Ever since the Dillon Dam was completed in 1963, enabling the Denver Water Board to flood the old town of Dillon and create a billion-gallon water cooler for the Mile-High City, swimming has been verboten. Sure, there’ve been fringe exceptions; nobody was ticketed, for example, when a rogue storm crashed the 2003 Dillon Open regatta and capsized boats, pitching sailors overboard. But the Dillon Reservoir swimming ban has endured.
For decades, the primary concern was tainting the metropolitan drinking supply via bodily contact. (From Dillon Reservoir, the water travels through a straw-like tunnel under the Continental Divide and eventually ends up in Strontia Springs Reservoir south of Denver, where Summit County’s wet stuff gets sent to treatment plants and added to the Front Range supply.) Thanks to advancements in water treatment and a more moderate attitude at the DWB, the rationale for the swimming ban has shifted from public health to public safety, namely, recognizing the hypothermic potential of swimming in snowmelt.
The Dillon Reservoir Recreation Committee—which was formed in 1989 and includes representatives from Denver Water, the U.S. Forest Service, the towns of Dillon and Frisco, and Summit County—worried that some swimmers might not survive the shock of a full-body ice-bucket plunge, especially those coming from lower elevations to train or recreate at the lake’s 9,017-foot location.
“The warmest the water gets in the summer is probably 62 or 63 degrees,” says Brandon Ransom, Denver Water’s recreation manager.
“So the committee for a long time had decided that it’s probably not a safe scenario for the average-joe citizen to decide after a six-pack of beer to jump into the reservoir and knock that off their bucket list.”
This September 10, however, up to 1,500 neoprene-insulated athletes competing in the inaugural 106 Degrees West Triathlon (named for the map coordinates of Dillon) will make history when they enter the water en masse at the Dillon Marina and swim around a 1.2-mile course to kick off the 70.3-mile race. Jeff Suffolk of Human Movement Management, an event production company based in Louisville, Colorado, spent the past nine years lobbying to get the race permitted. Finally last year, Denver Water and its committee partners—notably the Town of Dillon, which pushed hard—relented.
“It’s really unprecedented,” Ransom says. “This certainly doesn’t open the floodgates, so to speak, for swimming in Dillon. But we thought it was time to try one of these events under very controlled conditions and very close monitoring, with highly trained athletes who prepare for this environment.”
Suffolk, for one, is happy to be the guinea pig.
“There was something magical about this project, and we knew at some point they would find a way to get this approved,” he says, adding with a chuckle: “We waited nine years to get a three-hour permit.”
Safety officials on boats and stand-up paddleboards will watch over the swimmers—including two-time Olympic triathlete Laura Bennett—as they proceed around the rectangular course, then cycle 56 miles from the marina to Montezuma and back, concluding with a 13-mile counterclockwise footrace around the reservoir.
At press time, more than 1,000 triathletes from 20 states and five countries had registered, and Suffolk expected the event to sell out, largely due to the buzz surrounding the venue, billed as the “Highest Triathlon in the World.” The motto? “This won’t be pretty, but it will be beautiful.”
No swimming will be allowed before the race, Suffolk cautions. And once the final competitor exits the water, the ban will be back in place.