A Q&A with Philadelphia Escape Triathlon director Bill Burke

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The professional men starting their race at the Philadelphia Escape Triathlon in Fairmount Park last June. Jason West, the eventual winner, is the farthest to the left.

The Escape triathlon series returns to Philadelphia this weekend, with the race set to take place Sunday at 6 a.m. in Fairmount Park. Event director Bill Burke sat down to share his thoughts entering the weekend as some of the top triathletes in the country will descend on the city.

(Note: Some responses have been lightly edited for clarity.)

Q: Who are the competitors you would tell fans to watch out for Sunday?

Burke: The great thing about this event is that it has got a huge number of racers and it has the two current champions from this year’s Escape from Alcatraz race, Americans Sarah Haskins and Ben Kanute — both former Olympians. Those are two top athletes; they’re still racing in their prime. Sarah’s been at this a while, she’s had two children and she’s just coming off her second child, and she put it all together at Escape from Alcatraz earlier in June. She’s fit, and she’s ready to race.

Q: You only do so many competitions throughout the year. Why do you bring the Escape triathlon series to Philadelphia?

Burke: Philadelphia is a great city. The course is majestic, it is a great time of year — it’s not hot in the Northeast yet, not as hot as August and September can possibly be — and it’s a great time of year to be there. June’s been a gem for temperatures, and we’ve had some pretty decent luck there.

Q: What do you like about this course in particular?

Burke: I like the fact that the majority of it is in [Fairmount Park]. That is a beautiful place to have a bike course, and when you’re planning a triathlon, the water is the water — there are very few options there. The bike course, because the athletes are traveling at a higher rate of speed, you look for the best possible location and the best fit. The fact that we are on Kelly and MLK drives is beautiful. It’s tree-lined, it’s safe, and it’s easy to close because you’re inside the confines of the park for the majority of the bike course. And because you’re in the park, it’s a little hilly — you’ve got some hills to maneuver that make it quite challenging at times.

Q: How did you get involved with the Escape series races?

Burke: My company, Premier Event Management, has been producing Escape from Alcatraz in San Francisco for the last nine years. We’re a national firm, so when it decided to expand the Escape series, it hired us to produce all of the events in that series. We were in Huntington Beach producing that event, we’re in Philly producing this weekend’s event, and then the last event in Washington, D.C., we are there for that event.

Q: What makes the Escape series stand out among all the different triathlons that are available to competitors?

Burke: The great thing about the Escape series is that it’s the most recognizable Olympic (1.5-kilometer swim, 4-km bike, and 10-km run) and sprint (750-m swim, 20-km bike, and 5-km run) distance series in the United States. Those are the shorter distances [vs. Ironman] that people can do if they get off the sofa and decide to train for a triathlon; these are very attainable to the average person. You don’t have to spend 30 to 40 hours a week training for events of this distance — you can, if you want to excel at that distance.

The Olympic distance is just that, the distance run at the Olympic Games. That’s very attainable, and obviously, the more you train, the faster you’re going to finish. But I’m a strong believer in the Olympic distance because most people can’t get to the Ironman until you try a few of these Olympic-distance events first, and this is a great opportunity to do that.

Q: Talk about your partnership with TBLOCKS. What are they, and what are their benefits to competitors?

Burke: TBLOCKS are a very cool, revolutionary, non-typical racking system for a bike at a triathlon. Really, the only places you see bike racks like this is either at the Olympic Games or at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. If the average triathlete signs up for an event, they’re not going to have the opportunity to rack their bike like they do at a 70.3 world championship or an Ironman world championship. The Escape series, in certain races, gives you the opportunity to do that. You can feel like the pro, you can look like the pro, and it’s a pretty cool setup. I think it was a great marketing ploy to get athletes to be a part of something that’s different, special, and fresh, and I applaud IMG for using the TBLOCKS at the event this weekend.

Q: At any triathlon, there are safety concerns for the competitors. What safety measures are you taking to ensure the safety of everyone during the race?

Burke: We started it last year, but this year, we’re going to continue having the athletes in a time-trial swim start. The days of having a huge wave of people take off are over. Athletes will go into the water four or five at a time, every 10 to 15 seconds so they’re not getting kicked in the face or swam over or getting pushed and shoved. It’s just an orderly, organized format to get people out and about at the race. And that’s a huge plus. It makes for a much safer start and a much safer swim.

The swim is the most intimidating thing about a triathlon for most people. In this way, the athletes are simply being slowly entered onto the racecourse and put into the water, so they’re not feeling like they’re being overwhelmed in the water. And that’s why I like the time-trial swim start. I’m happy we’re going to continue it this weekend.

Q: How do you maintain spectator safety around the course so that people can watch as much as possible but also stay safe and out of the competitors’ way?

Burke: The beauty of a triathlon is that you’re in a downtown area. There are plenty of great vantage points along the route where you can view swim, bike, and run. If you know where to go, you can probably catch a lot of it. I don’t think [safety has] ever been an issue with this event because the sights and sounds are really perfect around the venue.

If you go …

What: Philadelphia Escape Triathlon

When: Sunday, June 24. The Olympic pro race kicks off at 6 a.m. with the rest of the Olympic-length competitors following at 6:30. The sprint competition begins at 7 a.m.

The Olympic event involves a 1.5-kilometer swim, 40-km on the bike, and 10-km run to close things out. The sprint event cuts each of those distances in half, thus a 750-meter swim, 20-km bike, and 5-km run.

Where: The majority of the course in within Fairmount Park, running from the Falls Bridge to Eakins Oval and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The swimmers will begin just below the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and exit at the transition area, which is near the base of Black Road.

The bike race will then run up Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to the Falls Bridge and back down Kelly Drive before crossing in front of the Art Museum steps and back to the transition area (this loop is repeated for the Olympic distance).

Runners will then head back down MLK Drive toward the Art Museum, but will not cross over the river, before returning toward the finish line area, which is just behind the Please Touch Museum (this loop is also repeated for Olympic racers).

Who to Watch: Sarah Haskins and Ben Kanute both topped the field for their respective genders at the Escape from Alcatraz competition earlier in June. Haskins, 37, competed for the U.S. in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, finishing 11th, before going on to win gold at the 2011 Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. Kanute, 25, struggled at last summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janiero en route a 29th-place finish. He did, however, take silver at last year’s Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.