Leon’s Triathlon is one of the oldest and favorite races for Chicago-area athletes; it takes place in Hammond, Indiana, a short 30-minute drive from downtown Chicago.
The race is fully dedicated to the support and empowerment of the US military and veterans, especially those injured veterans in need of the most help. The race includes a sprint and Olympic distance for individual age group and relay team options. This is a USAT sanctioned event and a competitive local race. The event draws competitors from around the country and pays special tribute to active and retired military members throughout the weekend.
Leon Wolek founded Leon’s Triathlon in 1983 and he continues to make this event better each year. He gives high fives and handshakes to each participant at the beginning of the swim, and he is there at the finish line thanking everyone that crosses. Dare2tri partners with Leon’s Triathlon to offer an official Dare2tri Race2Raise Team; the organization, which supports athletes with disabilities, puts on a camp for injured veterans and people with physical disabilities for a full weekend of training and fun in the sport of triathlon.
I have done this race in the past, but this year I was joined by Jim Gubbins, fellow Chicago Athlete ambassador, and we did the Olympic relay. We met at the race site bright and early to get ready for the race. There was plenty of parking on site, and we set up quickly and got body marked, leaving us plenty of time before the start. We were walking around the venue taking pictures when we saw a tent for the SSG David P Nowaczyk Foundation, which supports families of fallen heroes. I was desperately looking for coffee and they had some (thank you so much to David’s mom), we started talking to the couple at the booth and they told us all about their foundation and their son. David’s mom asked Jim and I to race for his son who was killed in action in 2012. We were both honored and humbled to race for David!
The Swim: Jim
The swim in Wolf Lake is a well-marked and supported rectangle for the Olympic distance that starts off the pier behind the pavilion. Leon Wolek himself was on the dock to shake each competitors hand as they entered the 69 degree water. As the host of the event, he believes in treating it with humility and grace and seems genuinely appreciative of each individual athlete who came out to compete.
The swim to the first turn buoy is the most difficult part of a triathlon since it always looks so far away! Around 200 meters, I struggled a bit, but looked down to see a wristband with SSG David P Nowaczyk on my right hand. Knowing I was racing in his honor, I put my head down and just swam. By the first turn, I found a nice rhythm and was moving with the current.
I felt strong heading for swim exit knowing that Erika was waiting in transition for me. There is a sandbar that makes it difficult to swim about 100 meters from shore and many choose to walk a few steps here. The water in Wolf Lake can be a little murky and there was a large weed bed after the last buoy. Hearing the cheering spectators pulls you through them and out onto the short run to transition.
Bike and Run: Erika
Since we only had two people for our relay, I did the bike and the run legs. The bike is two loops with four sharp U-turns, but despite the technical turns, and it is a surprisingly fast course. On Sunday the wind was definitely a factor, especially coming back to transition (about 10 miles of head wind) but the spectators along the way made it much more tolerable.
My favorite part of this race was the run (running is my strength); it is a nice out-and-back loop on a park trail with aid stations at every mile featuring water and Gatorade. The path was decorated with American flags as far as you could see; it was truly a beautiful site and very inspiring.
The finish line is quite special with spectators cheering, first responders hanging out, and music blasting; and Leon was there to thank every participant as he does every year. The after race festivities include a beer garden and lunch with hot dogs, hamburgers, pasta salad, fruit and desserts.