BENTON HARBOR — August comes early, at least for those participating in the Maytag Ironman 70.3 Steelhead Triathlon.

The race, typically held in early August, takes place Sunday and will be the first of two races held in Michigan this year.

“Ironman is a worldwide organization and they are opening a lot of new races,” said race director Mike Ryan. “We’ve been the only one in Michigan for the last 17 years and (this year) they wanted to open one in Traverse City.

“Obviously that is further north and the water is colder up there, so we said the earliest we could go was June.”

Athletes will kick off the event at Jean Klock Park with a 1.2-mile swim starting at 7 a.m. From there they will transition to a 56-mile bike ride and then finish with a 13.1-mile run that ends back at the park.

One of the biggest concerns in having an earlier race was a having a decline in the number of athletes participating. However, that didn’t turn out to be the case. In fact, the numbers have gone up.

“We had some naysayers say we weren’t going to have the same number and we said, ‘We’ll see,’” said Ryan. “We had 1,900 people last year. This year we are closer to 2,100 and we are happy about that. People seem to like the change, maybe because it’s closer to 4th of July weekend.”

Just as there’s been an increase in the number of participants, there has been a jump in the number of volunteers associated with the triathlon. Ryan said that there are 1,000 people helping out this year.

“It’s a project,” said Ryan of the event. “We start on Wednesday afternoon and then slowly build. (Friday) is the busiest day, putting up bike racks for 2,000 people, and then we have a big registration day.

“Volunteers are the folks that make things happen. You can never have too many and we find spots for all of them. (The triathlon) is the second biggest event next to the (KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship), and everyone has been really helpful.”

Safety is a big priority for event coordinators.

In an athlete information meeting on Friday, race announcer Dave Kappas laid out in detail what is expected of participants. He outlined the rules of each portion of the race and the road conditions for both the biking and running portions.

He also went over each course map, marking out where staff would be available for assistance.

“We have buoys that are 100 meters apart,” said Kappas when speaking about the swimming portion. “We have a resting ramp 300 meters out, and there are five yellow buoys that mark the course. A red buoy tells you when you’ve reached the turnaround, and from there the yellow buoys turn to orange to let you know you’ve reached the halfway point.”

Lifeguards will patrol in several rafts. Athletes are allowed to hold onto these rafts to rest without incurring penalties, and a special area will be designated for participants to place any medical items, such as asthma inhalers, while they are in the water.

Penalties can be enforced during the race. Athletes can receive either a yellow or blue card depending on the type of violation they commit.

Each card awards a specific time-delay penalty. Yellow cards are 30 seconds while blue cards hold a five-minute detention.

“You get a blue card for big things like throwing off your equipment during the race or taking too long to draft (pass) another rider,” said Kappas. “We treat blue cards as a three-and-you’re-out rule.”

Athletes have 25 seconds to complete a draft, and the rider being drafted must slow down and allow the passer to go ahead once they have come into their line of sight.

“Good sportsmanship is a big part of Ironman events,” said Kappas. “The rules aren’t only for fair play, they are for safety.”

Contact: acrider@TheHP.com, 932-0371, @HPAaronCrider