Come Hell Or Cold Water: Pros Brawl, Adapt At Bear Lake

As racing slowly sputters back to a start this fall, pro triathletes are forming last-minute, ad hoc fields at small races like the Bear Lake Brawl—the first prize purse on U.S. soil since the beginning of the pandemic.

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Sam Long is standing at a locked gate in front of a very closed and very abandoned-looking campsite in southern Idaho that sits dangerously low against the shore of Bear Lake. It’s Thursday, Sept. 17, and he’d driven eight hours from where he lives and trains in Boulder, Colorado, mostly along a stretch of I-80 that spans the width of southern Wyoming. It’s a stretch of road that passes by small Wyoming towns like Rawlins (pop. 8,658), Elk Mountain (pop. 186), and Little America (pop. 68). It’s the kind of stretch of road that you’d expect to follow before finally arriving at a tiny, almost apocalyptic-esque campground on a small spit of land that separates Bear Lake and Mud Lake, just outside of Saint Charles, Idaho (pop. 152).

The area of southern Idaho where Long is standing, slightly confused and definitely tired, is a place where you’ll meet people openly carrying sidearms at otherwise chichi lakefront cafes with delightfully flavored coffees and savory crepes. If you drive to Bear Lake from nearby Salt Lake City, in only two-and-a-half hours you’ll pass through a corner of Wyoming that checks all of the Wyoming boxes: Giant elk, bison, rodeo arenas, drag-racing strips, and horse-racing tracks. The Bear Lake area is one where you’re more likely to see a U.S. Constitution-themed tattoo than an M-dot one.

But it’s here that pro triathlon is returning to the U.S.—if Long can get into the campground.

He’s standing here, trying to figure out what went wrong and where he’s going to sleep for the night so he can rest up for a triathlon that didn’t even have a pro field four weeks prior. And yet his trip to this spot—where he will eventually enter and be locked in for the night, while other triathletes sleep in their cars on the nearby street—actually began long before.

The Lost Year

Sam Long has been in stasis for 51 weeks. And if you know him at all, you’d understand that sitting still is probably physically more difficult for him than racing an Ironman. It’s been 51 weeks since he last raced and crossed the finish line at Ironman Chattanooga, breaking the tape for the win back in late September of 2019—a date that implies an entirely different world than today. Since then, the planet has been turned on its head, placed on pause, and then restarted in awkward fits and spurts.

For Long and other pro triathletes, the cessation of all pro races back in March has meant that they’re not just unemployed this year, but that they’re also technically not even pro triathletes without triathlons to compete in. An identity crisis to say the least.

But it hasn’t all been bleak: Back in early March, as the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the worldwide triathlon calendar (and the world itself), the Professional Triathletes Organization (PTO) announced that they would be handing out $2.5 million to over 200 pros as a sort of “economic stimulus” program. Intended to help financially struggling pros (which at this point was roughly 90% of pros), this no-strings-attached payout was meant to prevent them from either going hungry or leaving the sport entirely, and ideally bridge the gap from a pandemic season to a relatively normal one somewhere in the far off future.

In the meantime, various organizations played a little bit of hot potato with the pros: According to PTO Chairman Charles Adamo, Ironman approached the PTO early on to see if they’d be interested in putting up prize money for the Ironman VR races (the PTO declined), and then later the PTO offered to put up prize money for Ironman Brazil when the pro race was inexplicably canceled prior to the age-group one. Ironman declined the offer, citing a policy that they could not accept prize money from an outside organization.

While the Ironman VR Pro Challenge paid out a $1,500 appearance fee of sorts to pros who participated in the weekly virtual events, there hadn’t been a real in-person pro race in the U.S. with prize money for over five months. Even in Europe, where things have returned to semi-normal more rapidly, it somehow seemed like the pros were almost cursed. When Challenge Davos—where the PTO had agreed to bolster the prize purse—was set to become the first race back, with a strong pro field, weather caused it to get called off and canceled mid-race.

Then something weird happened—the pros decided to employ a little tactic that we’ve all been using throughout this pandemic season: They decided to go DIY. It all started with two-time gold medalist Alistair Brownlee. Brownlee missed Davos, but wondered if he could put together something similar. If he built it, would they come? 

Alistair Brownlee at the Helvellyn Triathlon. Photo: PTO

If We Build It, Will They Come?

Brownlee and fellow British pro Joe Skipper found the Helvellyn Triathlon—a very savage, Brownlee-esque country race with a staggering run section that was set to go on, pandemic or no. Rather than build the ballfield, Brownlee and Skipper asked the PTO to attach a prize purse to the existing race. In typical fashion, Brownlee not only helped organize the Helvellyn prize purse—attracting a decent British pro field in the process—but he also raced a nearly impromptu ITU World Championships the day before in Hamburg, Germany, finishing ninth, then flew by the seat of his pants back to Cumbria, England to win Helvellyn on Sept. 6.

Perhaps inspired by the utter Brownlee-ness of his antics, two Canadian pros, Jackson Laundry and Taylor Reid, rang up the PTO to see if they’d help fund a pro-only Olympic-distance Canadian race—a national championships on Sept. 12. To keep the trend going, co-creator Laundry won the thing (alongside former track star Tamara Jewett on the women’s side). And with that pro race returned to North American soil.

Just like everything in 2020, both of those pro fields were thrown together and the formats were unusual—the former saw an off-standard race distance of 1mi. swim/38mi. bike/9mi. run (with 3,100 feet of elevation on the run!), and the latter didn’t even have an age-group race. It wouldn’t be until Salt Lake City-based pro triathletes Skye Moench and Nick Chase scanned the nearly decimated tri calendar and found a local race that there was both a standard distance (the pros would race the half-iron) and an actual age-group field.

“It was an opportunity to race,” said Moench, who would go on to take second in the pro field she effectively created from scratch at the Bear Lake Brawl. “It was an opportunity to create something.” Like Long, Moench had also been on extended hiatus—not having raced since she took second place at Santa Cruz 70.3 way back in Sept. 2019—and as such hadn’t had the typical pre-race prep.

Moench herself had picked up a part-time position as a CPA—her previous profession—to help make ends meet during the pandemic layoff. Despite her new workload, the training, and the hours and hours of work she and Chase put in to make sure her Bear Lake Brawl pro field was taken care of, she said the whole experience has brought her hope. “I would love for bigger events to happen, but I feel like it’s going to be fewer and further apart,” she said.

And that seems to be the refrain from many of the pros who brawled it out at Bear Lake. Some showed up kind-of-sort-of ready to race, like Jocelyn McCauley, who didn’t end up finishing in the tough conditions, but most also couldn’t remember the last local race they did. McCauley hadn’t even started a small race like Bear Lake since 2014. “This is where it has to start [at small races], see how they get it done, and extrapolate it out to bigger races,” she told me the day before the event. McCauley admitted she wasn’t entirely ready to race—worse yet, her 7-year-old daughter tried to prevent her from leaving for the first time in six months by standing on her shoes.

Last-minute instructions at the start of the Bear Lake Brawl. Photo: Chris Foster

In the Spirit of 2020

The Bear Lake Brawl itself was full of 2020 vibes, scrappy and exhausted and not completely to plan, but ready to try anyway. The setup was probably rustic on its best day, and then high winds, a delayed start, super cold temperatures, and a good dose of first-race-in-a-long time jitters amongst the athletes—both pro and age group—created mild chaos along the chilly shores. 

The offending lone buoy, unattached on the shore of Bear Lake. Photo: Chris Foster

The swim was adjusted to compensate for a lone buoy that got a little too socially distant in the gusts, causing last-minute changes and confusion over safety (sound like your summer?). The bike course wound around the entire lake with beautiful hillsides and slowly changing foliage, but that beauty was contrasted at times with drilling rain and wild wind. 

The run was as socially distanced as it gets. Photo: Chris Foster

Finally, the run was a quarantine-level lonesome affair as spectators were not allowed at the race site (though not everyone followed that edict). Running out and back on a narrow, fully-exposed road between a big open lake and a slightly smaller marsh felt about as isolated as one could get—pandemic or no. It was almost as if the race itself played out like everyone’s year.

But for the pros it wasn’t all philosophizing and rust-busting. Some showed up ready to attack after all these months of working hard and waiting. Eventual women’s winner Danielle Dingman had just been married two weeks prior, but took the Bear Lake Brawl very seriously in a bid to hopefully get a start at the star-studded Challenge Daytona in December. “I treated COVID as an opportunity, because we’re not granted these big blocks usually,” she said, post-race, shivering uncontrollably in the rain and 40-degree temperatures. “But we’re going to need to continue to be ready to race at a moment’s notice.”

And that’s the way it’s going to be, at least for the near future—pros doing it themselves, promoting events like the Bear Lake Brawl or the Olympic-distance Huntington Triathlon on Oct. 3 in Fort Wayne in Indiana, and mustering it up on a few weeks notice, adapting. 

Sam Long powering ahead en route to a win at Bear Lake. Photo: Chris Foster

And that’s what Sam Long did too. He not only survived the long drive across Wyoming, unlocked the gate, and woke up the next day to a race being constructed around him, but he went on to adapt better than any other male pro on the day—outrunning and outdoing a surprisingly loaded men’s field that included Matt Hanson, Ben Kanute, Justin Metzler, and Chris Leiferman, for his second straight win. It just took 51 weeks.

Though the Bear Lake Brawl was both unpredictable and admittedly a little ad hoc—just like 2020 itself—it also felt it was a sign of big things to come. “This race is a catalyst for the future,” Long said. “It’s a sign of hope.”

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