Submitted by Craig Dean –
Walla Walla, Washington has a unique history in wartime struggles. From the Frenchtown clashes of the 19th century to the World War II training facilities in the 20th century, this quaint border town shares a personal touch to the fallen. What better way to pay tribute to the casualties of war on Memorial Day Weekend than to embark on a multi-sport battle in the 20th annual Onion Man Triathlon? On hand was two-time defending champion, Jeff Smith, properly affixed with racing bib #1 and announcer Michael Gordon. Gordon raced to runner up last season and was the last man to win the race before Smith began his reign on the prize in 2011. On Sunday, he grabbed the microphone nearly an hour before the start of the race and offered color commentary on the events as they played out while also educating the spectators on a few of the nuances in competitive triathlon.
In what is becoming a common theme to Onion Man, the event reached capacity while also featuring some of the best amateur elite triathletes in the Northwest. There was a modest purse of prize money generously offered to the top overall finishers as well as the top splits in each respective discipline. By 9am, all of the athletes surrounded the waters of Bennington Lake while the lingering thunder clouds threatened high above the state line hills.
The men’s wave spread long down the beach line and launched in a wide swath of swinging arms three minutes ahead of the women’s wave. By 9:05 on Sunday morning, Bennington Lake was free of fishing poles and erupting in a clockwise swirl of bodies. Quick to establish his lead, Spokane’s Alex Martinek led the men’s wave in dominating fashion. Smith trailed the leader by a few body lengths by the first buoy and a few more by the second. To those witnessing the race from the shore line, they were privy to a dazzling sight of a pair of pink capped ladies churning through the meat of the men’s field and established themselves in the gap between the leaders and the chasers. Relay swimmer Kathy Farrell-Guizar lead the charge in what would become the fastest swim of the day at 18:52 while Miranda Smith set the women’s fastest triathlon swim split with a 21:06 effort. Martinek pressed his lead throughout the second loop to set the top men’s split at 19:08. A minute later, Jeff Smith exited the waters in 2nd place and roughly another minute later in 3rd place was 17-year-old upstart Dominic Clay. The second woman out of the water was Walla Walla’s own Cheyenne Schoen swimming a similarly brisk pace with her father Kurt Schoen at 21:35 and 21:57 respectively.
After a comfortable run up the protected boat ramp and into the transition area, racers had to negotiate a mile of rough pavement and speed bumps before letting the gears loose on the surface streets leading to Mill Creek. The women’s race shuffled considerably with Kara Gordon’s domination while on the bike. She exited the waters nearly five minutes in arrears of the lead, but made steady work of the seven women ahead of her. She gobbled most of them up by the mid-point turn around and then created an additional gap on the speedy decent. Behind Gordon, Sally Shadle and Jennifer Harrington placed their bid for contention with solid rides of their own. By the end of the bike ride, the women’s field had a clear leader with many chasers in contention for the podium.
On the men’s side, Smith made quick work of Martinek on the bike and began to widen his gap on most of the field. The one holdout was super biker, David Gettle from Weiser, ID. His tree stump quads and distinct three spoke carbon wheels chipped into Smith’s lead in modest fashion. By the turn-around Smith was in clear control of the race, with Gettle still a few minutes behind and a large pack of men several minutes further. There was limited shuffling in the men’s field as many of the premier swimmers also shined on the bike. I managed to pick off a couple of riders before the end, but was held mostly at bay by the crushing gears of Dominic Clay, Ryan Brown, and Andrew Fast. The men transitioned with Smith in cruise control, Gettle sticking close and a cluttered field of five of us a few minutes behind.
Transitions shouldn’t be discounted in competitive racing. It’s the silent killer to many a triathletes overall result. My wife and kids watched in horror as I fumbled through my shoes and stopped to affix my racing belt before laying chase to Brown and Fast on the run. To anyone ramping up their commitment to the sport, please take heed: transitions are part of the race, practice them.
Seeing that Kara Gordon is married to one of the fleetest runners in triathlon, it should be no surprise that she laid claims to her overall women’s title by stomping down a respectable run. Her 7:13 pace was enough to secure victory with plenty of time to spare. Behind Kara, the heat of the women’s competition was boiling hot. Miranda Smith clipped through the field in a women’s top run split and 6:29 pace. Ahead of her was a major battle for the podium. Walla Walla’s Marcella Rietz climbed the ladder with her 6:48 pace, but fell just three seconds shy of 3rd place finisher Sally Shadle. Sally had to rally late to hold onto her podium finish after being overtaken by Jennifer Harrington for 2nd place on the run. Harrington dug deep for a 6:59 pace and a brilliant race with both Shadle and Rietz. Look no further than each of the top ladies sub 50-second transitions for their attention to the details.
On the men’s side, it was Smith all the way to the tape. Jeff completed his third consecutive Onion Man victory in dominating fashion. With no one within shouting distance, he held on to a brisk 6:03 pace on the run in an effort that speaks volumes about his commitment to the sport. After the race, Jeff was easily found next to the results dissecting his splits with his competitors. When you are at the top of your game like Jeff is, splits matter more than the overall result. As with the women’s race, the real heat of the battle took place for the remaining podium slots after the overall winner. I took to the run in 7th position just a few steps behind Brown and Fast. Well ahead of our trifecta, were the young Dominic Clay and the swimming/biking specialist David Gettle. I found surprising spring in my step and picked my way through the field while receiving compliments and encouragement from those I passed. No where else in competition have I ever found such a universal desire for others to do well than in the sport of triathlon. Thankfully, the well wishers and encouragement helped me along because there was a chaser sticking to my tail. Unknown to me at the time, and now much feared on the run, was Seattle’s Dustin Gilbert. Dustin crushed the second fastest run split at a 5:58 pace and was second only to Boise’s Eric Bjorkman’s 5:54 pace. I didn’t know of Dustin’s chase on me until moments before the finish line. Dustin finished :14 seconds behind me in third position. In all, the men’s race was decided by less than two minutes for 2nd through 6th place. Don’t discount your transitions!
It should be noted that Jeff Smith followed his efforts at Onion Man to also win a pool sprint triathlon held at Mt. Hood Community College the following day. Jeff Smith is the real deal.
A hearty thank you to the organizers and sponsors of the Onion Man Triathlon for their continued efforts to hold (and support) this great Pacific Northwest event.
1. Kara Gordon – Kirkland, WA 2:19:23
2. Jennifer Harrington – Mukilteo, WA 2:28:35
3. Sally Shadle – Richland, WA 2:29:04
4. Marcella Rietz – Walla Walla, WA 2:29:07
5. Katrina Ledgerwood – Spokane, WA 2:32:16
1. Jeff Smith – Beaverton, OR 2:00:33
2. Craig Dean – Portland, OR 2:06:04
3. Dustin Gilbert – Seattle, WA 2:06:18
4. Dominic Clay – LaGrande, OR 2:06:36
5. Andrew Fast – Woodinville, WA 2:06:52
Complete results – racecenter.com/results/onion-man