The Chicago Triathlon was a fun race this year. My first tri was the sprint at Chicago in 2007 so each year it’s been fun to go back and race again, doing the Olympic distance each subsequent time.
This was the first of my five years at this race where we had a choppy swim. Cold or warm, the water has always been pretty smooth. I’ve worked on my swim a ton this year, so when I saw the wind kicking up small waves I was excited. I positioned myself on the front row of my wave and to the left side. As the horn sounded I sprinted off the front and could see one other swimmer to my right. After a minute or so I settled into my race pace and felt another swimmer on my feet and one just off my right hip. The guy next to me ended up passing me and I latched onto his feet to the first turn buoy, where we turned around and into the chop. I sprinted out of the turn but lost his feet. However after maybe 5 minutes I passed him back and swam away from him. The swimmer who shot off the front of our wave was long gone…I saw his cap ahead of us while sighting earlier in the swim, but by this point I began working through the waves in front of me and it was more chaotic than previous Chicago swims, including the Elite Amateur wave in 2010. The day’s conditions were wreaking havoc on a lot of people, with many floundering in the choppy water. I noticed more backstroke, breaststroke and dog paddlers than usual, not to mention swimmers clinging to the rope strung along the Monroe Harbor wall, slowly climbing their way to the swim exit.
As I climbed the stairs out of Lake Michigan I checked my watch, 26 minutes and change. Not as fast as I’d hoped but I was second out of the water from my wave, which I figured meant other guys had been slower as well. I ran the quarter mile route into transition, finding my spot quickly. A quick change and I was headed out onto Lake Shore Drive.
Swim (incl. run to T1) – 28:42
T1 – 1:53
Though Chicago was during my taper from IM Wisconsin, I had a simple plan for the bike and run. Build my effort the first 10 minutes, then ride at threshold watts the remainder of the bike. Build my effort the first mile and run about 7:15 and then see how much faster I could go the rest of the run. The bike was solid and I was passed by only a couple people. As usual, the course was a complete mess due to the reversed passing rule, where you ride on the left and pass on the right, closer to traffic moving in the two outside lanes of Lake Shore Drive. Despite race briefings, people never seem to get it and this year was no exception. Several times I rode EXTREMELY close to the cones splitting the bike course up from car traffic, just to stay to the right of people. There were lots of incidents of blocking and drafting, but I was determined to try to ride my own race and ride hard. Also similar to previous years (and likely familiar to everyone who has run or ridden on the Chicago lakefront), there was a nasty headwind moving north which turned into a wicked tailwind coming back south. I yo-yo’ed back and forth being passed and then re-passing a couple riders on the course, exchanging words with one guy who refused to move to the left, near the end of my ride. It was wasted energy, but shouting “ON YOUR RIGHT” three different times didn’t work and I had to execute one of those risky, almost-in-traffic passes up against the cones. As I passed he had a few choice words for me which my mom wouldn’t want me to repeat, so I won’t. I might have even turned and said something back along the lines of “learn the rules,” but I can neither confirm nor deny this. Though I’ll say that if I HAD said something, it was probably much more polite than what he had to say.
I came off the bike feeling great, thought having worked pretty hard. I only spun out my legs the last minute or so, just after crossing the Chicago River and turning through the 180-degree curve down the exit ramp, to ride a couple hundred feet back to transition. One flying dismount later in front of a few cheering friends and I was off to my spot in transition to grab my shoes and race belt, to go hit the run.
Bike – 1:04:37 (23.5mph)
T2 – 1:36
I managed my effort that first mile, which can be tough because the first mile on the path runs along the same route where swimmers are still coming out of the water and running into T1, plus most of the fans tend to group themselves on the grass along this part of the run. It’s tough not to get a lift from the cheering, especially having met many folks in the local tri community and thus hearing a few “Go Henry” shouts along the way. My first mile was 6:57, slightly faster than planned, but I felt fantastic so just brushed it off. I wasn’t too worried as I was running with the wind at my back too, so I hoped this meant I could bank a little time along the way to try to average under 7:00/mile for the first time in an Olympic distance race. The second and third miles were just about 6:45’s, though after the turnaround down at 31st street beach, the wind hit us in the face pretty hard until we got back to some shelter. Nevertheless I held my pace and knew I had a shot at running under 7’s. I sprinted the last quarter-mile as hard as I could, coming across the line and seeing my watch stop just around 2:19. I was a bit disappointed at first, as my goal was 2:15 for the race, having gone 2:23 in 2010 while racing Elite Amateur.
Run – 42:47 (6:54/mile)
Finish – 2:19:38 (Olympic distance PR)
Overall Place – 23/3326
Gender Place – 23/2332
Age Group Place – 6/403
Once I got a chance to see results though, my disappointment was replaced by excitement. Bo Parrish, a Timex Multisport Team athlete who I had met earlier, won our age group and placed 6th overall in 2:15:27. I finished 6th of 403 in our age group and 23rd overall out of 3,326 people in the Olympic distance race. That felt (and continues to feel) like my best accomplishment of 2011. Times were much slower than usual due to the strong winds and I didn’t hit the swim or bike splits I’d targeted, but the wind affected clearly affected everyone and my performance still showed vast improvement. In more ideal conditions I now have no doubt I can come pretty close to the bigger goal of 2:10 in an Olympic distance race. I also crept closer to a podium in a huge race, which also will be rewarding when it happens.
All things considered, Chicago is a fun race that I plan on coming back to do again next year. The con’s about Chicago: it’s a beginner-heavy race which makes for a messy swim and bike, not to mention the race is huge in terms of participants (8k this year) so transition opens before 5:00AM and closes at 6:30AM…overall it’s just a hassle due to its sheer size. The pro’s, which in my mind make it worth the experience: sleeping in your own bed the night before a race, seeing the Chicago lakefront and skyline laid in front of you during a race and of course, having friends and family able to attend a race without much travel on their part.
See you at the 2012 Chicago Triathlon!
P.S. As a nice surprise, two weeks after the Chicago Tri, I got an email from Lifetime Fitness that as a top-10 finisher in my age group, I qualified for a free entry to their championship race in Dallas in early October. I didn’t end up racing because IM Wisconsin was so close to that date, but it was a fun bit of recognition. Maybe in 2012 I’ll do just as well at Chicago and actually take them up on Dallas.