Woodlands triathlon faces uncertain future
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.”
The cycling course for Saturday’s triathlon was not settled until just days before the event.
Nancy Goodnight and Ruggero Baldo turn a corner in a puddle of rainwater during the marathon leg of the Ironman triathon on Saturday.