Nevada -- #7 Tri Trip of Fun, Sun, & Sin
September 21, 1991
Bud Light National Championship—Lake Mead
Before Boulder, Colorado there was Boulder City, Nevada, at least for me. All the hyped up marketing materials for the Bud Light National Championship Olympic distance triathlon promoted the perception of the race in Las Vegas. In reality the race took place in the less-glamorous Boulder City. If held in Vegas, there would be nothing to write because, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” What Boulder City lacked in bright lights, loud bells, slot machines, card tables, and betting chips; the town made up for it manmade engineering feats and lots of natural beauty.
My goals were to compete in a high-caliber race with elite triathletes from around the country and enjoy the center of the universe for fun, sun, and sin. Vegas is the place where everyone returns a winner or, at least talks like one. For triathletes the race was a win-win event regardless of what our results showed on the stopwatch or disappeared from our wallets.
Racing and gambling, triathlon race directors and casino owners understand the addictive nature of their target audience. They provide enough variety and flashiness to give customers an adrenaline rush of excitement either on the course or in the casinos. The city served as a great destination spot to host a major triathlon. Triathletes and gamblers are often early adopters of new ideas to increase their odds of winning. Both embrace game-changing breakthroughs to increase speed, money, and power.
I rented a soft side bike case to protect the bike during the flight. The black “calm shell” style case opened up to find a soft inside crisscrossed with Velcro to secure the bike and parts. A diagram in the case showed how everything fit so nice and easy. Unfortunately, the diagram didn’t apply to spaghetti design Scott aero bars. I Velcro’d every loose strap to secure bike or bike parts and placed tools in a small pouch tucked into the case to do the re-construction surgery on the bike in Las Vegas. Everything fit in the bag just not where planned per the diagram. The case, no longer a bisymmetrical clam nor as softly padded in some places, was ready to fly. An unzipped bag fully opened looked like a giant black calm ready to swallow up whole either you or the bike, whichever fell in first. Once packed and at the airport, the trip went fine.
In Las Vegas my focus was on the race though Chris was nine-months pregnant at home, 1800 miles away. Our first child due to arrive momentarily. Items for me to ignore to be race ready included: my selfish choice to race there, lack of training on hill climbs in the pancake-flat area of Chicago’s near-west suburbs, how little time spent in a lake without lane markers or a black line for swim guidance, never running in desert heat or dry conditions before, and nagging work issues. I also ignored my aunt and uncle who graciously let me stay with them a couple of days but kept asking every half hour if anything changed in Chris’ delivery status. That was a lot to ignore by putting these thoughts in my hidden mental compartment of race readiness.
Instead my focus keyed in on how supportive Chris was in encouraging me to race in the hard-earned championship. The positive aspect of being race ready with a proper taper, rest, motivation, and my selfish ability to shut out distractions. These were the foundation absolutes for a good race, then narrowed my focused on visualizing a smart and fast triathlon race.
Heading out to the race site there’s a slight incline when leaving Las Vegas towards Lake Mead on US Highway 93 followed by a long descent at Railroad Pass. From there, the drive is flat heading southeast into Boulder City. After passing through town, the road dips drastically to reveal the vast sapphire-blue water of man-made Lake Mead with its distinct white-washed band directly above the shoreline.
Nature added some of its own splendor with a stark contrast of bare, dark rock towering over the far side of Lake Mead, appropriately named Black Canyon. Vistas of clear blue skies serve as a far backdrop spanning up and over and all around the landscape. The blue water competes against blue skies. Welcome to the vastness of the Mohave Desert, with a beautiful oasis of water sitting in its basin. And for a day, the center of the elite triathletes’ universe.
The participants in Las Vegas included world-class professionals and national-caliber, cocky age grouper triathletes with a flair for kicking butts of all ages. The course proved to be challenging due to heat, hills, and headwinds. The race delivered on excitement with well-packaged equipment promotions, food samples, suppliers’ booths, sponsors’ signage, and more. All these preparations provided a festive atmosphere and created lifetime memories for competitors. Every triathlete arrived with an expectation to achieve the race of their lives.
Entrants competed in Bud Light races across the US to qualify for the right race here. I qualified in Indianapolis and Chicago for my first triathlon national championship. At the Bud Light Chicago Triathlon one entrant rode a tandem bike with a blow up doll as his partner on Lake Shore Drive. One in a banana hammock, the other in a bikini. They both wore smiles. I'm not sure what category they competed in but they received loud cheers and whistles from the spectators. The team effort made me laugh when they rode in the opposite direction by me on the approach to the transition area. A moving wave of laughter came from the stationary line of spectators with the sound getting louder as the tandem couple went riding by them. Not sure if the competitor paid double the entry fee but the race officials should have comped him for the entertainment factor to the lakefront crowd. Don’t think they qualified for the Championship race in Boulder City but maybe they visited the Strip instead. At least one of them felt lucky.
The 30-34 age group started at 10am. In the desert around Boulder City we found one hot, bright sun trying its hardest to either set us on fire or desiccate our bodies with dry air we breathed. Either way, heat stroke and dehydration were a concern for competitors. The human body is an amazing adoptable biological achievement. On a training run five days before the race in Minneapolis, I was outside in snow. On race day competitors competed with temperatures in the mid-80s, no clouds and low humidity.
The 1,100-plus contestants swam 1500 meters in Lake Mead a couple of miles upstream from Boulder Dam. My swim challenge came from the sheer number and the caliber of triathletes and a limited view due to a continuous churn of bubbles across my goggles. The bubbles were like carbonation streaming up the sides of a pint-glass of beer, only on a grander scale — and in my face. Fluttering feet, churning arms, and the exhaling of air generated massive amounts of bubbles from all the swimmers. Imagine stretching out in a washing machine in mid-cycle and swimming inside. If you were bullied as a kid, maybe you remember a toilet bowl swirly. The view is terrible and the sounds are unrelenting. Swimmers behind anyone experienced the same type of water torture before getting out of the water and onto their bikes. Everyone except the pace setter suffered, if not the lead swim dog, the view never changed from bubbles to toes.
We mounted our bikes and climbed up a hellacious stretch of pavement through Boulder City and continued on an out-and-back course through the far side of town toward Spotlight, NV. Training for the climb out of Lake Mead into downtown Boulder City proved to be a challenge in Chicago. We lived in LaGrange, which once was the shoreline of Lake Michigan’s predecessor an ice age ago, Lake Chicago. The stairways in our bungalow style house provided more elevation gain than anything close on the roads near the house. Five miles south of where we lived a road offered a 25 foot drop into a low lying creek bed. My training included 10 times up and down this hill. On race day, we climbed over 25 feet to exit the transition area to the side road that took us out to the highway where the real climbing began. I reached the top of the climb exhausted. My quads burned with pain and intensity early and but the bike kept rolling for the full 40 kilometers and into the run.
You may see some high rollers in Las Vegas at a gambling table tucked away from the general playing area. These people wager six-figures and more per play. In return, casino operators often comp them with free rooms, meals and more. Fast rollers in the triathlon world receive similar support from their sponsors at key races. Fast rollers are top-notch professional triathletes. Both groups are gamblers at heart. They aim to win the big payouts. Most of them continue to gamble; one group at the table, and the other group at races, well past when they should retire. Probably time for me to retire after all that rolling, being neither fast nor high only delirious, as I looked forward to the run.
We entered the bike to run transition (T2) in Boulder City and exited on to a sun-drenched path for a run in desert including a strip of sand during the 6.2 mile run leg. The hot and dry climate contrasted sharply to the Midwest’s early fall training weather of cold, damp, and grey. The heat, hills, and dry air took more out of most of the other competitors in my age group as I recaptured nearly all the time lost on the bike leg. Amazing how hot you get while running in a desert and not sweat due to low humidity and dehydration. On the run leg we were exposed to the unique smell of the creosote bush. Continues to send my memory back to this race when returning to the desert.
After the race and back at my relatives’ house in Las Vegas proper, called Chris to ensure nothing new on the pending child front. All good. Crashed on the floor of the TV room to get some zzz’s. That didn’t last long. My aunt walked by and asked about Chris. Ten minutes later she walked by to offer me a drink. After another 10 minutes she offered to fix me something to eat. She walked by one more time and asked if I was getting any sleep. Uncle Jess chimed in, “Margaret, how in the hell can the guy get any sleep if you keep asking him questions?”
Now it was time for dinner and drinks, then some gambling. Celebrated with Budweiser beer and bubbles while seated comfortably at a table in an air-conditioned place on dry land. And even though not a high roller, did win money at the Blackjack table in the Railroad Pass Casino when celebrating race results. Boulder City and Las Vegas teamed up for a great location for a beer sponsored National Triathlon Championship.
Results: 97th overall. 19th in age group.