By Certified Triathlon Coach & All-American Athlete: Becca Kawaoka
After racing my first local triathlon of the season, Lake Whatcom Triathlon in Bellingham, WA, I feel compelled to highlight the importance of participating in local 5k’s, half marathons, and multisport events. This is my 4th year racing triathlon (5 years in the sport) and every year I am intentional to incorporate local events. Why?
The sport of triathlon has a grassroots beginning. In the early 1970’s, a group of 46 athletes decided to do a short sprint-like event with swimming, biking, and running as a way to cross train for running events. In the late 1970’s, a handful of people on the shores of Kailua-Kona attempting a self-supported, open-road event that eventually evolved into what is now known as the Ironman distance. That course is now known world-wide as the Ironman World Championships.
History aside, without local races to offer new athletes a chance to “dip their toes” (no pun intended!) into racing, the sport is unlikely to gain new participants. Large corporations like Ironman, Challenge, and the up-and-coming PTO typically only offer long distance events. This can be intimidating to youth/new athletes. Infusing young people and new participants is vital for the long-term survival of the sport, and local racing offers a variety of short to middle distance options (like the super sprint!) or even pairings, such as just the swim-bike, or team relays in case that’s more approachable / in case an injury pops up.
Pre-race shake outs and nervous laughter!
Local races have a laid-back atmosphere, which is a wonderful welcome if you have ever participated in a high-stakes race like Ironman. It’s so fun to chat candidly in transition with your local buddies. Most of my friends, and my husband’s friends, are people we have met at local triathlons. It’s a great way to get to know people who share the same interests as you and live nearby. We love racing the local competition and have developed a wonderful camaraderie with a lot of local triathletes!
Racing locally is sort of like choosing to go to a Mom and Pop coffee shop instead of Starbucks. Local racing is really the heart of the sport, and while the field sizes are a bit smaller and the courses are not quite as elaborate as big corporate races, the local events are keeping triathlon alive. One thing I’ve noticed local races do this year is offer an elite wave, which allows anyone competing for an overall position to start in one mass group. This is EXACTLY what we want Ironman to start doing so that it’s a live race on the course versus wave starts. It is very challenging to know where you stand in the age group field at Ironman events because they do rolling wave starts, so we are thrilled that local race directors are starting to offer elite fields. There is no qualification to start with the elites, and you can much cleaner water than the wave or gender starts. Plus, it’s a true live race! For those of you who race competitively with Ironman and have felt the pain of wave starts, support local races and engage in the elite wave. Change really starts at the local level.
Lake Whatcom Triathlon offered such a start, and a handful of about 8 of us started together. My husband and coach, Elliot, started just in front of me with the local group of triathletes we know well: David, Bethany, and Jeremy to name a few! I enjoyed starting on Bethany’s feet and we all stayed together until the first buoy. Lake Whatcom is a wonderful lake, with a triangular swim course. The water was relatively calm and cool, perfect for racing.
Transition was about 400 meters from the swim exit, up a shallow hill. This year, the transition set up was in the Bloedel Donovan Park’s parking lot. The set up was FAST, as transition was compact with pro-level bike racks and a very short jog out of the swim onto the bike! I was happy to get the chance to practice transitions, though mine was a bit sloppy. My friend Bethany reigned supreme in transitions, with the fastest men and women’s transitions of the day! She was just up ahead of me out of the swim and we exchanged enthusiastic encouragement to one another when I found her on the bike course.
The bike course is quite challenging, with a fast and beautiful rolling start into a size-able climb on quiet country roads. Unfortunately, I was alone most of the day so I didn’t bike quite as hard as I wanted too. I was also feeling under the weather, congested and weak the days before, so knowing that I was at the front of the women’s field allowed me to ease into a more sustainable effort. A few men passed me, which hasn’t happened much this year, so I was rather chuffed coming into transition.
The run course is a DOOZY here. Our buddy David, who lives near the course, coaches athletes, and owns the course record from last year, did the aqua bike vs the Olympic due to a hamstring injury. He went out onto the run course after finishing and helped direct me where to go – which is just a perfect example of class sportsmanship and why I love local races! I ran completely alone until I saw the men’s leader, our friend Jeremy. He assured me I was headed the right direction. The run path starts relatively quick on packed gravel and dirt, but quickly gets challenging with a full flight of stairs both down and uphill! I’m not talking a few steps, I’m talking 400 meters of full stairs to burn your quads and skyrocket your heart rate no matter how good of shape you’re in! I saw my husband, who was hard to miss as we were in bright polka dotted matching kits, and a few other men on the out and backs, but was otherwise alone. There was a very encouraging aid station ran by some friendly volunteers who did a great job directing me which way to go on the labyrinth, forested trail run course. Several white arrows directed racers which way to go, but you did need to look for them carefully. Elliot missed one arrow and ran a bit extra, but thankfully found his way back to the path and it did not affect his position.
The finish was flat and fast, and the arch was a welcome sight after quite a battle on the fun but challenging course! I won the women’s side and was 6th overall, a bit disappointed I didn’t make the overall podium but I accepted it, acknowledging I felt less than 100%. Elliot was 4th overall and 2nd in his age group. A few of the front age guys started in age group waves instead of the elite mass start, and it did affect the flow of the overall placements. For example, Jeremy was only passed physically by the men’s leader, Tom Hutchinson, who won the race convincingly despite starting in the age group waves and catching everyone. If results stayed this way, it would have put Elliot third and age group winner. However, two other top age group men clocked times that put them into top 5 podium position, but were never seen physically because they started further back.
This was hard on me as well, as usually I hold onto a podium overall position in the men’s field. In general, this could be cleared up by stating anyone who wants overall awards should start with the elite or first wave. It would have been a more dynamic race that way! This also affected the women’s podium for 2nd and 3rd overall, as my friend Bethany started with me in the elite field. She was only passed by me, so she thought she had 2nd place squared away but a gal who started well behind us clocked a time about a minute faster. This same thing is happening with Ironman races, like I mentioned, but at least there is an opportunity to solve the problem by encouraging an elite start. We just hope more people use that option in the future, and that large corporations catch on. Competitive athletes want a live race!
The post-race food was AMAZING, and it was so fun jumping in the lake after while discussing the day with our friends and athletes. My athlete Carissa won her age group in 18-24, so we were excited about that as a start to her racing season. The weather was great, and I am so happy to see local races continue to thrive in Washington. We plan to do upcoming local races such as Black Diamond, Lake Meridian, Bonney Lake, and Lake Stevens (barring any injuries) to continue to hone our race skills for key Ironman race events.
SUPPORT LOCAL RACES! If you live near Bellingham, put this one on your calendar!