By Dodge Havens Happy Camper in the Smokies
The Saga of the 15th Annual Outdoorsman’s Triathlon
by Dodge Havens
As I fought my way against a howling headwind during the final, grueling canoe leg of the 14th Annual Outdoorsman’s Triathlon, one thought pounded in my brain, helping inspire me to drive to the finish. This was the exact same thought I’d had in all my previous Outdoorman’s triathlons, at approximately the same spot: never again. Each year time, in its unfathomable way, manages to massage my bruised ego, soothe my angry resolve and lull me into once again rationalizing the one great lie: it wasn’t that bad. This always happens around September first, when I have just enough time to increase my training effort to the point where I foolishly believe I am capable of Abeing competitive. Why I couldn’t come to the decision I am going to do it again in say, June, and actually get in decent shape, I can’t explain.
The reality of my decision to compete in the 15th Annual Outdoorsman’s Triathlon started to dawn on me when I arrived home from work on a Wednesday evening in late September to find Bruce Hartzler feverishly working on a canoe in my driveway, prepping it for the race 3 days hence. Bruce and I were driving together to Bryson City from Richmond. As we talked I sensed impending doom on my pretensions of being competitive. Bruce had rented a canoe from a dealer 40 miles away from his home in D.C. just to try to have the fastest legal boat in the competition. The dealer had a screw-up at the last minute and instead of the speedy Old Town Penobscot he promised Bruce, he could only provide him with an oversized bathtub bearing the inspiringly competitive name of Camper. What struck me as more interesting about this situation was that Bruce, who had just won the U.S. National Flatwater 10,000 meter C-1 and C-2 Championships, was taking the triathlon competition very seriously, indeed. Then, during our 9 hour drive to Bryson City the next day, Bruce spent most of his time reading and memorizing a loose leaf notebook full of drawings and notes about the best routes down the Little Tennessee River. My dreams of being serious competition were getting a severe reality check.
We arrived late Thursday at our cabin, where we discovered Kirk Havens, Jim Farrington, and Jim Perry had arrived a day early to get in extra time analyzing conditions on the Little T. At this point I decided I was in the race just to have fun. Now, I must take a moment for a brief aside. Out accommodations merit a mention as they were notable for a couple of major design considerations. Probably designed by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wrong, the cabin differed from most dwellings in that the primary entry from the outside was through the bathroom. This door opened directly onto the front street and offered to the casual passerby enticing glimpses straight into the commode area, which, there being eight males (and one female) and only one commode, was frequently occupied. Additionally, the bathroom was acoustically perfect, in the manner of a Great Concert Hall, so that every personal sound made while within was amplified and reverberated to everyone within a 50 foot radius of the facility (or 100 feet in the case of Jim Farrington). Linda Lundquist Crowe was in for quite an ordeal. I learned later this was a technique the Japanese used to break female prisoners of war —- force them to listen to bathroom noises until their will to resist is in shambles.
Back to our story. The Michigan group consisting of Keith Havens, Tim Block, and Tom Westinghausen arrived late Thursday night. The next day we all put in on the Little T early to get a good look at its capricious flow this year. It was higher than usual, and unlike some previous years appeared completely canoeable. Some years the water level is so low that one must leap out of the canoe and drag it down certain sections of the river. In addition the lake was being drained so that the river was extended 2 miles past its usual point where the lake flatwater begins. The Narrows — the only real whitewater challenge on the Little T — was tougher than usual with the lake being down and the river up. Still, no one expected any trouble there. (Foreshadowing!!!). Everyone ended the day in good spirits with much good natured bantering about the best routes through the shallow areas. We discovered later that Kirk Havens and Jim Farrington deliberately took wrong routes during the practice run in an effort to confuse Bruce about his maps and notes. Pretty sneaky, guys, it worked on me!
On race day several of us quickly became concerned when it appeared the advertized 1 mile swim leg was looking to be more like one-fourth of that distance. Swim coach Keith Havens was particularly excited and recommended, frigidly, that if this was the plan — why not just skip the swim and have everyone just start standing in the water and race to put their shoes on. His fervent protests apparently had some effect as Gordon Grant, Race Chairman, agreed to a slight extension of the swim course, wiping the growing grin from Jim Perry’s face. As we sized up the competition lining up for the swim start, we snickered at one fellow clad in a wetsuit. If you couldn’t stand a little cold water, you ought not try this Outdoorsman’s event. About 15 minutes after the start I was no longer snickering, when I completed the swim to find the guy in the wetsuit finished two minutes ahead of swim coach Keith, who was in second place.
As I started the run, I felt a brief exhilaration, remembering the training I had been doing in preparation for the punishing mountain run. I had been running up and down stadium stairs several times a week in an effort to build strength for the exhausting 1 mile uphill section of the run. Quickly, my exhilaration faded as the fallacy of my training method was revealed to me. I had been doing short fast bursts up the stairs, followed by short slow descents to the bottom. I couldn’t maintain a steady grind up the hill, but had to alternate quick sprints of about 50 yards followed by walking for a few yards. In this awkward, ugly fashion I worked my way uphill. Behind me Kirk Havens and Jim Farrington came inexorably on — their proverbial tortoises against my anaerobic hare. We three reached the halfway point on the run together — only to hear the distressing news we were 10 minutes back from the leader. Later we were to discover wetsuit was an accomplished runner and made it to the river first, followed closely by Keith, then Bruce. The tortoises once again proved superior to the hare and Jim Farrington finished fourth to the river, with Kirk and me not far behind. About this time, Jim Perry was nearing the finish of the swim.
Farrington hit the river fast and hard. He had won the triathlon the year before in Hartzler’s absence and was eager to test himself against the 4 time champion. He had a great summer paddling whitewater competitively and was now in his element. Kirk also was a strong contender on the river and they quickly went on the hunt, one right behind the other; like great hounds on the trail of some mangy foxes. Up ahead “wetsuit” had proven to be an extreme novice in the canoe and was overtaken in a few hundred yards on the river by both Keith and Bruce. Keith had won in a previous year, but had not beaten Bruce in the last several outings. He was determined to change that. He maintained a lead on Bruce, gaining on every stroke in the shallow Little T waters where Bruce, employing a stand-up technique, was unable to put his flatwater training to advantage. But up ahead was the lake and Bruce was confident of his supremacy on the deep water.
At the Narrows disaster struck for Keith as he misjudged a chute and flipped. He managed to empty and get going still in front, but much of his lead was gone, and Bruce was smiling to himself with the lake in sight. Jim Farrington and Kirk Havens roared down the Little T behind them, closing in on both the leaders. But, once again the Narrows claimed a victim as Kirk too flipped there and fell out of contention for the lead. Jim Farrington made it through cleanly and with Keith and Bruce in his sights powered his way even with them, then past them into the lead. Now, the river turned into the lake and Bruce quickly dropped into his powerful high-kneel style, forcing the tiny Camper forward with each stroke. Bruce and Jim left Keith behind as they rounded the final turn. With a final effort Bruce passed Jim to win by a mere three seconds — the closest finish in all 15 years of competition! Keith finished 3rd, Kirk 4th. Meanwhile, I was back in my favorite spot — the grueling final canoe leg — wind howling in my face. Still in fifth place, I could see a strong whitewater paddler from Atlanta closing distance quickly from behind. I started my strength-giving litany — never again, never again. But to no avail, he passed me and I finished sixth.
Farther back, Jim Perry was now in his strength and made great time down the river, overtaking many competitors and finishing third in the Master’s Class behind perennial powerhouse and champion Jim Hall. The two new Michigan fellows, Tom and Tim, were finding the Outdoorsman’s Triathlon a great test of their spirits and stamina, but both came in not much later, Tom first, then Tim, glad to be through, and I believe I heard someone muttering “never again.” Of course, a few hours later, after dinner and much rehashing of the race, everyone was talking about plans to improve next year. But not me — NEVER AGAIN. No, really, this time I mean it. I’m serious, you guys … OK, check with me around September 1st.