Mrs. T's Chicago triathlon: the world championship of 'whim racing'

Kona's "sweet spot" is between 12 and 14 hours. People who finish faster than that have expectations (usually unmet).

Those who finish in the sweet spot have no expectations, just hopes and dreams. They are the athletes who've trained hard enough to finish in a respectable time while remaining utterly unpretentious. If you want to watch a race, watch the pros. If you want to watch a finish, go eat dinner at the Chart House and return around the 12-hour mark. That's when Kona gets interesting.

Quite the opposite at Mrs. T's in Chicago. The pros leave last, and all the good stuff happens first thing in the morning. The "good stuff" here, though, is a little on the lighter side. Nobody does Kona on a whim Kona is serious business. Mrs. T's is the world championship of whim racing.

You see it all at this race. Like the guy who has his wetsuit on inside-out. Zipper in the front. Size tag protruding from his chest. Do you tell him? He may not be able to get the suit off and back on again before his wave goes off. (Sometimes it's better not to know.)

We take our seats on the curb right outside the bike corral, at the bike mount-up point. Every imaginable species of rider comes out of the corral, pushing every imaginable species of bike. They mount up in front of where we're sitting.

A fellow appears who carries no fewer than 350 pounds on a 5'10" frame, wearing a De Soto skinsuit. De Soto is an advocate of Lycra power and now so am I. It's unimaginable how that suit stays together.

A lady exits T1 wearing her helmet backwards. She's not alone. Perhaps every five minutes an athlete exits transition sporting a helmet back-end-first. One guys gets ready to mount his three-speed commuter bike in his tennies but is informed by an official that a helmet is mandatory. He's shocked ... shocked that there exists such a rule. A spectator loans him a helmet. He puts it on backward and rides off.

Another lady rolls her bike out of transition and we notice her chain has derailled. We try to warn her. We're all there: Rich and Chris managers of Mission Bay Multisport's two Chicagoland shops Steve Hed, John Cobb, and Mark Vandermolen, marketing manager for Profile Design. It's an entire row of people who make their livings trying to help people enjoy their riding experience, yelling in unison: "No! Stop! Don't pedal! Lady, your chain! Don't do it!." She doesn't hear. She's in the heat of battle. The fog of war. Our screams and pleas are without purchase, just din and clamor. White noise. Background music.

She mounts the bike. "No! Don't! Your chain, lady, it's your chain!"

Nothing we do or say will stop her. She tries to put one foot in the pedal and can't get it in. We still have time to grab her attention, but we may as well have been screaming in Arabic. Click, she gets the shoe to lock in. Pushes off with the other foot. It's too late. Nothing to do but watch.

Now she's got both feet clicked in, and surprise zzzzz, she's spinning her cranks at 120 revolutions per minute, and going nowhere. Now she understands but, sorry for her, too late. Like the Titanic she starts to list. She's like a douglas fir after the lumberman makes his final chainsaw crosscut. She's gaining speed, but on the wrong axis. The bike is pointing north. She's traveling west. Splat.

Chicagoans are fearless. This is why I admire them. They think nothing of doing this race on no training whatsoever. Many of this race's entrants fit that model. You can tell this with precision just by looking at their bikes.

You will see equipment here you haven't seen in eight, 12, 15 years. Entire bikes that come from a distinct technological age. A Centurion Ironman with original Scott DH bars original foam armrests still in mint condition Aerospokes, Gripshifts (the oldest ones), and handlebar tape that hasn't been manufactured since the late '80s. This bike has been ridden, it is obvious, a dozen times since 1989 once each year on a particular day in August.

Same guy has a late '80s vintage foam Giro helmet that comes with the Lycra cover. Except no Lycra cover. And, of course, it's on backwards.

More than just a race

Mrs. T's Pierogies Triathlon is the hardest Olympic distance race in the world. This is not because of the course which is flat or the swim, which takes place in tepid Lake Michigan in flat water and on a straight course. Yes, the weather is always warm-to-hot, and it's humid, but that's not the problem.

It's the logistics that make this race a bitch.

First, the transition area is a good three-quarters of a mile from the race hotel, and you've got to hoof your bike down there and rack it by 6:30 race morning. Your wave may not go until three or four hours later (there's 30-some-odd waves, maybe 40, I don't know). So you crawl, bleary-eyed, out of your hotel at oh-dark-thirty and rack the darn thing, and then come back to take care of your other, regular pre-race bidness.

Returning to the site closer to race time, you now must travel another three-quarters of a mile past the transition to the (point-to-point) swim start. You do all this a mile and a half from your hotel in bare feet if you haven't made any other accommodation.

You read the Sunday Trib or Sun Times while in your wetsuit perhaps sucking on a cig if you're so inclined waiting for your wave to start. Then comes the easy part the race itself. Easy, as I said, excepting the part after the swim exit where you've got to run 600 yards on concrete (again on bare feet) to your bike.

The swim is followed by your entrance into the world's largest transition area, with perhaps 6,000 or 7,000 bikes (the sprint, plus the Olympic distance's 5,000 bikes, are all racked together). You exit this quarter-mile-long bike corral either in bare feet or, worse, in cycling shoes.

You finish the bike and (if you can find your rack spot) the run, and cross the finish line. Now you're really in the north 40. In this point-to-point-to-point race, you've got about a mile to run back to the transition area, where you fetch your bike and possibles for the trek back to the hotel perhaps another (altogether) two miles from race finish to safety, peace and rest.

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