Fall Outdoorsman Triathlon

Triathlon Today Magazine 12-89

Fall Outdoorsman

By George Chalupa

Bryson City, North Carolina (9/23-24)

An innocent blue sky poised over the gorge on race morning. Little evidence remained of last night’s attempt by Hurricane Hugo to flatten the Carolinas. The ground was wet, the river was up, and trees along the ridges and gaps were split and stripped of leaves – the race could be run, if anybody showed up to run it. First held in 1975, the Outdoorsman is arguably the oldest triathlon in the U.S. Competitors often speak of ten-year rivalries. By virtue of its age, the race has created its own tradition of quirky frontiersmanship. Roughing it is part of the rustic challenge: no fruit, beer, massage or sympathy is provided. Sleek racing canoes aren’t allowed. Although legal, and in spite of the cool water and keen competition, no wetsuits were worn (with one exception). Racers challenged the water and mountain on its own terms, as did our pioneer forebears. Saturday morning, wraiths of mist rose from the emerald water of Fontana Lake. During the deep-water swim, Dodge Havens and masters entrant Russ Callen opened a good lead.

The run course led the Outdoorsmen along an abandoned road under a canopy of fall leaves and then cut sharply up the aptly-named Needmore Hill. Needmore Road took the runners straight up for 1.4 miles, with no switchbacks, no concessions for grade. At the crest, a nineteenth century church and graveyard awaited the faint of heart. Downhill to the Little Tennessee River, the road switch backed mercifully. Here, with quadriceps singing, Jim Farrington moved into second place. The next five Outdoorsmen were all within five minutes of the leader – it was anyone’s race.

The eight-mile canoe leg has a dual nature, alternately rewarding and punishing the canoeist; 30 minute leads can be lost. The first four miles on the Little “T” empties into Fontana Lake, paddlers enter the Class III narrows. This year, however, the rain deepened the water level enough that the narrows were indistinguishable from the flat water. This particular arm of the lake was once the deepest canyon of the Little “T” and so winds narrowly through the foothills of the Appalachians. The banks are steep, and the current unnoticeable.

The competitors jockeyed on the Little “T” but when they hit open water they met a stiff headwind. Competitors soon spread out, each doing private battle with the wind. They hugged the riparian rocks, trying to avoid the gusting wind. Farrington, raised in the Great Lakes area, rose to the occasion, and in a high kneel position that mocked the headwind, powered ahead to finish six minutes ahead of runner up Kirk Havens. Farrington’s blazing time even beat that of Sunday’s relay winners, despite that day’s more manageable winds. This year’s lone Outdoorswoman, Mildred Neville, had a PR by over an hour. “It was a tough race,” she mused, “and I was ready for some competition this year.” Post-race jawing took the tone of a good campfire story. Had these Paul Bunyan types been around 200 years ago, these mountains and gaps would now bear their names. Having earned a T-shirt and a good-natured right to gloat, the Outdoorsmen swaggered, boasted, and strove to surpass one another’s exaggerations. Course conditions were compared with other years and slowly the tales grew in height and breadth until, finally, the 14th Fall Outdoorsman passed into legend. And through the legend, clear back to 1975, runs the Little Tennessee River. George Chalupa is a freelance writer and triathlon dilettante.