New York City Triathlon: a 20 Year Memory

Coach Simon Butterworth riding his bike
October 29, 2021

Simon Butterworth


I have no doubt that some of you have been thinking things must get better in 2022. I am of course talking about Covid and its impact on our lives and racing.  I am feeling optimistic and have been thinking back to earlier races in my career as I like to do that as I contemplate doing one of them again or racing something new.  I have not sorted all that out but did think of one very memorable race, in fact, two, both from 20 years ago.  And I think these stories are relevant to those of us who need to reconnect to our passion for this sport.  I’ve found that revisiting the past and tapping into my initial inspirations for getting involved in triathlon helps me get grounded in what I want to do next.

The memory was triggered by several things happening at once.  October 9, 2021, passed by with no trip to Kona, the 20th anniversary of my first race out there.  Then getting my trainer set up for a winter of training for St. George in May I discovered that Rouvy*, the virtual indoor cycling with video of actual places around the world had added the NYC Tri, a race I did four times before leaving NY (it already had the other race videoed, Kona).  For an explanation about Rouvy, please see my overview at the end of this article.  It’s a challenging race but not because of the course.  It is somewhat hilly but by no means exceptionally so.  It is crowded and even more so in recent years.  I would say it is not a good beginner’s race as the course can get flooded with activity. If you watch the video, which you can do so without signing up, you will see what I mean.

My first time racing the NYC Tri was the first year it was held.  The date was August 12, 2001.  The events that followed that year etched the summer and autumn in my mind.  Plus, the NYC Tri that year had a few things up its sleeve to make it even more memorable.  

new york city triathlon

The NYC Tri is a race that should be on any dedicated triathlete’s bucket list especially if you have not been to NYC and that trip is on your bucket list.  Be prepared for an expensive weekend.  There are some very cool boutique hotels on the Upper East Side within walking distance of the event and close to Central Park and the finish line.  Great if you want to bring your family and friends.  It’s not the most spectator-friendly course but it is well better than average.  Some spectator tips include:  if you can walk fast, you can see the start, walk/run south in Riverside Park to the swim exit and follow your athlete through T1.  Then chill for a bit and walk up to the West Side Highway to see the cyclists go south and come back into T2.  Then if your athlete(s) are fast runners you will have to hustle over to Central Park to see them finish.  If you can somehow organize a bike to get around, you could see them in several places around the park.  Just don’t get too close to the runners and freak them out or get them disqualified for outside assistance.  I made that mistake one year and got shouted at by Andy Potts as I was getting too close, he was in the lead and won.  

The skyline that we had back then changed forever in September 2011,  as has many other things. Here is how my race day went, all from memory.  

We splurged and stayed in on the boutique hotels just off Broadway.  The walk to transition in the dark was just a few blocks.  NYC is interesting almost spooky in the dark of the early morning.  Most, but not all, night owls are in bed by 5am, sadly many of those still out and about are homeless and the benches in Riverside Park were occupied.  I wondered what they must have thought as they watched the odd-looking men in speedo’s and women in swimsuits (we still were using them in 2001) pushing a bicycle and carrying bags a bit like their own into the park.  

The bike setup was tight.  NYC did not give the race organizers much space that first year.  You did need, and still do, to get there early, as there is a 1500m walk to the swim start.  Any of my old friends in NY reading this will remember that I was always one to check the currents for a race, they are a factor for many races in and around NY.  I knew we would be getting a push; I did not realize how much until I saw the buoys leaning over in the river.  I don’t mean the buoys for the race but the big metal navigation buoys.  Water was boiling around them like a ship.  

I was in the first wave, over 55 men, as we got ready, several times verbal warnings were broadcast to be sure to grab hold of the rope near the floating dock as we jumped in for an in-the-water start.  Of course, someone was not listening and the start was delayed for minutes as he struggled to swim back against the current.  The race results would suggest that the current was running at about 2 min per 100 meters, just a bit slower than my swim speed.  It was going to be a fast swim and to my advantage, as I was not a great swimmer back then (my current swim pace is only just a bit slower, a good pace for a 75-year-old).  

The Hudson River was not known for its cleanliness.  It is much improved from the days when we sailed our boat on it in the ’80s and is even better today.  Back then my insurance would not cover us in a transit around Manhattan.  I think we all knew it still was not pristine.  Sure enough shortly into the swim, a baggie enveloped my hand, could have been worse.  First instinct was to shake it off and then quickly the light bulb went off, a paddle!  Unfortunately, it did not stay on for long.  What was dangerous was hitting a buoy, even those used for the race would have hurt, the navigation buoys were another story.  As I approached the swim finish, I realized I was too far out in the river and angled some more.  I was not allowing for the current.  The last 25 meters was a struggle swimming almost in the opposite direction and crabbing sideways to get to the temporary steps to get out.  If I had judged that better, I would have finished the swim at least a minute faster.  As it was, I had finished the swim in 14 min and change.

I think the race organizers have learned their lesson,  it is still a fast swim but they don’t run the race to coincide with the full ebb.  

The top swimmers in the world don’t often go under 15 min. in a race of this distance.  The pros that year finished around 9 min.  I did not know that behind me a friend in the second wave, female 50+, was in trouble.  She is a slower swimmer than I am and made a similar mistake near the finish, but she could not swim against the current.  There was a barge at the finish that had been anchored to mark the finish.  She was swept under it.  Fortunately, and amazingly, she was not hurt.  A quick-thinking volunteer threw her a floatation device with a line attached and pulled her to safety.  

That incident stopped the race for those not yet in the water to allow time to reorganize the buoys and lifeguards to prevent another incident.  That set up a most memorable day for me.   There are, on occasion, 50-year old’s who finish a race at or near the front but not many.  Quite often I would find myself at the front on the bike back in those days but never for long.  It all depended on when the pros and younger athletes got started.  Getting out on the bike I knew I would likely be out front as the pros did not start before us.  As I got up to the George Washington Bridge I was wondering where everyone was.  Up in the Bronx, I was wondering what had happened.  I was off alone leading the race and even coming back after the turnaround there seemed to be too few bikes following me.  

The bike is all on the West Side Highway and a Highway in the Bronx.  That would be great except it is not a very wide road for two-way crowded bike traffic.  It does make for some great views of NY and the Hudson River.  

I did have a fast bike split for this somewhat hilly course but was stunned to find myself going through transition as the first athlete.  I must have asked what happened as I did know as I got up the short hill from the river and started crossing the West Side.  It was still early in the morning and a Sunday if I remember correctly.  Very few people on the street, more cops than anyone else guarding the intersections.  I had an escort on a bike as the lead runner.  Crossing Broadway, a voice shouted out “nice legs”!  I glanced over and waved to a homeless lady sitting on the corner.

On into Central Park and I was running well.  I wondered how much I had gained from the delay in the swim.  Organization of the race that first year was not the best all-around and it was a good thing I had my escort.  Some aide stations were not yet staffed but there was water and stuff on tables, signage was poor or nonexistent, but I had my personal guide.  Central Park, as those who have done the NYC Marathon will know, is hilly.  Not terrible but enough to make a PR difficult if not impossible.  Still, I was close to that when a 30 something lady blew by me at about mile 5 taking my guide with her.  Disappointing but I still thought finishing 2 would be cool which kept me going.  The lack of volunteers and signage almost caused a disaster.  As I approached a road going off to my left, I asked someone clearly just out for a walk should I go straight or turn.  They did not know, I started to go straight and got shouted at by someone else and got back going in the right direction.  I went through that again just down the road but more people there were watching the race and knew the answer.  

Waiting at the finish line was one of the NY TV stations and to my surprise, they were interested in the second-place finisher.  My only finish line interview to date.  

The race season changed as did the rest of the world one month later.  Two days after 9/11 I headed out for a training run in West Hills Park less than a mile from our house.  West Hills (part of Huntington Town) on Long Island was the home to Walt Whitman.  I used to think of him often when I was running there, his home was on one of my routes to or from the park.  As I got into the middle of the park, I started to realize something was very different.  The birds seemed to be more noticeable and otherwise, things seemed quieter.  It was a lovely sunny morning with the sun casting long shadows of the trees to the west. There was no wind ruffling the leaves.  It took me a bit to realize what I was experiencing.  It was West Hills the way Walt Whitman would have known it.  No commercial aircraft lining up for an approach to JFK, no local air traffic into or out of Republic Airport just to the south, and most significant no road noise from the Northern State Parkway that bisects the park.  It was very moving and my emotions swung from happy to very sad.  

This plaque is at the top of the 400ft mountain on Long Island in West Hills Park. It was a magic place to run at all times, even better when all you heard was mother nature.
 This photo gives you some idea of the natural landscape and why I loved running in the place, with our dogs. 

My race season ended that year in Kona, my first.  Getting there was emotional, being there more so on several occasions.  Flying out of JFK with my friend and racing rival David Schneider I quickly realized things were not normal. The plane was more than half empty, not the norm for a flight to LAX.  We were not making the usual swing around to the west after a takeoff to the south.  We were making a wide sweep to the east and then north.  The reason was obvious, fires were still burning at ground zero and the plume was reaching over 30 miles north to the Bear Mtn Bridge, we turned west a bit further north over West Point.   

US flags were everywhere in Kona and the news media descended on anyone from the NY area.  Myself and some five other friends from my team were all interviewed.  At the welcome dinner candles were on all the tables.  We were asked to light them up for a minute of silence.  Looking at this photo is a powerful reminder of that time.  

Kona was amazing that year.  Not only did we, US citizens and residents, feel that we were one big close family, but all the international athletes felt the same way.  The latest trauma to hit our country and the world has not brought us together as it should, just the opposite.  Talking about that is for another time but we do have to talk and resolve things, or our future Is not great.  

That reflection is just the reminder of how life delivers opportunities to us and we need to embrace them.  I encourage you to think about your own races and what inspires you to be the athlete you want to be.  It’s time to get out your calendar and plan something for 2022.  We can commit ourselves to training and be ready for a remarkable season ahead, or as we’ve learned through these past couple of years, we might need to adapt.  But we will race! 

Overview of Rouvy:

For those unfamiliar with Rouvy or FulGaz following is a little information.  Both apps are very similar in that they consist of a video shot from a car or bike of a route in the real world.  That is synced to the hill profile and can be used by many of the newer indoor trainers.  It also will work with the grandfather of smart trainers the Computrainer.  To use it you do need another piece of software, PerfPro CT Smart. When you ride indoors with this software it is about as close as you can get to the real thing.  

You need to use your gears to get up hills, when you go downhill you can coast (Computrainer users will know that you could not do that with their software).  Wind is not simulated but you do get to see the course in detail which, if it is a racecourse you are going to compete in can be very helpful.  For example on a technical hilly course, you can learn where the sharp corners are at the bottom of a fast descent. The quality of the video in some cases is good enough to get an idea of the condition of the road, the shoulders if any, and the width.  All very helpful if you are big into visualizing a race beforehand.  In both apps you can also superimpose an ERG workout where the resistance is based on a workout prescribed by your coach, the same idea as PerfPro for those familiar with that.  You will still see the course.  

Rouvy and FulGaz differ a bit in the data they display.  I like FulGaz a bit better, they have a bit more info.  Rouvy has a better way to give you a heads up of approaching hills.  What is going to be a big thing for FulGaz is they just got purchased by IronMan.  The IM courses in Rouvy are going to migrate to FulGaz and they have announced that they will be videoing all IM and 70.3 courses.  At some point, the IM courses may come with a premium price and I would guess IM will be hosting virtual races.  

FulGaz will be my go-to ap from now on for one simple reason.  Two athletes in Ireland have created several videos in and around the town I grew up in, and rode my bike on.  Unless you have lived in the same place all your life you might be lucky to find a route that will bring back a lot of good memories.

Coach Simon Butterworth

  • USAT Certified Coach
  • USMS Swim Coach
  • FIST Certified Bike Fitter
  • Training Peaks Certified Coach

Coach Simon believes that in the big picture I see attitude more than age making the difference in many aspects of this sport. There are times in triathlon that to see improvements you need to slow down and spend some time working on your technique – which requires a great deal of discipline. So does having a coach and following the plan written for you. The best coach in the world can only be of help if you’re ready and willing to do the work.

Coach Simon Butterworth has an experienced philosophy about coaching.  The key ingredients in a good coach/athlete relationship are regular and open communication, mutual respect, and keeping it fun for the athlete and their family.  His training programs are developed with those ideas at the forefront. He works with athletes to develop both short-term and long-term objectives that work well within the context of the other things they have going on in their life.

Coach Simon is a 2X World Ironman Champion and has 16 Ironman World Championships races to his credit. He has finihsed on the podium 7x.  He is a USAT Certified Coach, USMS Swim Coach, FIST Certified Bike Fitter and Training Peaks Certified Coach.

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