PEOPLE | CULTURE | HAPPENINGS
Swim | Bike | Run
“Tri-ed” and True
BY MARY MARGARET McEACHERN
IN 1979 when the inaugural Wrightsville Beach Triathlon
took place, the mere mention of the word “triathlon”
evoked puzzled looks and more questions than
answers. The nascent sport, more novelty than main-stream,
seemed obscure. But while running reigned
supreme, local endurance athletes, ever in search of new chal-lenges,
could not resist.
The brainchild of longtime Wrightsville Beach resident Karl
Sutter, the race was dubbed the “Pepsi/YMCA Triathlon.” Standard
triathlon distances were unheard-of in 1979. Jim Mincher, a
local bike shop owner who directed the race during its early
years, recalls the original course comprised a quarter-mile swim
across Banks Channel to a transition on Harbor Island, followed
by a 42-mile bike ride to Kure Beach that culminated downtown
for a transition to a 10-mile run from downtown to finish in
Wrightsville Beach Park.
All 99 original participants finished the race, the only rule
requiring helmets on the bike leg.
“There were no bike racks,” says Mincher. “Drafting (now pro-hibited)
was fair game. We fended for ourselves on the road. We
(even) changed clothes after each leg; granola, fruit, soft drinks,
and candy bars provided course nutrition.” Gels, energy bars and
“tri-suits” had not come to pass.
The course morphed several times before reaching its current,
much shorter form. While the swim was lengthened to 1,350 yards
— longer than the standard “sprint” distance — the bike and run
were shortened to 11.5 miles and 5 kilometers, respectively. The
race starts at the Blockade Runner with the swim, and ultimately fin-ishes
the run in Wrightsville Beach Park. Both transitions take place
in the park, simplifying logistics significantly from prior courses.
Endurance athlete Alecia Williams sees the triathlon as a swim-mer’s
“The normal swim distance for a sprint triathlon is around 750
meters, but the (swim leg of the) Wrightsville Beach race is (lon-ger).
It’s scheduled to coincide with the incoming tide, so swim-mers
enjoy a nice push from the current.”
“The long transition from the swim to bike extends from
Sea Path Marina, down the pier, through a rough parking lot
and across the street to Wrightsville Beach Park,” says Williams.
“There are cheering spectators and dogs, and you can spot
your family and friends as you race through to your bike.”
Once on the bike, athletes must ride single-file when negotiat-ing
the grated drawbridge, both leaving and returning. Passing is
not allowed on the bridge, which can frustrate faster riders, but
safety is paramount.
“Some riders have fallen and had their legs turned into ham-burger,”
says Williams. “You cannot be too careful on that bridge.”
The run, which traverses the popular Wrightsville Beach Loop, is
familiar to locals.
“It’s pancake-flat and has a nice, long finish chute,” says Williams.
“This is a wonderful spot for cheering families and friends.”
The race has seen ups and downs. Participation dropped sharply
after it was canceled for Hurricanes Fran and Floyd in the late 1990s,
and it was shortened to the run only following Hurricane Florence.
The shorter, logistically friendlier course has, however, garnered
increased enthusiasm, and the 2018 race generated much-needed
relief money for hurricane victims.
As the shank of summer draws near every year, triathletes
descend in droves on Wrightsville Beach to train for the race.
“For some, this race has become an annual family tradition,” says
The weather is still warm, making the race a good excuse to
enjoy the beach one last time before winter.
“It’s a nice race,” says Williams. “It boasts large attendance
from locals and traveling athletes. I recommend it because of
the current-friendly open water swim. The course is flat, and the
Wrightsville Beach community is laid-back and welcoming.”
“All triathlons draw serious athletes, but this race is friendly
to everyone,” says Mincher. “It is the oldest triathlon on the East
Coast, and one of the oldest in the country.”
Triathlons are popular, and North Carolina ranks third in
the country in participation. Several races, including the Half-
Ironman event in November, take place within or around
Wilmington, but the Wrightsville Beach Triathlon endures. It
might no longer be the only show in town, but it retains its pop-ularity
as a unique destination race and cherished local tradition.
Now directed by Tom Clifford, owner of Without Limits and
director of the Wilmington Marathon, the race continues to
thrive and is a must-do for many triathletes.
This year’s event takes place Sept. 21.
WBM september 2019