By Stephen Meyers StephenMeyers@coloradoan.com
July 15, 2012
Nearly every Wednesday this summer, a group of local triathletes and aspiring triathletes can be found on Horsetooth Reservoir’s South Bay, swimming along the shore and running through the campgrounds.
Fort Collins resident and Ironman champion Wendy Mader heads a clinic, teaching a small group of people the finer points of open-water swimming. Geneva Mueller, a 2011 Rocky Mountain High School graduate, leads a pack of swimmers toward the beach. Lifeguards from the beach and people on kayaks monitor the swimmers who are timed in an aquathlon.
Boulder might be the mecca for triathletes, but Fort Collins has taken a step forward to make a name for itself in the triathlon world.
This new event is the Horsetooth Tri Training Series, a first-year series that’s slowly growing from a humble beginning of a few dedicated souls into what event organizers hope blossoms into a permanent fixture on the budding Fort Collins-area triathlon scene.
“It’s the first time Fort Collins has had anything like this, so it’s really exciting,” event organizer Lisa Sinclair said. “It’s definitely not where we want to be, but we’re getting 20 to 30 people a week, which is a nice start. We still have some work to do to get more people involved as this sport continues to grow in Northern Colorado.”
Series catching on
Inspired in part by Boulder’s Stroke and Stride series, now in its 11th year, the Horsetooth Tri Training Series is a 10-week program. It is designed as a training opportunity for triathlon newbies considering participating in a triathlon and for seasoned triathletes who want the experience of a timed practice.
Athletes can swim either a 750-meter or 1,500-meter option, followed by a 5K run or participate in a 3,000-meter swim only. People also can opt to do only a 5K. All events are chip timed by Timberline Timing Systems, and all replicate a real race with wave starts in the water and a transition area from the swim to run on the concrete boat ramp.
Wednesday’s showing was the best night yet, with 46 people of all abilities and ages donning their wet suits to hit the 65-degree water for their open-water swim before shedding the suits in favor of shorts and running shoes for the 5K.
“It was a great night. This is what we’ve been working toward,” said Mader, a USA Triathlon coach. “I think we have a lot of people training for upcoming triathlons, and I also think people are talking about it and telling their friends to come out and try it.”
Mader, a Michigan native and graduate of Eastern Michigan University, where she was a swimmer, started doing triathlons in 1992 and was immediately hooked. She moved to Fort Collins in 1995, completed her first Ironman two years later and in 2008 was the Ironman overall amateur world champion.
She’s the co-founder and owner of t2coaching and for the past five years has taught open-water swim lessons in Northern Colorado, including the Lake Loveland swims. She also is race director for the Pelican Fest Triathlon in Windsor.
Mader teaches a swim clinic at 5 p.m. before the Horsetooth Tri Training Series, which takes place Wednesdays through Aug. 15, for people with little to no experience with open-water swimming or a fear of swimming in the open water.
“It’s completely different swimming in the open water. You can’t see anything, there are no lane lines and you’re in a big space of water. The sighting is difficult, breathing is different,” said Mader, who still remembers the first time she swam in open water in the early ’90s. “That moment will always stick with me. I remember thinking, ‘Thank God I’m a swimmer because this is creepy.’ I remember mentally panicking. It’s a completely different feeling.”
She had a class of 15 people on Wednesday, “which is awesome,” she said. She hopes to teach people in her clinic one week and see them the following week competing in the series.
“That’s how I envision it. It’s my job to help people get comfortable in the water and get them racing the next week,” Mader said. “I’m excited. It’s been a great opportunity to teach the clinic and to see people trying out the sport.”
Prime place for sport to grow
Though no prizes or awards are given following the aquathlon, previous winners of the Horsetooth Tri Training Series include the 18-year old Mueller, a former swimmer and track runner at Rocky, and Ben Nelson, 35, a near top-10 finisher in the 2011 Horsetooth Half Marathon.
Fort Collins, with its elevation training and hundreds of miles of running trails and pristine road cycling, was named by Triathlete Magazine one of the top 15 places for triathletes to train and live. Mader, who said she has seen the sport “explode” in recent years, is encouraged by the series and hopes it can evolve into a triathlon club — something absent from the Fort Collins triathlon community right now.
“We’re not Boulder by any means. They’re kind of the standard for triathlons, but we have so many great athletes and masters swimmers living and training here in Fort Collins, and I think the opportunity is here to really grow the triathlon community,” Mader said. “We’re tired of having to go all the way to Boulder for events. The Horsetooth series has been great so far, and I think it’s an opportunity for people to start and not be intimidated.”