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Henderson, host of Sunday’s Ironman competition, becoming hub for triathlons

Ironman John Muntean

Leila Navidi

Ironman athlete John Michael Muntean trains at the Henderson Multigenerational Center pool on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011. Muntean will be competing in the Ironman world championship in Henderson on Sunday.

Ironman John Muntean

Ironman athlete John Michael Muntean trains at the Henderson Multigenerational Center pool on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011. Muntean will be competing in the Ironman world championship in Henderson on Sunday. Launch slideshow »

More than 1,600 of the world’s top athletes will swim, bike and run across Henderson this weekend as part of an Ironman world championship triathlon.

This is the first year the race, officially called the Marine Corps Ironman World Championship 70.3, will be held in Henderson. The arrival of the athletes, plus their friends and families, is expected to have up to a $10 million impact on the local economy, race director Frank Lowery said.

Competitors have been arriving in Henderson for the past few weeks to spend time training for Sunday’s race and acclimating themselves to the desert terrain. The race relocated to Henderson from Clearwater, Fla., in part because Nevada’s climate, elevation and terrain make for a challenging race more appropriate for the world championships, he said.

Roads closing to make way for runners, bikers

During the Marine Corps Ironman World Championship on Sunday, more than 1,600 athletes will take to the streets of Henderson on bike and on foot.

To keep the athletes safe and allow for easy access for spectators, multiple roads will be closed, starting as early as 4:30 a.m. and lasting as late as 6 p.m. The city has set up a number of detour routes to help alleviate traffic problems. Major affected roadways include: Lake Mead Parkway, Boulder Highway, Warm Springs Road, Gibson Road, Horizon Ridge Parkway, Stephanie Street and Green Valley Parkway.

Traffic in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area will also be affected from about 6 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., especially Northshore Road and the north gate entrance off Lake Mead Parkway. The National Park Service is advising visitors to use the south gate entrance via Boulder City to avoid delays, and encourages boaters to launch from Hemingway Harbor during the race times.

“This is a tough course; it validates everything Ironman is about,” Lowery said.

The race will start with a 1.2-mile, open-water swim at Lake Las Vegas, followed by a 56-mile bike ride through Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and ending with a 13.1-mile run that will finish at the Henderson Pavilion.

Southern Nevada will host as many as 30 triathlons of varying length this year, according to triathlon website trifind.com.

Henderson is marketing itself as a destination for triathletes, said Nicole Johnson of the Henderson cultural arts and tourism department. The Ironman world championship has signed a five-year contract with the city, and in November, the ITU Long Course World Championships will also be held here. (The Silverman triathlon, which started in Henderson five years ago, has quickly become a popular race on the national triathlon circuit, but will be not be held this year due to the ITU world championship.)

“We’re trying to grow this so athletes come out here and train year round,” Johnson said. “We have become the destination for triathlons … Our weather is amazing here and we have the entertainment options, whether it’s going to the Strip to take in a show or exploring the outdoors.”

Competitors — amateur and professional — qualified for Ironman by being among the top finishers in their age group at one of nearly 50 events held around the globe this year. They often rely on sponsorships to help defray costs.

The professional athletes are certified by national triathlon organizations, and will compete for a prize purse worth $100,000 at Sunday’s race.

Click to enlarge photo

Ironman athlete John Michael Muntean trains in Henderson Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011. Muntean will be competing in the Ironman world championship in Henderson on Sunday.

Lowery, who is also the race director for the local Silverman triathlon, said the sport is unique in that anyone can pick it up. Another plus is the race layout, which makes it easy for spectators to get close to the action.

“It’s a fun sport to watch. It’s inspiring. You can watch NASCAR and see cars go round and round, but honestly, how many of us are going to get a chance to race NASCAR?” he said. “You’re going to see the strongest professional field ever arranged. These guys are fast.”

Florida native Scott Shafer has been competing in triathlons for eight years, and said he expects Las Vegas to be a more challenging course than the previous site in Clearwater.

“It’s beautiful (in Clearwater) but it’s not a real true test of the athlete,” he said. “With the hills, the wind and the elevations, it looks like Las Vegas is going to be a much harder race.”

Shafer, a 44-year-old Internet entrepreneur, is flying in this weekend with his fiancée. He plans to spend a few days after the race staying on the Strip and enjoying a Las Vegas vacation, and said he expects many of his fellow racers will do the same. He said he enjoys competing in triathlons because of the physical and mental challenges, but also the camaraderie the athletes share.

“I think the Ironman group is some of the nicest people you’ll meet throughout the world,” he said. “It’s more of a party. You go to see your buddies who you’ve raced against throughout the year.”

As a world championship event, the field will be filled with many professional triathletes. But 25 spots were held open for valley locals, including Henderson resident John Muntean.

For Muntean, the race will be a high point in a years-long journey that saw him battle homelessness and other struggles on a road that ultimately led him to triathlons and a rediscovery of his faith.

Muntean, 44, moved to Las Vegas from New York City in 2005 to get a clean start after the death of his mother and breaking up with his fiancée.

A longtime worker in the aviation industry, Muntean dreamed of serving the public by becoming a firefighter, inspired in part by the sacrifices of emergency crews during and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

He began the recruitment process for the Clark County Firefighter Department, and built his skills by working as a volunteer firefighter in rural Goodsprings and taking EMT classes.

Click to enlarge photo

Ironman athlete John Michael Muntean trains in Henderson on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011. Muntean will be competing in the Ironman world championship in Henderson on Sunday.

But Muntean was out of shape, and after prodding from firefighters he knew, he began doing triathlons to improve his fitness.

He started small, doing shorter triathlons beginning in 2008 and training on the stationary bike and treadmill in his apartment complex. He started swimming at the Henderson Multigenerational Center.

“I got addicted to it,” he said.

Muntean didn’t make the cut when the fire department recruitment ended in 2010. But he’s OK with that, he said, because the process set him on his current path — he has reignited his faith and runs a ministry he called “I Am 3 in 1” — and he plans to try again during the next recruitment.

“I’m on fire for God … I want people to have that same feeling,” he said. “I’m trying to use the sport of triathlon to bridge the gap between the secular and the spiritual.”

He’s run 10 triathlons over the past three years and lost 60 pounds. He said competing in Sunday’s race close to home will be a special moment and the culmination of years of challenges and hard work.

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