Eyes On The Prize

It’ll be a hard day’s work for about 2,500 athletes at the Life Time Fitness Triathlon on July 17. But somebody’s going home with $250,000.

Thoroughbred racing: That’s been the only sport in which male and female athletes battle head to head in races of speed and endurance for glory, a big silver trophy and a whopping cash prize. Now you can add one more sport – triathlon – and only one race – the Life Time Fitness Tri.

The LTF Triathlon’s whopping prize purse is $500,000 (the largest in the sport), but it’s the unique “Equalizer” format that makes this competition a battle of the best, like the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont Stakes, where men and women compete against each other for one title. And, in case you haven’t been watching, the fillies have won the past two years.

Here’s how the Equalizer works: About three weeks before race time, Life Time Tri officials meet and peruse the list of pro athletes who have registered for the race. They compare the race times of male and female athletes over the same courses: What was the time difference between Barb Lindquist and Simon Whitfield in the International Triathlon Union Edmonton race? How did Greg Bennett and Michelli Jones cover the Wildflower course?

With those numbers in hand and the previous year’s LTF Tri times, officials compute a handicap for the women pro athletes. Last year, the handicap was 9 minutes 41 seconds. When the gun went off, Barb Lindquist and 15 women plunged into the water for their 1.5-kilometer swim and left 20 pro men standing on the shore for close to 10 minutes. The guys had 51.5 kilometers of swimming, biking and running to catch up. But they never did. Lindquist crossed the line 1 minute, 26 seconds ahead of Whitfield, the first male.

The Equalizer makes the Life Time Tri an exciting race to compete in, and to watch. For the second year, the entire race will be covered the same day on NBC Sports television. No other triathlon gets such immediate coverage; the Ironman in Hawaii, for example, is broadcast several weeks after the actual event.

All of these factors combined – the Equalizer, the prize purse and the television coverage – make the race extremely attractive for pros. But the benefits also trickle down to the nearly 2,500 amateur triathletes who swim, bike and run the same course, albeit minutes and hours slower than the professionals. The amateurs in the field are able to test their mettle and enjoy the same race organization, including closed streets and race support, as the athletes who will compete in the Olympics this fall.

Coming Out On Top

How a race rises to the top of its game in just two years is an interesting story, one that started with Life Time Fitness founder Bahram Akradi’s passion for the sport. Impressed with the dedication of triathlon’s elite athletes, and with how much the sport demands from even its back-of-the-pack amateurs, Akradi has long held the opinion that triathlon deserved to be on par with tennis, golf and other televised, professional sports. “Bahram has always had a strong interest in triathlon,” notes race director Marilyn Franzen. “He has a special admiration for triathletes who dedicate their lives to becoming the best athletes in the world, but who haven’t necessarily received a lot of recognition for it. I think he feels a real sense of conviction about helping them get the public respect they have coming.”

That’s good news for athletes trying to excel in a sport that hardly makes for a lucrative career. Triathlon is relatively young and growing, and an event like the Life Time Fitness Triathlon not only propels the sport’s awareness in the minds of the general public, but it also helps triathletes afford their dream.

“This race is a definite step toward getting triathlon the respect and notoriety it deserves,” says Siri Lindley, a former No. 1 world-ranked triathlete who will commentate this year’s race on NBC Sports for the second year. “These are some of the best athletes in the world and people need to know that.”

Over time, Franzen says, the goal for the event is to be recognized as the single most exciting one-day endurance event out there. “It’s not about being the best triathlon in the world,” she says, “but about being one of the top athletic events in the world.”

Lindley sees it that way, too. “Through the coverage of NBC and all the other media coverage, the Life Time Fitness Triathlon could become a premier event like Wimbledon or the Indy 500, or any one of those great sporting events,” she says.

The athletes also value the coverage. “The exposure is fantastic,” says Simon Whitfield, second-place finisher in the 2003 race and the 2000 Olympic Triathlon gold medalist. “To be on a national stage like that with NBC, leading up to the Olympics – the continuity is great. It’s very good for our sport.”

Show Them the Money

While the majority of must-attend triathlons have developed a following over many years, the Life Time Fitness race got the attention of the triathlon world and became a priority race for professionals because of the bounty: a cool half-million dollars. “With Life Time Fitness putting in this kind of money, the race becomes a key race for every athlete,” says Lindley. “The best athletes in the world are making this race their main focus.”

To put it in perspective, in the United States there are approximately 44 triathlons each year that provide prize money greater than $3,000. Excluding the Life Time Fitness Triathlon, the average cash purse is about $36,500. The LTF Tri’s prize purse is especially generous to the overall winner: The first to cross the finish – woman or man – receives half the cash ($235,000 for first place and $15,000 for being the first overall male or female). The next four finishers divvy up $130,000, and the remaining cash award is equally split among men and women to a generous depth of 12th place. Because 24 of the 44 invited professional triathletes will win money (and sometimes not all athletes are able to compete on race day) the odds of taking away some green are very good.

Amateur Depth

While the NBC coverage will focus on the 44 elite professionals, it’s worth noting that most of the competitors aren’t pros: They’re men and women who juggle jobs and family duties with training on the bike, the road and in the pool. “One of this event’s main objectives is to inspire amateurs to get involved in the triathlon lifestyle,” notes Franzen, “to sign up and train for something that promotes healthy exercise and keeps them fit.”

Amateurs, no matter what their experience or fitness level, have many ways to compete. In addition to the Olympic-distance course (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run), the race offers options for those who want to start on a smaller scale: a relay event and a sprint-distance race (.4-mile swim, 15-mile bike, 3-mile run). This year’s race will also offer a Clydesdale division (for men who weigh more than 200 pounds) and an Athena division (for women who weigh more than 150 pounds). The top finishers in these divisions will qualify for the 2004 Team Clydesdale World Games in Chicago.

That variety keeps the race full. In 2003, says Franzen, the race was limited to 2,300 competitors; this year, the limit is 2,500. Each year, race officials have had to turn away applicants. Elite and mid-pack racers alike vie for spots. “It’s a terrific, well-organized triathlon,” says Dan Burbach, from Manitowoc, Wis., a seasoned triathlete who participated last year in preparation for Ironman Wisconsin. “The volunteers were great and very helpful – I was really impressed.”

Octogenarian triathlete Mary Stroebe had so much fun in 2003, she’s returning to the Life Time Fitness race this year – at the age of 86 – for what will be her 10th triathlon. “It isn’t as hard as you might think,” says Mary, who encourages other older athletes to give it a try. “Just be sure to train for it.”

Finish-Line Drama

The huge prize purse and the Equalizer both offer a powerful draw, but in the end it’s the athletes who bring the real drama and soul to the race. In 2002, Barb Lindquist sprinted and collapsed across the finish line, just seconds before second place Becky Gibbs-Lavelle and third place Craig Walton. In 2003, Lindquist had a crowd-pleasing 43-second lead on second place Simon Whitfield and six other men, all of whom finished within seconds of each other. Only one other woman, Australian Rina Hill, made the top 10.

With two wins under her belt, Barb Lindquist is in the spotlight again this year. Can she beat the Equalizer – essentially besting the entire men’s and women’s field – for a third time? “The competition will definitely depend on who is doing well in the months leading up to the event,” says Lindquist. “I just have to be prepared to do my race and hope that I end up where I left off last year.”

Will the men change their strategy? Will another woman dominate the course? Will the Olympic year bring out the best racing yet? Watch the finish line and find out.

Kara Douglass Thom is a triathlete and author of Becoming an Ironman: First Encounters With the Ultimate Endurance Event (Breakaway Books, 2001).

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