Despite the autumnal chill in the air, things heated up at Hunter Mountain last weekend and no small amount of sweat was shed, as competitors swam, biked, and finally ran their way through the newest and—if you believe the athletes—the toughest triathlon on the block. The two-day event was a part of the HITS Triathlon Series, which began last year, and the second triathlon held at Hunter Mountain this year.
The series includes races all across the country, from Naples, Florida to Napa Valley, California, and is the only triathlon to offer five distances, from the Full—a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run—to the Open—a 100-meter swim, 3 mile bike, and 1 mile run—with the Sprint, Olympic, and Half-distances between the two. The Open, true to its name, is designed to make the sport accessible to those new to or curious about it and free to all competitors.
On Saturday, race director Mark Wilson was manning the aid station at the halfway turnaround for the Full and Half-distances, replenishing water bottles and encouraging racers who peppered him with good-natured threats between gasps for air and gulps of water. “We’re going to have to have a word about this course when I get back,” said Bill Romas, as he rode into the aid station. It was Romas’ 10th full triathlon. He said the bike course at Hunter Mountain was the hardest he has encountered. Ron Bishop, who pulled up shortly after Romas had left, said the course “just goes on and on and on.”
Wilson took it in stride. “I’ve never been threatened so many times in my life, but it’s all with love,” he said. “They’ll go home and brag for months, and that’s what’s going to get other athletes here.”
The HITS Triathlon Series is still young. HITS president and CEO Tom Struzzieri met Mark Wilson almost five years ago. At the age of 50, Struzzieri had decided to compete in triathlons. Mark offered guidance. Wilson is a seasoned triathlete and the founder and president of the Hudson Valley Triathlon Club. When Struzzieri decided to augment his hugely successful horse show business with a triathlon series, he knew who to call.
“If there’s a better ambassador for the sport of triathlon, I have yet to find him,” said race announcer Alex Sherwood of Wilson. Indeed, Wilson seemed to have memorized the name of everyone in the vicinity.
Granted, it isn’t hard to do in a race where there were only 60 participants in the Half-distance and 40 in the Full. However, the HITS Triathlon Series will only be one-year-old this December, and organizers and competitors alike have high hopes for the event. Said Sherwood, “The course overall, for rural beauty, is far and away the one. It has a mix of everything. The swim is pretty magical. The bike course is super challenging, but also super rewarding.”
He added, “It’s not your everyday race for people going into pancake plateau. You’ve got to be an athlete. You’re not going to bluff your way through.”
Wilson concurred. “People will be drawn to this location because of the beauty, because of the hills, because it’s so hard.” He hopes that in the next five years there will be an event for every month of the year, and they will all become “as big as Ironman,” the HITS Series’ competitors, who get some 2,000 participants per event.
Jason Toth, winner of the Half-distance, has his own ideas for the event’s future. He said to Sherwood, who was stuck in a chair by the finish line from 8 a.m. to midnight, “Maybe we’ll come visit, bring you a hamburger or something, maybe a brew? We’re going to be sort of kicking it tonight, just having a good time at the camp site. We’re trying to make this like a little wildflower. We’ll encourage people to come, and camp.”
“Wildflower” describes the event and atmosphere well. Said Sherwood, “I think a lot of people in the sport have gotten put out or fed up with the bigger sort of commercial machine in the sport of triathlon, and want to come back to smaller, more intimate race venues. And when you put it in a spot like this, athletes can actually camp on the race site. It doesn’t get better than that…it’s not blown out of proportion. It’s more for the athletes than anything else.”
Nor does it get any better for the community. “They realize the benefit of us bringing money here in the summer, because this is a winter location,” said Wilson. The local hotels put up some of the race staff for free, and Maggie’s Krooked Café delivered food to race organizers several times a day.
Department of Environmental Conservation even fixed one of the roads competitors put the most miles on, which hadn’t seen work prior to the race in some 20 years.
Between HITS, the Diamond Mills Hotel, and the new Triathlon Series, Struzzieri is doing his best to make Northern Ulster County a destination “It’s my home,” he said. “I’m raising a family here. The nicer it can be, the nicer my home is.”
The race already draws competitors from as far as Canada, and all over the Northeast. With the support of the community, and the enthusiasm of the competitors and organizers, the Hunter Mountain Triathlon promises to become every bit the event Wilson hopes it will be, and far and away a fan favorite.
“I want to do this for 20 years,” said Wilson, “and then after I do that…” He trailed off. “I want to be a lumberjack.”