directors? I want everyone to overcome things but still within being relatively safe and not risking their life. We emailed back and forth, I talked with our swim crew and we did eventually get to a point that did allow her to proceed but I assure you that I did not have any ease of mind during the race until I knew she was out of the water.
The toughest thing is when I have to let a participant know that they can’t proceed because they didn’t make a cutoff time. I hug them with tears in my eyes. But I can relate because I have DNF’d before.
Another decision I had to make was to ban a person because they and their spouse tampered with the athlete wristband so the spouse could go in and out of transition once the athlete was in the water. They lied about it when caught which is sad because all the spouse had to do was sign up and work as a volunteer to be in transition to see their athlete.
Craig: You have also been very involved at some of the IronKids races. What happened at the 2011 race in Alpharetta, GA that every triathlete should know?
Gina: This is my favorite! First, the race has almost 1,500 kids with a pool swim! We send them off time trial style and have them zig zag in the pool. The transition is crazy fun because none of the kids outside of the age of 13 and older have a clue where their transition spot is.
Anyhow, the highlight of the race that year was the unconditional love of a boy named Connor for his younger brother Cayden who has cerebral palsy. Connor towed Cayden in a raft for the swim portion, then he had Cayden put into the attachment onto his bike and rode off then to return and push him to the finish line during the run. Connor is seven years old and Cayden is five! And if that doesn’t tear you up, Connor’s reply to why he does this was “It’s the only sport Cayden and I can do together”. And they didn’t even know about the Hoyts at that time. I need to go get a tissue right now…
Craig: What is the dumbest thing you have done as a triathlete?
Gina: Driving into my garage with my bike up on the roof. Dumbest thing as a Race Director – driving into the rented condos garage with my bike up on the roof. Don’t drive into garages with your bike on top of your car!
Craig: Your faith is very important to you. How did you come to be a Christian?
Gina: I became a Christian about a few months before I got into triathlons. It’s cool because they go hand in hand. Both call for endurance and perseverance. Both require time dedicated to them. Both have hard times and great moments. Both require accountability partners and a plan to follow. Both have passionate people.
Growing up, my parents sent me to church on the insistence of my grandmother. Once I reached sixteen, they said I could go do whatever I wanted. At this time, a number of things had happened to me and to compensate, I became the ultimate party girl and drowned my pain away. I checked out a number of philosophies and religions but nothing ever held up or dealt with what I was going through. It’s true that if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
When I was twenty-six, my world was rocked. My brother ended up dying, at the age of 19, from leukemia after battling it for a year. Life became so dark for me, especially because my parents kept attempting suicide. I partied even harder to escape. I put myself in danger a number of times as well as I inflicted pain on others. It was a downward spiral.
Enter my husband Steve who created a calm, stable environment and the births of our two boys shortly after. Amidst the calmness, I felt a yearning. My father-in-law was one of my rocks, firm in his Christian belief. Then we found out he had terminal cancer. When we heard his diagnosis, I knew I couldn’t go through another death without God. I also knew that I didn’t want this to be the only reason I would go back to church. I didn’t want to be a “cultural Christian”or a “judgmental born again”. I was either going to be the real deal by living it daily or not at all. But the question was would God even accept someone like me with the things I had experienced and the choices I had made in my life?
The moment I was aware of God’s love, I knew that He accepted me, flawed and broken. I felt joy and peace that came without needing to understand. I felt grace and forgiveness for the things I had done and healing from the things that had been done to me. And I can reflect back and see how He was there during those dark times. I had just chosen to ignore Him. Over time some of those things that I did needed to be dealt with and God did it with grace because He is a just God who doesn’t ignore things. The things of the past no longer define me or have any hold on me. Talk about being freed from guilt! I experienced real hope for the first time. I am forever changed.
Having just started training for triathlons, reading the Bible was exciting because I was finding words like endurance, perseverance, running the race, finishing strong, etc. Another fellow TCSD member, Danny Hyte, sent me a list of verses that related to the athlete side of me and I was on a roll! God met me where I needed to be met.
My faith is my way of life and I totally trust in it. Otherwise, it means nothing. The more I learn about God’s character, the more I try to reflect that in my life. Hard times test your faith to see if it is truly what you believe. More things will happen that will rock my world, but I will go through those times knowing God is my foundation which can never be shaken.
Craig: How do you reconcile being the Christian woman with sometimes having to do the tough things in your life?
Gina: Being a Christian doesn’t mean an easy life. Everything I do, I need to do in a way so that I have a clear conscience and nothing can be held against me. I am, by no means, perfect and I fail all the time. But I admit my mistakes, try to be humble and then strive not to do it again. I watch my language, my actions, try not to get caught up in gossip, and I aim to treat everyone with dignity whether I feel they deserve it or not, though, I may have to put in some boundaries at times.
Work is probably the biggest barometer of my faith. One event, in particular, comes to mind. I got called last minute to assist with the merchant tent at Ironman Canada. Canada requires work permits and I wouldn’t have one approved in time. I wrestled with what I would say at the border as lying isn’t an option for me. I did have a number of friends doing the race and would be cheering them on at T1 and T2 so I told the Canadian border patrol that I was there as support. I still never felt right about that so when asked another year if I’d like to help out, I declined.
When traveling, our hotel rooms usually become our offices. I don’t invite guys to my room. Nor do I go to theirs even if it’s just to get something because appearances are everything. I treasure my marriage so I take measures not to even give the opportunity for a rumor.
With the triathlon world, we have half naked bodies everywhere, some well-sculpted and others that are comfy. I don’t even want to see them, much less make comments, so I pray for God to put blinders on me out of respect to my husband as well as to keep me content with my own figure. And with all the equipment I see, the temptation to be envious is great so the more I am appreciative of what God had provided for me, the less I want other things.
Even my choices in entertainment, I make with thought and purpose. I am a rocker chick through and through so I’m a happy camper that Christian rock has some great artists (Thousand Foot Krutch, Red, Disciple, Kutless). I can still throw up my rock fist! My boys like rap and pop music so TobyMac, KJ52, Group1Crew, are positive choices that I can get for them and know that the lyrics they are listening to will help sculpt them into respectful men. We don’t see a lot of movies because there’s too much violence and I don’t want the boys to become de-sensitive to that. I want them to be bothered by violence, know that it’s not okay and if they ever see something that is not right, that they would go and report it or step in to help someone even if it might cause them to get hurt. Doing the right thing no matter what is a motto in our household.
Craig: What are your future goals in triathlon?
Gina: Right now I like where I am at. With having trained for Ironman and 70.3 for about three years and a couple of years on the road working, I’m enjoying reconnecting with my family. We are doing races together (5Ks, 10Ks, half centuries, paddling) as well as cheering on the boys in their own activities. I also have parents with poor health. When I went to work at Ironman Arizona last year, my Dad had bypass surgery on his right leg and just before 70.3 Oceanside this year, my Mom went on kidney dialysis. Both have had complications. In fact, Dad was in the hyperbaric chamber every weekday during the summer. But this is my life and God is in control.
So far as a goal, I’ve reached mine, being that I have done the full Ironman distance. Now I enjoy watching others achieve it as well. I like encouraging everyone to do their best at any distance. It would be cool to go to World Championship 70.3 and cheer on specifically the athletes that qualified at 70.3 Oceanside. And I’d like to go to Kona one day, not working, not volunteering, just cheering the athletes on with a Mai Tai in hand…just one though! Mahalo, Craig!
Craig: Gina, it has been an absolute pleasure hearing your story. Thank you for all you do. I am a better man for having had the opportunity to get to know you.
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.