Sunday June 3rd in Walla Walla, Washington saw the 25th edition of one of the classic grassroots Olympic distance races of the northwest. This year’s edition was particularly special for many people who’ve kept this race on their calendar for many seasons because it is scheduled to be the last running of the race under the direction of race founders Dan and Paula Elsom. The Elsom’s have poured their hearts into this event over the last 25 years, and anyone who’s had the privilege of lining up on the shores of Bennington Lake knows what a unique and special event it is. For those of us who’ve come to love this event, we’re all hopeful that a capable race director will take the reigns and keep this event rolling along into the future…stay tuned for more info on race status for 2019!
For now, we’ll flash back to Sunday morning on what turned out to be an extremely competitive event between many fine athletes from all around the northwest. For years, Onionman has had a history of bringing out many of the top athletes from around the region, as it was often the first opportunity for many athletes to compete in a mass start open water swim, see an honest bike and run course that would tell an athlete how well their winter work is paying off and perhaps what they need to fine tune going into their summer ‘A’ races.
The race now starts in two waves (men first, women and teams 2 minutes later) for a double loop swim in Bennington Lake. With the weather being quite warm in Walla Walla relative to the rest of the Pacific Northwest, racing in May-early June is quite comfortable in Bennington Lake, or ‘the Reservoir’ as the locals refer to it, as it’s slowly filled from snow runoff starting in about April and is plenty warm by early May. The bike used to descend a few hundred feet down from the lake and then head east up a canyon towards the Blue Mountains nearing the Oregon border; riders would then turn around and lose about 1000 feet of elevation on the return trip which was always much quicker. However, in 2016 the bike was redirected due to a traffic accident before the race, and now hits 3 significant climbs right along the foothills of the Blues along with long sections of ‘false flat’ riding, it’s arguably one of the toughest 40k bike courses in the northwest…as a result, the sub 1 hour performances once seen at Onionman by riders like Roger Thompson, Jeff Smith and Dave Gettle are a thing of the past. Combine the tough bike course with an unforgiving run that mixes dirt, gravel and asphalt with a back-half 5k that is all uphill (and frequently very hot) it’s a recipe for some interesting racing where anything can happen in the final 15 minutes on race day.
The 2018 edition would keep the trend of competitive racing by featuring 3 former Onionman winners on the men’s side in David Gettle (’03), Matt Sheeks (’16), and Michael Gordon (’07, ’09, ’10, ’17) along with a host of strong Onionman rookies that would be mixing it up at the front all day, as well as some local strong men like Javin Berg and Dan Elsom (race director) who would be looking to get to the front of the race. The women’s field, was also stocked with plenty of talent, but was sure to crown a new champion in 2018 as there were no former winners on the start line this year…however, 3-time champion Kara Gordon (’10, ’12, ’13) was on hand to spectate as well as run the relay leg for a team, all while being 6 months pregnant! With no returning champion for the women, the odds immediately went to Walla Walla local Marcella Reitz who has methodically picked her way through the top spots at Onionman the last several years, and narrowly missed winning the race in 2017. Reitz, who’s coming off her first Ironman Hawaii qualification in 2017 would be looking to get the top spot on the podium, but would have to hold her own against some young Onionman rookies like Alexa Johnson and Kayla Kobelin, as well as looking out for last years 4th place finisher in Walla Walla’s own Liz Wylie.
The swim started on a glassy smooth Bennington Lake at 9:00 with the men’s wave getting out quickly as David Gettle established his lead early on with a small pack forming behind him by the first turn buoy. Gettle continued to extend his lead over the chase group into lap two, with 18 year old Shane Miltenberg trying to bridge the gap to Gettle, while Gordon, Sheeks, Sam Harding, came out of the water about 90 seconds down on Gettle, while other strong cyclists were only a small distance back heading into T1.
Meanwhile the women’s field started along with relay teams 2 minutes back from the men’s wave. A mix of strong young swimmers as well as some quick team swimmers took the group around the 2 loop course with 23 year old Sydni Meyer claiming the women’s swim prime this year. Kayla Kobelin, Jenninfer Gahringer, Jamie Schmelzer and Rose Palmer came out of the water shortly after, followed closely by some of the overall contenders including Marcella Reitz and Alexa Johnson. Reitz had a quick transition to overtake eventual 5th place finisher Palmer in transition, and in doing so, started her quest to get to the front of the race.
Onto the bike, Reitz and Alexa Johnson quickly started making up ground on the leaders and by the first turnaround point of the bike Reitz had moved into the lead. On her way to a race best bike split of 1:11, Reitz continued pushing as she was unaware of the cycling and run prowess of the women behind her, and certainly wanted to avoid a similar outcome to 2017 when she lost by 17 seconds after being passed inside the final mile. Meanwhile on the road, 19 year old Alexa Johnson was doing damage of her own after having come out of the water 60 seconds down on Reitz. Johnson would go on the ride a 1:12 and move herself into 2nd overall coming off the bike. While other strong riders like Kayla Kobelin, who has a short, but impressive, race resume including a 10:13 Ironman in her first year racing triathlon, would be making some noise on the bike as well.
Back with the men’s race, Gettle had settled into his rhythm on the bike and was already working hard to build up his head start for what was looking to be a hot day on the run course. After some quick transitions, Sheeks, Gordon and Sam Harding headed onto the bike course and caught Miltenberg before the first climb over 5-mile road. Cresting the climb over 5-mile, Sheeks and Gordon were riding 10 seconds apart, but Sheeks slowly started to pull away on the long gradual downhill of Russell Creek road heading into the first turn around point around mile 10. Nearing the turn-around point, one could see the lead motor cycle coming back up the gradual false flat just ahead of the towering frame of David Gettle, who had lengthened his lead to nearly 3 minutes over Sheeks at this point. By this point of the ride, the strong riders were finding their legs and moving up in the field, this started when Seattle’s Travis Schlafke rolled past Harding and then Gordon to move into the top three on the road just before the turnaround. Schlafke continue to punish the bike course heading into the Scenic Loop climb making up time on everyone but Gettle, who’d go on to set the days fastest bike split of just of 1:04. Other riders moving up included 2017’s 4th place finisher (and top Masters racer) Toby Miller who’d catch Gordon in the last few miles of the bike and head onto the run in 4th, while Harding, Elsom, Berg, Fred Robinson and Steve Anderson were riding strong to all come off the bike in the top 10.
Coming out of T2, the women’s race was starting to take shape, but there was still drama to be had. After a solid swim that kept her close enough to the top competitors, Reitz used her race best bike split to put herself at the front of the race coming off the bike, but as she knew all too well from 2017, the race was not over yet. Settling into their rhythm the top 3 women off the bike were Reitz, Johnson and Kobelin. Schmelzer and Palmer rounded out the top 5, and Liz Wylie had moved up to 6th position after a strong bike ride.
Reitz got her run legs moving and kept the pressure on, knowing that there was still plenty of time for things to change and she needed to stay focused. As the women neared mile 2 of the run, Reitz still held a strong lead, but a fast-moving Johnson would make this a race even though she had 4 minutes to make up coming off the bike. After the turnaround, the race is all about staying efficient and focused, as Reitz kept pushing to maintain her lead. While Johnson made a valiant effort, making up nearly 3 minutes on the run, it would not be enough to prevent Reitz from claiming her first Onionman victory on her home course.
Predictably, the start of the men’s run came as Gettle got off bike in the lead and started run with a 5 minute head start on the rest of the field. Schlafke and Sheeks were the next to hit the run course, with Sheeks had a slightly slower transition due to a shoe issue, Schlafke assumed the 2nd position on the run. Sheeks, who is the 2010 US Pro National Champion in Duathlon, while also holding 5k and 10k track PR’s of 14:04 and 29:14 respectively, would start to slowly reel in Schlafke on a sneaky hard run course where temperatures were starting to approach 90 degrees. Meanwhile Miller, Gordon and Harding would come off bike another minute back from the duo of Sheeks and Schlafke, and start to find their rhythm on the run. Just past mile 1, Gordon passed Miller to move to 4th, and was able to see Sheeks closing in on a smooth running Schlafke when looking across the Mill Creek, which the run course crosses twice. Miles 2 and 3 take runners off the dirt and onto a fast running paved trail with a gradual descent down to the turnaround. This is often where the fastest mile splits of the race take place, but with the heat taking its toll it was clear the run was becoming a battle of toughness as the speeds were suppressed due to heat. Hitting the turnaround point of the race at 5k, the top 4 places were starting to compress as Gettle still held a slim lead over Sheeks of about 15 seconds, with Schalfke another 5 seconds back, and Gordon slowly moving up and now only about 40 seconds out of the lead. Shortly after the turnaround, Sheeks and Schlafke both made the pass on Gettle who was starting to struggle with stomach problems brought on from his huge effort on the swim and bike, and now battling the heat on the uphill final 5k of the run course. Just before mile 4, Gordon made the pass on Gettle and now trailed Sheeks and Schlafke by only about 15 seconds. Runners heading the opposite direction towards the turnaround began shouting encouragement as they could see the top 3 places were now only steps apart, with 2 miles to the finish.
For anyone who’s raced the Onionman course, they know the final 5k is truly the moment of truth with it’s uphill grind, and heat beating down on you. Today was no exception and the grind to the finish was a sufferfest for all. While Schlafke continued to hold his own against Sheeks who was starting to pull away, Gordon moved up into second position and then started to pull back time on Sheeks as they circled around Rooks park and got ready to cross the wooden bridge and hit the final big climb sitting at about mile 5. As the top two came together just before the wooden bridge, they exchange a quick word to encourage one another on, and then Gordon took a small lead that is necessary to cross the bridge as it requires single file running. Coming off the bridge together, both racers were now getting encouragement from racers heading out to stay in the game and not give up. Gordon pressed the pace up the short steep climb about mile 5 to test the legs, his own and Sheeks’, and found that a gap opened up. Not taking anything for granted knowing the speed of Sheeks, Gordon kept the pressure on as best he could over the final mile on the dirt path back to Bennington Lake where the finish line awaited, claiming the win with a race best 36:59 run. The top three finished as Gordon, Sheeks, Schlafke in what turned out to be a classic race on a classic northwest Olympic distance event.
As has become the case at Onionman, the post-race festivities were filled with racers exchanging war stories from out on the course, enjoying the BBQ for racers and volunteers, and catching up with old friends while making new ones. Prize money, awards, and primes were handed out and racers basked in the warm sun and soaked up the memories that were made at the 25th Onionman triathlon.
Once can only hope for more battles on the course for years to come, but for now we’re all very thankful to the Elsom’s for their 25 years of service to the northwest multisport community.
Michael Gordon 2:09:19
Matt Sheeks 2:09:58
Travis Schlafke 2:10:46
Toby Miller 2:13:18
Sam Harding 2:15:59
Marcella Reitz 2:23:50
Alexa Johnson 2:24:41
Kayla Kobelin 2:27:47
Jamie Schmelzer 2:34:19
Rose Palmer 2:37:48
About the Author:
Michael Gordon is a Walla Walla, WA native who’s currently living in Portland, ME. Michael is a former professional triathlete who rarely competes but loves to support the growth in endurance sports. As such, Michael is the club founder and head-coach of Blue Mountain Endurance which supports endurance sports in Southeastern Washington through group workouts and race promotion, as well as offering online coaching to athletes around the world. You can reach Michael through the club website at: www.bluemountainendurance.com