Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | August 31, 2010

The Insanity Known as The Chicago Triathlon

I took a vacation from blogging after the WaterDaze swim race, mainly because I was doing so much triathlon training that I was simply too tired to type. Although my recent blog posts have introduced you to charming locales such as St Ignatius and Polson, Montana, the site of my next event needs no introduction. It is The Big City of Chicago. The Windy City, a vertical oasis of glass and steel smack in the middle of the flatlands of Illinois. The Queen of the Midwest perches majestically on the edge of Lake Michigan, beckoning thousands of athletes to come face the challenge that is The Chicago Triathlon.

The Chicago Triathlon is billed as the world’s largest triathlon, and this year it attracted a field of 10,500 participants, including pros, elite amateurs and first-timers. Some were doing the Sprint Distance, but most were like me, foolish enough to sign up for the International Distance: 1500 meter swim, 25 mile bike, 6.2 mile run. Fortunately, given the level of training I have been doing, all of those distances seemed quite manageable. Except for the swim, that is. Anything over 100 meters is still rather daunting to me. But, I had just finished the WaterDaze 1 mile swim, so 1500 meters was doable, if not pleasant. I felt prepared for the triathlon and was not at all nervous about the course. What I was nervous about was missing the start.

My stress began the day before as I headed to the Multisport Expo for packet pickup. Keep in mind that I had just arrived in Chicago from Montana, and adjusting to city life was difficult. For one thing, I encountered traffic. A lot of it. Bumper-to-bumper traffic sitting still. I thought I had allowed plenty of time to get to the Expo, but as I crawled forward at a snail’s pace it occurred to me that I might not make it. I thought about how humiliating would it be to explain that the reason I did not do the Chicago Triathlon was not due to injury or some personal emergency, but because the Expo closed while I was still stuck in traffic and I couldn’t get my race packet. I saw another car with two tri bikes on the back and two equally panicked-looking occupants in the car. At least I would not be the only loser who missed packet pickup.

Fortunately, the traffic tie up was due to an accident, and once we passed the accident site the log-jam broke free. With only 15 minutes until packet-pickup closed, I found a parking garage and threw my car into a spot. I emerged from the garage and was struck again by the challenges of city life: I had no idea where I was. I took my chances and turned left, and was thrilled to see that the Hilton (site of the Expo) was just in front of me. I dashed into the hotel and ran smack into a phalanx of incredibly fit people escorting some very nice bikes. I took a moment to ogle a handsome red Cervelo (a bike, not a guy, just to be clear), but then I snapped out of my trance and sprinted to the exhibition hall.  They were already taking signs down. I looked around frantically and saw a “Packet Pickup” sign. A very nice gentleman found my packet for me, gave me some instructions, and sent me over to the next station. At chip check, the guy scanned my chip, looked at me and said “Amy?”

“No, no, I am not Amy!” I panicked.

“Heh, heh, I’m just messing with you,” he replied. Very funny, Mr. Race Volunteer Dude. Do I look like I am in the mood for a joke? Then I went on to body marking, where I had my race number scrawled in black sharpie across both arms and one leg. Quite attractive. Relieved that I had made it in time, I clutched my race packet tightly and made my way out of the exhibition hall. I saw two panicked people running down the corridor towards me. I think they might have been the same people stuck in traffic with me, but I can’t be sure (all those uber-triathletes look the same, to be honest). “Through that door straight ahead,” I yelled, knowing that the signs had been taken down already. I hope they got their packets because if not, as the kids say, that would suck.

I had some last minute errands to run, and I must admit, nothing screams “dork” quite like walking into the grocery store with a race number scrawled on your arms. I ignored the quizzical looks and bought my gatorade. I went home to peruse the race packet and organize my equipment. Then I packed it all into the car. Now came the next big hurdle – getting to transition on time. The transition area opened at (gulp) 4:15 and would close promptly at (gulp again) 5:45. AM.  My start wave wouldn’t go until after 8, but if I didnt make it to transition before it closed, I wouldn’t be able to race. After my harrowing traffic experience, I set my alarm for 3:30. I figured no one would be on the road at 4:00 AM, but I didnt want to take any risks.

When the alarm when off at 3:30, I muttered some unkind words and hauled myself out of bed. My usual “Why the hell am I doing this?” feeling took over, but at that point I figured the worst had passed: I was out of bed and standing upright. Half asleep, I drove down to Grant Park in the dark. I pulled into the garage, and again was surrounded by the hyper-fit and their fancy hardware. The place was swarming with pumped up athletes and their sleepy spouses. (My spouse had quite wisely decided to stay in bed until a little closer to race start time.) We all made our way out of the garage and towards the start. There were thousands of us gathered in the predawn darkness, cramming ourselves into the transition area to set up our stuff. It was just like the Chicago Marathon, but it was pitch black and everyone had a small cargo-container worth of stuff: bikes, helmets, bike shoes, running shoes, balloons, towels, changes of clothes, small appliances, couches, beds, tables and chairs, ottomans and recliners. It looked like an entire village of lycra-clad homeless refugees was setting up camp. I expected the United Nations relief trucks to roll through any minute and hand out Clif bars.

I set up my stuff in transition and walked the entrances and exits several times (just like my wonderful coach Nina told me to). I finished up just as the announcer declared transition was closing. As I left, I passed many frantic people running with their bikes and gear towards transition.  Never have I been so happy to have gotten up at 3:30AM.

Deer in Headlights

Before I knew it, it was time for my wave to start and I found myself climbing into Lake Michigan, and I was off….along with 150 of my new closest friends. To describe the race start as chaotic would be an understatement. It was like an emergency water evacuation of an airplane full of psychotics. Thrashing, splashing, flailing, body parts everywhere, like some underwater horror movie, but without the blood. Before I knew what was happening, I realized that all those thrashing bodies were creating a current that was pulling me along. I just put my head in the water and swam. Although the swim was crowded and chaotic, it was also easy to keep someone in my sight and follow along. Until, that is, racers from the wave behind us caught up to us and literally swam right over us. I am sure the course was measured out to be precisely 1500 meters, but to me it seemed substantially longer.

Finally I got to the swim finish, climbed up the rickety aluminum stairs and gratefully stumbled onto dry land. The worst was over. Or so I thought. I then did the quarter-mile barefoot run back to the transition area. I grabbed my bike and off I went. After having had underwater myopia during the swim, it was nice to be on the bike and see some of the other athletes out there. We ran the gamut. People on 10-year-old Schwinns, average athletes on decent bikes like me, and then the “I have every possible piece of equipment” elite-wannabes. The aerobars, the Zipp wheels, the pointy helmets – some guys (and gals) had it all. Most of them were obviously serious and dedicated athletes, and they zoomed right by me. But every now and then I passed one of those decked-out equipment addicts. I figured the people I passed were either injured or just really slow but really rich.

Unfortunately for me, the bike ride was over too quickly. I zoomed back into transition and headed out for my run. I paused briefly when I heard someone tell a race organizer two guys had collapsed in transition. The day was heating up, and clearly it was taking its toll. I was about to be its next victim. The run was great for about the first mile, then the path veered away from the shade of the trees and into a stretch of sun-baked concrete. That is when I faded like a spiky-haired ’80s pop star. My pace slowed to a crawl. I told myself to pick it up a little, but my legs weren’t listening. It seemed more people were walking than running. I realized quickly that my time was going to be slower than I had hoped, so I just accepted it and tried to enjoy the race as much as possible.

As I neared the finish line, I saw a banner that said “Pain is temporary, but Pride lasts forever.” It made me smile, and I picked up my pace. Then I almost threw up so I slowed down again, because the corollary to the “Pride” banner would be: “Nausea is temporary but the embarrassment of having an official race photo of you puking will last forever.” The finish was a blur, but I made it to the end, found my family, and ate ice cream while we watched the Pro Triathletes race.  All in all, it was a good way to spend a Sunday morning. Except for that getting up at 3:30AM part. That I could certainly live without. Which reminds me, why do I do these things?


  1. “Amy”!! Oh, Mr. Volunteer is a funny one. Sue, once again a very entertaining post. I wish I was there to cheer for you, Andie, and others. It was a very hot day and I’m glad you took it easy on the run. I hope those guys (who collapsed) are OK. Biking Lake Shore Dr. sounded like the best part. I saw all you cyclists when I was out for my hangover run that morning. Great job, Sue!! (I laughed out loud reading the part about the swim! :-D)

  2. Great race report Sue! Love all of your descriptions! Congrats!

  3. Excellent report. I love this bit “As I neared the finish line, I saw a banner that said “Pain is temporary, but Pride lasts forever.” It made me smile, and I picked up my pace. Then I almost threw up so I slowed down again, because the corollary to the “Pride” banner would be: “Nausea is temporary but the embarrassment of having an official race photo of you puking will last forever.”

    The heat during the run sounds like my tri in June. I was doing great until the run.
    Congrats on getting it done!

  4. Another fantastic race report that makes me proud, laugh out loud, feel like I was actually there and even wonder myself why the hell we do this sometimes. I think these should be required reading for all triathletes (not just because you keep kindly mentioning me either ;-)) You continue to be a Sue-Perstar in all your training, racing and writing endeavors. And here’s another one for ya: embarrassment at the grocery store with your race numbers on your arm is temporary, but the damn race numbers themselves, that they insist on using super permanent markers which smear with sunscreen but then take a whole week to actually wash off, aren’t.

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