In a remote corner of western North Carolina is a valley gorge where athletes have been gathering for more than a quarter century to compete in the nation’s oldest triathlon, the Outdoorsman Triathlon. They come quietly to compete not for glory, money or endorsements, but to test themselves against the Smoky Mountains. There are no trainers, managers, or pit or camera crews. No horde of fans. No water stations or concessions for bad weather. They’re on their own.
In the early 1970s, outdoorsman and Nantahala Outdoor Center founder Payson Kennedy, along with Olympic canoeist John Burton and Georgia Tech professor Russ Callen, challenged athletes to come battle the Smokies in an outdoorsman’s triathlon. This race’s rules state, “Assistance with changing clothes, putting on shoes, or supplying food or drink to competitors is prohibited. Competitors are on their own and can only receive assistance from officials.” The rules governing the running section state “no form of locomotion other than running, walking, or crawling is allowed.” The word “crawling” is included for good reason. Mike Nolan, manager of a Raid Gauloises team, claims, “For the distance, it’s the most challenging race I’ve competed in.”
The course is simple but grueling: a one-mile lake swim (no wetsuits); four-mile mountain run; and eight-mile canoe leg through whitewater on the Little Tennessee River and then across Lake Fontana. There are no trophies, medals or ribbons. The winners take home a simple blue shirt and the satisfaction of having won. Olympic gold medallists, world champions, all-Americans and national champions in swimming, running, canoeing and kayaking have all passed through the course. Paddlers testing their mettle on the course include Olympians Frank and Bill Havens, John Burton, Jon Lugbill, Angus Morrison and Wayne Dickert, as well as Chris Spelius, Scott Overdorff, Bunny Johns, Mike Hipsher, Gordon Black and Kent Ford. Now the grandchildren of past champions have begun entering this special rite of passage.
In 2001, for the first time in history, the overall race champion was a woman, Virginia’s Karla Schillinger Havens, 39, who defeated nine-time champion Keith Havens (her brother-in-law) and Olympian Lecky Haller, as well as three former whitewater canoeing national champions. “It’s a truly challenging race,” says Havens, a five-time national whitewater canoeing champion. “Everything really fell into place this year for me. I knew I had to beat Keith and Lecky to the river to have a chance at winning.” Havens completed the swim in 20:35, the run in 31:09, and the paddle in 1:30:19, for a total time of 2:22:03.