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Morro Bay’s inaugural Ironman 70.3 drew thousands of triathletes and spectators



Morro Bay Police Sgt. Nicole Taylor clocks in to work at 7 a.m. each morning, driving from her home in Creston to the usually slow seaside town. The morning of May 20, though, was different.

Before daybreak, the city's Embarcadero buzzed with energy and activity. People from all over the world paced around in race gear, as local police, city staff, and volunteers worked out event logistics.

Taylor arrived at 4 a.m., but not as an officer. She was one of the more than 1,800 competitors racing in the first-ever Morro Bay Ironman 70.3, a triathlon that drew athletes from 46 states and 23 countries.

"It was completely cool to see the diversity of people that were there," Taylor told Get Outside a few weeks later. "Walking toward the swim [in the harbor, I overheard] some people. I didn't even understand what language they were speaking."


Over the five months prior, Taylor juggled helping the city prep for one of the biggest events in its history with training for one of the toughest endurance tests of her life.

"Toward the end, it took six to seven hours a day of doing activity to make sure I was prepared. So, it was a big commitment," Taylor said. "[And] I sat through all the Ironman meetings and everything we had as a city, because I was helping the chief put together the public safety side of it.

"So, it was interesting to do that, and then show up on race day and be a participant and see all my friends I work with directing traffic," she added with a laugh. "It was a whole different perspective."

Ironman's long-distance triathlons are globally renowned events, and landing one in San Luis Obispo County has long been a goal in the local endurance sporting community.

It finally happened last year, when Morro Bay and Ironman inked a three-year contract to bring one of its signature 70.3-mile races, known as a "half-Ironman," to the city.

Organizers charted a course with a 1.2-mile swim in the protected harbor, a 56-mile out-and-back bike ride to San Simeon along Highway 1, and a 13.1-mile run in city limits.

"When I heard it was finally materializing, I was super stoked," said Samantha Pruitt, founder of Race SLO, the group that hosted the former SLO Marathon. "We'd talk with the county and city and us local people about trying to get Ironman to come to SLO County at some point.

"Morro Bay is an exceptional location for this type of activity. And it's just a great, undiscovered beach and fishing community that deserves to be recognized at a higher level."

Successfully pulling off such a massive event in a small town like Morro Bay was no easy task, according to Police Chief Amy Watkins, who spoke with Get Outside a few days before the event.


To prepare, Watkins visited the city of Oceanside for its Ironman 70.3. One key element there was familiarity.

"As you can imagine, if you're Oceanside and have been doing it 20-plus years, people understand it and know what to expect," Watkins said. "We are going through this particular situation for the first time."

On top of the 1,800-plus athletes, the city also hosted their family members, friends, and spectators.

Hotels sold out. Street closures went into effect. Athletes with cars were asked to park at Cuesta College and catch shuttles to town to avoid overcrowding. The city called on outside police agencies to help with security.

"It is a big lift. It's an all hands-on-deck requirement," she said. "It's a lot of work, but you know what? If this is a good thing for our community and our city, then the city staff is on board to make sure we do this well."

'See how much I can do'

Competing in the Morro Bay Ironman was a new challenge for Taylor. But the act of pushing herself toward a more ambitious goal is something that's ingrained in her.

"I am one of those people who likes to be constantly challenged," Taylor, 42, said. "I joined the Marine Corps after high school and I just remember everybody telling me, 'Why are you doing this? You're never going to be able to do it.' And I think that's kind of what did it for me, that challenge of, no I can do this and I'm going to do this. When I got into law enforcement, it was the same thing. 'You can't be a cop.' Yes, I can. Watch."

An avid runner, Taylor had raced in "a handful" of triathlons before, but none as long as the 70.3-mile Ironman. Taylor and five of her friends in the Templeton Run Club, a nonprofit she helped found, signed up for the race together.

She started training in mid-January.

"It involved six days a week of training," Taylor said. "I usually rode my bike three days a week and I would run two or three days a week, and swim one or two days a week. And then I did strength training six days a week.

"I did two workouts in the day. In the morning, I'd wake up at 4 a.m. and do my strength training. And sometimes I'd bike in the morning, or I'd come and run in Morro Bay before work."

Almost as important to the preparation as the conditioning, she said, was exploring how best to manage her fluids and food intake during the many hours of activity.

"It's learning how to stay hydrated, and how to make sure I took in enough fuel, to have a good system of what fuel I needed to take when," she said. "It was determining, OK, at this time I need to take a gel with caffeine. Or I might get cramps around this time, so I need to take something that's going to combat the cramps."

All of that preparation paid off on race day. As she swam the harbor, biked Highway 1, and ran through the city, Taylor felt physically ready for the demands of the daylong event. One of the most challenging aspects, she noted, was the mental component.


"Because you can't have any music or anything like that, you're in your head the whole time. You're stuck in your own head for eight hours almost," she said. "So it was a lot of just positive self-talk: 'I got this, I'm doing great, I feel good.'"

Taylor said she felt a sense of camaraderie with the other athletes and expressed appreciation for the hundreds of race volunteers and spectators. She said she especially needed the aid stations during the run portion, which made three loops around the same course that were "a little bit tedious."

"It was nice because there was so much support out there that you never felt like you were alone," she said. "It was probably about mile 10 that I got a cramp in my right calf and then my left quad. So, every aid station I'd eat a banana. I think I tried everything. I drank the coke, the Red Bull, the bananas, just to try to combat the impending cramp."

When Taylor finally crossed the finish line, she realized that she exceeded her own expectations, finishing in 6 hours and 50 minutes—good for 25th place out of 65 athletes in her age group and 150th place out of 384 athletes in her gender group.

"It felt really good. I was super excited," she said. "I just wanted to finish. I didn't want to get pulled off the course."

While the accomplishment was gratifying, Taylor isn't resting on her laurels for long. She's already signed up for the Ironman 70.3 in Santa Cruz this September—a new challenge.

"I figure I'm already in shape, I might as well," she said. "That's when I'll set some loftier goals. It's amazing what the human body is capable of."

'Knocked it out of the park'

For an inaugural race, Pruitt said Morro Bay did "an exceptional job" of executing the Ironman event.

"Frankly, I think they knocked it out of the park," the veteran race producer said.

Pruitt spent the week of the race in Morro Bay to help the city and community prepare. She talked with local businesses about what to expect and helped promote the race with digital content.

"That town is made up of just the most salt-of-the-earth humans," she said. "We wanted anybody who is into the outdoor space adventure lifestyle to really understand what Morro Bay has to offer. That story is grossly undertold."

Witnessing the scene at the Embarcadero on May 20 felt like a dream come true for the outdoors community, she said. And there's nothing that compares to the morning of an Ironman race.

"In terms of the energy, it's phenomenal. Literally, the town was vibrating," Pruitt said. "It was really fun to talk to people from around the world who'd come to Morro Bay who otherwise would not have come to the Central Coast or maybe even California. But they're there with the intention to do this particular event. You have the everyday Joe mom and pops, and then you have these elite, professional athletes, and everything in between. It's cool to see them all on the same playing field.

"And to also see the locals out cheering, whether they're friends and family, or bystanders. Many people were inspired," she added. "When you have that much positive, healthy energy, ... I know the power that this can have over changing a person."

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