Posted by: trevormeers | September 11, 2012

The People’s Race

Team 4206 (having known each other for about 20 minutes) heads to the starting line.

A Tri Tat belongs in that category of decorations that demand a certain amount of achievement before wearing. Just as with a paratrooper’s bloused pants or an actual rodeo trophy buckle, you don’t want to be the person caught wearing the temporary number tattoo from a triathlon before earning it. Yet at 5am on a weekend morning, I was pressing the number 4206 just below my shoulder in preparation for the Hy-Vee Triathlon, one of the richest triathlons on the American semi-pro circuit. It made me more than a little self-conscious knowing that while the bike and run legs were right in my wheelhouse, I’d be lucky to swim four laps in the pool at the local Y. Fortunately, in this triathlon, I wouldn’t have to.

When we arrived at the race’s hub, Gray’s Lake near downtown Des Moines still lay mostly shrouded in night. But I could make out the glowing stern light of a boat that was dragging an inflatable buoy across the lake, marking the swim route. I wasn’t afraid to admit it out loud: I was glad I didn’t have to go out there.

The masses take to the water.

That job fell to Khristy, the designated swimmer on our triathlon relay team. Lori would anchor us on the 6.2-mile running leg, and I’d hold down the middle on the 24.85-mile bike ride. Our squad wasn’t exactly assembled Dream Team-style with victory in mind from the ground up. We’d met each other for the first time the day before after being randomly thrown together when each volunteered at work to participate in the relay.

The relay division, as far as I can tell in my first year at this race, has revolutionized the Hy-Vee Triathlon. The race’s elite divisions include some of the world’s best semi-pro triathletes, as well as the premier pros, including all six of the mens’ and womens’ medalists from the London Olympics two weeks earlier. Then come the weekend warriors—average joes and janes stretching their personal limits to finish a tri. Finally, there are the relay teams, 300 strong this year, filled with people seeking something like the tapas menu of triathlons, trying a taste of the action without getting weighed down with the full portion.

This is Tri Guy, who is generally unamused by amateurs.

As roughly 3,000 of us waited by the lake for the swimmers to start the day, it become obvious that I was on strange new ground. Ground occupied by the different breed known as Triathlon Guy. In the starting chute of the running events I’m used to, there’s not much intimidation in play. A few runners look leaner than the rest, but in the gear department, we’re all pretty much there in shoes, shorts and digital watches.

Tri Guy, on the other hand, rolls in with enough high-tech toys to outfit Batman’s fitness program. With time to kill until the relay bikers headed out, I watched the elites pass through T1, the transition from swim to bike. They jogged beside their bikes to the mounting line, armed in tear-drop-shape helmets that swept down past their shoulders. One guy’s lid had built-in goggles and, for all I know, a holographic targeting system. Their bikes were invariably carbon-fiber and probably weighed less than my iPhone. When they passed on the road, the bikes gave off a hollow hum like some kind of menacing dragonfly.

As the field of elites worked its way out of T1, the commoners began to arrive. “This is the people’s race,” the announcer on the beach had said as the desk-jockey swimmers waded into Gray’s Lake. And now T1 was starting to reflect the egalitarian spirit. The bikes began turning to more average models—models more like the one I ride. I still find it a little strange to think of a $1,000 bike as low-end, but compared to Tri Guy’s ride, you’re rolling in a Hyundai at that price point. By the time the relay bikers started leaving T1, you had pretty good odds of spotting a Schwinn on the race course. I even saw one woman trotting toward the mount line with a commuter’s bag rack bolted above her back wheel.

And here’s our intrepid reporter, wondering how long he can wear the Tri Tat before people start laughing at the office.

I waited in the relay corral for Khristy to jog up from the lake. It would be the third time I’d ever seen her, and, to be honest, I was watching for the 4206 on her arm more than I was hoping to recognize her face. Still, I somehow missed her until I heard someone yelling my name in the crowd inside the corral. Eventually, she found me and handed off the Velcro ankle strap holding our team’s timing chip.

A little over an hour later, I raced into T2, found Lori and handed off the timing chip. On the third and final time I’d see my teammate, I shouted, “Go get ‘em!” and she headed through the inflatable gate labeled “Run Out.”

Before I finished my ride, Teri stood at the cycling finish and watched one of the elites wipe out on his bike right before the dismount line. As he pulled himself off the pavement, the race leader’s wife leaned over the barricade, screaming at the racer, celebrating the crash that gave her husband a bigger lead.

At about the same time, I was out on the road, noticing an outbound rider wearing a giant beard and riding a bike that seemed custom-built for delivering Sunday papers. He was wearing Tri Tats, just like me. Just like the guy whose wife was screaming at the guy picking gravel out of his calf. We won’t all qualify for next year’s elite division, but in the People’s Race, Tri Guy still has to make a little room for the rest of us out on the course.

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