On the morning of August 24, I joined the flow of spandex-clad triathletes descending upon the shore of Lake Michigan and the "World's Largest Triathlon."
Since 1984, the Accenture Chicago Triathlon has held that title, and in 2008 more than 8,700 athletes registered for the three-day sports festival. The weekend of events included a multisport and fitness expo on Friday and Saturday, kid's race and super-sprint triathlons on Saturday, and sprint-distance and international (or Olympic) distance competition on Sunday.
The host hotel was located a few blocks away from the transition area, so many racers rode their bikes as a quick stretch of the legs. Finding where to go was uncomplicated since the race wave number written on my calf muscle matched the large sign on my bike rack. I also had a color-coded swim cap that designated my age group which helped with knowing where to line up before the swim start.
I had two hours to kill before my race wave was to begin so I walked over to a grassy area near the swim start. I passed long lines for the port-a-potties and found a small patch of grass next to other athletes who were stretching out, chatting and waiting. Spectators gathered there, too, because from this vantage point they could see the swim start as well as the beginning of the run. The sun was rising out of the lake as the first waves of the sprint race started at 6 a.m.
The Swim Leg
The 1.5K swim (.93 miles) of the international-distance race was staged in the calm waters of Monroe Harbor. In 2008, the water was 70 degrees, which was almost too warm for a full wetsuit, but I still wore one for the buoyancy factor. Swimmers entered the water and waited approximately 45 seconds before the start, then headed south for 380 yards, rounded a buoy, and returned north to the exit. Swimmers were packed together during the start of the swim so it was more chaotic than I anticipated, but the crowd spread out upon rounding the buoy.
Also, the close proximity of the spectators watching from the lake wall made for an interesting change of scenery on every breath to the left side. It was pretty cool to get a thumbs up or smile from a random person, and I found this helped me regain composure and find a rhythm after such a chaotic start.
Once out of the water, the run to the transition area entrance was lengthy and my bike was racked at the far side making it even farther. This run was across both gravel and grass--not the traditional transition area carpeting. After pulling a small piece of glass out of the ball of my left foot in the bike mount area, I would have preferred to wear my cycling shoes while running with my bike instead of leaving them clipped in my pedals.
The Bike Leg
The 40K bike (24.8 mi.) started with the slight uphill grade of a Lake Shore Drive on-ramp. The ride headed north in the inner two northbound lanes that are coned off from vehicle lanes, past Chicago's skyline to a 180-degree turnaround near Foster Avenue. Here the course crossed the median and returned south on the inner two lanes.
The road itself was in pretty rough shape, and I consciously chose the cleanest and smoothest lines so as to avoid joining the folks fixing flat tires. There was a steady headwind when riding north, but the southbound tailwind was a nice relief during the return loops.
After another turnaround at Chicago Avenue, there was a second lap on Lake Shore Drive. Due to the counterclockwise course, slower riders rode on the left with faster riders passing on the right. That was different from other races I've done but the majority of riders adhered to the rule.
I finished the last of my two bottles toward the end of the bike and realized that there weren't any water stations during the bike leg. I suppose it's a short enough distance that they are deemed unnecessary.
The ride finished with great fan support on both sides of the bike dismount area and T2 included another trek through the vast transition area, adding plenty more to the run distance total. The 10k run (6.2 mi.) headed down Chicago's lakefront running paths, past Buckingham Fountain, through Museum campus, behind the Shedd Aquarium and toward the Adler Planetarium.
There was ample aid-station support during the run, which was key because the temperature began to rise. It was a very flat run course and the crowd at the finish line on Columbus Drive could be heard from over a half-kilometer away.
Upon crossing the finish line, racers were handed a towel that had been soaked in refreshing ice water, high-powered fans blew mist to cool racers making a trip to the robust buffet area, and there was an entire athlete village set up in the finish area. The mile walk to the transition area to gather my belongings was a little much after the race, but passing through Grant Park by the Buckingham Fountain made it a worthwhile effort.
The Accenture Chicago Triathlon is a world-class sporting event for professionals and first-time participant alike. Add this classic to your multisport calendar and enjoy the beauty of the lakefront course, impressive architectural skyline and the exciting downtown finish.