Steamboat braces for triathlon-heavy summer
June 17, 2014
Steamboat Springs — "The Summer of Triathlons" may be a loaded term for the months that await Steamboat Springs, but a pair of companies are filling the local calendar with the multisport events and ensuring it's not an overstatement.
Five triathlons are crowding into summer months that as recently as 2010 played host to just one such event. They offer athletes a chance at nearly every option available in the sport.
There will be long races, such as a half-Ironman later this month, the longest race the county has hosted. There will be short races, including three sprint triathlon courses, and, this Saturday, a race even shorter than a sprint. There even will be an off-road triathlon.
After years as a late-summer quirk in Steamboat Springs, the triathlon is booming.
A decade ago, Joy Rasmussen said she'd get funny looks in Steamboat when she explained to people she was a triathlete.
She helped change that when she started what's been the county's most enduring triathlon, the Steamboat Triathlon, in 2004. Now that event is set to celebrate its 10th anniversary when it again dips into Lake Catamount this August.
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It's far from the only option for local racers these days, however.
That race was sold to Without Limits in 2011, and the Boulder-based company started a second Routt County event that year, the Steamboat Lake Sprint Triathlon, set to return for its fourth go-around July 20.
This summer, Steamboat Springs residents Todd and Heather Gollnick and their sports event company, Get Fit Family Racing, will add three triathlons to the local mix. Add in one more August event at Old Town Hot Springs tailored to children, and the sport has experienced a 150 percent increase in one year.
What's with the explosion?
It's in the sport, the organizers said.
"Triathlon is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States," Todd Gollnick said. "More and more people are getting involved every year, and I don't see a decline coming."
A USA Triathlon report demonstrates some of that growth. The organization, the sport’s governing body in the U.S., had 125,000 members in 1999. It doubled that number by 2005, when the Steamboat Triathlon was hitting its stride, then doubled it again, to 500,000 by 2012.
It still may be speeding up, too. A survey from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association showed a 19.8 percent increase in participation in the last five years and a 26.5 percent jump between 2012 and 2013.
Colorado this year will play host to 73 triathlon events, ranging greatly in size, length and location.
Even with the rapid expansion of the sport across the nation, there's no guarantee Routt County can support five triathlons. Organizers hope the unique quirks that set their particular events apart can help them survive more than one season.
Indeed, they seem to have stretched the region's bodies of water and triathlon puns to the max.
The first event of the summer is Saturday's Give it a Tri triathlon headquartered at Old Town Hot Springs. A Gollnick-produced affair, it's the shortest event of the season, intended largely for children and newcomers to the sport.
The Gollnicks’ second event, June 29's Tri the Boat Triathlon, is the opposite. Set at Stagecoach Reservoir, it will include half-Ironman and Olympic distances.
"This is a big undertaking," Todd Gollnick said. "We will have 350 to 400 participants for this event, phenomenal for a first-year race. The venue will be incredible at Stagecoach. It's the first time they're allowing a triathlon there, and it will be a beautiful, calm swim."
He said he's expecting athletes from at least 17 states, and that is the key to ensuring Steamboat's triathlon boom doesn't include any busts.
Triathlon may be growing nationally and in Steamboat, but no one is suggesting there's demand locally for five such events.
"You have to have the Front Range base of athletes because it's pretty tough to run a race for 100 people," Rasmussen said.
That's an attitude Without Limits has embraced with its two Steamboat races.
The Steamboat Triathlon and the Steamboat Lake Sprint Triathlon each have drawn healthy local crowds, but the races' ranks often are filled with Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins runners.
Drawing those athletes was a major consideration behind starting the Steamboat Lake event.
"The end of July is right when a heat wave always hits the Front Range, and people are looking to escape," Without Limits co-owner Lance Panigutti said. "At Steamboat Lake, we saw an area that deserves a race. It's too gorgeous not to have one there."
Many of the athletes camp, then run the race, soaking up what Panigutti said is one of the most scenic venues in the sport.
Surviving in a crowd
Other upcoming races have their own hooks.
The Aug. 17 Steamboat Triathlon has even made adjustments. There will be an accompanying USA Triathlon Splash and Dash — swimming and running — event at Old Town Hot Springs on Aug. 16, perhaps enticing tri-friendly families to extend their stay. This year, the main race also will add a sprint distance course (the second of three sprint triathlons this summer) and an Aquabike competition that will combine just the swim and the bike segments.
"Whether we have competition or not, every year we try to up our game," Panigutti said. "That's how we stay competitive in Colorado in general. We have new things planned to make this year's race experience a little better than it was last year, and hopefully, last year's was a little better than it was in 2012."
For Without Limits, that's meant some fun touches, such as slip-and-slide finishes at some of its Front Range events, and reliability, such as having results out accurately and early after a race.
The company started in 2008 and puts on 53 events — 15 of them triathlons — in four states.
"Fortunately — knock on wood — we haven't closed any races," he said. "We've seen a lot of competitors close shop. I hope that's a testament to what we're doing right."
The Gollnicks return with their final event of the summer several weeks later, on Aug. 31, with another unique event. They're planning a whole weekend of racing, the "Family Endurance Festival."
The weekend will begin Aug. 30 with an XTerra trail race. The main event is the XTerra Women's Off Road Triathlon, with sprint and Olympic distance courses starting at Bald Eagle Lake.
The Color Run will return Sept. 1 to wrap up the long Labor Day weekend.
They're relying on the XTerra name and Heather Gollnick's sterling reputation as an elite triathlete to draw another big crowd.
"XTerra is huge and has an incredible following," Todd Gollnick said. "That attracts people from all over the place who are familiar with the brand and its quality. Putting on first-class quality events is what we're all about."
It remains to be seen if it can all work, if the four major triathlons can attract the 300 or 400 athletes they're hoping for.
"The market kind of settles in on what's a natural, good amount," Panigutti said. "You don't really know that point until you're beyond it."
He's confident his company's events can survive the suddenly tough Steamboat battleground the same way they've survived the packed Front Range triathlon schedule.
The Gollnicks, too, hope quality and uniqueness can set them apart.
"We're just trying to vary a lot of the things we're doing," Todd Gollnick said. "We want to hit a lot of different age groups and different athletes. We want to promote health and wellness and provide some quality race opportunities for folks."
One thing is for sure, however: This summer is one of simply unprecedented opportunity for local racers. In Steamboat, it's the Summer of Triathlons.
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