Tuesday, November 2, 2010

super sprint tri grand prix - oceanside, ca

Triathlon rarely gets credit for being a spectator friendly sport. And for good reason. Besides a few of us hard core tri fans, who else really enjoys watching long distance racing where athletes disappear out of sight for hours at a time, only to return and then disappear again? Is this racing fun for anyone other than the athletes participating in the event?

Back in the 1990's, a race series was conceptualized and developed by the Australians called the Formula One (F1) Series. This was fast and furious racing and was made to be spectator and television friendly triathlon. It created the triathlon stars of today including the likes of Greg Bennett, Chris McCormack, Matt Reed, Craig Alexander, Simon Whitfield and others. It was also the impetus for the ITU's creation of draft-legal Olympic distance racing.

On Sunday, in Oceanside, a sleepy beach town 40 miles north of downtown San Diego, former F1 racer Marc Lees, organized the Super Sprint Triathlon Grand Prix with an invitation only professional field. The event was considered a trial although Lees took every step necessary to cater to both athletes and spectators alike with a top notch production.

Lees' course design was well-conceived. Using the Pacific Ocean by the Oceanside Pier as the course backdrop, Lees used one of three racing formats used in F1 racing, the Enduro format which includes a 300-meter swim, 5-mile bike and 1.5-mile run completed twice through. The swim took place in the chilled and choppy Pacific, the bike over a half-mile stretch of the Strand, and the run over the same Strand roads with a short hill zig-zagging up onto the Pier.

Many of triathlon's top pro stars flew in for the event - a sign they are committed to spurring on growth and excitement for this kind of racing in the US. And the timing couldn't be better for our ADHD riddled society. All of the action happens right in front of your face, leaving no time to imagine, only time to participate. As spectators, this is exactly what we needed.

Who wouldn't want to watch the likes of current Ironman world champion Macca toe the line against short course studs like American national champion Jarrod Shoemaker or Matt?

I contacted Lees race week and inquired about an opening on the starting line. He agreed due to another athlete canceling last minute, and like that, I was embedded in the race day battle. I was one of few athletes without a short course, draft legal racing background, and it showed.

From the word "GO" I was shed to the back of the line of athletes sprinting into the 60-degree water. In this furious racing, there is no time for wetsuits but also no time to even think about whether you feel cold or not. We were immediately confronted with a series of breakers and had to duck dive under set after set for what seemed like an eternity before even having the opportunity to start swimming. Swimming is a generous term for what I was doing myself. I was flailing and swinging my arms as fast as possible firmly locked onto the calves of Matt who had a poor start himself. I knew it would be the end of my race if I let go of his legs. So I stayed locked in.

Near the turn around buoy, he had enough of me pestering him and turned around and kicked my hands off his legs. I don't blame him. I had crossed the unspoken line in drafting etiquette during the swim. However, I quickly located my next tow, Richie Cunningham and Paul Amey. Heading back in towards shore, my arms started to feel like lead and both Richie and Paul caught a wave that sent them flying into shore. I arrived a few seconds later, but any time lost can mean the end of your race.

It was evident by the speed they ran out of the water and into transition compared to me that I was out of my league! I chased hard and tore out of transition believing my cycling was good enough to bridge up to one of the chase groups. I rode with my feet set on top of my cycling shoes and time-trialed with my head down until I locked onto the back of a small group including Richie, Paul and another rider my impaired vision was too blurred to recognize. I still had not dared reach down and slip my feet into my shoes for fear I would lose contact with the draft created when you ride behind other cyclists.

The bike course was flat as an ironing board with only two 180-degree roundabout turns on each end of the road. As we neared the completion of the second lap and started around the roundabout again, my rear tubular tire rolled off the rim and I crashed. I got up quickly, did a quick check and got back on my bike before I noticed the exposed rim. I recognized Paul Huddle standing nearby and he yelled that neutral support was a few hundred meters up the road. So, I yanked off my new and now heavily scraped up Bont cycling shoes, picked up my bike and took off running towards the support station. Word passed quickly to them about the crash and one of the volunteers came sprinting my way to help with the wheel change (I found out after the race, the volunteer holds a sub 4-minute mile PR to his name!). It must have been a bit odd for the cyclists zooming down the road to see me running from one side of the road to the next in order to get closer to the support station while staying out of their way.

Once the wheel was replaced, I was nearly a lap behind the entire field but decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and pushed on. Luckily the course was so chaotic with racers spread across the entire road that it was hard to tell how far behind I really was!

I ran as hard as I could but still entered the second rotation through the swim with only a handful or swimmers still heading out to the turnaround buoy. Because I was alone, and out of the race, I was able to focus on taking long strokes and had a decent swim. I missed a big wave that may have taken me in close to shore but did hit a few smaller sets once I was in closer to the beach. As I ran into transition Marc reminded me to watch out for the group once they started running. I ended up being the last one off the bike and to finish the race but Greg Welch was still cool and announced me over the line. A bunch of the guys stayed at the finish too which I thought was a cool gesture.

Despite the less than ideal circumstances, I had a blast out there and knew I was fortunate to have the opportunity to be a part of a race that is going to catch on here in the US and go on to be a great series. I fully expect a few big sponsors to step up and put this series in a few major US markets in 2011. It will draw the biggest name pros in the sport and will be the most talked about series on US soil.

There are a bunch of photos and a race recap up on Triathlete.com. Aaron Hersh was out on the course for the men's and women's races and snapped photos, grabbed interviews and wrote up a great report.

Til next time -- keep the rubber side down (and firmly glued)!