Luray International Triathlon (1500m swim, 40k bike, 10k run)

Saturday, August 21, 2021, Luray, VA

The Luray International Triathlon was begun in 2006 by David Glover, one of Aaron’s Reston triathlon friends from back in the day, pre-Marmot. The Reston Triathlon was the main gig in town (and Aaron’s first triathlon) but David was convinced he could do better. He scouted off-the-beaten-track locations west of Reston that met certain criteria: a clean freshwater lake, low-traffic country roads, scenic beauty, a town with character, and parking capacity for 500 participants. Aaron’s friend Steve tipped him off to the little-known Lake Arrowhead near the quaint town of Luray, Virginia, tucked between the Massanutten and Shenandoah mountain ranges. Jackpot.

Aaron was the race photographer at the inaugural event, which was staffed by David’s triathlon buddies, ensuring the race ran like clockwork (triathlons require an enormous amount of organization) while retaining a low-key, homespun feel that is reinforced by Luray’s friendly and welcoming local police force manning intersections. Fifteen years later, the race continues to mostly fly under the radar but draws a small but devoted crowd. When I surprised Aaron by announcing my interest in trying my first triathlon in 2014 he knew he couldn’t blow the opportunity. He suggested Luray. I loved it even more than he wagered.

This year’s crowd of 250 athletes on the beach of Lake Arrowhead was about half the size of the field back in 2014. Where had the other half gone? I shuddered, recalling friends who died this past year, as well as other friends still suffering the lingering effects of a past COVID infection. But I was thrilled just to stand on the beach again, watching the early morning sun rise over the Shenandoah mountains to our east and squishing sand between my toes that I hadn’t felt in seven years.

Aaron and I knew we had no business doing Luray this year. The pandemic pummeled our family in too many ways to recount in a single blog. My energy dipped so low at times that I was barely able to run. Just a few months ago I was slogging through Georgetown’s Dumbarton Oaks in May at the height of the cicadas’ deafening ring realizing that I was running so slowly that Aaron actually had to break stride and walk behind me. It had come to this.

Aaron was stoked to sport his booty shorts/tank top tri suit again. The girl behind him wasn’t so sure.

But once we got fully vaccinated for COVID we became determined to rehabilitate ourselves. In June I did a mountainous bike ride with my friend Dave in West Virginia. In July I rejoined the Cardozo Crawlers for Wednesday morning track workouts. Eventually I even got in a swimming pool.

Last out of the pool at the Happy Valley Tri in 2018

But my last triathlon was three years ago. Honestly it was easier to do a triathlon when 8 months pregnant than once the all-consuming baby was out of the belly. Aaron and I struggled to find time to run, let alone bike or swim, and doubted if we would ever do a triathlon again. But along came Matt Lapointe.

Matt is Aaron’s best friend going all the way back to elementary school. Aaron doesn’t have a good track record for keeping up with old friends, but Matt is different. His wishy-washy quotient equals zero. Aaron and I have many friends who briefly take up running and then quit, but that’s not Matt. We were downright giddy when Matt began running last year and put a marathon on his bucket list. Here was someone who would actually listen to our tips and follow through. We couldn’t wait to accompany Matt on his journey. But in a year where it feels like the gods have turned on us all, Matt ruptured his ankle just after beginning his training plan to run his first marathon at age 44. I had in fact warned Matt about the perils of recreational soccer.

There is nothing as frustrating as a serious injury setback just when you’re spreading your wings. But after a couple months in a cast we encouraged Matt to introduce exercise slowly by swimming and biking. We suggested the Luray Triathlon as a goal race to sustain Matt’s motivation for cross-training through DC’s grueling summer. Not only is Luray stunningly beautiful and impeccably organized, but it has an unusually relaxed vibe among triathlons. The slow, hilly bike course filters for people interested in an adventures and experiences and less fixated on splits.

Going into Luray I was more pumped about Matt’s race than my own. His entire family came to cheer him on — a wife and three teenage boys. By the end the three boys had already decided to do it as a relay next year and drew straws to see who had to do the dreaded swim.

Matt and his boys at our 2016 wedding. Andrew is now in college!

On a chaos scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 = pure mayhem), the open water swim ranks about 8. Other swimmers are kicking you, swimming over you, grabbing your feet, creating waves that make you choke and cough. Since I’m slow I endure an even higher level of chaos, with large numbers of people passing (ie, swimming over) me. It’s one thing to feel panic on dry land, but it is much worse in water, where even a small disruption in rhythmic breathing makes you swallow water. As a novice swimmer I also find it impossible to swim in a straight line without anything to guide me and I end up swimming extra distance. Sometimes it’s hard to even what to aim for when the low morning sun is directly in your eyes and obscuring far-off buoys.

After the first loop of the two-loop course I felt the beach under my feet and wanted to call it a day. I was exhausted. I had already swum farther that day than in the previous three years combined. In the time it took me to do one loop the other swimmers had done two loops. I couldn’t imagine heading out for a second round.

But there is a perk to being so slow: no one was left to swim over me. Plus I thought about everything I had been through in the past year, including the supervisors at work who had figuratively grabbed me by the ankle and tried to drag me under the water. So many times this year I felt like I was drowning.

I did not finish the swim dead last. But I was close. When you finally get out of the water the mayhem is not quite over. You still have to run barefoot across 200m of rocky and slippery surfaces to get to your bike. I skidded on the wet wooden stairs and stubbed my toe. In the transition zone I shoved a sock over a toe that was already gushing blood.

People complain that the Luray bike course is hilly and tough. But it’s also gorgeous, with country roads rolling through picturesque farmland with mountains on both sides.

One thing I do appreciate is that triathlons get less chaotic as the event goes on. Being a runner I have the distinct advantage of ending with my strongest sport. But even if I were an equally good swimmer, biker, and runner I would still appreciate getting the most chaotic event, the swim, out of the way first. The Mayhem Score drops by half when you get on your bike, when no one is going to ram you anymore. But I’m not very bike experienced so I continue have mishaps. Twice I had to jump off.

The first mishap was when my water bottle fell off and I ran over it, nearly toppling me. I jumped off my bike to run back and retrieve it. Then my right shoelace caught in the gears so I had to hop off again to make adjustments. (Thus far I have resisted getting bike shoes that clip into the pedals. Maybe when I become Marmot Triathlete 2.0.) I’m also still a little perplexed by the rules for passing within a certain time frame and keeping 3 meters apart, especially when bikers get clumped going up hills.

When I finally survived the bike I made one last blunder. In the transition zone I forgot to take my helmet off. A volunteer yelled at me as I was running out. Thereafter was dubbed “helmet girl”. But when the run begins all the complications melt away and the Mayhem Score drops to 1. For the final stretch you don’t have to deal with any gear or remember any rules. Just run like hell.

There’s something liberating about running as fast as you can for no particular reason. Being a fast runner carries a certain amount of baggage. No matter how relaxed I try to be there is always the feeling of having a target on my back and an army of people chasing me down. Non-race mode is fun and social but never quite as satisfying as throwing down the hammer. During triathlons I get a rare opportunity to get the best of both worlds, running at maximum effort without any stress about race position or meeting some arbitrary expectation. It’s unbelievably freeing.

One of the best tips Aaron gave me about triathlons is to not panic when the opening mile feels like running through sand. Transitioning from bike to run is tough but it gets better. But one thing I love about the Luray run course is that it’s a double out-and-back, so I even though I was in the back of the pack I still got to see Aaron finishing his run just as I began. I also got a huge lift every time I saw Matt powering through his run. This is where being an extrovert is an advantage. Encountering people recharges my battery.

There are misconceptions about what it means to be an extrovert. If you were to meet me and Aaron at a random social gathering we might not seem that different. In fact, I may seem a little shy and standoffish while Aaron jumps into the mix and regales crowds with stories, drawing on his schoolboy days commanding the stage while acting in Oliver Twist or Fiddler on the Roof.

But introvert/extrovert has nothing to do with shyness. It’s about energy. I get stimulated from being around people. Aaron gets drained. Part of why Aaron slips into a showman role in groups is because it’s no more effort than normal conversation. I recall being astounded how patiently Aaron conversed with my grandmother with dementia. He could tell her the same story with same inflection and enthusiasm over and over again. He actually loved talking to my grandmother. It was like a computer program with a reliable input -> output. He never had to angst about whether or not she would like the story or not. She was a guaranteed laugh.

It’s hard for me to explain to a non-extrovert how run down my battery gets during the social isolation of the pandemic. Thankfully I have Aaron and Bjorn and occasional outings with friends to give me lifts. But working from home in general isolation all week leaves me feeling half-human and brain-fogged. After so much isolation the stampede of runners at Luray was sensory overload. I felt like a horse released into a spring pasture after being barned up all winter, bolting and bucking for no reason other than to feel old joints and limbs still working.

I finished with the second-fastest time of the day, once again earning me the unique distinction of having a faster 10k run (38 minutes) than 1500m swine (51 minutes). On a hot, hilly course the only guy who ran faster was a 27-year old who finished 3rd overall.

I had told the VHTRC Women’s Half Marathon RD Tracy Dahl that I would register for the September race, but only after I survived Luray. So far only 36 women have registered, a fraction of the typical field, but I’m pumped for the race anyway. I don’t know if people are scared of COVID or just feel like they are not in race shape because of the pandemic, or didn’t have time to train because it took so long to get permits and open registration. But I can’t tell you how good it feels to toe the line, run with the hounds, and cheer on fellow runners no matter what state they’re in. I haven’t felt such warm camaraderie with random strangers since 9/11.

Matt was also pumped after Luray and now has his sights set on the Richmond Marathon in November. Aaron and I will continue to ride the Lapointe train, which I guess means this fall we’ll have to pull a marathon out of our rusty limbs as well. Toot, toot!

Matt went all in with the triathlon onesie.

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