Chicago Olympic Triathlon

Wide shot of Ironman athletes waiting to start the race
June 27, 2017

Dave Sheanin



If you’ve been around triathlon for a while, you probably understand why the Chicago Triathlon is a bucket list race.  If you’re a little newer to the sport, here’s a very brief history.  It started in 1983 as a stop on the U.S. Triathlon Series (USTS).  The race was an Ironman qualifier in the ‘90s and hosted TriFed (this was pre-USAT days) national championships.  The race has grown to become the largest triathlon in the U.S. with about 8,000 competitors (across multiple races) and has changed title sponsors several times--Bud Light, Mrs. T’s, Lifetime, and now Transamerica.  

This is one of my very favorite Olympic distance races, not just because of the history, but because of the special challenges that it presents. Following are thoughts and tips about the race.

Packet Pickup is a big deal and attending a pre-race briefing is mandatory.  I know that a lot of races say that the briefing is mandatory, but it REALLY is mandatory at this race.  Briefings are about 30 minutes long and typically occur on the hour and half hour when the expo is open (Friday and Saturday).  You get a ticket for a briefing when you arrive at the Expo.  During busy times, you may have to wait for a briefing that has space.  You get a hand stamp at the end of your briefing.  No hand stamp, no packet pickup.  They do a good job of keeping the briefing interesting and entertaining. With a race this big and a bike course that’s a little complicated, it’s a good idea to pay attention.  

The briefing/packet pickup/expo are at the Chicago Hilton on Michigan Avenue.  As with any big city race, parking is a pain and with a race this big, expect to spend close to an hour (at minimum) once you’re in the hotel.  You can spend a lot longer if you want to spend time at the expo--it’s enormous and every triathlon-related brand you’ve ever heard of (plus many others) are there.    

Race Morning requires patience and extra time.  
Transition: The first wave goes off at 6:00 am so they close transition at 5:45 am.  (You read that right--transition opens at 4:00 am and CLOSES at 5:45 am.)  If you’re not staying downtown, plan to arrive plenty early.  The transition area is enormous and it can be disorienting if you’re seeing it for the first time on race morning (in the dark).  I strongly recommend checking out transition in the daylight on Saturday to get a feel for the space.  Bikes are racked by age group and the racks are usually pretty tight.  Arrive a little early to be sure you can stake out a decent spot.  If you don’t make a habit of walking your path through transition, you definitely should for this race.  Swim in/run out are in the SW corner and bike out/in are on the north side.  (The transition area is curved and on a hill.)

Wave Starts:  There are a ton of waves in this big race.  Usually around 30 or more waves in the Olympic distance race followed by 25 or more in the sprint race.  There’s close to two-and-a-half hours between the first and last waves.  So if you’re not in an early wave, you’ll have some waiting after you leave transition.  There’s a large bank of porta-potties on top of the hill by the swim in/run out side of the transition area.  I recommend you stop there after leaving transition.  There are a bunch of porta-potties near the swim start, but the lines there are usually longer.  Note that it’s about a half mile walk from transition to the swim start.  They offer a morning bag service so you don’t have to change into your wetsuit until your wave begins to line up.  You’ll begin queueing for your wave about 20 minutes or so before your start.  They’ll let you into the water exactly one minute before your start.  (Even with a good porta-potty strategy, most people spend the better part of that minute peeing in their wetsuits.)

Swim:  The swim is entirely inside the marina along the sea wall.  It’s a bummer that you don’t get to swim out into Lake Michigan, but this course is super spectator-friendly because your friends/family can walk alongside you as you swim.  It also feels very safe, especially considering the size of this race.  There are tons of kayaks and boats along the course.  You swim south for about 400 meters then you u-turn around the only turn buoy and swim north, past the swim start, to the swim finish.  The exit from the water is up some stairs and there are volunteers there to help you stand up and get up the stairs.  

Equipment note for the swim--be sure you bring two pairs of goggles: clear and tinted.  Remember that the first wave goes off at 6:00am--this is usually about 15 minutes before sunrise!  Last year, I was in a 7:08 am wave and clear goggles were the best choice under the overcast skies.  Plan to make a goggle choice before you queue up with your wave.  You can put your other pair in your morning bag.  The sun will be on your left as you start the swim and then on your right through the main portion--never in your eyes.  Err on the side of lighter goggles.

T1:  There is a very long run from the swim exit to transition--about a quarter mile plus the extra distance within the big transition area.  Some people will drop shoes or sliders near the swim exit but I think looking for shoes is a time-waster.  The path is fully carpeted so it’s not a big deal to run barefoot.  I do recommend working out of your wetsuit as soon as you exit the water and once you have the top off and down around your waist, pulling to the side for a moment and slipping out of the suit.  The problem with waiting until you’re at the rack is that all of the water will be out of the suit, making it harder to take off.  Plus, you’ll be a faster runner out of the suit.  Just be sure you don’t impede any other athlete’s progress when you stop.  Then, the only real key to transitions in this race is knowing how to get to your bike and then out of transition.

You’ll exit transition and head north up the onramp to the famed Lakeshore drive.  Lakeshore is a bit of a bumpy ride with some big expansion joints here and there, but is definitely in good enough shape to stay in your aerobars the whole way.  You’ll ride out-and-back on Lakeshore--about 7 miles each way.  During the Lakeshore portion of the bike, you’ll RIDE LEFT and PASS RIGHT--opposite of normal.  When you exit Lakeshore, the bike will switch back to the normal RIDE RIGHT and PASS LEFT format as you head under Chicago on Wacker.  This presents an interesting challenge because, although it’s well lit underground, regular sunglasses might feel uncomfortably dark.  Last year, I chose to wear clear glasses for the bike (and squint a bit on Lakeshore) in order to have great vision underground.  This will be my plan for this race going forward--worked perfectly.  You’ll pop out onto a busway and into the sunlight for a bit on this out-and-back segment.  The underground and busway portions of the ride are completely closed to traffic.  There are cars next to you on Lakeshore, but there’s a huge amount of buffer and the cars are moving very slowly--a very safe setup.

T2:  Like T1, the primary trick to T2 is knowing where to go--transition is enormous.  If you went with clear glasses on the bike, you’ll want to have a regular pair of sunglasses waiting in T2 for the run.

Run:  The run is pretty flat and mostly on a concrete path (although the first half-mile is on dirt/grass).  The course takes you past some pretty cool landmarks--Buckingham Fountain, the Museum, and the Shedd Aquarium.  It’s an out and back course with a few minor rollers but is overall pretty flat.  There is a short uphill section just before the finish.  It can get pretty hot by the time you get to the run and Chicago humidity in August is on full display.  Keep up on your hydration and adding salt tabs to your nutrition mix is a good idea.

Coach Dave Sheanin approaches coaching from a holistic perspective. Adult age-group triathletes typically have substantial demands in their lives outside of training and racing. Looking at any individual component of an athlete’s training (or life) is a data point, but it rarely tells the full story. He makes it a priority to understand what’s going on in an athlete’s life beyond triathlon in order to build a plan that is smart, fits their lifestyle, and builds toward appropriate goals.

Coach Dave Sheanin is an advocate for aligning triathletes with their race goals. He believes that becoming “triathlon literate” is key to meeting your goals. Triathlon is indeed a lifestyle and like the other important areas of your life, knowledge is power. He encourages you to explore the nuances of the sport, be open to new ideas and ask questions – of yourself, of fellow swimmers, cyclists and runners, and of your coach.  

Coach Dave is a USA Triathlon and Training Peaks Certified Coach.  Coach Dave was honored by USA Triathlon with the Community Impact Award.

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