By Ross Seyfried
I suppose if you polled the contestants privately, many would voice opposition to off-road motorized vehicles. That seems logical or at least tolerable, for these are not normal human beings; rather, they seem to come equipped with a motor of their own. They are men and women, young and not-so-young humans, who seem to me to have super-human ability. They are triathletes and I have the privilege of watching them on one of the toughest courses on the Xterra circuit.
In fact, I suppose I am directly responsible for laying out the running portion of the course, a tough route that causes some of the contestants to question the morality and motives of the designer. It all began five years ago with a phone call that inquired whether I might have some countryside available for placement of a 10-K run, a run that would seriously challenge the athletes, but not quite kill them. As it turns out, the "not quite" part is only because a Honda ATV breaks trail for them, quite a saving grace. But we will get to that in a moment.
Lest there be any confusion, I do not run, nor swim, nor bike in this race. I hide behind the scenes and provide the opportunity for others to abuse themselves. The triathlon is, to me, a rather special kind of race. They really do run in places that are quite wild, in locations from coast to coast.
Here in Oregon, the Solstice Triathlon is held in one of the prettiest places one can imagine. It all begins early in the morning with a 1K swim in an icy mountain lake at 4,100 feet above sea level. There are races where wetsuits are prohibited due to the unnatural advantage of flotation that neoprene lends to the contestant. However, in this particular event wetsuits come highly recommended, in mid-June the rainbow trout still wear earmuffs. After this swim the athletes trade the wetsuits for biking gear and head out into the real mountains for a 25K, hmmm, ride?
Actually this is a much better place to be on foot, or a really sure-footed horse. It is real mountain biking, in the real mountains; with steep grades, muddy places and, yes, rocks. Lots of rocks. Big ones and small ones, but mostly lots of them. By the way, for those of us who are metrically challenged, 25 kilometers is 25 thousand meters, or about 15 miles. In the race information you see terrain descriptions such as, "endo-provoking Suicide Hill." I think that roughly translates to "steep as hell downhill and you are likely to go end over end." Of course, for every bad downhill there is an equally worse climb to get there. And next the survivors are slated to run through one of my favorite elk hunting grounds.
It looks pretty friendly at first, at least it always does to me when I shoulder a rifle and head down toward the rim of the big canyon. The old trail slopes gently and the view from the first ridge stretches for miles. Later in the day I realize the luxurious downhill has its price: Every step out is uphill. During this triathlon, the runners make a left turn just before the canyon and go cross-country through a two-mile-long elk meadow, one that is strewn liberally with rocks and riddled with now-hardened elk tracks pressed deeply into the spring mud. Also, the pretty mountain grass is about knee high. I have come to view the race organizers as sadistic individuals, albeit with the occasional soft spot. Their softness shows when they let us break trail through the tall grass with the Honda ATV.
It normally takes about six to ten passes through the meadow to tame the tall grass. The idea is to create an identifiable track with the grass flattened sufficiently to allow the runners some ability to see the rocks, holes, logs and other ankle-breaking obstacles that lurk below. That it takes so many go-rounds to accomplish this task speaks highly for our light-footed ATV. It really takes some determined effort with the Honda to create a good running trail in soft meadow grass.
In the past I had always kept the machine well out of sight, not desiring to distract the contestants. But this year, I wanted to make some photos, so I summoned my courage and parked my trusty Honda right along the course. I expected some frowns, but to my delight, was greeted with only smiles from the weary warriors at about the half-way mark. The well-marked and yet unobtrusive course, laid courtesy of my faithful ATV, seemed to please them. Later in the race, and about halfway up on an especially steep climb, I sort of overheard wishful comments emanating under breath that the guy with that four-wheeler might make a really good profit by offering rides to the top!
Overall, once again the humble ATV finds itself at home, useful and even welcomed in unexpected places. And for me, it is far better to ride than run!