Defending champ Blain back as SLO Triathlon turns 35

Rick Rowe of Avila Beach prepares to jump on his bike after completing the 5K run portion of last year’s SLO Triathlon.
Rick Rowe of Avila Beach prepares to jump on his bike after completing the 5K run portion of last year’s SLO Triathlon.

In keeping with the family-first mantra that’s made the SLO Triathlon a community staple for three and a half decades, defending winner Eric Blain is getting in his fair share of breathing exercises.

It’s not while swimming in a pool, pedaling away on a bike or running up a hill.

It’s at a Lamaze class with his expectant wife.

“Our first child is on the way,” the 30-year-old Tulare resident said when reached by phone Thursday. “So there’s a lot going on.”

Despite the added stress and excitement of impending fatherhood and the baby shower set to take place this weekend, Blain will still make the 130-mile trek to San Luis Obispo for Sunday’s 18.6-mile test of endurance.

“I like (the race) because it’s just a fun, laid back atmosphere,” said Blain, who began competing in triathlons in 2010 and owns a résumé that includes the 2013 Wildflower and this year’s 70.3-mile Vineman in Sonoma County. “Plus, you can’t beat the weather in San Luis this time of the year.”

Family will prohibit Blain from staying longer than just the night before the race, but it’s also the reason he insists on coming back for a fourth time.

For the past two years, Blain has competed alongside his brother, Brent, and Brent’s wife, Lindsey.

Neither Blain brother ran competitively growing up, but a sibling rivalry blossomed once Eric convinced Brent to take up triathlons.

“I would like to beat my brother, because he has aspirations of beating me,” said Eric, the younger of the two by one year. “But I think first and foremost, I’m just looking to have a good race again.”

Blain won last year’s race in a personal best 1 hour, 11 minutes, 9 seconds, although he — nor anyone else, for that matter — knew it at the day’s conclusion.

Because the SLO Swim Center, the site of the opening half-mile swim, cannot hold the near 1,000 participants at once, racers are given staggered start times throughout the day.

Volunteers log the start and finish times of each athlete before using a computer program to sort and rank the finishers. An error occurred somewhere in the process, and instead of Blain emerging as the victor, an elder longtime participant was reported to have broken the course record by two minutes.

Mistakes were corrected the following day, and Blain was rightly honored as the winner.

“It was pretty funny,” Blain said with a light-hearted laugh. “It’s more of a family atmosphere and the event isn’t as competitive as some others, but … it was arguably the best race I’ve ever had. It’s a big accomplishment.”

Race director Rich Ogden said he will be personally checking every finish time before it becomes official, a measure he said would have avoided last year’s confusion.

Ogden, the city’s recreation supervisor who has worked for San Luis Obispo for nearly three decades, is in his 25th year of organizing the half-mile swim, 15-mile bike and 3.1-mile run on the city’s east side.

“Most of my career has been doing the triathlon,” he said. “After 25 years, you make a lot of friends with people you only see once a year. It’s kind of like a reunion every time.”

The friendships, Ogden said, are what keep him going, along with the looks of joy, accomplishment and determination on the faces of the finishers.

He knows the course like the back of his hand, as well as all the work that goes into each year’s edition. The work does not end when the final runner crosses the finish line inside Sinsheimer Park’s SLO Stadium.

“It would probably be easier to do (the triathlon) rather than putting it on,” he quipped. “It’s a big application process, and I’ve got ideas for next year already.”

Ogden won’t be the only one celebrating a milestone Sunday.

The race itself turns 35, having held the first feat of stamina in 1979.

To commemorate the occasion, Ogden turned the logo design into a contest. Guidelines were given to highlight both the anniversary and San Luis Obispo as a whole.

Ogden said submissions were received from across the country, but the winner came from right at home.

Kristina Albrecht, who grew up in Manhattan Beach but has lived in San Luis Obispo for eight years, is the illustrative designer at J. Carroll, a local screenprint and embroidery shop.

Her burnt orange and brown logo that features the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa façade and throwback font earned the winning nod.

“I wanted it to think about what the logo might have looked like 35 years ago,” she said. “I was stoked when they picked it.”

The logo will feature prominently on the sand-colored shirt each participant receives prior to the first swimmers diving in the water at 6:30 a.m.

The Blain clan is scheduled to begin two hours later; about 20 minutes after the 8:10 starting mark given to the inspiring Team Joseph duo.

Joseph Cornelius is a 20-year-old Los Osos resident with cerebral palsy who will be competing with the help of his father, John Cornelius, and a six-foot flotation device designed by three Cal Poly students.

“They did a test run in the pool a few days ago, and it was amazing,” Ogden said before adding, “That’s what this event is about.”