As average attendance in running races and triathlons continues to fall, it is easy to ask why would anybody create another race, especially one that involves swimming in the Illinois River. For this race director, the answer is a little complicated.
I started the discussion of hosting a triathlon in Peoria seven or eight years ago with Rich, the owner of Bushwhacker. The two of us have spent hours scouring Google Maps for a lake close enough to the city to swim in that had accessible roadways for the bike course. Every local swimming hole had its issues, whether surrounded by interstates, or only accessible to by a gravel road. I once thought Camp Wokanda's lake may be the perfect solution, unfortunately the road leading to it has a deteriorating bridge and all the roads surrounding Caterpillar tend to get pretty beat up and are not skinny-tire friendly. So the idea of a "Peoria Triathlon" was shelved.
My own triathlon journey started about three weeks before the 2011 Tremont Triathlon. Bushwhacker was sponsoring the race and I was asked to participate. Running and cycling were not going to be an issue, and I was sure I could swim 400 yards. I could not have been more wrong. My girlfriend is a strong swimmer and suggested I should do some practice swims before the race. So we took our kayaks to a local lake, I docked mine, jumped in the water and had her paddle out in front of me. Within seconds I was exhausted, running out of breath, flailing around and making little progress in chasing her down in the kayak. Clearly the swim was going to be an issue. Luckily the Tremont Triathlon is swam in a pool with a shallow end. I walked where I could, held on to the edge of the pool at the deep end, and only "swam" about 225 of the 400 yards. Then it was off to the bike, through transition and onto the run. When asked if triathlons are difficult I think about how three years after struggling through my first triathlon I finished an Ironman. Of course triathlons are hard, but they are only as hard as you make them.
Along the way to Ironman Coeur D'Alene I raced in every local race I could find. Most are hosted on Saturday mornings on some small lake out in the country where road closures are relatively easy for race directors to manage. However in 2014 I competed in Age Group Nationals in Milwaukee and my eyes were opened to an entire different type of triathlon. The race venue was easily my favorite. The swim was in protected area below a sea wall, making it easy for spectators to watch. The bike course was fast and surrounded by buildings and landmarks, a huge upgrade over cornfields and pastures. The run finished on a trail near Lake Michigan where once again spectators could watch your progress. Coming back from that race I knew Peoria could host an awesome race, I just needed to convince a few people that the Illinois River was safe to swim in.
Hosting an event in downtown Peoria does have its hurdles. Number one, don't do the race on a Saturday. Local businesses do their highest sales volume on Saturday. Number two, the roads need to be completely closed. And then there is the issue of swimming. So the race is hosted on Sunday. I knew from the success of the Peoria Marathon, the city may be a little more willing to help out if the number of road closures were kept to a minimum and the race was over before the start of church. So that meant an 8AM start. Now I just needed proof it is safe to swim in the river. I talked with members of the EPA, the Peoria Riverfront Museum, and the Army Corps of Engineers. Everybody I talked to who knew about the river agreed it was perfectly clean from a disease and pollution standpoint, therefore safe to swim in. But the river is dirty. Like filled with dirt. So a lot of locals wanted more proof. So I got the water tested by PDC labs. I was surprised to find out how clean the river truly is. The tests consistently score better than many of the lakes I had competed in over the years leading up to the inaugural event.
The first Peoria Triathlon in 2015 was extremely successful. The race raises money to keep Central Park Pool open so local swimmers can train all year in a quality setting. 2016 brought a small addition to the bike course and by moving the race up one weekend the run got to finish on the riverfront side of the Gateway Building. The City of Peoria and the Peoria Police Department are very helpful and supportive. It does take a lot of preparation to organize the Peoria Triathlon each year, but dealing with the City and the Police could not be easier.
I look forward to this year's version of the Peoria Triathlon. I hope we can continue to have fun on the riverfront, that participants enjoy the course, and spectators show up to watch them compete. Once again the event will raise money for the Central Park Pool. If you've read this I hope you consider participating or volunteering. As long as you can float you can finish the swim, and then it is all dry and flat from there.