In a Pandemic, Getting to the Triathlon Is as Hard as Finishing It

TALLINN, Estonia — I did my first Ironman triathlon four years ago. It was tough. But not as tough as the one over the weekend, when I competed in one of the few triathlons that have taken place during the pandemic.

Not only did I have to adjust my training around a lockdown (and the closure of swimming pools), but I also did it with flights being canceled and quarantine rules changing, making my preparations even more challenging. Just being able to show up at the start line was a major hurdle almost on a par with the 2.4-mile open-water swim, the 112-mile bike ride and the 26.2-mile run.

I signed up for the Ironman in Tallinn in December, when most of the world had not yet heard much about the novel coronavirus. The World Triathlon Corporation, which owns the Ironman brand, has canceled or rescheduled to 2021 almost all of its 159 events so far this year because of it. For months, it seemed likely that even Tallinn, originally scheduled for Aug. 1, would follow the same path. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

“It was mentally mind-boggling preparing for this race when all your friends and the tri community keep telling you the race will not happen,” said Irene Magdalena Alisjahbana, a schoolteacher from the Netherlands. Tallinn was her 11th Ironman.

The race, postponed to Saturday, was the first Ironman race to take place since March 15. It required plenty of adjustments because of the pandemic.

Athletes were given individual time slots for tasks like registration and gear check-in. Their identities and check-in times were tracked electronically; health information was taken, too. The standard race briefing was provided via YouTube, and the traditional prerace pasta party was canceled.

At aid stations, volunteers wore gloves and face masks; at the finish line, medals normally handed to the competitors were put in bags that athletes had to collect themselves.

“All the volunteers were with masks and gloves, which limited contact,” Alisjahbana said. “But their most appreciated cheers and positive energy came across those barriers.”

At registration, organizers scanned athletes’ temperatures, looked over their health questionnaires and handed out face masks. If the temperature was normal and the questionnaire was cleared, the athlete could proceed. (Never mind that these measures alone do not prevent the participation of asymptomatic athletes, who can also spread the coronavirus).

The restrictions had some side benefits, like an easier to navigate goods-and-services exposition.

“With limited athletes getting their race pack, the expo was never crowded like it usually would be,” Alisjahbana said. “I felt safe throughout the process and thought the measures put in place worked out well.”

Under normal circumstances, more than 3,000 athletes, supporters and staff members gather before the swim start. This year, that wasn’t an option.

The organizers had moved another race, a half Ironman that had been scheduled for June in another city in Estonia, to Tallinn on the same day as the full Ironman, for a total of 1,507 participants from 50 countries (including relay teams).

Several accommodations were made for my race, including staggering the swim start to reduce crowding, though there was some not socially distant bunching up in the transition area for the bicycle leg.

Then again, just being on the course was something of an achievement.

Until two weeks before the event, people traveling to Estonia were asked to quarantine for two weeks if their country had more than 16 infections per 100,000 people. In the days leading up to the race, the list of “red” countries included Britain, Germany and Sweden, all of which traditionally send athletes to the Tallinn race. (I flew to Estonia before Britain’s numbers were above 16 per 100,000.)

That left athletes gambling on which direction they thought their country’s infection rates would take, and deciding whether to travel within a week or two of the race — and risk not being able to participate at all — or further in advance.

Alisjahbana flew from the Netherlands when the country was on the “red” list.

“I checked the statistics on how Covid-19 had affected Estonia and saw how low the cases were, and I felt safe enough to come,” she said.

According to the World Health Organization, Estonia had 2,456 confirmed Covid-19 cases from March 27 to Sunday. To be safe, Alisjahbana flew in Aug. 19.

“Ironman reassured me that I could defer to 2021 if I couldn’t enter in Estonia,” she said. “But that was only one week before the race. How can you mentally prepare for this?”

A week before the event, the travel requirement changed once again. Athletes from “red” countries could either take a Covid-19 test 72 hours before their flight and a second one at the airport, or two tests in Estonia: one at the airport and the second at a lab or their accommodation. Athletes were asked to quarantine until receiving the results.

One athlete, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals from Ironman, said he registered without a problem despite lacking the results of the required second test.

Ergo Kukk, the Ironman Tallinn marketing manager, said organizers had counted on athletes’ trust.

“We are doing everything we can to keep this race safe,’’ he said. “But it is still built up with mutual trust, and we hope that our athletes follow our guidelines But it is impossible to control everyone.”

Not everyone had the same luck. Renaud Cormier of France landed in Tallinn last week, and tested positive for the virus, twice. He never reached the start line, and now must remain in his hotel room for two weeks.

None of the other athletes, the Ironman organization said, tested positive for the virus.

The race team in Tallinn had to tailor the event to Estonia’s health and travel rules and restrictions. Dealing with changing infection rates, flight cancellations and evolving requests from the government health board became its new normal.

“Not knowing what was going to happen was the hardest thing to deal with,” Ain-Alar Juhanson, Ironman Tallinn’s race director, said. He added, “Every day we woke up in the morning knowing it was a new day, but we didn’t know what was going to happen.”

If there was anyone who could get the job done, and keep everything in perspective, it was Juhanson. He survived the sinking of the M.S. Estonia in 1994, in which 852 people died, making it the second deadliest peacetime sinking of a European ship after the Titanic.

He was 17 at the time, and is now 43. Three of the four friends he was traveling with were among the dead.

“When you almost see the ‘other side,’” Juhanson said, “you have a new perspective on things. Stress and other hard things in life remain hard, but you find yourself thinking it can always be harder.”

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