Skip to main content

Race report: 2015 Chicago Triathlon (Sprint)

Everyone has been asking me how the race went and wishing me happy birthday. Thank you for your patience in getting details as I sent my oldest off to kindergarten today. My daughter cried the entire time. "I'm gonna miss him!" she sobbed as we stood on the playground lining up with his teacher. My son, on the other hand, couldn't wait to get inside. Good for him.

To answer the most common question first...yes, I'm sore! Apologies if you're a triathlete or Chicagoan reading this, I'm going to write it with non-triathletes from out of town in mind. It may get long, but I always like finding details in a race here we go.

The Chicago Triathlon is the largest in the world with something like 7,000 triathletes in the Sunday races alone. It's spread out over miles of the Chicago lakefront and takes place in one of the busiest areas of the city. So it has long had a reputation of being a crowded, logistical nightmare (recent course and operational changes notwithstanding). But it was nearby and fit into my calendar the way I wanted it to this year, so I decided to give it a try--pun intended. Like my race day, I'd say the course and event have major drawbacks still. But plenty to be positive about. I saw so many amazing stories out there on the course yesterday...from people overcoming an accident on the bike course to finish, to first-timers clawing their way through the swim, to cheering for athletes whose days were far from over despite the rest of us collecting our gear to head home.

The race, strangely, was not in communication much via e-mail or social media until race week. Which is very different from some other big endurance events. Once race week arrived, they sent out bib numbers and the link to the Athlete Guide along with how to download the new Event App. The app ended up being fairly useful...once you got logged in. But it had some serious up front connection problems that frustrated me and had me cursing. Though it was eventually fun to see the stream of posts from other athletes. Including some Read the Athlete Guide and learn a bit about how the sport works before you jump in, people!

After I finally got my mandatory course talk scheduled, I debated up until leaving for the train to the Loop whether I was going to drop my bike on Saturday afternoon or take it with me Sunday morning. I purposefully scheduled my time at the race expo to overlap with the optional bike check-in. And I managed to dodge the raindrops in getting my bike downtown, riding to the hotel for packet pickup, riding my bike over to Transition, and catching the train home.

A super handy (thank-you-so-much-this-is-awesome!) bike valet was offered so that once you got to the hotel you could drop it downstairs in one of the expo rooms, take a number, and come back to get it later in the day. There were TONS (thank you!) of volunteers who were all helpful and energetic to get you to the correct course talk room, then help you with packet pickup once you got your hand stamped. I slapped my race number sticker on the bike while still at the hotel and then rode it over to the lakefront path to get to Transition. Super easy to find the correct rack as there are maps and everything is clearly labeled by wave and which race you're doing. I originally picked a spot on the very end of the rack though I'd shift to the middle on race morning. I decided someone faster could use, and probably wanted, the end. Plus, it didn't really offer me any extra space because the aisle turned into a muddy mess in the rain so you wanted to keep yourself more on the grassy parts. I found that being next to a support bar offered a little extra storage. In the photo below, the wetsuit came with me to the Swim Start and I tucked my triathlon bag under my back wheel.

Woke up Sunday morning at around 4am though I didn't sleep well anyway. Had a bowl of cereal, some grapes, but no coffee...I wish I had brought one along or stopped since I had the long wait. My bag was pretty much packed so other than a last minute decision to wear an extra pair of glasses that could be checked via Gear Check, I just had to apply my race tattoos, throw on my race kit, a long sleeve shirt since it was chilly, then head out. Got the train at 5:45am and arrived just after Transition opened (they have a special late opening for Sprint athletes now). The long walk down Randolph from the nearest L station and back through the new buildings just east of Michigan Ave is an area I've never been before...some very cool new buildings and parks. The special gate for Sprint athletes was easy to find and get inside, I re-racked my bike as I discussed above, laid my stuff out, then grabbed what I needed to leave. In hindsight, I wish I'd brought more to occupy myself during the wait--like something to lay on in the grass and a timing device to not have to get up or ask strangers for how long I still had.

Public service announcement: bring toilet paper! There was plenty early in the day and they tried their best to re-stock using volunteers bringing rolls around every few minutes. But smart triathletes bring their own. Consider yourself now educated.

Made sure I had plenty of time to walk down the lakefront to the swim venue. From the grassy hilly by the harbor where Transition is located is 450 yards from the Swim Exit (a distance added to your swim time) and then an extra half mile beyond that to the Swim Start. I basically hung out and watched some of the International distance waves go out, saw the mayor start in the Sprint CEO/VIP waves, and checked my gear fairly early since they started lining up my cap color in the bullpen as soon as the Sprint started. The wave in front of ours was huge. Our wave was fairly large as well and I was trying to seed myself towards the back, but nobody seemed to want to fill in the space so I ended up kind of in the middle. Which was fine for jumping in, but I'm not really one for the scrum once the horn sounds. At this race, you walk down a couple of metal steps before it drops off into 8-12 feet of water. Closer to Transition, the water had been absolutely flat in the harbor. But farther south we had what I'd call "roll-to-lapping." Definitely not "chop" or anything close. The water quality was excellent...for lake water. And the temperature was 62...chilly, but not horrible with a long sleeve wetsuit on. I opted for the silicone cap underneath, then tinted goggles, then the race swim cap over top. Worked just fine. Warm. Sun not in my eyes. You could see the rocky bottom for the most part. Someone later claimed they could see a Ventra rental bike with algae. I missed that. FYI, the harbor wall is very slippery even though it's covered in rust.

My swim time I wasn't completely happy with for a variety of reasons. I was faster than some of the large wave in front of us. A couple of them were really struggling. But I also am slow enough that front, fast swimmers of the wave after us have to make their way through. I didn't get a lot of contact and it was all 100% accidental small bumps. My biggest problem was never being sure when I turned to breathe whether there was a swimmer there. So I got a few mouthfuls of water enough to make me turn over and do backstroke for quite awhile. Which had my neck and shoulders hurting on the bike and this morning. When I finally made it to the exit stairs, I didn't have any trouble. A volunteer helped me out and then it's carpeted the entire way to Transition...but then mysteriously NOT carpeted inside Transition so you have to run barefoot on the bike path until you find the grassy aisle for your row. Between the run after the Swim Exit and a few choices I made--like switching to sunglasses for the run during the 2nd Transition--it slowed both my swim time and T1/T2 times down significantly. I was probably 30 seconds slower per 100/m than I'd been shooting for. And I forgot to lay my nutrition out so I was without it on the bike and had to dig it out for the run. C'est la vie.

When you get to the Transition exit to leave on the bike (called Bike Out), the Mount Line where you can climb on your bike (you have to walk it otherwise) is right at a corner where you make an immediate left-right. The right turn leads you up the on-ramp for Lake Shore Drive so there's a double hill of getting on the highway and then over the bridge over the Chicago River. Gorgeous views here. The road is in moderate condition. Lots of bumps and potholes, some new pavement, some patching. The course is the two inside lanes each direction. So unlike most races, Chicago Triathlon in this section is "ride left, pass right." (The Olympic distance switches to normal after Lake Shore Drive where it goes on Wacker and the busway.)

Lots of people passed me, but I also passed a lot of people. I had to get rid of the high performance tires on my road bike because I'd been flat too much lately, so I knew I was maybe being optimistic to hope for 16mph. There are a few rolling hills because of overpasses so I had it up in the low 20's a few times...but contrast to my friends on tri bikes who averaged 20 mph for the course! I ended up averaging 14 point-something if you look at my timing breakdown. I'm a little mad about that because it wasn't my legs that were dead later--it was my back/shoulders/neck killing my running stride more than anything. But my major setback was having to pull over for a mechanical issue.

After about 3 miles of riding, I noticed that I was being slowed down quite a bit and something was making a rubbing noise. Hard to hear with the auto traffic in the outside lanes, so I assumed it was gears, chain, brakes. I found a left pull off where it wasn't just solid wall and tried to diagnose...not a flat. Gears shifting fine. In my fuzzy mental state it never occurred to me that the quick release may be loose. For those of you not into cycling, the wheels essentially sit on metal brackets There's a rod that fits through the center of the wheel and a lever that twirls to tighten before you push it in to clamp firm. Somehow--don't ask me--the lever had come unscrewed to the point of my wheel being loose in the bracket. Very dangerous. But I wouldn't figure out what was wrong until loading my bike on the train later in the afternoon after the race. I probably killed 2-3 minutes in slow riding and being pulled over, but in hindsight I can't complain because I didn't crash and end up in the hospital getting x-rays like some riders.

The weather had been foggy all morning to the point of being unable to see the downtown buildings from Grant Park. But on the bike the sun finally came out for awhile. Which meant the run would be a little hot. Not horrible. I actually felt good for around the first mile and the aid stations were perfectly placed to give me a few little jolts of energy. The run goes on the lakefront path from Transition, past the swim course, to the Museum Campus. You run around Shedd Aquarium, past Soldier Field, then turn around just a bit past that. After you get past the aquarium, you make a turn away from the lake, under Lake Shore Drive, and come up to essentially the same finish line on Columbus Drive that the Chicago Marathon uses. My family even managed to make it downtown, find the course, and Mama kept the kids occupied. They nearly missed me...I saw them first because she was looking for a different color jersey. But I yelled their names and the kids said "happy birthday" as I ran by.

The race announcer even got my name correct as I approached the finish! Always exciting. Some of the race photos I've seen look pretty good, too. Typical post-finish area with water, medal, wet towel, etc.. I was a little disappointed that the initial food was just pretzels and chips. As you make your way through, there is a very nice picnic area with better food...but I'd already made arrangements for meeting family not knowing this would be desirable. Was a little disappointed in the results tent, too, since I went to put my bib number in and it didn't have my times yet. In an era where some races let you print a hard copy receipt of your splits, there's no excuse for not being current. I'd have also liked better signage that Gear Check items were all the way at the end of the long festival on Columbus. I eventually found it, but nearly had to ask.

It's a long, long walk back to Transition from the finish line. And I actually had to do it twice. Packed up my stuff, checked my bike out with security, then rode it back to the finish area to find my family waiting...they nearly gave up waiting. And I don't blame them. There are trolleys to avoid the walk, but then you have to wait. It's just not ideal no matter how you slice it. Definitely not the course where you drive up, park, take your bike off to race, then throw it back on when you're done. I ended up using some crazy behind-the-scenes loading area to avoid crowds and get around the chaos. But they were waiting just under the tunnel at Columbus and Roosevelt. We walked to the train and plenty of space for my bike, my huge bag, and their stroller.

So my body is a bit thrown off today...I'm a little hot, sore, upset stomach, pretty much what you'd expect after exhausting yourself for 2 hours, sweating excessively, and drinking about a gallon of Lake Michigan. It wasn't the ideal race in my head that I'd set for a goal. But it wasn't a miserable, awful day either. There were a lot of mistakes on my part. But quite a bit went right. Triathlon is a sport where little things add up. I finished. Totally not embarrassed about my slow time because even in my Age Group there were double digit finishers behind me. And I saw enough people still out on the course as I was packing my stuff up to leave that I can't complain.

I had a great time. Would I do this race again? Dunno. Will I probably do another triathlon at some point? Likely. Do I also know that I need to put in a lot more work and planning if I want a better day? Yep. I'm very proud of my accomplishment though. The medal is not bad and my kids helped me put my race bibs in my collection book.

Swam a half mile, biked 15 miles, and ran 3.1 miles in just over 2 hours. I'll take it. Someday I will be unable to do this...yesterday was not that day.