Two hundred eighty-nine athletes and teams gathered to compete in one of my favorite traditions of the town, dedicated to pushing physical and mental limits, aided by a second-to-none atmosphere.
I backed my way into participation for the second time, taking on one measly leg of the race as part of an Olympic triathlon relay team. Despite the disc-wheeled bikers, specialty wet-suited swimmers and fully outfitted runners, I have not, in two race experiences, felt the least bit out of place.
No matter the amount of involvement, level of expertise or rating of gear, participation at the Grand Haven Tri is encouraged and celebrated and I highly recommend joining up, if only for a leg.
More photos from this year’s event
As the runner for our two-man relay team Sunday, I got the chance to witness the camaraderie of this event first-hand. After sending off my aquatic counterpart, a leisurely walk along the beach turned into a peanut-gallery tour, as I passed groups dedicated enough to form a cheering section by the 7:45 a.m. start time, all squinting and pointing to try and make out the subject of their fandom splashing around 100 yards offshore.
Emerging from the surf is the most triumphant of the transitions. The second of two right turns along the course brings swimmers parallel with the pier for a final sprint to the shallows and a splashy, high-knee exit. As a retired swimmer, I recognized a few former competitors near the front of the pack, completely un-envious of the 59-degree water temperatures.
Sunday, the soundtrack of the swim finish was the typical cheers of approval and pride, accompanied by thrilled relief from the competitors deeming the water temperature being, “not bad at all!”
Spirits remained impossibly high as athletes began the swim-to-bike transition, featuring a half-mile jog from the pier to the Tri-Cities Family YMCA exchange zone. Tennis shoes stashed under rocks aid some, while others barefoot the jog up the boardwalk, tugging at their wetsuits all the way.
Nervous about my impending run, it was impossible to walk up the boardwalk without cracking a smile, as athletes from far and wide celebrated the completion of phase one and encouraged one another through the tough discipline change.
By the time the Olympic distance bikers had begun to trickle out of the back drive of the YMCA, the sprint triathletes had already begun to finish. After an unprecedented warm-up jog — running to get ready for more running? Who am I? — I checked up on the finish line to see the first few impressive athletes charge up the final hill and under the orange arch of victory.
The myriad expressions of the final 10 meters were overwhelming. Determination, relief, joy, even surprise steeled my resolve to push as hard as I could in my first-ever road race.
It also confirmed my suspicion of how tough that hill was going to be when I (hopefully) ascended it in just over an hour.
Quite nervous now, I let the atmosphere take over and did some final stretching, shored up my playlist and altered the pace reporting settings on my running app, opting for just the halfway update for race day.
As the much tougher member of the Flying Dutchmen relay team came around the corner to finish his double-duty of the swim and bike legs as a member of the ages 50-54 division, cheers erupted from our contingent and those around us.
A quick swap of the timing chip from ankle to ankle finally put me in charge 1 hour and 40 minutes into the ordeal. Immediately, I took off in the wrong direction. Clueing in just before crossing the wrong threshold at the back of the corral and derailing the entire timing process.
Upon righting my course, I was informed no headphones are permitted in the race, meaning no halfway distance or pace update for me. With two near-disqualifications and no music to distract me from the pounding of my hopelessly flat feet, the 10K began.
Down the hill and onto the boardwalk, all the way to Harbor Island and under the drawbridge, the encouragement was ceaseless. Runners on their way back toward the finish line echoing, “looking strong,” and “you got it, feeling good,” while those of us on our way out bringing them home with “finish hard”, “keep it up,” and “oh yeah!”
Hydration stations manned by volunteers kept the pressure on as energy waned. With just under one mile to go a paper cup of water served up by Grand Haven’s 1,600-meter school record holder provided a final burst of energy for the picturesque finish along the seawall and through the waterfront stadium.
Despite the world-class venue and amazingly overqualified volunteers, all I could think about was that hill.
My faithful teammate met me at the bottom, urging me to “finish hard and get that guy! Pass one more!” as a line of cars built up in front of a Grand Haven police officer generously directing traffic.
Charging up the hill, each finisher is celebrated on the loudspeaker to cheers all around. I didn’t pass my final guy, but we both left it all on the course, and even some in the trash can just beyond the finish line.
The euphoria of the finish line is like none other, with spirits high all around. My relief and sense of accomplishment after finishing a single leg was easily shared with full Olympic, sprint and duathlon competitors with no questions asked.
The feeling is, whatever you finished, it is great that you did.
See Full Results Here
The award ceremony, casual but meaningful, showcased the incredible breadth of experience competing at the Grand Haven Tri. From septuagenarian duathletes to 16-and-under Olympic triathletes — people of all ages, abilities and body types can be found participating. All it takes is the will to finish, timely registration and possibly a few loose screws to get in on the jubilant, entirely wholesome action.
If you haven’t had the pleasure, grab a screwdriver and make a few left turns. These health nuts and exercise freaks are always accepting new recruits in all shapes and sizes. Grab two friends and split up the sprint tri, avoid the water with the duathlon, push yourself through an Olympic leg or, for the especially motivated, the full Olympic tri. I can promise you won’t regret charging up that final hill alongside your 288 new closest friends.