Race Coverage

Freaking Awesomeness, Mountain Gaps & Horse Manure...


By David Leard

IRONMAN 70.3 PENNSYLVANIA - HAPPY VALLEY - Race Report - After driving the bike course on Saturday, I texted a couple Penn State buddies and told them, “Just drove the bike course. Freaking awesome! Gonna get my butt kicked, but it’ll be freaking awesome!” It was. The whole race was.

I never did a “Ironman” 70.3 before. Always thought them a little overpriced and when I wanted to do a half, there are local ones I’d rather support. But when this race was announced, and it was indeed going to be held at Penn State and finish at the 50-yard line of Beaver Stadium, my travel plans were made, and my sister’s 4th of July picnic was planned before registration opened.

Because of a new job, I didn’t race at all in 2022 and probably only trained a third of what I would have liked for this race. I went in relying on experience, muscle memory and (I hoped) a deep base to just enjoy and try and finish this one with no other stated goal....

The race is point-to-point. The swim and T1 are at Sayers Dam in Bald Eagle State Park about 20 miles from campus. The bike leaves the park and winds its way back to the stadium and T2. The run is completely on the University Park campus, two 6.5 mile loops with the finish inside Beaver Stadium, the third largest stadium in the world.

Check in went smoothly. I arrived Saturday just in time for the 10am athletes’ briefing. I picked up my packet, watched the briefing, strolled through the Ironman store, and then went and dropped off my T2 bag in the transition area. I then drove out to Bald Eagle State Park and dropped the bike off at T1. Then drove the entire bike course back to the stadium and was still in time to catch the second half of the 2pm athletes’ briefing.

I had a hotel 3 minutes from the stadium. So, Sunday morning was an easy drive to the stadium parking lot to catch the 4:30am shuttle bus to the swim start. Got set up in transition, and then just waited for the start. There were a lot of people doing their first race. Not just their first 70.3, their first ever triathlon. Like I said, this is something new to the area. My hat’s off to all who finished.

The weather was near ideal for the entire day. The Canadian smoke cleared. The predicted thunderstorms never materialized. The sky stayed overcast with temps in the mid-70s. There was just a slight amount of light rain on the bike. More light rain during the run, but it was the kind that just kept you cool and wasn’t an annoyance.

The Swim. I love Ironman swims. Big tetrahedron buoys 100 meters apart. Makes sighting a breeze for those of us who wear glasses. I hit the water, took a couple of strokes, looked up, sighted the first buoy with no problem, then just relaxed and took up a good pace. I think I brushed every buoy with my arm as I went by and was actually surprised when I got to the final turn buoy because I didn’t think I had swum that far yet. By my GPS track, I think I swam the tightest triangle ever. My time was almost exactly what I was shooting for. Not fast, but a success for pacing. A nice surprise was when they had volunteer wetsuit strippers upon exiting the water.

This T1 is a long one. By my Garmin it was 0.3 miles from the water’s edge to the bike mount line. Since this was a point-to-point race, you had to bag up your swim gear and leave it at the bike rack for transport back to the finish. After grabbing your bike, you had a bit of a grassy trail run to get to the road.

The Bike. I can’t adequately describe it without writing a book. It requires an understanding of the geography of the ridge and valley region of Pennsylvania. You go through a gap in one mountain, over another mountain, through open farm country and small towns, and cross world-class trout streams. Some of the steepest parts are the hills and ridges in the valleys between the mountains. And a section with some of the most fun rollers I’ve ever ridden. The roads were in great shape. The best I’ve ever ridden on. Completely uncharacteristic of Pennsylvania which is known for its potholes. Unless you were there just there to win something, you were crazy for not enjoying the ride. But it has 3462 feet of elevation gain, so you have to ride smart.

They warned us during the athlete’s briefing about the large Amish population in the region. It’s Sunday, expect to encounter the Amish out in their horses and buggies on their way to services and having to dodge piles of horse dung. Except it didn’t happen. The Amish kept the horses and buggies in the barn…. and came out in force to watch. Sometimes in groups of 30 or more sitting on a hillside. Sometimes just a handful standing out by the road. Probably the coolest part of the race.


The “trademark” feature of the bike course is going over Centre Hall Mountain at about mile 40 between the towns of Pleasant Gap and Centre Hall. It’s a 750-foot climb in about three miles followed by a 430-foot descent over a mile and a half. The descent has a 25mph speed limit on it. The townsfolk in both towns came out to wish us luck going up the hill and congratulations when we made it down.

The Run. After T2 just outside the stadium it was out onto the run course. I know I’m biased, being an alumnus, but I’ll put the University Park Campus up against any other as the most beautiful in the country, especially in the summer and fall. Campus sits up on a hill. Along its longer Southwest-Northeast long axis the roads are relatively flat. Going Southeast-Northwest it’s up and down the hill. The route covers most of campus from one end to the other. Down one side of The Mall and up the other to the steps of Old Main, out to the far western side of campus and a bunch of new buildings I never saw before and includes an epic turn around in front of the second most photographed object in Pennsylvania, the Nittany Lion Shrine, before heading back to the stadium passing the art museum and the famous Berkey Creamery. You do two laps.

Before this race I had never even thought about going through the tunnel and out onto the field at Beaver Stadium. And as far as I can tell, this race was the first competitive sporting event to ever take place (at least partially) inside the stadium. It’s always been reserved for just Football. They still weren’t allowing spectators onto the field so after coming out the tunnel you veered to the left and down the sideline to cross the finish at the 50-yard line, with your finish being broadcasted on the large scoreboards at each end of the stadium. It wasn’t quite as exciting as if it had been filled with 107,000 spectators, but it was still a thrill.

My sister, nephew and his fiancé drove in from Oil City, two hours away to watch some of the race. It took a nephew getting married to finally get another triathlete in the family. I think I have her talked into doing this race with me next year. They said they just missed me coming out of T2 but were at the turn-around for lap 2 of the run and went inside the stadium for the finish.

I’d say the only logistical glitch from Ironman for the whole weekend was the post-race food. After crossing the finish and getting your finisher medal and hat, they had (world famous) Creamery ice cream and that seemed like all. I found out later there was more food for the athletes across the street at the registration tent in the Ironman Village where they were doing the awards ceremony. Some people saw the sign pointing to it. A lot didn’t. But a missed pulled pork sandwich and bag of chips wasn’t going to ruin this weekend.

I had just claimed my gear bags and put on a dry shirt when a real downpour hit. That effectively dampened the post-race festivities. But at least it held off until I finished.

So, for an inaugural event in a location with no tradition: The venues were first class and the routes extremely challenging and awesome beyond my poor ability to adequately describe. Volunteer support was exceptional. Every aid station was well-staffed by enthusiastic volunteers. You would not have guessed this was the first time for something like this in the area. Local support was tremendous. People turned out along the entire course to cheer you on, including the Amish. But I guess with this being Happy Valley, none of this should have been a surprise.