Volunteers save the day for Survival of the Shawangunks triathletes

Nationally ranked ultramarathoner Phil Vondra at Awosting.

The Survival of the Shawangunks (SOS) is arguably one of the most grueling and unusual triathlons in the world. Behind the approximately 200 athletes who dare to put their bodies, minds and souls to the test of this 30-mile bike ride, 2.1-mile swim (in three different sky lakes) and 19-mile run are as many volunteers who are there to support, safeguard and champion their efforts.

Created, designed and directed by local triathlete and Shawangunk superhero Don Davis, the race celebrated its 34th year this past Sunday under bright blue skies and over sun-dappled water and fresh mountain trails. Unlike a traditional name-brand triathlon, the SOS feels more like a homecoming or family reunion than it does a bruising competition. “This is my 30th year volunteering,” said Bill Whitaker, who, along with his wife Kathy, stands guard outside the lower Awosting entrance at Minnewaska State Park to help guide the athletes in from their bikes to the transition area where they trade their cycling shoes for running shoes and grab their goggles and caps for the miles of trails and lakes ahead of them.

“Don was an old Shawangunk Runner who was coming up with different training runs and routes for the Ironman and put together this race,” recalled Whitaker. “A lot of us from the [Shawangunk Runners] Club offered to help him, and we’ve been here ever since! It’s the one time a year when I get to see all of the people that I really like in one place.”


Volunteer coordinator Jon Stern.

As Bill and Kathy set up their station by the entrance, dozens of volunteers under the direction of Jon Stern — the coordinator of this merry band of purple SOS tee-shirt-clad support crew — lay out each athlete’s bag of gear with their names and numbers on them, along with an SOS towel. One of these volunteers is Dawn Burdick, a local athlete and mom who started her day at 6 a.m. marking the athlete’s with their bib numbers in Sharpie markers and then organizing their bags and gear up at the Awosting parking lot. “It’s such an inspiring event,” she said. “I love volunteering for this. There’s something about the mountain magic in the air!”

Darlene Davis, who helps direct the race with her husband, is like the SOS matriarch, moving from one volunteer to the next, greeting them and thanking them for coming out. Davis, Burdick and the Whitakers concurred that the athletes’ gratitude toward the volunteers is “incredible. They keep thanking us, and they’re the ones doing all of the work!” said Burdick. “You’ll never meet a nicer, kinder group of people,” added Whitaker. “These athletes are so humble and so gracious. They’re some of the greatest people I know,” said Davis. This is part of the SOS family and legacy that she and Don and Stern and their son Evan and all of the volunteers have created throughout the past three decades.

After the athletes have biked from the Ulster County Fairgrounds, across the flats, down Springtown Road, into Rosendale and then High Falls and Stone Ridge, they turn up Route 44/55 in Ellenville to climb up the back side of the Ridge. Then they drop their bikes (which have to be organized by volunteers), grab their gear and start to run the 4.5 miles to Lake Awosting, along carriage roads and trails that take them up the infamous Cardiac Hill. There is an aid station as they begin the first leg of their run and another over the crest of Cardiac Hill, just at the western tip of the lake. The aid stations are filled with gels, Clif Bars, Gatorade, electrolytes, water and various cubes of Goo. “This is my second year volunteering,” said a volunteer at the aid station, who is 14 and came all the way from New Jersey with his family because he’s Davis’ nephew. “I want to do the race when I’m old enough.”

The racers come up over Cardiac and run to the right of the lake along a single-track trail that takes them to the far end of Awosting, where they plunge into the 66-degree water and swim 1.1 miles to a stretch of shore that is staffed with another group of volunteers who are doing timing, offering any medical assistance that might be needed, blankets, a place to sit and work out cramps that come when the swimmers crawl out of the cold water and of course, more food and water. Marianne Winfield and her husband Dan Winfield (who has completed the SOS seven times) were volunteering at this leg of the race, which can often be a make-or-break turning point for athletes whose bodies are being racked by exhaustion and transitioning from biking to running to swimming and then back to running again. “This is my ninth year volunteering,” said Marianne. “And one year it was so cold, and I said, ‘We should have tea here for them,’ which some people laughed at. What triathlete wants tea? But I kept thinking that they need something to warm them up when they get out of the water!” So, the next year she brought some Thermoses of hot tea to Awosting. “The athletes loved it! Now it’s a staple at the aid station.” True to her story, as the second athlete to exit the lake was putting on his shoes and the volunteers were asking him what he wanted, he said, “Anything warm!” Marianne gave him tea while another volunteer wrapped him in an aluminum blanket so he could heat up his body temperature a bit before the 5.5 miles of running up to Castle Point that lay ahead of him.

This group also had to make sure that they’re sending out supplies of food and water to the many volunteers who are in the kayaks, to ensure the safety of the swimmers as well as the divers who are in the water in case of an emergency. Jay Friedman, a local ultra-runner and emergency room physician, was there for medical support, as he has been for the past several years. He said that, in his experience, he has fortunately never had anyone who has a serious medical condition, but often just cramping from exertion or the cold. “Last year it was cold, but this year it’s beautiful out,” he said.

Because of the long stretches between athletes, particularly in the beginning of the race, the volunteers are all talking and catching up with one another and getting excited to find out how everyone is faring. “The first cyclist has entered the Awosting lot,” one volunteer with a walkie-talkie announced. There were “sweepers” on mountain bikes going up and down Cardiac Hill reporting when the first and second and third runners were about to make their way towards the lake and aid station.

Lake Minnewaska crowd.

As the athletes were running past, they were thanking the volunteers and supporters for cheering them on. The first athlete to make it into the water was not the first one out of the water. Tom Eickelberg, the SUNY New Paltz varsity swim coach, absolutely sailed through the water and came out smiling, taking his shoes out of his shorts and putting them back on his feet, grabbing a cup of water from a volunteer and thanking them. Then off he went towards the cliffs of Castle Point. The second swimmer out joked with the volunteers at the aid station and said, “Did you all check that kid for gills? I think he’s half-fish!”

This is the spirit of the very top competitors in a race in which anyone who actually completes it has a herculean spirit and level of athleticism. While Awosting has a faraway and mystical sort of feeling, at Lake Minnewaska, the second swim of this triathlon is filled with family members and friends and kids, along with a full staff of volunteers. After having run from Lake Awosting to Castle Point, through the thicket of dwarf pines beneath the overhanging cliffs and back down the carriage roads to the southern end of Minnewaska, the athletes have a half-mile swim straight across the lake, where they exit by a small beach surrounded by conglomerate cliffs, a steep staircase of stone and a group of exuberant supporters, cowbells sounding and more offerings of Coca-Cola and Power Bar bites and Vaseline for chafing.

Laura Wong-Pan and her daughter Sammy were armed and ready to serve the athletes at the Minnewaska “out” aid station. “This is a beautiful place to volunteer and watch the race, because you have such a clear view of the lake and the swimmers,” said Laura, who has volunteered for years with her daughter and has also completed the SOS several times. “I first competed in 2007 — a year after I learned how to swim,” she said with a laugh. “It sounded painful and fun, and it was both. I love volunteering, because it’s for such a good cause and it’s such a community feel at this event.” Sammy, 15, has volunteered as a kayaker and aid station worker throughout the course. “For the athletes, this is a nice spot because there’s always a lot of people here,” she said, noting that unlike Awosting, where you have to hike or bike, at Minnewaska people can drive up and park close to the lake to view the race.

Eickelberg stretched his lead to over 16 minutes as he exited Lake Minnewaska before the next person behind him even entered the water. There was a group of young kids all crowded on a rock cheering, most of them children of the local racers. New Paltz’s Michael Vance’s two young children, Ruthie and Henry, were sporting tee-shirts that said, “My dad is faster than your dad,” with the triathlete bike/run/swim symbols on them. Another New Paltz athlete, Phil Vondra, a nationally ranked ultramarathoner, who came in third place this year as well as in previous years, was flying along the trails past Awosting Falls and the Lyons Road aid station, thanking the volunteers for handing him a cup of water.

“I’ve been doing the Lyons Road aid station for over 20 years,” said Ron Simon, a veteran SOS volunteer and retired New Paltz School District teacher. “What I love is how much the racers appreciate us being here. They’ll tell me later, after the race at the lunch” — there are two pre-race dinners for volunteers and athletes, as well as a post-run meal — “how much it meant to them that we were there when they needed it most, because they’re so tired at this point of the race! They inspire me. They really do!” That is a long, often-lonely eight-mile stretch of running past the Lyons Road aid station and into the belly of the forest before the West Trapps bridge and ultimately to the tip of Lake Mohonk.

Sammy and Laura Wong-Pan.

Doug Thompson, a seasoned SOS competitor as well as the owner of the Main Street Bistro and local swim coach and lacrosse coach, said that this is where “the squirrels can start talking to you.” He said that having the volunteers just talk to you at this stage of the game means as much as the electrolytes. “You’re so out of it and hurting that the squirrels will start telling you to sit down and take it easy,” he joked. “And you will start to say to yourself, ‘You know, the squirrels are probably right!’”

Simon agrees. “As the race goes on, you get to talk to the athletes more. They’ll actually stop for a little bit and talk to you about how the race is going and get something to eat or drink. It’s great.”

Ironically for a bunch of elite athletes, the one thing they tended to ask for the most was Coke. “I think it’s the caffeine and the sugar that they need,” mused one of the Mohonk rangers who were standing guard at the Trapps Bridge. Soon there was a small cluster of volunteers on bikes including the Bicycle Rack’s owner, Mike Kilmer, and Village of New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers. Kilmer has the task of doing a safety check on all of the athletes’ bikes at 6 a.m., before the race began. “Judge [Jim] Bacon had a flat tire we had to change three minutes before the race was about to go off,” he said. From there, Kilmer has to get to the bottom of the hill by St. Peter’s Church in Rosendale to slow the cyclists down before they make a sharp turn onto the bridge and left on Route 213.

From Trapps Bridge, the athletes made their way past the rock climbers on the Undercliff carriage road and then had to head up Godzilla Hill, one of the most unforgiving climbs in the entire race. “There’s a lot of cursing on this hill,” said one of the volunteers, who was planted midway to encourage the embattled athletes and let them know that they were “almost there,” or “sort-of almost there,” he said with a wink.


From Godzilla the runners take off their shoes (or leave them on, depending on the person) and swim another half-mile across Lake Mohonk, where they exit near the boat dock by the hotel and climb over more rocks before they have to make the final, excruciating .7-mile journey up to Sky Top Tower, where the SOS “You are a Survivor” banner welcomes them overhead, along with massage therapists and P&G’s clam chowder and family members embracing and kissing and letting the athletes fall into their arms. “It’s the best feeling in the world to give them a cup of soup, because they’re so tired and hungry, but also so relieved that they’re done!” said Orla Clasby, a senior at New Paltz High School who worked alongside many student volunteers to serve the hungry survivors soup and sandwiches.

Dr. Mike Halstead finished his 27th SOS, with lots of love from the Davis family. Don and Darlene and Evan are like the royal SOS family at the top, making sure that they are there for every athlete, every volunteer to support them and thank them. There were rumors that Don was going to do the race this year for his 75th birthday, but his son Evan explained that his dad “had done the race course several times this summer,” but ultimately wanted to “be there for the athletes as they crossed the finish line. That’s who he is.”

And there’s no better view than the 360-degree vista from Sky Top as a “Survivor” — or one of their SOS Sherpas.

Tom Eickleberg at Lake Awosting.

The SOS results

1. Tom Eickelberg, 04:31:02
2. Stefan Judex, 04:36:16
3. Philip Vondra, 04:45:50
4. Jon Chesto, 04:56:13
5. Matt McCutcheon, 04:58:54
6. Greg Binns, 04:59:36
7. Ryan Pinerio, 05:02:11
8. Christian Rose, 05:03:36
9. Ran Raines Moshe, 05:03:5
10. Brendan Mulvey, 05:07:34

1. Holly Goodman, 05:09:42
2. Kristin White, 05:11:48
3. Jaclyn Fahey, 05:16:51
4. Jamie Turner, 05:30:00
5. Laura Abbey, 05:32:07
6. Katie Mason, 05:50:44
7. Orla Bannan, 05:52:31
8. Deborah Battaglia, 05:53:45
9. Jacqlyne Thornton, 05:59:03
10. Jill Loveland, 06:01:18

To find out the full results by category and split times, go to http://m.racetecresults.com/results3.aspx?cid=17063&rid=277.