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Catalina Island Triathlon : On a Sunday Morning, This Sleepy Community Gets a Rude Awakening

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The invasion of this tiny resort island came by land and by sea. And bike.

Avalon’s sleepy stillness was disturbed Sunday morning when 280 athletes splashed into Avalon Bay for the start of the first-ever Catalina Island Triathlon. That half-mile swim was the first leg of the competition--next was the 14.5-mile bike race and four-mile run.

Swimmers began rocking the boats in the harbor when they dived into the chilly (64 degrees) water and churned a loop around the bay, creating a turbulence as their collective arms and legs flailed at the water and seaweed.

Suddenly, the influx of these athletes, their families, support crews and sponsors, transformed this drowsy village with its narrow streets and tame traffic into a bustling command post of speeding bikes and shouting athletes. The race even managed to change long-standing norms--it brought vacationers and islanders out of doors before the mid-morning fog had burned off.

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The fog held up throughout the swim and much of the bike portions of the race. After coming out of the water, the athletes jogged up Descanso Beach, hopped on bicycles and headed out to complete two circuits of a seven-mile loop. It was a hilly and treacherous course. In the hills above Avalon, the road was a ribbon of switchbacks and loose gravel. But the parts of the race that went through town were the most scary.

Although organizers publicized the race route and did their best to alert the citizenry about the triathlon, scores of motorists clogged the roads. Race marshalls stationed themselves on street corners to usher the bikers around traffic. And, as the race wore on, tourists filled the sidewalks.

“I came around a corner and there was a runner in the middle of the bike course, and he wasn’t in the race,” said entrant Jeff Lipscomb. “You can’t stop idiots from running into the middle of the road. But, believe me, if he had been hit, it would have been ugly.”

As bikes raced past the roundabout near the center of town, bystanders began to warm to the idea of a race through city streets. Those who weren’t occupied with the Laker-Celtic basketball game were clapping and exhorting the racers.

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The racers needed it. A few steps into the run portion of the race, the runners turned a corner and faced a cruelly steep hill. It hardly seemed fair. Yet, the running course had been designed with this hill in mind. There is a payoff. As the runners crested the hill, the town and Avalon Bay lay beneath them in a breathtaking view.

“This is one of the toughest courses anywhere,” said overall winner Mark Montgomery. Montgomery also assisted in the planning of the course. “The hills are murder, but that view up there is worth it. Even though it is a short course, it’s a challenge. The hills add adventure. When people were signing up for the race, they asked if we could make it longer. But after today, I’m sure you won’t find anybody who wants it longer.”

After Sunday, the question may be: Does Catalina want this race at all, no matter the length? Is the disruption made palatable by the income gleaned from additional tourist-athletes? Or, as some think, can this triathlon itself become a tourist attraction?

Montgomery said the disruption was minimal. “We are going to move the race to October next year so there will be fewer tourists,” he said. “We’ll also limit the race to 400 entrants. That’s about all this island can take.”

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Tracy McCluskey, fifth in the women’s division but the first swimmer out of the water, didn’t think the triathlon did much more than add color to the town. McCluskey is a L.A. County lifeguard and works in Avalon in the summer.

“This isn’t that bad,” McCluskey said, gesturing to a filled-to-overflowing boardwalk. “Remember, there is a marathon and a 10K run here, so I think people here are used to this type of thing.”


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