PUMPING IRONY: An Accidental Triathlon

A bicycle outing in the north woods results in a whole new way to think of the triathlon.

My Lovely Wife and I recently spent four days at Itasca State Park, where we hiked among 200-year-old pines, spied a pair of nesting swans, and completed our first triathlon.

Let me explain.

For those of you unfamiliar with the latter activity, a brief description is required: Your basic triathlon consists of swimming 1.5 kilometers (.93 mile) followed by a 40-kilometer (25 mile) bike ride followed by a 10K (6.2 mile) run. There are, however, several variations, including a shorter “sprint” triathlon and the absurdly grueling “Ironman,” in which competitors swim 2.4 miles, ride 112 miles and then cool down by running a marathon.

I’ve never considered competing in one of these for one practical reason (I would drown before I reached the bike stage) and one conceptual reason (I simply can’t conceive of spending an entire day punishing my body without having something concrete to show for it, like a pile of rubble sledgehammered out of a former sidewalk). Now that’s gratifying in a way that a 10K run will never be.

So, as you might imagine, we had no thought of triathlons when we set off on our bicycles from the Douglas Lodge toward the headwaters of the Mississippi River five miles away. It just sort of happened.

The afternoon was hot and muggy, and MLW packed her swimming suit in the event that she encountered an inviting body of water along the way. Nothing comforts her bum right knee like a cool dip. And it became pretty clear pretty early on the bike trail that that bum right knee was going to need some comforting. She’s an intrepid cyclist and has been known to pedal up to 20 miles at a time, but this trail had more peaks and valleys than the Dow Jones Industrials, and we soon found ourselves walking our bikes up some of the steepest hills and coasting down into the valleys.

About four miles into our trek, we came upon a swimming beach and MLW happily donned her swimwear and dove in while I kept an eye on our gear and waded along the shore. I don’t know how much distance she covered out there by the buoys, but it was a good long swim, and she emerged refreshed and ready to take on the hills again.

More pedaling and walking ensued until we reached the headwaters. We parked the bikes and dangled our feet in the not-so-mighty Mississippi for a while, before saddling up again and heading back to the lodge. It was quite a workout, and it occurred to me later that it probably qualifies as a swim-cycle-run event, even if we didn’t really run and I didn’t actually swim and we didn’t follow the usual order.

So, if you’d like to try it, this is approximately the drill:

• Bicycle until you reach a hill you can’t climb.

• Dismount and walk (or run) your bike up the hill.

• Mount up again and pedal happily down the hill and along the trail until you reach the next troublesome hill.

• Repeat above activities for about 4 miles or until you reach an inviting body of water.

• Go into the water: Actually immersing yourself and employing some basic swimming motion is preferred, but just wading by the shore is OK.

• Climb on your bicycle again and repeat sweaty pedaling and walking/running activity for another mile or until you reach the source of a notable river.

• Dismount and dangle feet in water until tourists with cameras drive you away.

• Get back on your bike and do the whole pedal-and-walk/run deal for five miles to the finish line, detouring along the way if you encounter an ancient graveyard or other points of interest.

Like most amateur triathlons, our “accidental triathlon” isn’t really a race. It’s more like a really long workout — equal parts enjoyment and annoyance. OK, maybe more annoyance than enjoyment. Those hills were killers.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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