Though it’s called the Nation’s Triathlon, four times in the race’s 12-year history, race organizers have had to host a duathlon instead. Why? Because the Potomac River water hasn’t been safe for swimmers.
In March 2016, the advocacy group Potomac Conservancy gave the water health a grade of B- on their State of the Nation’s River Report—a significant improvement from the D they’d given it a decade ago. Nonetheless, when the Nation’s Triathlon rolled around last September, the race organizers announced that the athletes wouldn’t be able to swim in the Potomac due to high levels of E. coli bacteria.
The cancellation set off media coverage on how dirty the Potomac water is. And according to race director Bill Burke, this kind of negative attention is bad for business: in 2016, 3,400 triathletes had registered for the race. This year, just 2,000 are signed up for the race, which is scheduled for Sunday, September 10.
“The truth is, if an event like this can’t have the swim because there’s problems with the water, the event eventually goes away,” says Burke. “You can’t have a triathlon if the swim keeps getting cancelled.”
Hoping to avoid future swim cancellations, this year, Nation’s Triathlon is partnering with Potomac Conservancy to promote water cleanliness. The partnership is primarily focused on raising awareness and educating the public about the Potomac. For instance, Potomac Conservancy president Hedrick Belin wants people to know that when they’re talking about how healthy the river water is, they’re talking about Washingtonians’ drinking water.
“The good news is that the level of pollution is going down,” says Belin. “We’re making progress, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
In order for the race to go on, the race organizers are responsible for submitting data to the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE), which makes the final call on whether the Potomac is safe for swimming. A DOEE spokesperson told Washingtonian that they have not yet received the official water samples from the Nation’s Triathlon. But Burke says that the past eight water samples his collectors have taken have looked good, so he’s hopeful that Sunday’s triathlon will go on as planned.
Ultimately, though, Burke says that the Nation’s Triathlon wasn’t interested in this partnership just so one day a year, Washingtonians are able to swim in the river.
“We have an interest in long term making sure that this river continues to get the love that it needs, because it’s not just the athletes that are jumping into the water on Sunday—it’s about the people that are using the water for drinking the other 364 days,” says Burke.