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Water safety is first priority for weekend's Pittsburgh Triathlon

| Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015, 9:36 p.m.
Athletes make their way to the edge of the river as they complete the swimming leg of the 17th annual Pittsburgh Triathlon & Adventure Race on Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, along Pittsburgh's North Shore.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Athletes make their way to the edge of the river as they complete the swimming leg of the 17th annual Pittsburgh Triathlon & Adventure Race on Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, along Pittsburgh's North Shore.

This weekend's Pittsburgh Triathlon will feature not only a new venue but also what Friends of the Riverfront executive director Tom Baxter called a “very robust” policy regarding its swim leg.

“We've made great advances in our policy,” Baxter said. “Friends of the Riverfront takes the safety of our athletes as the most important (consideration).”

The decision on whether or not to proceed with the swim will be linked to the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority's SOAK alerts that reflect sewer overflows into area waterways.

According to the updated policy, the swim leg only will take place when the alert is green, meaning the river is in a state of “dry weather operation” and water quality is normal. Although Alcosan typically doesn't post status changes that occur overnight until 8 a.m., Baxter said they will be working with the agency to receive the most up-to-date information possible at 5 a.m. on both Saturday for the sprint distance race and adventure race and Sunday for the international distance race.

In the event that river conditions are anything other than green, Baxter said, they will offer a duathlon, which follows a run-bike-run format instead of the swim-bike-run format of triathlons.

When sewers are actively overflowing, as they can during heavy rain, Alcosan issues a red alert. All river users, from boaters to swimmers, are advised to minimize contact with the river under red alerts.

Once the overflow stops, the alert turns to yellow and conditions become suitable for boaters and those coming into secondary contact with the water. Because it can take 24 to 48 hours for water quality to return to normal after an overflow, however, swimmers, water skiers, jet skiers, etc., are still advised to minimize contact with the river under yellow alerts.

The policy used last year incorporated not only recreational water advisories but also river samples. Those samples, however, took 24 hours to process. Readings posted last year before the start of Sunday's international distance race declared the water quality good, but the sample was taken on Saturday. Rain triggered a sewer overflow nine hours before Sunday's race started and Alcosan's alert status at race time was yellow.

Officials went ahead with the swim, and at least one participant was hospitalized after the race with vomiting and diarrhea.

Pittsburgh Triathlon Club president James Wrubel said many of their athletes have become frustrated with race management in recent years over safety issues. They've gotten reports every year, he said, of a small number of people getting sick following the race, and this year, they have only approximately 20 club members competing compared to 30-35 in past years.

On Wednesday, he expressed hope that the new policy will better communicate current river conditions and make the safety of the athletes paramount.

“Maybe in an ideal situation, you'd give individual athletes the option, if it's a gray area, of switching to a duathlon without penalty if they feel uncomfortable because some people have a greater tolerance for risk than others,” Wrubel said. “I'm encouraged by what seems to be a trend toward giving safety the benefit of the doubt. This seems like a positive move.”

As of Wednesday, weather reports called for only a slim chance of rain over the weekend.

This is the 18th year of the triathlon, which once took place at Washington's Landing and, most recently, along the North Shore. This year, the race moves to Point State Park. Approximately 675 people are expected to compete in the three events over the two days, a similar number to last year.

Baxter said Point State Park will host the triathlon for the foreseeable future.

“We're excited,” he said. “Pittsburgh is known for its rivers and bridges, and athletes come from around the country wanting to experience what makes Pittsburgh great.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at kprice@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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