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Chicago Triathlon Spectator Report

Grabbed my coffee at 5:45am on Sunday in order to make the first train of the morning to downtown. Compared to, say, the Chicago Marathon it was very strange getting off the L. It felt like a boring, dead work morning when I used to have to wait for the bus to the museum. No crowds of people like there will be on race morning for the marathon. Granted, that's 45,000 people plus spectators. But 9,000 athletes on the lakefront is nothing to sneeze at.

By the time I got over to Columbus, I could at least see a few people with wetsuits draped over their shoulders. And there was the random woman standing on Adams doing yoga with her race tattoo obviously displayed. But it wasn't until you got right up to the lakefront path that you noticed anything out of the ordinary going on compared to any other summer morning.

As usual after coffee, I needed to find a bathroom. So the first inner debate I had was "head to transition" or "head to the Swim Start." I ended up heading south where the race conveniently has a bank of toilets about halfway through the sprint swim. Had to stand in line awhile--could have used a few more--and a guy in a Pleasant Prairie finisher shirt was a few people in front of me. Felt kinda weird to have that same shirt at home and now count myself a part of this crowd. Technically, I now had more triathlon experience than some of the people around me!

There was a wonderful, high-energy volunteer coming around offering body marking with a marker or sunscreen to those who needed it. Not finding any takers, she worked the lines with enthusiasm..."it's cool now, but by the time you're on the run at noon you will need it!" So true. And I hope she gets some recognition. She was doing a great job.

From a spectator point of view, I was fairly disappointed with the overall race course. It's what has to happen to get the logistics to work, I understand. But I ended up not being so interested in doing this event for very different reasons than I originally thought. I've heard about how big the race is (one of the largest triathlons in the world) especially. And that didn't bother me so much. Everybody is very spread out by the time the race starts and I never was overwhelmed with crowds the way it can feel other races.

Even more, I was impressed with the swim course...which is where I ended up spending most of my day. I know that's not why people do Chicago. They want to bike on Lake Shore Drive. But the bike isn't easy to watch for spectators. And then the run course just left me cold. It's essentially a trail marked on the fields along the lakefront path. I was going to spend some time at the Finish, but elected to not walk all the way down to Columbus and Balbo after walking all the way north to Randolph to check out the transition area. That part didn't look too bad. It's unfortunate that athletes have to run/walk so far after the Swim Exit, but it had carpet. I thought the barrier situation could have been done better because non-racing athletes, spectators, and people really on the course were mingling in a very confusing way.

The swim course itself was fabulous though. I loved the mini-camp of team tents. The organized lineup for each wave to head down the boat ramp. The announcer was doing a good job keeping the crowd pumped. I wasn't watching too many people jump into the water (it's an in-water start), but the waves were going off like clockwork.

For the sprint course, it was just a straight swim north towards the finish on a nice wide piece of the harbor. High vertical breakwall on your left. Rowboats and guard boats to your right. For the Olympic distance course, you swim south almost to the end of the harbor before making a left turn around the buoys before swimming back to the swim start then the full sprint distance.

I ended up positioning myself about halfway through the sprint course along one of the lifeguards they had placed about every 50 yards along the breakwall. The lifeguards actually stand on the wall with their lines dragging down into the water for you to grab if you need a rest. And boy did I see a lot of that. Many, many people swimming from lifeguard to lifeguard. More than a few people getting pulled...which was hard because a boat had to come over since there are no ladders along the wall. The swim course is excellent though because you can just sit or walk on the wall to see the swimmers about 10 feet directly below you in the water. Which means plenty of athletes had family or friends or coaches walking with them the entire distance screaming encouragement.

I saw it all. People without goggles. People unable to swim. People with their heads above water. Backstroke. Breast stroke. I can relate. At one point, a spectator came up to the guard I was standing near and asked if anybody ever quits. "Yep," was his answer. "Really?!" "All the time." Frankly, I say this with experience as a teacher, I think a lot of what I saw wasn't inability. It was lack of confidence. And the mind games we play with ourselves about whether or not we can do it. Fair enough, if the training isn't there maybe you can't. But I also saw a lot of people who just needed to stick their head in the water and swim. Again, I relate. That's my primary goal for next season on the swim is that the first goal is fitness to do the distance. But then the second goal needs to be getting comfortable under race conditions. I know I plan to be at Ohio Street Beach in open water. The pool can only get you so far.

Anyway, I'd originally planned on staying to watch the pros, but had my fill by about 9 or 10 am. I was happy I went and had a good time, but it also got me ready to race. I'm thinking of finding and training for a fall race maybe. Or maybe I'll just focus on building a good base of indoor cycling and winter running to go into next year.