Triathlete Tour Guide: Seattle

With its foodie (and microbrew!) scene, outdoorsy ethic and urban energy (all that coffee?), Seattle is an easy draw for triathletes.

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With its foodie (and microbrew!) scene, outdoorsy ethic (rain or shine) and urban energy (all that coffee?), Seattle is an easy draw for triathletes. Throw in a nearby 70.3 race, and you’ve got the perfect race-and-relax getaway.

When I mentioned to Aussie pro Luke Bell that I’d signed up for Ironman 70.3 Lake Stevens in Washington, one of the first things the three-time Lake Stevens champion told me was to stay in Seattle, a not-so-ideal 35 miles away from the race venue. He said the extra-early wake-up call on race morning was well worth the chance to explore the city during my downtime. He was right.

Seattle’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau made up its own adjective—“metronatural”—to encapsulate the city’s refined-meets-rugged character.

You’ve got the Pacific Northwest geography (Seattle sits on the eastern shore of Puget Sound) surrounding a sophisticated city center with a robust intellectual life and creative culture.

You can glimpse the city’s artsy ethos in the gallery-like atmosphere of Hotel Max, a stylish boutique hotel that is an ideal home base for exploring the city. Art and photography by local artists cover the walls, and each room door is papered over in black-and-white concert photography that pays tribute to Seattle’s rock heritage. Our door was plastered with a 7-foot-tall image of rocker (and former wife to the most famous of all Seattle grunge rockers, Kurt Cobain) Courtney Love screaming into the mic during a Hole show. But don’t expect the gritty rock ’n’ roller vibe to extend much farther than the threshold. Once inside, the rooms, though small, are minimalist-chic and offer heart-of-the-city views. Bonus: Adjacent to the lobby, Red Fin Restaurant serves up some of the city’s best sushi and Japanese cuisine. Late night, it transforms into a club-like hotspot.

But with race morning looming, I opted for a more mellow dinner near the waterfront’s iconic Pike Place Market (yes, “the flying fish place”) at Seatown, one of Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas’ multiple eateries showcasing Pacific Northwest cuisine highlighted by fresh-from-the-boat seafood. Pre-race protein came in the form of Albacore tuna poke and a succulent halibut steak sitting on a bed of lentils.

Or, you can follow foodie/pro triathlete Melanie McQuaid’s recommendation and seek out Purple Café and Wine Bar, an effortlessly cool spot serving New American cuisine from its downtown locale (there are three more locations outside Seattle).

But you may want to save the wine tasting for after Ironman 70.3 Lake Stevens, a course that is as challenging as it is picturesque. A 40-minute drive north of Seattle and just outside the town of Everett, Lake Stevens is the kind of place where kids make memories of summer camp and take toothy pictures holding the day’s catch. I felt nostalgia for summers long ago in a place I’d never been the moment I pulled into town. Later, I learned that Lake Stevens was a popular resort community in the 1920s, and you can still sense its old-school charm.

You’ll be shaken from a state of dreamy nostalgia the moment the start gun goes off, though, and you’re slicing through the cool, clean water of Lake Stevens for the 1.2-mile swim. Swimmers who have a tendency to swim off-course (read: me) benefit from an underwater cable that’s placed 10 feet beneath the surface to guide athletes. A recent change to the 56-mile bike course reflects racer input and allows for a rolling tour of Washington’s ethereal emerald-green countryside. “Due to athlete feedback, bike course changes were made for 2012 [race day is July 15] to highlight the rolling hills throughout Snohomish County,” said race director Keats McGonigal. “The one-loop course significantly decreases the congestion, allowing athletes more freedom to race at one’s own pace.”

Finally, the two-loop, 13.1-mile run leads racers out of “downtown” and around nearby neighborhoods as families seated in lawn chairs cheer enthusiastically and mist you with hoses to combat the late-summer heat.

The same small-town hospitality is extended by local bike shop Snohomish Bicycles—I shipped my bike to the shop the week before the race, and, for a nominal fee they assembled my rig and delivered it for pick-up at the race expo. On race day the shop crew was there to pump up tires in the early dawn and help with any other last-minute bike needs. After the race, I dropped off my bike back with the Snohomish Bicycles guys, who broke it down, packed it up and shipped it back to me within a couple of days.

Post-race, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more comfortable recovery spot than the Fairmont Olympic hotel in Seattle. The Fairmont name suggests luxury and this location doesn’t disappoint. A unique feature of the Fairmont brand is its consideration of an athletic clientele. Through its Fairmont Fit program, guests can have Adidas workout clothes (including shoes), a loaded digital music player and even a yoga mat waiting in your room upon arrival—pretty handy when you run out of clean run shorts on the road. For this visit, though, a long soak of sore legs in the hotel’s large Jacuzzi was the extent of any physical exertion.

You don’t have to go far from your Fairmont room to reward the day’s effort with the ultra-fresh seafood spread at Shuckers Oyster Bar, one of Seattle’s oldest and most renowned oyster bars. Located inside the hotel, the old-school eatery features 13 oyster varieties served nine different ways. Pair an oyster platter with one of the local microbrews on tap before digging in to a steamy bowl of creamy clam chowder.

Fortified with local fare, you’ll be ready to tackle a full day of sightseeing the next morning. Before touring around town, you’ll want to pick up a CityPass, which gets you into the city’s most popular attractions—the Space Needle, Seattle Aquarium, Woodland Park Zoo, a harbor tour and more—and at a 50 percent discount. A side perk: Pass holders get to forgo the long ticket lines. You can buy a pass online ( or purchase one at any of the participating attractions.

Not on the CityPass itinerary but no less of a Seattle attraction, the very first Starbucks, which opened here in 1971, is worth a visit for any coffee-loving triathlete. Judging from the steady stream of patrons—tourists, young professionals, creative types, cyclists—that pass through the doors, it’s truly a microcosm of the multidimensional city that spawned an empire.

Seattle Shout-outs

» For a two-wheeled tour of the city, Seattle Bicycle Rentals ( and Seattle Cycling Tours ( offer solo or group options.

» To sample the local brewpub culture, pull up a stool to the bar at Pike Brewing Company (

» Carbon wheel maker Mad Fiber ( is based in the Fremont neighborhood, as is triathlon shop Speedy Reedy (—both worth checking out when in town.

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