Ohio Life

My Ohio: Competitive Nature

The Little Miami Triathlon’s sense of adventure draws a nonathlete from the sidelines.

From the start of my first triathlon I could tell that my competitive spirit was a faint candle compared to the fire in the belly of other contestants. As our canoes slid from the muddy bank of the Little Miami River, the other racers planted their paddles and began to pick up speed. Their boats banged into one another as they jostled for position.

I held my paddle above my head and waited for the shoving to end, enjoying the way the morning sunlight filtered through the tree canopy and dappled the surface of the river. I’ve never been much of an athlete. I shied away from sports in school. Maybe it was my instinctive mistrust of authority or my abject lack of discipline, but something always undermined my ability to take games seriously.

But a few years ago, the Little Miami Triathlon captured my attention because it offered a taste of outdoor adventure. One of the oldest such races in the country, it takes place in and around the Little Miami National Scenic River and draws more than 1,000 participants from 25 states for each of its two races (one in June, the other in October).

Paddling — kayaking or canoeing — is substituted for the typical triathlon segment of swimming. In fact, the race starts with a 6-mile paddle down one of Ohio’s most beautiful rivers, followed by a 5.5-mile run back to the staging area at Fort Ancient State Memorial. The final segment is an 18-mile loop through the cornfields of southwest Ohio.

Paddling! Now that was something I’d done since I was a kid, and I believed it could help me make up for a weak performance in the rest of the race. I signed up for the autumn triathlon with two of my adult daughters. Justine was wise enough to find another partner. Gwen agreed to go with me. Our training was simple: We showed up on the day of the race.

After our rather relaxed start, we began to establish a rhythm to our paddling and were moving reasonably well downriver when we saw a man and woman in waist-deep water trying to free a swamped canoe.

As I watched, smiling at their sodden slapstick, our boat caught a submerged rock ledge and flipped, tossing Gwen and me into the cold water. We clung to the canoe and were dragged over rocks for 50 yards or so before we could right the boat. Gwen’s knees were battered and bleeding and both of us were soaked and shivering at the end of the river segment.

I figured it was time to head back to Fort Ancient and enjoy a warm drink. But Gwen, who played some soccer in high school, refused to quit.

We walked more than ran the mixture of back roads and rail trail to Fort Ancient, as the warm autumn sun dried our clothes and captured the highlights of the leaves just beginning to turn. We trudged slowly up to the top of the bluff, where Ohio’s mound-building people constructed Fort Ancient nearly 2,000 years ago. The bike route, on high ground above the river, provided a headwind for the entire loop, and yet we finished.

A year later, my wife, Mary, joined me, as my daughters all seemed to be busy. It was her first triathlon and we had a fine time of it. We stopped to post photos to Facebook, chatted up water-table volunteers and helped one racer put the chain back on her bicycle.

As we lingered for a moment near the end of our running segment, Mary agreed to snap a photo of a group of young people celebrating the end of their race, before beginning our bike section. “They haven’t even finished, and they stopped to take our picture,” my wife heard one of them say, incredulity tinged with amusement in his voice.

So, I now have two races under my belt. That still doesn’t make me an athlete. Obviously, there is something about such competitions that I don’t understand. Or maybe I do. Maybe it’s not about winning, so long as you’re in the race. Or at least it’s about paying your registration fee, so you get the cool T-shirt.

Randy Edwards is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus.