The 37th annual Chicago Triathlon presented by Life Time took place in downtown Chicago along the lakefront this past weekend and nearly 10,000 athletes participated in the various distances.
This event has been a success every year and is well-managed to ensure that athletes receive plentiful communication and guidance about supply drop-off, checkpoints and viewing areas. This year was no different in the communication, as athletes were warned about the challenges they would face with the high water levels of Lake Michigan.
In fact, just days before the triathlon, Life Time released the following statement to Chicago Athlete:
“Lake Michigan’s high-water levels will be noticeable to athletes and spectators alike. Spectators will be restricted from some typical viewing areas along Monroe Harbor. Swimmers need to be cognizant of missing (underwater) portions of the seawall, and avoid the ease of prematurely exiting the course. It might appear that spectators are literally walking on water in some areas.”
The lakefront has been a real challenge to Chicago athletes this summer; portions of the Lakefront Trail have been closed, the beaches are disappearing and the high water levels presents unsafe swimming conditions. However, as accustomed as Chicagoans are to the challenges of Lake Michigan, no one was prepared for the ultimate cancellation of the Chicago Triathlon swim.
Early Sunday morning, race organizers made the difficult decision to cancel the swim portion of the triathlon, resulting in all athletes participating in a mandatory duathlon.
“A variety of factors were considered regarding the swim decision, primarily the strong, sustained easterly winds and the higher than usual water levels,” explained Scott “Hootie” Hutmacher, Senior Brand Manager at Life Time. “Combined, those two elements impeded our ability to safely launch supporting watercraft in those conditions (to set course buoys) prior to Sunday.”
Originally, the event offered athletes the option to compete in a shortened 750-meter swim or a duathlon, but unforuntaely the lake conditions worsened overnight and they had to change the plan again.
“Just prior to 4 a.m., Julie Coleman and our operations team made the decision after consulting with the Chicago Fire Department, Chicago Park District and our meteorology team,” Hutmacher added.
After months of training, athletes’ reactions ranged from understanding to anger, and everything in between. As the shock set in, they refocused set to tackle the day as duathletes.
“It was absolutely the right call,” shared Matthew Keller, a seasoned triathlon participant. “It’s a touch decision for the race director to make, but I’m sure he was given great information from the Park District and Fire Department. When you can’t get first responders into the water, what choice do they have?”
While Chicago natives may be accustomed to the rough lake conditions, athletes came from all over the country to compete in the Chicago Triathlon. Race numbers show that 49 percent of participants would have been first timers at the Chicago Tri, while 30 percent had never completed a triathlon at all. This is a race that first-time triathletes are comfortable starting with, so race directors had to keep this in mind when analyzing the water conditions.
Jim Gubbins, Chicago Athlete ambassador, agreed with the decision to cancel. “While it was terribly disappointing to have the swim cancelled, one third of the participants are first time triathletes who rely on the lake wall for safety when they need a break. Today the water was so high, there was no wall! Add in the chop and it was a recipe for disaster. Life Time made the right call cancelling the swim.”
“I’m confident that I would have been fine swimming this weekend, but I have been racing for almost 10 years,” adds Keller. “The water in the lake is just too high right now for it to be safe. It isn’t worth the risk of injury or worse.”
Liz Rodriguez spent countless hours training to tackle the International distance this weekend for the first time, but she agrees that safety should come first.
“It was a complete disappointment to have the swim cancelled but I understand why the decision was made. However, since the race was shortened last year due to heat and the swim was cancelled this year, I doubt I’ll ever sign up for this event in the future. Not that it wasn’t a great event, it’s just that the weather in Chicago is completely unpredictable.”
Keller pointed out that cancellations are somewhat common in Triathlons. “This is my second event this year in which the swim has been cancelled. I did Ironman Ireland in June and they cancelled the swim due to similar conditions.”
Andy Wang, a two-time Chicago Triathlon participant, appreciated that Life Time communicated with athletes on Saturday night by email and on social media.
“Knowing the shortened timeline, as well as the less-than-ideal swim conditions, we planned to abbreviate all swimmers to the Sprint distance course – ultimately doubling the amount of watercraft, life guards, staff and divers along our course,” stated Hutmacher.
“It was important to alert our athletes of both scenarios in advance of Sunday morning. While we remained optimistic that the easterly winds would subside by morning, we needed them to be prepared accordingly. Early Saturday evening, we shared the news via email, web, social media, and through an internal communication network that included local newsdesks.”
Hutmacher explained Life Time’s quick action plan to transition the race. “The decision to cancel initiated an enormous contingency plan. The lakefront ops team quickly moved existing barricades and rolling-up hundreds of yards of carpet in order to build a 1200 meter, secured running path from the Swim Start into Transition.”
Disappointment is a theme among the triathletes, as most spent months, if not years, preparing for this race. Although there seems to be consensus that safety should come first, there is still an underlying feeling of discontent in not performing the way you had expected to perform.
Kristen LaRue, a Tri participant, agreed about the general sense of disappointment. “People have set goals and put a lot of time into training for this. It’s unfortunate to not be able to complete the whole, official race. However, I do think most people understood the decision.”
After receiving the early morning notification from Life Time, LaRue was concerned that the race start would be chaotic and disorganized, but she was pleasantly surprised.
“The race directors and volunteers did a tremendous job. There was someone over the speaker as athletes came into transition giving very clear and calm directions,” she added. “Nobody seemed confused or frantic. The start was orderly and as efficient as it could have possible been.”
“Our swim start volunteers shifted around to queue athletes on the south side of the start area. Our life guard team transformed into run course marshals, keeping our runners on course while ensure spectators didn’t get too close to the water’s edge,” Hutmacher explained. “The plan was executed with precision, ensuring athletes and spectators alike were well-informed and guided to their appropriate locations.”
Demian March, owner of Lakeshore Bike in Chicago rented over 40 bikes for the Chicago Triathlon and has personally completed over 50 Tri’s. As athletes dropped off their bikes, March noted the sense of disappointment, but also a sense of relief.
“Swimming is the biggest crutch for many triathletes, so many seemed relieved of the cancellation, but also disappointed,” he said. “It’s about the sweat equity that is put into a triathlon. Since swimming is their weakest component, many triathletes put a lot of time and money into training.”
March has been a part of countless triathlons and agreed that Life Time made the best decision in this case. “You would have been insane to hold this event in these conditions.”
Chicago weather, and Lake Michigan, in particular this year, are unpredictable and adjustments had to be made. Perhaps March said it best, “That’s just the Chicago way.”
As we look to the Chicago Triathalon in 2020 and the continuing rising waters of the lake, the question lingers, will the swim be cancelled again. “No, absolutely not,” is Hutmacher’s definitive answer.
“This is the Chicago TRIATHLON. We will swim again. Even if high lake levels remain, the primary issue was the strong, easterly winds – a bit of an anomaly on an early summer morning in Chicago. The high water levels are definitely of concern, but our open water swim clinics have helped our athletes and staff alike understand and deal with an overflowing lake.”
“We are so incredibly motivated by our athletes’ resilience to the situation,” added Hutmacher. “We plan for some incredible hypothetical situations, many of which we’ll never execute against. In this situation, our team made a collective decision and moved accordingly. We were a bit nervous of the feedback, but witnessing the extensive volumes of smiles, high-fives and ‘thanks’ was a welcome surprise.”