We at SDTriNews.com have tried for the past four seasons to bring you the best previews and recaps of just about every triathlon in the state. To do this well, to get the up-close-and-personal feel, one of us on staff has attempted to race each of the events we’ve covered. We’ve gotten close, with just two outstanding events thus far (maybe we’ll catch those next year). This year we bit the bullet to take on South Dakota’s most challenging course: the Wildlife Loop. Everything we’ve said about the raced proved to be true. Read on for the up-close-and-personal take on this year’s race from the editor who competed in it.
First, the formalities. Because of its fat payout ($3,000 in prize money), the strongest of the strong and the fastest of the fast show up for this race. This year was no different. Josh Terwoord, a pro from Fort Collins, Colorado, dominated the men’s field once again. Terwoord won this race last year after taking third place in 2015. He’s the fella-in-yella, and one heck of a racer overall.
Morgan Chaffin of Omaha, Nebraska, dominated the women’s field this year. Chaffin, a Kona finisher, came out of the water first overall, and then she killed the toughest bike course in the state and maintained a solid, 27-minute lead over her competition on the run.
This year’s race featured something new: a short course. The short course participants swam half of a half distance (around .6-ish miles), biked 33 miles, and ran 6.2 miles (though my Garmin said 6.5). Local celebrity T.J. Loftus won the men’s field, and Sioux Falls’ Jo Sugrue ran down her competition and won the women’s field.
The Editor’s Report:
This race, as winner Josh Terwoord put on his Instagram feed, has the grass roots feel that triathlon began with. The most important part of the pre-race took place minutes before we stepped into the frigid drink of Stockade Lake: the pre-race meeting. Hearing race director Brandon Zelfer’s instructions were critical to understanding the course. Also, one of the state park workers piped up when asked about what to do if we encountered any buffalo. He assuaged many fears by saying that he often rode bike on this very course, and he had never had problems with the feared beasts. He did say exactly what to do when we saw one, though: give it a wide berth.
The swim began with us treading water. The warm temps of late hadn’t warmed the lake up much. Race officials estimated the water temp hovered in the high 60’s to low 70’s. Wetsuits helped. Plenty of kayaks and other water support stayed in the middle of the square course, well-marked by the ginormous orange triangle buoys made popular by triathlon. Only one thing threatened the safety of the swimmers: seaweed. Zelfer did his best to make a path for participants to get through the weeds that plagued the shore, and we all knew we just needed to deal with them when we swam into them.
Every year we attend this race we hear the same thing from participants: it’s a beautiful course. I’ve often thought that no amount of beauty can mitigate discomfort. I was wrong. This beauty lessened the pain. The course begins at approximately 5,000 feet of elevation, and those who did the 70.3 had around 5,000 feet of gain. Those of us who tackled the short course dealt with half of that. The bike course begins with about eleven miles of descent–the kind of descent that’s not so steep it’s scary but steep enough that you really can’t pedal on all of it. We had a constant beautiful view, regardless if we were grinding our way up a long hill or coasting down the windy paths. Rock wall faces, desert shrubs at points, and the thick evergreens that make the hills black all flanked the route at points. As Terwoord put it when I visited with him after the race, the bike route keeps you interested.
Incidentally, I saw no buffalo on this course (just a deer), but apparently there was one out there. I was probably enjoying one of the descents too much to notice.
After coasting and climbing, a challenging run met us. I’ll be honest: the run was hard for these legs. The locals tell me elevation and thinner air is definitely a factor along with a fairly challenging bike ride before the run. The run had its own beauty, with lots of the same ever green scenery as the bike along with a few buzzards circling at points. We stayed on the side of the road for a bit of the run and then transitioned into Custer’s paved bike path. Zelfer has the aid stations spread out pretty much perfectly, with one every mile or so. We short course people had to only complete one out-and-back of the run while the 70.3 studs did two loops. With so few racers (40-some odd all total), the aid stations catered personally. The volunteers often ran out a few feet to meet racers and give them whatever they needed.
The finish line was the prettiest sight I’ve seen at a race all year. It consisted of a chute made of orange cones and a big pickup with a cattle guard at the end. To finish the race, we needed to touch the cattle guard. Seriously, who needs chip timing. Every racer who finished did one thing immediately after touching the guard: he pushed stop on his Garmin. Zelfer and co. decided to put their funds into a great finish-line spread instead of a chip timing system.
They made the right decision.
Participants ambled directly from the pick up to the finishers tent, which consisted of a canopy over a picnic table that was overflowing with refreshment from coolers of cold soda, beer, wine, water, and chocolate milk to containers of sandwiches, cookies, watermelon, cherry tomatoes, brownies, and rice krispy bars (which I suspect Zelfer’s own mother made). The food, drink, and tent gave participants a reason to stick around. Every time someone rounded the corner and ran through the chute toward the pickup, finishers all stopped chewing and cheered. We all knew what we had done that day, regardless of what our Garmins said. People networked. They shared their war stories of this race and races past. They bonded like triathletes do after they’ve suffered together, and this final part of the race just capped off what made the event so great.
As you can tell, we strongly recommend this race. It comes at the end of the season, which gives triathletes all summer to prepare for it. What better way to cap off the end of the year than by finishing the toughest race in South Dakota. Even the Colorado natives claim it’s both beautiful and hard. So when you sign up next year, do so with the plan to train, and then come experience the beauty.
Our photographer is hard at work right now, getting pictures ready for Facebook. So keep checking this week, and we’ll post pictures of this gorgeous venue and the athletes who took on the challenge. We’ll also be posting results as soon as we have those available. GREAT Work to the athletes out there who conquered the course. As we often heard in the finishers’ tent at the end: just completing this race is an accomplishment.