A Local TRI-umph

The winning ways of Santa Barbara’s multisport mainstay

Summer in Santa Barbara. Everyone who calls this hamlet home has a favorite way to celebrate the season. Some party through the parade of festivals that fall during these months, while others commemorate the longer days by delightfully doing nothing. For local endurance athletes, however, summer is a revelry of racing that culminates with a singular event—the Santa Barbara Triathlon.

While a kindly climate and scenic topography are largely responsible for making the city a multisport Mecca, the annual race weekend—August 24-26 this year—has made it even more of a magnet for triathletes up and down the coast. Begun in 1981 by Santa Barbara’s Parks and Recreation Department, the race was originally a half-Ironman in length, consisting of a 1.2-mile ocean swim, 56-mile bike, and 13.1-mile run, but was eventually shortened due to permitting issues. The current long course begins with a 1-mile ocean swim at the event’s epicenter, Cabrillo Bathhouse. Exiting the water, competitors sprint along sand toward the transition area then embark on a 34-mile bike loop through Carpinteria and back. Picturesque, the route includes rolling hills and steeper pitches up Gobernador Canyon and Toro Canyon roads. The final phase, a 10-mile run, follows the flat bike path to Leadbetter beach followed by the gradual grade of Shoreline Park and along Mesa Lane before retracing the route back to the finish and festivities. Longer than a standard Olympic course, the unique distance has proven popular.

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“It’s one of the races I look forward to the most each year,” says Clayton Hunt, a three-time competitor and top-twenty finisher in 2011. “The great destination coupled with a challenging course, both in distance and routing, make it truly enjoyable.” It’s a winning combination to be sure.

“Many use our race as training for their first half-Ironman,” says event director Joe Coito. “Some have even told me they’ve found our long course more difficult than some flat half-Ironman ones due to the terrain.”

Notable names to cross the finish line include Iron Man legends Scott Tinley, Paula Newby-Fraser, and Michellie Jones. But while some in the field may be famous, there’s always a wealth of weekend warriors as well.

“We enjoy having high-profile athletes compete but our focus is on creating a supportive venue for amateurs in our community,” says Coito. “We want to provide a platform for their positive lifestyle choices.”

Providing that platform has become an endurance test of its own for organizers. Now in its thirty-first year, the event has grown exponentially in both entrants and offerings. More than a decade after the first race, a sprint course was added to inspire the aspiring with a 500-yard swim, 6-mile bike, and 2-mile run. A women-only sprint course of the same distance debuted in 2000. And in a welcoming gesture to the next generation, a special division allows one parent to accompany two children (under 15 years-old) throughout the sprint. (Though relay teams are allowed to compete in the long course, the sprint courses are solely solo.) Also new this year, an Aquabike category created for those who just want to get wet then spin dry without having to run. The added race options have greatly added participants and spectators. With safety the ultimate priority, organizers limit registration to 1,050 for the long course (including relay teams), and 450 each for the co-ed and women-only sprints.

Complementing the competitions, a large exposition area set up in the sand showcases the latest in tri gear and gadgets available for sale. There’s also a complimentary lunch tent the day of the races.

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Remarkably, everything keeps pace with the precision of a Swiss timepiece, thanks to Coito and his crew. But the task of managing is monumental.

“Handling the volume of participants, vendors, volunteers, and spectators in an efficient manner with such a short window of time is the greatest challenge,” explains Coito. “We’re fortunate to have such an experienced event staff. They’ve already seen some of the most difficult situations that can arise.” Along with Coito—the event director since 1995—there are 10 year-round staff members and 350-400 volunteers on race days.

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“We started a very successful fundraising program that gives companies and individuals the opportunity to participate by volunteering,” explains Coito. “Since 2002, we’ve raised over $420,000 for local non-profit organizations.”

For many volunteers, the experience of being surrounded by people pushing past their comfort zones and prevailing motivates them to enter the next time. It’s also what drives Coito and his talented team to make the Santa Barbara Triathlon a career year-after-year.

“I’m sure there are many personal stories of triumph that I’m not even aware of, but what stand out as memories for me are the times I’ve seen physically challenged athletes being carried to the water’s edge, triathletes with one arm or leg, and cancer survivors compete,” says Coito. “When we see people challenge themselves and succeed, it keeps us going. So long as there is one of those each year, we’ll keep doing what we do.”

That attitude and supportive atmosphere keep the annual affair a favorite of locals and visitors alike. When it comes to celebrating summer with a fit finish, it’s no contest—the Santa Barbara Triathlon remains front of the pack.

Photography by Kevin Steele

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