South Dakota #32

September 4, 2010 

Southern Hill Triathlon

Hot Springs


I picked up Hayes at school the afternoon before flying out to South Dakota for the Southern Hills Triathlon.  Her new school year started four days earlier. She told her teacher about the journey to race in all 50 states. Hayes added she went to races over the summer. When Hayes introduced us her teacher asked me, “Is that your goal in life?” Her tone came across as if that was my biggest goal in life then the kids were doomed. As if I didn’t parent them enough now and wasted my money on some silly personal sport with no plans to save money for their lives beyond mine. I picked up a vibe I should set as the top goal to focus on challenges the kids will face in the future.


I responded the journey was one of my goals but had more on a personal to do list. Over time the teacher realized Hayes grew from her experiences on the journey and on her own journeys supported by Chris and me and lots of other significant people in our family lives. The teacher also recognized Chris and I stayed involved with her life and her sister’s Caroline. The teacher realized triathlons mattered in the whole Morris family and in an important way.  


Physically, wasn’t sure about being able to race. The weekend before on a training ride I crashed my bike. The stomach hurt along with a hip, elbow, and thumb. Everything banged up from a slide across a moss covered paved path in the Johnson Mound Forest Preserve where I did hill climb repeats.  Imagine those stomach aches of being nauseous after less than desirable outcomes like job offer rejections or negative feedback from key presentations. Felt terrible. But the best recovery was to get back up on the bike and ride to will the pains to pass. Some naproxen helped too.


I first visited Hot Springs on July 2, 1989 with my 64 year-old dad, a 68 year-old former scoutmaster, and four other campers. We stopped to enjoy Evans Plunge, an indoor water park fed by natural mineral hot springs. We felt multiple springs flow into the pools as we walked across the pebbly bottom of the non-chlorinated, medicinal waters. The senior citizen adults acted like people in the movie Cocoon. Think of it this way, we did things we thought we outgrew years ago. The Hot Spring waters gave new energy and flexibility to be kids again while removing our inhibitions. We thoroughly enjoyed the waterslides, shoots, and swinging robes. We laughed, giggled, and acted like we had no cares in the world. Back in Hot Springs 21 years later, I went from swim to win.


I flew out of Chicago late Thursday night to Rapid City. At O’Hare Airport, security confiscated my special purpose bike wrench. The bike was shipped via ground to save money and the hassle of hauling the bike case around as luggage. The inspector took me aside while holding the wrench. He asked what the tool was used for and why did it get carried in a backpack. We talked. I respectfully answered his questions. Told him about the Tri 50 State race journey. He politely stated the tool could not be carried on board and why. He set the wrench by the backpack and walked away wishing me good luck for the race. I thanked him then discreetly picked up the tool, tucked it back in the pack, and walked to the gate. A reasonable outcome in a crazy world of security needs. He did all this with class. On future trips tools traveled inside the bike case and not a backpack.


Our plane pulled out of the gate and queued up for take-off an hour later than scheduled. We taxied to the far southwest corner of the airport and waited. And waited. A powerful thunderstorm came rolling through the area. Rain pounded at the plane’s windows and roof. Lightning flashed in-sync with its thunderclap. The plane shook from the faster than sound shockwaves. We got pounded and rattled multiple times. The pilot came over the loudspeaker and told us the plane got redirected to a different runway because of a lightning strike on a jet plane earlier in the day near O’Hare Airport. No one was sure if we were going to get off the ground or stay aloft if we did. Eventually the storm passed. We took off. I arrived at the hotel 2am and was up at 6am Friday running in mid-40 degree temperatures by the airport in Rapid City.


By mid-afternoon I headed down to Hot Springs and checked into a hotel. The bike arrived a couple of days earlier as confirmed before leaving home. I reassembled the bike using my wrench with no issues.


The choice for dinner came easy as the race director offered a free pasta dinner with bread and treats the night before the race. I received a dirty look on my 3rd request of a plate of spaghetti. The dinner was well attended and others went back for seconds without a scowl from the volunteers. I guess third time was not charm.


On race day the air temperature was cool and dry but the sun warmed us up quickly. Just three weeks earlier at the race in Arkansas I was drenched in sweat lying down. Now, I worked hard to get a couple of sweat beads going when running in sweats before the race started. I warmed up by stretching and running on the path that went by the parking lot above the reservoir. Chris, the girls, and I went camping with neighbors for five days almost right next door in Custer State Park back in June. Then the grass was lush and green. Now, mostly brown and dry with weeds bearing nasty barbs invaded the landscape. The barbs attached to my running tights. Their sharp prongs stabbed into my thighs first and then to my hands when trying to brush them off. Nothing in the race felt as painful as those damn barbs.


The Southern Hills triathlon was a trio of races held almost in the shadow of Mt. Rushmore. The RD offered Olympic and Sprint distance triathlons and a duathlon. Over a hundred athletes converged at the Angostura Recreation Area on a beautiful blue sky morning over the Labor Day Weekend. At the prerace meeting held in the parking lot the RD stated all races would absolutely start on time. Racers continued to park their vehicles while he discussed last minute pre-race instructions.


At 7am, the horn sounded. The swim leg started at Breakers Beach of Angostura Reservoir. The water is held back by an embankment dam across the Cheyenne River that forms the reservoir. All triathletes started in a mass wave on the beach. We swam in a small contained area. The entire lake included 36 miles of shoreline. I took a few running strides across the sandy beach, dove in, and started swimming. I quickly found a steady turnover pace in the clear, clean, and temperate water at 3,100+ feet above sea level. At 74oF the water felt much warmer than expected. The swim course consisted of a two lap set-up in a rectangle shape for the Olympic distance triathlon and one lap for the Sprint race. We swam 100 meters straight out then did two laps in a counterclockwise direction around the 250 meter by 100 meter rectangle course. A guide rope marked out the path on the water. The water was flat due to minimal winds and few other racers beside me. After racing for 25 years, I found myself at the head of the pack. I was the lead dog. I built a lead of 250 meters, or four minutes, over the rest of the field during the swim leg. The advantage primarily due to lack of year-round swim facilities where people lived and lack of practice time in the pool, than of lack of swimming skills or capabilities.  


I already felt pressure under the never felt before responsibility to know the course and not get lost. Oh, I always heard the RD’s say every triathlete borne the responsibility to know the course. Few did. We followed others as age-group lemmings. Most people who knew the course don’t need to. The time spent may be detrimental as more effort was spent on learning the course instead of racing to the capable level of intensity to perform better in a race. Think of back seat drivers who don’t control the vehicle but offer unsolicited driving suggestions. Or consider someone who was slowed down in middle management and spent too much unproductive time telling their peers how management could run the entity. They never led, they only followed. And often they were sub-optimal followers. Often reluctantly or worse as passive/aggressive disgruntle employees. Employers would be stronger if they purged the disenfranchised employees and the employees would be happier if they found something more aligned to their wants than a just a paycheck. For me, the pressure up front was more than the pressure in the rear.


All I ever experienced before in a triathlon race was being a follower on the swim and bike legs. Yet I was in the water with nothing in front to follow except my instincts and it took a few minutes to find those. Unfortunately I found myself asking questions.


Can I sight the next buoy? Swim a straight line? Are they going to catch me on the bike? When? Can I get them back on the run? Will they walk me down if I run by them yet can’t keep the pace quick enough to the end? Can I pull away and win this race?


I was less than a quarter mile into the race and already worried about the finish. Fortunately, I talked myself off the mental ledge and re-focused on the task at hand: swimming, biking, and running fast. Whatever would happen would happen.


The bike course was a 12 mile out and back in the bare laden backcountry outside of Hot Springs. No trees. There was minimal traffic on the roads. The pavement was clean, smooth, and safe. A little bit rolling topographically to a Midwesterner but flat when comparing to the potential climbs the Black Hills offered to the north. We were treated to wide open vistas. We went north out of the Angostura Recreation area, then headed east across US 18/Highway 385 south of the local airport. We continued mostly east paralleling the Cheyenne River valley. I also felt more wind on the bike than when running during pre-race warm-up before the race. At the time though, most of it came from riding the bike as fast as I could since at least two competitors were closing the distance gap between them and me.  


My four minute lead at the start of the bike dropped to a minute by the time I racked my bike and took off on the run leg. At least I didn’t take a wrong turn or get lost. It helped to have a patrol car in front of me for the first part of the bike until the driver turned back his vehicle to start pacing the shorter Sprint distance competitors back to T2.


The run course was a rolling up and down and out and back loop that paralleled the reservoir. One long lap for the Olympic racer covered 6.2 miles. The wind continued to pick up after the bike. I could see white caps on the water from the higher levels of the run course. I was relieved to know the choppy waters came after we finished the swim leg. At the far point of run turn-around, a woman volunteer sat in a chair asking for our race number as went by her. Her responsibility was to confirm none of the competitors cut their run leg short by turning around before the proper point. She put a tick mark by the number we called out. For the Olympic distance competitors the tick mark confirmed we completed the full 10,000 Meters once we crossed the finish line in the parking lot. No tick mark earned the racer only a DQ. Definitely not high tech but an effective way to confirm everyone reached the appropriate turnaround point.


The Southern Hills Triathlon was held in one of the most scenic venues in the country. Tall mountains, beautiful blue water, azure blue skies and wide open country all around us. I led the whole way from the first stroke to the last stride and during all the spinning in between. Never before in a triathlon did that occur to me. What a cool experience, especially at age 51 to achieve that small feat. I built my lead back up to the four minutes on the run that I established on the swim. A couple of brothers finished behind me. I talked with the third place finisher. He was a nice guy. And all of the views were complimented by some of the friendliest people to put on a triathlon race.


All age group winners earned a choice of homemade breads, cakes, cookies, or muffins. Mmmmmm good! What a great idea. Just wonderful! I selected zucchini bread and would bet anyone the zucchini came out of one of the volunteer’s garden which made the prize more meaningful. Everyone was friendly. We broke bread after the race. One of the volunteers shared a knife at the choosing table. We sliced the prize, then shared it with any interested volunteers or race participants in the area.


I also received a unique leather braided necklace intertwined with turquoise stones and highlighted with a sliver pinecone and small round disk with “1st” engraved on it. One of the most treasured items earned during races.


While we didn’t race in the shadows of Mt. Rushmore, the race was easily less than a half hour drive south of the four stone presidents. I spied a glimpse of the monument when going to Wind Cave and on to the airport.

Feedback for anyone involved in racing is good. Comments proved races matter. Don’t believe for a minute triathlons don’t matter for those who are involved in the sport. At about every race I attended, and the Southern Hills race was no different, I witnessed more than one new triathlete cry with happiness, unashamed at the finish line because he or she accomplished something thought to be unachievable. They finished. They smiled. They cried. They hugged. Each of them related to the humanized train engine featured in the book, The Little Engine That Could. They became a real life believer. They thought they could. They did. Triathlons mattered to them.


Over the string of races on my journey, I also saw triathletes cry because they were in pain from a strained tendons, torn ligaments, stomach cramps, stress fractures, muscle spasms, blistered toes, lost toe nails, broken blisters, swollen knees, sprained ankles, side aches, hip pointers, strawberry skin abrasions, bone dry throats, heat stroke, sun stroke, sun burns, plantar fasciitis, and more. Some succumbed to the pain and pulled out the race without finishing. Others suffered through the pain and made it all the way. Triathlons mattered to all whether they made it to the starting line or the finishing line.


At some races people cried because they qualified for Nationals or Kona. Other competitors cried because they didn’t qualify. Their accomplishments or more disappointingly, their shortcomings, mattered a lot! Why else would people train for many long hours, in three different disciplines, plus lifting weights, practicing yoga, and stretching out muscles if triathlons didn’t matter? Or why else would they race when they didn’t train as much as they could to be prepared as they hoped?


Triathlons mattered to triathletes because they paid to race. They paid to receive coaching. They paid for cool looking outfits that they would not wear anywhere else but on a race course. They bought way cool equipment like bikes, running shoes, goggles, and pedals with less metal than the change in their pocket and made of metals more commonly associated with jet airplanes.


Triathletes went to sleep early. It mattered because they hobbled out of bed way before everyone else in their family to get workouts completed before others woke-up or at least to not disrupt too much of their family lives. Races mattered so much triathletes analyzed the courses on Google Maps. They drove the course before races. They talked to others to understand the nuances of course conditions.


Some handicapped their competition based on previous races. They analyzed who was in the race and how good were they at previous events to know who to be aware of to beat, follow, or who to learn from on how to race quicker. Being race ready with calories mattered to triathletes too. They ate special meals. Took special nutrition to stay hydrated and energized. They took supplements to get strong, stay healthy, and perform great.


Race sponsorship matter to triathletes because many bought goods and services from the people that promoted their passions. And triathletes treated volunteers and race directors like cherished co-workers or distant relatives at a family reunion picnic because without the races, nothing would matter.


And once the actual race started the triathletes performed the best they could with all of their white matter. They performed to their own, individual upper physical and mental limits. Even though the upper limits were influenced by genes, it didn’t fully matter as the triathletes wanted to be compared to others too. It mattered to them to know where they performed against some specifically identified competition.


This race mattered to a retired principal who I talked to after the race. He moved to Rapid City from Nebraska to be closer to his grandkids. These feelings and actions came from a man who influenced hundreds, if not thousands of students during his career. There was a strong sense of pride in his voice of his success. His inner teacher convinced himself to try something of a stretch goal. To learn and do something he was sure he could do but needed to do it to earn the right to feel the confidence of achieving his goal. This process was the same approach in how he encouraged his students during his teaching career, to nudge the future of America, one at a time, out of his or her own comfort zone. He sowed the seeds of the American people to progress from goal setting to action to achievement. And then repeat for generations. Thinking of this as paying it forward to be the best approach for everyone in his district.  


Not everything mattered to all triathletes in Hot Springs. But don’t believe for a minute a retired principal’s success over this Labor Day Weekend at the Southern Hills Sprint Triathlon didn’t matter to him. It did. He didn’t feel he was spending his retirement money on some silly sport. What he accomplished that morning will be remembered for the rest of his lifetime.


Results: 1st overall.

Doug Morris

Coach of Exceptional Outcomes

Palm Trees Ahead, LLC

Tel: 1.630.457.7889

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