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Gnarly conditions challenge Brewhouse Triathlon participants

Choppy waters forced organizers to shorten the swim for racers on the long course, but cooler temperatures were ideal for the bike and run portions of the event.

Swimmers holding onto a paddleboard.
Two Brewhouse Triathlon competitors take a rest at a paddleboard on a wind-swept and wave-tossed Island Lake on Sunday. High winds forced organizers to alter both the short and long swimming courses.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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ISLAND LAKE — Nick Ellis was still smiling when he crossed the finish line for the Brewhouse Triathlon on Sunday.

Ellis, 36, of Minneapolis, was exhausted after completing his first-ever triathlon, but was proud that he had battled through some conditions that challenged everyone on the course.

“That was the gnarliest thing I’ve ever done,” he said as he kissed his partner Megan Fredrickson and hugged his son Sullivan, 11 months.

Nick Ellis stands with his son Sullivan after finishing the 34th annual Brewhouse Triathlon.
Jamey Malcomb / Duluth News Tribune

Wind picked up overnight, cooling conditions but also turning the typically calm waters of Island Lake into rough waves that caused even the most experienced swimmers to veer off course.

“I prepared in a pool so this choppy water was crazy,” Ellis said. “But it was super fun and the weather was perfect.”


The water was so choppy early that a marker buoy was dragged off course and the waves forced organizers to shorten the long-race swim to the short-race distance in the interest of safety.

“Part of the problem is the sighting,” Elaine Nelson said. “When you try to look up to actually see where you are, you’re like, ‘I see a wave; where’s the buoy?’ Then you look again and you see somebody splashing. The sighting is a little trickier. In fact, I watched the short course and there were people just all over the place.”

Nelson, 43, of Duluth won the women’s long-course race in 2 hours, 1 minute, 11 seconds. Nelson forgot how many times she’s won the Brewhouse Triathlon, but said only one other race she’s ever done featured water as rough as that at Island Lake Sunday. At that race, not a Brewhouse Triathlon, she ended up using the breast stroke for much of the race.

Racers swimming.
Swimmers start the Brewhouse Triathlon on Island Lake on Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Bettina Keppers, 39, of Duluth was the women’s winner on the short course in 1:10:23, nearly eight minutes ahead of the second place finisher, but the swim challenged her despite the fact that she is generally a strong swimmer.

“I was a swimmer in high school, however, this threw me off today,” Keppers said. “I ended up getting way off course and needed to be redirected a couple of times by the kayaks and actually had to stop and breaststroke a couple of times because I was swallowing water.”

Ben Bittner, 36, of Saginaw, who won the men’s race in 2:00:50, agreed the swim was tough, but the cooler temperature was a nice change from the past few days.

Man running.
Brad Bittner starts the running section of the long-course Brewhouse Triathlon. Bittner won the event with a time of 2:00:50.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“The swim was, you know, you endure it and make it through,” Bittner said. “The bike was windy, but it didn’t cause me any problems. It’s just another thing to worry about. Then the run was great. I cramped up, but I was able to get through it. The temperature was great, though — great triathlon weather.”

Kris Nisula, 46, of Thunder Bay, Ontario, won the short course race, but said the wind became a challenge during the bike portion of the race, especially for riders with disc wheels. The cross winds made his bike less stable with the solid wheel — normally a tool to make bikes more aerodynamic — instead of spoked wheel.


Woman biking.
Elaine Nelson peddles along Island Lake during the long-course Brewhouse Triathlon. Nelson was the top-finishing woman with a time of 2:01:11.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Nisula’s winning time of 1:06:19 edged 2021 winner Mike Ward of Duluth by nearly a minute.

Even with the wind challenges on the bike course, Nisula used the ride to build an insurmountable lead.

Kris Nisula

“I came out of the water a little further back that I wanted to — my swim wasn’t great,” Nisula said. “I got into the lead just after the turnaround on the bike and the bike is my strong suit, so I really floored it all the way back. … I knew Mike Ward is a fast runner, so I had to get as much time on him on the bike as I could, because I knew he’d be coming.”

Rod Raymond, owner of the Fitger's Brewhouse Brewery and Grille in Duluth and a race organizer, said there were more rescues on the water than he recalled, but volunteers on kayaks and paddleboards safely brought everyone back to shore.

“It’s kind of a weird balance between exhilarating and this high level of nervousness or anxiety,” Raymond said. “For the swimmers that have experience, they couldn’t wait for this — what an adventure. For the swimmers that don’t have experience, it was ‘How do I drop out,’ or ‘How do we know what to do,’ so you have this real yin and yang of energies out there.”

Even though the conditions on the lake were tough, Nelson said Raymond and fellow organizer Matt Evans did a great job, particularly with people new to triathlons.

“Matt Evans and Rod Raymond just do a fantastic job with this,” Nelson said. “They’re just so good, especially with people that are just starting out. They’re very good about being like, ‘We just need everyone to be relaxed, stay cool, stay calm, stay focused. It can get a little scary out in the water when you’re just starting out and it’s like a washing machine.”

Men’s long course top five

1. Ben Bittner, 36, 2:00:50

2. Easton Syvertson, 23, 2:01:02

3. Todd Struckman, 51, 2:01:08

4. Richard Vanden Branden, 27, 2:02:38

5. Grant Nelson, 47, 2:04:15

Women’s long course top four

1. Elaine Nelson, 43, 2:01:11

2. Morgan Whyte, 25, 2:17:38

3. Lisa Filzen, 33, 2:17:53

4. Karen Nixon, 55, 2:23:34

Men’s short course top 5

1. Kris Nisula, 46, 1:06:19

2. Mike Ward, 33, 1:07:18

3. Ryan Saline, 48, 1:09:08

4. David Rubush, 38, 1:11:41

5. Denver Rogalla, 32, 1:12:39

Women’s short course top 5

1. Bettina Keppers, 39, 1:10:23

2. Helen Zenner, 18, 1:18:20

3. Morgan Bell, 20, 1:18:50

4. Macy Bell, 17, 1:20:46

5. Wendy Rauch, 54, 1:23:16

Man running.
Dan Husnik smiles as he nears the end of the Brewhouse Triathlon. Dan Husnik and his “The Hard Way” relay teammates Erin Lahti and Jason Beck won the long-course coed relay race with a time of 2:02:24.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Man running.
Noah Burson flashes a smile and two thumbs up near the start of the five-mile run on the Brewhouse Triathlon’s long course. Burson finished in 14th place with a time of 2:07:08.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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