Ugly Dog, the First Gravel Tri

I rode my gravel bike in a triathlon before this, but the Ugly Dog was the first unabashed gravel bike triathlon that I’m aware of. Of the 180 or so who showed up, about 60 took part in the long course tri, which began with a half-mile swim (Garmined at about 1000 yards), a 29-mile bike, and a 3-mile run.

Ian Murray, coach of many of you, my lead instructor in F.I.S.T. Workshops, and my partner in Slowtwitch Coaching, joined me.

The race was put on by Epic Races and the RD and owner, Eva Solomon, has no problem saluting the idea of races that should be produced, regardless of whether they pass the bean count analysis (The Battle of Waterloo, for example, or her 5k and 10 rough water swims).

Eva said yes to this idea and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard, “Well this is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”

The swim took place in Portage Lake, the water was 76 degrees, the air temp 70 at the start, good for either a wetsuit or no-wetsuit swim. It was a streamed start, which I like, no cage fighting for the first 200 yards.

I’ve been doing multisport races since the 70s. My first swim, bike, run race was in 1980 and I raced Ironman in Kona in 1981. This race felt like those early races in that everyone brings his or her specialty. Gravel racers don’t have wetsuits (yet), triathletes don’t have gravel bikes (yet), so what? The intrepid came.

I got out of the water looking a little confused, but I’m 61, I’m supposed to be confused. Contrary to appearances no, I’m not too old for this.

Here, above, is my favorite pic of the race. I don’t know why, but for some reason this image says it all about triathlon.

One thing worth mentioning. These images are all from Greg Sadler Photography. These aren’t from a photojournalist commissioned to shoot the event for coverage. These are the post-race photos of you all, that you all can buy.

We were all on our bikes by 7:45 or so, it was light but the sun wasn’t up. The gravel roads out here – and there are many – are heavily forested. Ian and I road much of the course the day before and I was glad of it, because the forest in the morning here is dark. Black Forest type stuff. Riding it the day before let me know I could let the bike go and trust my equipment.

I got passed by a lot of women. I don’t mind getting passed by women. I’m liberated. Still, there is a limit to my liberation. They grow tough women in Michigan. I suspect Michigan men regularly get fed doses of humble pie.

Third place overall was Christina Draijer (I don’t have a pic yet) and women finished 3rd, 6th, and 10th in the Ugly Dog.

It started to rain pretty hard on us after about 10 miles. Happily, we got off the gravel before the ground got saturated. The Ugly Dog is gravel for about 22 miles and pavement for the last 7.

The rain covered the road in a thin sheet, and it reminded me of water skiing on a perfect lake. When I looked down I could see my reflection, my bike’s, and the forest canopy above. Pretty neat. I wish I could’ve ridden it looking down. Alas, I’ve got some experience with looking down a little too often.

The great thing about this kind of race is that I don’t know what it’s going to look like. This fellow had aerobars on an MTB, and I built one of these myself in the 1990s, just for this kind of riding. Ian Murray had a full aerobar on a road bar with a Redshift seat post on his gravel bike.

One thing I noticed about the photos of this race. The smiles. There were many more smiles than I'm used to seeing in race photos. I've been noticing a lot of smiles at both gravel races and women's-only races. Is there a connection between smiles and the types of races that grow fast? After 40 years of multisport I've begun to wonder this. I'm a little slow on the uptake.

Ugly Dog’s run was grass, like a cross country race, followed by singletrack through the forest. I’m a runner by trade, but I wasn’t complaining that the run was too short when I got near the finish line.

This race reminded me of the beginnings of triathlon. Should races like these allow drafting or not? Aero bars or not? We'll err on the side of fewer rules rather than more. Just, questions like these, this was what it was like in the very beginning of triathlon.

The Ugly Dog is named for the micro distillery in Chelsea, Michigan that sponsors this race. The Ugly Dog Distillery makes gin and vodka, and hosted the post race party. Winners got product. Placers won glasses embossed with the achievement.

[All photos courtesy of Greg Sadler Photography, and... note about the photos. The RD reminded me that for her events the race photography is free to participants.]