Shawangunks: Family and Frenzy

By Dustin Renwick | Dec. 11, 2017, 6:47 p.m. (ET)

Success of the Shawangunks Triathlon relies on community and seven transitions

Survival of the Shawangunks

Swim plus bike plus run equals eight at the Survival of the Shawangunks.

“It wasn’t official until 1984,” founder Don Davis said. “In ’83, we hid our bikes in the woods. It was so much fun, and we told some people about it.”

The race continues to test a small group of triathletes every September in New Paltz, New York. Participants start with the bike and then run on four trails between the three lakes they swim. However, everybody can see the finish from the start line. As in any race, what matters is how the athletes conquer themselves between the two points.

The following is a conversation with Don and his son, Evan Davis, a New York City firefighter who’s now taking a more active role in the family event. A TV special about the race will air on NBCSN on December 19 at 4 p.m. ET.

USAT: Few events mandate that athletes attend a pre-race dinner, but you do, Don. What’s the thinking there?

DD: We require it for several reasons. Primary is that because of the weather, sometimes we have to change the course. I remember one year there was a hurricane. Some of our bike course was flooded out. We had to prepare the athletes for a different bike course strictly for safety reasons.

ED: Or if there are brand-new athletes, you can bring them through the course. It is unique. You’re covering 50 miles of the Gunks. It goes through the most beautiful trails, but it’s not like you’re going around in a circle for an out and back.

DD: We used to have a slide presentation, and now it’s PowerPoint. We have representatives from the police department talking about the major intersections, what to watch out for. We have a representative for each lake. It also gives the athletes a sense of community. We invite the volunteers to pick up their shirts then so they know what to look for.

ED: One of the big things about the SOS is the sense of community that all the athletes talk about, and the volunteers as well. Bringing them together for the pre-race orientation really sets that vibe. It’s a safety thing, but it gives people a chance to come and socialize. It’s definitely a reunion.

USAT: You allow about 150 people to register each year, but you tend to have even more volunteers, correct?

DD: Yes, we have three different lakes. Each lake has a certain amount of divers, scuba divers — not that we’ve ever needed one. And we have a certain amount of lifeguards for water safety. We have 18.7 miles of running, so we have to truck in aid stations two days before. Some of the places are inaccessible in a huge state park. We have people man those aid stations. At strategic spots, where some people have gone off the course, we have guides. Then people want company. They don’t want to stand by themselves all day in the woods [laughing].

ED: The volunteers love the event. To be honest with you, this [NBC Sports] video project captures that special something about this event. The volunteers have been joining us sometimes for 25-plus years. It’s their event too.

DD: People take ownership of it. We have certain things at each aid stations. Some people take pride in bringing extra cookies. It’s interesting. Evan has been at aid stations. He was the head lifeguard at Lake Awosting. We did the race together a couple times. Now he’s CEO of the whole thing. We have three generations of people involved with SOS.

ED: Me and my dad have had a lot of fun. It’s a really difficult experience to explain to somebody. Especially a triathlete.

DD: It’s a very funny thing. When I first started with the sport of triathlon, people said, “It’s the bastardization of three sports. Swimming is a sport. Cycling is a sport. Running is a sport. You’re mixing it up. That’s not really a sport.” Those same people would say, “That’s not really a triathlon. A triathlon is swim, bike, run.” Some people, it takes them a while [laughing]. After 34 years, I think we’re recognized as a real race using the tools of triathlon.

ED: The SOS triathlon that my dad created is a beautiful event for so many reasons. Natural beauty. Community. Cooperation. Excitement. This video illustrates that in an engaging, inspiring way.

DD: It’s amazing — people at the finish line really get emotional. It represents something to them. I say that as a race director, but more as a participant. I remember hugging Evan when we finished.

ED: That’s definitely a huge highlight in my life, Dad. When people cross the Survivor Line, you’re summiting a mountain.

DD: You can see the finish line from the start. It’s a tower about 2,000 feet above where you’re going to start. You circle the tower on the bike. You’ll run and swim three different lakes, and carry your shoes and your bathing suit, and it’s kind of a combination adventure sport and triathlon. There are spots on the run where you can see it. As the crow flies, it’s eight miles away, but we’re not crows, so it’s much more than that.

ED: It’s intimidating. The years that I’ve done it, it looks far away and pretty high up, and you know you’re going to have a challenging day.

The conversation was edited for length and clarity.