The conditions were sweltering.
On a day that offered no respite from the baking heat and humidity, the only relief athletes in the fifth annual Riverhead Rocks Olympic Distance Triathlon felt may have been when they crossed the finish line on Sunday morning.
The temperature had already risen to 90 degrees while most of the athletes were still struggling along the course, and it was still only a little after 9 a.m. It was expected to feel like triple digits later in the day. Starting the race with a one-and-a-half kilometer swim in Peconic River must have felt like a warm bath. The water temperature was 80 degrees.
And yet, it wasn’t the swim or the 25-mile bike ride that followed it that was the problem. It was the 10-kilometer run at the end that presented the biggest challenge.
“On the bike it wasn’t that bad because you had some shade and you’re moving, so you got the air flow, but once you got on this run course, it was brutal,” Billy Holl, 30, of Bayport said. “I usually do OK in the heat, and it was bad for me. It’s bad. It’s dangerous.”
Holl has a running background. He ran for SUNY/Geneseo and currently coaches the Sachem North High School boys cross-country and track and field teams.
Running is also Danielle Sullivan’s strength.
Perhaps not coincidentally, those two handled the running phase and the harsh conditions best to win the men’s and women’s races for the first time. And rather handily, too.
Holl turned in a time of 2 hours 6 minutes 56 seconds, which was nearly nine minutes faster than the runner-up, Joris Esch of New York City (2:15:52). Craig Catanzaro of Smithtown (20:18:22) took third.
Sullivan, a 39-year-old triathlon coach from West Islip, finished well ahead of second-place Kathryn Veron of Franklin Square. Her time of 2:19:56 was 11:04 faster than that posted by Veron, who needed to take a seat shortly after finishing. Suzy Heffernan of Cutchogue was third in 2:33:11.
Esch was the first athlete to complete the bike phase in 1:00:41 and the first to hit the running course. He didn’t hold the lead long after that, though. Holl said he assumed the lead at the half-mile mark and that was that as he pulled away.
“I yelled at him, ‘You got 10 years on me. Don’t feel so good,’ ” said Esch, who will turn 40 in a couple of weeks. “There was no way I could catch up [to] him.”
When Esch saw the weather forecast for today, he knew what it meant: “I’m going to suffer,” he said.
Along with the other 224 entrants. Hydrating was of the utmost importance under conditions that made a tough event even tougher.
“I just knew that on the bike, even if I wasn’t thirsty, I needed to drink,” said Holl, who gulped a sports drink every three miles.
Sullivan said she was more concerned about athletes she coaches who competed in the race than herself. “I kind of know what to do in the heat,” she said. “My biggest thing was to make sure that they drank more than they thought they needed.”
One of those athletes, Shayne Lewis of Brightwaters (10th in 2:24:43), cooled off by lying down in a stream of cool water that ran along the side of the road, not far from the finish line in front of the Suffolk Theater on Main Street.
Prior to the race, a moment of silence was observed for Vincent Fleck, a 69-year-old Mount Kisco man who died after being rescued during the swim phase of the Smith Point Sprint Triathlon a week ago.
Then the athletes took their turns heading into Peconic Bay, two at a time, at three-second intervals. From a distance they could be seen, small ripples in the water emerging in front of a blinding, rising, early-morning sun that had more of an impact than any athlete.
Photo caption: Billy Holl of Bayport put his running background to good use Sunday morning when he won the fifth annual Riverhead Rocks Olympic Distance Triathlon. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)