Becoming a Survivor: The History of the Shawangunks Triathlon

By Ross Lippe | Jan. 15, 2020, 5:11 p.m. (ET)

running on curve

Most triathletes swim, bike, and run their way to the finish line, but race director Don Davis had a different idea. 

In his Survival of the Shawangunks (SOS) Triathlon, participants bike, run, swim, run some more, swim some more, run again, swim one more time, and finally finish with a sprint run. The eight-stage triathlon in New York is certainly one of the more unique events in the country, involving multiple lakes, the four runs and beginning with a 30-mile bike segment. 

“And each segment is point to point. This requires athletes to run with their swimming gear, and swim with their running gear,” said Davis, who created the race in the early 1980s. “The SOS Triathlon is more of an adventure for your triathlete that’s looking for something outside the swim, bike, run format. It’s because of this unique experience that we refer to our finishers as Survivors.” 

A young lifeguard in Queens in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Davis’ version of a triathlon was biking to the beach from Brooklyn, swimming and running for lifeguard training, then biking home. Those summer workouts set the tone for a lifelong passion in multisport, and he was just getting started.

running up hill

“In 1978, there was this event in Hawaii, the Ironman Triathlon. I remember when the winner in ’79, Tom Warren, went on Jonny Carson. Then, in 1980 the Ironman was on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and the sport of triathlon was brought to the general population,” Davis said. “Our group of lifeguards in New York City were inspired by this event, as we had been enjoying similar training on the East Coast. I had been training for the NYC marathon, and accomplished that goal, then the Boston Marathon, and was looking for the next big thing to take on.” 

That next big thing turned out to be a treacherous multisport race in the Hudson Valley that annually sells out in minutes. Davis recalled, “In 1983, a small group of us did a version of the SOS and told some friends about it. People found it intriguing and they wanted to join us. In 1984 we created an official Survival of the Shawangunks, sanctioned by Triathlon Federation. As the sport of triathlon grew in popularity, more and more people caught on to what we were doing. I remember in 1994 the mail carrier came to our door with a box because there were too many applications to fit in our mailbox. We were surprised that so many people were interested.” 

While the race registration process has changed, the popularity of the SOS hasn’t.

Since its inception, registration for the SOS typically fills up in 10 minutes. Adding an extra element of excitement and mystery, the SOS experience begins when registration opens at the strike of midnight on the previous Halloween. 

crossing finish line

While the roots of the SOS will always be in the Shawangunk Mountains, the race series is expanding. Cape Cod and Curacao have been added to the lineup in 2020 as Davis looks to bring this adventure to racers globally. 

“I like creating things that bring people to beautiful places, and I love the excitement of a point to point journey. Our model is very unique, and we want to share it,” said Davis.

To Davis, the SOS is more than just a race. 

“The SOS has become a family. It’s been said that the SOS Triathlon in September is like a holiday. The event brings together an extended family of volunteers, athletes and loved ones, all for the purpose of taking on a beautiful challenge, and Surviving,” Davis said. “It’s become a very inspiring thing that we all share together.”

This year you can take on the SOS Survivor series in Curaço (March 7) and Cape Cod (June 20). To register or find out more, visit https://www.sostriathlon.com.