The Hy-Vee Triathlon had a rich, if not spectacularly long, history. Started in 2007, the event immediately made waves in the racing world by offering the largest prize in triathlon history, $200,000 each for the men’s and women’s elite winners. That would be a trend that Hy-Vee would continue throughout the event’s life, offering the largest combined prize purse of any Olympic-distance tri in the sport, including offering the largest purse — regardless of distance — from ’08 to ’12.
The size of the purse, combined with the quality of the course, served to make the Hy-Vee Triathlon one of the premiere destinations for triathletes around the world. In 2011, the World Triathlon Corporation tabbed the Hy-Vee Triathlon to serve as its 5150 Series U.S. Championship race, and the event had previously served as a United States Qualifier for the U.S. Olympic team. Along the way, the Hy-Vee Triathlon produced more than its share of memorable moments, including in 2009 when Canadian Simon Whitfield held off Aussie Brad Kahelfeldt, Germany’s Jan Frodeno and Kiwi Kris Gemmell to win the event by a single second.
Nice memories aside, however, all that money has to come from somewhere. And during recent years, Hy-Vee had increasingly shown that the burden of coming up with it was wearing thin. In 2013, the grocery store chain announced that it was cutting the total prize purse for the Triathlon in half, from $1 million to $500,000. Then, the very next year, Hy-Vee opted to discontinue the event entirely. The purse was not driving Hy-Vee to the poor house, of course, but as the grocer evolved, its focus changed from competition-based events to a more family-friendly, all-inclusive message. The million dollars that had been going to Olympic-level athletes suddenly became more useful to them in other ways. This year, Hy-Vee announced plans to replace its triathlon with smaller kids triathlons, as well as a series of five smaller triathlons based in different communities around the Midwest.
And so, for all intents and purposes, the Hy-Vee Triathlon was dead.
Luckily for the city’s sports enthusiasts — or anyone with an eye toward continued civic development, for that matter — there were people in the city who were not content to see the event fall completely by the wayside. And so, while Hy-Vee has decided to wash its hands of the event, Premiere Event Management was willing to continue the fight.
The company is no stranger to the Triathlon. Premiere boss Bill Burke was the Hy-Vee Triathlon’s race director since the very beginning. Additionally, Premiere has put on similar racing events across the country, including the New York City Triathlon, the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon and the Nation’s Triathlon in Washington, D.C. In short, if the Triathlon was going to lose Hy-Vee as a name sponsor, Burke and Premiere were the ones with the best shot at keeping it alive.
“I helped them (Hy-Vee) build that event, and when they decided to get out of the triathlon, I wanted to keep it going,” says Burke, who got his start in 1979 organizing the Crescent City Classic running race in New Orleans. It started with 912 runners and has grown to more than 34,000 to now be the largest road race in the United States.
Even so, that did not mean that success was a sure thing. In addition to the sport-leading prize money, there are a slew of other expenses involved in running the triathlon, such as permits with the city, applications for course routes and staff to make sure everything runs correctly. It is a huge operation, and Premiere would be starting from scratch with the development. It was a daunting task, and one that Burke knew right away would have to be the first order of business if the event — newly renamed the Des Moines Triathlon — was to continue.
Burke also knew the event needed a new name even if it found a new title sponsor, a name that recognized the host city, Iowa’s capital city.
“That’s why I came up with the name ‘Des Moines Triathlon,’” he says. “The Hy-Vee Triathlon could have been held anywhere.”
Burke knew he couldn’t tackle the task alone. Luckily, he did not have to.
Keeping the event alive
Rick Tollakson has always had an interest in seeing Des Moines flourish. As the President and CEO of Hubbell Realty Co., it has been a part of his job to do what he can to ensure that Des Moines continues to be an attractive place for people to live and work. The more things Des Moines has that improves its profile to outside observers, the more businesses like Hubbell Realty can flourish. But even beyond that, Tollakson has had a personal, vested interest in seeing the triathlon stay in town.
“I’m 61,” Tollakson said, describing how he came to the event. “A few years ago, I decided that I needed to lose some weight and get in shape. My son is a professional triathlete. If you look at me, you wouldn’t think we were related. I’m not a runner, I’m not a biker, and I’m definitely not a swimmer. But it’s getting ready for those events that helps keep me in shape.
“I enjoy the sport. I’m not particularly good, but that doesn’t make a difference.”
So when Tollakson heard that Premiere was taking over the event, he wanted to see what he could do to help keep the triathlon alive and in the city.
“I just emailed (Burke) and said it was important to keep things here,” Tollakson recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to run it this year, but if you are and I can help, let me know.’ ”
Burke replied and told Tollakson that he needed to find funding for the event, and Tollakson took to the phones, calling practically everyone in his Rolodex, looking for businesses and individuals to step up and fill Hy-Vee’s void. And that is exactly what happened. One of the earliest to sign on was BMW of Des Moines, which Premiere announced in March as the Official Automobile Sponsor. In addition to the financial support, BMW will be supplying the official pace cars for the bicycle and running portions of the event.
BMW and Hubbell Realty may have been two of the earliest on board, but they were far from the last, as many of Des Moines’ heavy hitters stepped up with contributions in one form or another: The list of sponsors at www.tridesmoines.com includes Principal Financial, Transamerica, Knapp Properties, Prairie Meadows, EMC Insurance, Iowa Realty, West Bank, Wellmark, Unity Point, The Iowa Clinic, Slingshot Architecture, Arthur J. Gallagher, Marriott, Hiland Dairy, Gatorade and, somewhat ironically, Hy-Vee.
Burke and Tollakson have their own reasons for wanting to see the triathlon remain in Des Moines. Realistically, at least some of those reasons — especially for Burke — are financial. But no matter what the motivation, the fact that the Des Moines Triathlon is continuing is great news to the hundreds of athletes who show up every year to compete.
The thrill of competition
The flashy finish times put up by the elite runners are what get reported on the next day, but athletes like Aimee Spores are much more representative of the bulk of the Triathlon’s field: amateur athletes, weekend warriors and people just looking to push themselves, remain active and stay fit.
“I think this is my fifth time in the Triathlon this year,” the 34 year-old Urbandale resident said with a laugh. “Maybe sixth. It’s hard to keep track.
“I had done some other (triathlons) that were smaller before this one. But this is kind of the premiere event of the season.”
At the elite level, athletes are competing for spots on the U.S. Olympic team or world championships, or, at the very least, a sizable check at the end of the day. The rest of the field is competing no less hard, but instead of competing against the athlete right behind or trying to catch the one directly in front, they’re competing against themselves. Whether it is to push themselves to finish something that they never thought they could, or to go a little faster this year and beat their personal best, it is all the same. There is no prize money or gold medal waiting up at the capitol building after athletes like Spores cross the finish line. But the drive to finish is just as strong.
“For me, it’s going to take about three hours to finish the course,” she said, before pausing a beat. “Hopefully.”
It is, of course, a grueling competition. At the Olympic distance, a triathlon is a 1.5-kilometer swim, followed by a 40K bike ride, and finished off with a 10K run. That’s a shade more than 32 combined miles of effort.
“To be able to have the endurance in three different sports, it’s kind of a big deal,” Spores said. “Most people train all year long.
“I have a team I work out with once a week,” she said. “I also train on my own. I’m a big cyclist, so I tend to cycle a couple times a week, try to run at least once a week and swim once a week.”
Only the rarest of athletes will come anywhere close to having matched proficiency in all three events. Nearly everyone has a weak leg of the race. Among the elites, where seconds matter, it is all about finding that delicate balance in pace where you stay close enough to the front in your slower leg so that you can make up the difference in your stronger one. In that legendary finish of 2009, Whitfield turned in the 36th fastest bike time, but the sixth-fastest swim and second-fastest run.
Most Des Moines Triathlon racers will not care about where they finish in the rankings, but everyone who competes will know where their weak link is.
“For me, it’s got to be the swim,” Spores said. “Coming off of RAGBRAI, my legs are pretty strong, and I’ve always been a runner. Right now, we’re waiting to see if the swim will be wetsuit-legal or not.
“The temperature has really come down. If the race is wetsuit-legal, then the air inside your suit will actually hold you up a little in the water and make you a little faster. That makes a big difference in your start time.”
For amateur athletes like Spores, another perk of the Triathlon’s high profile is the way it puts local athletes in such close proximity to the highest echelons of greatness. Being able to see how the world-class athletes go about their business can be a big motivator — or at least a thrill.
Yet another thing that sets the Des Moines Triathlon apart is its location within the city. Urban triathlons are rare almost to the point of making Des Moines unique, and there are certainly no other events with the reputation or cachet of Des Moines that are held within city centers.
“Being downtown really sets the event apart,” Tollakson said. “Having the skyline and Gray’s Lake or Water Works Park serve as backdrop creates some really great images. And since most triathlons are held out in more open areas, it only helps ours stand out to competitors.”
Still, not everything about the urban layout is perfect.
“It’s nice being downtown, because it’s nice and flat and the course is pretty solid,” Spores said. “But it starts at Gray’s Lake and ends at the Capitol. So after you’ve finished all three events, it’s up to you to get back to the lake. It’s kind of a pain. Some people will have support teams with cars to drive them back, but most people just walk. It’s not bad, because you can just walk over to Mullets and take the bike path, but it’s a good couple-mile walk after you’ve just finished the event.”
The Des Moines Triathlon is, by the time this paper reaches newsstands, just days away. Hundreds of people have been training — all year — for three or four hours of exertion and sweat and pain. There are new wrinkles this year, such as the shorter Sprint Distance triathlon, consisting of a 400-meter swim, 20K bike ride and 5K run, but for people like Burke, the event will be a success if the name change is the only difference athletes notice.
But make no mistake, turning the Hy-Vee Triathlon into the Des Moines Triathlon took a lot of work, a lot of passion and more than a little teamwork.
“That’s really how we were able to keep it going,” Burke says. Tollakson “is the guy, honestly, who said: ‘Bill, I’ve done the race several times. What do you need to keep this going in Des Moines?’ He made the calls.”
“(Premiere) runs the event, I just helped with the sponsors,” Tollakson explained. “I called a number of my business associates who know this thing is important to me, and I said, ‘I need your help.’ And they said ‘yes.’ That’s the kind of community we have in Des Moines.” CV