Before last weekend, the last time I’d climbed to the top of Cannon Mountain without the aid of a chairlift, a mid-winter moon was rising over the broad, rocky shoulder of Mt. Lafayette, and I had snowshoes strapped to my feet. That quiet evening I was rewarded for my toil with a proposal, a sparkly ring, and a cold beer at the summit.
The scene on the hill last Saturday was markedly different, as I joined a line of sweating, gasping people winding up Cannon Mountain during the final leg of the 20th Annual Top Notch Triathlon. This was my third Top Notch experience, my first coming as an “Ironwoman” 17 years ago, and my second when I ran the race as part of a relay team a decade ago.
My team this year included biker extraordinaire Martha Wilson, who pedaled a great opening leg, passing other riders on the road and in the woods, and all-around athletic superstar Melanie Harkless, who pounded through the swim across chilly Echo Lake and sent me on my way up the mountain with a shout of “Go! Go!” (Mel and I first met at race registration Saturday morning, and I learned after the race that she had previously won the Top Notch as an Ironwoman and held the course record for six years. I know how to pick a good team!)
My goal heading into the triathlon was to finish the climb in less time than it had taken me during my last Top Notch experience, 10 years and many life changes ago. I came within a minute of that goal, barely missing. Thanks to my super-fast teammates, our team finished first in the women’s relay team division, and 9th out of 76 teams.
Over two decades, the TopNotch Triathlon has grown from a relatively small event to one that this year included 261 individual finishers and 76 relay teams, with racers arriving from throughout New England and as far afield as California, Alaska, and Switzerland.
Racers range from serious athletes to casual participants out for a good time, and the roster always includes plenty of locals in each of those categories. The race now even draws the occasional professional triathlete. Despite its growing popularity, the Triathlon remains a community affair, with a neighborly friendliness that stretches from morning registration through the finish high above Franconia Notch, some 10 miles and 3,320 feet in elevation gain later
Besides offering a fun challenge, the Top Notch is also run for a good cause. Proceeds from the event – more than $6,000 annually – go to the Lafayette Recreation Department, where the funds are used as seed money for projects like improving the playground and playing fields at the Dow Strip, installing a gazebo there, and creating new basketball and tennis courts in Franconia.
Milling around the start area before the race, I found a slew of familiar faces – friends, neighbors, kids I used to coach, parents of kids I used to coach, my children’s babysitter. They were all there to cheer someone on, to run the triathlon, or as race volunteers helping register competitors and direct traffic.
Among the crowd, of course, were the Cowles family: Tim and Kim who founded the Top Notch Triathlon back in 1992 and continue to orchestrate the event, and their kids Anne and Tucker.
Once Tim had started three waves of racers Saturday morning, he headed up to oversee the finish. After seeing to endless course set up and registration details, Kim, Anne and Tucker jumped on their bikes and ran the race.
As Top Notchers toiled up Cannon’s slopes Saturday, the mood on the hill remained convivial. Folks being passed on the mountain offered words of encouragement to other racers, even as they gasped for breath. One racer commiserated with a woman just ahead of me who was bleeding from bad scrapes on her thigh and shoulder incurred during the bike leg. A guy near the top gave me a wheezy pep talk as he surged slowly past.
I heard the crowd at the finish before I could see it, as I turned onto the Tramway trail and the final steep stretch. In that crowd were my teammates and my three young children, whose cheers of “Go, Mama, go!” were swallowed by the general shouts of encouragement. As I crossed the finish line, I was greeted by Jean McKenna, one of the friendliest faces around – and one of more than 60 race volunteers who helped orchestrate every Top Notch detail.
At the end of the climb this time around, my reward was high fives from my family, and joining a community of friends and neighbors in celebrating 20 years of a great event. I caught my breath and joined the crowd, which included a growing number of racers, to cheer others through the end. Buoyed by the cheers, as I had been, nearly every racer found a last burst of energy to run through the finish, breathless and smiling all at once.
This essay is also published in this week’s edition of the Record-Littleton.