My Home State
September 17th & 19th, 2015
ITU World Triathlon Chicago
In a turnaround of travels, the world’s best triathletes journeyed on their own to a triathlon course in my quasi-backyard of downtown Chicago in September 2015. They arrived to compete on a world caliper stage in the International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Triathlon Championships (WTC). Triathletes’ from six different continents representing 35 different countries came to Chicago. The downtown Lakefront area bustled with triathletes who brought different cultures, languages, accents, colors, uniforms, and talents. Except for more spandex and neoprene, the visitors blended right in with the hustle and bustle of millions of other residents, commuters, and tourists in the everyday mix of people the world class city offered year round. Over 1,700 triathletes signed up for each the Sprint and the Olympic distance races though many competitors doubled up and did both races like I did. And another 1,100 triathletes raced on Saturday morning in either of the two open to age group triathlons.
For Americans, earning entry into the 2015 WTC event required qualifying in races held in Milwaukee at the US Nationals Championship in August 2014. I set my 2014 race scheduled to ensure I peaked at the designated qualifying races and other targeted races. Training combined with the intensity races over a 12 week period but strain on my body. After a seven week recovery period I hyper-extended my groin my in freak accident and kept running. A few weeks later my left hip and left shin hurt so bad a swim kick became painful.
By mid-summer 2015 my groin became less flexible though I increased stretching. Each day after sitting my left leg seemed to get stuck in the left hip joint. It took a couple of painful moments to get my left leg aligned properly without pain. At the USA National Championships I could barely lift my right leg high enough over the leather saddle to dismount a bike at high speed when approaching the bike-to-run transition. I popped-out a water bottle from the bike seat mount due to limited lift capabilities. I lost seconds in backing tracking to pick-up the bottle to ensure not being issued a penalty for abandoning property on the race course. I also started feeling a hitch in my left leg when bike pedaling. The left leg no longer followed a smooth circle when spinning on the bike. The left knee now started protruding out away from the bike frame at a slight angle. I started losing some left leg strength too which was bothersome. By late August speed workouts for the run became too painful to complete. I backed off the speed and increased mileage hoping to offset the lack of speed with increased strength endurance would result in a strong performance for Worlds. All of these changes helped but a month after the Chicago races were over, I developed a limp when walking from pain in my left hip.
Steve Wade, one of the members of Team Wade, flew in from the Seattle area a couple of days before our first race. The Wades. All them made me feel like a Midwestern. They were like-minded triathletes who shared knowledge about the sport for anyone who wanted to improve and listen. They also shared an open mindset of the world having traveled to races across the US and other continents. The camaraderie of triathletes and Team Wade members was significantly similar to my Midwest roots. We shared racing insights, training tips, and traveling recommendations. We carpooled to races, shared lodging arrangements, and lent out spare race equipment.
As a Midwesterner I always thought that’s what people did. But an Indiana University track teammate, Cary Hardwick, who grew up in Southern California and raced in the 400 though 1500 Meter Run events, once confided with me the camaraderie sharing of car rides, spare bedrooms, and almost anything was more a Midwestern trait than elsewhere. Few other athletes or regional people shared to the extreme of Midwesterners or triathletes. After college Cary returned to his home state to start multiple, hugely successful restaurants in Orange County and Beverly Hills. He took some of the Midwest back with him as he shared his passion of food, fun, and festive times with tens of thousands of people annually to enrich their lives of enjoyment.
Steve stayed at our house on Tuesday night. Next day we drove downtown Chicago to check in to the race host hotel for a few days on Michigan Avenue, a couple of blocks from the race start and finish lines. Both of us raced in the Sprint Triathlon on Thursday and the Olympic Distance Triathlon on Saturday.
On Wednesday evening Steve and I racked our bikes for the Sprint race in the transition set up at the south end of Grant Park, directly in front of the Field Museum, between Lake Shore Drive and Columbus Drive. I chose to race on my 20-year old Kestrel 200 SCi, a brightly painted red road bike equipped with tri bars. I chose to ride on the slightly heavier but sturdier four spoke Spinergy front wheel I bought new with the bike in 1995. I paired it with a damn near landmine proof three spoke fiberglass material Specialized rear wheel I bought used in 1995. I felt confident either wheel would survive any uneven surface, unseen pavement cracks, or unannounced aberration in road conditions encountered during the races. My decision proved to be a good one though I took some shit when pushing my bike to the assigned transition spot from a fellow American age-group competitor.
Him: “Are you still riding on Spinergy wheels?
Me: In a confident but reticent Midwestern response said, “Yes.”
Inside me though my Mr. Subliminal was thinking, “and I’m going to kick your ass because I know all the competitors in our age group that kicked my ass at the US Nationals qualifier races last year and you were not one of them.” Before the race I was a bit edgy though externally I stayed quiet and humble.
After a brief exchange, another fellow age-grouper who always kicked my ass, Ron Gierut, looked up and greeted me with an introduction. Ron was one of the most confident and nicest triathletes I met. We wished each other the best for our races. As expected, he beat me in both races.
For four days of racing Chicago displayed one of the prettiest skylines in the US if not the world with its varied mix and match architecture mishmash and fronted this background with most of the world’s quickest triathletes. Relaxing on a bench in Grant Park a few hours before race time, people observed more going on in downtown Chicago than an indoor track & field meet. And indoor meets are busier than you would think with races being contested at the same time as athletes throwing metal balls, heaving themselves over bars, across sand, striding over hurdles, and running around in circles.
For the triathlon alone, spectators watched swimmers, bikers and runners going all out in competition at the same time with the different age groups and sexes. As for the rest of the city; people were out on Lake Michigan boating, driving on Lake Shore Drive, sight-seeing around Millennium Park, and walking up and down Michigan Avenue. And hundreds of other people lined up to visit the Chicago Art Museum or milled around outside the transition area to enter either The Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, or Solder Field. And hundreds of thousands people stayed inside at work or home as if it were another normal day in the life of the few million people that made up the greater Chicagoland area. The race setting was outright amazing. And to pull this off on an early fall weekend of sunshine with 70°F temperatures added to the desirability of standing on one of the busiest and most expensive strips of real estate in America’s third largest city.
The swim started across from Buckingham Fountain. The water display served as non-electronic entertainment for little kids to elders and every age in between. What wasn’t to enjoy from eight water shooting sea horses to a central water cannon that blasts out a towering stream of water skyward 150 feet at the top of the hour. The Fountain includes four different tiers with almost 200 individual spray jets cover a diameter of 85 meters on a windy day. From the race swim start you could look west over the Fountain and witness a spectacular view of the entire Chicago city skyline.
The Sprint race started with competitors treading water in a narrow corridor marked by an imaginary line between two buoys 20 meters part. That was narrow a space for some age-group waves that included up to 100 competitors. For some, earning the right to be considered as one of the quickest triathletes in the world and starting back six or seven competitors deep from the starting line, had to be annoying. Once the air horn sounded for our wave to start we swam 800 meters straight south and exited right in front of the Shedd Aquarium. The swim course was superior for being spectator friendly. Fans watched a great swim start. They could walk on a concrete walkway alongside the swim course matching the pace of their favorite athletes and cheering them on to the exit point if wanted.
The water was flat, cool, and clear. Wide open sightlines with elevated visuals to use as guides for swim targets removed unknowns as to where to swim in the straightest possible line to minimize any extra swimming. Also, following faster swimmers as leaders who knew where to go, was a great assist to keep everyone else on track for a quick swim split. While Lake Michigan can be a challenging swim venue, for the Sprint race it proved to provide an uneventful starting leg to our endeavor to do well representing the USA in the sport of triathloning. Lots of cheers prior to during the start of each swim wave. Many people who lined up on the breakwater water wall waved us on. And more cheering from everyone for as we stepped up on the exit dock in front of the Aquarium.
The Sprint and the Olympic bike courses were almost exclusively on different streets with the exception of Columbus Drive though they shared similarities. Both required superior biking skills. Both were considered technical in nature. Both courses included lots of sharp turns with both left and right hand turns. The Sprint Tri race course was shaped like a crooked cane. A small curved handle at the southeast end of the course with a slight kink in the middle of the shaft.
A manmade speed bump on the Sprint course covered communication cables that created a roadway bump area littered with bike bottles, more than a few Garmin’s, and enough spare intertubes to supply a bike shop for a year. Racers navigated the dangerous debris field to miss the stuff on the street that could topple a competitor riding on a bike equipped less than ½” wide tires or influence another bike who unexpectedly swerved into another competitor’s ride lines to avoid running over the junk but crashing into another competitor. One racer stopped to retrieve a butt bumped bottle and damn near blocked the entire width of the course. Racers swerved as everyone scrambled and chose either to go left or right around him. We all hoped than no other competitor hit the stranded racer, his bike, or another competitor in the chaos.
Summarizing course conditions at one end of the spectrum: it sucked, was bumpy, dangerously narrow and included too many uneasy riders. On one of the tight turns during the Sprint race an over-aggressive rider had his rear wheel slide out from underneath him and took me down with him at the north end of the course. After quickly asking if everyone was okay, I put my chain back on, mounted my bike, and took off trying to make up lost time.
The bike course required three laps to cover only 12 miles of cycling. The longest straightaway in the Sprint was under 2 miles and no more than 3 miles for the Olympic distance race. That seemed extreme. Still, the course provided all competitors an opportunity to experience world class racing on city streets during the middle of a workday in a working class city like Chicago. Summarizing the course experience at the better end of the spectrum: it made the race unique, exhilarating, and downright awesome.
The run course for both the Sprint and the Olympic races covered the same stretch of road on Columbus Drive. Only the number of laps for each race differed. We ran three miles over one and half laps for the Sprint race. We ran north out of the transition area at the south end of Grant Park to beyond Buckingham Fountain at the north end. We detoured off Columbus Drive just enough east to skirt around Buckingham Fountain, run by the temporary grandstand seating, and either continue back on to Columbus Drive running south for another loop or angle slightly left to cross the finish line. The weather was sunny with minimal winds and lots of spectators who wandered over mid-day to watch some triathlon racing.
All the age-groups were filled deep with competitive triathletes. From the start of the Sprint Tri we stratified quickly based on our varying swim pace. But on the bike, with so many people on the narrow and short course few people could determine where they were place wise in relationship to their competitors. We focused on riding safe and fast since looking for familiar faces or keying in on competitors with numbers in the age group range proved ineffective and dangerous. We rode as fast as we could within our own limitations and restrictions of the course conditions. Once on the run, everything happened so quickly in one and half laps. I determined that a time trail tactic, go all out whenever possible, was the best to use for the quickest race time. Unfortunately I ultimately paid for that approach as I struggled on the last mile of the run. My all out was barely all in when finishing.
Friday was a rest day for the age-groupers. ITU rules prohibited two consecutive race days for triathlons. However we did wander over from the hotel to the race course to watch the professional women compete. The pros raced over the same area of the age groupers but in a much more compact, multi-loop course layout for all segments of their triathlon. Their bike was a shorten loop with a total of nine laps to cover 40 kilometers. We stood right across from the bike exit around Buckingham Fountain which allowed us to see the female pro racers on three different occasions per lap. They swam fast. They rode fast. They ran fast.
Bad weather was predicted overnight Friday so race officials decided not to require bikes checked-in and racked the evening before Olympic Distance Tri race. Instead, we were told to get our bikes racked by 9:20am before the transition closed on Saturday morning. The weather prediction became a weather realty. While a few people expected the bike check-in to be a major cluster, over 1,700 bikes came through the guarded entries with no issues except wet grass and some rearranged piles of sand caused by heavy rains.
At 1:30am on Saturday, rain pelted the over-sized glass windows of our hotel room facing Lake Michigan. A curtain of water was all we could see. The wind ripped off tree limbs and made the street lights shake like flickering light bulbs ready to go dark from either loss of power or loss of conductivity. My cell phone started sounding a severe weather warning alarm. Then Steve’s cell phone went off with the same menacing noise. Then we could hear the cell phones from guests in the other rooms start beeping. No one slept through the weather bombardment. Few people fell back to sleep after the high pitched warning tones triggered and overdosed us with an accelerated release of adrenalin into our blood system. I’m surprised I had any left for a much more controlled release caused by race jitters a few hours after daybreak but before the air blast from the race starter’s air can.
Chris, Hayes, and Caroline, drove downtown to watch Steve and me compete on Saturday. Over time, I learned our two special recreational competitor daughters were two of the best role models I ever had to look up to for motivational effort. They don’t possess the same skill level as a weekend warrior, an elite age grouper, or a pro but they always gave a 100% effort and were fully committed to their sport performance opportunities. They put out an all effort and never went through the motions. And no matter how well they did, they enjoyed their sports of choice. Then I think of me who may slow down on one of the tri legs to rest so my pain may subside. I may too often accept a pain as a reason not to compete at my utmost intensity level. Or I may let someone else bother me so I wouldn’t compete at top form. For the World’s, I wasn’t going to let any of that happen as I thought of my kids and wife as they showed up to encourage my best effort.
If you are new to the sport of triathloning, don’t let lack of knowledge be a barrier to actual race participation. Join in with enthusiasm and experience the camaraderie amongst triathletes to learn the sport much quicker than going solo or reading a book. If you act like a triathlete, then others will think of you as a triathlete and treat you as one too. Think of it this way, a neighbor asked about Hayes, who is intellectually disabled and in her mid-20’s (way redundant in book by now), attended an adult only Holiday party. She talked with others. She laughed when others laughed. He asked me if I had any issues about her being there yet not understanding all the jokes and funny stories being told. I told him I had no issues. I told him I don’t understand everything being told yet I laughed when others laughed too. Few, if any, of the attendees understood everything being told yet never stopped them from laughing and enjoying themselves. And less than a year later my youngest daughter Caroline, is also intellectually disabled and in her early 20’s, joined me at college housemate reunion during an Indiana University football game. The housemates, friends, and Caroline stood in a circle, the Ring of Laughter”. She too doesn’t always understand the old references to my housemates’ stories yet she laughed in being part of the group. She knew she was having fun when others around her were having fun. And that’s what new and experienced triathletes do when being around other triathletes. We listen, we learn, we laugh.
The Olympic Triathlon swim start was in the water, off the same dock as the Sprint race but now on the north side. We swam north 375 meters into Monroe Harbor, then turned right for 50 meters and turned right again back south past the starting dock and angled over to pick up the Sprint course for the final half of the swim leg to cover the full 1500 meters of swimming. The swim course paralleled the shoreline which was a cement retaining wall instead of a sandy beachfront like Oak Street Beach a mile north up the shoreline. Any waves on the lake bounced off the retaining wall and created a bath tub like sloshing effect which was what we dealt with on Saturday during the Olympic Distance Race. For 25 minutes, the water was never too choppy to get seasick yet never smooth enough for glass-like conditions we experienced two days earlier during the Sprint race. The water quality was above average but it did contain multiple strands of seaweed ripped up from the bottom during the earlier storm. The water was also cooler as the windy weather churned up colder water found in deeper water off shore. For a mid-September swim though, the water created minimal issues for us including the weakest swimmers in the competition.
Chris and the girls thought the spectator venue was superior to any other triathlon they ever attended. They crossed over to Lake Shore Drive to watch the swim start. They watched our in-water start then watched us swim back by the midway point. They watched us flail our arms towards the Shedd Aquarium between the panoramic lakefront, the water erupting Buckingham Fountain, and the tree lined Grant Park. Once they saw most of the swimmers exit the water from our heat, they headed west over to Columbus Drive to watch us bike much faster than many cars could travel on the same street during a normal mid-day in downtown Chicago.
The Olympic Distance triathlon bike course consisted of two laps. We rode in the open under full sun on Columbus Drive and the McCormick Place Busway. We rode in the dark shadows of the Chicago under world streets on Lower Wacker Drive, Lower Columbus Drive, Lower Water Street, and Lower Randolph Street. The course included multiple tight, 180 degree, hairpin U-turns. We rode on a street that was dedicated to city buses when not being used for race events. Honoring the blue collar working history of Chicago, the layout of the bike course when viewing above looked more like some kid’s oversized scribble of pumper’s pipe wrench than a tri bike course. The tail end of the hook jaw was Columbus Drive which provided the best viewing point for spectators. The Top end of the hook jaw was almost all underground and McCormick Place Busway resembled a long handle. And the wrench nut was where all the crazy tight turns and street level changes occurred.
Someone said the course layout reminded him of a video game. With the limited distances on the straightaways I competed on my road bike with bolt on tri bars instead of a dedicated tri-bike. Rode with hands on the hoods more than in aero position stretched out by the tri-bars. Made sense with all the U-turns, short but steep climbs, narrow roadway on the bus lane, and scattering of various biking speeds due to different levels of racers from so many different age group variations out on the course.
The course was fast, dangerous, littered with wrecks, and oh so much fun to ride on. Rode fast passing slower triathletes and got passed by other triathletes powering their bikes around the course. Sirens blared as EMT drivers negotiated side streets to attend to the wounded riders. Another said this “was the craziest bike course he ever rode in almost 30 years of racing triathlons”.
In a darker tunnel I surprisingly and quickly came up on a US Team member with the last name of a rider I recognized in my age group. I shouted out an encouragement of “Come on Michael!” as I rode by. To my bigger surprise I heard a responsive feminine voice laugh of “Huh!” In the darkness of the tunnel I could not distinguish the backside of the wife from her husband’s.
My family stood on the west side sidewalk of Grant Park to watch the bike leg. They confirmed what race officials were touting that spectator support across the entire course was awesome. Hundreds of cheering spectators lined on either side of Columbus Drive on the bike course.
Many other spectators watched the entire run at street level. The four laps of the run course allowed for people to line the retainer walls the entire course. After completing my two bike laps Chris and the girls moved to the viewing stand for spectators that formed an outer semi-circle across from Buckingham Fountain. This allowed an elevated view of all runners plus some incredible all out sprint runs to the finish line. The set-up was way cool for the competitor’s race experience too. Thousands of people cheered for racers all over the venue.
The Olympic distance run course followed the Sprint race. On the first lap after returning to Columbus Drive from the run around Buckingham Fountain I heard, then looked up and saw an Elvis Presley imitator. He yelled out my last name that he could read from my tri top. Elvis may have left the house but he definitely was channeling in Grant Park during the race with a hunk, a hunk of burning support for the Americans.
After passing by Elvis, a teammate and same age-group competitor, Tony Sargent passed me. Though for one full lap, I ran off his shoulder. He seemed ill at ease until he realized he spotted me a five minute head start in Lake Michigan. Once he relaxed, he dropped me. He won the 55-59 age group.
Spectators yelled out names of competitors as they read them from our race-kits when we ran by them. Elvis cheered me on for two more laps but his encouragement and my resolve was not enough to hang with Tony. Fifteen 15 minutes after my finish a knowledgeable spectator commented how well I did on the run in trying to race at Tony’s pace. Told the guy of my disappointment, just didn’t have the speed to stay with Tony. For the man to make a similar comment to any racer showed his level of understanding and passion around the triathletes he enjoyed watching during a beautiful day along the Chicago lakefront.
Afterwards met a couple of Americans in my age group I raced against multiple times over a quarter of a century but never talked with them at races. One was P J Arling from Ohio and another was Bruce Pickering from Indianapolis. These guys finished in the top ten for the 55-59 age group. Had I not moved around, we would have met formally many seasons earlier. Also talked with Ron Gierut again. He introduced his lovely family after we left the secured athletes’ only finish area.
Steve and I collected our gear and with Chris and the girls headed back to the hotel. We cleaned up and celebrated at dinner as a group. Chris, Caroline, and Hayes headed home afterwards while Steve and I went back to the race site and watched the men’s professional race end the week’s activities before the Chicago Bears overtook the south end of the course at the next day’s early season football game.
If you’re a triathlete from the dawn of when the sport began you may be able to relate. Being a triathlete is like an audience member of the Smother’s Brothers Comedy Hour from their 1967 New Year’s Eve show. For one night the audience became the main act as hosts, Tom & Dick, sat in the audience seats and watched as the audience celebrated on stage and danced in the New Year. What other sport or sporting events puts the commoners in the field of competition with the pros watching and greeting them at the finish? The closet comparison today is with The Voice, American Idol, or maybe when a drunk fan leaps over a retainer wall and runs out on the field or pitch for a few infamous moments. More than a few professional triathletes sat in the stands watching the age-groupers compete much like we watched them perform on Chicago’s triathlon World Stage the two previous evenings.
Watching the men compete was cool. While Steve and I thought we raced fast, we were quickly humbled by the abilities and finesse of the pros. The bike speed of both the men’s and women’s pro race competitors was so much quicker than the age-group races. Partly due to the pro race being draft legal. Partly due to the flatness of the course combined with wider, less sharp turns. And mostly due to the higher capabilities of pros. They raced for a living, a pay check. Age-groupers raced for pride, ego, and bragging rights. We paid to play. Pros worked for pay.
I watched plenty of triathletes bike on Columbus Drive in downtown Chicago along Grant Park in races extending all the way back to 1986. But the speed shown at the ITU Championship astounded me in how quickly triathletes could get a bike to travel. Professional football players stated their biggest adjustment to the NFL was the quicker execution of plays of all players in the game compared to NCAA football play. That’s how the biking speed seemed to our eyes. Watching the pros rattled my senses in the required step-up in speed to be a pro triathlete on the circuit. After the men’s pro race ended, Steve and I reflected on our race week.
We were proud to wear the red, white, and blue Team USA uniform with our last names printed on the tri top and padded jammer bike/swim shorts. The uniforms were expensive but cool. I felt like a pro athlete though without their speed. Especially when people in the crowd called out my name and encouraged me on during the races. In over forty years of competitive sports, never did I race in gear with my name on it. I was also proud to earn a spot on the team and represent our country.
During both races near the finish, an official from the USA team handed out miniature US Flags attached to a small diameter wood dowel rod long enough to fit into our hands and pump our arms and wave the flag as we sprinted towards the finish line. As corny as it sounds to write this statement and you to read it, this was more than emotional pride being an American and representing our country at the World Championship of our chosen sport. This was as close as I ever came to draping myself with a full size American flag and trotting around an Olympic track venue celebrating a victory lap jog.
After finally meeting and talking with many international and long-time competitors I realized one subtle aspect of racing I recognized when competing with people from all over the US and the World was how you raced was as important what you achieved in the race. I determined how I achieved the successes on the journey held equal importance to what I achieved on the journey. This included respecting family time to ensure other members’ activities were enjoyed and not pushed out by my training hours and race commitments. Their loyalty to my journey served on par with my loyalty in helping them achieve the best in their lives’ journeys.
I never felt superior to others for my capabilities nor felt my journey trumped my co-racers’ achievements. Nor did my efforts and accomplishment end up subversive to theirs. I also never consumed, inhaled, applied, or otherwise used any performance enhancing drugs (PED’s). I did sporadically take a daily vitamin and mineral supplement and swallowed a few bottles of Alieve during some intense training periods though. While not everyone won or met their goals in each race, I hope we all recognized the importance of sportsmanship in how we treated each other with respect instead of an air of superiority before, during, or after the competition.
Competing in and watching the ITU World Triathlon Chicago races occurred with such a different vibe than any other race I competed in over 30 years of the sport. Not one single thing accounted for all the special feelings of this event but a blend of items: country specific uniforms, the camaraderie of all triathletes across countries, the caliber of competition, and racing in Chicago. Over three days, with the exception of Chicago Cub’s Wrigley Field, we competed in the premier outdoor spot of downtown Chicago in the third largest city in the US. In no other city in the world do I recall ever getting the chance to compete under these race conditions.
I also realized how lucky I was throughout the entire journey. With the help of many people in places all over the world, I earned milestone achievements along the path. And I earned a few that I didn’t fully deserve as some of what I did get were missed opportunities by others. They would have earned the achievements and recognition if given the opportunity or done under different circumstances.
Thirty years and a month went flying by in my life since my first triathlon in Lake Michigan and its lakefront race setting along the Chicago city skyline. During that period I raced in 167 triathlons, 4 marathons, and more than a few running road races of other various distances. I’m now racing at 57 years old, still weighed 157 pounds though shoe size increased by 1 ½, and stood at 6’0” tall. My quads now fit tightly and my calves fit loosely in the same pair of Jordache blue jeans I wore in the early 80’s that were loose fitting in the quads and tight fitting around the calves 30 plus year earlier. I added a few imperfections to the body including sun spots, matching scars on the hips, and other miscellaneous road rash and bike gear punctures on the legs. My hair thinned out. And it turned grey from light brown in color. My eyes stayed green and my mind stayed alert. I had come full circle on the journey. Well almost. I made this detour to my quasi backyard of downtown Chicago in my latest home state. I still needed to find my way to South America and back to complete the full combo Tri 50 States and Tri World Continent Journey.
Sprint - 467th overall. 13th in age group.
Olympic 563rd overall. 10th in age group.