By Christopher Cudworth
For 11 years the town of Batavia, Illinois has hosted a sprint triathlon and duathlon. The event sells out every year and has grown to more than 800 people. That’s still a lot of swimming, running and riding to support. So the race committee deals with the same logistics as one of the larger triathlons such as those in Naperville, where the Danskin Women’s Triathlon took place the same day.
It is rather funny that an event still comes down to putting boards over speed bumps and plopping orange cones where you need them. You are a fortunate race organizer indeed if nothing happens to any of the competitors. No crashes or wipeouts on the run. The rain predicted the night before turned into spits and not downpours, and the maple leaf helicopters that can turn streets into dangerous slicks did their duty of falling two weeks before the event. So conditions were relatively safe and manageable.
Still, the unknowns are always what you want to calculate. As such, an Experience Triathlon race volunteer named Kurt Woodward was up at 4:00 a.m. driving the city and country roads with an eye out for road kill. “Last year we brought a big flat shovel to scoop up the dead animals,” he related. “And one of them was spread out about 12 feet from front to back. By the time we got done that shovel stunk so bad we could not take it home. We put it in the car at first and then said ‘No way’ and then tossed it in the dumpster.”
So it’s the goal of any race director to have clean streets so there’s no humans hitting the streets in road kill fashion.
A peoplish event
A triathlon and duathlon is totally about people. Lots and lots of people. Spectators line up to watch their friends and family as a show of support. You’ve got your top competitors in their skin suits and $8000 tri-bikes and also people participating in the race wearing baggy shorts and riding mountain bikes with squeaky chains and spider webs between the seat and seat tube.
One determined soul emerged from the swim and began pedaling his bike from transition onto the course only to encounter the steep hill leading out of Quarry Park where the swim segment took place. That rider did his best but there was no way he was going to make it up that hill. For starters, his bike was too small for his own prodigious frame, which likely topped out at 280-300 lbs. Still, he pedaled as far as he could and it was good that he had no toe clips. About halfway up the hill he turned his bike sideways to gain some momentum and almost took out two other riders. At that point he stepped off the bike and began pushing it up the last 30 yards to the top. Then he remounted his trusty steeds and headed off for 14 miles in a strong breeze. Someone quietly muttered, “That’s going to be a long ride for him.” But there was no lack of respect in those words. Just empathy.
Triathlons are like that. They usually contain a core sample of the human condition. Speedsters strip off their wetsuits and emerge onto hi-tech bikes like hungry larva popping out from some black egg.
Indeed, the national level triathletes in Batavia queued up closely, 1,2,3 as they came out of the water. It remained a tight race between the three all the way through the run. All were in their early 20s. Fit and fast. Having fun unleashing all that training in an environment where there was very real possibility of victory.
That is why we need races large and small, to accommodate those for whom the journey is just a chance to test themselves in some way and an opportunity for those on their way up the triathlon ladder to find passage to a better ranking through adrenaline and hope.
It’s an interesting mix to watch, especially when you’re working the course with a duty to fulfill. Every competitor rolling or running past has that ‘I can do this’ look in their eye. Of course as the racers get to a slower breed that look transforms to an ‘I hope I can do this’ look. Generally these people also have a good sense of humor. So you cheer and even fist bump them into a grin or a ‘yeah baby’ as they move past. Getting a smile out of a tired-looking racer is often the most important thing you can do as a volunteer.
It had been my plan to be one of them. First the goal was to do the triathlon. But learning to swim half decently took more time than I had this spring. The running went well all winter and for some great reason the cycling has gone really well this spring. So I was thinking duathlon at the very least.
But something in my training went awry and an achilles turned sour and sore the last couple weeks. So that needs to be solved. New shoes? A tweak to the orthotics? We’ll see. Whatever the story, it came to a bleak and honest end about a week out from the race.
Volunteering is the next best alternative to doing the race. It was however quite funny that my assigned race post was directly next to the city’s sewage treatment plant. “I’m sorry about this,” the event director said. “I know this spot stinks. But we need someone to keep the runners on course.” The northern breeze was strong but instead of helping it tended to intensify the smell somehow. Like snorting a constant line of stench cocaine it was. Ah well. Such is life.
Like all smells good and bad, you tend to forget about them after a while. Your nose just says ‘screw it’ and stops smelling the highly processed crap smell coming from the giant aluminum dome next to you.
After three or four hours of coaxing runners straight ahead I began to feel like a breed of deranged bird with just one song to sing. “Go to the yellow shirt up ahead” I chirped over and over again.
I could see that it worked however. There were three more miles to run for these triathletes and duathletes emerging from transition a half mile back at the pool parking lot. Their job was just beginning in many ways. This was a ‘brick’ with a purpose. To finish, and finish well.
Soon enough the spectators wanted to follow their chosen participants to the finish line as well. Women with baby strollers and tired looking tweens moved sullenly past. Kids of all ages who got up way, way earlier than they like to do on a Saturday turned out to watch mom or dad compete. All paraded along looking for instructions on where to go next. I dutifully pointed them toward the guy in yellow shirt ahead. Some birds never change.
At the actual finish line even the little kids that competed in the Splash and Dash were happily consuming Pal Joey’s pizza by the slice along with cookies and apples, bananas and sports drinks.
Samuel Adams brew was flowing freely even though the people drinking it were confined inside a big plastic fence.
Joe LoPresto, President of Experience Triathlon, handed out the raffle stuff and the medals. Everyone who finished walked away with a participant medal. Those little chunks of metal flashed and shone in the morning sun.
That reminded me of the moment back at 7:00 a.m. when a woman in a short blue skort stood there shivering while clutching her bejeweled cell phone case. The weather app in her phone insisted that the sun was supposed to come out in six minutes. Damned if it didn’t do just that, as if it were all scheduled ahead of time. Then the goose pimples on her tanned legs receded into nothing and we were all just a bit happier in 56 degree temperatures on a June morning. Good day, sunshine.
Those who swam and then jumped on their bikes were even chillier of course. I worried about my companion who was racing that morning. Her back has been twitchy at best the last two months. But she swam pretty well and motored up the first hill on that compact frame Scott bike with that familiar smooth style. She took off for the open country and a decent ride leg.
It’s funny how every race is so real for the competitors and nothing more than an hour or more of imagination for those of us stuck along the sidelines. It’s like there are three dimensions to every triathlon. Competitor. Volunteer. Spectator. Varying degrees of participation. All bound up in these protracted moments we call an “event.” It’s all about dimension and perspective. And finding our way to the finish line. Together.
Disclosure: Blogger Christopher Cudworth is a member of Experience Triathlon but has never actually competed in a triathlon other than as a team relay member. Which they won. Yah. His fervent goal is to actually compete in the sport for which the club is named. For now, it is back to cycling criteriums until the achilles heals up.