One of the longest-running triathlons in the country, the Ironman 70.3 Eagleman welcomes competitors to the eastern shore of Maryland each June for a 1.2-mile swim in the Choptank River, a 56-mile bicycle ride through the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, and a 13.1-mile run through the picturesque town of Cambridge. The brainchild of triathlon pioneer Gerry Boyle, Eagleman has become synonymous with two words over the years: flat and hot. While the latter may not always be welcome by the thousands of triathletes who hit the course annually, the relatively unthreatening terrain is. All told, there’s just just 330 and 130 feet of elevation gain, respectively, on the bike and run, making for some super fast times when the weather is tolerable. Here’s more about how Eagleman, which goes off next weekend, has evolved over the years.
The Eagle(man) lands in 1997
The event, which began in 1981 as the Oxford Triathlon, in Oxford, Maryland, moved to its present home in Dorchester County in 1990, where it was known as the Cambridge Endurance Triathlon until 1996. It was then picked up by Ironman and rebranded, its name a nod to the abundance of eagles who nest in Dorchester County.
The Eagleman debuted the following year as an age-group only event, and was a big draw as it was one of just a handful of 70.3 events to offer slots to the Ironman World Championship in Kona. Troy Jacobson, a former linebacker for West Chester University and Spinervals founder, took the tape for the men, while Joanna Zeiger, then 27 and pursuing a doctorate in public health at Johns Hopkins University, won the women’s race—showing the prowess that would eventually take her to the Olympics as a pro in 2000 and all the way to the top step of the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in 2008.
The competition—and the weather—heat up as the pros arrive
When Eagleman eventually added a pro division, it became a stop on many of the world’s best athletes’ schedules—many of whom used the notoriously steamy and windy conditions as prep for Kona. Just how hot can it get? In 2008, the temperature reached 95 degrees F, with a heat index of 110 degrees, making for one of the toughest days in Eagleman—and Ironman 70.3—history.
While top times vary greatly on the course due to the weather, certain years proved to be decidedly speedy. In 2007, Swiss star and six-time Ironman world champ Natascha Badmann, who once said that the Eagleman was her “favorite race in June,” covered the course in 4:08:17—breaking Karen Smyers’ world record at the 70.3 distance. All told, Badmann would visit Maryland’s eastern shore four times, winning back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007 before finishing second and fifth in 2009 and 2010, respectively. While her world record was soon broken by Australia’s Mirinda Carfrae (herself a multi-time Eagleman champ) five months later at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Tampa, Badmann’s mark remains as the women’s course record.
On the men’s side, the fastest time to date among all pros was posted in 2012 by then-reigning Ironman World Champion Craig “Crowie” Alexander. On a day when temperatures climbed to 93 degrees with 88% humidity, he crossed the line in 3:44:57, some two minutes ahead of fellow Aussie Greg Bennett. In the decade since that race, only Sam Appleton, another Australian, has come close to hitting Crowie’s time, finishing in 3:46:34 in 2017.
Saying goodbye to a legend
Tragedy struck the Eagleman community in March 2019 when Boyle—who was also the race director for Ironman Maryland, which began in 2014—died suddenly at the age of 68. Later that year, the Cambridge city council unanimously voted to rename Great Marsh, the park where the race is staged, after the “quiet hero” who made a point to greet every competitor with encouraging words or a friendly high five before the start of the swim.
Three months after Boyle’s death, Eagleman went on—but, in a twist of fate, the swim was canceled for the first time in the race’s history due to rough seas in the Choptank.