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This was supposed to be a column about the thrilling men’s professional race at the inaugural Ironman California, where the GOAT (Jan Frodeno) took his son (Lionel Sanders) and stepson (Gustav Iden) to school for eight hours. Instead, as you probably know if care about triathlon enough to click on this, it was the race that never was.
Three hundred and eighty miles to the southeast, in a part of California where people actually want to live, one of the great Olympic-distance races in the history of the sport made a somewhat-triumphant return.
The winner of Ironman California: Mother Nature
What can be said about Sacramento that hasn’t already been said about Fresno? If you ask someone from Sacramento what the best part of Sacramento is, they’ll tell you that it’s an easy drive to both San Francisco and Tahoe. The best part about it is that you can drive somewhere else.
I’ll try to write the rest of this without making fun of Sacramento. The purpose of writing about a race that didn’t happen is to do something I almost never do and commend Ironman for handling a horrendous situation as best they could. This wasn’t a judgement call about whether or not it’s safe to swim. This was mother nature making it very clear that there would be no racing on Sunday. An intense storm unleashed from a “bomb cyclone” over the Pacific Ocean slammed the region, pummeling the area with heavy rain, winds, flooding and mudslides.
It seems a lot of social media warriors, particularly in Northern Europe, think it’s absurd to cancel a race for wind and rain. Thanks for sharing all the stories about “The one time I did a race in the 90s and it was raining so hard you couldn’t see the road.” That’s great. If Ironman held a race on Sunday, people would’ve died. Athletes, volunteers, staff and spectators would’ve all been put at risk. Ironman is not in the business of killing people. At least not yet.
The swim is in a river. A big river. A river so big that one time a humpback whale swam up the river all the way to downtown Sacramento, and it remains the most exciting thing that has ever happened in downtown Sacramento. Even if the swim were canceled because of currents and wind, the bike takes place on roads that are very susceptible to flooding—and many of them did flood throughout the day on Sunday, as the “bomb cyclone” made its way through Northern California.
While I appreciate people on Twitter reminding me that it rains a lot in the Netherlands and they still have bike races, it’s worth noting that Holland and California have very different relationships with rain. The dried up Central Valley of California isn’t built to handle a lot of rain at once. Floods flash, mud slides, trees fall, and even houses move. It’s just one of the dozens of natural disasters that come included with your California taxes.
Since I wasn’t actually in Sacramento, I asked Lionel Sanders for his thoughts on if the race should’ve gone on. Surely, if anyone were up for racing, it would be the tough-as-nails Canadian who loves to suffer:
“I walked out of the hotel and was like, ‘this is going to the worst day ever.’ That’s all fine and dandy—like I would do it—but you have to ask about the safety aspect for everyone involved. You can’t ask hundreds of volunteers to go through this horrible day for 17 hours. This isn’t Norseman. I don’t think people signed up to race in this.”
Ironman appears cursed with events in this part of California, but both the city of Sacramento and Ironman are determined to make this venue work as a long-term home of Ironman California. A bomb cyclone is extraordinarily rare. It’s much more likely that next year’s race will be canceled by an earthquake, wildfire, or humpback whale.
The LA Tri is back!
Thanks to a big investment by LA-based Herbalife, the original LA Tri venue is back. While some people, like me, might call Herbalife a pyramid scheme, it’s heavily invested in triathlon, going so far as to pay for employees’ race entries, and help with training plans and equipment. They’ve also been a long-time sponsor of Heather Jackson, and this year they put up $40,000 for a pro prize purse for the return of one of the great urban triathlons.
Unfortunately for the American men hoping to claim the top prize of $6,500, Vincent Luis has been spending some time in SoCal, so he will be winning every race until he decides to leave. The non-draft format might not be his typical cup of tea, but it seems to suit his strengths even better. After spending some time getting dialed on a tri bike at the Specialized wind tunnel near San Jose, Luis had no problem leading start to finish. He finished more than a minute ahead of Ben Kanute, who narrowly held off Miki Taagholt of Denmark.
American women hoping to win races in America in 2021 have been very frustrated by Britain’s Emma Pallant-Browne, who is getting quite comfortable living and winning races in the US of A. Unlike Luis, Pallant-Browne found herself chasing all morning, with Haley Chura two minutes ahead out of the 1.5K swim and Jackson 45 seconds ahead after the 40K bike. Ten kilometers of running was plenty of time to catch Jackson and then some, breaking the tape a minute clear of her competition. American Amy Sloan passed Jackson to claim second for one of the best results and biggest paydays of her career. Four grand for a couple hours of exercising isn’t too bad.
Could this signal the return of Olympic-distance, non-draft professional racing in the U.S.? Probably definitely not, but this race has a rich history to stand on and a committed, local corporate partner. The prize purse may not break any records, and there’s no spare-no-expense livestream, but they’re also not relying on billionaire handouts to make a big event happen. Having a mega-corporation like Herbalife invested should help keep this as a staple on the professional calendar for years to come.