In the summer of 2004, I had just graduated from high school and finished up my final track season, which had been not quite what I hoped, but sometimes that’s how things go. I got a call from a guy I didn’t know, named Rick, asking if I wanted to do a triathlon. Just not the swim or the bike. He wanted to do the bike, and he had someone else who wanted to do the swim. I didn’t know that was a thing. Regardless, he had heard through the grapevine that I could run pretty fast, and that I might be into bringing it home as the team’s anchor.
I was a sucker for running races at the time, and decided to join up and see if we couldn’t take home some hardware in the team division. The Tiger Triathlon at the time was a quarter-ironman distance race (.6 mile swim, 28 mile bike, 6.55 mile run). I appreciated the challenge of seeing what I could do for 6.55 miles.
I turned 19 a week before the race. My teammates were both in their 50s. Our team name was “Old Guys”. Classic.
Our swimmer, Scott, had a good first leg, coming out of the water in 7th place overall, and first among the teams. Rick wasn’t so hot on the bike, but he held his own and tried not to lose too much ground. Coming into T2, our team was in third place, around 4 and a half minutes behind the leading team. We weren’t focusing on racing the individuals. They were serious and stuff.
I brought it home in style, recording the fastest run split of the day and passing all the other teams. We won the team division by two minutes! I was proud of my accomplishment, but I couldn’t help thinking that I could totally do this whole thing by myself.
The next year, I went and bought a cheap wakeboarding wetsuit from the local sporting goods store for $50. I bought an old steel road bike that was in decent condition from a friend’s grandpa for $100. I didn’t figure I needed cycling shoes, opting to ride in my racing flats. It would just be faster to not have to worry about changing in transition, right? Also, I did the whole thing in running shorts. I wish I had some photos from that year, but it’s probably a good thing there’s no photographic evidence.
It’s a wonder I stuck with the sport, after what must have been a very miserable first triathlon. Still, I pulled off a respectable 22nd place out of a somewhat small 76-person field.
Many years later, it turns out that I got a little better. In 2013, after a close battle with John Kercher, who incidentally also took 2nd at the previously mentioned race (the one where I was a total beginner and took 22nd), I emerged victorious and claimed my first Tiger Tri title!
In 2014, I returned as the defending champ, and went out hard from the start, coming out of the water in second and moving into first in T1. I tried to push the bike hard, not knowing if there were any sleepers in the field behind me. The bike course at the Tiger Tri is fun. It’s a 40k now (they changed the distance several years ago) but with a substantial elevation loss. I finished the bike in 51:07, a few seconds slower than last year.
When I finished the bike I knew I had the race in the bag, but I really wanted to achieve my time goal of 1:40 for the whole course (last year I went 1:40:22 with some head to head competition, so I knew it would be tough). When I started the run, the race clock was at just over 1:08. The run is a rolling gravel path, five miles long, which is not particularly fast. I knew I could do it, I just needed to find the motivation to run fast and not just coast through to the finish. It was especially difficult because, as you can see in the photo above, a series of fires in the surrounding region made the air quality less than optimal.
On the run, I focused on my form, keeping a good turnover, and took a trip down memory lane. This was the same course where, in a fit of what can only be described as my brand of teen angst, I decided to lead out a small dual meet against our rival team at breakneck pace. I ran the first mile, which has a slight gain in elevation, in 4:58, before being passed by two guys from the other team in a sprint finish and finishing third.
I remembered all the hill repeats, the easy jogs around the course, the way that, despite any big hills, the trail wears down on you because it just keeps rolling up and down. I remembered how so many people I know would complain about having to run this trail, because we had done it so many times before, and it was getting old. But I always loved it. Especially now that I only run it exactly once a year.
And before I knew it, that once a year for 2014 was almost over. I was turning the corner onto the high school track, the place where I ran my first sub 5-minute mile, as well as my first sub 6-minute mile. The place where I won my first race, and where I finished my first triathlon, nine years ago, chafing and sweating like crazy and loving every second of it.
When I rounded the fence onto the track, I looked at my watch and knew I would be under 1:40. At that point, it became a game to see how many seconds I could cut off in the final 400 meters. I dug deep and crossed the line in 1:39:41.
I’ll keep coming back to Tiger Tri for years to come. It is always a great event to be a part of, and it gives me a good excuse (besides visiting in-laws, of course) to revisit the place where I grew up.
Missoulians, take heed: next year, I plan on bringing an entourage. Put it on your calendar now.