Race Report: 2014 Grizzly Triathlon

Missoula hosted its premier multisport event of the season this weekend. The Grizzly triathlon is a modified sprint triathlon (1000yd swim, 20k bike, 5k run) that has a reputation for attracting the region’s most competitive athletes year after year. As with many other editions of this race, it held true to its alternative name, the Montana World Championships.

I knew before the start that it would be a battle for the third podium spot. 2014 marked the return of the super-speedy Ben Hoffman of Boulder, Colorado, fresh off a 15th place finish in Kona last fall. After winning the race five years in a row, Ben returned to the Griz after a three year hiatus, and true to form, he left us all in the dust. He left the pool first and never looked back.

Second out of the water was Matt Lieto, a pro from Bend, Oregon who has struggled with injuries the last couple years. This year, he’s healthy and back with a vengeance. Matt won the 2012 race on the run after a battle with Polson’s Matt Seeley, despite being ill on the day of the race. This year, he hopped out of the water a few seconds behind Ben, with a bit of a margin on the rest of the field.

Personally, I was a little disappointed with my swim. I feel that I have made some big improvements in my stroke in the last year, but unfortunately I was unable to find the extra gear and I came out of the water in 12:25, a whopping one second faster than last year’s time. Hopping onto the deck a split second ahead of me was Seeley. We both passed Ryan Payne, super-swimmer extraordinaire, as he put on his jean shorts in transition in preparation for a little spin out to Bonner and a casual jaunt through the woods. We also passed UM triathlete Daniel Mazza, who exited the pool about 15 seconds ahead of us, in transition, and headed out onto the bike together.

The bike was definitely the highlight of the race for me. I am racing on a new Orbea Ordu this season, and as much as I believe that equipment doesn’t make a better athlete, there are two things about this bike that  have allowed me to reach a higher level with my biking.

First is the stiffness of the rear triangle. While this doesn’t matter as much on the straight, flat sections where you are already up to speed, it makes a huge difference on any sort of hill. There are a few small inclines on the course, and I felt that I could power through them more efficiently, without wasting my legs for the flats and for the run to follow.

Second, and probably more importantly, it has given me more versatility in my position. On my old time trial bike, my position was good, but I was not quite as aerodynamic as I could be due to limitations in the cockpit design. On the Ordu, I have found that I can truly take advantage of my small size and decent upper-body flexibility to reap huge aerodynamic benefits.

After a little bit of back-and-forth, Seeley did manage to open up a small gap on me on the bike, and I ended up in a battle with Kory Burgess, the dark horse of the competition who took 7th in last year’s race. Kory has made huge gains, particularly on the swim and the bike, since last season. When he caught me after the turnaround, a battle ensued that would continue all the way to the finish line. He passed me on a flat section, I re-passed when we climbed the short but stout Brickyard Hill, and he re-passed me on the last straight section before getting back into town. We headed into T2 seconds apart, just as Seeley was leaving on the run. After a quick transition, I left T2 hot on Kory’s heels, about 30 seconds behind Seeley.

As Hoffman blazed a 16:55 5k in front of us (on loose gravel, with a big hill), and Lieto loped along, having essentially held his somewhat comfortable one-minute gap from the swim, the battle for the final podium spot ensued. As Kory and I put in our best effort to chase down Seeley in the opening part of the run, I couldn’t help but wonder: where was Andy Drobeck?

Andy is not a particularly strong swimmer, but he always has to be considered a threat because of his prowess on the bike and the run. He had out-biked the other three of us by a slim margin, but he still had a bit of ground to cover.

I passed Kory around three quarters of a mile into the run, but he tucked in behind me and held on, re-passing me a couple minutes later. I tucked in behind him at that point. We were gaining on Seeley. I was hopeful. Things were looking good, I felt strong, and the hill was coming up.

Then my question from earlier was answered when Andy came charging by about a minute later, just before we turned right and headed up the hill. The almost robotic precision of Andy’s stride can be an intimidating sight on the run course, and I tried my best not to lose my rhythm. I went past Kory on the hill in pursuit of Andy’s breakneck pace and opened up a small gap, still keeping Seeley in my sights as well. After the climb, there is a descent on a narrow, heavily wooded trail. After runners crest the hill in front of you, you generally don’t see them until the bottom. At the bottom of the hill, I could see that Seeley had about 20 seconds on me, with Andy splitting the difference about 10 seconds behind him. At that point, Kory was about 20 seconds back.

Matt knew at that point that Andy would inevitably pass him, but seeing me in relative striking distance at the turnaround gave him a little extra reason to pick up the pace. He began to stretch out his stride on the flat gravel path that would lead us to the finish, and I started to see the gap that was closing begin to open back up. Despite my finest efforts, the tank was beginning to empty, and I couldn’t manage to gain any ground. As I watched Andy move past Seeley into 3rd, I held on in 5th place to the finish. I finished the race with a time of 1:00:37, missing my one hour goal but happy with my overall performance. My run and swim were both a bit slower than I was hoping for, but I won’t beat myself up over it, since I know I’m in good enough form to do better, and my bike split was right where I wanted it to be.

Now that another year of the Grizzly Tri is in the books, congratulations go out to everyone who participated. It was a great day for a race. Of course, in my book, that is rarely not the case.

Two more weeks until Wildflower!

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