Chicago Triathlon: What to Expect
Each year, Chicago is host to several thousand triathletes from all over the world, participating in a weekend-long series of triathlons. If you’re racing or watching someone race, welcome to the world’s largest triathlon.
By the time you pick up your race bib number, bike stickers, wrist-bands and t-shirt at the Chicago Triathlon Expo, it will begin to dawn on you: this is for real. The race is just around the corner.
There are a variety of different events taking place on race weekend: Kids and Super Sprint races on Saturday, Sprint and Olympic Distance races (in a variety of formats: individual, relay, mountain bike, elite age group, and pro) on Sunday.
For simplicity, I’m writing about the Olympic Distance race here: 1500 meter swim, 40k bike, 10k run (Sprint Distance is one-half the distance, on the same course).
Early Wake-Up Call
Set those alarm clocks early, because you’ll need to have entered the transition area, set-up your bike and everything else before dawn. Race organizers want everyone out of the transition area – no exceptions – by 6am.
I suggest you plan your commute to arrive downtown by 5am. There’s plenty of parking in the underground lots east of Michigan Ave and north of Monroe. The parking garage exits conveniently put you close to the transition area.
Race organizers provide bike racks, organized by ‘Wave’, the number of the group you will be racing with. At the expo, you will learn your Wave Number, which also identifies what time you’ll start racing. If you’re in Wave 39, for example, that’s where your bike must go; it’s against the rules to put your bike with another group.
Sorry, but you won’t get that much room to set up your things under your bike; just enough to fit under the width of your handlebars. Actually, you won’t need that much space after all. Here’s what you do:
• Lay your bike shoes, socks, helmet, sunglasses, jersey, and bib number on a small towel to the left of your rear bike wheel. This will make a quick change easy after the swim
• To the right of your rear bike wheel, put your running shoes and hat, maybe an energy bar, for a quick bike-to-run transition
• On your bike, load one or two bike bottles and maybe an energy gel or two, for calories and hydration on the bike
• Place any extra things you might want during the race in your gear bag, under your bike; they’re out of the way, but available if needed
It’s a simple as that.
Finding your bike during the race might be the harder thing, so take a couple of minutes to note landmarks that can help pinpoint your bike when you are entering transition from the swim at one end or off the bike from the other end.
When you have your bearings, gather up your wetsuit, goggles, swim cap and sunscreen and exit transition to wait for your turn to race. Depending on your Wave start time, the wait could be as long as three hours. If you’re one of those late-starters, you may need a diversion or two such as the Sunday paper and a comfortable place in the shade. Your time will come.
Steve Abbey has seen the swim venue change over the years. “Swim courses have ranged from Oak Street Beach to Olive Park, to one at the Aquarium and veered around the Planetarium, to the current course in Monroe Harbor, which has been in place for several years now,” he recalls.
The Monroe Harbor swim course is very straightforward, literally. For Sprint Racers, they will swim a straight line south to north for 750 meters. Olympic Distance racers will swim approximately 375 meters south toward the Aquarium, then make a U-turn for the northbound swim of 1125 meters to the finish.
Swim Waves, typically groups of 100 to 200 swimmers, will begin racing at 6:00am. For the next few hours, every few minutes the swim start air horn will blow, signaling the beginning of the race for the next wave. You need to know when your group is slated to start and plan to be near the swim entrance about 15 minutes before that.
About 10-minutes before your start, a volunteer will begin gathering your group into an organized procession to water’s entry. Start zipping up your wetsuit and getting comfortable with 5 minutes to go. Two minutes later, the Wave in front of you will hear the air horn, and their race will begin.
Sixty seconds after that, officials will let your Wave enter the water, a process that will only last two minutes before your Wave starts. Jumping into murky water with no bottom can be disorienting. Get in as soon as you can, then quickly move to one side for some space to get used to the water.
In any typical Wave you will have your fleet swimmers, the good swimmers and the dogpaddlers. Figure out which one you are, and seed yourself accordingly. I fit somewhere in the middle, so I tend to move to the outside middle of the group, so I don’t get stuck in the middle of too much activity.
The time passes faster than you think, and soon the air horn is for you. Time to race!
As everyone starts thrashing in the same general direction, it will feel chaotic, because it is. Tell yourself that it will all sort out soon as people find their space in the water. Let things settle as you find your own swim rhythm. Soon, you’ll just be swimming as you do in training, just with a few others around you.
The Monroe Harbor walls offer constant landmarks to see how for and fast you are swimming. My experience is that the distance always seems longer than I expect; in other words, the swim doesn’t end as fast as I wish it would.
Just keep going, the end is near, and so are the volunteers, ready to help pull you out of the water. Yes, you will need the assistance. Once on land, you’ve got a short trek of several hundred yards to the transition area. Many people set a pair of shoes at the swim exit to make this long jog a little more comfortable. I’ve tried it and found it to be more trouble than it’s worth, but the choice is up to you.
Once you find your bike in transition, take a second to make sure you put your helmet on correctly (like making sure the front is in front, buckled, etc.). With shoes, bib number, sunglasses and everything else in place, head to the north transition area, your bike at your side. When you exit, you can only mount the bike past a certain line, noted by officials. Be patient, soon you’ll be rolling.
Over the years, Steve Abbey has also seen the bike course change. “The bike course used to be one loop north to Hollywood then south to Pershing,” Abbey remembers. “The current loop course to Lawrence Ave – once for Sprint racers, twice for Olympic Distance racers – has been in place since the late 1990s.”
The bike course, entirely on Lake Shore Drive, is a mainly flat course with some very gentle rolling over bridges at major East-West city streets such as Fullerton, Belmont and Fullerton. The city reserves two left lanes each way on The Drive for cyclists, while the right lanes will still contain Sunday morning auto traffic. The fun part: just watch, you will be riding faster than those cars sitting in occasional traffic jams.
The biggest climb of the bike race is the first 200 meters up a ramp to enter Lake Shore Drive. Take this climb at a relaxed pace; no need to needlessly blow energy this early. Once at the top, capitalize on a little gravity, letting a nice decline pull you past Navy Pier and toward Oak Street Beach.
Regular bike traffic, in this race, is to remain on the left side of the cycling area. At the beginning, move there, and let yourself get into a cycling groove. Find the pace that’s right for you -- one you can sustain for 25 miles that also will let you run 6.2 miles after that -- and just settle in.
You might begin that settling-in process about the time you pass the Drake Hotel, when the course heads directly north. From this point consider the race to be roughly four 10-mile segments: out to Lawrence, back to the turnaround for lap 2 (only for Olympic Distance), to Lawrence again, then back to transition.
I also like to consider the 10k segments as broken into smaller segments, from overpass to overpass. After the Lincoln Park Zoo, you will gently roll over Belmont, Irving Park. Montrose, Wilson and Lawrence. They seem to be three to four minutes apart, maybe a mile or so between each one. Take them one at a time, use gravity coming down off one to help build momentum to the next one.
When you are ready to pass someone – and you will find this happens often – communicate. Call out: ‘passing on your right!’ I like to even add something personal so they know I’m talking to them, such as: ‘on your right, #2365’. And thank everyone when you get past them. It’s good karma to be nice out there.
Coast back into transition after a good bike ride and you’re almost there. Just 6.2 miles to run, along one of the most beautiful cityfront 10k courses in America. A quick change into running shoes in transition, and you’re off, running along the edge of Monroe Harbor.
You may be feeling tired, but elements of the run may make things a little easier. First, you can look forward to regular aid stations with water and Gatorade on the run course. Then the Chicago Triathlon course lets you do some sightseeing on the way.
Running from transition to just before the Aquarium is the first mile. Run that first mile taking a glance or two at Monroe Harbor as your pass, smiling to yourself that earlier in the day you were swimming there. A left turn around the Aquarium and an east-bound trek to the Adler Planetarium will get you to mile 2. Next, heading south on a bike path, you’ll pass Soldier Field and cross the 3-mile point as you arrive at McCormick Place.
You’re halfway there. Just keep things steady, walk if you need to, get as much fluid as you need at aid stations. Say ‘hi’ to some runners coming toward you. Thank the volunteers. All you need to do is continue forward motion with a smile and you’re almost there.
Continue south on the bike path past a 5th aid station, make a U-turn, then pass the 4-mile point as you return toward McCormick Place. You’ll pass mile 5 before you reach Soldier Field, and from then to the finish line, it’s time to enjoy and savor your day. You’ll make a return trip around Shedd Aquarium, then head west, under Lake Shore Drive to the finish line.
It’s a great feeling, turning the corner onto Columbus Street, knowing you’ve completed the Triathlon – Swim, Bike and Run. Some people talk about it, others dream about it. When you get to that finish line: You did it. You. Nice Job. See you Next Year.
For more, return to our Complete Chicago Triathlon Coverage.