It’s the biggest, the boldest and the best.
Sunday’s Steelman Triathlon, now in its 17th version, has survived a downturn in attendance several years back, plus last year’s pandemic-related restrictions, to bounce back in style.
A full house of some 800 competitors is expected to jump into the 70-plus degree water of Lake Nockamixon to start the quest for personal glory.
The other two legs of the three-segment event are equally magnificent, with the 25-mile bike competition held on the recently paved and closed-to-traffic Route 563 and the 10K run conducted on a trail just off the lake’s shoreline.
No wonder this race, based in Quakertown, serves as the Pennsylvania state triathlon championship.
With such a great layout, many, if not most, triathletes will record fast times and possibly personal bests.
New Britain’s Nancy Smith, who has competed in the World Ironman Championships in Hawaii and won Steelman on a number of occasions, will be out there on Sunday to compete against the Keystone state’s best.
It’s a demanding landscape and that’s part of the attraction for many.
“It’s a very challenging triathlon because of the hills.,’’ Smith said during a recent telephone conversation. “It’s a roller-coaster up and down. But as soon as you get to the tops, you can go down fast. It tends to go a bit fast if you’re a good hill climber.’’
Smith credits race director Dave Michener with making improvements to the triathlon and bringing it back to its original glory.
Former race director Dale Winterhoff was “athlete friendly’’ which led to the race’s original growth.
“He (Winterhoff) was very athlete-friendly and Dave has carried the tradition on,’’ Smith said. “He (Michener) is an athlete himself so he understands triathlon. He caters to the athlete, which is nice.’’
For competitors in Bucks County, the location of the race is a godsend. Anytime you can sleep in your own bed the night before a race and drive less than an hour, it’s not only a convenience bonus but could even improve performance.
There are people who travel long distance from places like Virginia, northern New Jersey and western Pennsylvania and for good reason.
Most of the field competes at the Olympic distances (.9-mile swim, 25-mile bike, 10K run) but a shorter sprint version is also offered.
Despite the pandemic, the Steelman was held last year with a field capped at 250 due to state and local health protocols.
Although conditions have improved – at least until the past month – a lot of the same precautions will be taken again in 2021.
“It was all spread out,’’ Smith said. “The race handled it very well. This year we’re kind of doing the same thing with the swim. There will be ‘self-seeding’ with the Olympic men going first – if you’re a fast swimmer, you’re up front; if you’re a slow swimmer you’re in the back. And then the Olympic women will go. Then the sprint men and women.’’
Michener said 2019 was an important year because attendance had dropped and things were trending the wrong way. But a few tweaks seem to be all that were needed.
“It (2019) was kind of a comeback year,’’ he said. “The race had kind of gotten less popular in the years leading up to it. It went from about 500 in 2018 to 700 in 2019 and this year, after everything that happened, we sold out at 800. We will not have an empty seat in the house come this Sunday.’’
Safety is so important in gatherings of this nature, a fact not lost on Michener.
“We were going to keep a lot of things like the open transition because we knew they worked last year,’’ he said. “Honestly, I think this is the way racing is going to be moving forward because it makes sense, it’s very logical to help the race move as well as it logically can.’’
With computer timing and swimmers going off every 10 seconds rather than a mass start, there’s a lot less risk of getting “kicked in the head’’ that comes with hundreds of aqua-people squished together.
Mask requirements in transition areas are now optional, one concession to improving health conditions among vaccinated people. Also, the race went to pre-packaged food last year and will stick with that policy.
Michener is proud of the fact his race is officially the state championship of triathlons.
“They (state officials) see what kind of race you are,’’ he said. “What kind of event you put on, what participants you draw. Right now we’re the largest race in the state. We have people coming from as far away as Virginia, Connecticut, New Hampshire. . .the reach is getting broader and broader each year.’’
Word of mouth, of course, is the best advertising and Steelman consistently earns high marks.
Steelman could draw as many as 1,000 for 2022.
“People see what kind of event we’re putting on,’’ Michener said. “We’re using a lot of video, athlete testimonials to share what the experience was like. It’s not a race, it’s an event. You really have to put on a show.’’
17th annual Steelman Triathlon, 8 a.m., Lake Nockamixon, Quakertown (sold out). Contact www.steelmanracing.com
Saturday, Aug. 14
Ivyland 5K, 8 a.m., Ivyland. Contact www.ivyland5k.org
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