By Jen Benepe, Fort Lee, NJ
August 12, 2012
The Ironman national championships held here on Saturday proved that cycling, running and swimming are becoming part of the national fabric–and how!
The event spanned two states, New Jersey, where it started in the town of Fort Lee, and New York City where it ended after competitors crossed the George Washington Bridge for the final half of the last segment, the 26-mile-run.
It was a day to remember for everyone: competitors who came from around the U.S. and the world, their families and friends, and spectators and volunteers. Even weather wise it was a winner of a day that had earlier threatened rain, the overcast skies providing some respite from the hot sunny temperatures that have been the norm in the northeast U.S. this year.
Two days earlier a sewage run-off threatened to cancel the swim portion of the triathlon that will send qualifying athletes to the World Championships in Hawaii this year, but the water was declared healthy late Friday.
Tragically that didn’t work well for one competitor, an unidentified 46-year-old male who suffered distress in the water and later died at Englewood Hospital.
The winner of the men’s pro category, Jordan Rapp, held a sizeable lead through most of the competition, as did the
women’s category winner, Mary Beth Ellis of Colorado.
could be easily made out on the roadway as he headed out, and doubled back along the 58-mile course that took riders just short of Bear Mountain for a total distance of 112 miles on the bicycle.
He wore a red Specialized helmet, and was led out and followed by motorcycle support, and despite the challenging uphill segments on the parkway, Rapp never seemed to waiver.
Ellis was paced by Amy Marsh in the first leg of the cycling portion, but dropped her on the repeat. Ellis then easily kept her distance through the run section.
Competitors started with a 2.4-mile swim from a barge north of the Ross Dock area in Fort Lee, swimming back to the dock where a staging area held all of their bikes, and served as the transition area for the whole event.
The staggered start times and large number of entrants made it difficult to track loved ones in the race, but not for Rose Mazzella and Anthony Saporito who were using a Google app on her cell phone to track their two friends from high school.
In addition to the one fatality, the only other negative of the day was the lack of access for spectators to the Palisades Parkway. Some spectators talked of being turned away by police and port authority personnel at several locations, but locals knew all the shortcuts to the parkway.
The closure of the Palisades Interstate Parkway southbound lanes from 3 AM on Saturday morning to 11 PM, was the first ever for an athletic event. And it was the first ever Ironman triathlon championship to be held between Fort Lee, NJ and New York, NY, perhaps one of the reasons why police protection of the route was so meticulous.
In some sections such as state line, only volunteers were allowed to enter. The mood was upbeat and infectious, as people who came from as far as Connecticut handed out water and other energy infusions for competitors who breached the hill like this was the last they ever wanted to climb—and this was only the first time around.
As they came up drenched in sweat one rider said loudly, “That was a really bleep bleep hill,” while volunteers called out, “water!” “bananas!” “Powerdrink!, and “GU!” for a brand-name sugared energy pack, and riders grabbed them sometimes drinking, sometimes pouring the water over their bodies until they were soaked.
The pace was fast, frantic, and joyful. One woman called out “go, go, go” in at least five languages, “Allez,” Vaya!” “Go,Go, Go!”—“See I can say go in any language you want! GO!” she yelled out to the cyclists, even adding some Portuguese and Italian.
Closer to the start of the PIP, Sandra, Alex, Helene, and Lev from Anwerp, Belgium came over from New York City to watch husband and dad Alex compete. I had my heart in my throat as I watched them run across the parkway from the northbound gas station where they had been dropped for $30 plus toll by a newbie cab driver.
At the Englewood Cliffs intersection, Bill, Theresa, and Billy Childs of New Rochelle, NY, waited for Bernie Childs, Bill’s 30-year old twin brother to pass through; certainly they were more visible than Bernie in their matching day glo orange tee-shirts.
Another family had gathered there and were waiting with signs in hand for Cristian Gonzalez of Cartago, Colombia to ride through, among them Jaime and Estaban Gonzalez, Yaddira Lopez, Dora Ricardo, and the family Cocker Spaniel who was itching to get away.
Ben Woloshin and Barbara Harris of Englewood, NJ rode over and slipped past an official PIP truck that was meant to block cars to spot two friends, one who was riding on the Jewish Sabbath, and therefore could not be identified, the other Deborah Greenstein of Teaneck whose relationship with religion allowed her to compete.
Angelo Messina was also familiar with the little access point across from the CNBC studios and had come to watch his friends, 72-year-old Roy, Michael Legg, 40, and Kevin Smyth, 53, but he cheered for everyone who came along.
Bridges and overpasses were also heavily guarded and close to State Line, spectators were not allowed, but at the Route 303—Tappan overpass, pedestrians and cyclists had gathered to watch the beginning of the last and worst climb.
As the riders wound down their rides, this reporter returned to Fort Lee to watch the female leaders come in. A group had assembled outside Strictly Bicycles on Hudson Terrace where cyclists would exit, and cheers went up for every competitor to come through.
This reporter waited in the broiling sun for another two hours or so for the pros to complete 14 miles of running along Hudson River Drive, and then make their transition to the George Washington Bridge to cross to New York and complete the remainder of the 26-mile distance in Riverside Park.
Brother Alejandro Uretta, his mother Morena Bringas, and four other siblings and friends had traveled from Mexico City to watch 31-year-old Diego Urreta complete the race. They debated racing back into Manhattan with a car to meet him at the finish line, or if all of them should take buses and trainsn, finally deciding to drive in and find a parking garage.
Planning for the race began more than a year ago between race organizers, the borough of Fort Lee, and the many communities that stretch alongside the PIP, from Englewood Cliffs, NJ, to Stony Point, NY.
Just closing the parkway was in itself a feat, but demonstrated not only the growing influence of cycling and triathlon competitions, but also the increased acceptance of their
importance among political leaders in the communities that support them.
Some cyclists who chose to do their Saturday ride along Route 9W–where many of the drivers had been shuttled due to the parkway closure, reported excessively aggressive driving by motorists, with close passing, and near misses.