"This is not what most people envision when they think of triathlons," race announcer and triathlon writer Mike Plant was saying before Sunday's Bud Light U.S. Triathlon Series National Championship on Hilton Head Island, S.C. "This kind is fast and frantic. It's barely controlled chaos."
Indeed, chaos, controversy and what might be called Colorado crystal power were all aswirl in the winds that greeted a beach full of goggled, Magic Marker-numbered competitors. This was to be an "international distance" triathlon, the most common type among the 2,000-plus held each year in the United States. The 1,945 entrants, some of them pros competing for $33,000 in prize money and others amateurs vying for national age-group titles, would string together a 1,500-meter ocean swim, a 25.6-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run—the best of them completing the three legs in well under two hours. Compare that with the Ironman race in Hawaii, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon and generally takes nine hours or more to complete. "At this distance," said men's co-favorite Mike Pigg of Arcata, Calif., who had dominated the 12-race USTS pro circuit this past season, "it's all-out all the way."
Pigg stormed into the choppy Atlantic leading the first of 14 flights of starters. These were the male pros, and they crowded, bumped and kicked for position. The swells were high enough that the athletes soon couldn't see one another. Pigg would claim later that some of his rivals cut inside a buoy illegally, saving 15 yards. But who could tell? Not the race judges, clinging as they were to surfboards that bobbed about like corks.
Oddly, even though the ocean temperature was 82�, most of the athletes, including Pigg and his main rival, Mark Allen, were clad in highly buoyant rubber wet suits—outfits normally worn in cold water to prevent hypothermia. These suits have become the rage in triathloning because they hold swimmers high in the water and can shave minutes off their times. Their use has justly infuriated the good swimmers in the sport, who point out that the wet suits help poor swimmers considerably more than themselves. "It's unbelievable, the difference," said Karen Chequer-Pfeiffer, a top woman pro. "With a wet suit, you don't even have to use your legs."
Wading ashore first in 17:45 on Sunday was wet suit-clad Brooks Clark, a Delaware junior. Clark, considered by some the sport's heir apparent, had built a six-second lead on the field and a 1:19 margin over Pigg, who was mired in 18th place. Peeling off his wet suit as he ran, Clark dashed up a carpeted ramp and through a makeshift shower, continued past cheerleaders and a school band and found his way to a parking lot, where considerably more than $1 million worth of bicycles sat neatly racked. He found his own bike and was off. The route would be flat and fast.
Pigg, 23, was soon chasing. He is the swiftest, most furious cyclist that triathloning has ever seen and, at shorter distances at least, his wheels have carried him past the sport's great Scotts: five-time Ironman winner Dave Scott, two-time Ironman champion Scott Tinley and four-time USTS titlist Scott (the Terminator) Molina, who opted to skip Sunday's race following a disastrous '87 season.
The only established triathlon star Pigg hadn't beaten was the 29-year-old Allen, a former All-America swimmer at UC San Diego, now better known as the cover boy for Kellogg's triathlete-tailored yuppie chow, Pro Grain cereal. Allen, a five-time winner of the "world championship" in Nice, France, which rivals the Ironman "world championship" in importance on the sport's calendar, had cruised undefeated through a selective schedule of 1987 races, beating Pigg four times, three of them in USTS events. Here he was in fourth place as he hopped onto his bike, with Pigg more than a minute behind.
The gap vanished quickly. Pigg, riding a $3,700 bike that featured a $2,000 Kevlar and aluminum rear disk wheel and a pair of Scott DH handlebars (that's DH as in downhill; they're designed to curl the cyclist into an aerodynamic skier's tuck), blew past other similarly equipped riders as if they were on balloon tires. Less than halfway into the ride, Pigg nosed ahead of Allen, then ran down Clark. He caught leader Rob Mackle as the two crossed the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Now Pigg set out to build his lead.
Doubling back past convenience stores and golf courses, he whooshed by women's leader and defending USTS champion Kirsten Hanssen, 26, coming the other way. The two good friends are a down-to-earth pair: Pigg, an unassuming, small-town boy, worked as a mechanic's assistant at a truck stop until the 1986 season, even as he trained four to seven hours a day. Until January, Hanssen, a Colorado grad and former nationally ranked age-group swimmer, had fit her training around a full-time computer programming job in Denver. Far from being a self-absorbed fruit-and-nuts case, the 5'3", 103-pound Hanssen is an ebullient Christian and world-class eater. At dinner on Saturday she wolfed down a chicken teriyaki platter, a mountain of pasta, several rolls, half a dozen assorted desserts and the leftovers from a friend's plate. "That's the greatest thing about this sport—you can eat all the time," she said with a grin.
Hanssen had come out of the water 10th, in 20:14, more than a minute behind the leaders, but had flown into the lead with a devastating cycling leg. She thrives on 50-mile training rides in the thin air of the Rockies. On a flat course like this, she would not be caught.