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Kelly Beiswanger, left, Megan Bittinger, Elizabeth Bannister, and Brian Itoh came from Bozeman as competitors and cheerleaders for the 2017 Grizzly Triathlon. This year's race, on Saturday, will be the 30th anniversary of the annual competition.

KIRA VERCRUYSSEN, Missoulian

MISSOULA — Giles Thelen has seen it all while coordinating and participating in the Grizzly Triathlon.

Between windy days, cold and rainy mornings, and even snow flurries, the April-based event has challenged its participants beyond just the physical toll of the race.

Sun is expected to grace the estimated 250 competitors at this year’s triathlon, which will start 8 a.m. Saturday at Grizzly Pool, near the Champions Center at the University of Montana.

“If you do a triathlon in Montana in April, you’re a tough person,” Thelen said. “It’s an early season race, so you never know what kind of weather you’re going to get when you commit. Even though it’s a short triathlon, if you sign up for the Grizzly Triathlon, you’re a tough person.”

This is the 30th rendition of the Grizzly Triathlon, which is the longest-running multi-sport event in Montana, according to Thelen. He’s in his 20th year as the event’s organizer.

“I get all my satisfaction from the notes people send after they race,” Thelen said. “They’re appreciative of this opportunity, and they express that appreciation. That warms your heart. It gives you the energy to keep the spirit of the race going.”

However, this year could be his last time organizing the event. He's considering selling the triathlon since the attendance has dropped off from 500 racers with a 200-person wait list when it peaked between 2011 and 2015.

"I want the Grizzly Triathlon to be as successful as it can be," Thelen said. "Maybe the best thing for it is to let somebody else hit it from an angle where they're good at social media, they're good at getting the word out and getting a buzz. That's not my strength."

The race

The triathlon begins in the pool with 11 heats organized by estimated completion time of the 1,000-yard swim. The final two races bring together the most talent, with the Elite Masters starting at 11:45 a.m., and the Elite overall heat beginning at 12:05 p.m.

After finishing their laps in the waters, racers will head outside for the bike portion of the event. They’ll go for a 20-kilometer round-trip trek along East Broadway toward Bonner.

Back on campus, they’ll close with a 5-kilometer run along the Kim Williams Nature Trail and the Smokejumpers’ Trail on the side of Mount Sentinel. Before they turn around at the Grizzly Triathlon bench to return to campus, local musician John Floridis will be camped out at the Smokejumpers’ Trail — known to the racers as "The Hill" — playing an acoustic guitar to “serenade” the runners, as Thelen put it.

The competitors come from eight states — Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, Texas and Tennessee — and one Canadian province — Alberta. Approximately 90 percent of the racers are from Montana, representing 25 cities.

About 10 percent of the entrants are current students at the University of Montana. There’ll be nearly 40 contenders from Bozeman and the Montana State University Triathlon Club.

The participants range in age from 12 to 72 with an average age of 41. About 63 percent of the competitors are women.

This year, they’ve added prize money for the top male and top female finisher in the Elite Masters race for those over 40 years old. In the past, the prize money had only been for the top three finishers in the Elite overall category.

Frank Gogola covers Montana Grizzlies men's basketball for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at Frank.Gogola@406mtsports.com.

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