2017 Winter Challenge Triathlon

I had been wanting to try an off-road triathlon. So when two friends signed up for the Winter Challenge triathlon, I decided to get outside my comfort zone and go along for the ride. The race is one of a kind. You run seven miles on trails, paddle a kayak six miles (three laps around the lake), and ride a mountain bike 10 miles through a mix of sand and gravel roads and single track.

We arrived early for packet pickup and to get the gear set up. Racked the bike. Put the kayak in the correct corral and just generally soaked up the atmosphere including signs that said things like:

Don’t look forward to the day you stop suffering, because when it comes you’ll know you’re dead. – Tennessee Williams.

Making the Most of Mud

We lined up for the trail run start, the horn sounded, and we were off. We crossed the dam and ran a dirt road that shortly became single track with some truly significant mud holes. The second big mud hole could have swallowed a Volkswagen. My friend, Barry, ran with me the first two miles or so. Both of us thrilled to be doing a race like this as 50-something triathletes. Then we split up. Each holding our own pace. We looped back to the dam, ran past transition and carried on across the farm.

Somewhere between mile three and four we hit serious mud. Race organizers had put down planks and a ladder-like bridge to get runners over the worst of it. I still nearly lost a shoe. One runner did lose a shoe and ran on without it. We got to run this section of the course twice to add a little extra bliss to the experience. It’s amazing how much deep mud takes out of you. My paced dropped by two minutes per mile, and it took me a quarter mile to get my breathing back under control.

The last three miles of the run I reeled in four or five runners and felt pretty good about this part of the race. I pushed hard and averaged an 11:33 minute per mile pace. My Garmin data says this is my third fasted run for this distance and probably my fastest seven mile plus trail run ever.

Kayak Like the Wind

We ran back into transition, grabbed my kayak and paddle, and headed out around the lake for three counterclockwise laps. This was the most challenging part of the race for me. Bringing my 10-foot recreational kayak definitely handicapped me. Folks in 16 to 20-foot boats were passing me left and right. I’m sure that I saw every kind of kayak made from state-of-the-art sea kayak to borrowed whitewater boat. When we rounded corners on the lake there was some boat-to-boat contact but everyone stayed calm and good sportsmanship ruled the day. If only I could get this kind of positive, ain’t no big deal vibe going in other areas of my life.

My limited paddling skill were also a problem, but I got better at staying out of peoples’ way by lap two. I’m pretty sure my nickname for this leg of the race was floating obstacle. At least I’m hoping they went with floating. Hey maybe that’s my mutant superpower. I’m the human obstacle. I was hoping for something flashier: flight, super strength, the ability to calm nervous sheep.

Anyway I found myself alone on the third lap except for the guy sweeping the lake. Super guy, lots of positive things to say. I wish I’d asked him his name.

Moves on the Mountain Bike

This brought me to the mountain bike leg of the race. Portions of the bike course and run course were the same. So I already knew not to try to ride through the second big mud hole. I dismounted and walked my bike around it. I would have to dismount a few more time for larger logs I couldn’t get over and a couple gnarly bits of trail that looked above my current skill level. My limited experience with deep mud and loose sand also slowed be down a bit. There was a road crossing to get to the upper part of the bike course and back. Local law enforcement was on scene and waved me through without delay both times. With about a half mile left, my friend, Suzanne, rode in with me. Giving me a much needed energy boost to the finish line.

Rocking A Recovery

I want to dedicate this post to my friend, Kristina, who is making a comeback from a bike crash. She is a cheerful, hard charging, encouraging athlete. The kind of person you are glad to know and excited to claim as a friend. I am certain that she will have a fast recovery and be back out on race courses chicking me come triathlon season. Word on the street is that she has already been spotted at Computrainer class putting out some serious wattage.

The Winter Challenge Info

Difficulty: Tough. There is a reason they call it the Winter Challenge.

Race Vibe: You bring the adrenaline: we’ll bring the mud.

Food: Some seriously good barbecue post race.

Terrain: More hills than you would expect, plenty of mud, some sand.

Race Preparation: Good paddlers have an advantage in the event. So get some paddle time and buy, rent or borrow a 16 foot or longer kayak. Go with a 14.5 foot kayak at a minimum. Be prepared for deep mud on the trail run and mountain bike course. There are some technical bits on the bike course.

Newbie Friendly: Yes.

The Winter Challenge Triathlon Website


Al Dockery is a PTA (physical therapist assistant) based in the Upstate of SC. He is a former award-winning writer and editor, who has worked for publications including Textile World and Furniture Today. He is a NC native and a NC State graduate.

One thought on “2017 Winter Challenge Triathlon

  • February 26, 2017 at 9:26 pm

    Great job on this blog! I want to do something like this someday and take next step like you out of my “Tri” comfort zone!! Thanks for the dedication! We push ourselves hard so there’s consequences unfortunately!


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