The legendary Survival of the Shawangunks Triathlon, better known as SOS, was back up and running in high gear this year after having to sit on the sidelines like the rest of the world last summer due to the pandemic. This uniquely beautiful and brutal triathlon is the only one in the world that has athletes bike, run, swim, run, swim, run, swim and yes, run again, all in one race! It is the dreamchild and training master plan of the one and only Don Davis, who, as an Ironman triathlete competitor (which existed only once a year in Hawaii at the time), needed some challenging courses locally to help prepare him for the wilds of Hawaii.
Thankfully, he had to look no further than his own backyard: the Shawangunk Ridge, with its miles of running trails, carriage roads, sky lakes and land conservation to give him and his mountain-goat companions ample routes and courses that, though they might not simulate the Hawaiian ocean breeze or palm-soaked heat, would certainly prepare him for the toughness needed to compete in the famed triathlon. This is how something starts: one person, a goal, a dream and a perfect confluence of rugged training partners, challenging terrain and a bit of magic in the mountains that people still feel when they race the course today.
And what is the course? It hasn’t changed in the 36 years that it has been an “official” race. It’s 30 miles of biking, starting from the Ulster County Fairgrounds in New Paltz and wrapping its way past the cornfields and sunflower-streaked flats to the belly of Rosendale, along Route 209 and climbing up the backside of the Ridge on Route 44/55. There, athletes leave their bikes and helmets and trade in their cycling shoes for some running shoes and head up a dirt road that leads to the aptly named Cardiac Hill, and then the always-stunning Lake Awosting, where they leap over routes and rocks along the backside until they get about four miles in.
Then they shove their shoes in their shorts and swim the 1.1-mile length of the lake from one point to another, with the pitch pines casting shadows along the water. From there, 125 diehard Gunkers climb up to Castle Point, catch a view of the valley and wind down along the boulder-lined carriage road towards Lake Minnewaska. There they plunge into the depths and swim a half-mile before climbing out, lacing their shoes back up and heading towards Awosting Falls and the West Trapps bridge, dodging rock climbers being belayed from the cliffs. Almost 17 miles of running behind them, they hit Godzilla, a hill that is as frightening as its namesake.
Are you tired yet? Because they’re not even done. If Godzilla did not eat them alive, they make their way to the ever-dazzling Lake Mohonk, with the hotel guests looking on, and shove their shoes once again in their shorts and swim to other side of the lake. On the shore they rock scramble out, slide those slippers on again and hopefully get a bit of fairy dust to take them up a steep one-mile climb to Skytop Tower, where they are solemnly baptized under the stone edifice and in the shadows of the Shawangunk spirits as a “Survivor!”
The Don and his wife Darlene are the gentle guardians of this metaphoric gate and welcome all who enter with open arms. They are supported by more than 200 loyal volunteers – who sometimes get more excited than the actual competitors about being part of this race – and an entire team of race-planners, organizers, various local agencies, parks departments, emergency service providers and their son, Evan Davis, a New York City firefighter who keeps working to take his father’s vision and make it brighter every year.
“We didn’t know if we were going to be able to do the race until June of this year,” said Evan. “Honestly, this race is a logistical nightmare because there are so many different agencies involved; and yet, even with the pressure and the year-and-a-half we’ve all had, everyone came together and helped make this happen. The community showed up, the volunteers showed up, the athletes showed up and the weather showed up. You can’t ask for more than that!”
This year’s overall winner was the defending champ from 2019: Tom Eckleberg, 4:27.50, who was joined in the race by his wife Anna and his younger sister Betsy Eckleberg. The top female finisher was Rebeccah Wassner, a pro triathlete who, along with her sister, Laurel Wassner, lives part-time in the area and trains here throughout the year. Laurel was fourth after suffering a foot fracture on the third run, but gritted it out despite injury.
“The women’s field was the most competitive I’ve ever seen it,” said Evan. “You had the Wassner sisters, and the former Kona world champion Leanda Cave and Liz Baugher third and second, respectively.” Eckleberg also faced some serious competition, with Scott Hansen finishing less than three minutes behind him and Brendan Mulvey muscling his way to the podium in 4:43.22. Full race results are posted at http://results.prtiming.com/results.aspx?CId=
The podium was hotly contested, but then there are the bread-and-butter athletes of the SOS: the people that live, breathe, train, hurt, suffer, take communion and are born anew on this course – without much fanfare, because, like their mentor, “The Don,” they are as humble and solid as the conglomerate rocks that have stayed the test of time on this Ridge.
Some, and certainly not all, of the repeat SOS Survivors (or offenders, depending on how you look at this grueling event) include Glenn and Mel Lapolt, Shiloh Pileggi and her brother Wyatt Pileggi, who both grew up running the trails of the Gunks. There is Dr. Mike Halstead, who was with Don Davis at the first SOS and keeps on competing at a fierce level each year. Russ and Aubin Sullivan, who were married under the SOS finish line 27 years ago, to whom Evan affectionately refers as “tri-lifers!” There are Jim and Elise Bacon (town judge and Pilates instructor respectively), and Art Boyko, who, in his sixth decade of life, is still smoking everyone in the water, including some pro triathletes. There are Scott Willett and ultra-runner Phil Vondra.
There is Mary Denitto, a repeat SOS Survivor who, at 73, is ranked number one in her age group by USA Triathlon. “Mary is from Rhinebeck,” said Evan. “She’s 73, and she is an absolute SOS legend. She is quiet, humble and a totally inspiring individual who can be found enjoying a beautiful cycling adventure somewhere in Montana or Spain at any given time. Her smile will warm your heart.”
There are the local restaurant-owners and triathletes like Mike Beck and Doug Thompson (owner of the Main Street Bistro) who alternate between racing and cooking for local endurance events. “Mike should be kicking back and relaxing in his retirement, but instead he’s schlepping up tons of P & G’s famous nurturing vegetable soup to warm our race finishers at Skytop!” said Evan.
There are also a slew of locals who were inspired to attempt their first SOS and the dozens of Survivors who sit out a year to volunteer and cheer for someone else or become part of the race team that works behind-the-scenes doing technical planning, bag-stuffing, course-setting, record-keeping, website-building, photographing… “It’s truly a family affair. We have a plaque-making party at Jon and Tommy Stern’s house, and she designs the art for the plaques every year. Jon is our levelheaded, super-organized, fearless voice of reason among the chaos.” SOS race director Davis could not say enough about Gary Newkirk of the Ulster County Fairgrounds, his puppy Lucy, or New Paltz Police Department chief Rob Lucchesi, who “helped to organize all of the local emergency agencies” that are needed to be on standby for the race, or Minnewaska State Park Preserve director Eric Humphries. “The rangers, Jorge Gomes, Marc Cathcart and their staff, are phenomenal. On race day, we rely on Marc and Jorge to handle all things SOS morning. They have it down to a science; it’s been decades.”
Then there’s the voice of the SOS, Alex Sherwood, who has been a part of this event since the very beginning with Don and company. Sherwood keeps the finishers feeling exalted and the crowd excited with his institutional knowledge of the race and its competitors, as well as his enthusiasm for all things SOS.
A week later, many of the same athletes and Don, Darlene and Evan were in Wellfleet, Massachusetts to host the second annual Cape Cod SOS, which was a dream of longtime friend, training partner and beloved veteran SUNY New Paltz swim coach Art Stockin, who built a house in the Cape and would invite all of his über-athletic pals and their loved ones up to the outer Cape to train. “Wellfleet is another gorgeous place that inspired my father and his friends to create adventure races,” mused Evan. “I just want to help support this, because as you said, there’s something magical about this community of people. Obviously, it’s difficult to convey this thing that my parents created. It runs deep. And it changes people’s lives.”
Indeed it does. These are races that are not about the finish line, but about all the people and the land that held you up when you thought you couldn’t go on; the steadiness of the conglomerate cliffs, the revitalizing smell of the pitch pine forests, the weightlessness of the water and that something that calls to the very best in us and reminds us to stay present, be kind, walk gently and help others as they make their way and are a bit lost, because that beautiful view of the valley is right around the next corner.
To learn more about the SOS and its three signature events, how to become a volunteer, how to enter or somehow become part of this ever-growing and glowing community, just go to www.sostriathlon.com.