Billington tops Formula 1 revival

It's been 16 years since there was a Formula 1 style sprint triathlon for professionals in the United States and several years since the Australian founders had been regularly contesting this multiple loops, slam-bang style of sprint triathlon. [USA Triathlon did recently initiate a 4-race Formula 1 format series for amateurs in its Southwest Region] But on Saturday, Superfrog Triathlon race directors Lars Finanger and Mitch Hall gathered four Olympians and 16 solid men pros to vie for a $10,000 purse on Coronado Island in the San Diego area.

After 43 minutes and 52 seconds of lightning-fast lead changes reminiscent of a roller derby or a NASCAR Sprint Cup event, Greg Billington ran away from New Zealander Clark Ellice on the final run leg to earn a 10-seconds margin of victory and win the $2,500 top prize. Rookie Eric Lagerstrom, who worked well on the draft-legal bike with Billington, took the final spot on the podium another 11 seconds in arrears.

Then magic of the race formula that leads to high-adrenaline competition with unpredictable, super swift shifts of fortune are the multiple short legs. This course was a 300 yard single-loop swim, a 10-lap, 4-mile bike and a 4-lap, 1.5-mile run done twice in a row. The most nerve-wracking aspect were the sharp corners leading into and out of two narrow tunnels at the end of the bike course.

In the blur of action, recollection unaided by recorded split times, there were several main thrusts of surges and fallbacks. At the start, super swimmer Tommy Zaferes broke out into the lead and held it through most of the first 10-lap bike before falling back to 15th by the end - presumably because he is still suffering from a long-standing virus. Matt Reed started strong out of the water and for the first five laps of the bike before suffering a blown tube. While his wheel was promptly replaced, such a delay on this crazy fast format race is competitively fatal and Reed finished 17th. New Zealander Dylan McNeice had a strong start and raced near the front until falling back to 13th at the finish. And rising U.S. star Ben Kanute raced near the lead until fading to 5th on the final run leg.

Billington, aided by his virtual teammate Lagerstrom on the bike, maintained a race of even pace and high efficiency. "Out of the swim I was about 6th and Eric Lagerstrom and I worked together to reel the front pack back in," said Billington. "We held position near the front, but then the second swim was tough and Clark Ellice found a wave to the beach and got a really big lead. Eric then put in a huge effort on the bike and I was able to stick on his wheel and we caught the front pack for the second time.. From there I tried to relax and wait for the run."

Before he could truly relax, Billington hit a sand patch on the back stretch of the bike. "I almost went down but I held on and kept control," he said.

After his misadventures, Billington had several seconds to make up to catch Ben Kanute, who had overtaken Ellice prior to the final 2-mile run. "Once I caught Ben I felt pretty good and I just kept the same pace," said Billington. "And I hoped I could ward off Clark [Ellice] who was charging back hard from behind."

After the finish, Billington, who missed making the 2012 U.S. men's Olympic triathlon team by the 19 seconds he trailed Manny Huerta at the San Diego World Triathlon Series event in May, was elated. "My first ITU race was the ITU Aquathlon Junior World Championship and I won that," he said. "Since then it's been a complete drought of wins."

Still, he was not far off frrom success - as his 4th place at the 2011 ITU Under 23 World Championship can attest. "This is my first professional triathlon win and it's huge," he said. "There were a bunch of great guys in this race -- Matt Reed, Tyler Butterfield, Manny Huerta, Clark Ellice and Leon Griffin. As you can see, there is a lot of luck in this kind of format because none of us have ever done it before."

Actually two men had done Formula 1 before.

Matt Reed competed in some of the original Australian Formula 1 series races and so had Leon Griffin, [4th on the day] who did so in 2003. While few at the race could remember, back in 1996 the Australia's Bray brothers promotion team brought a veritable triathlon Hall of Fame cast to Oceanside for a Formula 1-style race which included Mark Allen, Mike Pigg, Brad Beven, Greg Welch and dozens of other stars. In that race, Welch was part of a six man crash in the first corner of the bike and suffered a broken collarbone. While that race had more corners and a more complex set of race legs that mixed around the usual swim-bike-run progression, the excitement of that race had the spectators roaring. It seemed to hold much promise, but the ambitious worldwide series failed to gain traction. In 2010 San Diego was again the site for another super fast event with multiple transitions and that event was called Super Sprint Tri GP.

Hopefully, this more modest but still promising revival will light a spark and gain a foothold and the fast-growing world of triathlon would be better for it.

Formula 1 Triathlon
Coronado, California
September 29, 2012
S 300 yds. / B 12k / R 2 mi. / S 300 yds. / B 12k / R 2 mi.

Elite Men results

1. Greg Billington (USA) 43:42 - $2,500
2. Clark Ellice (NZL) 43:52 - $2,000
3. Eric Lagerstrom (USA) 44:03 - $1,500
4. Leon Griffin (AUS) 44:13 - $1,000
5. Kyle Leto (USA) 44:18 - $800
6. Ben Kanute (USA) 44:23 - $700
7. Tyler Butterfield (BER) 44:35 - $600
8. James Hadley (GBR) 44:40 - $400
9. Manny Huerta (USA) 44:51 - $300
10. Derek Oskutis (USA) 44:59 - $200