FRANKFORT — As early as 8 a.m., tourists were lined out the doors to restaurants on Main Street. Some had been open for three hours by then.
The starting gun for the Michigan Ironman 70.3 triathlon sounded off Sunday morning, the climax of 18 months worth of planning the sequel to the 2019 inaugural race in Traverse City. More than 2,000 athletes jumped into Betsie Bay for a 1-mile swim just as the sun dazzled a new era of tourism over the waters of Frankfort.
James Burke, of Milwaukee, won the overall men’s title with a 4 hours, 2 minutes and 44 seconds finish just after noon. Burke won his age division (40-44) at the 2019 Traverse City Ironman and took the same title in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that same year.
“Perfect day,” Burke said as he crossed the finish line. “I can’t say enough about Frankfort, and I had a lot of fun in the race.”
He swam a mile in 25:38, biked 56 miles in 2:09:13 at an average pace of 26 miles per hour, then ran 13.1 miles at a pace of 6:21 for a time of 1:22:51. Burke’s swim and bike times were the best in the field.
Burke was qualifier for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, and said his intent was to use Frankfort as a preparation race. The 140.4-mile triathlon was canceled in 2020, then this October’s race was postponed to February 2022.
He said he grew up in Ann Arbor and would vacation up north at Traverse City. His parents live in Boyne City, so when he saw the race was coming to Traverse City back in 2019 he signed up immediately.
“I love it up here,” Burke said. “I grew up salmon fishing with my dad and brothers in Frankfort. It’s pretty near and dear to my heart.”
Back then he didn’t anticipate a triathlon would ever take over the tiny Lake Michigan town like it did Sunday.
“I always used to think it would be great to have a race on M-22 because it’s such a iconic, beautiful road. I was pretty excited when they announced the course,” Burke said.
Thompsonville resident Aaron Mahoney wasn’t far behind Burke for a second-place finish of 4:08:21. Ben Hammer, of Grand Rapids, had the fastest run with a 5:56 pace and a time of 1:17:31. He took fourth overall.
Olivia Dietzel, of Cuba City, Wisconsin, won the women’s overall title with a time of 4:50:25 in a race she wasn’t even planning to run until about a week-and-a-half ago. She had the fastest women’s run by far, a 6:45 mile pace and a run of 1:28:13.
Dietzel planned to run in the Half Ironman World Championships, but the date was moved from this past Friday to Saturday for the women and it conflicted with a wedding she had plans to attend.
So at the last minute Dietzel deferred her entry to the race in Frankfort, winning it by 2 minutes. A friend of hers in the nearby Iowa town of Dubuque who Dietzel also coaches was conveniently entered in the Frankfort race, so the two traveled together.
“My dad passed away a year ago from brain cancer and I just wanted to do it for him. I was like, ‘No matter what, I’m going to do as best as I can with the day that God gives me,’” Dietzel said, who competed in the 25-29 age class. “I could really feel my dad’s presence with me on that run. It went really well.”
Several others gave Dietzel quite the race. Because of a staggered start where three athletes started in intervals of 4 seconds, it wasn’t immediately clear who had won. Dietzel was trailed by Sara Harville at 4:52:24, Danielle Bolubasz at 4:52:45 and Jamie Lyberg at 4:54:00.
“The bike was beautiful,” Dietzel said. “It felt magical just riding through the woods and so peaceful.”
No major issues
Riders trekked along M-22 from Esch Road through the Village of Elberta until about 2 p.m. Those roads remained open to local traffic and first responders at corresponding intersections, but with delays. Volunteers directed traffic as motorists attempted to cross intersections on the race’s route.
Race Director Joel Gaff said there were no major traffic issues, or medical issues as of 12:30 p.m. Riders were expected to be on the road for another 2 hours and the final runners crossed at 5 p.m. At that time he said there were no major medical issues, though EMS workers could be seen at one point traveling along M-115.
Gaff was already talking with Frankfort City Superintendent Joshua Mills on what can be improved at next year’s race.
“When you come back to a community where you’ve already held a race, you can refine, you can improve upon the things that didn’t go so well, and you can enhance the things that did go well,” Gaff said. “We’ll do a post-race assessment with all the agencies and see how things went and, kind of do an analysis on that and see how we’ll move forward with it.”
According to Google Maps, traffic was significant where M-22 intersected with Platte Road and Fowler Road. The detour route through U.S. 31 and all of the race’s road closures were programmed into smartphone GPS apps.
More than 900 volunteers in total worked the event, many staffing water stations and assisting pedestrians with crossing the bike course. The race took over the town, with almost no cars on the road as locals watched racers go by from their doorsteps.
Forty volunteers came from the Benzie Central cross country program. Frankfort High School’s National Honor Society staffed the Ironman’s “penalty box” where riders may have taken a visit if they were found drafting or littering. The Panthers girls basketball team held a fundraiser out of a bustling Stormcloud Brewing Company — and it was just 11 a.m.
Local Frankfort combat veteran Gerald Jennex completed the race in 5:25:37. He was deemed a “local hero” by Gaff in an interview with the Record-Eagle ahead of the race.
“I think the Ironman staff are extremely organized, and I think it is a energizing day for everybody,” Frankfort Mayor Liz Dobrzynski said. “It’s been good from the 8-o’clock swim to the last men running in this race. It gives the community something to be happy about and come together, and our businessmen I hope are loving it.”
The race portion took runners within 200 feet of the water at Father Marquette Circle, up to Elberta, then looped back around. Runners said they enjoyed the cheers of encouragement from spectators, their families and Frankfort locals alike.
“It seemed like everyone was kind of rallying behind the event,” Burke said.
Dobrzynski acknowledged the challenges the town has faced leading up to the race, given summer road closures that made navigating downtown difficult along with more road closures needed to put on an event like the Ironman.
“I think it’s all for the better. It’s making people aware of our beautiful city. I know they’ll come back again. And I think it’s all for the good,” Dobrzynski said.
That’s the long-term plan, of course.
Frankfort hasn’t hosted an event to the magnitude of the Ironman. Some may remember it hosted the National Soaring and Hang Gliding Festival in the 1970s. For perspective, the city has a population of 1,290 according to the latest U.S. Census data. The number of race entrants alone exceeded that by hundreds — not including the competitors’ families and friends who traveled and watched in support.
The race is already scheduled to return to Frankfort next fall, with a date set for Sept. 11, 2022. A partnership between Traverse City Tourism and Benzie County Hotels landed a deal that could last up to three years in December 2020.
Mills said the race wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the support and collaboration in a multi-jurisdictional race. The race spanned across Crystal Lake Township, the Village of Elberta, Gilmore Township and Lake Township.
“The amount of effective communication and collaboration from day one has been amazing as we progressed towards this event,” Mills said.
As runners made the final turn to the finish line, sand from the nearby Lake Michigan shore found its way onto the curb of neighboring Main Street. Athletes looked onto the North Pier Lighthouse, and most considered that to be the second most iconic lighthouse on the course to the historic Point Betsie Lighthouse on M-22.
It’s no surprise why both Mills and Dobrzynski heard a familiar message among the spectators they talked to throughout the morning.
This isn’t the end.
“People have come to this region, they’ve already told us they fell in love, that it’s going to bring in additional trips and possible investment,” Mills said. “Overall, the big picture is this event is going to be a significant enhancement to our overall social and economic well-being.”