DIY Backcountry Triathlon
Join our favorite band of adventurers, The Explorers, for a challenging, invitation-only adventure in a secluded area of the White Mountains. Or, better yet, read this for inspiration and create your own.
It’s 42 degrees, the water slightly warmer than the air, with spires of mist rising from the smooth metallic surface of Stinson Lake. We dive in and begin cutting across the flat, silvery lake with Brad Hayman, a former elite swimmer from Gunnedah, Australia, surging ahead. The Fifth Annual DIY Backcountry Triathlon, held each September in Rumney, is underway.
A half-mile from the starting point, four of us arrive at a rock sitting a few feet beneath the water along the eastern shore of the lake. My hockey pal Mark Machera pulls me onto the rock, and I climb up alongside Jackson Spellman, Mark and Brad.
For a moment, we linger at the turnaround. Jackson mentions the first DIY Tri when the water was numbingly cold and there was a strong headwind, which created a chop that smacked you in the face with every breath. We’re gazing across at 3,453-foot Mt. Carr, which darkens as the sky grows lighter.
Everyone goes silent, hands on hips. Jackson is a lean, quiet, wry-tempered fellow. Standing to my right, he looks down, smiles to himself, and shakes his head.
“You’re welcome,” I say, and everyone there laughs.
Then Mark Machera pushes me off the rock and we start swimming, following after Brad in a staggered line. I’m at the back, the arc of the sun glinting off the water when I tilt my head to breathe. This is family, I’m thinking. This is home.
Co-founded by my rugby teammate Chris Pierce and me, the DIY Backcountry Triathlon was conceived as a challenging, invitation-only adventure in a secluded area of the White Mountains. In this way, we’d avoid the hefty fees of the triathlons and obstacle course races that have popped up, offering an opportunity for our kids to try their hands at a wilderness endurance event.
Although my rugby friends and their wives have competitive backgrounds — football, soccer, wrestling, swimming, hockey, even a national dance champion — the DIY Tri is totally inclusive. These sojourns embody the outdoor lifestyle we all cherish, and it’s important to pass that on to our children.
The DIY Tri isn’t a race against the clock; it’s a shared experience marked by humor, camaraderie, and a profound love of wild places. Chris Pierce calls it his favorite weekend of the year, and I have to agree.
The first DIY Tri forms an origin story for our group of explorers, whose adventure calendar now stretches across all four seasons. The core events are a 1,650-yard open water swim, 6.5-mile mountain bike ride, and a 2.6-mile scramble up and down Mt. Rattlesnake. The swim portion is flexible — some of those participating in the heavyweight division swim approximately 500 yards, and friends who aren’t swimming coach the youngest athletes through swims ranging from 50 to 150 yards.
Ten-year-old Willem Pierce and his 13-year-old sister Kaya, who are Chris and Tanya’s kids, have grown up in the DIY Backcountry Triathlon. Rugby pal Mike Zizza’s daughter Sofia, 22, a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina, is participating for the first time, though she was a stalwart in last winter’s pond hockey game. Two of my recent Boston University students, Andy Hallock and Betsey Goldwasser, are rookies this year. Our youngest participants, Teddy Godbout, 5, and his brother Max, 3, are being watched over by their rugby-playing parents Paul and Krystyna; and going by their early morning laughter, the young Godbouts plan to give it the old kindergarten try.
Rumney, pop. 1,480, is comprised of placid farms and neat clapboard homes spread along the Baker River, which winds through a valley of the same name. A church and white-fenced common mark the tiny village center. Located nearby is the Common Café and Tavern, our gathering spot on the Saturday evening before each DIY Tri. We’re lucky that one of the few businesses in town is among the best casual dining/live music venues in the White Mountains.
By 6:30 p.m., our group, numbering 17, fills up the ground floor of the restaurant, which doubles as a bakery and coffee shop during the day. We keep staff members busy, taking orders for salads and their crispy, thin-crust pizza, as well as local craft beers on tap.
The “pre-game dinner” for the DIY Tri is a celebrated event, and in the midst of the boisterous laughter, I text Andy Hallock that he and Betsey have committed a faux pas by deciding to meet us the next morning instead of staying overnight at the Mountain View Lodge. An affable kid from St. Paul, Minnesota, Andy issues an immediate apology, promising to rouse Betsey and depart Boston by 5 a.m. the next morning.
Soon we’re occupying every available space at the bar upstairs, though it’s already crammed with rock climbers, middle-aged couples drinking wine, bearded dudes in overalls and other friendly locals.
Rumney empties out right after Labor Day, with vacationers departing for other locales. Holding our event in mid-September allows us to participate in the sort of homey, Grover’s Corner atmosphere that “Our Town” author Thornton Wilder might have conceived if he were a rugby-playing bon vivant. During the triathlon we’re alone in the pristine environs of the Baker River Valley, but at night we’re surrounded by a cast of characters straight out of an earlier, more neighborly age.
The upper floor of the Common Café and Tavern is long and narrow, finished in smooth pine, featuring a polished wooden bar along the right-hand wall, and festooned with massive crossbeams. At the far end of the gleaming floor is a tiny stage, where DC Blue, a smooth blues-rock trio, is rambling through a bouncy version of “Rita Mae Young” by the Record Company.
There’s a convivial buzz in the room, a rattling of glasses and bursts of hearty laughter piercing the buoyant, catchy tune. Chris sees an opportunity for a role in this musical comedy and gets up to dance with Kaya, his lovely blue-eyed, blond-haired daughter. For a minute or two, they’re the only two hoofers on the shiny dance floor.
“Got a hollow heart and I’m feeling wrong
Got a dollar in my pocket for a midnight song”
Tanya grabs 10-year-old Willem and soon they’re up there too, gyrating and laughing. I step through the crowd, tap Chris on the shoulder and start dancing with Kaya, busting a few moves that haven’t been spotted since the invention of the VCR, and with good reason. The space fills up with burly rugby players, dancing with the Pierce kids and jostling each other.
It’s contagious, as friends and fans of the band jump up — grandmothers, rock climbers, actual truckers and trucker-hatted hipsters, everyone shimmying and shaking and raising their hands to the ceiling. Chris looks over at me, his head rocking back with mirth, gesturing toward our friends.
“Nobody has more fun than us,” I shout over the music.
The next morning, right after the swim, I find my students, Andy and Betsey, on the beach. Andy is a tall, ginger-haired lad, a musician and hockey player. His girlfriend, Betsey, a soulful brunette who took my Jack Kerouac class, is trying to help Andy stretch my spare wetsuit over his angular frame.
As I walk past, I say, “Glad you came?”
Andy grins. “You’ve been talking about this for four years,” he says. “It’s going to be fun.”
“You’ve got the wetsuit on backward,” I say, heading for my bike.
Betsey laughs, pulling down the zipper on Andy’s chest that should be running along his spine.
A short while later, we climb on our mountain bikes and head out on the gravel- grinding ride around Stinson Lake. Chris is riding alongside Kaya, who is pedaling her new recumbent bicycle. Just behind them, Paul Godbout is pulling young Max on a little trailer attached to his mountain bike. His wife Krystyna is piloting a similar rig, hauling Teddy whose legs are long enough to pedal.
Multisport athlete Tanya Pierce, a former All-American in soccer at Ithaca College, shoots ahead with Willem racing along behind her, and it looks like a jailbreak as we race up Doetown Road.
Our route begins with three steep hills, and Kristi Spellman and Brad Hayman and I pull out in front. A former Miss Teen Dance America, Kristi was trained as a competitive dancer, with ballet her specialty. Kristi and her husband Jackson and I frequently meet for early morning swims at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. She’s a dynamic swimmer, fast on a road or mountain bike, and quick over the ground.
But today Kristi wasn’t able to swim. Before we got in the water, she revealed that a week after taking five stitches in her calf, she was in the shower thinking about the vegan sports supplements she’s developing for her employer. Weighing my suggestion for blueberry/vanilla pea protein shakes against other, more questionable combinations, Kristi absent-mindedly shaved off her stitches.
As we reach the top of the third hill, Kristi says that on her return trip to the urgent care facility, a nurse told her that she was the “laugh case” of the week. On the spot, I nickname her “Stitches” Spellman, which I’m certain will be another moniker I have bestowed on a member of our crowd.
The ensuing down hill is rocky and rutted and pitched rather steeply, and Brad and I speed along, bouncing over the rough terrain. We’re going fast enough to break our necks if we were to catch a tire and get catapulted into the air.
Gripping the handlebars and straddling the frame of our bikes, we navigate the shallow ditch that crosses the road halfway down the hill, letting out war whoops.
Passing me, Brad goes rocketing up the short incline at the bottom of the slope. “Weight advantage,” I yell out.
Jackson and Bubba McIntosh, who played rugby together at the University of New Hampshire, are behind me. As they pass Paul and Max Godbout, who’ve lost a pedal and are temporarily broken down, Bubba cranes his neck to glance back.
“Looks like the Godbouts are having some technical difficulties,” Bubba says.
Looking over his shoulder, Jackson sees Paul busy by the rear axle of the bike, fiddling with the pedal. “They’re gonna have to figure that out as a family,” he says, in a salesman-type voice, and Bubba laughs.
Rugby players are quick to point out their teammates’ shortcomings or perceived failures, which has transformed our event into the DIY Self-Reliance Triathlon.
Three-quarters of the way around Stinson Lake, we turn right onto the newly paved road that follows the western shore, providing unobstructed views of the 342-acre lake. Finishing up at the little beach where we started, I get a text from Chris asking if I want to ride back to accompany him and Kaya over the last mile and a half.
I climb on my bike and Willem follows after me, pedaling for over a mile before we spot his father and sister. Going past, I hang a U-turn and cruise up alongside Kaya.
“How you doin’, kid?” I ask.
“Little tired,” Kaya says.
A capable, athletic young woman with a sunny disposition, Kaya has cerebral palsy. Both of her parents are physical therapists, and have supported her through a range of adaptive and mainstream sports, including soccer, skiing, hiking and, today, swimming.
Although I missed Kaya’s swim, when I returned to the beach I heard she was on track to complete her first DIY Tri. In 42-degree weather, Kaya got into the cold water, and using one arm and one leg that’s not entirely functional, she completed a 50-yard swim. It was only the second time in her life she attempted to swim any sort of distance without resting — and she did it with a smile on her face.
My younger brother Jamie also has CP, and growing up, the other kids in our neighborhood, including some who later played college sports, treated him like one of the gang. With physical limitations on his left side, but a powerful right arm and leg, Jamie was the quarterback and kicker in neighbor-hood football games; a pitcher in softball and baseball; and played marathon games of street hockey behind our house, which was like a religion with my friends and me. In high school, he was on the varsity ski team, and played one season of junior college soccer.
Kaya reminds me of my brother when he was that age, bound and determined to have the same transcendent experiences as her peers.
“Show me your quickest leg turnover,” I say to her. “Fastest pedaling you got.”
This seems to buoy her efforts, and Kaya begins zipping along the pavement, catching up to her brother who’s directly ahead of us.
“Get out of my way, dude,” she says to Will, rolling ahead of our group, her legs churning. I smile over at Chris, coming alongside him.
As we follow the kids toward the rally point, Chris says, “If you’re a person with a disability, I think you should own it. It doesn’t define you, and shouldn’t limit you from trying.”
“Amen, brother,” I say.
When we return to the parking lot, everyone is waiting for us, changing into their hiking shoes and having a quick snack. Jackson is sitting on the tailgate of his SUV, wearing sunglasses and strumming his guitar. I’m parked beside him, and as I put my bike away, I can hear him crooning an old Lynyrd Skynyrd song.
“Forget your lust for the rich man’s gold All that you need is in your soul”
Sitting on the ground to lace up my hiking boots, I wink at Jackson, recalling the night before. Around 9:30 p.m., we quit the Common Man and headed back to the Mountain View Lodge, located on old Route 25, a few miles from the village center. It’s a large, rambling A-frame building, with a kitchen, sunken living room, large fieldstone hearth, and several bedrooms and lofts.
Each year, we book the entire lodge, and are always eager to get back there, light a fire, and sit around having a beer and telling stories.
Doug Willett and his wife Barb who live next door, own Mountain View Lodge. Doug coached football at Plymouth State College during their glory years, when a hometown buddy of mine, Kevin Bradley, was their quarterback. Since our first DIY Tri five years ago, Doug has treated us like family, coming over for a beer and helping me give Chris Pierce a hard time, because, well, he’s Chris.
Jackson was playing guitar by the fire, and as he strummed along, Mark Machera asked if he could try out Jackson’s Martin acoustic. Mark was down on one knee in the middle of the room, extending his arms. Jackson was sitting on the hearth, and passed the guitar over to Mark.
Sitting beside me was Doug Langdon, a blond-haired fullback who I’ve played with in several dozen rugby matches. Gesturing toward Mark, I said, “He thinks he’s Al Jolson.”
After a brief warm-up, Mark ran through a beautiful instrumental while Jackson sat with his elbows on his knees, smiling and nodding his head. I turned to Langdon, and said, “You know what, Dougie? There’s no place I’d rather be, and no people I’d rather be with, than right here.”
Doug nodded, touching his beer to mine.
Kristi Spellman was chatting with Krystyna Godbout a short distance away, and when she heard what I’d said, Kristi clasped both hands over her heart, flashing a huge smile.
Now, in the parking lot by the beach, Jackson finishes his sotto voce rendition of “Simple Man,” the song ringing in my head as we head for Mt. Rattlesnake.
“Boy don’t you worry, you’ll find yourself Follow your heart and nothing else”
We arrive at the trailhead and start up an old fire road that quickly turns to a path, rises through a mixed forest of pine and oak and birch, and twists over a field of boulders toward the summit. Mt. Rattlesnake rises only 1,594 feet from the valley floor, but there’s a quick, 450-foot elevation gain, and after swimming and biking, I’ll be happy to get above the tree line and look down on the Baker River Valley.
I’m in the second group, hiking with Brad and Bubba MacIntosh. They’re both square-built, rugged guys, and we have a good laugh over a rugby game in Philly where a much younger, 275-pound forward grabbed me as I caught a kick-off and body-slammed me to the ground, dislocating my ribs. It was a dirty play, and he should’ve been ejected from the match. And if I hadn’t twisted sideways at the last second, he might’ve killed me.
Somehow, the guy ended up with the ball, but was being slowed down by our biggest players. After I regained my senses, I got back onside and took a running start, launched myself into the air, and drilled him with a head butt.
“Mate, you taught that guy more in two seconds than he’ll learn in five years of playing rugby,” Brad says.
“I try to help young people whenever I can,” I say.
Coming up through a last, nearly vertical run of boulders and scrub pines, Bubba and Brad and I reach the smooth rock that marks the top of Rattlesnake. Piercey and Mike Zizza take cold beers from their packs, and we lounge in the sun, chatting about the day’s events. Far below, the silver ribbon of Baker River winds among copses of miniature trees and farms, the barns and white-fenced outbuildings the size of postage stamps.
Standing on the highest point, we take our annual photo of the Vandals Rugby guys, each of us making a V with the ring finger and pinkie of the left hand.
“Are you a Vandal?” Mike Zizza asks.
Immediately, Paul Godbout delivers the only acceptable reply. “You bet your sweet ass I am,” he says.
Kaya is nearby, having a drink of water. As I shoulder my backpack, I lean over and kiss her on top of the head, saying, “You did a whole triathlon. I’m proud of you, kid.”