TUPPER LAKE - In the early 1980s, Tupper Lakers were looking for an event that could bring people from out of town back to the region every year.
Steve Case and Steve Mitchell hatched the idea for the Tupper Lake Tinman Triathlon, which has persevered through good times and bad and is celebrating its 30th annual running today.
Derek Theriault is greeted at the finish line with high-fives from a young fan after the veteran triathlete from Quebec placed sixth overall in the 2010 Tinman Triathlon.
(Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)
"Thirty years ago, triathlons were pretty new," said Jim Frenette, who has been around the race since its inception, heading up the transition area most of those 30 years.
In 1983, Case and Mitchell got the idea for the Tinman after hearing about the first long-distance Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii, which began in the late 1970s. Case was working at the radio station with Jim LaValley and came to LaValley with the idea.
"I said, 'Sounds crazy,'" LaValley told the Enterprise.
But Case and Mitchell, who was an event coordinator for the Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce, had been researching the emerging triathlons on the West Coast and were getting excited about the idea.
"They were pretty pumped about it," LaValley said.
Neither Case nor Mitchell were athletic themselves, LaValley said, so they got Keith Walsh, a Saranac Laker who has since moved to Vermont, on board. As an avid runner, Walsh understood what it took to stage an event like that.
The organizers made a strong push to get people interested in the race, LaValley said, drawing in a number of Canadian participants. Case was killed in a car crash several weeks before the first Tinman, so he never got to see the fruits of his labor.
The first year the Tinman was run, 63 people participated. Current Race Director Ted Merrihew, who competed that first year, recalled that milk jugs were used as markers for the swim, participants leaned their bikes against the brown posts separating the parking area from Little Wolf Beach, and all the bags and gear had to be transported from the beach to the Municipal Park halfway through the race.
It was low-key, but people enjoyed it, and it continued on a yearly basis.
The Tinman grew through the first few years with Walsh as race director, then LaValley took over. As director, LaValley brought Dave Scott, who he describes as "the god of triathloning at that time," to Tupper Lake to give some seminars. Scott had won the Ironman in Kona six times, and his presence helped amp up the Tupper Lake Tinman to a higher status.
Under LaValley, the race's participants doubled from about 300 to about 600, and they continued to grow after he left the position two years later.
By 2007, the Tinman's silver anniversary, there were about 1,100 triathletes participating.
Memories of years past
When Frenette and Merrihew were asked about particularly memorable races, one that stood out to both was 1995, when a microburst came through the morning of the race. Frenette recalls going to the race site at about 5:30 in the morning and, when people moved the steel barrels used for markers, the air around the barrels sparked.
"It was like, 'Wow,'" Frenette said.
A strong wind came through and blew down some tents, then the skies opened up and started dumping.
"It just inundated the place with rain, and it was horrible," Frenette said.
He said most people figured the race would have to be canceled, but Merrihew, who was the race director at the time (he left for several years between then and now), decided that a two-hour delay of the race's start time would be sufficient.
"We told everybody, 'Whatever time you were supposed to be there, just do it two hours later,'" Merrihew said. "It worked out well."
"It worked out perfectly. It was a terrific race," Frenette said. "I always thought that was a great moment in the life of the triathlon. It would have been so easy to dump it for that day or that week or whatever, but Ted just had so much confidence in the volunteers. ... To me, that was a crowning moment."
Frenette also recalled another race, one during which he had a scare.
As head of the transition area, he would watch the bike racks to make sure that every bike was used, which let him know that all the swimmers were out of the water. One year, one bike was left on the rack after everyone in sight was out of the water.
Organizers made announcements over the public address system, asking the woman who owned the bike to come see them. No one showed up, and someone called the police. Police officials wanted to stop the race and immediately start dredging the lake, but "cooler heads prevailed," Frenette said.
Twenty minutes later, a woman came wandering across the field. Frenette asked her if she was the person who was missing, and she said yes.
"I said, 'I don't know whether to hug you or give you a kick in the pants. Where ya been?'" Frenette said.
It turned out she got tired after completing part of the swim and decided to ditch the rest of the race to go to breakfast across the street at McDonald's, Frenette said.
"She was so casual: 'Oh yeah, I was over at McDonald's having breakfast,'" he said.
LaValley also remembers panicking a few times when thinking that not all the competitors made it out of the water. Another big memory LaValley connects to the Tinman is when he met the director of the New York Road Runners club, who helped him get into the New York Marathon and two years of the Empire State Building Run-Up.
Merrihew recalled another fond memory of one year when an English man, who was in Vermont on the beginning of a bike ride across the U.S., joined the Tupper Lake Tinman. The man was staying with a triathlon coach in Vermont, and the coach called Merrihew to see if he could slip the man into the race.
Merrihew agreed. The coach brought him over from Vermont, he took the saddle bags off his bike and he did the full race. Merrihew put the man up for the night, and the man showed him slides of different races he had been in. Then the next morning, Merrihew gave him directions to Massena, and he was off.
The man continued his ride, which was to draw attention to a cause which Merrihew no longer recalls. In late August of that year, Merrihew got a postcard from the man saying he had made it to the Pacific Coast.
Changes over the years
The Tupper Lake Tinman course has changed significantly over the last three decades.
"Every single course has changed since we started this race in '83," Merrihew said.
The 1.2-mile swim leg was originally held at Little Wolf Beach, but the race quickly outgrew that location and it was moved to Raquette Pond, where swimmers set off from the Municipal Park. That worked better, anyway, because before, each participant had a bag at the beach that had to be transported to the Municipal Park on a trailer hooked up to Frenette's vehicle. Participants would grab their bag there and change into their running gear after finishing up the bicycle section. Moving all the transition areas to the park simplified things.
The 56-mile bicycle leg of the race used to go from the beach to Long Lake, going down Sabattis Circle Road from state Routes 3 and 30 south. But 700 to 800 bicyclers cutting through the middle of Long Lake got congested.
"That would be a little hairy," Merrihew said. "We're always thinking safety first."
So to make that leg safer, bicycles were instead directed out to Cranberry Lake along state Route 3 west and back.
The 13.1-mile run portion of the race used to be in part a trail run, going down the former Old Saranac Highway down Old Wawbeek Avenue. That route started to develop too many holes, and Merrihew said organizers were also concerned about being able to get emergency vehicles to participants. So the route was changed to an all-road course.
Over the years, Tupper Lake Tinman organizers have also added sprint distances, cutting the distance of each leg in half, and team race options. Those alternatives opened the race up to more people.
"There's a real spread of ability, but we accommodate everybody," Frenette said.
Other big changes include improvements in the technology and equipment used in the event - big things like changing from using a stopwatch to electronic chips that record participants' times, and little things like using bike racks rather than wooden posts, and buoys instead of milk jugs to mark off the swim course.
The scheduling of the event also had a big change several years ago. The Tupper Lake Tinman always used to be the third weekend in July, the weekend after Tupper Lake's popular Woodsmen Days. But that date was changed to the last weekend in June to accommodate Lake Placid's Ironman race.
The race today
At different times throughout its history, the Tinman was a qualifier for other races - Kona Ironman, the New England Regional Championship - but it hasn't done that for a few years now.
That, in part, has led to lower numbers of people participating. This year, about 620 people are registered.
"Our numbers are down a little, but it's nothing that we did not do," Merrihew said. "Being the 30th anniversary, we really wanted to promote it."
He said this year was one of the biggest and one of the earliest advertising pushes the chamber has run for Tinman.
The problem is that, while back in the 1990s there weren't many triathlons, "now there are triathlons popping up all over the place," Merrihew said. He said the races are more about money, and other areas are paying big money to be qualifiers for bigger triathlons.
Now, athletes have more options and don't have to travel as far to race. They may want to try new races rather than doing the same ones over again.
Merrihew said he doesn't think Tupper Lake will ever see its racer numbers in the thousands again, but he will continue to do things to try to draw in larger numbers.
"I guess it's like anything else: It evolves," Frenette said. "The people who run the race are always trying to figure out, 'What do we do to make this better for the competitors?'"
This year, triathlon professional Charles Perrault, a Canadian who has won Tinman several times, is participating in the event. He was also set to give a talk Friday night, which Merrihew said he hoped would draw people in.
Either way, for the the past 30 years, the Tupper Lake Tinman Triathlon has been a boon for the region.
"It introduced a lot of people to the beauty of the Adirondacks, and especially the beauty of Tupper Lake," Frenette said. "It was good for Tupper Lake. It was one of those events that seemed to really fit to what Tupper Lake was trying to be."
Everyone involved agreed that the race would have been nothing, and will be nothing in the future, without the continued support from the many volunteers who help put on the race.
Every year, upwards of 350 volunteers help with everything from giving out drinks at the aid stations, registering people, handing out timing chips, and helping people through transition areas.
"That's what's keeping this race together is the volunteers," Merrihew said. "They're the backbone of the race."
"The fact that it's lasted for 30 years is a testament to the people of Tupper," Frenette said.