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  Tuesday January 27th, 2015    

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Triathletes conquer bluffs (06/12/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Photo by Chris Rogers
     Dripping wet from their plunge into Lake Winona, triathletes dashed to their steeds for the next leg of the fifth annual Trinona. The Bandshell parking lot was transformed into a corral for over one thousand bicycles for Sunday's race.
More people than ever before plunged headlong into the cold waters of Lake Winona, strained their muscles to bike up Garvin Heights Road, and dashed to the finish line in the fifth annual Trinona Triathlon on Sunday. With 1,051 competitors from 25 states and Canada, it was the largest Trinona yet.

Numerous locals placed well, including Sarah Hunter of Winona, who received fifth place in the women's olympic triathlon; Rita Miller of Winona, who took 5th overall in the women's sprint race (a shortened version of the triathlon); Brian Rivers, who finished 24th overall in the sprint race; and Theresa Riley of La Crescent, who was the first and only woman over 65 to complete the sprint race. A relay team of Carew Halleck, of Winona, Winona native Ian Stanford, and Nick Vetter, of Minneapolis, took first place in the men's olympic relay. Winonan Garret Ping's 27th overall finish is especially remarkable, however. Ping broke two bones near his wrist before the race.

Ping was warming up on his bicycle, descending a hill on the edge of Winona last Friday. He signaled to a cyclist behind him that he was turning, began to turn, and the cyclist crashed into Ping, T-boning him and knocking him to the ground. Ping said at first he only noticed his torn-up hip and bruised elbow, and went on to compete in a time trial of the Garvin Hill climb. That is when his wrist started hurting.

Ping saw a doctor on Saturday who informed him that he had broken both bones in his lower arm near the wrist and told him not to race. "I went to bed with the thought that I wouldn't race," Ping said. However, the thought that he might be able to make the top ten this year — Ping finished 11th last year — and jealousy of his wife, who was preparing to race, tempted him to ignore his doctor's advice. Ping's wife thought he was crazy, but "she partly expected it, probably," he said.

Ping thought, "If I can get thru the swim I can do it," but the bike would turn out to the most painful part of the race. When sitting down on his bike saddle, Ping could put less weight on his elbow, but during turns and climbs, when he had to stand or use his arms, Ping winced.

The climb up Garvin Heights Road is the crux of the race, competitors agreed. The merciless incline is part of what makes this bike course world-class and attracts triathletes from across the country to Winona. Because of his wrist, Ping remained seated for nearly all of the hill, climbing the bluff without the benefit of standing up on his bike.

"I watch a lot of Tour de France," Ping said, "and those guys crash a lot and race with broken arms. I figured if they can do it, so can I."

Ping did, finishing ahead of most despite his injury. Though Ping did not make the top ten, he said he was happy with his finish, all things considered.

The swim was another difficult challenge for many. Chilly water temperatures, crowded swimmers, choppy waves, and entangling lake weeds create a sense of chaos that panicked some swimmers, Halleck explained. Several swimmers had to call on support boats for aid, Ping reported. Crowds of swimmers kicked and ran into each other. "It's like spawning fish out there," Halleck laughed. Swimmers had to battle thick sections of lake weeds that wrapped around their necks, and waves made it hard to breathe and see, creating "sensory deprivation," Halleck said. "You can't hear much other than thrashing water, which can create a sense of anxiety if not outright panic."

Halleck, an avid open water swimmer, explained that these are things racers learn to deal with, but for those unfamiliar with it, it can be overwhelming. "If you swim in, you will swim out," he advised fellow racers.

Race appeals to pros and rookies alike

Up from around 260 participants in the inaugural 2009 race, Trinona has grown tremendously. Winona's topography is part of what has attracted triathletes. The misty bluffs and lake create an epic backdrop for the event. With the Garvin Heights climb, rolling hills, and flat sections among farm land, "you don't get a better bike course" than the Trinona course, Ping said. Even Halleck, a swimmer, admitted the bike course is the most important part of a triathlon, and Winona "has a really great setting."

Triathlon aficionados with wet suits, swept-back helmets, and spokeless carbon fiber bicycles were in full force on Sunday, but while the ranks of initiated and invested triathletes can be intimidating, there were less serious participants enjoying the event as well. A "sprint" distance triathlon cut the course roughly in half and spared participants the Garvin Heights climb. Teams competed in relays in which each member completed one leg of the triathlon, and kids raced in a youth-sized triathlon.

Ping related the story of a friend of his who raced last year while weighing 270 pounds. "He did it and loved it and got hooked," Ping said. This year his friend competed again, 35 pounds lighter and 25 minutes faster. "Anybody can do a triathlon," Ping encouraged would-be participants. "You don't have to win to do it and have fun."

"You look at this cadre of professional athletes that [Trinona] is bringing in—there are some really big names. At the same time you've got moms and dads who've never done this before, and they don't even know if they can do it," Halleck said. "What [Trinona founder] Dave Schutz and team have created is an event that is attractive to both professionals and laypeople."

Trinona 2014 is scheduled for Sunday, June 8. See www.trinona.com for more information. 


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