"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.
Pigg himself had spent the last five weeks in Boulder, Colo., training with Allen and others. "I'd never trained at altitude before," said Pigg, and his sessions with Allen were brutal. Pigg lost five pounds from his 5'10" frame, dropping to 155, and came away with a new respect for Allen, whom he calls the Zen Master. Allen introduced him to some alternative healing methods, including the application to the body of various-sized crystals to retune the "harmonic vibrations" of muscles and organs. Also aiding Pigg was a local chiropractor, who used a pendulum to detect "blocked energy flows" in his hamstrings and treated them with pressure-point massage. "I just know he helped me a lot," said Pigg.
It was thought that Pigg would need a 1½-minute lead over Allen coming off the bike to have any chance of holding him off in the run. Pigg wheeled into the parking lot, reracked his bike and sprinted off with a lead of 1:41.
He ran scared. "I thought I was getting caught," he said later. "I kept running harder and harder." At six miles, Pigg was coming off a golf fairway when his legs began to shake. He was at the point of exhaustion in the 82° weather. Allen was nowhere in sight. Pigg broke the tape in 1:50:05. Allen arrived second in 1:51:38. On the 6.2-mile run, which he covered in 33:21, he had made up just six seconds on Pigg.
Hanssen came across in 2:00:35, 4½ minutes ahead of women's runner-up Jan Ripple, who is a 31-year-old mother of three. Pigg and Hanssen each won $11,000 in first-prize, Grand Prix and assorted bonus money. They hugged each other, and Hanssen let out a happy squeal. "I'm getting a little hungry," she warned.
Tinley, the men's fifth-place finisher, fished out a present for Pigg: a rubber hog snout, which Pigg put on proudly. His $2,000 wheel had had PIGG POWER printed on it. "He's kind of a Pete Rose type of guy," Plant had said earlier. "He's going to get his uniform dirty. He'll never let up." Had we forgotten? That—not wet suits and high-tech bicyles—is what triathlons are really all about.