William had never participated in a triathlon, let alone any sort of organized race. He couldn’t help but laugh when his brother in-law Michael got sick at the gas station hours before starting the Tri the Parks triathlon at Tanner State Park in Carrollton, Ga. Saturday morning, but the race would prove to be the most challenging physical task he had ever attempted.
The duo scoped out the course after checking in and setting up their bikes in the predawn darkness. Before them lay three tasks: 600 m swim, 11.2 mile bike and 5k run. Finish and they could watch college football for the rest of the day.
William had been training all summer with his sights set on completing the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 10 to benefit Inheritance of Hope, an organization founded by his aunt and uncle that serves children and families caring for a parent with a terminal illness. Although William’s cardiovascular system was strong from running regularly, he had not practiced swimming during the two weeks before race day and had only tried his road bicycle once. Michael had marathon experience and was well read on triathlons, but this would also be his first time attempting one.
There were a number of serious athletes vying to qualify for national races. They paraded before their inferiors, bodies bursting from tight fitting race uniforms. Michael’s eyes bulged at the sight of their state of the art road bikes with sleek wheels designed to torch the modest hills of Georgian countryside.
The youngest racer was 13-year-old Matthew Stanley. He blew away most of the competition with his high-tech bicycle and customized uniform.
“He’s probably sponsored,” Michael said.
The majority of racers, however, were middle-aged men and women seeking a challenge to start their weekend. There was a camaraderie among the novices, who wore bright red swim caps and displayed the letter “N” written in felt marker on their calves. They joked about drowning, running one another off the road or suffering a heart attack mid-sprint.
Somewhere in this group, behind the athletes, the star-kid, and in the middle of the middle-age pack were William and Michael. They donned their red novice swim caps, staring out at the cones in the peaceful lake that soon would be attacked by hundreds of ambitious swimmers. William originally stated his goal was to beat Michael, then revised it to completing the 5k run in less than 25 minutes. Above all, however, the great goal was simply to finish.
“I had no idea a triathlon would be such a religious experience,” William’s sister Bonnie, a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, said.
After the nation anthem, racers bowed their multi-colored swim cap-covered heads as a race official led the crowd in prayer and a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks exactly nine years before. Christian rock music surged through the PA speakers as swimmers leapt into the warm lake waters.
Nobody drowned at Tanner State Park during the 30 minutes racers were in the water. Michael emerged a minute ahead of William and the two shared brief moments together at the bicycle staging area. William carefully buckled his helmet – failure to do so would result in disqualification – and took off after his brother-in-law. Michael would gain seven minutes on William during the bike phase.
Michael returned with his bike and a comfortable lead, waving to his wife. William entered the staging area with determination on his countenance. He had trained to run and bolted for the trail at an upbeat pace.
The sun was shining in the morning sky as they ran around the lake, uphill through the woods and back to the finish line. Michael raised both arms in triumph when he finished. William completed his first triathlon with an official time of 1 hour, 37 minutes. Out of breath, he spoke of losing feeling in his legs and passing an armadillo on his bicycle.
After downing a few energy bars and bagels, the boys drove home, showered and collapsed on the couch. They ate Chick-Fil-A and watched football the rest of the day.