October 03, 2006

Bonelli Triathlon: Race Report From A Proud Spectator

Having been around for 24 years, TriEvent’s Bonelli Series is supposedly the oldest triathlon series in the world. At least that’s what it said on the finishers banner and I always believe what is written on finishing line banners.

There are many scary things about the Bonelli Triathlon. There’s the crappy quality of the lake water, there’s the constant threat of reckless automotive traffic on the narrow roads and there’s the blind corner where speeding cyclists ride through the run course. I guess that makes it all the more intriguing as to why people love this race so much and perhaps a bit baffling as to the reasons why it has become a starting point for so many new triathletes. Go figure.

The race takes place in Bonelli Park which is just outside of San Dimas. I’d like to say San Dimas is a lovely town but I have yet to really see it. So let’s just make believe its lovely for the sake of this report. Aesthetics aside, most Southern Californians know San Dimas as the home to ye olde water park of many smiles, Raging Waters. The rest of the world knows San Dimas as the place where Bill and Ted live. You know, from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, that masterpiece of cinematic high school humor that did for Keanu’s career what Jeff Spicoli did for Sean Penn’s acting.

The Bonelli Triathlon does not attract many racers. In fact, there were only 177 people in the entire Olympic Distance race. As you can guess, my wonderful girlfriend, Catherine, was among those 177.

To call the Bonelli race “highly organized” would be like calling the Pope sexy. No matter how you look at it, it ain’t. The fact became pretty obvious at the start when the entire race had to be delayed because the management team couldn’t find the iPod that held the National Anthem. Fortunately, some schmo soon found it, ran it over, plugged it into the speakers and before we knew it we had the rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air and a beach full of racers looking around aimlessly for an American flag. Any American flag would’ve been nice – even if it were just a temporary tattoo on somebody’s bicep. But I shouldn’t complain… at least we found the iPod.

The swim was a “V” shaped course with only three heats: men 39 & under plus elites, men 40 and over plus relay teams, and all women. The course takes swimmers straight out to a far buoy at which point they take a pretty sharp left-hand turn and head back to the shore. It sounds easy. It even looks easy. But apparently it wasn’t that easy. Shortly after the first wave went off, the four lead swimmers, unable to see the buoys in front of them, began to swim drastically off course. And when I say drastically, I mean that they were so far off course without anybody stopping them, that they had to turn around and spend a few minutes scrambling back to the course. Of course, they didn’t end up as the four lead swimmers anymore.

Catherine was a part of the third and final wave which, as I said, comprised of all the women racing. Let me paint a better picture of this start for you. There is no starting corral that the swimmers enter. There is no starting line, aside from the shoreline – though half the racers were on the beach and the other half in the water. And there was nobody there to stop any racers from leaving early. So after I kissed Catherine and wished her good luck, I stood right behind her as the announcer counted down from 10. At about “2”, people started running into the water and swimming. It was kinda like the way that people always start clapping a few lines before the singer ever finishes the Star Spangled Banner. You know it’s not time to go, yet people still do. Most, however, just began meandering forward at “2” and didn’t really start swimming until the word “Go” was bellowed over the loudspeaker, which was nice of them.

As Catherine began swimming off into the distance, I walked over to the swim exit to cheer her on.

Apparently the water in Bonelli Park is disgusting. The overwhelmingly dirt-like taste of the water is probably best described by the enlightening comments of the swimmers emerging, which consisted of: blech!, that’s f***ing disgusting and Cchhhat-ptewie!, among others. Needless to say, I was glad to be on the dry side of the waterline.

As I stood there cheering on the racers I glanced at my watch, expecting Catherine to emerge in her regular time of 25-30 minutes. When she stormed out of the water in 23:40, I couldn’t believe it. Holy Shit! I yelled out loud, to the utter joy of my fellow spectators who, for some reason, decided to laugh at me.

As Cat ran to T2, I sprinted out of the swim exit area to even greater joy and laughter of the surrounding spectators, who I can only imagine were uttering words about how great a boyfriend I am.

I got myself over to the bike-out just before Catherine came out of transition. I sliced open my toe pretty badly, she said to me as she mounted her bike. Uh-oh, I thought. That’s not good. Before I could think of anything comforting to say, she was off. So I just yelled Good Luck and looked around to see if any other spectators were laughing at me.

The Bonelli bike is a three loop course that has the riders passing close to the transition area with each loop. I didn’t get a chance to see the course from my ass-firmly-on-ground point of view, but apparently it’s pretty damn hilly.

However, from my vantage point, I’d have to say that the worst part of the bike course is the final turn towards transition. The Sprint and Olympic racers are all muddled together as they approach this turn-off. And though there were a few signs indicating the route, the sounds of tires skidding and people yelling made me believe it wasn’t quite marked well enough. As if that’s not enough, with little understanding of the racing rules among the mass of newbies, there were quite a few close calls as Sprint racers jammed their brakes and swerved across traffic to make the turn. Once making the turn, they jammed their brakes again as they found themselves smack dab in the middle of the run course, complete with joggers trying to weave their way in and out of oncoming, out-of-control cyclists. My heart couldn’t take this pressure for too long. I was so goddam tense watching it that I turned my back to it all. But the noise of the yelling and skidding got me so riled up, that after fifteen minutes I had to walk further down the road to cheer on my girlfriend far away from the sight and sound of impending doom.

As Catherine flew buy me on her first two loops, I could tell she looked strong. Perhaps her toe was going to stay connected to her body after all. Whew.

With my heart not strong enough to watch her make the final turn, I left Dead Man’s Corner and waited down by transition for her. A sense of relief enveloped my body when I saw her emerge safely and roll into transition.

This spectating stuff may kill me after all.

The 10k run course takes joggers around the entire lake in a combination of on-road and off-road terrain. All in all, it’s a pretty challenging run. Hills? Yep, quite a few of them. Heat? Yuh-huh, it’s got that too. But apparently it’s beautiful. Of course, I couldn’t give you the details since I spent the entire time sitting on my ass at the finish line.

As far as the finish line, there was a big banner. And there was a timing mat. If you can call it that. I mean, I’m not sure what the size qualifications are to be considered a “mat”, but this one was only about 1 foot wide and 2 feet deep. Easy to miss, you could say. Which I guess is why they put a big “X” right in the middle so people would know where to step. Unfortunately there barely any people cheering on the finishers. There was me, another guy on the other side of the finish chute and the woman behind me whose view I was completely blocking but who apparently didn’t want to move. Maybe she was just laughing at me behind my back. All in all it was pretty anticlimactic. As racers stumbled across the finish line, they were greeted with the random clapping of six hands, which reminded me far too much of a band finishing a show at Madison Square Garden only to be applauded by the distant sound of a far away clapper struggling to overpower the chirping of the crickets. That was us. But that didn’t matter to me because when I saw Catherine crossing the finish line, it may as well have been the roar of the Ironman masses.

She finished in a stunning 2:38… taking 60th place overall out of 180 people, which impresses me. Especially considering the other 59 people included such notables as pro-racer Julie Swail and her ridiculously fast 2:05 finish.

Do I recommend Bonelli? Through all the chaos, disorganization and mocking spectators, I’d have to say yes. Kind of. Probably. Though the race has been around for years on end, it still has a homegrown feeling. Which I suppose is probably a lot like how triathlon racers were in the very early days of the sport. Just a bunch of masochistic lunatics out for a grueling morning’s workout.

As a post-script, after Catherine finished we went to the medical tent to get her toe looked at. Soon after the 20-something kid in the tent put down his magazine we realized how incompetent he was.

As Cat removed her blood-drenched sock we saw the large gash in her toe and lots of gravel and dirt inside it. I’m not going to go into the terrible details about how the kid was so inept in trying to clean out the wound and bandage it. Suffice to say, I pulled Catherine’s flaps of skin apart and cleaned out the wound myself as the race director kept Cat occupied from the pain and gave her orange peels to bite into instead of the screaming. Catherine bandaged herself up. She thinks she needed stitches. But we decided to eat lunch instead.


Star Sighting Of The Day: Greg Germann, that guy from Ally McBeal, who's real name you never knew

Location: Whole Foods in Brentwood

What He Was Doing: Shopping for food with his son. At least I thought it was his son. Or, rather, I hope it was his son. That's disgusting... why did you get me talking about dirty things like that.


Flo said...

I hate to point out the obvious, but since Ironman Kona celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2003 - wouldn't that make them older then this race??? I'm just saying.....

j. said...

That was my first reaction too, Flo. In fact, the first paragraph of this blog entry originally stated that TriEvents was lying about that. Afterall, Kona's been around since 1978. However, I then realized that Ironman Kona is not a "series", it's just a race. The TriEvents events actually make up a series, in the same way for instance, that there is the Bud Light Triathlon Series.
Silly, really..but at least it gives them something to hang their swimcap on.

jbmmommy said...

I hope Catherine's toe heals soon, I can see how lunch would be a priority.

Congrats to her for a great race! Nice job spectating- I'm sure it's hard in its own way.

Jess said...

I realize this is a bit late but I had to let you know how much I agree with your comments on the Bonelli races. I've often commented on how poorly it seems to be organized and that people do not cheer for the athletes. I was probably that woman behind you, waiting for my husband! I know I was one of the few that was there yesterday cheering for everyone! Being a spectator isn't as easy as everyone thinks. I'm a nervous wreck until my hubby crosses that finish line! Every time he races.