The Backyard Triathlon

 

I was over Paulís after we had just finished running. With beers in hand we headed to the living room where Paul turned on the tube to check out ABCís ĎWide World of Sportsí. And there it was, the first telecast of the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon. It was late 197_ something. A handful of athletes swam 2+ miles in the ocean then mounted bicycles for the 112 mile ride through the lava fields with its cross current erratic winds. Then from the bike, the field of athletes donned running shoes for a full marathon.

As the events progressed and the beers took effect, I became as obsessed as Mr. Toad of ĎWind in the Willowí fame. And in the following days, obsession turned to mania. The idea of going to Hawaii to compete in the Ironman was out of the question. First of all, I had a family with 2 young children. Second, I couldnít afford it. So then, like Mohammed, if I canít go to the mountain, then the mountain must come to me.

By the mid seventies, I had quit smoking and, having a type A personality, my smoking had been a powerful addiction. I needed something to fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of nicotine. Thus, at age 38, I gave up cigarettes and the couch for running the open road. I also joined a health club where besides the running, I trained 5 or so days a week sometimes with double sessions. So, how did all this stuff with triathlons get started? It started when I met Paul Hennessey.

One spring day, I was sitting on my front porch reading the paper. I looked up and saw a runner, a true rarity, turn into the court across the street. I was amazed because the running boom had not yet officially started and this was a big city street (OK it was becoming a slum city street) in Lynn, not some yuppiefied suburban drive.

Wow, I gotta meet this guy, I thought.

By design, I was out on the porch the next day when he again ran by. This time, I ran across the street to intercept.

"Youíre a runner." I said cleverly.

"Youíre very observant." He replied in a tone I mistakenly thought was condescending.

"No, what I meant was that a runner in Lynn is as scarce as a virgin. Iím sorry," holding out my hand, "my nameís Tom Carmody. Weíre neighbors. I live in that gray Victorian right there." I said pointing to the house on the other side of the street.

"Iím Paul Hennessey."

With that began a friendship that has spanned twenty years.

Back to Paulís living room.

"Hey, we could do that!"

"What you mean we, white boy?

"I mean that for short money, we could run a triathlon where we could be participants and directors all without going to Hawaii. Look, it doesnít even have to be the same distances. We could do half of it."

"How do you keep it from costing US a fortune?"

"Whereís the expense? We advertise for 0 in the calendar section of running, swimming, cycling, and other sport magazines. We call all the papers. Itís ink not money thatís important here. And, since this would be the first triathlon on the east coast, we try for radio and TV exposure. For T shirts, weíll talk to Tom Belhumeur at Athleteís Corner."

"What about support, what about cops, what about permissions?"

"Simple, everyone brings their own support. We donít need cops. And screw permissions. Am I mistaken or is it still a relatively free country? Iím going to assume permissions."

"OK, OK, Iím in. While youíre up, get me another beer, will ya?"

If you would like an encapsulated description of Paul, click on the link ĎMy Best Friend Paulí. There is, however, one thing missing from this capsule and thatís a description of Paulís apartment. Paul believes that an apartment is only necessary for the four basics: eating, sleeping, excreting, and having sex. Since the latter held a place of prominence in Paulís life, there were two bedrooms on the third floor and one on the second. That way, Paul wouldnít require a waiting room for his legion of ladies. Paul is the complete heterosexual in a society where males often have trouble deciding. For Paul, male companionship is for competition, getting drunk, and solving the worldís problems. The house on Silver Lake Place belonged to Paulís mom. She lived on the first floor and he occupied the second and third. Paul had many plants in the apartment in various stages of death and decay.

"Why donít you water the damn things?"

"If god wanted them to live, he would have provided them with water."

How can you argue with casuistry like that? A walk through Paulís apartment was like a tour through a Neanderthalís cave. Just the bare bones.

I donít think I mentioned the first race we participated in together.

"Hey Tom, thereís a 3 mile race in Lynnfield next Saturday. Letís do it."

"Sounds good, what time?"

"Eleven oíclock."

"Fine, Iím in." At this point, I didnít have a clue. Racing? Hell, Iíd at least win the division. The race as it turned out was at 8 (not the first time I was ready to dispatch Paul to his gods) and the distance turned out to be 5 miles. Paul never lets facts get in the way of getting me to the starting line. Anyway, I survived, got my ass kicked in all divisions, and got hooked on racing.

Back to the triathlon

The first thing was to figure out a course. The ocean was out of the question for the swim because at that time of the year, water temperature was in the lower 50s. So, I decided upon Sluice Pond. It was a little over Ĺ mile long, the water wasnít as polluted as it would become in later years, and the water temperature was bearable. I also had friends around the pond who would provide boating support. Next, I devised a bike course of about 60 miles through the North Shore out to Gloucester and ending on the Lynn Common and from thence a 13Ĺ mile run along the ocean, finishing at the Lynn Beach Bath House.

The first year, it was impossible to get coverage from Lynnís daily rag The Item. A moron named Red Hoffman ran the sports department for the Lynn Item and was quite delusional. When I called for coverage, he told me it wasnít a sport and suggested that I call the Lifestyles section of the paper. After questioning his parentage and sanity, I hung up (actually, I slammed the receiver onto its cradle). The Sunday Post said theyíd take any info I could supply after the event (better than I expected) and the Boston Herald would send a reporter (didnít turn out as I expected as youíll see). To give the Item its due though, when Rich Fahey took over as sports editor, we got great coverage for all subsequent races and the Item became our most loyal ally.

As soon as the event hit the calendar section of national magazines, I got calls from all over the country, Mexico, Germany, and Canada. It was tough trying to convince some of these people that the North Shore Triathlon was a backyard event with no pretensions but to give friends and I a venue to do a triathlon. ESPN showed some interest but I politely refused because quite frankly, at this point, I was scared shitless and wasnít sure how the event would turn out. Some agents (can you believe it!) demanded appearance money or expense perks for their charges and I politely told them to go copulate with themselves.

There were, however, many exceptions. As a matter of fact most of the athletes were exceptions. Steve Anderson, 18, from New Jersey was the youngest to compete in the Ironman and wanted in. No problem with me as long as his parents concurred, in writing. Steve became a super friend of my family but thatís another story... the ill fated but exciting 2nd North Shore Triathlon.

Anyway, I couldnít manage more than 100 contestants and 2 days before the race, we had 125 entered. I got calls the night before the race from Hank Lange in Vermont and Mike Carnahan from Rochester, NY. Iím a sucker for sob stories so the number at the start was 127. There were not any no-shows. 

Even though everyone had to have a support crew, we still needed help on the finish lines. We also needed water stops along the run route because cars would be unable to assist runners on the beach. We asked a local running club for help but they looked down on us as upstarts. Paul had a brainstorm and suggested we contact the Boston Beer Striders, and what a neat suggestion that turned out to be. Paul said they were an offbeat running club who might be willing to help if we package the proposal properly. The Beer Striders had a meeting scheduled at a VFW off Trapelo Road in Waltham.

We wrangled an invitation to the meeting. Let me say at the outset that the North Shore areaís running clubs tended to comprise serious runners, lean, gaunt, and with hungry expressions. Their meetings dealt with times, pacing, practice schedules, elite training, etc., etc., etc. They were serious to the point of boredom for the uninterested like us. Training and competition were the be all and end all for them. Fine, I thought for Olympians. We didnít aspire to nor did we have the talent for this. Well, at least I didn't.

There were about thirty people in attendance at the Beer Strider meeting that night. Jerry Caruso presided (for lack of a better word) and a more unathletic group you couldnít imagine although the group was sprinkled with a few marathoners and semi serious racers. It became obvious in 1 minute that the group was on the fringe of the running movement. Most of the body fat collected in this room was a cardiological disaster-in-waiting. The meeting never came to order as such. There were about 50 beer bottles and glasses of assorted alcoholic beverages on the table when we arrived. Paul and I looked at each other and thought Ė we have truly found paradise.

Jerry Caruso, who was raised on Bostonís North Shore, founded the club with Fred Latour, high school teacher and politician. Jerry and Fred were the driving forces here. Jerry stood about 6í or so, medium build but strong looking, an athlete slowly going to cellulite. One of his eyes would look at you while the other roamed about freely; it was rather disconcerting Ďtil you got to know him. He could be charismatic one minute and baffling the next. Fred, on the other hand, was a giant, at least 6í2" floating around 240 lbs. Somehow, he had managed to complete the Boston and Montreal marathons. Fred had a different type of roaming eye and never let a double entendre escape unnoticed. Jerry would talk, Fred would comment, the others would laugh.

Jerry seemed unperturbed with the raucousness around the table, and, throughout the meeting spent 98% of his time trying to maintain order. Iíve forgotten most of the members but all were individual characters straight out of a Dickens novel Ė warts and all.

Besides Jerry and Fred, there was Ann whom everyone called Annie-boo; she was an executive secretary with John Hancock, the insurance country not the historical figure. Ann was tall, slender, with a long face that was missing a chin. She was my personal favorite. Ann was the brunt of every off color and intemperate remark and a hell of a good sport about it. She once ran a water stop at the midway point of a 10K road race put on by the Beer Striders. After the race, Jerry forgot to send someone to pick her up so she ended up walking the 3 miles back. I never saw anyone more furious. Had someone put a knife in her hands, she would have castrated then dispatched Jerry to his ancestors in the north end of heaven.

Then there was Richie OíDay. In his heyday, Richie was a union agitator at General Electric in Lynn and was once responsible for over 6000 employees walking off the job. Richie was a strong, short, beefy, ruddy-faced Irishman whom you wanted on your side during any barroom fracas. And then there was the couple that lived together and had a 30-year spread between them; a fun and most engaging couple. Victor Tseki whom we all called ĎGrumpyí was an elementary school principal. Victor was a pessimist by nature and a naysayer by choice. When he ran, his arms flailed in all directions. The expression on his face was always pain. No matter what we said up front, we all loved Victor deep down.

The Beer Striders did, however, boast 1 serious runner, Dan Bowse. Dan could actually do a three-hour marathon, something to which we all secretly aspired.

I was well into my second beer when Jerry gaveled to shut up. He introduced Paul and me. I explained how we needed support on the run portion of the triathlon for water stops and would appreciate any administrative skills they could provide. I explained that we had limited funding, eschewed sponsorship for the most part because our philosophy was the support of amateur athletics. Also we werenít using some charity as a vehicle to siphon money. Itís not that we didnít support having races for charity. Itís just been our experience that charities were used during the 80s as a way to get bodies to the starting line. We had first hand experience with certain race directors pumping up and padding expenses so that the charity ended up with a fraction of the proceeds. Other directors used races without charities to simply line their pockets. They paid show-up and expense fees for elite athletes. The rest of the field was just considered like movie extras without remuneration or recognition. This race was to be strictly for the athlete. At this point, everyone applauded, Paul and I were unanimously considered good fellows, and the Beer Striders agreed to help. Paul and I later became members the story of which will fill another tome.

Race Day

I slept badly and had a nightmare that was to recur for all the years that I directed these races. The field of swimmers is gathered at oceanís edge instead of the pond. There are over 200 of them all dressed rather skimpily in the minimum allowed by law and Victorian decency. Besides, what male wants to think heís trolling his bait while swimming out there? For some reason, Iím not a participant. Iím standing there with my clipboard in one hand and a bullhorn slung around my right shoulder. Everyone is knee high in the cold water and awaiting my signal. There are no support boats but I donít find that strange. I hand the clipboard to a phantom standing next to me, grab the bullhorn, set it to maximum volume, and shout "Ready, Set, Go!!!" Two hundred bodies hit the water as one and head out to sea. I look up and see a fog rolling in 100 yards ahead of the swimmers. In slow motion, the swimmers melt into the fog that moves toward shore and eventually engulfs me. "AHHHHH---!!!" I scream and wake up soaked.

I arrived at Briarcliff Lodge, the starting point of the race, about 2 hours ahead of time to set things up. The family was with me. Josh was about 5 and Julianne about 8 at the time. Terry would run the registration table with friends of Paul and some Beer Striders. My brothers Joe and Dave would run the timing and results crew. Over the years, they became experts in the processing and recording of names, categories, numbers, times, and places. My family was the backbone of these races while friends were the blood that kept things orderly, alive, and flowing.

There wasnít one whole hell of a lot of room in the parking lot (sic) of Briarcliff. I decided to close it off to cars so the racers could place their bikes with their clothes for the transition from swim to bike.

Fast Forward

The parking lot is now a riot of color with over 100 bikes, clothes strewn sort of neatly next to bikes, support crews, and race officials. All together, about 200 people are milling about. Iím determined to start on time. At 10 minutes to the hour, I assemble all the racers at waterís edge. Out in the water are 3 rowboats and 1 canoe to provide a safety net for the 1-mile swim, which goes from 1 end of Sluice Pond to the other, and back again. Iím looking out in the water but donít see any fog. Itís got the makings of a beautiful late July day.

Since I was also a participant in the triathlon, I raised the bullhorn, shouted "One, Two, Three---Go!!!" turned the direction over to my wife Terry and my brothers, and jumped into the water.

The race details are hardly worth reporting. You get wrinkled in the water, and swallow gallons of primordial soup laced with E. Coli. On the bike, you play ĎDodgemí with cars and pedestrians while your rear wheel kicks road dirt up and down your Spandex covered butt and creates, especially when wet, one heck of a skid mark. By the time you finish the run, your salt encrusted, sweaty, battered body yearns for the eternal dirt nap.

There was one incident that is worth a small mention.

About three miles into the run in Swampscott, my spirits at an all time low, I suddenly heard screaming and yelling. I broke from my reverie to see an old black Buick roar by with 2 full moons hanging out the side windows. Yup, Beer Striders what else? Rich was driving; Jerry hung out one window and Fred the other. I was torn between laughing and puking.

Anyhow, Terry and my brothers handled everything at the race without a hitch.

My only regret was the coverage by the sports dept. of the Boston Herald. After scores of interviews by the reporter who obviously aspired to a sterling career with the National Enquirer, the following article appeared in the Sunday edition:

Nudity Reigns on Lynn Common

Lynn: Spectators at the first North Shore Triathlon got more than they bargained for as athletes stripped to the skin in the open air to change from biking gear to running apparel. There was enough male and female anatomy exposed to satisfy all tastes. Hank Lange, a Vermont native won the open division of the grueling 1-mile swim, 60-mile bike, and 13 mile run.

Oh well!