Wood­lands triathlon faces un­cer­tain fu­ture

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Matthew Tre­saugue

Or­ga­niz­ers of Texas’ pre­mier triathlon said this week they are look­ing for a new course in The Wood­lands area for 2017 but stopped short of com­mit­ting to hold­ing the race in the Hous­ton sub­urb for a sev­enth year.

The un­cer­tainty stems from the chal­lenges in stag­ing the Iron­man North Amer­i­can Cham­pi­onship Texas, which be­gan and ended in The Wood­lands last Satur­day. The event — com­posed of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run — proved to be a tough test for or­ga­niz­ers, not just the ath­letes. Late changes to the course were re­quired, and se­vere storms stopped the race for 48 min­utes.

For all the dif­fi­cul­ties, the pri­mary con­cern is the cy­cling course, which was un­set­tled un­til just days be­fore the race after Mont­gomery County Com­mis­sioner Charlie Ri­ley said it couldn’t pass through his precinct, as it had for years, be­cause of road con­struc­tion. As a re­sult, or­ga­niz­ers had to route the bike ride through north Har­ris County for the first time — though they viewed the twist­ing route as a Band-Aid.

Iron­man of­fi­cials said reg­is­tra­tion for the 2017 race wouldn’t open un­til they had firmed up a new bike route. Usu­ally, ath­letes can reg­is­ter on-site for the next year’s event.

Asked about the odds of Iron­man re­turn­ing, Scott Lan­gen, South­east re­gional direc­tor for the com­pany, said, “Any­thing can hap­pen at any given mo­ment. That be­ing said, it’s def­i­nitely an at­trac­tive mar­ket that we want to be in, and we will ex­haust every op­por­tu­nity to be here.”

Toll road in fu­ture?

Lan­gen said Iron­man is push­ing for the bike ride to be held on the Grand Park­way or Hardy Toll Road — two road­ways that would be eas­ier to man­age than res­i­den­tial streets and thor­ough­fares on race day. Of­fi­cials had asked the Texas Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion to use a newly opened stretch of the Grand Park­way this year but were told that it was too late to make it avail­able.

Us­ing a closed toll road “is prob­a­bly the fu­ture of the event,” Lan­gen said. “I think there is a draw for a race­track-type cir­cuit.”

Or­ga­niz­ers also are eye­ing an April 22 race date next year to avoid the heat and hu­mid­ity, which are the top crit­i­cisms of com­peti­tors.

The Wood­lands, which has a con­tract to host the event through 2020, is seen as a good venue for the com­pe­ti­tion, with its many volunteers and spec­ta­tor-friendly cour­ses for the swim and run. The for­mer bike ride through the Sam Hous­ton Na­tional For­est and rolling farm­land also was a draw, but Lan­gen said the old route is no longer an op­tion.

Justin Daerr, a Boul­der, Colo. based pro­fes­sional triath­lete who fin­ished sixth, said he would pre­fer or­ga­niz­ers re­turn to the old route or one with fewer turns. He also said the event will con­tinue to at­tract a world-class field as long as it’s still des­ig­nated as the North Amer­i­can cham­pi­onship.

“I plan to con­tinue rac­ing there as long as I am a pro­fes­sional,” said Daerr, who was born and raised in Hous­ton, “and I hope that fu­ture co­op­er­a­tion with the pow­ers that be will al­low for many more years of this event.”

Iron­man of­fi­cials have dis­con­tin­ued races be­cause of lo­gis­ti­cal is­sues that they didn’t be­lieve would im­prove. The New York City com­pe­ti­tion was ter­mi­nated after one year be­cause it was too costly and com­pli­cated to host, and the Lake Ta­hoe race was ended after three years in which it was plagued by near-freez­ing tem­per­a­tures and poor air qual­ity be­cause of nearby wild­fires.

Ed Robb, chair of The Wood­lands’ govern­ing board, ac­knowl­edged there’s un­cer­tainty about the race’s fu­ture be­cause Iron­man of­fi­cials haven’t com­mit­ted to 2017. The event is an im­por­tant one for the town­ship be­cause it gen­er­ates an es­ti­mated $15 mil­lion for the lo­cal econ­omy.

“I hope they don’t pull out,” Robb said. “The Wood­lands con­tin­ues to be a world-class venue for them and highly pop­u­lar with ath­letes. We did en­counter some chal­lenges this year, with the bi­cy­cle course, for in­stance. But we are com­mit­ting to re­solv­ing 2017 routes early, be­gin­ning now.”

In a May 11 let­ter to Iron­man or­ga­niz­ers, Ri­ley also re­quested that they be­gin work­ing on a new route as soon as this year’s com­pe­ti­tion ended. But the Mont­gomery County com­mis­sioner ac­cused them of mis­char­ac­ter­iz­ing his role, con­tend­ing that they knew as early as Au­gust about his con­cerns. Race of­fi­cials have said they didn’t know that he would close his precinct be­fore Fe­bru­ary. The com­mis­sioner also de­manded a “full ac­count­ing” of the eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity gen­er­ated by the race and a de­tail­ing of any char­i­ta­ble con­tri­bu­tions, ac­cord­ing to a copy of the let­ter posted on his Face­book page.

El­e­ments were dif­fi­cult

While Iron­man races are not meant to be easy, last Satur­day’s event was un­like any other be­cause of the harsh el­e­ments.

The com­peti­tors be­gan the swim­ming por­tion at about 6:40 a.m. in fog, which made buoys in Lake Wood­lands dif­fi­cult to see. Tem­per­a­tures later reached 95 de­grees while many were on their bikes.

And then at about 3:40 p.m., a thun­der­storm rolled into The Wood­lands, forc­ing or­ga­niz­ers to pull ath­letes off the course. Many of them waited in cov­ered garages or in build­ings for 48 min­utes un­til the race re­sumed, while oth­ers con­tin­ued to run de­spite heavy rain, wind gust­ing up to 20 miles an hour, hail and an­kle-deep pud­dles.

The storm knocked down the fin­ish line along a stretch of Wood­lands Wa­ter­way restau­rants and bars. But once it passed, rac­ers be­gan cross­ing the fin­ish line again, with race an­nouncer Mike Reilly telling each one of them, “YOU are an Iron­man!” His boom­ing voice was per­haps the only nor­mal thing about the day.

“It will be one I’ll never for­get,” said Jen Ru­lon, a San An­to­nio triath­lete who com­pleted her 10th Iron­man.

Ru­lon said she was at about Mile 19 of the run when the storm hit. She ran an­other 2 miles or so be­fore see­ing some 100 ath­letes and volunteers wait­ing in a park along Lake Wood­lands.

She stopped, too, for what would be 25-minute wait, with her body get­ting cold and stiff. Or­ga­niz­ers, mean­while, were plan­ning to send trucks to pick them up. But the rain ended, for a while, and she was able to fin­ish.

“We know what could hap­pen: ter­ri­ble weather, can­cel­ing the race, bike flats. But we do it any­way,” Ru­lon said. “I don’t think most of us would think twice of not do­ing it. We know what could hap­pen; we are just hop­ing that it doesn’t hap­pen.”

Brett Coomer / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

The cy­cling course for Satur­day’s triathlon was not set­tled un­til just days be­fore the event.

Brett Coomer / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Nancy Good­night and Rug­gero Baldo turn a cor­ner in a pud­dle of rain­wa­ter dur­ing the marathon leg of the Iron­man triathon on Satur­day.

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