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A Triathlete’s Nightmare

What would you do if the airline that delivered you to a race lost your gear bag days before an IRONMAN event?

That could have devastating consequences on a race. Maybe a wetsuit was in the bag, along with bike shoes and running shoes. There are not many people who would run a marathon barefoot and even fewer who would pedal 112 miles with no shoes.

Here’s what an average person might do after realizing their luggage is lost:

  1. Before leaving the airport terminal, visit a customer service rep who might be able to locate the bag and promise it will be delivered within 24 hours. If the bag is still missing…

  2. Call the airlines’ 1-800 number and be put on hold with the option to have their automated system return the call “… in more than four hours.” When contact with a real human is finally established, they might say that the luggage is in route to your location. If the bag is still missing…

  3. Write a nasty email to the airline customer service department, because everyone knows that profanity, vulgarity, spelling mistakes and poor grammar will get results. Don’t forget to threaten the airline that you will never use them again. That’ll put them in their place. Then…

  4. Accept the 15,000 free flyer miles they offer and fly that same airline again next year.

In reality, the lost gear bag is devastating. Your whole life for the past year has been focused on this one event and now you face the possibility of having to sit on the sidelines and watch all those other athletes do what you came to do. If you feel the airline doesn’t care, you are probably right. You are a statistic.

Of the millions of travelers on any given airline, how many lose luggage? According to an article in USA Today [1]Hill, Megan. “The Odds of Losing Luggage”, 2 July 2021., less than one percent of travelers lose their luggage as reported by the US Department of Transportation. By that report, it’s around 0.3%. The TSA estimates that 2,085,327 passengers flew on June 24, 2021 [2] That means that approximately 6,256 travelers lost their luggage. On the flip side, that means that 2,079,071 happy travelers went about their day and didn’t have much of a complaint. Or if they did complain it was regarding something other than luggage.

So there we have it. Not only are age-group IRONMAN participants in their own elite group of endurance athletes, but if the airline loses your luggage you are in an elite group of travelers!

The thing is… even if the probability of losing your luggage is very small, no one ever wants to be in that 0.3% (unless you are a terrorist and you don’t care which plane you blow up). So what can you do?

The short answer is, “Not Much.” I’m no expert in this area, but I have lost luggage before. I’ve also arrived at an IRONMAN only to find one of my bike pedals missing (Not as dire as missing an entire gear bag, but certainly a cause for brief panic).

Here’s What I Do

My general rule of thumb is: STUFF HAPPENS. That does not mean we let the world have it’s way with us. It means that anything can happen and it is up to us how we respond. If we are not prepared for situations that keep us from attaining our goals, then we need to have an attitude that will get us through those situations.

  1. Before traveling, I make sure all my checked luggage is clearly marked with my name, email address and address of my hotel. One of these days, I’ll do like Casey Neistat and spray paint my name on the bag.

  2. List the important and expensive items in the luggage along with their value. You’ll need this if the bag is lost.

  3. Once I realize the bag isn’t coming into baggage claim, I check with a service agent and file a claim listing the value of the items lost.

  4. At this point, the airline is likely to know where the bag is located and will promise to deliver it to the hotel.

  5. Until I get the bag in my possession, I’ll consider it lost. So as soon as I get to the race site, I start looking around for places that sell or rent the items I lost. I inquire about rentals and demos and anything that might come at a discount.

  6. I’ll spend considerable time on the phone trying to get a hold of the airline to see if anyone will answer the phone and my questions.

  7. If the airline lost my bike, then I’ll search out the local bike shops. Even a rented road bike will be better than nothing.

  8. If I don’t get my lost gear by 12pm the day before the race, I search out the volunteer coordinator and sign up to greet the athletes as they cross the finish line. That’s the best place to be, because seeing the other athletes cross the line will make me forget about all the troubles with lost luggage. I will be there for them this year. Next year I will be there for me.

This is just what I would do. Maybe the other guy who lost his gear bag before IRONMAN Coure d’Alene this year feels differently. The most important thing is attitude. And I know many triathletes and their Type A personalities will dwell on the negatives and the things that went wrong. But none of that dwelling will help the situation. I’ve often said,

Life is an endurance event. Training for triathlon is training for life.

It may seem ridiculous, but my advice is to prepare for travel to a race as you would prepare for the race itself. Make checklists. Visualize things that can go wrong. Develop contingencies. Have a plan.

What About The Damn Airline?

Do write a letter of complaint (be diplomatic and check your spelling). Do try to get as much compensation as you can. And remember this: the airline is going to do everything in its power to NOT pay you money. They might offer flyer miles or vouchers for travel. Just be prepared from the beginning.

I’m serious about being diplomatic. Throwing a few F-bombs at the customer service reps will get you nowhere. Trust me.

Until next time…


References ↑1 Hill, Megan. “The Odds of Losing Luggage”, 2 July 2021. ↑2

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