The town of Tiszaujvaros is centered around a small lake that holds the swim portion. Next to the lake is a stage for live music surrounded by food and drink vendors, bouncy castles, trampolines and mini race tracks for the local Hungarian kids to mimic the elite athletes racing around them. The town gets even smaller when more countries and athletes show up in the days before the races as everyone stays at the same hotel and eats at one of the few restaurants which all sit directly along the run and bike course. The level of focus is palpable as you make eye contact with athletes by the elevator or down the narrow hallways filled with bike bags, shoes or people stretching. Since the semi-final and final races started later in the afternoon, the day belongs to the preparing athletes getting tune-up workouts in, grocery store runs for snacks or watching the festivities taking place by the stage while the humid nights are taken over by all the people of the town. Thousands of people crowd the area in front of the stage to sing or dance along with the performers while fireworks are shot off. As I sit in the room with other U.S. triathletes overlooking all the craziness, it’s hard not to get excited to compete and easy to see how this event is the longest running ITU race in the world.
As this was my first elite level triathlon, there was a sense of importance that I had never felt before when they announced my name and country when jogging to my starting spot in the middle of the pontoon. I knew I was a bit out of my league at this particular event, but was encouraged to train harder to be able to actually compete with these athletes. When the gun went off, the only thing that mattered was getting to the infamous first yellow buoy where the carnage begun. After three quick laps in the pond, we climbed out with our scratches and bruises and ran with the spectators to the first transition area trying to make up any lost time. With cap and goggles in bin and my helmet on, I grabbed my bike and ran to the mount line to hop on and pedal down the quaint Hungarian streets. The semi-final course was two simple out and back loops while the final bike course was eight laps around the town and lake. Every time the packs came through the finish area, the DJ and MC of the event were dancing, throwing towels to the stadium crowds, starting chants or all three in order to give the athletes an extra energy boost.
The set up of the run course allowed for the energy of the crowd to drown out all the pain until I was back in the woods with only the sounds of footsteps and breathing to carry me to the finish. When I finally crossed the raucous finish line, the respect and mutual admiration expressed through head nods and handshakes trumped the language barriers.
Sunday night, after the final, belonged to athletes and Hungarians alike. It was quite the site as the top 20 elite athletes, male and female, lined the stage with their own personal introduction and song (dancing strongly encouraged). The athletes cheered, partook in the celebrations and discussed which race they would see us at next as bikes were taken apart, packed up and loaded on the shuttles heading to the Budapest airport. It was an atmosphere like no other and one that validated all the work put in by each athlete day in and day out. An event I would love to be apart of again especially as a more seasoned competitor. My ears are still ringing from the cheering and stage noise, which reminds me that it will only get louder when I’m standing on the stage next year.