Thursday, August 11, 2016

Top Notch

If you ever need to feel appreciated, volunteer to work the last water station on the last leg of a mountain triathlon. That’s what the kids and I did Saturday, spending the morning about two-thirds of the way up Cannon Mountain, just below the final, grueling climb of the Top Notch Triathlon. By the greetings we received from many racers, you would have thought we were handing out rare treasure rather than small paper cups of cool water.

Ready and waiting for thirsty racers.
When I mentioned the idea of volunteering for the Top Notch – locally known simply as “The Triathlon” – the kids were immediately eager. The Triathlon is more than a challenging athletic contest; it is a community gathering, a day where friends and neighbors come together to support an event that benefits the local recreation department. My kids cheered me on as I completed the final leg of the race four years ago, and after volunteering last weekend, they’ve caught the Triathlon bug.

Now in its third decade, the Triathlon attracts racers from local towns and as far away as Alaska. We saw serious, hard core competitors on the mountain last weekend, as well as youngsters accompanied by parents, the local elementary school principal, and the town’s police chief. The results show competitors ranging in age from 11 to 77, and finish times from just over an hour to well over three.

Our Triathlon day started with an early morning ride up the Cannon Mountain Tramway, with the kids remarking several times how strange it seemed to be on the Tram during the summer, rather than when the mountains are blanketed with snow and we are dressed in ski boots and warm layers. With us in the tram car was Jean McKenna, who has served for the past several years as the official finish line greeter on Triathlon day.

Bubbly and welcoming (even first thing in the morning), Jean spends hours handing out bottles of water and words of encouragement for those last few yards of the race. Even when you think your legs will give out and your lungs burst with the effort of making it to the top of the mountain and across the finish, you keep going, if for no other reason than Jean says you can. She ran the race for 13 years before retiring to her finish line post, and there’s no better person for the job.

Saturday morning, we left Jean to her task and hiked to our station, descending a trail the kids had only ever skied. We all agreed the pitch seems steeper when you’re wearing sneakers and walking through wildflowers than when there are skis strapped to your feet and the downward schuss is effortless.

We spotted the first competitor about an hour after the race started, and a few more speedy racers passed within the next few minutes. Some of these took water without slowing their pace, steady and strong. Soon enough there was a stream of climbers, and gradually the intensity of the racers lessened. There were more smiles, pauses to drink the water or refill bottles, brief snippets of conversation. Many racers thanked us for being there. Several made joyful, though tired, exclamations upon seeing us over the rise. Some asked how much further there was to go, and we told them to listen for the cheers from the finish line, which I know inspire tired legs to keep trucking on that final steep stretch.

Several friends passed our station in the crowded middle of the pack, some doing the Triathlon for the first time, others annual repeaters. Many racers were sporting shirts from past Top Notch Triathlons, indicating they’d been here before. One man near the end told us he’ll turn 70 next year. He’s done the race as part of the team in past years, but this year was competing as an individual. He wants to do the same next year, figuring if he simply finishes, he’ll be in the top three of the 70-plus category.

I’m not sure my children realized the uniqueness of an event that encompasses the community, not sure they see the value in living in a place where kids not much older than they are willingly push themselves through the course, or where their school principal climbs mountains, or where the chief of police comes smiling through, well ahead of the sergeant, who pauses to catch his breath and tell us that completing the Triathlon is a goal he’s wanted to accomplish for three years.

Long before the last racers came through, though, the kids asked if we could repeat the experience next year, participate in the day once again as volunteers. But they’re also talking with each other and with friends about putting together Triathlon teams someday, joining the cadre of bikers, swimmers, and mountain climbers toiling through the natural playground in our backyard.

Maybe they don’t yet realize how lucky they are to be growing up here, but they know Triathlon Day is special.  

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the August 12, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

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