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Inside Look: Desert Classic Duathlon 2011

By Tom Demerly.

The high Sonoran Desert was a perfect, although stormy, backdrop for the Desert Duathlon.

There is a rich tradition to early season duathlons in the desert southwest going back to the 1980’s. Brad Kearns, Kenny Souza, Joel Thompson and others opened the multisport season in the northern hemisphere with the former Desert Princess Biathlon back then. The Desert Princess is widely credited as the race where the aerodynamic handlebar was born in 1987 when athletes like Brad Kearns adopted them, revolutionizing our sport.

The new generation of the season opener duathlon is the Desert Classic Duathlon. The 14 year old race has  become the most prominent short course duathlon in the west, if not the entire country.  This early season “test” race draws an impressive pro and age group field from around the U.S. for a viable prize list. The latest version of the event uses a new course in McDowell Mountain Regional Park north of Fountain Hills, Arizona outside of Phoenix. Hosted by enthusiastic and capable volunteers from the Phoenix Triathlon Club the race is a valuable chance to calibrate your fitness against the competition.

A “storm of the century” blew into the region the weekend of the 2011 Desert Classic Duathlon. The drama created an interesting back story of what it takes to produce a great race in challenging conditions. Shot entirely with a simple, compact Canon G9 point and shoot digital compact camera, this perspective shows the determination and hard work of the Phoenix Triathlon Club and the support of in making this race happen despite difficult conditions.

Dust Storm on 1-10
A skilled moto driver braces his BMW Dakar into a 50 M.P.H. crosswind and blowing dust on the I-10 north bound to Phoenix from Tucson.

The day before the Desert Classic Duathlon Shari Howard, a member of the warehouse team and former heavy equipment operator, and I drove from in Tucson north along the I-10 Freeway toward Fountain Hills, Arizona just east of Phoenix to support the race. High winds outside Tucson created a rare desert “haboob” or sand storm. Vehicles slowed to a crawl under gusting winds over 50 M.P.H. while visibility plummeted. The normal one and a half hour trip took over three hours as blowing dust, high wind and intermittent rain squalls hammered the region. Our drive was halted as Arizona State Highway Patrol cleared several accidents and a medical evacuation helicopter made a daring landing to extract injured accident victims in the midst of the dust storm.

Accident During Travel to Desert Classic Duathlon
While occasional dust storms are normal a severe sand storm is rare in Arizona. This storm cut visibility to near zero for many athletes and support workers on their way to the Desert Duathlon outside Phoenix.

Visibility closed to 10-20 feet from blowing sand in the open desert between Tucson and Phoenix. There were  frequent accidents seen on the roadside of I-10. Near the secretive Pinal Air Park military aviation and regeneration facility between Tucson and Phoenix visibility dropped to zero as high winds kicked desert dust up into an impregnable wall across the road.

Meanwhile, 50 miles to the north, crews of volunteers from the Phoenix Triathlon Club spent the day setting up the tents and fencing in the high desert outside Fountain Hills at the McDowell Mountain Regional Park. The location where the race was to be held the next day had not been hit by the storm yet. founder Seton Claggett delivered tents, fencing, barriers and other equipment earlier in the day using the dualie truck and expo trailer.

The trailer carries bike racks, Easy-Up tents, tables, chairs, fencing, carpeting and other equipment for race production. Phoenix Triathlon Club members used the equipment to assemble the race venue as the storm gathered force in the desert west of Fountain Hills. By mid day the race site was nearly complete under darkening but calm skies. The storm continued to bear down on the race venue with blinding sand, 60 M.P.H. winds and rain. Less than 20 miles sperated the storm from the race site as the massive dust cloud gathered speed and strength.

By Saturday mid day the storm had advanced to the outer edges of eastern Phoenix. Tumble weeds blew threw the center of town and clogged inter city freeways. As it climbed the mountains between Phoenix and Fountain Hills the temperatures dropped and the wind accelerated. Unusual rain and low mist gathered in desert mountains, clinging to peaks and giving thirsty saguaro cactus a rare quenching. The storm hit the race venue sitting on a plateau in the exposed desert somewhere around 13:00 Hr.s local zone time. Desert Classic Duathlon
As the storm tore through McDowell Mountain Regional Park tents and fencing were leveled. Mist and low cloud clung to the mountains as the storm passed by, a rare spectacle in the desert.

“It only took a couple minutes” said one volunteer from the Phoenix Tri Club of the devastation that followed. Easy-Up tents secured by 50 pound sand bags flew like kites. What was a carefully arranged system of transition racks and banner fencing was reduced to rubble, strewn across the open transition areas and tossed into low desert scrub. The concrete hard desert floor refused to absorb the soaking rain and deep puddles formed in the duathlon transition area making a “desert swim” an odd possibility. In only minutes, hours of hard volunteer work was blown into the desert.

By the time Shari Howard and I arrived in the high desert outside Phoenix heavy rain was crossing the region as winds continued to tear across the open desert. Even before the rain finished volunteers from the Phoenix Triathlon began reassembling the entire race venue from scratch, pulling barricades and banners out of the cactus and reassembling fencing. The race start was less than 16 hours away. Before sunset the race management team of the Phoenix Triathlon Club including Scott Perrine, Brian Kochert and Greg Garner along with other volunteers had rebuilt the fencing and set to work on the transition racks. More rain swept through the area as volunteers briefly retreated to a trailer for an excellent dinner prepared by club volunteers. The Event Trailer was soaking wet inside and out. Desert Classic Duathlon
Members of the Phoenix Triathlon Club and the two person crew from help reassemble the transition area on the rain soaked ground.

Working into the night volunteers continued to reassemble the race venue under portable lights. As transition racks were labeled and fencing zip tied around the new transition area a brilliant desert moon broke through high cloud suggesting better weather toward morning. A final thunderstorm crossed the region around 3:00 AM with lightening and rain but no high winds. The race venue was soggy, but intact. Desert Classic Duathlon sponsored athlete Rance Irvin made a 12 hour drive from Hobbs, New Mexico to race at Desert Classic (left). Phoenix Tri Club volunteers worked under floodlights to rebuild the transition area until the moon broke through high cloud, suggesting a break in the weather by morning.

The generators came on at 4:30 AM chasing away curious coyotes who approached within feet of my sleeping bag during the night. I woke in a half inch puddle and was thankful for a Gore-Tex bivouac bag. Under bright floodlights the finishing touches went onto the race venue as timing crews began to install the mats and bring out computers in storm proof cases to tabulate race results. At sunrise athletes began arriving only minutes after the final zip ties finished the newly rebuilt transition area. Tired but envigorated volunteers drained coffee pots and prepared food for racers under the aid tents. Desert Classic Duathlon
From laying carpet in the transition area to arranging cones strewn by high winds some volunteers worked long after dark and well before sunrise to rebuild the race venue.

One of the attractions of the Desert Classic Duathlon is the strong pro field that included / K-Swiss Athlete Leanda Cave along with Melanie McQuaid, Christine Jeffrey and Lisa Ribes. An impressive pro male field included Nate White, Lewis Elliot, Torsten Abel and crowd pleaser from Specialized, star athlete Jordan “Rappstar” Rapp. Desert Classic Duathlon
The top pros arrived in the transition area without a clue that it had be rebuilt only hours before. From left to right, Lewis Elliot, Jordan Rapp and Leanda Cave.

If early season jitters were in place it didn’t show as pros and age groupers set up their transition areas side by side while the weather maintained an uneasy calm. The contrast between the simplicity of the professional transition areas with their uncomplicated arrangements of minimal gear and the cluttered assortments of cold weather layers in the age group racks was apparent. Once the transitions were set up and the photos taken the warm ups began as the clock ticked toward the start of the 2011 race season. Desert Classic Duathlon
Jordan Rapp's minimalist appraoch to transition (left). A playful pro field looks forward to the start of the 2011 race season. (right) The gun sounds on the 2011 multisport season!

Once the gun sounded and the dust had, quite literally, settled at the Desert Duathlon a total of 194 age group finishers (118 male, 76 female) and 22 Elite competitors (16 male, 6 female) in addition to 23 collegiate athletes along with relays and a kids race had completed the course and crossed the timing mats. Another 37 athletes participated in a new off road duathlon using the rugged desert mountain bike trails in the high Sonora.

The Desert Duathlon came together under difficult conditions with the help of many volunteers from the Phoenix Triathlon Club, Maricopa County and the help of many others. It was a classic in multisport racing, the continuation of a new institution in our sport that even the high winter desert weather has a difficult time interrupting.